In October 1862, a sixteen-month-old baby died from an opium overdose in East London. Her baby plagued by a cough, the mother secured a prescription from a local chemist, who inadvertently and fatally doubled the dosage. Another doctor concluded that the baby died from narcotic poisoning and moreover suggested opium should never have been prescribed for this ailment.

Cases of opium-induced deaths of children, both accidental and intentional, circulated frequently in 19th century English newspapers. An 1853 death in Cambridgeshire was blamed on a mother giving her child “a piece of crude opium to suck.” The mother, the New York Daily Times reported, from a family of opium eaters, “spent four shillings a week on the drug” despite being “laboring people.” Increasingly aware of child opium deaths, critics focused on low-income populations whose “local knowledge of opium” allegedly made them comfortable giving their children liberal doses to keep them quiet while they worked. The medical officer of the Privy Council remarked, “The mothers—namely, the agricultural gangwomen—appear often to be very reckless whether children live or die. The children are an encumbrance to them.”

Marx famously wrote that religion “is the opium of the people” and references the drug throughout his work, even discussing opium infanticides in Capital, volume 1. Unlike the people generally quoted in 19th century newspapers, Marx does not highlight the moral failings of addicts. Instead, he is interested in the societal causes of infanticide in England, and the global structure of the opium trade. In my article “Opium and the Family in the Writings of Karl Marx,” I argue that references to opium in Marx’s work illuminate his theories of gender, the family, and the state in both England and China.

Marx writes about opium in three distinct ways. In Capital, volume 1, he discusses opium use in Europe, where the drug and its derivatives morphine and laudanum were legal pharmaceuticals. In response to widespread panic about infanticide, Marx argues the spike in infant opium deaths stems from increasing factory and agricultural labor by working-class women. In Capital, volume 3, Marx uses opium and cotton trades between England and China to critique prevailing theories of money and exchange. In his journalism, Marx explains why opium and cotton were not comparable: if cotton strengthened US governance, the illicit opium trade in China undermined the “paternal” Chinese government by promoting bribery and corruption. My article covers these different ideas in greater detail. Here, I focus on Capital, volume 1 and Marx’s journalism where references to opium highlight Marx’s concerns about the family and changing state formations.

In Capital, volume 1, Marx argues that innovations in machinery, which enabled women and children (i.e. “weaker” people) to work, actually devalued labor such that men’s salaries no longer supported their entire families, pressuring families to supplement earnings by forcing women and children to work. Not only were children thrust into dangerous work environments, but working-class women were also forced out of unwaged domestic labor and into capitalist labor, either having to care for their children while also working or leaving them with caretakers who often neglected them. Overworked mothers and caretakers used opium to quiet babies and reduce their need to breastfeed. It was also used liberally to treat a range of childhood ailments, sometimes leading to accidental overdoses. As Marx notes:

In the agricultural as well as in the factory districts the consumption of opium among the grown-up labourers, both male and female, is extending daily. “To push the sale of opiate… is the great aim of some enterprising wholesale merchants. By druggists it is considered the leading article.” (l.c., p. 459.) Infants that take opiates “shrank up into little old men,” or “wizened like little monkeys.” (l.c., p. 460.) We here see how India and China avenged themselves on England.

It is a curious passage, especially the final sentence. Can it really be that vengeance motivated trades between de facto and de jure colonies and a metropole? Marx’s suggestion that infanticide in England is China and India’s revenge highlights the parallels he draws between the capitalist destruction of the English nuclear family and the destabilization of what he sees as the hereditary Chinese state, both due to related expansions of colonialism and trade.

The sale of opium for smoking was banned in China in 1729, which did little to stem opium use. In 1773, the British East India Company was granted a monopoly on opium in Bengal, which they began trading more heavily in Canton. China banned opium in 1799 and passed even stricter laws in 1814 and 1831. By that time, however, the East India Company had established a system of smuggling legally disassociating them with the trade. According to Marx, the explicit flouting of Chinese law by opium traders helped to undermine and destabilize the Chinese state. Many scholars have criticized Marx’s Hegelian understanding of the Chinese state at the time, arguing his idea that the state was stagnant was overly simplistic and uninformed. To Marx, “the Emperor was wont to be considered the father of all China,” so the corruption via bribery, for instance, of his officers as the opium trade raged undermined the emperor’s patriarchal power and the “hereditary” structure of the state. Problematically for many scholars, Marx did not believe the destruction of the paternal Chinese state during the Opium Wars was detrimental. Rather, he saw the wars as forcing China to develop a “modern” state.

Reflecting on the 1850 Taiping rebellion as a response to the Opium Wars, Marx writes:

It is almost needless to observe that, in the same measure in which opium has obtained the sovereignty over the Chinese, the Emperor and his staff of pedantic mandarins have become dispossessed of their own sovereignty. It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity.

Marx later quips that “by persecuting the opium consumption as a heresy the Emperor gave its traffic all the advantages of a religious propaganda.” Recalling his claim from Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that religion “is the opium of the people,” here Marx argues that opium is the religion of the people: an intoxicating, seditious narrative. Marx explains that while religion seems to challenge state-sponsored inequality, it actually sanctions and supports the state by preventing people from changing their circumstances. Metaphorical opium quiets suffering so that exploited workers carry on quietly within the system. However, for Marx, literal opium in China does not uphold the exploitative system. In fact, the unrest caused by opium encourages the fall of problematic social structures. Here, the heretical opium trade has a kind of religious force. Metaphorical religion presents a critique of systemic suffering. The religious narrative of the opium trade encourages people to fight social inequality.

Similarly, opium in England highlighted the decline of the bourgeois family in a visceral way: the failures of capitalism were readily apparent, for Marx, in babies, murdered by their own mothers or caretakers. If capitalism changed feudal structures for the better, it also created internal contradictions that would eventually lead to conflict and systemic change. If the destruction of the paternal state in China was positive, so too was the destruction of the bourgeois nuclear family structure by working-class women’s participation in the workforce. For Marx, the contradictions produced by working women fostered action to change these conditions. And with increased economic and social freedoms for women, children, too, would live longer, safer lives.

To read more, see: Maya Singhal. “Opium and the Family in the Writings of Karl Marx” in Science and Society 2022.

Maya Singhal is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor in the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity at the University of Chicago. They received their PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University. Their work is broadly about how people navigate violence across generations. Their recent research deals with crime, capital, and mutual aid in African and Chinese diasporic populations. Maya’s current book project is an ethnographic and historical study of African American and Chinese American self- and community defense in New York City and the histories of extralegal neighborhood protection (e.g. gangs, neighborhood patrols and associations, etc.) that inform these present-day efforts towards safety.

Image: “Opium War – Drawing” via Wikimedia Commons