Marx and Engels on India and the 1857 Indian Mutiny

– ( Choppa Morph )



Revolutions and war in the world and in Europe 1419, 1649, 1776


Bourgeois revolutions had been shaking the world for centuries before the English took power over the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Great milestones were the pre-Reformation peasants’ commune in Tabor in Bohemia (1419-1434), the English Revolution, which beheaded Charles the First in 1649 and set up a Republic, and the American Revolution of 1776. All these revolutions were part of bloodthirsty wars between classes and nations.

The impact of the bourgeois French Revolution on history and philosophy

The high point of this rising tide of bourgeois revolution was the French Revolution of 1789, which finally broke the back of aristocratic rule in Europe and the world. By this time the European bourgeoisie had already made most of the world subservient to its commercial requirements, colonizing America, Africa and Asia. The removal of feudal and Papal fetters on thought and expression allowed this expanding material world to be reflected in new and bold ideas – scientific, historical and philosophical. The German philosopher Hegel assimilated all this contradictory ferment in his idealistic system, smashing all previous moulds of thought – including, ironically, his own! The way was prepared for humanity to move beyond the limits of bourgeois society that had been reached and surpassed both materially and intellectually by 1830.

The proletarian revolutions of 1848 and the Communist Manifesto’

The bourgeoisie itself had produced the social force that was to transcend its world – the working class. And this rising class made its first independent appearance on the stage of history in the pan-European revolutionary upsurge of 1848, and the accompanying initial fanfare of world socialist power – the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels.

Marx succeeded in assimilating the conquests of Hegel’s thought without being sucked into the empty idealism of the World Spirit and just as importantly without losing any of the breadth, depth or power of Hegel’s perspectives or penetrating intellectual insights.


Marx’s first series of articles on India

Simultaneously with the revolutions of 1848, England finally gained control of the whole of Greater India by defeating the Sikh Empire in the Punjab and Sindh in 1849. Marx and Engels always followed world events avidly, but did so even more attentively when they went into exile in England after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, as England was the heart of the most powerful political, military and economic power in the world in the mid-19th century.

In the 1850s they contributed many articles to American journals on English and world events, and in 1853 they produced a series of articles on the history of India and the impact England had on it. The articles were prompted by the consideration by parliament in London of the India Act, to deal with new and unprecedented challenges facing English rule in India.

The India Act

In 1784 the East India Company which had previously been pretty much a law unto itself, was put under tighter government control. The greater its power, and the richer its pickings, the bigger the say the government wanted in its affairs. The Company’s power and pickings grew very fast in the following sixty year, but the government was unable to radically change the Charter defining the Company’s privileges because whenever the Charter came up for renewal, Britain was completely occupied by other more urgent business, like the Napoleonic Wars in 1813 and later the Reform Act in 1833. This allowed the Company to use English arms and money to extend its control over the whole subcontinent.

In 1853 however further delay was impossible. The Company had long since ceased to be a commercial enterprise, and had assumed military and territorial powers the government could no longer allow free rein. Thus the Company was turned into an empty shell, but still a very lucrative one for its stockholders, bureaucrats and government accomplices.

English industrialists also craved unrestricted access to the Indian market and Indian manufacturing potential, in opposition to the old oligarchs and plutocrats who were content to live off stolen landed estates and monopoly profits.

A final incentive to legislate for greater parliamentary control was the crisis in Indian finances.

Marx details these preconditions for the India Act in his June 1853 article “The East India Company – Its History and Results”. In another article he writes of “the double government of India” – ie the Company and the Crown, and sarcastically lists the “five points of the East Indian Charter”: “a permanent financial deficit, a regular over-supply of wars, and no supply at all of public works, an abominable system of taxation, and a no less abominable state of justice and law”.

How well parliament was able to resolve these problems was shown in the following few years.

From the East India Company to the Raj

We must never forget that India as a united entity of a modern kind, as an integral part of the bourgeois world market, only dates from 1849. British domination was qualitatively different from all previous rule in India. Marx writes in “The British Rule in India” (June 1853) that “the misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had to suffer before”. What the rule of Britain in the guise of the East India Company achieved between 1700 and 1850 was a prodigy of creative destruction – with the destruction outweighing the creativity…

First and foremost Marx emphasizes that the foundation of Indian civilization from time immemorial – the “village system” of virtually autonomous isolated rural communities, self-sufficient in hand-spinning, hand-weaving and hand-tilling – was smashed. High above this ancient system various warring dynasties had ruled, but their only contact with the villages was the more or less tolerable collection of tribute. Except that the rulers had always taken care to provide public works such as irrigation, without which no crops would grow and which individual villages were incapable of creating for themselves.

The British, like earlier rulers, made war and exacted tribute – but unlike their predecessors they wilfully neglected the provision of public works, with easily predictable results. Marx quotes official statistics for 1851-52 showing that of a total Indian revenue of £19,800,000, only £166,300 were spent on public works – less than one per cent.

And unlike earlier rulers the English destroyed all traditional forms of land tenure and replaced them with mongrel bourgeois-aristocratic hybrids of their own creation. Rapacious rent-collectors and tax-gatherers (the zemindari) were forced on some regions, and uneconomically small plots of land were chopped up for rich and poor natives alike in others (the ryotwari).

As for the condition of the small cultivators, Marx notes that “the ryots – and they form 11/12ths of the Indian population – have been wretchedly pauperized”.

Finally, the condition of India after its incorporation under the British Crown in 1849 could be epitomized by its main sources of revenue – two thirds coming from the land, and one ninth from the hated salt tax (a factor that precipitated both the French Revolution of 1789, and powered much of the Indian independence movement of the mid-20th century). The third main source, amounting to one seventh of the total was derived from opium cultivation and commerce.

Opium brings in the international setting of India’s historical relationship with England. England forced India to grow and prepare the drug, and then forced China to consume it. So India was used as a battering ram to break down the protective walls of Chinese isolation and allow the English to profit from Chinese silk and tea.

The opposed challenges of China and Russia forced England into very expensive strategic wars to safeguard the profits from the one (the Burmese wars) and to ward off encroachment by the other (the Persian and Afghan wars).

The articles of 1857-58

The unification of India and the native army were preconditions of the 1857 Mutiny

The outbreak of the great Indian Mutiny in 1857 – less than 10 years after England had brought all India under its sway, comes as no big surprise against the background given by Marx in his 1853 articles. After unification all the pressures increased with explosive force. Not only was there a ruinous financial situation whipping the English to tax India to starvation point, not only were there no public works but only endless wars, not only was there permanent injustice and disregard for law, but all this was compounded by English arrogance and contempt for the Indians.

This arrogance and contempt for Indian dignity finally sparked the conflagration. And since the contempt made no distinction between Hindu or Muslim, or even rich or poor, the Indian nation as such rose against the English tyrants. The last straw was forcing native soldiers to bite into cartridges greased with fat from cows (sacred to Hindus) and pigs (taboo for Muslims). But the rising was not religious.

In their articles on the development of the mutiny Marx and Engels show their skill as political and military analysts. They build on the understanding shown in the 1853 articles to give a clear-sighted straight-from-the-shoulder commentary on events as they unfold.

The motto for their coverage of the Mutiny could well be Marx’s words from his July 1853 article “The Future Results of the British Rule in India”:

“The native army, organized and trained by the British drill-sergeant, was the sine qua non of Indian self-emancipation, and of India ceasing to be the prey of the first foreign intruder.”

The articles, written from June 1857 to July 1858 for the New-York Daily Tribune, follow the initial victories and the final defeat of the rising, from the first outbreaks of disobedience in Bengal, via the taking of Delhi to the British looting of Lucknow and the annexation of Oudh. Although most of the articles are signed by Marx, the strategic military understanding of Engels, known as “the General” to his comrades in the Marxist Second International, is present in every line – partly because he wrote a lot of these articles for Marx, and partly because of the constant exchange of ideas and analyses between the two men. The articles speak for themselves – they are brief, clear, and enlightening. They are particularly clear on the respective strengths and weaknesses of the combatants.

British weaknesses

The major weakness of the British in an emergency of this kind was the mirror image of a great strength in “stable” times. 40,000 English troops controlled a native army of 200,000 (with English officers) which in turn controlled a population of 200,000,000 Indians. Once the Indian troops ventured to turn their rifles on their officers, the English were overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. “Ye are many, they are few”, as Shelley writes.

A great military weakness of the English is one shared by all tyrannical soldiery – arrogance coupled with contempt. A permanent blindness to the capabilities of a supposedly inferior enemy. This is coupled with institutional cowardice, which refuses to fight unless in a position of overwhelming strength – a contemporary equivalent is US aggression in Iraq and even more so in Afghanistan, and the blood-chilling cowardice of the Israeli state relentlessly bombing Gaza and destroying people, houses, and business and public premises.

The British were at a great disadvantage when forced to fight in the murderous heat of the Indian summer. More were killed by the sun and disease than by enemy action.

And they found it very difficult to travel or bring in supplies because of the complete lack of suitable roads and communications.

Indian strengths

The Indian strengths lay in their numbers, and in their ability to cope with the climate and conditions. They also knew the terrain far better than the English. And had the support of the people.

The also had the advantage of fighting for their own cause and their own freedom. One soldier fighting for his own cause is worth at least ten mercenaries.

Indian weaknesses

But although the Indians now formed part of a unified army, they were still confined to lower ranks and lacked the tactical and strategic skills of trained officers. Marx and Engels are scathing about their tactical and strategic blunders, as in the occupation of and the fighting around Delhi. They also lacked military equipment, artillery etc and the skills required to use them effectively.

The crucial weakness however was the lack of social cohesion in the Indian rebellion. The mutineers were initially supported by the expropriated, impoverished and humiliated feudals, but this solidarity didn’t last.

British strengths

The British had three great strengths. One was military knowledge (regardless of how ignorant and brutish most of the officers were). Given time and space to consider strategy and tactics, they were able to plan and execute coordinated and effective manoeuvres that the mutineers were unable to counter. Another was what must have appeared to the Indians to be limitless material resources. And the third was political and diplomatic cunning. Using every means available, by hook or by crook, they were able to divide the Indians and gradually win back power. In effect they bought off the feudal princes by offering them concessions such as better conditions of land tenure and lower taxes.

Indian Empire to Indian independence and partition

After the defeat of the Mutiny the British consolidated their rule and misrule of Greater India. Two decades later, in 1877, Britain proclaimed the Indian Empire and Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India.

But already two decades before Independence was won in 1947 India became practically ungovernable and the whole nation rose like a tide against British tyranny.

Great as the achievement of independence was, however, the irony of history in the form of the pro-imperialist bourgeois policies of Gandhi and others, allowed British political and diplomatic cunning to leave its cancerous poison of divide and rule as an enduring legacy to the subcontinent. The catastrophe of Partition along communal lines kept British and later US imperialist influence much stronger than it would otherwise have been, and has delayed the socialist transformation of South Asia by decades.

The lesson of the Indian Mutiny for today is that united resolute militant rebellion can shake the most apparently immovable tyranny to its core – we are seeing this daily right now in February 2011 in North Africa and the Middle East. The ultimate failure of the Mutiny also serves to warn us that such rebellion is not in itself sufficient for full social and economic emancipation.

Our post-October 1917 Bolshevik-Leninist perspective teaches us that you also need an internationalist Marxist leadership of the working class in alliance with the poor peasantry and the poor rural and urban masses to carry such a revolt through to a permanent revolutionary socialist victory. Only with such a leadership will we be capable of overthrowing bourgeois capitalist society and creating a non-capitalist workers state capable of building a new socialist society