Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hitchens the Warrenite

I don't know why they still let Hitchens write about Karl Marx. Here he is on Marx as a journalist:

Marx's appreciation of the laws of unintended consequence, and his disdain for superficial moralism, also allowed him to see that there was more to the British presence in India than met the eye. No doubt the aim of the East India Company had been the subordination of Indian markets and Indian labour for selfish ends, but this did not alter the fact that capitalism was also transforming the subcontinent in what might be called a dynamic way. And he was clear-eyed about the alternatives. India, he pointed out, had always been subjugated by outsiders. "The question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton." If the conqueror was to be the country that pioneered the industrial revolution, he added, then India would benefit by the introduction of four new factors that would tend towards nation building. These were the electric telegraph for communications, steamships for rapid contact with the outside world, railways for the movement of people and products, and "the free press, introduced for the first time to Asiatic society, and managed principally by the common offspring of Hindus and Europeans". His insight into the Janus-faced nature of the Anglo-Indian relationship, and of the potential this afforded for a future independence, may be one of the reasons why Marxism still remains a stronger force in India than in most other societies.

His belief that British-led "globalisation" could be progressive did not blind him to the cruelties of British rule, which led him to write several impassioned attacks on torture and collective punishment, as well as a couple of bitter screeds on the way in which Indian opium was forced upon the defenceless consumers of foreign-controlled China. As he wrote, reprobating Victorian hypocrisy and religiosity and its vile drug traffic, it was the supposedly uncivilised peoples who were defending decent standards: "While the semi-barbarian stood on the principle of morality, the civilised opposed to him the principle of self."

This is over a hundred years out of date. As Aijaz Ahmad points out in his introduction to a collection of Marx & Engels' writings on Colonialism and the National Question, Marx did not know India that well when he began to write, and had been misled by claims emanating from apologists for the Empire. For example, he wrote and believed that the title for agricultural land was held by the sovereign, an idea propagated by the imperialists in their accounts. In fact, this was a legal fiction. Most of the claims regarding Marx's idea of the progressive role of colonialism in India emerge from his 1853 writings. He later, particularly after the Indian Mutiny, was much less confident about even an unconscious 'revolutionary' role for colonialism. In the collection, an 1881 letter describes the methods of extraction by the British and concludes that "This is a bleeding process with a vengeance". Even as early as 1853 he had written that Indians would not themselves yeild the fruit of the elements of a new society until either they united to oust the colonists or until the British proletariat had overthrown their ruling class.

Aside from the Marxological point, there is the economic point made by Gunnar Myrdal (quoted in Michael Harrington's Socialism, Past and Future). Marx had assumed that the development of railroads would hasten the development of ‘modern’ society. Yet since the railroads were not the result of indigenous revolution/evolution, but instead were built by British for their own purposes, it was simply unrealistic to suppose that they would 'modernise' Indian society. They were "constructed primarily ... with the aim first of facilitating military security and secondly of getting the raw produce out cheaply and British goods in". The railways thus did not exert "spread effects" but rather "served to strengthen the complementary colonial relationship and further subordinate the Indian to the British economy". Capitalism was certainly transforming the continent, but not in a 'progressive' way: it drove the former mercantile and manufacturing classes back to the land to become peasants and constituted new landlord and proprietorial classes and Brahmanised elites. The colonial elite decreed the 'self-sufficient' agrarian community and royal privilege to be founded on 'ancient' prerogatives, 'since time immemorial' and so on.