The lifetime of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, coincided with perhaps the lowest point in the national fortunes of China, a country with a recorded history of some 5,000 years.
The feudal stagnation and decadence of the Qing dynasty had reached its nadir, the countryside was in turmoil and all the imperialist powers were helping themselves to bits of the country.
It is one more example of the genius of Marx and Engels that they not only applauded the resistance of the Chinese people to foreign aggression, but that they equally foresaw the country’s destiny to be not one of sinking further into darkness but rather of taking the road of enlightenment.
Writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue of 31 January 1850, Marx observed:
“The socialism of China may have the same relationship to that of Europe as that of Chinese philosophy to the Hegelian. It is nonetheless to be rejoiced at that the most ancient and stable empire in the world, acted upon by cotton goods of the English bourgeois, is on the eve of a social upset which, in any case, must have extremely important results for civilisation. When our European reactionaries, in the flight to Asia that awaits them in the near future, come at length to the Great Wall of China, to the gates which lead to the stronghold of arch-conservatism, who knows if they will not find there the inscription:
“‘LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ’ ”.
In 1857, in a remarkable article, entitled Persia-China, written for the New York Daily Tribune of 20 May, Engels eulogised the new spirit of revolt that had arisen among China’s rural and working masses with the struggle known as the Taiping rebellion, or Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, as the rebels called themselves, and which went on to confront foreign aggressors:
“There is evidently a different spirit among the Chinese now to what they showed in the war of 1840 to 42. Then, the people were quiet; they left the Emperor’s soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after a defeat with eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy. But now, at least in the southern provinces, to which the contest has so far been confined, the mass of the people take an active, nay, a fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hong Kong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation. (A few loaves have been sent to Liebig for examination. He found large quantities of arsenic pervading all parts of them, showing that it had already been worked into the dough. The dose, however, was so strong that it must have acted as an emetic, and thereby counteracted the effects of the poison.) They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat.
“They kidnap and kill every foreigner within their reach. The very coolies emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists, the most submissive and meek of subjects hitherto, conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection, as at Sarawak; or, as at Singapore, are held down by main force and vigilance only. The piratical policy of the British government has caused this universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners, and marked it as a war of extermination.
“What is an army to do against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy’s country, how to maintain itself there? Civilisation-mongers who throw hot shells on a defenceless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious; but what matters it to the Chinese if it be only successful? Since the British treat them as barbarians, they cannot deny to them the full benefit of their barbarism. If their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres are what we call cowardly, the civilisation-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.
“In short, instead of moralising on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese, as the chivalrous English press does, we had better recognise that this is a war pro aris et focis, (I) 1 a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war. And in a popular war the means used by the insurgent nation cannot be measured by the commonly recognised rules of regular warfare, nor by any other abstract standard, but by the degree of civilisation only attained by that insurgent nation.”
Engels concluded his article by stating: “One thing is certain, that the death-hour of Old China is rapidly drawing nigh … The very fanaticism of the southern Chinese in their struggle against foreigners seems to mark a consciousness of the supreme danger in which Old China is placed; and before many years pass away we shall have to witness the death struggles of the oldest empire in the world, and the opening day of a new era for all Asia.”
Let all those who today respond with squeamishness and pedantic criticism to the tactics and methods adopted by the resistance movements in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere; let all those who castigate the CPGB-ML for forthrightly calling for victory to the resistance read the above words and observe how Engels, the great proletarian revolutionary, positively revelled in the revolutionary (and extreme) violence of the oppressed. Such is the standpoint of the revolutionary proletariat.
(i) Pro aris et focis is a Latin phrase meaning ‘For god and country’ or literally ‘For our altars and our hearths’, but was used by ancient authors to express attachment to all that was most dear and venerable. It could be more idiomatically translated ‘for our homes’.