“A Question of Land and Existence”: An Introduction to Marx’s Anti-colonialism

“Oppressed colonial nations shall rise up against Imperialism under the banner of the Proletarian Revolution.” (Bolshevik poster.)

By Steve D’Arcy

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In this short introductory article, my aim is quite modest. I want briefly to introduce readers to four key themes in Marx’s anti-colonialism: first, his moral condemnation of colonialism; second, his analysis of its roots in capitalism; third, his attentiveness to the importance of Indigenous modes of life and social practices as sources of critical insight and social innovation that can and should inform how we think about a post-capitalist future; and finally, fourth, his strong views about the centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in socialist strategy, not only in colonized places but more generally. Although a thorough assessment of Marx’s anti-colonial politics would have to devote substantial critical attention to its many limitations, my emphasis here is not on these limitations, but rather on aspects of Marx’s anti-colonialism that remain relevant, illuminating, and worthy of serious consideration today.

I. The Moral Catastrophe of Colonialism

Marx himself in his main work, Capital, Volume One, touches very directly, and without pulling any punches, on colonial capitalism and its disastrous impacts on Indigenous people, and on colonized people more generally. He points out that “the history of colonial administration…’is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness’,” and he denounces the way that “the colonial system … proclaimed surplus-value [i.e., profit] making as the sole end and aim of humanity,” in such a manner that “the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience,” in its willingness to tolerate colonial plunder and genocide (Marx, Capital). 

Specifically addressing the genocidal aspect of capitalist colonialism, he notes that “the treatment of the indigenous population was, of course, at its most frightful in plantation-colonies set up exclusively for the export trade, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called [that is, what we now call settler colonies]…, in 1703 those sober exponents of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured [Indigenous person]; in 1720, a premium of £100 was set on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices were laid down: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards, £100 in new currency, for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50.”

Elsewhere in Capital, he adds: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production” (Marx, 1867). (Needless to say, he uses the expression “rosy dawn” in a sarcastic mode here.)

So, colonialism (along with slavery, which overlaps with it) was seen by Marx as the height of capitalism’s crimes against humanity. Even the achievements of social progress in Europe were tainted by their reliance on genocide and dispossession in the colonies, worldwide. As Marx’s main collaborator Friedrich Engels put the point, “one cannot fail to notice that the English citizen’s so-called freedom is based on the oppression of the colonies.”

II. The analysis of colonialism’s roots: land-theft and accumulation

In the Grundrisse, which he wrote in the 1850s, Marx places at the centre of everything what he calls “land, the source of all production and of all existence.” Obviously, land is particularly central to colonialism, which relentlessly pursues dispossession, by any means at its disposal, including but certainly not limited to treaties and military violence. “All these were means for robbing the [colonized] of their land….The [colonial] question is therefore not simply a question of nationality, but a question of land and existence. Ruin or revolution is the watchword” (Marx, 1867). In 1870, he repeated this idea, noting that in colonies “the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority…, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question” (Marx, 1870).

Settler colonialism indeed poses a grave threat to colonized people, in Marx’s view. Typically, when settler colonies have been established, he noted, “the plan was to exterminate the [colonized]…, to take their land and settle…colonists in their place, etc….The avowed plan…: clearing the [territory] of the natives and stocking it with loyal [settlers]” (Marx 1867).

According to Marx, capitalism’s embrace of colonialism has had multiple motives: (1) acquisition of “land which provides the [colonising nation’s] market with meat and wool [and other products] at the cheapest possible prices”; (2) “reducing the [colonized] population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that [colonizing] capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with ‘security’” (Marx, 1870); (3) because it helps to draw super-exploited workers into the “labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the [‘mother-country’] working class” (ibid); and (4) to establish and strategically deploy an “antagonism” between workers of the colonized and colonizing nations, in order to weaken the power of both sets of workers, and workers generally.

The result, as Marx notes in Capital, is that under capitalism “the pieces of land belonging” to colonized people, “from time immemorial, are systematically confiscated.” This notion of systemic confiscation of land is one of the most important contributions of Marx’s Capital to anti-colonial theory (a point repeatedly emphasized by Coulthard, by Luxemburg, and others).

III. The endangered alternatives: Marx on the importance of Indigenous forms of life to humanity’s future

In contrast to the atrocities and contempt for humanity characteristic of capitalism, Marx (and later, Engels) noted the egalitarianism, collectivism, and consensus-oriented forms of stateless self-governance frequently found in the traditional social and legal systems of Indigenous communities (a point Marx underlined especially, but by no means exclusively, in his studies of Indigenous societies in the Eastern Great Lakes region). Marx regarded these pre-colonial forms of Indigenous egalitarianism as models for the European left, and as prefigurations of a possible post-capitalist future for humanity as a whole.

Indeed, one of the things that interested Marx most about modern (19th-century) Indignenous societies was how advanced their political and legal systems were, compared to the relatively deficient ones in Europe. His understanding of how the clan-based political systems in the Haudenosaunee nations worked is expressed by him as follows: “The Council [is] an instrument of government and supreme authority over the clan, tribe, [and] confederacy…. [Matters] of general interest [are] submitted to the determination of the council [which] sprang from the clan organization — the Council of Chiefs.” At the level of clans, according to his understanding of the Haudenosaunee practice in the 19th century, a council took the form of “a democratic assembly, where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it…. All the members of a [Haudenosaunee-confederacy] clan [are] personally free, bound to defend each other’s freedom; equal in privileges and personal rights.” (These passages are from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks.)

In 1845, Marx notes in The Holy Family (quoting early socialist Charles Fourier) that “​the​ ​degree​ ​of​ ​emancipation​ ​of woman​ ​is​ ​the​ ​natural​ ​measure​ ​of​ ​general​ ​emancipation.” In 1868, Marx repeated that “​Social​ ​progress​ ​can be​ ​measured​ ​exactly​ ​by​ ​the​ ​social​ ​position of [women].” In this connection, he took special interest in the superiority of women’s status in the Haudenosaunee nations, compared to that of women in Europe. Quoting an early anthropologist, he noted (in his Ethnological Notebooks) the importance of Clan Mothers among the Seneca: “The women were the great power among the clans, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required it, to ‘knock off the horns’, as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them.” 

In his effort to learn from Indigenous forms of social organization Marx goes into considerably more detail, and I can’t even scratch the surface here. He has, for example, detailed notes on the clan structure, social and spiritual practices, and legal and political institutions of countless Indigenous nations in present-day ‘Canada.’ For instance, he notes all the doodemag (clans) of the Anishinaabeg (attentive to both differences and overlap among Ojibwe, Odaawaa, and Potawatomi clan traditions). He notes the clans, too, for each of the Haudenosaunee nations, and documents his understanding of changes over time in the clan organization. He notes, too, that the clan system had been undermined — particularly, he thought, among the Anishinaabeg — by colonialism (“American and missionary influence”). He also notes the role that wampum belts play in Haudenosaunee-confederacy diplomacy. (All of these discussions are found in his Ethnological Notebooks, mostly around pages 145-184.)

Far from working with a generic and decontextualized notion of ‘Indigenous people’ generally, Marx made careful notes on dozens of specific Indigenous nations (and confederacies). Among those that he wrote about, in varying levels of detail, were the Mi’kmaq, the six nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy (Marx writes “Hodenosaunian,” and sometimes uses this term to include other nations from the same linguistic group, like the Wendat, Attawandaron, and others), the Anishinaabeg (specifically, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa, which Marx calls the “Gichigamian tribes,” a term he borrows from the Anishinaabemowin name for Lake Superior, the etymology of which he notes), Cree, Lenaape, Dene (“Athapaskans”), Salish, Sahaptin, Ktunaxa, Tlingit (although Marx uses the name Russians used for Tlingit, viz. Kolush), and many, many other Indigenous nations and linguistic groups.

It should go without saying that none of these matters are best studied by reading Marx. Any interested person has far better access today to information about these matters than Marx could ever have accessed. What socialists can learn from him, however, is the importance and value of curiosity and attention to the details of cultural and historical specificity. Overgeneralization about Indigenous societies, their spiritual lives, their legal traditions, their histories and forms of social organisation, were unacceptable to Marx in the 1800s, in spite of the difficulty (in his position) of finding out more. Today, we have far less justification for indulging in lazy and ill-informed generalizations than he had. But how many socialists in the Canadian state have made as detailed a study of the cultural and historical specificity of dozens of Indigenous nations in this region? Too few, it is fair to say.

It is also important to note that, if Marx was keenly interested in trying to understand the ways of life and social organization of Indigenous peoples, particularly the Haudenosaunee nations of the Eastern Great Lakes region, it was because he saw them as representing, in many respects, the most democratic and egalitarian political orders found in the modern world. Marx shared the conviction expressed by Engels, when he marvelled at the “wonderful constitution” under which members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy “lived for over four hundred years and are still living today.” Unlike European political orders, it had “no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits — and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected….The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy — the communal household and the [clan] know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free — the women included” (Engels, 1884). The existence in modern times of societies so thoroughly imbued with a spirit of democracy and equality struck Marx and Engels as a standing condemnation of Europe’s brazen inequalities and relentless systems of social exclusion, exploitation and oppression. But it also represented for them a hopeful vision and a prefiguration of a possible ‘communist’ future for a post-capitalist Europe.

IV. The centrality of anti-colonial solidarity in Marx’s political strategy

One of the fabricated charges against Marx is that he so emphasized the importance of working-class struggles against capitalism that he placed other struggles, including anti-colonial ones, in a secondary or subordinate position. What we find when we look at Marx’s actual writing on this issue, however, is that at times he takes the exact opposite view, adopting the position that sometimes anti-colonial struggles take a higher priority than conventionally ‘economic’ struggles against the exploitation of workers as workers, so that anti-colonial revolt was of primary importance, and working-class struggles against capital were secondary (although this didn’t mean, obviously, that he ‘downplayed’ the struggles of workers as workers or considered them unimportant).

In the case of England as a colonial power, for example, Marx described the victory of anti-colonial resistance as “the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England” (Marx, 1870; emphasis added). Marx explicitly argued that if the European Left could “bring about a coalition of [colonizer-nation] workers with the [colonized] workers,” this would be “the greatest achievement you could bring about now” (ibid.; emphasis added). Anti-colonial struggle, he said, should therefore be put “in the foreground” (ibid.), not the background. Even workers from colonizing nations should be alerted to the fact that “the national emancipation of [colonized nations] is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation” (ibid.; emphasis added). In other words, Marx argued that the economic self-emancipation of the international working class could only be achieved on the basis of a prior struggle against colonialism, without which it could not succeed. As Marx put the point in an 1872 leaflet he co-authored, racist antagonism toward those targeted by colonialism is “one of the main impediments in the way of every attempted movement for the emancipation of the working class” (Marx, et al., 1872). Again and again, Marx uses terms like ‘preliminary condition,’ ‘first condition,’ and ‘in the foreground’ to characterise the place of anti-colonial resistance movements in the political strategy of the anti-capitalist left within colonial nations like England.

It was in this spirit that, in 1872, Engels argued that colonized peoples should always have the right to form autonomous national organizations within the global working-class left, and he put the point this way: “If members of a conquering nation called upon the nation they had conquered and continued to hold down to forget their specific nationality and position, to ‘sink national differences’ and so forth, that was not Internationalism, it was nothing else but preaching to them submission to the yoke, and attempting to justify and to perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common among the English working men, that they were superior beings compared to the [colonized people], and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to [Black people]” (Engels, 1872).

Today, we would want to refer to nations “subjected to colonial domination,” rather than “conquered” nations. (As Marx points out in Capital, Volume One: “In the colonies, the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer….”) More generally, the terminology of Marx and Engels is often old-fashioned and obsolete. But overall, their position on these strategic questions seems to hold up very well. In particular, this contrast between “internationalism” (which they embraced) and “sinking national differences and so forth” (which they rejected as a falsification of internationalism) remains extremely important in the context of anti-colonial socialist politics.


There’s no denying, and no need to deny, that there are serious and substantive defects in Marx’s account of colonialism. His sometimes uncritical adoption of theoretical frameworks from 19th-century anthropology, for instance, led him to parrot uncritically (at times) the now-discredited jargon of ‘primitiveness,’ ‘barbarism’ versus ‘civilisation,’ and so on, when talking about Indigenous societies. This is one of a number of points where we now rightly reject some of what Marx was willing to say as both racist and scientifically unsound. Moreover, even his anti-colonialism would be deemed by most of us to be affected in certain ways by a broadly ‘Eurocentric’ view of modern history, even if its Eurocentrism isn’t as egregious as that of other 19th-century European intellectuals. These and other defects reflect the fact that Marx could not benefit, as we can and must today, from over a century of anti-colonial movements and anti-colonial social research. He could not learn, for instance, from a critical engagement with figures like Frantz Fanon, Julius Nyerere, or Andrea Betasamosake Simpson, to name only a very few of the countless important anti-colonial thinkers after Marx who force us to grapple with matters that were misunderstood, overlooked, or even evaded by Marx.

It would be a grave error either to accept or to reject Marx’s critical analysis of colonialism wholesale. We have to be willing, on the contrary, to sift through what he says — and what he fails to say — to take Marx’s anti-colonialism seriously as both a source of indispensable insight and at the same time a flawed inheritance plagued by grave limitations. But my judgment is that a wholesale rejection would be particularly unfortunate, because the enduringly relevant critical insights in Marx, especially about the strategic “foregrounding” of anti-colonialism in the context of anti-capitalist struggle, are too important to the future of anti-systemic left politics to be cast aside carelessly


Courtesy: The Public Autonomy Project

2 thoughts on ““A Question of Land and Existence”: An Introduction to Marx’s Anti-colonialism

  1. Pingback: زمین اور بقاء کا سوال: نو آبادیاتی نظام کے خلاف مارکس کے خیالات – Balochistan Marxist Review

  2. Pingback: Rosa Luxemburg on Present-Day Capitalism, Colonial Genocide, and Indigenous Resistance – Balochistan Marxist Review

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