Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Few issues have aroused as much controversy in the Marxist tradition as the National Question. Apart from conceptual, ideological and perception differences, it may not be out of place to suggest that part of the ‘confusion’ on the issue is the tendency amongst Marxists to get bogged down in doctrinaire rigidity, torn from context, history, and changing circumstances. Certainly the founders and great leaders of the Marxist tradition did not subscribe to such ahistorical inflexibility. After all, the philosophic basis of Marxism is Dialectical Materialism, with the emphasis on ‘Dialectical’.
The National Question came to the fore in the era of developing capitalism in the 18th-19th centuries. This steadily developing phenomenon of the rise and spread of national consciousness emerged within Europe and even beyond it. This was not only the period of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but also the transition from mercantile to industrial capitalism, particularly after the Industrial Revolution at the close of the 18th century. It was also the era of colonial conquest of almost the entire pre-capitalist world by the superior technological and military means acquired by the relatively developed capitalist west.
Marx and Engels, writing and struggling for socialist revolution in the 19th century, came to the conclusion on the basis of their attempts to understand the workings of capitalism that it was the ‘advanced’ (in terms of the development of capitalism, not to be mistaken for any ‘inherent’ superiority) societies of western Europe that were most likely to be the setting for a successful socialist revolution. However, this does not mean they ignored developments in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, later critics, including Marxists, have viewed their approach as fundamentally Eurocentric.
In defence of Marx and Engels’ approach, one can quote Marx himself: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”(1) In the context of maturing capitalism in the west, it seems with hindsight almost inevitable that their focus was predominantly on the prospects for socialist revolution in those societies that had entered the realm of capitalism. But given the configuration of international politics at that time, including the phenomenon of colonialism, plus Marx and Engels’ conception of capitalism as a universalising system destined to enfold all pre-capitalist formations within its grasp, they believed that some of the forces working for change in these less advanced (in terms of capitalist development) regions could affect not only their own societies but also rebound upon the prospects of a proletarian revolution in western Europe itself. Such less advanced regions were not confined to Asia, Africa and Latin America (subsequently lumped into the rubric ‘the Third World’) but were also to be found in Europe, particularly in the east of the continent and in Ireland.
Given the lay of the land in European politics of the time, Marx and Engels (and others) considered the relationship between class and national struggles as harmonious in some cases and antagonistic in others. The guiding principle they used to weigh national movements lay in the context of the bastion and ultimate protector of reaction, Tsarist Russia. Any national movement therefore, that seemed to weigh in favour of Tsarist Russia was rejected, while any that ran counter to the interests of Tsarist Russia was embraced, even if purely tactically.
Bourgeois society, Marx and Engels argued, itself a product of the feudal epoch, was preparing the conditions for a proletarian revolution. Because of the development of capitalism, they held, the fate of pre-capitalist societies and formations was to be acted upon rather than change on their own initiative, i.e. they were to become the objects of capitalism’s ineluctable tendency to expand globally.
Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1) included the Asian Mode of Production in a list of the progressive epochs in the economic formation of society but did not suggest a strict chronological succession of the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and bourgeois modes of production. His earlier works, including The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto did, however, indicate evolutionary links between the last three. But his more extensive writings on the subject regarded the Asian Mode of Production as not significantly capable of further historical evolution and in fact to be in a process of decomposition when he was writing on the Subcontinent in the 1850s. Marx argued in these writings that British colonial rule in the Subcontinent would produce the only social revolution in its history. However, this should not be interpreted as approval, since Marx’s later writings lay bare the cruelties inflicted on the people of the Subcontinent by British colonialism. This was his objective analysis of the impact of British colonialism on a society whose base he considered unchanging because of the stability (and stagnation) provided by a self-sufficient village community. This very lack of capacity for further development distinguished the Asiatic Mode of Production from essentially European phenomena such as feudalism and capitalism. The Asiatic mode had its roots in what Marx considered a fundamentally static society, attributed by him to a lack of private property in land (contested by later critics as not being universally true), the central government’s (monarch’s) control over public works, including irrigation, and the combination of agriculture and manufacturing characteristic of the ancient village system. Marx saw this last factor as an element in Oriental Despotism, a system whose foundation, he maintained, lay in tribal or communal property created through the combination of agriculture and manufacturing within a small (village) community that thus becomes self-sustaining. This self-sustaining nature of the village economy renders the individual unable to become independent of the community (and caste). This, Marx argues, explains why the Asiatic form necessarily survived the longest, most stubbornly.(2) Only when impacted by the universalising, dialectically (and materially) superior capitalist mode of production introduced from the west would the village system disappear.(3) Today, that prediction has largely come true in the Subcontinent.
But self-sufficient villages were not the only form of habitation in these societies. Cities existed too, and Marx made some illuminating comparisons between Asian and European history that demolish any notion that the four modes of production listed above were equally capable of further development. Marx wrote: “Ancient classical history is the history of cities, but cities based on landownership and agriculture; Asian history is a kind of undifferentiated unity of town and country (the large city, properly speaking, must be regarded merely as a princely camp, superimposed on the real economic structure…modern (history) is the urbanisation of the countryside, not, as among the ancients, the ruralisation of the city.”(4) The Asian city in Marx’s view was unlikely to develop as a force capable of disturbing the essentially static character of the base of Asian society.
But while this analysis relies heavily on Marx’s studies of India, it did not necessarily apply to the whole Asian continent. For example, one of the central pillars of Marx’s construct, the absence of private property in land (critiqued later as too sweeping), was not present in China. Marx’s analysis of the long survival of the traditional order in that country relied on the factor of “complete isolation”(5) rather than the form of land tenure. “Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.”(6)
In both India and China’s case, Marx and Engels expected the initial revolutionary impulse would come from Europe. This has since been critiqued as essentially a Eurocentric view. But such a view did not prevent Marx and Engels as practical revolutionaries from displaying flexibility towards allies such as national movements, even with their more limited national confines, so long as the overall interests of the socialist revolution were thereby promoted.
The critical lesson to be derived from Marx and Engels’ views on the National Question in their time and context is the relationship between the general laws of historical development as laid down by Dialectical and Historical Materialism and their practical application to particular societies and situations. If the founders of Marxism, despite their belief that the western proletariat would be the motive force and harbinger of a new, more just society, were prepared to support national movements in Europe and beyond if their analysis indicated this would strengthen the march towards socialism, how much more profound was the need to approach the National Question correctly in the era of Imperialism. This question we will return to.
(To be continued)