Marx on Poland and Ireland: review of ‘Marx at the Margins’ part II

170px-Marx_oldby Belfast Plebian

Marx served as the chief European correspondent of the New York Tribune, the most important newspaper in the United States in the nineteenth century. Anderson believes these articles ‘constitute a far more serious and sustained affair than is generally realised. They fill most of the contents of volumes 12 through 17 of the MECW, each of which runs to over five hundred pages.’ All too often these articles have been seen as mere digressions from the more important economic works Marx was preparing roughly at the same time.

Their relative neglect is due in part to what Marx himself said about them in a letter disparaging his own involvement with political journalism. One letter Marx sent to a German comrade residing in the United States said he found the ‘perpetual scribbling for the newspapers tiresome’ and expressed a wish ‘ to withdraw into solitude for a few months and work at my economy.’

The articles were also ignored because in the beginning the principal students of the works of Marx were non English speaking Europeans who thought of him primarily as a writer of German prose and even as a strictly European intellectual. In more recent times the journalism has been downgraded due to a sarcastic criticism at the hands of some influential post colonial writers who have uncovered in them a so called Marxist justification for progressive colonialism.

Marx’s 1853 articles on India, especially his ‘The British rule in India’, are believed to espouse a doctrine of an enlightened colonialism. Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ avers that in ‘article after article he [Marx] returnedwith increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible a realsocial revolution.’ Anderson accepts that some of the early Tribune articles contain Eurocentric generalisations.  In about the time of the communist manifesto Marx tended to extol the benefits of an inventive British capitalism over the cost of massive social dislocation. A dialectic relationship of both is present but not always so, and the neutral idea that all pre-modern societies like in India and China are destined to make an adjustment to a foreign induced capitalist modernisation is powerfully present.

Anderson presents the case that the Tribune articles on pre-modern and ‘barbarous Asian despotism’ register a steady shift in emphasis, becoming more dialectical and if anything the negative side of capitalist progress is emphasised and a critical support for political resistance to colonialism becomes more the norm.

What can be said with Said and others is that their criticism of Marx rests only on a few early Tribune opinion pieces and extrapolations from the general drift of the unrevised versions of the communist Manifesto, without appreciation of Marx’s constant revisions to his own analysis. What changed between 1853 and 1872-83 was his greater understanding and assessments of the various communal relations still dominant at that time.

Marx actually went on to identify at least three types of early communal relationships; the Greco-Roman, Germanic and the Asiatic. In the argument of 1853 the communal social relations present in these societies at the village level created a very repressive control by the village community over the non-free individual and made the basis for a despotic State, hence they were taken to be ‘barbarous.’ Marx then began to assess them differently and in the Grundrisse he states that the ‘The Asiatic form necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time.

Already in the Grundrisse of 1857-58 he was beginning to characterise the communal relations as containing both despotic and democratic potential. He also began to think that it was not the supposed common ownership of land that differentiated these pre capitalist social formations but the use of collective labour in working the land that really marked them out. Thus in the 1880s he wrote that the Russian village with its communal social organisation might be able to avoid all of the exploitation typical of capitalist progress by revolutionising itself and overthrowing the landed class and by linking up with the workers movements in the West.  Marx in fact refers to such an alternative in the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, although it should be borne in mind that he was not proposing a unique Russian road to socialism.


Marx was not defending communal social  relations in their existing forms in any unqualified fashion, for he also argued they needed to be revolutionised from within and linked to technological achievements from without . In this way, these indigenous social forms, and the defence of them against capitalist encroachment, could form the starting point for a wider communist transformation that would involve both large agrarian societies like India or Russia and the revolutionary labour movements of already industrialising ones like England, France and Germany.

In the occasional scribbling on the British colonialists and their actions in India and China Marx became ever more contemptuous of what the British colonial-capitalists were actually achieving: ‘More than that of any other nation, the history of English economic management in India is a history of futile and actually stupid (in practice, infamous) experiments . In Bengal they created a caricature of English large scale landed property; in the south east they created a caricature of peasant smallholdings. In the north-west they did all they could to transform the Indian economic community with communal ownership of the soil into a caricature of itself.’(Grundrisse p. 451)  

The developing journalism of Marx also refutes the widely held idea that he took no interest in the national movements of his own time.  It has been widely trumpeted that Marx raised up the idea of trans-national social class to such a height in his dialectic that the idea of ‘national right’ was completely suppressed altogether in his mind. In textual terms, much of the critique of Marx and Engels on nationalism centres on their early ethnocentric disparagement of some of the Slavic societies of Eastern Europe and the Balkans as “unhistorical” nations.

This thesis is challenged in the examples of Poland and Ireland, both primarily rural societies with no organised communist movement. Anderson shows that Marx’s support for Polish independence was one of the great political passions of his life. One source of our confusion stems from the fact that some influential post Marx socialists developed a pronounced opposition to Polish independence and an explicit critique of Marx, especially Rosa Luxembourg and even Karl Kautsky.  Also with Stalin, who partitioned Poland in 1939-41, everything to do with Polish independence was labelled a counterrevolutionary deviation, while most of Marx’s writings on Poland were expunged from the official collections.

The historian of ideas Isiah Berlin is just one of many influential liberals who have charged Marx with a political blindness in respect of the great national movements of the nineteenth century. A study of Marx’s writings on various national struggles, especially those covering Poland and Ireland, showed that he in fact related the workers struggles to the key national struggles without compromising the higher cause of communist revolution.

Anderson shows that the themes of nation and race were intertwined with class analysis and were not relegated to minor matters in his own active political life.  In fact they took up most of his Marx’s time as a leader of the First International and were at the core of his clashes and controversies with rival socialist tendencies (mainly Proudhonist and Bakuninist), covering the entire duration of the First International.

Anderson writes that: ‘In Marx at the Margins, I did try to respond to serious scholarly critiques of Marx on nationalism and ethnicity such as those by Ephraim Nimmi (1994), who carried out a textual analysis of Marx’s voluminous writings on nationalism. I generally eschewed reference to the kinds of peremptory (and textually unsupported critiques of those like Giddens who seem to get a free pass so long as their target is Marx.’

In the document of 1864, the ‘Inaugural Address’ of the International, which in effect became its programme, the main theme was of course the international battle between capital and labour, however even here Marx referred to Ireland, Poland and the American civil war.

The period of the First International was also the period of the first drafts of Capital and all three political struggles feature heavily in the historical side of the economic critique. The importance of the American civil war for International Labour is cited in the very preface of the first edition of volume 1 of 1867. The ideological divisions that caused an eventual split in the First International were over Marx’s insistence that the workers movement should not restrict its own outlook to reductive class questions. At the time of Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s death in 1865, Marx wrote a long article in German in which he repeated his earlier critiques of the French utopian socialist’s economic theories. He also added a stinging rebuke directed against Proudhon’s thoughts on Poland: ‘ his last work, written against Poland, in which for the greater glory of the tsar he expresses moronic cynicism, must be described as…not merely bad but base.’

A year later, opposition to Marx emerged within the International among some of its French-speaking members, most of them influenced by Proudhon. In keeping with the viewpoint that labour should not involve itself in wider political issues, but stick to social and economic ones, they opposed singling out Poland for specific advocacy. In a letter Marx send to Engels dated January 5, 1886 Marx says that Poland is the basis of the dispute ‘A plot has been hatched…it is tied up with that pack ofProudhonists in Brussels. The real crux of the controversy is the political question.’

Marx opened the year 1867 in the midst of his finishing the final draft of Capital with a lengthy, well researched speech to a London meeting commemorating the 1863 Polish uprising sponsored by the International and a Polish exiles group. Marx avers that Poland remains the key to a revolution on Continental Europe because it would undermine the reactionary grip of Russia: ‘There is only one alternative left for Europe, Asiatic barbarism under Muscovite leadership will burst over her head like a lawine (avalanche), or she must restore Poland.’       ` 

After Marx set about constituting the International he became heavily involved with Irish affairs and this was underpinned by a substantial amount of private study. His first interest was following the struggle for land reform and he went more deeply into the class structure of rural Ireland, summarising his findings in a July 11th Tribune article ‘The Indian Question-Irish Tenant Right:

A class of absentee landlords has been enabled to pocket, not merely the labour, but also the capital of whole generations, each generation of Irish peasant sinking a grade lower in the social scale, exactly in proportion to the exertions and sacrifices made for the raising of their condition and that of their families. If a tenant was industrious and enterprising he became taxed in consequence of his industry and enterprise. If on the contrary he grew inert and negligent he was reproached with the “aboriginal faults of the Celtic race”.  He had accordingly no other alternative left but to become a pauper-to pauperise himself by industry or to pauperise by negligence.  In order to oppose this state of things “Tenant Right” was proclaimed in Ireland….England has subverted the conditions of Irish society. At first it confiscated the land, then it suppressed the industry by Parliamentary enactments and lastly it broke the active energy by armed force.  And thus England created those abominable conditions of society which enable a small caste of rapacious lordlings to hold the land and to live upon it. Too weak yet for revolutionising those social conditions the people appeal to Parliament, demanding at least their mitigation and regulation.’ Marx then detailed the vociferous opposition from the land-owning classes to the tenants’ rights law proposed to Parliament in June 1853.

After a break of two years Marx returned to the subject of Ireland with an article called Ireland’s Revenge written for the Neue Order-Zeitung on March 16, 1855 and another eulogising the deceased Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor: ‘he died  as a pauper in the true sense of the word, the burial expenses were met by the working class of London.’ Three years later he wrote another article for the Tribune in January 1859 speaking of the ‘excitement in Ireland about a witch hunt directed against Irish conspirators.’

Kevin Anderson summarises the result of the first phase of the study of social conditions in Ireland covering the 1850s in three propositions:

1. While they (Marx and Engels) enunciated clear support for the struggles of the Irish they always counselled Irish revolutionaries to devote more attention to the internal class dynamics of Irish society. In this they were especially critical of the upper class Catholic nationalism of O’Connell.

2. They urged Irish revolutionaries to develop the firmest unity with British workers particularly the mass-based Chartist movement, pointing out that the Chartists supported the repeal of the Union of Ireland and England.

3. They singled out Irish immigrant labour in Britain, both as an index of Irish oppression at home and as a factor holding down the wages of English workers. Moreover they argued that British rule in Ireland proved that the British State could be just as repressive  as continental regimes like Bonapartist France or Prussia.

to be continued.

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