Karl Marx on China

By David Riazanov (1926)

Riazanov was a Soviet scholar and a main editor of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels

Already in the Communist Manifesto the significance of the East Indian and Chinese market is pointed out as a factor in the development of European capitalism. It was, indeed, from East India that British capitalism began its offensive against China. The East India Company used its trade monopoly with China to make the latter a market for the sale of Indian opium. Since, however, all English traders were equally interested in the intoxication of the Chinese people, the monopoly was removed in 1833.

The attempt of the Chinese Government in 1839 to forbid the import of opium produced the so-called opium war against China, which Marx characterises in Capital as one of the chief links in the long chain of trade wars in which since the sixteenth century, even in the East, the European nations were engaged. After the English had cruelly destroyed a whole series of Chinese towns and had slaughtered thousands of Chinese for the honour of Christianity and European civilisation, they forced on China in 1842 the treaty of Nanking, which provided for the opening of the five Treaty Ports – Kanton, Amoy, Ningpo, Shanghai and Foochow, the payment of what was at that time an enormous indemnity, and the surrender of the island of Hong Kong, which forms the chief base for British Imperialism in the Far East. Following the treaty of Nanking came treaties with the United States and with France.

The defeat in battle with the Europeans was a hard blow for the prestige of the Manchu dynasty which had been supreme in China since the seventeenth century. Among the peasant masses, groaning under the burden of taxation and the pressure of the bureaucracy, and who reacted at times to their subjection by sporadic revolts, there now began to ripen a ferment of dissatisfaction which was especially strong in the South East where the destructive influence of foreign capital most made itself felt. To this was added the fermentation among the Chinese “intelligentsia” of that time, the teachers and the lower officials, as well as among the craftsmen ruined by foreign competition.

Just at the time when in West Europe the waves of the 1848 revolution reached their height, the activity of the secret societies in China also became stronger and propaganda for new religious sects developed among the peasants. The European missionaries against their will played the part of hens with a brood of ducklings. They remarked with terror that the drawing-room Christianity preached by them had taken root among the rebellious peasantry in the only militant form of Christianity, which demands equality in this world. Europe learnt of this for the first time through the well-known German missionary and sinologist, Gutzlaff, who also was the first to make a Chinese translation of the Bible.

In the same international review (January, 1850) in which Marx investigated the influence of the discovery of the Californian gold mines on the development of the world market, and in which he prophesied for the Pacific Ocean the same rôle that the Mediterranean had once played in the ancient world, and which had then passed to the Atlantic Ocean, Marx also refers to the interesting communications of Gutzlaff. He wrote:–

“The slow but regularly increasing over-population of the country long ago made the social relations there very oppressive for the great majority of the nation. Then came the English and enforced free trade for themselves in the five ports. Thousands of British and American vessels sailed towards China, and in a short time the country was filled to excess with cheap British and American factory wares. The Chinese industry based on hand labour was subjected to the competition of the machines.

The hitherto unshakeable Central Empire experienced a social crisis. Taxes ceased to come in, the State fell to the edge of bankruptcy, the population sank in masses into pauperism, broke out in revolts, maltreated and killed the Emperor’s mandarins and the priests of the Fohis. The country came to the verge of ruin, and is already threatened with a mighty revolution. And there is even worse. Among the masses and in the insurrection there appeared people who pointed to the poverty on the one side and the riches on the other, and who demanded, and are still demanding, a different division of property and even the entire abolition of private property. When Mr. Gutzlaff, after twenty years’ absence, returned once more to civilised people and Europeans, he heard talk of Socialism, and asked what that was. When it was explained to him he exclaimed in consternation, ‘Shall I then never escape this pernicious doctrine? The very same thing has been preached for some time by many people among the mobs in China’.”

“Chinese Socialism,” continues Marx, “bears much the same relation to European Socialism as Chinese philosophy does to Hegelian philosophy. It is, in any case, an intriguing fact that the oldest and the most unshakable empire in the world has in eight years by the cannon-balls of the English bourgeoisie been brought to the eve of a social revolution which will certainly have the most important .results for civilisation. When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, ‘Chinese Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity’.” (Literary Remains, vol.3, pages 444-5.)

The movement on which the good missionary Gutzlaff, the apostle of China, as the Germans called him, gave information to the Europeans was the forerunner of the great Taiping rebellion. The leader of this movement, Hung, had become acquainted with Christianity through the Gutzlaff translations of the old and new Testaments. As early as 1851 he became the leader of the revolting peasants. The Taipings took one town after another. Finally, in March, 1853, even Nanking was taken, which for a long time remained the capital of the celestial empire founded by Hung. At that time it appeared as if the Taipings within a few months would also take possession of Peking. The entry into Nanking, however, remained the highest point in the rebellion.

It was at this period that there was written the article of Marx which appeared in the New York Tribune on June 14, 1853. At that time reaction was triumphant in Europe. The Communist League was in dissolution, the Mailand [Milan] revolt (February 1853) which was organised by Mazzini and his followers ended in defeat. Marx had greeted it as the symptom of an approaching revolutionary crisis. With even greater fervour, therefore, he greeted the beginning of the revolutionary movement in the Far East. The contrast between petrified Europe and the movement in China, where movement had so long been absent, forcibly impressed itself. Civilised Europe, where thrones and altars had been stormed, was now diligently occupied with table turning, a fashion of American origin. “One is reminded of the fact,” wrote Marx later in Capital, referring to these events, “that China and the tables began to dance when all the remaining world appeared to be standing still – pour encourager les autres.”

The State founded by Hung or Tjan-Wang was of a purely theocratic character. After the Taipings and their leaders had renounced all hope of the conquest of Northern China, they sought to assure themselves of the South-East, utilising for this purpose the antagonism between the Manchus and the English. When in 1856 a new Chinese war broke out with England, and later also with France, the Taipings allowed themselves to be taken in tow by the British Imperialists. While they owed their first victories precisely to the circumstance that they had risen against the yoke of the strangers, against the Manchus, they now – in order to save their theocratic state – made common cause with the much more revengeful and treacherous foreigners. Thus the Taiping movement which in the beginning had borne a revolutionary character, became a reactionary movement which lost the sympathy of the peasant masses. After the English, in union with the Taipings, had subdued Northern China, they helped Pekin to drown in blood the Taiping insurrection.

Marx followed attentively the further development of these events in China and not only stigmatised, in a series of articles in the New York Tribune during 1857-1859, all the crimes of the “civilised seafarers,” but also subjected to a new analysis the statistics of Anglo-Chinese trade.

Although Marx in the article mentioned begins with the fact of the rapid destruction of the “Asiatic mode of production” under the influence of the penetration of English capitalism, and although he still hoped that the imminent European revolution would find the requisite support in the awakened East, nevertheless he comes to the conclusion that he had at first over-estimated the extent and tempo of the destructive influences of English capitalism.

“The real task of bourgeois society,” wrote Marx in 1858 in a letter to Engels, “is the creation, at least in outline, of a world market, and of a type of production resting on this basis. Since the world is round, this task seems to have been brought to a conclusion with the colonisation of California and Australia and the inclusion of China and Japan. The difficult question for us is as follows. Revolution is imminent on the Continent and will at once assume a Socialist character. But will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner, since over a much greater territory the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant? As far as China is especially concerned, I have assured myself by a close analysis of the movement of trade since 1836, firstly that the soaring of English and American exports in 1844-1846 revealed itself in 1847 as a sheer delusion, and that also in the ten years following the average has remained practically stationary while Chinese exports to England and America increased enormously, and secondly that the opening of the five ports and the occupation of Hongkong only resulted in the trade of Canton passing to Shanghai. The other ‘emporiums’ do not count. The chief cause of the failure of this market seems to be the opium trade, to which in fact all increase in the export trade to China is continually limited; and, after that, the internal organisation of the country, its minute agriculture, &c., which will cost an enormous time to break down.” (Correspondence of Marx and Engels, vol.2, pages 292-3.)

When Marx in 1862 renewed his writing on the Taiping movement (Press, July 7, 1862) he was already much more condemnatory. As already mentioned, this movement was in a stage of complete dissolution. Marx says:–

“A little while before the tables began to turn, China, this living fossil, began to become revolutionary. In itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, for Oriental empires continually exhibit an immutability in social sub-structure with restless permutations of the persons and races who have possessed themselves of the political super-structure. China is ruled by a foreign dynasty. After three hundred years why should not a movement develop for the overthrow of this dynasty? The movement had from the beginning a religious complexion, but that was a feature it had in common with all Oriental movements. The immediate motives for the appearance of the movement were obvious – European interference, opium wars, and consequent disruption of the existing Government, the flow of silver out of the country, disturbance of the economic equilibrium through the introduction of foreign manufactures, &c. What seemed to me a paradox was that the opium animated instead of stupefying. As a matter of fact the only original part of this revolution was its leaders. They are conscious of their task, quite apart from the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They represent a still greater torment for the masses of the people than for the old rulers. Their motive seems to be nothing else than to bring into play against the conservative marasmus grotesquely repulsive forms of destruction, destruction without any germ of regeneration.”

In many respects, indeed, the Taiping insurrection was reminiscent of the European peasant wars, if only in as much as the participation in it of the town proletariat was equally non-existent.

In regard to India, also, as in regard to China, Marx was compelled to come to the conclusion that the tempo of development, measured in terms of world history, took place at a much slower rate from the point of view of the individual than might have been anticipated. In the third volume of Capital he wrote:–

“The obstacle presented by the internal solidity and articulation of pre-capitalistic national modes of production to the corrosive influence of commerce is strikingly shown in the intercourse of the English with India and China. The broad basis of the mode of production is here formed by the unity of small agriculture and domestic industry, to which is added in India the form of communes resting upon common ownerships of the land, which, by the way, was likewise the original form in China. In India, the English created simultaneously their direct political and economic power as rulers and landlords, for the purpose of disrupting these small economic organisations. The English commerce exerts a revolutionary influence on these organisations and tears them apart only to the extent that it destroys by the low prices of its goods the spinning and weaving industries, which are an archaic and integral part of this unity. And even so this work of dissolution is proceeding very slowly. It proceeds still more slowly in China where it is not backed up by any direct political power on the part of the English.” (Capital, vol.iii, English translation, C.H. Kerr & Co., pages 392-3.)

The power of resistance of the “Asiatic mode of production” proved itself so great that several decades passed before European capitalism succeeded in shattering this “Great Wall of China.” To the assistance of the economic factor, the low prices of industrial goods, came the political factor, a new series of wars, in which the youthful Japanese imperialism played no small part. The indivisible union of agriculture and industry, the main secret of the immobility of the “Asiatic mode of production,” was burst asunder. The Chinese peasantry separated from itself great masses of “coolies,” and fell ever deeper into dissolution. Emigration, which for a period had acted as a safety valve, soon proved itself powerless in the struggle with the “plague spot of the proletariat.”

Attracted by cheap labour power in China, Japanese and British capitalists began to bring into existence a “national” big industry. In effect they produced an organised and disciplined industrial proletariat, which is now preparing to assume the leadership of all the exploited poor, rural as well as urban.

The question which Marx formulated sixty years ago has been given a positive answer by history. No danger threatens the European revolution from the East. There, also, capitalism is finding its grave-diggers. And even if ancient Europe still has the appearance of stability, “immobile” China on the other hand, following the example of Soviet Russia, is already dancing the revolutionary Carmagnole – Ca ira, Ca ira!


From the Marxist Internet Archive.

David Riazanov: Karl Marx on China (1926) (marxists.org)