Monday, 2 July 2007

Imperial Nostalgia Part II

The Guardian recently ran a book review of a collection of selected articles of Karl Marx's reporting for the New York Tribune, written by none other than the lefty-turned-(far)-righty, Christopher Hitchens. As with just about everything Hitchens tends to write these days its long and somewhat rambling but otherwise fairly interesting.

As this blogger points out, Hitchens is obviously also trying to write himself into the article when he writes about the journalist who was a "prickly and irreconcilable subversive." We read about how Marx was also an "heretical exile", whose finest quality seemed to be "a fine contempt for all theocracies and all superstitions, whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic." (Hitchens is a Brit "exile" living in the States and has made a name for himself as a rabid anti-religious atheist, through books such as 'God is Not Great'.)

But that's not exactly what interests me here. What interests me is what Hitchens, who is probably one of the loudest exponents in favour of the Iraq War and the idea of an 'imperial' America's civilising mission creating a new world order by force (amongst his more subdued rants he insisted that the war in Iraq was to be the beginning of "a slum-clearance program" in the Middle-East), has to say about British Imperialism in India:
Marx's... disdain for superficial moralism, also allowed him to see that there was more to the British presence in India than met the eye. No doubt the aim of the East India Company had been the subordination of Indian markets and Indian labour for selfish ends, but this did not alter the fact that capitalism was also transforming the subcontinent in what might be called a dynamic way. And he was clear-eyed about the alternatives. India, he pointed out, had always been subjugated by outsiders. "The question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton." If the conqueror was to be the country that pioneered the industrial revolution, he added, then India would benefit by the introduction of four new factors that would tend towards nation building. These were the electric telegraph for communications, steamships for rapid contact with the outside world, railways for the movement of people and products, and "the free press, introduced for the first time to Asiatic society, and managed principally by the common offspring of Hindus and Europeans".

Now this is a spectacular piece of mythologizing. Lets deal with it point by point:

1. The myth of the British sparking 'dynamism' in India. The South Asian economy was a far more dynamic place BEFORE British rule started sucking the life out of it by remitting all the silver currency out of the country, thereby massively disrupting the economy.

2. India had always been subjugated by outsiders? Only in the chest-thumping nationalist rhetoric of post-Napoleonic Britain could a statement like this make sense, considering that amongst others, the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans had all "subjugated" England in the past. Were these not outsiders?

Of course this kind of statement has something to do with the feminisation of India in the Victorian imagination - an exotic, slightly dangerous, but bounteous beauty to be subjugated by manly, warlike conquerors. And the best man must get the prize.

3. On the same note, one would almost think that the British had to fight the Turks, Russians, etc. to claim India, rather than the powerful native Indian states such as Mysore, the Maratha Confederacy or the Punjab.

4. Ah! The much-beloved largess of the British industrial revolution - the most commonly cited justification of British rule. Except neither the telegraph, the railway, the steamship, or the industrial revolution had been invented when the British began their wars of conquest in Bengal in the 1750s. Perhaps, possessed of a prescient notion that these wonders of industrial civilization were just around the corner, the British started the process of conquest so that these lovely things could be introduced as soon as they became available...?

5. Except, what's all this? Bengal - in whose large textile workshops in the early eighteenth century, we had some of the largest and richest proto-industrial processes in the world at the time, actually de-industrialised under British rule! Though new industrial processes in Britain and the America could produce cheap cloth (mostly due to the provision of cheap cotton through slave labour in the colonies), they could simply not compete with the far superior cloth coming out of Bengal... so the British proceeded to demolish the textile industry in Bengal. In 1700, Bengal was the richest part of a rich land, with living standards comparable to those in Britain and better than those of most other European states. This was what drew the British to trade there, and also why it was the first part of the sub-continent that the British conquered. When the British left in 1947, Bengal was the poorest parts of the sub-continent.

Gee, I wonder why?

6. The "free press". Quiet apart from the fact that there are examples of news broadsheets existing from the times of the Mughals in India, the historian C. A. Bayly describes a pretty impressive system of news sheets and almanacs proliferating in the bazaars of 18th century India. Having said that, it must be said that a vigorous and healthy press grew up in the second half of the nineteenth century and much of it became the focus of nationalist aspirations by the 20th. Of course the British introduced "emergency" laws that suppressed the free media and throughout much of the years of British rule in the 20th century the "free press" was censored under martial law. Alas to do so became an addictive habit to the civil servants and military men who ran the country - so much so, that after independence, the men trained in these fine British institutions continued to keep up the habit from time to time.

7. But all this begs the point: Does a country need to be invaded and occupied to get a few railroads, telegraph and a free press? Hitchens has an obviously vested interest in making this case. But I wonder, how did the Japanese get railroads and telegraphs without being invaded? What about Turkey? What is this rather odd idea that only through an invasion can the fruits of the industrial revolution be shared?

Marx was in many ways an "irreconcilable subversive" but in many other ways he was a product of his times, sharing many of its assumptions and conceits, and working without the benefit of historical hindsight that we have now. Its not surprising that he was equivocal on imperialism - after all, he, just as everyone else at the time had convinced themselves that this was the path to progress.

But history has thoroughly debunked this idea, even though it refuses to die. Why? Because it is an idea that serves the exercise of power. It obfuscates the exercise of this power and its lethal effects. It placates consciences. In short, it sells tyranny. That is why Hitchens flirts with it endlessly. However, as he himself states about Marx's writings on India:

8. "The aim of the East India Company had been the subordination of Indian markets and Indian labour for selfish ends."

Yes, exactly.


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