“Left colonisers” - No, you can’t have Marx!

Submitted by Anon on 16 May, 2006 - 11:48

By Amina Saddiq

Even given the number of academics and journalists on its supporters list, the “liberal left” Euston Manifesto has received a remarkable amount of press coverage. The latest is an article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the 10 May Guardian, arguing that the Eustonites should endorse a new era of “progressive” imperialism and colonialism to bring democracy to the world.

In response to the accusation that 'left-wing' supporters of the Iraq war are recapitulating the arguments “used by imperial powers throughout history, including the western imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries”, Wheatcroft essentially replies “Yes!” - and urges the Euston group to do the same, suggesting “Progressive, democratic, imperialist and proud of it” as their slogan.

Wheatcroft has the virtue of clarity and honesty, in contrast to the mealy-mouthed pro-Blair urgings of the Eustonites. But not content to make the case for Bush and Blair, he attempts to annexe Marxism to his self-proclaimed tradition of “leftist colonisers”.

Marx, we are told, “made approving noises about British rule in India”, while “Engels approved initially of France’s conquest of Algeria”. This was only logical since “according to Marxist doctrine, socialism could only arrive after bourgeois capitalism”. We are even provided with a quotation: Marx wrote that “the English were the first conquerors superior, and therefore inaccessible, to Hindu civiliation.” Apparently it was Lenin who originated an anti-imperialist tradition quite alien to Marx and Engels.

What a mess: Wheatcroft is wildly off-track. Yes, as a young man in his 20s, Engels at first welcomed the French defeat of North Africa’s feudal gangsters as “an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation”; a few years later, however, he had shifted his stance to one of vigorous support for the colonial resistance to French rule. This was part of a more general picture: by the mid-1850s at the latest, Marx and Engels’ support for anti-colonial rebellions was absolutely beyond question. They supported the so-called Sepoy Mutiny ie the Indian Rebellion against British rule in 1857-59.

So far were the founders of communism from “left coloniser” arrogance that when the International Working Men’s Association recieved a request in 1871 to establish a branch in Calcutta, the General Council led by Marx insisted that the applicants be “instructed [of] the necessity of enrolling natives in the association”.

The article Wheatcroft quotes selectively was written in 1853 and it is a condemnation, not a commendation, of British imperialism. In the British Raj, Marx wrote, “the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Moreover: “the Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie. . .till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

There is no contradiction here. From the start, Marxists have argued that recognising the progressiveness of capitalism in spreading industrial development and with it the working class does not imply support for imperial violence and political oppression. Wheatcroft can have the Euston Group for his attempt to build “progressive”, “democratic”, “left” support for imperialism, but he cannot have Marx.