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How Marx foresaw the 1857 revolt

The one to two years of involvement in revolutionary activities which Marx and Engels spent in Europe tested their patience. They had great hopes from the French and German revolutions of 1848 but they were not fulfilled. Nevertheless, as participants of the people’s struggle, they faced the reality that the revolutionary process is as important as drawing up revolutionary ideologies or writing books.
Hardly a day passed when Marx and Jenny were afforded marital bliss and comfort, but in London a veritable volcano of misfortunes erupted onto them. There was neither a source of income, nor a friend or an ally. Engels, too, was not present there in those days to assist. At the same time, a fourth child was born in the home, which increased the expenses further. When the rent of the flat could not be paid, the owner threw them out without notice. While narrating this incident, Jenny wrote in a letter dated May 30, 1850:
“The government servants arrived and they took our beds, bedsheets, clothes, even the cradle of my infant and the girls’ dolls into their custody. And the poor girls stood crying in a corner. The police hardly gave us a couple of hours, but don’t you think that I will give up out of worrying from these difficulties. I know that our struggles are not peculiar to us alone. I am truly happy that my dear husband, my life-support is with me. Though I am sad that these difficulties have surrounded him at a time when he necessarily needs energy, peace and trust. Alas that the one who is truly happy to help others is himself so helpless these days.”
That evening Marx somehow managed to get money for the rent and the assets of the house were freed, but they were sold immediately to pay the debts of the pharmacist, baker, butcher, etc. Then Marx moved to a two-room flat in a very dirty and densely-populated area of Soho and remained there for six years. The room in front served the purpose of sitting as well writing and reading, while the whole family slept in the room at the back. Within two years, two of Marx’s children passed away in this same space due to a lack of food, medicine and treatment. When the second child died, there was not enough money to purchase medicine. Once, matters came to such a pass that Marx had to pledge even his coat and trousers. “My circumstances have now taken such a state that I can’t even go out of the house because my clothes are pledged.”
Despite this, neither did Marx’s determination and perseverance wane, nor did Jenny ever object to her husband’s activities, but encouraged him in every difficult moment. Her brother was Prussia’s Interior Minister at the time. He wrote to his sister asking her to return to the family, guaranteeing to take up responsibility for her. Jenny wrote back: “I have married Marx and his ideas. Germany has no space for either. I do not want such a Germany.”
Despite domestic worries, Marx persevered in his activities. He would visit the British Museum very early in the morning, returning home at seven in the evening and then worked till 1:30 to 2 am in the morning. So between April 1850 and August 1853 he filled 23 notebooks with writings about economics and official reports. Engels also arrived in London during this time and returned to Manchester after living there for a year, so he could assist Marx a bit.
In August 1851, Charles Dana, the editor of the New York Daily Tribune newspaper, who had met Marx in Cologne, offered that he become a correspondent for the paper – on the condition that Marx would submit two dispatches per week. In these circumstances when all routes towards freedom of expression were closed in the aftermath of the dominance of reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces in Europe, Marx recognised this offer as a blessing; he remained a correspondent for around eleven years, although when civil war began in the United States, and the New York Daily Tribune ended up supporting the pro-slavery stance of the Confederate rebels, Marx broke off his relations with it.
Marx and Engels wrote several articles in the Daily Tribune on Turkey, Egypt, Iran, India and China in addition to current affairs in Europe, and beautifully exposed the conspiracies and exploitative activities of Western governments in the East. They also raised the question as to why there was relative social stagnation in the East since centuries. And they asked what it was about Indian society that prevented capitalism from flourishing as it did in Europe. After all, far from undergoing its own Industrial Revolution, India faced something quite unexpected: a tiny group of English traders succeeded in capturing this vast land.
For Marx and Engels, the two fundamental reasons for social stagnation were firstly state oppression, and secondly, the self-sufficient agricultural and handicraft manufacturing of the villages.
Marx wrote many articles for the Tribune detailing the ruthless manner in which the British destroyed local industry and handicrafts following their conquest of India, and converted the country into a market for raw material and a bazaar for British manufactures. In fact Marx claimed that the concentration of capital in Britain in the 18th century was to a great extent the result of the direct and unchecked plunder of Indian wealth.
But Marx was not unaware of the ‘positive’ aspects of this evil. Marx thought that by instituting the capitalist system in India, the English had unwittingly fulfilled a sort of ‘historic duty’. India had gone from relative isolation to being a major node in a worldwide capitalist economy. Along with a web of electric telegraph and railways, the colonialists introduced “a Western-style trained local army[,] by creating which the English have created the first center for the Indians to combat the enemy.”
This prediction literally proved accurate in 1857, as Indian sepoys from the British-trained army turned on their own colonial masters.
In addition, the printing press and newspaper “to which Asian society was introduced for the first time and which will prove to be very beneficial for reconstruction”. And then there was English education and Western-style schools and colleges whose objective was basically to prepare babus for government offices but where the “modern education and arts of the West and principles of democracy, liberty and self-government are also taught”.
But Marx forewarned that:
“Nobody should be under the misunderstanding that India will itself become independent as a result of these actions of English industrialists or that the plight of the Indian people will improve. The Indians should understand that they will not be able to eat the fruit of the new elements of the society ordained by the English until there be proletarian rule to replace the present ruling class in Britain, or the Indians themselves become strong enough to throw off the yoke of English slavery.”
Marx and Engels totally sympathised with the 1857 Indian uprising and they constantly narrated the story of the revolt in their dispatches. They expressly declared that:
“The present insurrection in India is not a military revolt but a national revolution”.
Although, they thought that the struggle in India would fail because their central leadership was extremely weak:
“They have no joint strategy on a national scale. They are not even united, rather they keep conspiring against each other and what is more, they are fighting a defensive war due to which the English have complete liberty of calling for reinforcements and of movement.”
Karl Marx, in the New York Daily Tribune on the 16th of September, 1857, wrote:
The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India are indeed appalling, hideous, ineffable — such as one is prepared to meet – only in wars of insurrection, of nationalities, of races, and above all of religion; in one word, such as respectable England used to applaud when perpetrated by the Vendeans on the “Blues,” by the Spanish guerrillas on the infidel Frenchmen, by Servians on their German and Hungarian neighbours, by Croats on Viennese rebels, by Cavaignac’sGarde Mobile or Bonaparte’s Decembrists on the sons and daughters of proletarian France.
However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed ail organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.