Marx’s Eurocentrism

Postcolonial studies and Marx scholarship

RP 161 () / Article

The English jackasses need an enormous amount of time to arrive at an even approximate understanding of the real conditions of … conquered groups. Karl Marx, 1879

A great deal of ink has already been spilled on the question of Marx’s Eurocentrism. The debate turns on his relationship to colonialism, the conception of Asian societies which informs it, and his theory of social formations and social progress. Special attention has been paid to Marx’s 1853 article on British colonialism in India. In the field of Marxian studies per se, approaches to the subject have been either apologetic or strictly philological. A few exceptions aside, comprehensive treatments of the theme written from an anti-authoritarian (herrschaftskritisch)1 standpoint are non-existent, and neither does there exist a systematic examination of Eurocentrism in Marx’s work as a whole. The chief contribution of Marx scholarship here resides in the ongoing publication of the scholarly edition of his writings, which provides the basis for a balanced discussion of the subject.

The question has also been addressed in postcolonial studies. Here, critical voices dominate. Marx is said to have defended a ‘Eurocentric model of political emancipation that consistently ignores the experiences of colonized subjects in non-Western societies’ and to have ‘failed to develop his studies of India and Africa into a fully elaborated analysis of imperialism’; his analyses neglect ‘disenfranchised groups such as colonised subjects’.2 Edward Said, whose study of Orientalism has become a classic in the field, goes so far as to accuse Marx of a racist orientalization of the non-Western world.3 There accordingly exists a powerful tendency in postcolonial studies to dismiss Marx as a Eurocentric or even Orientalist thinker, the author of a philosophy of history.

Against this backdrop, I attempt, in the pages that follow,4 to contribute to a dialogue between these two strands of Marxian studies, on the one hand, and postcolonial studies, on the other. I begin by considering the postcolonial critique of Eurocentrism, concretizing it in an analysis of one of Marx’s sources, François Bernier’s Indian travelogue. My aim is to show, among other things, what Marxian studies can learn from postcolonial studies. I also trace Marx’s treatment of ‘non-Western’ societies through his life’s work, in so far as it is available to us. (In Marx, and therefore in the present essay as well, ‘non-Western’ is used as a synonym for ‘precolonial’ or ‘precapitalist’.) It will appear that Marx’s work evolves in this respect. In sum, he gradually comes to reject Eurocentric assumptions. Thus this article also constitutes an objection to the often hasty dismissal of Marx in postcolonial studies…


A longer version of this text is forthcoming in German in Werner Bonefeld/Michael Heinrich, eds, Kapital und Kritik.Nach der neuen Marx-Lektüre, VSA, Hamburg, 2010.

1. Herrschaftskritisch: a concept popularized by the Frankfurt School which means, literally, critical of all forms of domination, based on class, race, gender, etc. [Trans.]

2. María do Mar Castro Varela and Nikita Dhawan, Postkoloniale Theorie. Eine kritische Einführung, Transcript, Bielefeld, 2005, p. 64.

3. Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage, New York, 1978,p. 155.

4. I thank Lotte Arndt and Urs Lindner, among others, for helpful suggestions and comments.