This essay was first written in the Fall of 2010. Thanks to the prodding emails of readers, I have decided to revisit this section and publish it. [alex]

Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Part 3.2 – Marx and Colonialism

by Alex Knight,

[Click here for Part 1 (Intro), Part 2 (What Marx Got Right), and Part 3.1 (Linear March of History)]

Image by Germ Ross,

“Do not terms such as ‘preindustrial’ and ‘precapitalist’ infest the marxian vernacular whenever analysis of noneuropean – that is, ‘undeveloped,’ ‘backward,’ or ‘primitive’ – societies is at hand? What possible purpose does the qualifier ‘pre’ – as opposed to say, ‘non’ – serve in this connection other than to argue that such societies are in the process of becoming capitalist? And is this not simply another way of stating that we are lagging behind those societies which have already become industrialized? Or, to take another example, to what end do marxists habitually refer to those societies which have ‘failed’ (refused) to enter a productive progression as being ‘ahistorical’ or ‘outside of history’? Is this to suggest that such cultures have no history,[i] or is it to say that they have the wrong kind of history, that only a certain (marxian) sort of history can be ‘real’?” – Ward Churchill, “False Promises: An Indigenist Examination of Marxist Theory and Practice” (Acts of Rebellion 233).

Marx’s linear march of history, as critiqued in the last section, leads him to deeply problematic conclusions about Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world. If capitalist Europe has attained the “highest” stage of social development, then everyone else is expected to follow in its footsteps to achieve liberation. Marx repeatedly characterized Europe as the most “advanced” or “civilized” continent (and within it England as the most advanced nation) as opposed to the “stagnation” of the “Asiatic” mode of production.

As we’ll see, he also held the dubious position that European colonialism was a necessary evil – simultaneously condemning its brutality while praising it as a progressive step in historical development. Such thinking implicitly marginalizes anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle as secondary to that of the industrial proletariat. At worst, some Marxists have even followed this logic to condemn anti-colonial struggle as reactionary because it seeks to “roll back the wheel of history.”

This essay is not about labeling Marx a racist; it is a critique of how Eurocentrism impedes the project of self-determination for peoples around the globe. For example, now that Europe’s colonies have given way to home-grown governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America, must these nations “Westernize” in order to “develop” their economies, or is there a road to freedom that doesn’t pass through capitalism? This remains a relevant question from Bolivia to China, and wherever self-identified Marxist regimes confront the twin problems of social inequality and ecological devastation.

European Superiority?

Kwame Turé (Stokely Carmichael)

The first time I ever questioned the correctness of Marx’s views was through reading Kwame Turé’s (Stokely Carmichael’s) autobiography, Ready for Revolution. Turé, an Afro-Trinidadian immigrant to New York, was a major figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth organization at the forefront of the U.S. civil rights movement. As Stokely Carmichael, he made headlines in 1966 when he first raised the call of “Black Power!” In his later years he left the United States for West Africa, living at the side of African liberationist leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Touré.

In Ready for Revolution, Turé reflects on a rocky relationship with Marxism which connects with my own. As a youth in the Bronx he got involved with young (white) Marxist organizers, and being very smart he quickly grasped the Marxist theories of historical materialism, dialectics, socialism and communism.

“For the first time I encountered a systematic radical analysis, a critical context and vocabulary that made sense of history. It explained the inequities and injustice I’d long been conscious of in the society around me and prescribed (even predicted) revolutionary solutions. That was wondrously exciting intellectually” (92).[ii]

Yet, he recalls that as a black man there was something that didn’t sit right about Marx’s focus on Europe as the model for progress. “The words Eurocentric and hegemonistic were not then in my vocabulary or consciousness. I never overtly or consciously thought about the curious fact that all these revolutionary thinkers were European or that all their theoretical models were fashioned out of European historical experience. I accepted them as ‘universal.’ At first” (94).

After witnessing the “Harlem stepladder orators” speak about Pan-Africanism, and organizing with other black radicals at Howard University for civil rights, Stokely realized that Marx hadn’t been speaking to him as a black man. Marx was speaking to Europe. “I could sense that something was missing from this seamless, ‘universal’ system. Somehow it did not seem to take into serious account the rhythms and historical presence of my people” (104).

In the vast majority of his writings, Marx did not take life outside of Europe into account. The few times he did write about non-European societies are seldom studied today, but as we’ll see, are deeply problematic.

On the positive side, Marx was critical of slavery in the United States, and famously wrote a letter to President Lincoln on the subject. At the very end of his life, he also studied the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1877 book Ancient Society, taking copious notes about the Iroquois tribes, but died before he could turn this interest of “primitive” peoples into anything concrete.[iii]

On the negative side, when Marx was vocal about Asia, Africa, America, or Australia, he often failed to condemn European colonialism or even justified it as necessary for the development of historical “progress.” Over and again, Marx makes positive statements about European “civilisation” and negative comments about others, such as in this memorable passage from “The Communist Manifesto”:

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation… It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West” (Marx-Engels Reader 477).

Phrases like “barbarian nations” and “the idiocy of rural life” highlight that for Marx, non-European cultures – whether feudalistic, despotic, nomadic, hunter-gatherer, subsistence farming, or other – exist at a lower level of historical development than that which “civilised” (capitalist) Europe has attained. This was a necessary conclusion for Marx, given his linear march of history predicts communism (“the realm of freedom”) must come about only after the full development of capitalism.

The idea of European superiority is also displayed in Marx’s controversial concept of the “Asiatic” mode of production. As cited in the last section, Marx articulates his “progressive epochs in the economic formation of society” in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in which he posits an “Asiatic” mode of production before the “ancient” mode of Greece or Rome. This could be read as meaning that, while more “advanced” than the tribal societies of “primitive communism,” “Asiatic” societies are somewhere in limbo between “barbarian” and “civilized”. Perhaps they are “semi-barbarian” in the language of the “Communist Manifesto”? Then again, as Anthony Giddens points out, it’s not even clear what “Asiatic” refers to – does it incorporate African and American civilizations as well? Or is it just referring to India and China? (A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism pg. 87).

There are undoubtedly more questions than answers, but Marx did make a few statements that provide us with a fuller picture of what the “Asiatic” mode of production is supposed to categorize.

In contrast to Europe’s success and dynamism, Marx imagines “Asiatic” societies as “stationary” and “unchangeable.” In the Grundrisse he writes, “The Asiatic form necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time.”

Vandana Shiva is one of the most important theorists in support of women’s liberation and its connection to subsistence agriculture.

What makes “Asiatic” societes so stagnant, as theorized in Capital, Vol. 1, is that they are not based on private property as predominates in Europe, but rather a “self-sufficing” communal production organized in small villages. In direct contrast, feminists and environmentalists today have demonstrated that subsistence agriculture, done primarily by women, is one of the most sustainable and balanced ways for human economy to interact with nature. Self-sufficiency is a key element of “the commons” that we have unfortunately lost, precisely through the intrusion of private property regimes.

Marx also criticizes the “Oriental despotism” that sits atop the “Asiatic” economic structure and delays progress. In one of his controversial essays about India, Marx supposes that the need for controlled irrigation and water-works, which he calls “the basis of Oriental agriculture,” requires a strong central government to administer it. As opposed to the West, where he claims irrigation has been accomplished through “private enterprise,” “in the Orient… civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association” (emphasis added).

Marx’s ideas of a backwards “Orient” and a progressive West conform well to Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said’s classic analysis of Orientalism. “Orientalism” is the vast array of prejudices which shape European thought towards the Middle East and Asia, imagining the East as exotic, submissive, and antiquated. In Said’s words, Orientalism is “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (42).

Said also argues that Orientalist ideologies played a crucial role in legitimizing European colonialism, a bloody and dehumanizing conquest of the rest of the world, which began in the 15th century and was still ongoing in full brutality while Marx wrote in his London flat. But what did Marx think of that colonization?

Colonialism: A Necessary Evil?

Karl Marx was not the most vocal proponent of European colonialism, but nor could he fairly be called its opponent. His few statements on the subject are peculiar, in that he vocally decries the violence of Europe’s colonizing mission and sympathizes with its victims, yet he ultimately justifies colonization as necessary for historical progress.

This line of thought is illustrated in its most detailed form through a series of articles Marx wrote for the New York Tribune on the subject of the British colonization of India. These articles exhibit a blatant Eurocentrism which, although disturbing, extend logically from Marx’s linear framework. If capitalist Europe has achieved the “highest” form of development, then the rest of the world is expected to follow in its footsteps, even if it must be dragged there through violence.

Marx’s articles on India present at least three important features of his analysis that should be interrogated. First is the designation of non-European societies as inferior. Second, Marx speaks of “the material foundations of Western society,” which reveal some of what qualifies capitalist Europe as his model of an “advanced” civilization. Finally, as Russell Means calls attention to, such arguments reveal a dangerous “European logic” within Marxist revolutionary strategy, which potentially rationalizes the destruction of ecosystems and “pre-capitalist” cultures as acceptable losses on the path to communism.

In “The British Rule in India”, Marx states that “England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society… [and separated it] from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.”

He describes in detail the destructive nature of Britain’s colonization of the subcontinent, particularly in terms of economic invasion. Whereas India was previously composed of “self-supporting” villages sustained by a “union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits,” the “British intruder [has] broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel.” Marx points out that this destruction of Indian manufacturing has been accomplished primarily by importing cheap cotton which has undercut the “domestic industry” of “family-communities,” and also by the British colonial administration “neglect[ing] entirely” the irrigation and water-works, so important for agriculture. For Marx, “[this] explains the otherwise strange fact that we now find whole territories barren and desert that were once brilliantly cultivated.”

These words convey a keen awareness of the economic displacement driving the Indian people from their customs, homes and livelihoods. Despite this awareness, Marx fails to condemn the British invasion, instead consoling himself with what he perceives to be the inferior nature of the Indian societies being annihilated. Marx reasons:

“[S]ickening as it must be to human feeling to witness [the death of ancient civilizations]… we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”

Despite his obvious ignorance of the actual culture of the sub-continent, Marx is not shy about expanding on his theory of what makes the Indian civilization inferior to the European. He complains of the Indians’ lack of “historical energies” and “stagnatory and vegetative life,” reinforcing the Orientalist belief of a static Orient and dynamic West. He also imagines that the pre-colonized culture “restrained the human mind” with “superstition,” which can only refer to people’s spiritual traditions, whether Hinduism, Buddhism, or otherwise. Marx specifically disapproves of the Indians’ “brutalizing worship of nature,” and once again presents the faulty notion that humans are the “sovereign of nature.”

More dangerously, here we see the threat of “Oriental despotism” used as justification for European conquest. Why is it better for the Indians to be dominated by British despotisms than indigenous ones? Marx better than anyone should be able to bear in mind the extreme inequality and violence of European capitalist regimes before making such judgements.[iv]

In the conclusion of this article, Marx refers to the European destruction of Indian culture as a “social revolution”:

“England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.”

The language of “mankind’s destiny” makes apparent the Hegelian blinders that limited Marx’s anti-capitalist project. Marx obviously sympathizes with the Indian people over the violence they have suffered. Yet he appears unwilling to stand in solidarity with them. Instead, he remains more accountable to Western “Enlightenment” notions of “progress” and “civilization,” believing they will unlock the keys to the final freedom of humanity. Imperialism and mass murder become justifiable if they can be framed as steps toward Marx’s understanding of communism.

Marx wrote a follow-up article, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” fleshing out what he saw as the positive benefits of British colonization. While he again attacked the “profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism” in England’s “breaking up the native communities,” he elaborates how this is ultimately for the benefit of civilization.

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

Although India has been reduced to “a heap of ruins,” it is remarkable that Marx can get himself behind the imperial project in such a bold and unapologetic manner. His prescribed “mission” for the British alarmingly echoes Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” – destroy the old (Asian society) and forcibly install the new paradigm (Western society).

The really interesting thing about this article is that Marx precisely outlines what he believes are the “material foundations” for progress being laid by British occupation:

  1. The political unity of India, “imposed by the British sword”
  2. The electric telegraph
  3. “The native army, organized and trained by the British drill-sergeant, the sine qua non of Indian self-emancipation”
  4. The free press, “introduced for the first time into Asiatic society”
  5. Private property in land
  6. A class of Indian bureaucrats, “reluctantly and sparingly educated under English superintendence,” which has given them “the requirements for government and European science”
  7. Steam travel, which “has brought India into regular and rapid communication with Europe”
  8. “A net of railroads over India,” which will be “truly the forerunner of modern industry.”

This list sheds quite a deal of light on Marx’s understanding of the project of human liberation. In order for humans to realize freedom, he reasons, there are material needs which must be met. After all, how can one be “free” without access to food and shelter? Yet Marx’s “material foundations” extend far beyond basic needs to a whole structure of industrialization and a centralized State, modeled after Europe.

The fact that these conditions could only be imposed “by the British sword” and were fought against “bravely” by the Indians, apparently does not cause Marx to hesitate in designating this destruction of indigenous social and economic structures as progress. What allows a European man to believe he knows what will liberate the Indians, even while they fight to the death against such liberation?

Marx concludes his essay by reiterating his position that the evil of British colonization is ultimately progressive. Like an authoritarian schoolmaster, he regrets the “misery and degradation” the Indians have suffered, yet rationalizes these as unfortunate consequences of the “development of the productive powers”:

“All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?”

Progress, miserable progress. Today, the voices of feminists and anti-colonialists are increasingly heard, declaring that means must be consistent with ends and that “progress” cannot be achieved through brutality and oppression. Unfortunately, this awareness never reached Marx, or if it was expressed to him, he had no need for it in his historical narrative.

Marx’s India articles provide his most fleshed out statement on European colonialism. Some defenders of Marx have recognized the threat they pose to the myth of his infallibility. As such, they have performed mental gymnastics to dismiss these articles as exceptional, immature, or perhaps written as a kind of opportunistic prank.[v]

Edward Said

In contrast, Edward Said saw in these articles confirmation of a “messianic” perspective stemming from “Marx’s argument about torment producing pleasure.” He concludes, “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged” (154).[vi]

Although Marx’s arguments appear extreme, they do not stray from the logical arc of his other writing. Rather, they are simply the application to the colonies of his theory of historical progress. Marx has always held to the idea of capitalism as a “necessary evil.” But what if such rationalizations inevitably threaten to dismiss entire cultures, languages, traditions and ecosystems as obstacles to “progress?”[vii]

European Logic and Genocide

Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, explored this question in a speech titled “Marxism is a European Tradition.” A century after Marx’s writings, Means drew connections to how Marxist thought related to his (Lakota) people and their struggle for survival. On the front lines of capitalist devastation, what hope can indigenous people around the world gain from Marxism?

At the time of the speech, the immediate concern for the Lakota was the US government’s attempt to mine for uranium on their reservations. Means points out that this mining involves draining the water table and leaving radioactive waste on Indian land. He equates this with a new form of “genocide” because it makes Indian land unlivable, while developing nuclear power for the “European culture” (capitalism).

Means proposes that colonialism and genocide stem from “European logic,” which “remove[s] the wonderful complexity and spirituality from the universe” and instead views the non-human world as so many resources to extract:

“[The European] mental process works so that it becomes virtuous to destroy the planet. Terms like progress and development are used as cover words here… For example, a real-estate speculator may refer to ‘developing’ a parcel of ground by opening a gravel quarry; development here means total, permanent destruction, with the earth itself removed. But European logic has gained a few tons of gravel with which more land can be ‘developed’ through the construction of road beds. Ultimately, the whole universe is open–in the European view–to this sort of insanity.”

Means does not find hope in the prospect of Marxist revolution, which he calls “the same old song.” Recalling the American revolution of 1776, which did nothing good for the American Indians, he states:

“You can only judge [a European revolutionary doctrine] by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself.”

Means points out that the American Indians have sought white allies in their “resistance to extermination” from uranium mining. He notes that Marxism promises “the complete overthrow of the European capitalists order which has presented this threat to our very existence.” For that reason, working with Marxists “would seem to be a natural alliance for American Indian people to enter into.” However, because Marxism is based on the same “European logic” as capitalism, the freedom and abundance it promises rests on a dangerous developmentalist approach towards the rest of the world:

“Revolutionary Marxism is committed to even further perpetuation and perfection of the very industrial process which is destroying us all. It offers only to ‘redistribute’ the results–the money, maybe–of this industrialization to a wider section of the population.”

Again this is the question of the linear march of history. If communism can only emerge through the “very industrial process which is destroying us all” (capitalism), then what liberation does it promise?

“Revolutionary Marxism, like industrial society in other forms, seeks to ‘rationalize’ all people in relation to industry–maximum industry, maximum production. It is a doctrine that despises the American Indian spiritual tradition, our cultures, our lifeways. Marx himself called us ‘precapitalists’ and ‘primitive.’ Precapitalist simply means that, in his view, we would eventually discover capitalism and become capitalists; we have always been economically retarded in Marxist terms. The only manner in which American Indian people could participate in a Marxist revolution would be to join the industrial system, to become factory workers, or ‘proletarians,’ as Marx called them. The man was very clear about the fact that his revolution could only occur through the struggle of the proletariat, that the existence of a massive industrial system is a precondition of a successful Marxist society… So, in order for us to really join forces with Marxism, we American Indians would have to accept the national sacrifice of our homeland; we would have to commit cultural suicide and become industrialized and Europeanized.”

What Means draws our attention to is that the Marxist theory of historical development not only ignores the ecological destruction of the land, it is also equally cold towards the fate of land-based cultures. Indigenous, self-sufficient communities, instead of being valued for their autonomous and sustainable existence, are expected to be conquered and assimilated into the European project of human “destiny.”


Ecuador’s new president (left) is named Lenin Moreno.

Do all human communities have a basic right to self-determination, the ability to exist in their own culture and not be conquered or destroyed by more powerful social entities? During his life, Karl Marx claimed to support this idea, but applied it in a selective, rather than a principled, manner. Marx was clear and vocal in his support for the self-determination of Ireland and Poland (the oppressed of Europe), but very ambiguous when it came to China and other non-European nations. In the case of India, as we’ve seen, he abandoned the principle of self-determination entirely.[viii]

Marx perpetuated an arrogant view of Europe as the most advanced society, destined to play a liberating role for the rest of the world. Although Marx lamented the brutality of colonialism, he justified it as part of a larger positive historical development because of the “civilizing aspects of capital,” such as the construction of railroads and standing armies. Communism was forecast to take place in Europe, the leading light of social progress. Other nations could not achieve this freedom without first following the European path of becoming capitalist.[ix]

At minimum, such a position marginalizes anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle and limits the ability of a revolutionary alliance across North and South. At worst, this position acts as justification for colonialism and imperialism. Instead of blindly defending everything Marx has written as prophecy, there is a need for unambiguous denunciation of colonialism, racism, and the displacement of indigenous and land-based cultures around the world. Self-determination must be at the top of the agenda.

Since Marx’s time, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist activists from the Global South have constantly raised many of these issues, and some have even revised Marxism to make it applicable to decolonial struggles. However, if the “European logic” embedded within Marx is not confronted it can lead even the most revolutionary of leaders down a dangerous path of prioritizing economic “development” at the expense of indigenous rights and ecological protection.

This has happened repeatedly, such as in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, when the Marxist government attacked the Miskito, Sumu and Rama Indians. As Ward Churchill describes, these indigenous people’s “sole requirement of the Sandinista revolution was that it allow them to continue to [remain economically self-sufficient] within their traditional territory.” This the Marxists rejected. Instead they sent in the military, rounded up the Indians into camps, and attempted to force them to assimilate to Nicaraguan society. Designating the indigenous cultures as “inferior” or “precapitalist” here served a very useful purpose – opening up the ecosystems of the Atlantic coastal region for resource extraction. In the final analysis, Ward Churchill contends, “Marxism, in its present form at least, offers us [American Indians] far worse than nothing” (Acts of Rebellion 238-240).

In the 21st Century, Zombie-Marxist notions of “advanced” and “backwards” cultures continue to propagate themselves and threaten indigenous peoples around the world. We can see this most evidently today in nations such as Ecuador and Bolivia, where Marxist-inspired governments are locked in heated conflict with indigenous-led social movements over their desire to exploit the land for mining, oil and gas drilling, and other extractive industries. Yet again this development threatens to poison the land and displace the cultures tied to that land.

The great irony is that both the Ecuadoran and Bolivian governments have new constitutions that formally recognize, for the first time, the rights of “Mother Earth.” The new Ecuadoran constitution declares “Nature or Pachamama has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” This is admirable, and in Bolivia even the President, Evo Morales, is himself indigenous. Why do these Marxian governments continually find themselves in severe strife with indigenous and environmental movements?

The basic contradiction remains between a Marxist philosophy that sees capitalist development as necessary and the self-determination of peoples inhabiting land that capitalism wants to “develop.” The ongoing struggles of indigenous peoples to preserve their homelands, even against socialist governments, illustrates that the “European logic” of 21st Century Marxism is not dead, but perhaps undead.


  1. [i]Marx used exactly this language when writing about India: “Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.”
  2. [ii]Tangentially, Turé next makes these remarks on Marxist colonialism: “At that time most Communist Parties followed the lead of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Stalin had given guns to Israel in their fight against the Palestinian people, so in socialist countries and Communist Parties worldwide, support for Israel was automatic; the Palestinian people clearly merited no political support at all.”
  3. [iii]Marx’s notes on Morgan’s work were much later published as Ethnological Notebooks, and although they are little more than fragmentary margin-scribbles and underlinings of Morgan’s words, they have intrigued Marxists for their ambivalence. On the one hand, Marx quotes Morgan as “All the members of an Iroquois gens [were] personally free, bound to defend each other’s freedom, [and] equal in privileges… Chiefs claiming no superiority; a brotherhood bound together by ties of kin. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, though never formulated were cardinal principles” (150). On the other hand, Marx himself writes that, “When discovered the Iroquois were in the lower status of barbarism… were unacquainted mit [with] the use of stone or adobe-brick in house architecture u. mit d. [and with] use der native metals” (145). (quotes cited in this email thread, “Marx on Native Americans” by James Heartfield, 1998).
  4. [iv]Notice Marx is making the exact inverse argument from that made by Mahatma Gandhi’s character in the 1982 film Gandhi. Upon hearing the British authorities attempt to justify their rule over India as benefiting the Indians, Gandhi countered, “There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.”
  5. [v]Michael Perelman’s essay “Political Economy and the Press: Karl Marx and Henry Carey at the New York Tribune” argues that, “Karl Marx’s influential articles on India had less to do with India than Marx’s efforts to take control of the leading Republican paper in the United States.”
  6. [vi]Many Marxists have attacked Edward Said’s analysis, but in the article “Marxism and the Orient: A Reading of Marx”, Gaurang R. Sahay defends Said’s position “by demonstrating that Marx has consistently worked within the framework of an Orientalist problematic.” Parts of my critique in this section are indebted to Professor Sahay’s article.
  7. [vii]Marx’s cohort Friedrich Engels exhibits a cruder Eurocentrism in his critique of the anarchist Mikhael Bakunin’s “Democratic Pan-Slavism.” Engels’s article was written shortly after the 1846-8 Mexican-American War, in which the United States invaded Mexico on false pretenses and annexed more than half of Mexico’s territory. For Engels the injustice of this invasion is overshadowed by the “world-historic” development of industry and “civilization” it will enable: “[W]ill Bakunin accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest’, which, although it deals a severe blow to his theory based on ‘justice and humanity’, was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization… The ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in someplaces ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?”

Engels similarly spoke in favor of France’s colonization of Algeria: “The conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation. The piracies of the Barbaresque states… could not be put down but by the conquest of one of these states. And the conquest of Algeria has already forced the Beys of Tunis and Tripoli, and even the Emperor of Morocco, to enter upon the road of civilisation.”

  1. [viii]Engels, of course, specifically denied self-determination for all those who were not what he called “great peoples.” In the same 1849 criticism of Bakunin’s “Democratic Pan-Slavism,” he writes of Eastern Europe: “We have shown how such little nations [as Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bohemia and Moravia, etc] which for centuries have been taken in tow by history against their will, must necessarily be counter-revolutionary… We repeat: apart from the Poles, the Russians, and at most the Turkish Slavs, no Slav people has a future, for the simple reason that all the other Slavs lack the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability. Peoples which have never had a history of their own, which from the time when they achieved the first, most elementary stage of civilization already came under foreign sway, or which were forced to attain the first stage of civilization only by means of a foreign yoke, are not viable and will never be able to achieve any kind of independence.”
  2. [ix]Some Marxists argue that Marx broke with this simplistic Western European prescription for revolution in his last years, and hold up a letter to Vera Zasulich from 1881, which hypothesizes that the Russian communal farm might NOT be destroyed by “progress” and its peasants NOT be proletarianized, but actually might become “an element of regeneration in Russian society.” However, in this same letter Marx clarifies that he is only making an exception for Russia because its communes are of a “less archaic type” than other, “more primitive” farming cultures. Specifically, the Russian commune is more advanced because it features private, not shared, cultivation, and because it can more easily accommodate itself to modernity by “gain[ing] possession of the fruits which capitalist production has enriched mankind.” The “fruits” of capitalism that Marx recognizes are simply industrialization: “agricultural exploitation with the aid of machines, organised on a vast scale.” This marks no fundamental shift in Marx’s thinking, but rather is merely an adaptation of the same “march of history” logic.