Issue 2, 2018: Marx from the Margins


Pepijn Brandon

The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; VOC) was founded in 1602. It was a private company with extensive state support, monopoly rights to the Dutch-Asian spice trade, and far-reaching prerogatives to wage war and make treaties and alliances. The VOC became the instrument for the violent subjection of many parts of Asia to Dutch commercial interests until the end of the eighteenth century. It laid the foundations for the colonial regime of the Dutch in Indonesia that lasted well into the twentieth century. Without mentioning its name, Marx discussed the VOC and its legacy in a brief but powerful passage at the end of Capital, Volume I. After citing the British colonial administrator Thomas Stamford Raffles’s judgement that the history of Dutch rule in Asia was “one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness”, Marx continues:

Nothing is more characteristic than their system of stealing men, to get slaves for Java. The men stealers were trained for this purpose. The thief, the interpreter, and the seller, were the chief agents in this trade, native princes the chief sellers. The young people stolen, were thrown into the secret dungeons of Celebes, until they were ready for sending to the slave-ships. An official report says:

“This one town of Macassar, e.g., is full of secret prisons, one more horrible than the other, crammed with unfortunates, victims of greed and tyranny fettered in chains, forcibly torn from their families.”

[…] Wherever [the Dutch] set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce! (Marx 1990 [1867], 651-652).

Marx mentions the VOC explicitly in Capital, Volume III, as part of his historical observations on merchant capital. Here he says that if one wants an example of the way in which merchant capital operates in places where it directly controls production, one should look at “the colonial system”, especially “the methods of the old Dutch East India Company” (Marx 1967 [1894], 329). As in the earlier passage, it is clear from the context that Marx’s reason to single out the VOC was his perception of the cruel and exploitative character of this company.

The process of knowledge collection behind those passages in itself gives an interesting starting point for reading Marx ‘from the margins’. Marx took extensive notes from the first volume of Raffles’s 1817 History of Java (Raffles 1817) while in London in 1853.1 At this time, he developed a great interest in colonial and semi-colonial societies, leading to his famous articles on India and China for the New York Daily Tribune. Many have rejected Marx’s articles on India from this period – or at least the years before the 1857 Sepoy uprising – for ascribing a ‘progressive’ role to colonialism. Nevertheless, it is clear from what Marx took from Raffles, that even at this early stage his willingness to see Western capitalism’s penetration into Asia as ‘necessary’ for future development was always circumscribed by his acknowledgement of the brutal and devastating impact that it had. In his “The British Rule in India”, Marx quotes a passage from Raffles saying that “The Dutch Company, actuated solely by the spirit of gain, and viewing their [Javan] subjects with less regard or consideration than a West-India planter formerly viewed the gang upon his estate, […] employed all the existing machinery of despotism to squeeze from the people their utmost mite of contributions, the last dregs of their labour”. Against Raffles, who berated the Dutch only to the advantage of the English, Marx pointed out that the British Rule in India is “only an imitation of the Dutch” (Marx 1979 [1853], 126).

Equally interesting is the special attention payed by Marx to slavery under the VOC. It should be kept in mind that the Dutch government abolished slavery in the East Indies as late as 1860, merely seven years before the publication of Capital, Volume I. Despite this late abolition, Dutch historians have all but neglected the role of slavery in the VOC empire until very recently (Van Rossum 2015). In contrast, Marx elevated it to a central plane. One simple explanation for his attentiveness to this issue is that it helped him to expose the violent origins of capitalist development, an objective that runs through Marx’s entire discussion of “the so-called primitive accumulation”: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. In the tender annals of Political Economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial.” (Marx 1990 [1867], 620). What better way to illustrate the hypocrisy of the capitalist, than laying at his doorstep the thoroughly discredited system of slavery? After all, this was not only the moment of abolition in the Dutch East and West Indies, but also, more epoch-making, in the American South through the Civil War, and of the emancipation of the serfs in the Russian Empire. An outspoken opponent of slavery, Marx never missed his chance to emphasize capital’s complicity in it.

Generations of readers after Marx have interpreted those famous lines of Marx primarily as comments on capital’s recent antecedents. However, an even more potent re-reading might be possible; for throughout the famous chapter in which Marx discusses the cruelty of Dutch colonialism and slavery, he leaves clues that suggest he did not see this type of violence merely as a stepping stone for ‘modern’, developed capitalism, but as one of its contemporary companions. Stressing this continuity, Marx writes: “Colonial system, public debts, heavy taxes, protection, commercial wars, etc., these children of the true manufacturing period, increase gigantically during the infancy of Modern Industry” (Marx 1990 [1867], 656). Simultaneity is also implied in his famous comment that “[w]hilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the trans-formation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation” (Marx 1990 [1867], 658-9). Is it a coincidence that when turning to the history of the VOC, Marx also especially highlighted the fate of “the young people stolen”? Starting from his sparse remarks on the VOC, we can see not only Marx’s acute interest in the global nature of exploitation and accumulation, but also his attentiveness to the threads that connected capitalism’s history to its present.


Anderson, Kevin. 2010. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Marx, Karl. 1967 [1894]. Capital. A critique of political economy. Volume III. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1979 [1853]. “The British Rule in India”, reprinted in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 12. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1990 [1867]. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Volume I [Aveling / Moore translation]. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe2, Volume II.9. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Raffles, Thomas Stamford, 1817. The History of Java. Two volumes. London: Black, Parbury and Allen.

Van Rossum, Matthias. 2015. Kleurrijke Tragiek: De Geschiedenis van Nederlandse Slavernij in Azië onder de VOC. Hilversum: Verloren.


1] For a wider discussion of Marx’s notes on Indonesia, see Anderson 2010.


Pepijn Brandon

Pepijn Brandon is Assistant Professor in Economic and Social History at the VU Amsterdam and Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History. He is the author of War, Capital, and the Dutch State (1588-1795) (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015; paperback: Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). While writing his contribution for this journal, he was a fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.