Property and the Political Economy of Colonialism

Gurminder K Bhambra

Ranajit Guha, as set out so clearly in the other articles in this issue, was a complex man. He was at the University of Sussex for close on twenty years and is most well-known for work that he did at the end of that period; that is, his work on historiography and the setting up of Subaltern Studies. My own initial encounter with Guha’s work was through these very studies. In particular, I was taken with the way in which he used historiography to investigate the exclusion of the subaltern from the structure of academic disciplines and thereby revealed the parochial and partial nature of the histories produced. Here, I want to return to his earlier work; to his first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the idea of Permanent Settlement.

Guha had started work on this topic in the 1950s and it was published in 1963 by a French publisher around the time that Guha started as a lecturer at Sussex. By all accounts, Asa Briggs, then Dean of the Social Sciences, who would go on to become Vice Chancellor, had invited Guha to apply for the job on the basis of this work. Around the same time, Briggs was also involved in bringing the economic historian, Donald Winch, to Sussex. Winch’s first book, Classical Political Economy and the Colonies, was published two years after Guha’s and ostensibly dealt with similar themes. It was developed from his dissertation which dealt with ‘the optimal conditions for colonial economic development’ and was primarily focused on Britain’s settler colonies with only a brief discussion of India via the work of the Mills.

The overlap between their concerns is sufficient, however, for it to be a puzzle – at least ostensibly – as to why they never appeared to acknowledge the work of the other. Winch did reference Stokes’s The English Utilitarians and India, which had been published just prior to Guha’s book and with which it was often compared and addressed in tandem. One reason could be that provided by David Fieldhouse in his review of Winch’s book which notes that while Winch ‘is good on economic theory, … [he] is obviously less strong on colonial history’. However, this would be to point to an intellectual divergence that was confirmed only through Guha’s later work directly addressing the colonial context. A Rule of Property is as much focused on economic theory as is Winch’s text and I will discuss the implications of their similarity subsequently. First, to the text itself.  

A Rule of Property addresses the debates that took place between East India Company administrators in Bengal in the late eighteenth century around the status of land, how it was best to be managed, and the consequences of this for the possibility of colonial governance and deriving revenue over the longer term. The focus of the debates was the idea of a ‘permanent settlement’ or solution. The primary impetus was that a new way of organising the ownership of the land was required and that this would be best served by entrusting its care to ‘a class of native entrepreneurs who had solid interests in the land and were politically reliable’ (p9). That is, the proposals being debated were around establishing a right of private property in land. The security of landownership was deemed to be necessary for the creation of a sound administration.

It was acknowledged by the colonial administrators of the time that they held no good title to the land. Alexander Dow, for example, noted that while the provinces were held ‘in appearance, by a grant from the present emperor’, in reality, they were only maintained ‘by the right of arms’ (quoted in Guha p25). As such, what was necessary was to establish the legitimacy of dominion beyond that which was provided through the act of conquest. This was done by developing economic theories that saw the territory governed as if it were a Company estate. This estate could then be parcelled out to local zamindars who would come to own the land, permanently, as property and be made responsible for the payment of taxes on it, thus ensuring a steady stream of revenue for the colonial government. It was this separation of the right of ownership from the right to collect revenue that would establish the permanence of dominion.

Guha, impressively and rigorously – as Sanjay Subrahamyam notes in his obituary – ‘took apart the minutes, proposals and counterproposals that were presented and debated in the administrative councils of the time’. He set out their different economic premises – deriving from mercantilist, physiocratic, and classical political economy – and demonstrated that, despite their differences, they nonetheless shared a common political focus, establishing the permanence of orderly dominion. However, this political orientation, is much less a concern for Guha in A Rule of Property, rather, his focus is on the detail of the economic debates.

As an aside – as I was reading in preparation for this, I came across reference to a review of Guha’s book, by Sarvepalli Gopal, published in 1966, who regarded it primarily as an exercise in British intellectual history, with the implication being that it was therefore of little concern to historians of India. A Das Gupta similarly suggested that the book had little to do with India ‘because India existed beyond the thoughts of Englishmen’. Guha rebutted this critique in the 1981 preface to the second edition of his book (comment and critique took longer in the times before social media) by stating that if the historical origins of the concepts and theories underpinning the most important land reform introduced by the British in India, which led to the statute of permanent proprietary rights, wasn’t important to the study of Indian history, he didn’t know what would be. Nonetheless, there was something to the critique.

While the importance of Guha’s book appears clear, to me at least, I am interested in the place of colonial histories in the book, or, rather, their absence. It is obvious that Guha is not unaware of them and, given his subsequent work, he is alert to the relationship between power and knowledge in the construction of disciplines and the production of histories. So, what accounts for his failure to locate the discussions of the East India Company administrators within their colonial context and discuss the implications of their theories with regard to that? I suggest that this is where the overlap between Guha and Winch is perhaps more pertinent.

The illegitimacy of colonial rule may have been so obvious to Guha that it was regarded as otiose to even mention that this was the context in which he was working. However, another explanation could be that, as a Marxist – as he was then and later – he worked within a frame of political economy that regarded capitalism as the more significant historical moment. One whose unfolding through time and history had to be understood in its own terms.

In Guha’s presentation of the discussions that were happening among colonial administrators about how best to organise the ownership and distribution of the land under their control, there is no questioning of their right to do so. The act of conquest is seemingly naturalised and forms no part of the contextualisation of the subsequent discussions oriented to establishing a permanence of dominion. As Subrahmanyam notes, Guha also had very little to say about ‘the complex property regimes [of the Mughal period] that had been in place before Company rule’. Something that was not omitted by at least one of the administrators under discussion, Dublin-born Phillip Francis.

This flattening of history and elision of its complexities enables colonial conquest to be made subordinate in an account of political economy oriented around ideas of capitalist development. This is also enabled through the way in which the debates constructed Mughal rule as despotic or feudal, at the same time as establishing a neo-feudal settlement. The British established despotism in the provinces and then claimed that Oriental despotism was the reason that they were needed in order to bring progress and modernity to these benighted areas!

While Guha’s political commitment to Marxism shifted over time – with him coming to support the Maoist Naxalbari peasant movements in the 1970s – the refusal to consider colonialism as central to the emergence and development of capitalism perhaps blunted the force of his arguments. Even in the terms of his own book, A Rule of Property, the question of colonialism is central to the emergence of the very need, on the part of the colonial administrators themselves, for a Permanent Settlement and yet this context is relegated to a few paragraphs.

I remember giving a lecture that mentioned British colonial rule in India and a student coming up to me afterwards and asking, ‘but what were the British doing in India?’ ‘Well, quite,’ I replied.

What were the British doing in India? And under what authority were they seeking to determine the patterns of land ownership and distribution there? And further, how do their understandings of property in the colonial context continue to shape our understandings in the present and how are our contemporary understandings inadequate to the extent that we do not acknowledge the significance of colonialism to the emergence of the very idea of property?

Not taking colonial histories seriously in the development of economic ideas is a shared elision in the work of Guha and Winch. While their political orientations may well have been different – Winch identified strongly as working class, whereas Guha saw himself as belonging to the Third World – what they had in common was a failure to acknowledge the significance of colonial histories to the emergence of a global political economy.

Guha’s identification with the struggles of the peasantry in the 1970s no doubt went on to shape his reflections on history and historiography, even if he did not return to consider the implications for political economy. This was also a moment when, as Vinita Damodaran notes, postcolonial nationalism was beginning to devour its children. Fifty years on, as political figures in India seek to decolonize from the ‘double empire’, it would be a shame – to put it mildly – if postcolonial perspectives were mobilized in the turn to populist ethno-religious nationalism as opposed to being the counter to it. Guha’s political commitments would undoubtedly have been with the latter.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Historical Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is author of Connected Sociologies and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. She is also co-editor of Imperial Inequalities and co-author, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory.

Header Image Credit: Book cover


Bhambra, Gurminder K 2024. ‘Property and the Political Economy of Colonialism’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):