Background: Imperialism yesterday and today 3

Submitted by martin on 16 June, 2003 - 11:46

From Workers' Liberty 63

Imperialism yesterday and today 3

How Britain ruined India

When black Africa was put under colonial rule in the late 19th century, it had already been shattered and devastated by four centuries of the slave trade. But the India conquered by the British from the mid-18th century was a great and splendid empire. European trading bases had existed in India since the early 16th century, but they had exported manufactured goods from India - for India "had an industrial sector producing luxury goods which Europe could not match" (Angus Maddison). Now Britain imposed restrictions on textile imports from India, and promoted cheap exports from the new cotton mills of Lancashire. "The handicraft industries were destroyed - the same which had supplied the eastern trade of more than thousand years and had provided Greek and Roman, Arab and Venetian, English and Portuguese traders with their wealth. 'The bones of the weavers' - and an English Governor-General said it [in 1834-5] - were 'bleaching the plains of India'" (Michael Barratt Brown).

The Mughal Empire - the regime before the British conquest - had not been a progressive system. A tiny elite, mostly alien in origin (Persian or Afghan) and in religion (Muslim), lived in luxury through extremely heavy taxation of the peasants. But the British continued many of the evils of the old regime, and added some new ones. Under Mughal rule, all land had been owned by the Emperor. The peasants were guaranteed the hereditary use of their plots, but could not sell, buy or sub-let land. Members of the ruling class would be allocated districts where they held sway as tax collectors for the Emperor: those positions were not hereditary. The British half-transformed this set-up. In Bengal and some other areas, the Mughal tax collectors were given a status which was half landlord, half tax collector. This landlord/tax collector class rapidly expanded under British rule, generating a sub-class of middlemen. In southern India, where Mughal rule had decayed well before the British conquest, the British worked differently. There, the higher-caste peasants were given quasi-smallholder status, but with the colonial government as overlord.
Karl Marx commented: "In Bengal, we have a combination of English landlordism, of the Irish middlemen system, of the Austrian system, transforming the landlord into the tax gatherer, and of the Asiatic system, making the State the real landlord. In Madras and Bombay we have a French peasant proprietor who is at the same time a serf and a metayer [share-cropper] of the State. The drawbacks of all these various systems accumulate upon him [the peasant] without him enjoying any of their redeeming features." The peasants had no access to resources to improve their agriculture. And if by chance they should get access, the benefit of any improvement would immediately be confiscated by the landlord or middleman, who was a parasite, interested only in luxury consumption rather than capitalist-type investment for expansion.
According to modern research, Marx was mistaken in his belief that the British had also allowed the decay of irrigation works established under the Mughals. The Mughals' irrigation works were slight, and were in fact expanded in certain districts by the British. Overall, however, agricultural productivity increased barely at all, or maybe even decreased, during two centuries of British rule. Above the relentless peasant poverty, the British replaced the Mughals as a ruling class. The British administrators retained the same vast luxury, display and armies of servants. By the 1930s, about one-tenth of India's whole national income was flowing to Britain, and another slice was being consumed by the British administration in India itself. The maintenance, in modified form, of the old social structures in the countryside enabled cheaper and easier rule. Britain's land reform, wrote the Governor General in 1829, "though a failure in many other respects, and in most important essentials, has this great advantage at least, of having created a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British dominion and having complete command over the mass of the people." But there was after all a difference between the British and the Mughals. The Mughals' wealth was used for luxury and display alone. The wealth of the British, or some of it, was capital. Sizeable amounts of capital were invested in India. A big railway-building programme was undertaken in the 1850s. In 1870, 21% of all Britain's overseas capital stock was in India.
Karl Marx wrote: "I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But... you cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion... The railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry." Marx qualified this prediction: "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 lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether."
In any case, the growth of factory production in India was very slow. There was a spurt of industrialisation around the First World War, and steel production was started then, much earlier than in most Third World countries. The Indian capitalist class, by the time of independence, was far stronger than any capitalist class in black Africa. But from the 1920s to independence in 1947 the industrial percentage of India's workforce actually declined. The stark poverty of the peasantry limited the home market. The British in India, and the Indian elite, preferred imported goods. And, perhaps crucially, Indian industry lacked the state protection and sponsorship which has been crucial to every infant industrial capitalism. Every industrial capitalist power since Britain has developed with tariffs guarding its infant industries and a large measure of state intervention. Even in Britain, state contracts during the Napoleonic Wars were a big factor in the Industrial Revolution. But the Indian capitalists did not have a state of their own. They were ruled by a British state, which would always help British capitalists first. For a short period after World War One, the British did adopt a policy of helping Indian industry. But it was quickly ditched, especially when the great world slump after 1929 left British industry clamouring for the Empire to be made its protected market.
The French writer Claude Levi-Strauss aptly describes India as the British left it: it was, "as if history and economics had managed to establish, indeed superimpose, their most tragic phases of development on these wretched victims: the shortages and epidemics of medieval times, frenzied exploitation as in the early years of the industrial revolution, and the unemployment and speculation of modern capitalism."