[Marxism] Marx on Robinsonades in Das Kapital

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 22 13:19:25 MST 2004

WSheasby wrote:
> Suggest your students join the Marx reading group. 
> Kapital_Gang-subscribe at yahoogroups.com
> Robinsonades
> On Feb. 12, 1709, Alexander Selkirk, known in the history of economics 
> as well as literary history as *Robinson Crusoe,* was rescued from Juan 
> Fernandez Island after a four year solo stay. In his first and most famous 
> novel based on this true story, *The Life and Strange Surprizing 
> Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner*, the author, Daniel 
> Defoe, captured the imagination of generations who yearned to transcend 
> the confining division of labour of the urbanized commercial world. 
> Defoe had been a relatively well-known economist of foreign trade before 
> the novel appeared in 1719, when he was almost 60. 

Cast Away

Robert Zemeckis' extraordinary new film "Cast Away", starring Tom Hanks 
as the stranded survivor of a 4 year ordeal on a remote island, is 
merely the latest in a long line of artistic works that consider the 
question of civilization (i.e. capitalist society) using this plot 
device. Before examining the film, it might be useful to review some of 
the literature.

The first, and probably the greatest, work in this genre is 
Shakespeare's "The Tempest". The evidence is overwhelming that 
Shakespeare not only set "The Tempest" on a Caribbean island, but 
included a Native American major character. The play's ambivalent 
attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban serves not only as a 
useful window into 17th century racial attitudes, it also helps us 
understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it should be added, 
is regarded as a form of "Carib," the name of the original inhabitants 
on the islands invaded by Columbus.

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John 
Smith's Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world. 
As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was 
condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when 
his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith's behalf. The 
British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down 
Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.

One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up 
on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative 
account of the shipwrecked crew's experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got 
the idea for his play from this background material since "The Tempest" 
is a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and 
enslaving the native population.

Next we turn to Daniel Defoe, whom Marxist literary critic Annette 
Rubinstein regards as the father of "the greatest art form originated by 
the bourgeoisie--the novel." Very much the product of Oliver Cromwell's 
movement, Defoe started life as a merchant, an important fraction of the 
class that this movement helped to empower. Not only was Defoe a 
successful merchant, he was a pro-Whig political activist as well, 
risking his life to place the Protestant Duke of Monmouth on the throne 
in 1686, and later aiding the successful rebellion that forced King 
James II's abdication in favor of William of Orange.

While best known for "Robinson Crusoe," his version of the castaway 
story, Defoe's first book was titled "An Essay on Projects", a rather 
mundane treatment on the need to improve British roads, enlarge the 
banking system, resolve commercial disputes, etc. (Sandwiched between 
these rather prosaic proposals is a rather startling recommendation for 
the emancipation of women! Defoe writes that, "I have often thought of 
it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world considering us as a 
civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of 
learning to women.")

In December, 1702 Defoe published an anonymous pamphlet titled "The 
Shortest Way with Dissenters" which was basically a satire of Tory 
politics. By coming up with the most extreme--and absurd--version of his 
opponents' views, he made them seem ridiculous, which was the goal. For 
this Sokal-like hoax, Defoe was charged one month later with seditious 
writing and disturbing the peace and was sentenced to an indefinite jail 

Defoe emerged from jail at the age of 43, bankrupt, and with a wife and 
7 children to feed. Turning once again to writing, he began publishing 
"A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France, Purged from the Errors and 
Partiality of News-Writers and Petty Statesmen of all Sides." Writing it 
from cover to cover, he included advice to the lovelorn as well as an 
"Information Please" quiz column! The review covered a wide gamut of 
topics, from women's oppression to politics and economics. He was the 
godfather of modern day newsletter publishers such as I.F. Stone, Alex 
Cockburn and Doug Henwood.

It is remarkable to learn that while Defoe's reputation rests mainly on 
his novel-writing, he did not turn to this art-form until the age of 
sixty (there's hope for me!), when he wrote "The Life and Strange 
Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" in 1719.

Cast away on a richly endowed island, the protagonist uses the tools 
civilization has given him--both in terms of his education, and skill 
and the iron, seed, etc. that is shipwrecked with him--to build a 
prosperous life. As Rubinstein points out, this is not an adventure 
story. Instead of asking "What happened to him next?", we ask "What did 
he do next?" Crusoe's island becomes a prototype of capitalist 
civilization, one that in fact has the character of settled, genteel 
middle-class British society. Rubinstein writes:

"The emphasis is not on wonderful and terrible events but on resourceful 
and effective activity. The initiative comes from man throughout. Nature 
is raw material for his shaping, not a god for his worship. Sometimes 
stubborn and difficult, it is never purposeful or malicious and can 
therefore be mastered and used by any educated, intelligent, 
self-reliant, hard working and prudent man who has a reasonable share of 
good luck—just such a share as the laws of probability (or the goodness 
of God) is likely to afford him. One can hardly imagine a more perfect 
representation of primitive capitalist accumulation building the nucleus 
of its first small for- tunes on industry and thrift, as well as 
appropriation, and the practical Protestant religion it developed as its 
rationale, than the passages in chapters IX, XI and XII, in which Defoe 
describes Crusoe’s achievement of a store of grain sufficient to 
safeguard him from all foreseeable vicissitudes of weather and accident. 
The kernel of almost every other episode, important or unimportant, is 
in the same way, profoundly correct as well as realistic."

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/cast_away.htm


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