Marx and Colonialism

It is widely believed that Marx did not systematically consider the role of colonialism within the process of capital accumulation. According to David Harvey, Marx concentrated on a self-closed national economy in his main work. Although he did mention colonialism in Part 8 of Capital Volume 1 on the so-called primitive accumulation, this would only belong to a pre-history of capital, not to its everyday development. Based on a similar assumption, some postcolonial scholars criticise Marx for being Eurocentric, even a complicit supporter of Western imperialism, who ignored the agency of non-Western people.

If we read some passages from the Manifesto we could think that they are right. How can we explain otherwise Marx and Engels praising the role of the bourgeoisie drawing even the most barbarian nations into civilisation or the view that the liberation of colonised peoples depended on the victory of the revolution in Europe?

Before I start, let me make a short premise. In my first book I read Marx’s Capital in the light of his writings and articles on Ireland, China, India, Russia, and the American Civil War. At the time I believed that Marx only published a significant, but still limited amount of writings on the colonial question, those available in the Collected Works and in collections like Marx & Colonialism. But then in 2007 I worked at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, contributing to the complete edition of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. I thus “discovered” some of Marx’s 20,000 print page long notebooks (just to give you an idea, the printed notebooks alone would look like a new Collected Works). These writings show that Marx was interested in colonialism all his life, including when he wrote the Manifesto.

What came out of my reading? Let me start with the question of Marx’s field of analysis in Capital Volume 1. To analyse capital reproduction ‘in its integrity, free from all disturbing subsidiary circumstances’, Marx treats the world of commerce as one nation (1976: 727) and presupposes the full worldwide imposition of the capitalist mode of production. Does this mean that Marx analysed a “self-enclosed national economy” as Harvey and others believe? In my view, this abstraction means exactly the opposite. Marx’s positing a coincidence between the national and global levels is a premise for conceptualising the world market, which includes both internal and foreign markets of all nations participating in it. This abstraction makes it possible to include expansionism into the analysis of capital accumulation. In this framework, a country’s economic system is not confined within its national borders but consists of all production branches where capital is freely transferable, including the colonies and dependent economies.

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From Post-Marxism back to Marxism?

The Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism I co-edited with Alex Callinicos and Stathis Kouvelakis aims to present the development of Marxism as a militant tradition in dialogue with other traditions and within itself. Even if it was conceived almost six years ago, the multiple crises we are confronting today – economic, political, social, gender, environmental and biological – vindicate the spirit of our project. The project seeks to look at Marxism as a tradition that is rooted in and addresses the totality of capitalist social antagonisms and, by doing so, is able to think strategically beyond capital. 

Several contributions challenge reductionist interpretations of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the idea that Marxism is irremediably Eurocentric and underestimates race, gender and ecology. This opens a space for a more complex, and I would say fertile, dialogue with Post-Marxists currents. The format of the Handbook – combining longer contextual essays and shorter essays on individual thinkers mainly – aims at facilitating this dialogue. We chose this format, rather than concentrating on themes and concepts, in order to capture the specificity of, and interactions between, individual thinkers and problematics. 

In the final part of the book, “Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe”, John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi forcefully argue that Marx inaugurated traditions of thought that can intellectually encompass the present age of catastrophe, announced by the floods and fires around the world as well as by the Covid-19 pandemic. These reflections complement the first part of the Handbook, “Foundation”, which points to the strong connection Marx and Engels posited between the critique of political economy and a politics of working-class self-emancipation. Thanks to this connection, they were able to conceive of capitalism as a global, gendered, racialized and ecological class antagonism in which struggles over wages and working conditions are organically linked to struggles over dispossession, social reproduction, ecology, imperialism and racism. Support for the demands of the most oppressed is thus crucial for the advancement of the working class as a whole. 

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