Analysis Of Robinson Crusoe Through Lockean And Marxist Interpretations
With the synopsis of Robinson Crusoe, we are taken around the world on a thrilling adventure full of shipwrecks, companionship, and resilience. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to hear the troubling echoes of colonialism hidden between these lines. During the time of its creation, and arguably to this day, it was not uncommon for such colonial endeavors to be portrayed under the favorable guise of discovery, evangelicalism, and economic growth. It’s important to have a keen eye when analyzing these texts in order to catch these subtle undertones. In doing so, new perspectives and new critiques become available. Similarly, a comparison between the philosophies of John Locke and Karl Marx offers an analogous duality between face value appearances and subsurface realities. I argue that Locke, a normative and abstract philosopher, would interpret Robinson Crusoe at surface value, finding legitimacy in Crusoe’s endeavors, appreciating his achievements in cultivation and economic growth, but failing to see many of the problematic aspects. On the other hand, a critical Marxists approach would go a layer deeper. Marx would likely draw attention to the dehumanization of slaves, the dispossession of land, and capitalist accumulation found beneath the surface of Crusoe’s pursuits. Through this contrast, we find two layers of interpretation for Robinson Crusoe — the idealized and the realized. This contrast is not to argue that Lockean and Marxists interpretations are separate spheres of thought. Rather, their writings illustrate a reciprocal relationship that responds to and challenges one another. In this synopsis, I find three distinct dimensions of property — namely slavery, dispossession, and accumulation— that I will apply a Lockean and Marxist interpretation to. But before unpacking these views, it’s important to understand the contextual surroundings that inform these two thinkers.
Traditionally, Marx and Locke are thought of at opposite ends of a political and philosophical spectrum, separated by over 200 years of history and informed by entirely different political settings. Locke, for instance, is a pre-industrial theorist who attaches an abstract and religious philosophical approach to the world. He pioneered a new doctrine of property and government that rests on normative assumptions about God and humanity, which reflected his commitment to religious freedom and toleration. These assumptions, particularly The Second Treatises of Government, are situated in a Eurocentric and Christian frame of mind, which prove to be problematic in many ways. But they nonetheless transcended time and formed the foundational basis for political and legislative developments, including the pretext for conquest and colonialism. Marx was also a revolutionary thinker— perhaps ahead of his time— whose theories are still influencing our political attitudes today. However, unlike Locke, he was a critical theorist who spoke in a language of conflict and crisis on the topics colonialism and accumulation. He watched Europe transition into capitalism as the industrial revolution swept across the world. Thus, his theories are informed by his own observations of political and social dissatisfaction rather than abstract philosophical principles. Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation indicates the historical processes that gave birth to the preconditions of capitalism, including environmental degradation, extirpation, slavery and most importantly, colonialism. Therefore, he calls into question the naked self-interest of Europe and Eurocentric imperialism. His writings not only respond to his current political climate but challenge the long-held conceptions by past thinkers such as Locke. With this foundation, we can find clear interpretations of Robinson Crusoe.
Within the first few lines of the synopsis, we are presented with the prominent theme of servitude and commercial enslavement. Crusoe is visibly invested in this enterprise, as seen from his trips to slave auctions in Guinea and his ownership of multiple slaves and indentured servants. On this topic, it’s hard to say for certain how Locke would react to Crusoe’s notion of slavery for he never speaks to it directly in his chapter on property. We see that Locke characterizes property to be an extension of oneself. He says, “Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but Himself”. There are, however, two sides of Locke that clearly appear to be in conflict. On one hand, he is a theorist of liberalism and individual freedom. Therefore, one would think he would be critical of slavery, a practice which acts directly contrary to those principles. However, like Crusoe, Locke was also thoroughly invested in English imperial ambitions. He owned stocks in the slave-trading Royal African Company, spent years of service in colonial administration, and advocated for a hereditary system of nobility and slavery in his draft of the Carolina Constitution. In section 32, he briefly touches on servitude: “Thus when my horse bites off some grass, my servant cuts turf […] the grass or turf […] becomes my property”. It appears that servants, along with animals, do not share the same property rights as “man”; rather, they serve as an appendage of the master’s labor. So, it would be fair to say Locke would not be critical of Crusoe’s investment in the slave trade. Likewise, it was within Crusoe’s authority to sell his servant Xury to the captain of a Portuguese ship, because the relationship between a man and his servant it’s no different than a horse or cow — all can be bought and sold. It’s fair to assume he is less critical of Crusoe’s actions than Marx, who opposition to colonial ventures, slavery, and even that East India Company are much more explicit. He explains, “The turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production”. So for Marx, Crusoe’s actions are reprehensible, but are nonetheless justified by the emerging capitalist and industrial world.
One similarity that is worth pointing out in this discussion is Locke and Marx’s views of property in relation to freedom. Both thinkers put labor at the heart of their theories, placing all other rights as subservient to the right of property. Locke argues, man has a property in his own person that nobody else has any right to. This sentiment is shared by Marx, the only difference being Locke believes labor need not be one’s own for it to become his property. It’s precisely because Marx sees labor as an inherent right of man, that he challenges the inconsistencies in Locke’s philosophy. He is asking, if one’s labor is inherent to their body, why was Xury denied the autonomy over his? The “veiled slavery of wage workers,” as he calls it in chapter 31, draws attention to the system of commercial exploitation that provides a pedestal for further oppressive endeavors like slavery (Marx, para. 30). This introduces a relationship between Xury and Marx’s wage laborers. Specifically, when Crusoe sold Xury in exchange for money without hesitation he dehumanized him, turning him into a commodity, both in form and in content. Both Xury and industrial workers live in a state of unfreedom, bound to the prerogative of their masters. Through this alienation, equality becomes inequality, liberty is replaced by self-interest, and security means the protection of property even when it’s the ownership of human beings.
It can be easy to define colonialism as the oppression and exploitation of people, but it’s also important to recognize colonization in relation to forced cultivation and occupation of land. We see this in the synopsis when Crusoe shipwrecks on a “deserted” island and then encloses and cultivates the land as his own. This introduces the concept of private property, namely through the means of dispossession, which creates one of the principal differences between Locke and Marx. Recall that in Lockean theory, since God gave us the world in common, labor is the faculty by which we obey God because it improves, rather than wastes, the Earth we were given. This improvement or enhancement of Earth affords property rights. Locke asserts that, “As much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, and Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property”. However, his conception of improvement entailed turning land into profit or increasing its value through cultivation. It’s through this assertion that Locke draws a distinction between uncultivated land and industrialized, or tilled land to justify his assumptions of ownership. For example, when describing the Americas, Locke says “Yet there are still great tracts of Ground to be found, which the inhabitants thereof not having joyned with the rest of Mankind […] lie waste”. Therefore, Locke would view Crusoe’s cultivation and enclosure of the Caribbean island as legitimate because the indigenous people had left their land untilled, “deserted”, and thus wasted. Crusoe need not gain the “consent of all of his fellow-commoners” (i.e. the indigenous people) because letting it lay waste forfeits such protections. Locke might even shift attention to the Crusoe’s teaching them to fetch, cook, bake and dig docks in order to show the benefit Crusoe’s presence had on the natives. We see these Lockean concepts adopted by European powers who decide for themselves what land lay “empty” and “uninhabited” according to Eurocentric conceptions of improvement. Marx, however, sees right through these colonial justifications as nothing more than “undisguised looting”. In Capital, Marx’s principal opposition to primitive accumulation takes the form of the expropriation of public land and the emergence of private property. He calls out the flaw in Lockean justifications: “It was not only the land that lay waste, but often land cultivated either in common or held under a definite rent paid to the community, that was annexed by the neighbouring landlords under pretext of enclosure”. Marx employs the labor theory of value to argue for the abolition of private property, which he perceives as a source of exploitation and unfreedom. These enclosures shift the ownership of the means of production, leaving the common producer, the farmer, with only his labor power to sell. Thus, the large plot of land that Crusoe enclosed was not rightfully his, regardless of his ability to cultivate it. In other words, the dispossession a land acts as a catalysis for primitive accumulation.
The final element of the synopsis lies in the notion of accumulation and capital. Locke and Marx also share a similar worry of accumulation, but for different reasons. For Locke it is again a sin against God, but for Marx it is the prerequisite of capitalism and thus a sin against humanity. Locke claims, “Anyone can through his labour come to own as much as he can use in a beneficial way before it spoils; anything beyond this is more than his share and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy”. In other words, this spoilage dilemma invokes a moral limit on property, such that God didn’t give it to us accumulate beyond need. Locke proposes money as the solution to this puzzle because it allows for one to accumulate beyond the limits of natural spoilage. Things can be hoarded up without injury to anyone. But, as Marx would likely point out, it also ends up legitimizing the unlimited and unequal accumulation of capital. This, according to Marx, is where injury takes place. We see this at the end of Robinson Crusoe. After all the trials and shipwrecks that Crusoe faced along his journey, it finally ends with a safe trip back to Europe where he can finally claim the profits of this plantation in Brazil. This would be a happy ending for Locke, because, at face-value, Crusoe cultivated his land and turned it to profit, therefore he was obedient to God. Marx would of course criticize the underlying methods used to reap that profit. From a Marxist standpoint, the ending of Robinson Crusoe brings the story of capitalism full circle. If it were not for his slave Xury, Crusoe would not have gotten the money to buy his plantation and thus would have never profited from it. It perfectly exemplifies how European wealth was built on the backs of slavery— beginning with colonialism and ending with accumulation of capital at the expense of the colonized. As Marx powerfully declared, “If money “comes into the world with congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx, 31, para. 31). This blood is the blood of Xury, the slaves, and the indigenous people whom Crusoe robbed.
For my personal reaction to the persuasiveness of each thinker’s interpretation, I will return back to my original observation between Locke and Marx— namely, the surface versus subsurface analysis. There are obvious frictions and inconsistencies found within Locke’s theory that leave it less persuasive. Part of my criticism of Locke comes from his face-value and romanticized view of colonialism as an economic tool. Yes, colonialism enormously benefited the world economy, but it never flowed towards the colonies. Hence, his argument carries a heavy Eurocentric lens that obstructs the perspective of the colonized and thus fails to fully see the brutal reality of colonialism that Marx was able to criticize. Additionally, an element that lack persuasion is his reliance on normativity rather than rationality. He explains, “When God gave the world in common to all mankind, he commanded man to work […] his reason commanded man to subdue the earth.” It would seem that his theories on property and cultivation, and thus his justifications for colonialism, are indispensable from God. But if we remove the divine aspect, there’s no need to cultivate the ends of the Earth, nor uproot those who “waste” their land. For these reasons, I find Marx’s interpretation to be more persuasive for the simple reason that it’s more tethered to reality. Unlike Locke, he acknowledged that colonialism wasn’t the transition into a brighter economic future, but instead “chief momenta” of physical and structural violence. What I appreciate about Marx is that he refused to inherit theories of the past and instead supposed new alternatives that were more aligned with reality.
An analysis of Robinson Crusoe illustrates that there’s always more than one way to think about and interpret the same concept. What matters is our willingness to accept it or challenge it. One of the many injustices of colonialism and slavery is that they are often portrayed in a manner that covers up the true horrors that each entailed, as exemplified with this synopsis. Just like reading a story, analyzing Locke and Marx together, reveals a dialect between the two and provides a new way to think about colonialism that might not have been apparent on their own.
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