Marxist Industry: The Difference Engine’s Chronicle of Revolution

The Difference Engine, co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, imagines an alternate historical outcome during the industrial era of Europe in the late 19th century. The book follows three characters with different stories that intertwines respectively with their relation to the kinotrope cards, a technological innovation that guarantees societal power to the holder. The first character introduced to us, Sybil Gerard, acts as a prostitute and thief in order to avoid her connection to her father, a former Luddite riot leader who met his demise. She accepts Mick Radley’s request to become an apprentice adventuress because of his wealth and promises to erase her past. The first part of the book sets up the political atmosphere as Mick involves Sybil in his relations with Houston while also introducing the importance of the Kino cards that connect all three stories. We follow her storyline until Swing, an antagonist in pursuit of the cards, murders Mick. We then follow Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, an acknowledged savant and paleontologist who discovered the brontosaurus. Although the authors assert his humble and turbulent background of a common man, they immediately change his status to wealthy and reputed. He becomes the holder of the cards after a violent encounter with Swing and then proceeds to be targeted by Swing throughout his story. Swing ruins his life by accusing Mallory of murder and destroying his esteemed position in research. In attempt to keep his reputation and life, Mallory befriends many high positioned people including Fraser and Oliphant. Mallory’s story ends when he teams up with his two brothers and Fraser in order to hunt down and kill Swing, an endeavor they succeed in. The last part of the book follows the cards in the hands of Oliphant, a detective of high class who remains stuck on the case of Mick Radley. He meets Sybil near the end of the story and promises her safety in return for information. The ending of the book reveals the narrator to be a machine capable of consciousness, ultimately commenting on the innate power technology provides and reveals the authors’ warning of the dangers of a technological age.

Marxism looks at society as an organized system of power which drives production and progression. Founded and based on the works and ideas of Karl Heinrich Marx and influencers including Friedrich Engels and G.W.F. Hegel, the theory argues that the political, economic and social climate of a population depends on a class system and how, in literature, the characters and plot remains driven by either economic pressure or a general pursuit towards power (Habib 527). Marx’s most prominent book, The Communist Manifesto, in which he outlines his theory, describes, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” (Marx 40). This asserts a dialectical materialism interpretation that history exists due to the tensions between the hierarchies of class (Siegel). To examine literature, the theory focuses on this class struggle of the oppressors and the oppressed and how an individual or community fits into the system. Emphasis exists on materialism as the reader views the conspicuous consumption of a character or setting and the commodification, the implicit value of an object, which society encourages (Siegel). These points of emphasis come from Marx’s critique on capitalism on its skewed system of power between the bourgeoisie and the working class and its imperialistic nature, thus, arguing an, “economic interpretation of history” (Morrow). Additionally, these points of emphasis go on to prove that individuals remain obstructed from freedom and spirituality because of the materialism and class restrictions projected through art and literature in society. Marxism influenced many different branches of literary theory including the feminist theory and historicism, yet, it falls short in acknowledging human nature of greed and desire as it assumes a population to labor willingly and over exaggerates “the reach of capitalism,” (Morrow). Overall Marxism outlines how literature directly correlates with the material and societal values of a setting and how class and power drive history.

Gibson and Sterling use the distribution of class and power in relation to the budding technology of the setting in The Difference Engine to highlight the progression of history as proposed by the Marxist Theory. As the book focuses on the Babbage’s Engine to create a science fiction narrative, the bourgeoisie of victorian England are replaced by the new controllers of technology and engines because technology replaces the former force of production, the people. Thus, the emphasis on the Kino cards arises as the cards remain the key to a new technological innovation which makes them the key to power. The holder of the cards can become the controllers of a new age of production and, as Marxism proposes, the controller of production stands on top of the pyramid of class. Through this set up, Gibson and Sterling create a setting with new aspects of class and struggles between the classes in order to propose a new outcome through violence and a society dominated by its technological advances. Due to this new structural hierarchy, the old production force of laborers fight back giving rise to the Luddites described as industrial rioters and antagonists like Captain Swing who wish to control the new technology and return power to the common laborers. The Marxist idea of material and production dictating history permeates throughout Gibson and Sterling’s story as a vehicle for progression. Gibson and Sterling reimagine history using the structural basis of class and production provided by Marxism and suggest a prompt change in society arising from the dichotomy between the common man’s role and the wealthy’s influence.

Gibson and Sterling use the distribution of class and power in relation to the budding technology of the setting in The Difference Engine to highlight the progression of history as proposed by the Marxist Theory. As the book focuses on the Babbage’s Engine to create a science fiction narrative, the bourgeoisie of victorian England are replaced by the new controllers of technology and engines because technology replaces the former force of production, the people. Thus, the emphasis on the Kino cards arises as the cards remain the key to a new technological innovation which makes them the key to power. The holder of the cards can become the controllers of a new age of production and, as Marxism proposes, the controller of production stands on top of the pyramid of class. Through this set up, Gibson and Sterling create a setting with new aspects of class and struggles between the classes in order to propose a new outcome through violence and a society dominated by its technological advances. Due to this new structural hierarchy, the old production force of laborers fight back giving rise to the Luddites described as industrial rioters and antagonists like Captain Swing who wish to control the new technology and return power to the common laborers. The Marxist idea of material and production dictating history permeates throughout Gibson and Sterling’s story as a vehicle for progression. Gibson and Sterling reimagine history using the structural basis of class and production provided by Marxism and suggest a prompt change in society arising from the dichotomy between the common man’s role and the wealthy’s influence.

Marx built his core thesis around the idea of a materialist conception of history where class and labor tensions perpetuate a society. In his model, the base of society depends on the modes of production: machines, land, and laborers (Morrow). This dependence leads to a separation of power that establishes a class system, an integral part in the conception of history. The upper class, referred to by Marx as the bourgeoisie, hold control over the modes of production and, inevitably, the laborers that make up proletarian class. The bourgeoisie and proletarians innately divide into upper and lower classes, even though each depends on the other. This natural hierarchy causes tension, raising conflict and resolutions which progress society (Berner). Marx describes this cycle as a materialist conception of history stating that a society organizes and develops based on the conflicts of inequality. He explains, “Definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations,” (Marx). This describes how people in power who control production make up a base and superstructure, or influence over society, and with this form an economic foundation. They hold power through their influence as they control the availability of material and the flow of ideas, described as “The production of ideas . . . is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men” (Marx).The force of production, made up of laborers, conflict with the base due to this imbalance of power and soon initiate a social revolution, meaning to destroy the current system and establish a new one (Berner). However, if successful, a new hierarchy replaces the old superstructure and history continues. New generations prosper from the work and products left by the old generation and by building upon each last generation and exploiting new material, the cycle of conflict and resolution endures. Thus, Marx’s proposition of a materialist conception of history outlines why social classes remain in most societies and how this hierarchal system initiates development and structure.

Marx built his core thesis around the idea of a materialist conception of history where class and labor tensions perpetuate a society. In his model, the base of society depends on the modes of production: machines, land, and laborers (Morrow). This dependence leads to a separation of power that establishes a class system, an integral part in the conception of history. The upper class, referred to by Marx as the bourgeoisie, hold control over the modes of production and, inevitably, the laborers that make up proletarian class. The bourgeoisie and proletarians innately divide into upper and lower classes, even though each depends on the other. This natural hierarchy causes tension, raising conflict and resolutions which progress society (Berner). Marx describes this cycle as a materialist conception of history stating that a society organizes and develops based on the conflicts of inequality. He explains, “Definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations,” (Marx). This describes how people in power who control production make up a base and superstructure, or influence over society, and with this form an economic foundation. They hold power through their influence as they control the availability of material and the flow of ideas, described as “The production of ideas . . . is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men” (Marx).The force of production, made up of laborers, conflict with the base due to this imbalance of power and soon initiate a social revolution, meaning to destroy the current system and establish a new one (Berner). However, if successful, a new hierarchy replaces the old superstructure and history continues. New generations prosper from the work and products left by the old generation and by building upon each last generation and exploiting new material, the cycle of conflict and resolution endures. Thus, Marx’s proposition of a materialist conception of history outlines why social classes remain in most societies and how this hierarchal system initiates development and structure.

Marx’s friend and co-writer of The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels played a key role in shaping and defining the ideas of the Marxist theory. Born November 28, 1820 in Barmen, Prussia, a town focused on industry and production, Engels grew up around industry and manufacturing (Hammen). His father, a textile manufacturer, influenced Engels to pursue commerce and, in turn, Engels did not have a formal education. However, Engels proved intelligent and formed radical ideas of his own during his mandatory military service in Berlin where he met some Young Hegelians (Hammen). Dissatisfied with his career in business, he began writing as a journalist and observed the structure of capitalism in Manchester when working with his father. When he later went to Paris and discussed his ideas with Marx, they realized the similarities in their philosophies and decided to write their ideas together. His own works exploring labor includes The Condition of the Working Class in England which was inspired from his work in Manchester (Hammen). However, unable to support himself and Marx with only his career in writing, Engels eventually returned to business but ultimately sold his shares when he became financially stable. He spent the end of his life expanding on his ideas with Marx in London until his death in 1895.

As co-writer with Marx, Engels shared the same ideas as Marx, yet, found ways to apply structure to science and history as an explanation of a chronicle of society. His theory, called Dialectic Materialism, expanded on the Materialist Conception of History by proposing that the value placed on objects and a society’s need and want of these objects cause the cycle of conflict and resolution. Engels write, “The state is nothing but an instrument of oppression of one class by another – no less so in a democratic republic than in a monarchy” (Engels). This asserts that people in power purposely restrict other classes from obtaining material value in order to control power. This “oppression of one class by another” reinforces Marx’s explanation as the state becomes the vehicle of conflict in a society. However, contrastingly to Marx, Engels suggests, “The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations” (Engels). He implies that the material world came from the common man as the bourgeoisie were once common men that grew to power in accordance to Marx’s cycle of revolution. Thus, Dialectic Materialism implies that the common man set up a system of material power, fought their way into higher classes, ultimately becoming the bourgeoisie, and being replaced by previously common men in continuation of the cycle. Whereas Marx asserts that the bourgeoisie cause the materialist cycle, Engels proposes a new perspective in which the common man perpetuates history. The lower classes perception of the upper class causes them to fight and replace the bourgeoisie, ultimately making the common man the perpetuator of the cycle of conflict and resolution.

As co-writer with Marx, Engels shared the same ideas as Marx, yet, found ways to apply structure to science and history as an explanation of a chronicle of society. His theory, called Dialectic Materialism, expanded on the Materialist Conception of History by proposing that the value placed on objects and a society’s need and want of these objects cause the cycle of conflict and resolution. Engels write, “The state is nothing but an instrument of oppression of one class by another – no less so in a democratic republic than in a monarchy” (Engels). This asserts that people in power purposely restrict other classes from obtaining material value in order to control power. This “oppression of one class by another” reinforces Marx’s explanation as the state becomes the vehicle of conflict in a society. However, contrastingly to Marx, Engels suggests, “The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations” (Engels). He implies that the material world came from the common man as the bourgeoisie were once common men that grew to power in accordance to Marx’s cycle of revolution. Thus, Dialectic Materialism implies that the common man set up a system of material power, fought their way into higher classes, ultimately becoming the bourgeoisie, and being replaced by previously common men in continuation of the cycle. Whereas Marx asserts that the bourgeoisie cause the materialist cycle, Engels proposes a new perspective in which the common man perpetuates history. The lower classes perception of the upper class causes them to fight and replace the bourgeoisie, ultimately making the common man the perpetuator of the cycle of conflict and resolution.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a prominent philosopher in the late 18th century, set the foundation for Marxism through his ideas and works. Born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770 to a revenue officer and a mother who held high status in society, Hegel lived a privileged life for his time period (Froeb). His mother died during his childhood but his father made sure Hegel got a formal education. Thus, he attended a Latin school until the age of 18and found interest in ideas of the German Enlightenment and continued his studies of philosophy at the University of Tübingena, a Protestant seminary (Froeb). He took up the occupation of private tutor in order to continue his independent study of philosophy and Greek and Roman classics. During this time he wrote essays and various texts until problems with the family he worked for pushed him to seek another job. He became a Professor at Privatdozent soon after and published his first work, The Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel highlighted the idea of contradiction and how negation shapes a society. Financial pressures motivated Hegel to keep writing as teaching did not pay (Froeb). Unable to live off his career, he moved to Banberg and became an editor (Froeb). Though he held many careers through his life, he continued writing his theories throughout his life. Hegel’s legacy lived in his works and the students following his ideas who called themselves the Young Hegelians. At the end of his life he went to teach at the University of Berlin and died in Berlin in 1831.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Hegel looked toward the larger perspective of totality which emphasizes the outcome more than the method while still analyzing the inherent contradictions that influenced the outcome. According to his view of totality, “Only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue.” (Spencer). This makes the method of achieving the end, whether the bourgeoisie or common man cause the change, irrelevant. Notably, Hegel inspired the Marxist theory so his perspective remains a broader idea than those of Marx and Engels. Within Hegel’s theory he notes negations, or, the inherent contradiction in course of history. For example, the violence of a revolution and uprising ultimately leads to a new order and structural base for society. This paradox of violence bringing order describes the course of history in Hegel’s perspective. In his theory of Negation lies three main types of contradiction, Being, Essence, and Notion. The contradiction of Being describes a juxtaposition where seemingly contradicting aspects actually relate upon closer inspection. Essence defines, “opposed pairs immediately imply one another” (Spencer). Lastly, Notion relates to Totality at it emphasizes “concepts . . . whose component parts . . . are conceptually interrelated,” (Spencer). Hegel looks at history as a sum of outcomes by ignoring the impetus towards the outcome while acknowledging the relations and contradiction between the causes. Overall, Hegel beckons focus on the current outcome and the awaiting outcome to define our place as a society.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Hegel looked toward the larger perspective of totality which emphasizes the outcome more than the method while still analyzing the inherent contradictions that influenced the outcome. According to his view of totality, “Only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue.” (Spencer). This makes the method of achieving the end, whether the bourgeoisie or common man cause the change, irrelevant. Notably, Hegel inspired the Marxist theory so his perspective remains a broader idea than those of Marx and Engels. Within Hegel’s theory he notes negations, or, the inherent contradiction in course of history. For example, the violence of a revolution and uprising ultimately leads to a new order and structural base for society. This paradox of violence bringing order describes the course of history in Hegel’s perspective. In his theory of Negation lies three main types of contradiction, Being, Essence, and Notion. The contradiction of Being describes a juxtaposition where seemingly contradicting aspects actually relate upon closer inspection. Essence defines, “opposed pairs immediately imply one another” (Spencer). Lastly, Notion relates to Totality at it emphasizes “concepts . . . whose component parts . . . are conceptually interrelated,” (Spencer). Hegel looks at history as a sum of outcomes by ignoring the impetus towards the outcome while acknowledging the relations and contradiction between the causes. Overall, Hegel beckons focus on the current outcome and the awaiting outcome to define our place as a society.

In order to reimagine the past, Gibson and Sterling used Marxist ideas to create a new future filled with the inevitable conflict between man and power. The use of three characters of different statuses and their interaction with power highlighted the universal plight for power that Marx argued. Mallory exemplified this struggle of conflict and resolution outlined by the Materialist Conception of history and Dielectric materialism. He proved that a humble man can rise in status and, despite his initial values, succumb to the aims of the bourgeoisie class. In writing his plot line, the authors critique the overall system and how, although different peole obtain power, the outcomes and goals remain the same for everyone. This idea correlates with Hegel’s theory of Totality and reveals to the readers the irrelevance of the conflict as the resolution remains the same. Overall, The Difference Engine explores Marxist ideas in the creation of a new history and disregards conflicts in the face of progression.