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Marx and Engels on 1857 Revolt

Monday 14 May 2007, by Susobhan Sarkar


Marx’s comments on the Revolt of 1857 constitute an original contribution to the study of contemporary Indian history. They are in sharp opposition to the established orthodox theory of regarding the rising as essentially a military mutiny, disfigured by ‘native’ atrocities, put down by British valour. It is interesting to reflect that modern research is at long last veering round to the viewpoint of Marx.

Marx dealt in the main with the general character of the revolt, the question of the atrocities committed, and the conduct of the military struggle. He was ably seconded by Engels. Their understanding is all the more remarkable since the opinions were carried in letters to the New York Daily Tribune in the very course of events, or immediately after their occurrence.

Marx was almost the very first to grasp the true nature of the revolt. On June 30, 1857 he explained the fact that the sepoys were the first to rise by the pertinent observation that the Indian Army happened to be ‘the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people were ever possessed of’. On July 28, 1857, he quoted with approval Disraeli’s remark on the previous day: “the Indian disturbance is not a military mutiny, but a national revolt”. On July 31 1857, Marx asserted that what John Bull considers to be a military mutiny ‘is in truth a national revolt’.

Arguments in support of the conclusion are plentiful in the letters. On June 30, 1857, Marx was writing: “Mussulmans and Hindus—have combined against their common masters;—the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities;—the revolt has coincided with a general disaffection—on the part of the great Asiatic nations.”

He described the so-called unaffected areas as enjoying ‘a very queer sort of quiet’ (July 31, 1857), for symptoms of unrest were visible even there. He pointed out (August 14, 1857): “As to the talk about the apathy of the Hindus, or even their sympathy with British rule, it is all nonsense.” For, “the great difficulties the English meet with in obtaining supplies and transports—the principal cause of the slow concentration of the troops—do not witness to the good feelings of the peasants.” Marx saw correctly (September 15, 1857) that the British posts were like ‘insulated rocks amid a sea of revolution’.

Anticipating recent historians, Marx acutely observed that after all ‘the first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants’. In a similar fashion, the Indian Revolt started not with the ‘dishonored riots’ but with the sepoys ‘clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered’ by the British (September 4, 1857). As for the feudal leadership, Marx castigated the role of the princes like Scindia, and Engels pointed out on September 17, 1858 that the landholders came to an agreement with the British, thus betraying the cause.

As against such conduct at the top, Marx referred to the common people’s role in Oudh (May 18, 1858): “the resistance, begun by a mutinous soldiery, has found support from the inhabitants of the city and of the province at large.” Engels added at the end of May 1858—‘the unarmed population fail to afford the English either assistance or information’. Also (September 17, 1858) ‘attempts at confiscating the Kingdom of Oudh—have not created any particular fondness for the victors.—The hereditary hatred against the Christian intruder is more fierce than ever.’ Again, ‘this second conquest has not increased England’s hold upon the mind of the people.’ (Ibid.)

On the question of atrocities in the course of the Revolt, Marx adopted in the midst of all the excitement a sane balanced view worthy of a true historian. On the one hand he recognised the provocations given to the Indians, and on the other he pointed out that though the Indians did indulge in cruelty, the hands of the British were not over-clean.

He put the issue bluntly enough, asking (August 28, 1857)—‘whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects’. Again: “Is it surprising that the insurgent Hindus should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?” On September 4, 1857 he added: “However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India.—There is something in human history like retribution.”

MARX did not know, what is now known, that British atrocities began at least as early as the outrages committed on the Indian side. Yet he did shrewdly remark (September 4, 1857): ‘it was a mistake to suppose all the cruelty is on the side of the sepoys.—The letters of British officers are redolent of malignity.—“Every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.”—Whole villages were burned down.—An officer from Benares—says: “the European troops have become fiends when opposed to natives.”—The outrages of the natives, shocking as they are, are still deliberatedly exaggerated.’

To find parallels to sepoy atrocities, Marx referred (September 4, 1857) to the earlier incidents of the First China War, when the English committed ‘abominations for the mere fun of it’, recorded not by the mandarins but by the British officers themselves. ‘Cruelty, like every other thing, has its fashion’ apparently.

On May 8, 1858, Engels was writing: “There is no army in Europe and America with so much brutality as the British.—For twelve days and nights, there was no British army at Lucknow—nothing but a lawless, drunken, brutal rabble-far more lawless, violent and greedy than the sepoys.—The sack of Lucknow in 1858 will remain an everlasting disgrace to the British military service.”

Marx noted (May 14, 1858) that ‘the proprietary right in the soil of the Province of Oudh is confiscated to the British Government’, adding that this was indeed a fitting commentary on the British indignation at the confiscations of the Russians in Poland (1831), of the Austrians in Lombardy (1849), and of Louis Bonaparte in 1851. Canning’s action amounted to the seizure of “the inheritance of a whole people” in the words of Ellenborough and was ‘an infraction of not only the treaty’ (of 1801), ‘but of every principle of the law of nations’. Marx added—“the natives of India are now beginning to avenge themselves.”

On June 4, 1858, Engels recalled the report of Russel of the Times to the effect that in the sack of Lucknow privates have own “thousands of pounds” and some officers “have made, literally their fortunes”. He referred on September 17, 1858 to ‘the cruelty of the retribution dealt out by the British troops, goaded on by exaggerated and false reports of the atrocities attributed to the natives’.

We know that Marx was interested in military matters to some extent. Engels to a greater. It is no surprise therefore of find them commenting on the military struggle in the Indian Revolt.

They were skeptical about the praise showered on the British conduct of the campaigns. Marx wrote on July 21, 1857 that the British concentration round Delhi was extremely slow; this was attributed to the season, when ‘the heat proves an invincible obstacle, which it did not in the days of Sir Charles Napier’. On September 29, 1857, he again commented on English military blunders—the failure to concentrate and needless dispersal of available troops.

Engels was blunter. He remarked on November 16, 1857: “No people, not even the French, can equal the English in selflaudation.” But the courage shown at Delhi was ‘not so very extraordinary.”

For all their sympathy with the Indian rebels, Marx and Engels were not unmindful of our ineptitude in the whole affair. Marx wrote on October 30, 1857 about the internal dissensions in the Delhi rebel camp, between the Mughal merchants and sepoys, between Hindus and Muslims. Engels drew attention on May 8, 1858 to the Indian drawbacks, ‘the ignorance of military engineering’ and total indiscipline. On July 6, 1858, he argued that ‘the fate of the insurrection is dependent upon its being able to expand’. And on September 17, 1858 he concluded that the rebels had failed to conduct an active guerilla warfare of harassing the enemy, of reorganising their forces in the respite granted by the summer and rains. Earlier, Engels had written to Marx: ‘The sepoys must have defended the enceinte of Delhi poorly’ (October 29, 1857) and ‘we have not heard in a single instance that any insurrectionary army in Indian had been properly constituted under a recognised chief’ (December 31, 1857).n

[(Part of the paper “Marx on Indian History” that appeared in a volume, edited by P.C. Joshi and published by the National Book Club to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Karl Marx—printed in Mainstream (May 11, 1968))]

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