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Mainstream, VOL LX No 1, New Delhi, December 18/December 25, 2021 (double issue)

Studying Rammohun Roy and Karl Marx together and today | Pradip Baksi

Friday 17 December 2021


by Pradip Baksi

Why may one study Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), a contemporary of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) while studying Karl Marx (1818-1883) today? Here are some reasons: (1) for investigating the aborted project of political liberalism in India, in an era of ascendant new Indian political barbarism; and, (2) for collecting materials for the unwritten fourth part of Marx’s planned critique of political economy, related to the state(Marx 1859: Foreword, First Sentence)

Some of the burning issues addressed by Rammohun have remained with us since his time and, some others that had seemed to have been overcome, have come back with a renewed vengeance. However, what may one hope to learn from him today? Well, whatever connects him with Karl Marx, for instance, a critical approach to the legacy of the last European Enlightenment in the least. Rammohun Roy, let us remember, was one of the makers of that Victorian England (Zastoupil 2010), in which Karl Marx lived and worked.

During Rammohun’s lifetime a very large-scale reorganization of the older forms of Indian commerce and polity had already begun, in the ceded and conquered territories of Hindostan under the Raj of the English East India Company. This company happens to be one of the ancestors of the modern multinational corporations.

That process of further opening up South Asia in the interests of the world market continues in our time. Today it is continuing in accordance with the requirements and policies of the transnational companies, and under the guidance of their multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, IMF, and the World Trade Organization. As in Rammohun’s time, so also now, the process of transformation of our societies requires simultaneous and multifaceted transformation of our multilayer confessional beliefs or dharmas or majahabi fiqhs, laws, economies, public lives, customs, domestic relations, educational systems, in other words of all the components of our culture. As our people from the North to the South and from the East to the West of the Hindostan peninsula continue to live in a cultural time continuum spanning several thousand years, here and now, the rural and urban people in many, if not most, parts of South Asia still remain in pre- Rammohun and near-Rammohun social and cultural time in more senses than one.

The practice of burning live widows, against which Rammohun agitated in Bengal of his time, is still openly supported and deified in several parts of Northern, Central and Western India. Dowry related bride burning is quite prevalent in contemporary West Bengal. Caste, clan and familial norm-dictated-murder of lovers who violate those norms is openly supported by the elected public representatives in several regions of the land. Women’s entitlement to a share of her ancestral property is legally recognized, but it is most often denied in our domestic practice.

Communal and caste related prejudices and traditions continue to have hegemonic control over our judiciaries, legislatures, electoral processes, governmental executives, economies, mass media, educational institutions and matrimonial markets. All sorts of violent pogroms and assaults — such as, forced eviction, physical torture, rape and murder — of women and children, of the members of the socially depressed confessional communities (like the Muslims and Christians), castes (especially those that are engaged in tending and trading in cattle, processing meat, and curing hide) and, tribes (especially those that live on the hills and in the forests containing industrially valuable deposits of minerals and ores) are regularly organized and condoned by our ruling castes, their mass media, their representatives in the government and, in the state security organs, who enjoy monopoly of the right to use maximum violence over our subject people. Why are the forces of barbarism still so powerful and so stubborn in our polity and societies? Why are the forces of reason and civility still so weak? What are the possible ways out? The tasks faced by the liberals of the generation Rammohun still remain with us as immediate tasks, and this is happening in an era of worldwide retreat of liberalism. The conceptual apparatus at our disposal for addressing them, however, has undergone considerable change over the last two hundred odd years. An important part of the new conceptual apparatus that we now possess, happen to be the relevant works of Karl Marx.

Rammohun used to dream of creating a Eurasian society in Hindostan by settling Enlightened Europeans here as a possible route towards our modernization. Large-scale migration of people is a fact of human life for thousands of years. If the current process of topsy turvy modernization adopts that route thanks to economic and other security compulsions, then so be it. Large-scale labor migration within India and South Asia is already a major fact of our population dynamics. Why not go for open and legal, smoother and less fettered labour circulation within the whole of Afro-Eurasia? This may go a long way towards eradicating our contemporary ethnocentrisms.

About 25 years after Rammohun’s death, Marx expressed the view that: “The more traditional the mode of production itself and it persists for a long time in agriculture and even longer in the Oriental mutual complementation of agriculture and manufacture i.e., the more the real process of appropriation remains the same, the more unchanging will be the old forms of property and therefore also the community as a whole” [MECW 28: 418]. In spite of all the growth of commodity-money relations in South Asia during the last two hundred years, hegemony of the ruling castes still remains the principal means of surplus appropriation in large parts of South Asia. Consequently, the transformation of the traditional tribe, caste and community based and driven societies like ours, into modern and forward-looking civil societies, comprised of individual citizens with civil and political rights “is hardly possible, except as a result of wholly external influences” [ibid].

Both Rammohun and Marx expected, at different times of their lives, that the European or English bourgeoisie will play the role of that required external influence. The bourgeoisie at the helm of the western colonial powers did partly play such a role all over the world for a time. Then they became hindrances for further development of their own and of the other societies. Here their roles are comparable to that of our contemporary ruling castesthe ashrāf-brāhman-vaidya-kāyastha literatithat did play partially forward-looking roles, in the past two hundred years, as role models for the modernizers among our depressed tribes, castes and communities. However, as decadent and backward- looking oppressors, our hegemonic castes have now become the principal stumbling blocks in the path of further upliftment of our oppressed people.

Take the case of the attitude of our ruling literati to the legacy of Rammohun as an example. The partially anglicized Bengali bhadralok did not even care to translate the English Works of Rammohun into any other modern Indian language, not even into their, and Rammohun’s, mother tongue Bengali, and that not even 225 years after his birth and, some 165 years after his death. Some of these works, translated into Bengali by the author of the present lines some twenty-three years ago, continue to retain their relevance today. These include Rammohun’s: “Brief Remarks regarding Modern Encroachments on the Ancient Rights of Females according to the Hindu Law of Inheritance” (1822); “Press Regulation: Memorial to the Supreme Court” (1823); “Appeal to the King-in-Council” (1823); a letter dated 18 January 1828 to an unknown addressee on the political and economic evils of the caste system; “Rights of Hindus over Ancestral Property” (1830); “Life of the People” (1831);“Revenue System of India” (1831); “Judicial System of India” (1831); “India: Its Boundary and History” (1832); “Settlement in India by Europeans” (1832); a letter dated 04 January 1832 addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of France in Paris on the irrelevance and irrationality of the system of passports and visas; “Judicial and Revenue Systems” (1833); and, “Grant’s Jury Bill” (1833). The modern Indian literati did not translate these texts into our mother tongues, because they did not want the first-generation learners among the children of our oppressed genders, tribes, castes and communities to read Rammohun in their respective mother tongues. Lest they start cogitating deeply about the policy issues related to the future-oriented transformation of our societies; and, start asking disturbing questions like, why did Rammohun and his followers fail, and why, in general, did liberalism and humanism fail to strike roots, evolve and gain strength in the Indian societies. These burning questions of our present are directly related to our past. Like Rammohun before him, Marx was also interested in our past social and economic rules and regulations of power, inheritance, communal and familial use and ownership of movable and immovable property. His notes and excerpts from Kovalevsky (1879) on the land relations in South Asia bear testimony to that interest. Investigators of history of political economy in South Asia may also take note of the fact that Rammohun noticed certain unjust features of the intermeshing of the revenue and judicial systems of India under the Raj of the East India Company (Roy 1832), about half a century before
Kovalevsky and Marx took note of these facts (Kovalevsky, 1879: 189; Marx’s excerpt in Harstick, 1977: 91).

The appropriation, obfuscation, suppression and distortion of the ideas of Rammohun and of the other Indian modernizers of the nineteenth century by the subsequent modern Indian literati, which precipitated the failure of liberalism in India, leading to the emergence of the current obscurantist, nay openly xenophobic and authoritarian ruling elite of our land, has a close family resemblance with the distortion, suppression and appropriation of Marx by the self-serving Social-Democratic, Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist etc. partocratic elite, which led to the failure of their past political efforts and, to the emergence of the currently dominant politics and economics of new barbarisms all over the world. Those who plan to investigate the rise and fall of bourgeois and colonial liberalism and of partocratic Marxist politics, must also turn their comparativist gaze upon the ups and downs in the plural histories of the interfaces of political economy with all ideologies like, the Taoisms, Confucianisms, Jainisms, Buddhisms, Hinduisms, Judaisms, Christianities, Islams, nationalist and other ethno-centrist ideologies all over the world.

As in the case of Rammohun, so also in the case of Marx, there exists a linguistic barrier. After the collapse of the GDR and the USSR the texts of Marx and his colleagues have been liberated from the distortive control of the partocratic publishing industry of the twentieth century. Now, let these texts not remain confined to a single language of the world, namely, to German. These texts need to be further liberated from their monolingual fetters, imposed by the monopolistic business practices of the contemporary academic-industrial complex. Marx’s texts must be translated and studied in as many languages of the world as possible. Like Rammohun, Marx too needs those readers from among the salt of the earth, who would take his future oriented internationalist visions forward. I repeat: the failure of bourgeois liberalism as an ideology and as a practice needs to be investigated extremely closely, in the interest of investigations on the failure of partocratic Marxisms as ideology and as practice. I have used Rammohun’s and Marx’s names associated with Victorian England, in the title of this text; the above indicated investigations, however, must not be confined to them, we will have to engage with the history of all metropolitan and colonial liberalisms and socialist aspirations. These engagements will continue to create ever larger databases for more and more comprehensive outlines for that treatise on the state, which remains the fourth unwritten part of Marx’s planned critique of political economy.


  • [Karl Marx on the Forms of Precapitalist Production: Comparative Studies on the History of Estate in Land 1879-80]: 21-109, Frankfurt/M., New York: Campus Verlag.
  • Kovalevsky, Maksim Maksimovich (1879), Obschinnoe zemlevladenie, prichiny, khod’ i posledstviya evo razlozheniya. [Communal land ownership, the causes, course and consequences of its decomposition], Chast’ pervaya [First Part]: Obschinnoe zemlevladenie v koloniyakh i vliyanie pozemel’noi politiki na evo razlozhenie [Communal land ownership in the colonies and the impact of land policy on its decomposition], Moskva: Tipografiya F. B Miller.
  • Marx, Karl (1859), Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie: Erstes Heft, Vorwort [On the Critique of Political Economy: First Booklet, Foreword]; MEGA2 II/2: 99; MECW 29: 261.
  • MECW: Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels (1975-2004), Collected Works, in 50 volumes; Moscow: Progress etc.
  • Harstick, Hans-Peter (1977), Karl Marx über Formen vorkapitalistischer Produktion: Vergleichende studien zur Geschichte des Grundeigentums 1879-80 
  • MEGA2: Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels (1975- ), Marx-Engels- Gesamtausgabe, Berlin: Dietz-Verlag/Akademie Verlag/De Gruyter Akademie Forschung:
  • _
  • The Correspondence of Raja Rammohun Roy, Volume I (1992) and Volume II (1997), Ed. Dilip Kumar Biswas, Calcutta: Saraswat Library.
  • The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy (1901), Volumes I and II, Ed. Jogendra Chunder Ghose, Calcutta: Srikanta Roy.
  • Zastoupil, Lynn (2010), Rammohun Roy and the Making of Victorian Britain, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

05 December 2021

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