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marxism and the orient Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 1, 2007


Marxism and the Orient: A Reading of Marx

Gaurang R. Sahay
Tata Institute of Social Sciences


This paper argues that theoretical divergences in the realm of knowledge hardly make a difference in understandings of the Orient when an Orientalist problematic constituting, among other things, a sharp dichotomy separating the Orient from the Occident as a different and an inert other is observed as an epistemological truism. In this context, the theoretical background and ideological anchoring of scholars dealing with the Orient does not really matter. It is this permanent epistemological dichotomy that is the font of Orientalism, and it affects alike whoever drinks deep from it. This argument is substantiated by an evaluation of Karl Marx's understanding of Asiatic society and British colonialism. The paper shows that Marx, who had developed a unique and universal theory of knowledge in the form of 'historical materialism' and, accordingly, differed from others in his analysis of Western capitalism, has followed the well-established Orientalist problematic in his analysis of non-Western societies, and, in so doing, further contributed to the discourse of Orientalism.



1. Louis Althusser's reading of Karl Marx facilitated an argument within Marxist discourse that denies Edward Said's proclamation that Marx followed an Orientalist problematic while dealing with non-Western or Asiatic societies. Crucial to Althusser's reading is the realisation that the trajectory of Marx's writings is characterised by an 'epistemological break' as they consist of more than one problematic - the hidden, often unreflected and unarticulated "objective internal reference system of its particular themes, the system of questions commanding the answers given" (Althusser, 1969: 67).   The works before the break or the works of young Marx (dating from his Doctoral dissertation to the 1844 Manuscripts ) display an ideological or philosophical problematic, and the works after the break or the works of mature Marx (dating from the Grundrisse or the first draft of Capital ) contain a scientific problematic. The transition from ideological problematic to scientific one is not accomplished in a single moment; it is a long phase, from 1845 to 1857, during which Marx composed a series of works such as The German Ideology and Theses on Feuerbach . However, as Althusser opines, this 'epistemological break' should not be thought of as total since some of the earlier ideological presuppositions and conceptual determinants remained even in Capital (1971: 90). This position is furthered by Althusser and Balibar where they argue for a symptomatic reading of Marx that is based on the assumption that behind the explicit discourse of a text there is a second esoteric or silent discourse which must be 'dragged up from the depths' for understanding the absences, lacunae and silences that the first conceals (1970: 14-15, 74-78). Following Althusser, it has been argued that Marx's principal object of analysis was Western capitalism or capitalist mode of production and he was preoccupied with it until last. And therefore, his concept of Asiatic mode of production and the consequent thesis on the civilizing and revolutionary role of imperialism, which are scattered, contradictory and in journalistic form, should not be taken as a defining feature of his critical discourse. They were actually part of the project of a young Hegelian Marx, which the mature Marx abandoned forever (Turner, 1978: 7). Reinforcing this argument, Aijaz Ahmad writes:

Marx sent, in all, thirty three dispatches on Indian affairs to the New York Tribune ... and thought of the whole enterprise as 'a great interruption' to the economic studies he was then undertaking ... The likelihood is that the journalism might not have come if he had not needed the money so very desperately (1994: 231).

My paper differs from this line of reasoning and substantiates Edward Said's position by demonstrating that Marx has consistently worked within the framework of an Orientalist problematic while dealing with the Orient, and we find a substantial list of Orientalist statements even in his most mature work Capital . His writings on non-Western or Asiatic societies are quite systematic and steadily follow one another without an epistemological break.

The Concept of Orientalism

2. This essay derives much of its inspiration from Said's path-breaking work Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient . While some scholars (e.g. Abdel-Malek, 1963; Tibawi, 1964; Jameelah, 1971; Asad, 1973a, 1973b; Alatas, 1977) ahead of Said have made noteworthy contributions to framing the idea of Orientalism, it was primarily Said's work that conceptualized Orientalism as a field of inquiry beyond the confines of disciplinary boundaries and defined it as a system of knowledge about Oriental societies based on a dichotomous model of the dynamic 'Occident' and the static 'Orient' (Said, 1978: 2-3). In this system of knowledge, we find an ontological and epistemological separation of the Occident from the Orient. The Orient simply lacks the dynamic and positive elements of Occidental social formations: cities, social classes, autonomous urban institutions, legal rationality, private property and structural contradictions. Orientalism described the Orient in terms of Western desires or Occidental notions of history, nature, culture, religion, society, man, rationality, etc., and represented it in terms of contrasting typologies within which inferior characters are attributed to the Orient: the vibrant Occidental man versus the sluggish Oriental, the scientific-rational Westerner versus the gullible-erratic Easterner, and the honest whites versus the deceitful non-whites.  

3. By setting up a binary of difference, Orientalism established a dominant and systematic discourse for describing, teaching and ruling the Orient and in so doing produced the Orient in different ways: politically, socially, ideologically and artistically, through which the West explains, expounds, objectifies and justifies its colonial desires. To quote Said:

Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient - dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient (ibid: 2-3).

Likewise, Breckenridge and van der Veer argue that Orientalism "is not just a way of thinking. It is a way of conceptualizing the landscape of the colonial world that makes it susceptible to certain kinds of management" (1994: 6). In the scheme of things, the Orient is outside universal history and, therefore, must be dragged into it by subjecting it to the tutelage of the colonial or modern Western world. In Orientalism, we find a resistance towards appreciating the contextual rationality of the Orient and the internal tempo of Oriental societies. For Orientalists, universal history is the universalization of Western history.

  4. Though Orientalism has a long history, it took a definite and systematic form in the fourteenth century with the establishment of a number of university chairs by the Church Council of Vienna to promote an understanding of Oriental languages and cultures (Turner, 1981: 260). From there on, academic institutions became the major site of Orientalism. In the late eighteenth century, Orientalism achieved an imperial character with the emergence and development of various capitalist institutions which were characterized by expansion, confrontation, assimilation and classification. An unstoppable European expansion for markets, resources and colonies redefined the nature of Occidental-Oriental relationship in Western discourse that proved to be quite productive for Orientalism and a number of new institutions were set up in the West for dealing with the Orient. Turner observes that the establishments of the Asiatic Society (of Bengal) and the Royal Asiatic Society in 1784 and 1823 respectively in Britain were important landmarks in the development of Orientalism. Similar developments took place in France with Napoleon's Institute d'Egypte and the Societe Asiatique in 1821, while in Germany, an Oriental Society was formed in 1845. It was through these and similar institutions that knowledge of Oriental societies, cultures and languages were systematically developed and institutionalized (ibid: 260-262). Such institutions helped immensely in the institutionalization of Orientalism and created an unquestionable support system of power for Orientalists.

5. This is precisely why Partha Chatterjee argues that Orientalism and Western culture are reciprocally related to each other in functional terms. Post Enlightenment culture in Europe, Chatterjee points out, produced an entire body of knowledge in which the Orient appeared as a "system of representation framed by a whole series of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness and, later, Western empire" (1986: 36). The core element of Western culture that worked as a guiding principle for the Orientalist project is the notion of Western identity as a different and far superior one, intellectually or otherwise, in comparison with all non-Western identities and cultures. To quote John Dunn, "the extent and limits of the claim to be genuinely better at knowing are not merely central issues in the academic tradition of Western philosophy; they are also central issues in the political and cultural life of the modern world" (in Anisuzzaman and Abdel-Malek, 1983: 23). And as Said writes:

Occidental interest in the Orient was political according to some of the obvious historical accounts of it ... but that it was the culture that created that interest, that acted dynamically along with brute political, economic and militarily rationales to make the Orient the varied and complicated place that it obviously was in the field I call Orientalism (1978: 12).

6. Orientalism in turn facilitated the process of Western cultural hegemony further by creating a textual mind-set that the Orient cannot perform itself and, as a result, needs to be encountered, dealt with and ruled over.   Its representation of the Orient is always implicated, intertwined and embedded much more with Western hegemonic concerns and colonial desires than Oriental realities. Regardless of its forms, the discourse of Orientalism developed lessons on the ways for making the Orient perform according to the needs and interests of the Occident. This is why Western colonial states used Orientalism "to legitimize their own growing position" (Asad, 1973b: 274) and derive cultural sanctioning for its colonial aggression and different ways for a successful operation in the Orient.

7. The Orient in Orientalism shares a homologous relation with other categories of otherness. To quote Lisa Lowe, "Orientalism is very often one discourse in a complex intersection; the figuration of the Oriental as other overlaps with and enunciates the structuring themes of concurrent discourses - discourses that figure women, workers, non-Europeans, non-Christians, and colonized races as others" (1990: 117). That is why the Orient can stand for non-white races and vice-versa, and the Orientalists can carry forward the binary typology of advanced and backward races in their descriptions of the Orient. They generally believe that the whites, although they are in numerical minority, are superior human beings because they belong to the West; therefore, they are entitled to control the Orient and manage the affairs of its inhabitants. Abdel-Malek terms this position 'the hegemonism of possessing minorities' and 'anthropocentrism accompanied by Europocentrism' (1981: 77).

8. Orientalism normally presents the Orient in essentialist and historicist manner. It seeks to affirm that Oriental societies are a homogenous totality expressed by a primary essence that is irrational in character and which permeates its every institution. Orientalism believes that since the Orient has always been a slave of irrationality its history is a history of decline right from its genesis (Turner, 1978: 81). Orientalists of successive generations repeat such essentialist statements in different words time and again by using the historicist concepts of Oriental despotism, Asiatic mode of production, prebendal patrimonialism, non-ascetic religion, etc. Their presentation is characterised by declarative or self-evident figures of speech and trans-historical or timeless objectives, tense, references and imageries. Owing considerably to essentialism and historicism, Orientalism emerged as a self-perpetuating and closed discourse that exists without compromising its basic nature in the different realms of knowledge: philosophy, science, arts, literature and journalism.    

The Asiatic Mode of Production: A Conceptual Signifier of Marx's Orientalism

9. In this section I argue that Marx, who has propounded a distinctive universalistic theory of history and discussed the inevitability of socialist revolution worldwide, worked within the Orientalist problematic while dealing with non-Western or Asiatic societies. For Marx, Occidental societies are subject to dialectical transformation whereas Oriental societies are non-dialectical. Dialectic can only be inserted into the Orient by subjecting it, in one way or other, to the tempo of Western bourgeois societies. This is structurally determined and historically inevitable because

the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production ... The need of a constantly expanding market chases [it] over the whole surface of the globe ... [It] has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country" (Marx, 1975: 45-46).

And Marx further writes that the Western bourgeoisie are capable of "drawing all even the most barbarian nations into civilization" (ibid: 47).

10. For Marx, among all socio-economic systems, capitalism is the most revolutionizing in the history of human civilization. It determines the very conditions of its own existence and functioning. It is the first and only mode of production in human history which has inherent distinctive elements to be general and universalistic. But the emergence and development of capitalism is characterized by unevenness, which is primarily caused by the existence of previously distinct modes of production in different areas of the world. Different routes of development out of primitive society are responsible for the existence of distinct 'natural' modes of production at the same time in different places. Marx distinguished three main alternative routes of development out of the primitive society: the Asiatic, the Ancient and the Germanic (1964: 88 & 97). The emergence of the Ancient and Germanic modes of production out of primitive society took place in the Occident whereas in the Orient it was the Asiatic mode of production.

11. Marx reasoned that both the Ancient and Germanic modes of production, unlike the Asiatic mode of production, were fundamentally expansionist and dynamic in their nature, and they produced conditions for further social development and the severing of the 'umbilical cord' that tied an individual to the natural community. Feudalism grew out of the internal contradictions of the Germanic and Ancient modes of production, and capitalism emerged dialectically out of the womb of a feudal mode of production.  

12. For Marx, the history of the evolutionary development of the Occident from the Ancient and Germanic social formations to capitalism via feudalism has been unique and typical. This historical trajectory of structural change in the Occident was enabled primarily by a continuous innovation in the realm of forces of production and the concomitant process of domination over nature. The forces of production have always been coupled with a changing system of production relations that result in various socio-historical phenomena including class inequality, class exploitation and class struggle. This process of historical development has taken its final and perfect shape in capitalism: the latest, most modern and most efficient social formation. In capitalism private property reaches its highest point. However, Marx argues that capitalism does not only generate conditions for massive industrial production to be marketed globally, but also for human society to pass beyond class situation to a classless one through class struggle. To quote him:

the bourgeoisie period of history has to create the material basis of the new world - on the one hand the universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of the material production into scientific domination of natural agencies (1968: 131).

Engels has also suggested that the combination of private property and commodity production is "the root of the entire revolution that followed" in the history of the Occident (1972: 111).  

13. Marx was quite emphatic in his assertion that capitalism emerged only in the West because it dialectically came out of the structural contradictions of the feudal complex whole, which was a unique Occidental phenomenon. In this regard, he criticized all others who tried to prove that there was feudalism even in the Orient. Marx's criticism of Kovalevsky's attempt to assimilate Indian or Oriental social formation to those of European feudalism is quite noteworthy. As Marx points out:

Kovalevsky forgets, among other things, that serfdom - which represents an important element in feudalism - does not exist in India. Moreover, as for the individual role of feudal lords (exercising the functions of counts) as protectors not merely of serfdom but also of free peasants ... this plays an insignificant role in India, apart from the waqfs ... In India land is nowhere noble in the sense of being, for example, inalienable to commoners. On the other hand, Kovalevsky himself sees to one fundamental: the absence of patrimonial justice in the field of civil law in the empire of the Great Mughal (in Anderson, 1974: 406).

Marx further criticized Kovalevsky's claims that the imposition of the Islamic land tax or Kharaj on the Indian peasantry had converted hitherto allodial into feudal property. According to him, "the payment of the Kharaj did not transform their lands into feudal property, any more than the impot foncier rendered French landed property feudal. All Kovalevsky's descriptions here are in the highest degree useless" (ibid: 407). He also writes, "by Indian law political power was not subject to division between sons: thereby an important source of European feudalism was blocked up" (ibid: 407).   

14. Marx's clear-cut attempt to particularize the distinctive nature of the Western line of development has its counterpart in his positive conviction that there is a totally different rhythm and tempo out of which Oriental societies grew. For Marx, Oriental societies grew out of the primitive stage of human society with the emergence of the Asiatic mode of production. The Asiatic mode of production is a typical Oriental phenomenon that has no equivalent in Western history. Unlike other modes of production characteristic of Western society, the Asiatic mode is a static complex whole without any contradiction or antagonism. Therefore, it does not change or develop into a higher stage of social formation. To quote Marx, "the Asiatic form necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time. This is due to its presupposition that the individual does not become independent vis-à-vis the commune; that there is a self sustaining cycle of production, unity of agriculture and manufacture etc." (1973a: 486).

15. For Marx, one important element of the Asiatic mode of production that characterizes Oriental social formations is "the absence of private property in land. This is the real key even to the Oriental heaven" (1968: 427). He writes that in Asiatic societies "state is then the supreme lord. Sovereignty here consists in the ownership of land concentrated on a national scale. But, on the other hand, no private property in land exists, although there is both private and common possession and use of land" (1962: 771-72) . Marx argues that since different forms of private property in land characterize each of the successive modes of production in the West, it is the absence of private property in land in the Orient that makes its line of historical development different from the Occidental one. In the Grundrisse , Marx writes:

Amidst Oriental despotism and the propertylessness which seems legally to exist there, this clan or communal property exists in fact as the foundation, created mostly by a combination of manufactures and agriculture within the small commune, which thus becomes altogether self-sustaining, and contains all the conditions of production and reproduction within itself (1973a: 473).

He further states, "in the Asiatic form (at least, predominantly), the individual has no property, only possession; the real proprietor, proper, is the commune - hence property only as communal property in land ... the substance of which the individual appears as a mere accident" (ibid: 484).

16. According to Marx, the state was the natural owner of land in the Orient because it was the only structural agency capable of fulfilling the need of large-scale intensive irrigation and hydraulic works required for cultivating land that included many large stretches of desert. To quote him:

There have been in Asia, generally, from immemorial times, but three departments of Government: that of Finances, or the plunder of the interior; that of War, or the plunder of the exterior; and, finally, the departments of public works. Climate and territorial conditions, especially the vast tracts of deserts extending from the Sahara, through Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary, to the most elevated Asiatic highlands, constituted artificial irrigation by canals and water works, the basis of Oriental agriculture. As in Egypt and India, inundations are used for fertilizing the soil in Mesopotamia, Persia etc.; advantage is taken of a high level for feeding irrigation canals. This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water, which in the Occident, drove private enterprise to voluntary association, as in Flanders and Italy, necessitated in the Orient where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of Government. Hence an economic function devolved upon all Asiatic Governments, the function of providing public works (1968: 85).

Marx's collaborator, Engels, also expressed similar ideas about the Orient. He comments:

The absence of private property is indeed the key to the whole of the East ... But how does it come about the Orientals did not arrive at landed property, even in its landed form? I think it is mainly due to the climate, taken in connection with the nature of the soil, especially with the great stretches of desert which extend from the Sahara straight across Arabia, Persia, India, Tartary up to the highest Asiatic plateau. Artificial irrigation is here the first condition of agriculture and this is a matter either for the communes, the provinces or the central government (Marx and Engels, 1959: 312).

17. Another important feature of the Asiatic social formation that was very different from anything known to the west and responsible for the stationary and despotic character of the Orient was its division into autonomous villages. A village in the Orient was a self-sufficient idyllic republic or a world in itself, and the existence of a 'self-sufficient village community' was the basis of communal possession of state owned land property. The village community in the Orient thus contain within themselves the necessary conditions for its own production and reproduction. The community represents its unity within the social formation through the head of the kin group or through the relationship between the heads of kin groups. To quote Marx:

The whole empires not counting the few larger towns, was divided into villages, each of which possessed completely separate organization and formed a little world in itself ... Within (the villages) there is slavery and the caste system. The waste lands are for common pasture. Domestic weaving and spinning is done by wives and daughters. These idyllic republics, which guard jealously only the boundaries of their village against neighbouring villages still exist in a fairly perfect form in the North-Western parts of India, which were recent English accessions. I do not think anyone could imagine a more solid foundation for stagnant Asiatic despotism (1968: 431-32).  

18. Marx elaborately expressed his position on the village community in this correspondence with Engels and in his dispatches to the New York Daily Tribune . To quote him again:

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 these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to be 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 Hanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow (1973b: 306).                  

19. Marx continued to hold this position even in his most celebrated and 'scientific' work Capital where he repeats his position more systematically and argues that the caste system is the basis of self-sustaining and self-producing Indian village communities which are prototypical of Asiatic social formations as a whole. In the village communities, he writes:

Side by side with the masses thus occupied with one and the same work we find the 'chief inhabitant' who is judge, police, and tax-gatherer in one; the book-keeper, who keeps the account of the village and registers everything relating thereto; another official, who prosecutes the criminals, protects strangers travelling through and escorts them to the next village; the boundary men, who guards the boundaries against neighbouring communities; the water overseer, who distributes the water from common tanks for irrigation; the Brahmins, who conduct the religious services; the school master, who on the sand teaches the children reading and writing; the calendar Brahmin or astrologer, who makes known lucky or unlucky days for seed time and harvest, and for every other kind of agricultural work; a smith and a carpenter, who make and repair all the agricultural implements; the potter who makes all the pottery of the village; the barber, the washer man, who washes clothes, the silversmith here and there the poet, who in some communities replaces the silversmith, in others the school master. This dozen of individuals is maintained at the expense of the whole community. If the population increases, a new community is founded, on the pattern of the old one, on unoccupied land (1970: 357-58).

Changes in the seats of authority (the king or ruler or dynasty) do not affect the nature and functioning of the village communities. To quote him again:

The simplicity of the productive organism in these self-sufficing communities which constantly reproduce themselves in the same form and, when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name - this simplicity supplies the key to the riddle of the unchangeability of Asiatic states, and their never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the fundamental economic elements of society remains unchanged by the storms which blow up in the cloudy regions of politics (Marx, 1976: 479).    

20. Exploitation of the people directly by the despotic state or king is another feature of the Asiatic mode of production. It is legitimized by culture or belief and taken as a tribute to the highest authority. The nature of exploitation is general because it precludes any relationship of dependence and exchange vis-à-vis one another at the lower levels, and it does not exclude the personal liberty of the individual. Marx writes:

The despot here appears as the father of all the numerous lesser communities, thus realizing the common unity of all. It, therefore, follows that the surplus product (which, incidentally, is legally determined in terms of the real appropriation through labour) belongs to this highest unity ... which ultimately appears as a person. Thus surplus labour is rendered both as tribute and as common labour for the glory of the unity (1964: 70).

21. By using the phrase 'the general slavery of the Orient', Marx attempts to point out that in the Orient, unlike the slavery of the classical antiquity, or serfdom of feudalism, the worker was not regarded as among the "natural conditions of production for a third individual or community" (1973a: 495). For Marx, 'the general slavery of the Orient' portrays a situation in which individualism was absent. In such a situation the individual considers himself or herself only as a part of the community. The phrase thus does not denote a set of production relations. To quote him, "in the self-sustaining unity of agriculture and manufacture, on which this form rests, ... the individual never becomes a proprietor but only a possessor, he is at bottom himself, ... slavery here neither suspends the conditions of labour nor modifies the essential relations" (ibid: 493).   

22. Although the Asiatic society was primarily a society of villages, the few cities that existed were very different in their nature and function from Western cities. Unlike the Western city, city in the Orient was an extension of the countryside and the centre of politico-military affairs. It had no separate identity particularly in economic terms. Contrasting Asiatic cities with the cities of classical antiquity and Germanic society, Marx writes:

The history of classical antiquity is the history of cities, but of cities founded on landed property and agriculture; Asiatic history is a kind of indifferent unity of town and countryside (the really large cities must be regarded here merely as a royal camp, as a work of artifice [Superfotation] erected over the economic construction proper); the Middle Ages (Germanic period) begins with the land as the seat of history whose further development then moves forward in the contradiction between town and countryside; the modern [age] is the urbanization of the countryside, not ruralization of the city as in antiquity (ibid: 479).

23. Marx argues that the Asiatic mode of production or its various elements signify an essential duality in the evolutionary development of human society that culminated into, on the one hand, the ever-dynamic Occident and, on the other, the ever-static Orient. The dynamic character of Western modes of production brought history into the Occident whereas the Orient has no history. He defined history as the development of productive forces to dominate nature to ensure the survival of an ever-increasing civilization, and the break-up and replacement of communal relationship by the exploitative or unequal relationship among individuals. Marx writes, "Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is but the history of the successive invaders who founded empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society" (1968: 185).

Western Colonialism: An Inevitable Historical Necessity

24. Since Marx states that the success of a socialist revolution leading to the emergence of a socialist social formation is dependent on the prior universalization of the capitalist mode of production, he, like many other Orientalists, endorses colonialism as a historically necessary method for bringing about capitalism in the Orient. This apart, Marx, in his dispatches to the New York Daily Tribune , had very often suggested various reliable methods to Western colonial governments for the successful operation and expansion of capitalism in the Orient. Marx's strong faith in the civilizing role of colonialism led him to recommend direct and complete colonial control over Oriental societies by Western capitalist states.

25. Marx's understanding of colonialism is based on a distinction between subjective motivation and objective historical results. To him the motives behind colonialism are irrelevant, only its consequences should be taken into account as they are extremely pertinent for human civilization. As he points out:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil 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 the revolution (ibid: 89).

Marx believes that attempts at change in India or other the Oriental societies prior to colonialism either by natural or social acts such as civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, or famines "did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing" (1973b: 302). It has annihilated the old Asiatic society and laid the material foundation of Western society in the Orient (Marx, 1968: 125). Colonial intervention actually provided the impetus for a social revolution that was totally novel in the long biography of the Oriental society. To quote Marx,

However changing the political aspect of India's past may appear, its social condition has remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the nineteenth century. The hand-loom and the spinning wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society ... British steam and science uprooted, over the whole surface of Hindustan, the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry (ibid: 304).

26. For Marx, the imposition of the zamindari and royatwari landed property systems by the British over India was a measure of 'agrarian revolutions' (Marx and Engels, 1959: 77-80). Through the zamindari system the British took away the hereditary rights over land from the native peasantry in favour of the zamindars (tax-gatherers). By contrast, through the royatwary system, native nobility in some parts of India (particularly Bombay and Madras presidencies) "were reduced with the common people to the holding of minute fields" (ibid: 78). Though the systems were 'abominable' in terms of the economic expropriation of native peasantry, they proved to be quite progressive for the reason that they were two separate forms of private property in land - 'the great desideratum of Asiatic society' (ibid: 82).     In the context of the French colonial occupation of Algeria, Engels has also expressed a similar view: "the conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilization ... 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 civilization" (in Marx, 1968: 43). British colonial intervention in China prompted Marx to say, "before the British army the authority of the Manchu dynasty, fell to pieces; the superstitious faith with the eternity of Celestial Empire broke down; the barbarous and hermetic isolation from the civilized word was infringed" (ibid: 62-63). Marx argued in favour of direct and complete colonial control over the Orient for a swift dissolution of the obstacles presented by the structural edifice of despotic Oriental social formation (ibid: 370-75). He lamented that though "English commerce exerted a revolutionary influence on these communities ...   this work of dissolution proceeds very slowly. And still more so in China ..." (Marx, 1962: 393).

27. Marx, like a hard-core Orientalist, provides justification for colonial control over India, arguing that India is "a country not only divided between Mohemmadan and Hindoo, but between tribe and tribe, between caste and caste ... Such a country and such a society, were they not the predestined prey of conquest?" (1968: 123). While condescending Oriental culture, he writes that Hindu "religion is at once a religion of exuberance, and a religion of self-torturing asceticism; a religion of Lingam , and of the juggernaut; the religion of the monk, and of the Bayadere " (ibid: 81). About Sikh culture, Marx writes that Sikhs "are brave, passionate and fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than the other Orients" (ibid: 331). His statements about Turkey are also revealing in this context: As he comments, "Turkey, the splendid territory conglomerate of different races and nationalities has the misfortune to be ruled by Islam. Fanaticism of Islam overturned any progress that might have been made" (ibid: 48).

28. Marx's belief in the civilizing mission of Western colonialism led him to oppose and pour scorn on anti-colonial struggles in the Orient. For him, such struggles or revolts against colonial rule in India signified the native preference for the continuation of the Asiatic mode of production. In the context of the 1857 revolt in India, Marx writes:   

The Indian revolt does not commence with the ryots, tortured, dishonoured and stripped naked by the British, but with the sepoys, clad, fed and patted, fatted and pampered by them. After their defeat, the mutineers would turn into robbers, far more lawless, drunken, brutal, rabble, violent and greedy. Therefore, penalty for the sepoys is a historical and political necessity (ibid: 212).

In several dispatches to the New York Daily Tribune Marx provided specific suggestions about how the rebellion can be quenched and order restored. On one occasion, he indignantly wrote, "one is startled by the conduct of the British commander at Meerut - his late appearance on the field being still less incomprehensible than the week manner he pursued the mutineers" (ibid: 183-84). Such Orientalist thinking can also be discerned from Marx's writings on the anti-colonial struggles taking place in other parts of the Orient. While denigrating the Taiping rebellion, Marx believed that the Taipings were

an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. The Taipings are the apostles of destruction in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance ... All the hooligans, vagabonds and evil characters of every distinct may join the troops ... The Taipings are an enormous mass of nothingness (ibid: 418-20).

Regarding the Moorish war, we get a similar reaction from Marx: "from Moors we cannot expect anything but irregular fighting, carried on with the bravery and cunning of semi-savages. But even in this they appear deficient" (ibid: 383).


29. I would like to conclude this paper with a number of observations. Firstly, Marx's Orientalism is not an isolated or atypical case in the annals of Marxist discourse. Quite a few Marxists after Marx have contributed in different ways to the tradition of Orientalism by adopting cardinal Orientalist tenets as a guiding conceptual lever for comprehending and changing the Orient. Even if one can experience a noticeable change in Marxist orientations concerning the Orient (see Kosambi, 1975; Sharma, 1965; Habib, 1995, 1999), and revisions in the concept of the Asiatic mode of production (see Tokei, 1981; Godelier, 1981), there are still many who have not entirely forsaken the Orientalist problematic and do not hesitate to exclude Oriental societies from the tempo of historical materialism and class struggle (see Wittfogel, 1957; Avineri, 1968, 1971, 1972). Marx's Orientalist assumptions also governed the nature and functioning of many Marxist political organizations. Even the Comintern or the Third Communist International, which was founded in Moscow in March 1919 on the initiative of the Bolshevik Party and was avowedly more internationalist than the First and Second Internationals, expressed full fidelity to Marx's understanding of the Orient and his conceptualization of the Asiatic mode of production through various organizational and policy decisions (see Degras, 1956; Schram and Encausse, 1969; Madiar, 1981; Claudin, 1975; Munck, 1986).

30. Finally, Marx's Orientalism is not the starting point in the history of modern social science discourse. An almost full-fledged tradition of Orientalism within the Western realm of knowledge existed prior to Marx. He simply continued the tradition and, in doing so, developed it further by adding together new concepts and facts. The concept of oriental despotism, which is quite all-encompassing in its scope and evolved in the various systems of Western knowledge such as political thought and philosophy, travellers' journalistic tales and political economy, aptly signifies the existence of such a tradition. In spite of Marx's overall unique theoretical position in the realm of social science, he used theoretically heterogeneous discourses on Oriental despotism appreciatively while dealing with the Orient. In fact, Marx paid direct compliment to the authors of the concept such as Georg Friedrich Hegel , François Bernier and Richard Jones by quoting directly from their writings and declaring that their insights into the Oriental system were key to understanding the static nature of Indian society and culture. Oriental despotism is arguably the most important conceptual antecedent of the Asiatic mode of production: the conceptual framework of Marx's Orientalism (see Anderson, 1974: 462-72; Bailey and Llobera, 1981: 13-23; Krader, 1975: 19-61; Lichtheim, 1963; Sawer, 1977: 4-39; Wittfogel, 1957: 1).


Gaurang R. Sahay is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has a PhD in sociology from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His works include a book Village Studies in India: A Case of Bihar (2001), and papers on caste, agrarian economy, agrarian movements, rural politics, and decentralisation, published in Contributions to Indian Sociology and Sociological Bulletin . His works address significant theoretical issues and are based on fieldwork in the villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, northern states of India. He is currently researching social divisions and rural non-farm sector in Bihar as well as caste inequalities and dominance in rural western Uttar Pradesh.  


I am thankful to Dipankar Gupta who supervised my work on Marxism and Orientalism, and to Patricia Uberoi who introduced me to the idea of Orientalism. I wish to thank the anonymous referees and Vijay Devadas for their helpful comments and to Avijit Pathak, M. Nadarajah, Nishi Mitra and Kumkum Prabhas for their interest in my work.     


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