On the 300 year anniversary of the publishing of Robinson Crusoe, Morgan Daniels analyses what the book really tells us from a Marxist perspective
In a famous early section of Capital on the ‘fetishism of commodities’, Marx finds himself temporarily preoccupied with Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s yarn about a castaway mariner which was published precisely three hundred years ago today. ‘[P]olitical economists are fond of Robinson Crusoe stories’, Marx notes: thus he, too, must concern himself therewith—fit and proper, after all, for a book subtitled A Critique of Political Economy.
But what is it about Defoe’s relatively straightforward story that has proved so appealing and useful to bourgeois economists? How does Marx read Robinson Crusoe differently? And why does it matter?
Robinson Crusoe is a Yorkshireman obsessed from a young age by the idea of a life at sea. His first two voyages both end in shipwreck, the second of which leads to him being enslaved for a couple of years. With good fortune he escapes and becomes a slave-owner himself, running a sugar plantation in Brazil, and it is on a mission to acquire slave labour from Guinea that Crusoe is shipwrecked again, this time on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco river.
Crusoe spends the next twenty-eight years of his life on this island, time enough for redemption. He keeps a journal (until he runs out of ink), studies the Bible, and forges a nice comfortable life for himself, raising goats, growing rice, making pots, and accruing a property portfolio (he fences off his main digs—’my castle’—and, a few miles away, a ‘country seat’ and a woodland retreat). Crusoe considered himself ‘king and lord of all this country indefeasibly’. After twenty-five years of solitude, he is horrified to discover a human footprint in an unfamiliar part of the island and agonises endlessly over its origin, ultimately discovering that the beach is sporadically used by Carib cannibals to feast upon humans. Crusoe rescues one would-be victim, a Native American whom he names Friday: he teaches him English, converts him to Christianity, and forces him into servitude.
It is perhaps obvious, then, why Robinson Crusoe has persisted as a favourite amongst political economists since the 1840s. Marooned in the Caribbean, starting from scratch, Robinson is a self-made man, ordering the environment to his benefit, reproducing bourgeois ideology. He is homo economicus. Just as Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) would be seized by capitalists as evidence of the naturalness of free competition, so Robinson Crusoe, often described as the first modern English novel, proved the perfect bourgeois parable, almost the origin story of capital itself.
Marx’s riposte to the economists in Capital was witty and biting:
Undemanding though [Crusoe] is by nature, he still has needs to satisfy, and must therefore perform useful labours of various kinds: he must make tools, knock together furniture, tame llamas, fish, hunt, and so on. Of his prayers and the like, we take no account here, since our friend takes pleasure in them and sees them as recreation. Despite the diversity of his productive functions, he knows that they are only different forms of activity of one and the same Robinson, hence only different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to divide his time with precision between his different functions. Whether one function occupies a greater space in his total activity than another depends on the magnitude of the difficulties to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. Our friend Robinson Crusoe learns this by experience, and having saved a watch, ledger, ink and pen from the shipwreck, he soon begins, like a good Englishman, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a catalogue of the useful objects he possesses, of the various operations necessary for their production, and finally of the labour-time that specific quantities of these products have on average cost him.
In other words, when Robinson Crusoe was marooned, he already had a head full of ideas about how society ought to be organised: indeed, he was shipwrecked whilst on a slaving mission. His island is as much a ‘proof’ of the naturalness of the capitalist mode of production as, say, India or Ireland! Or, as Rosa Luxemburg put it:
Marx did not assume the childish fantasy of a capitalist society on Robinson Crusoe’s island which secretly thrives ‘isolated’ from continents of non-capitalist peoples, of a society in which capitalism has developed to the highest possible level (since the population consists solely of capitalists and workers), which knows nothing of either artisans or peasantry and has absolutely no connexion with the surrounding non-capitalist world.
Something similar is going on in Friedrich Engels’s critique of the German philosopher Eugen Dühring, a vocal attacker of Marxism who used Robinson Crusoe to illustrate his central theory that the motor of history is war and violence (or ‘force’). Dühring, in Engels’s words, saw Crusoe’s enslaving of Friday as some sort of ‘original sin’, a foundational touchstone of aggression. However,
even if we assume for a moment that Herr Dühring is right in saying that all past history can be traced back to the enslavement of man by man, we are still very far from having got to the bottom of the matter. For the question then arises: how did Crusoe come to enslave Friday? Just for the fun of it? By no means. [...] Crusoe enslaved Friday only in order that Friday should work for Crusoe's benefit. And how can he derive any benefit for himself from Friday's labour? Only through Friday producing by his labour more of the necessaries of life than Crusoe has to give him to keep him fit to work. [...]
The childish example specially selected by Herr Dühring in order to prove that force is ‘historically the fundamental thing’, therefore, proves that force is only the means, and that the aim, on the contrary, is economic advantage.
If Marx emphasises that Crusoe arrived on his island with the necessary implements and ideas to ‘keep a set of books’, Engels notes that he was likewise prepared for enslaving people, too, given that he salvaged plenty of weapons from the wreckage of his ship:
Even on the imaginary islands of the Robinson Crusoe epic, swords have not, up to now, been known to grow on trees ... If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole ‘force’ relationship is inverted. Friday commands, and it is Crusoe who has to drudge.
At stake in the interpretation of the ‘childish example’ of Robinson Crusoe, then, is nothing less than our understanding of history itself. We can take as our starting point individual women and men, wrenched from their context, affirming eternal verities such as ‘force’ or laissez-faire economics: this is the view of history which can give rise to an insistence that socialism cannot possibly work because ‘human nature’ is ‘inherently greedy’. Or else, after Marx and Engels, we can begin our analysis with society—individual consciousness being determined socially, by a complex series of historical developments (such as capitalism).
If we have a Marxist conception of history, we do well to ask: In what context was Robinson Crusoe written? This is all the more important because the book was originally published not as a novel by Daniel Defoe but as the true account of poor Robinson’s adventures, ‘written by himself’. It’s a tall tale, for sure, but just-about believable for readers in the early eighteenth century who would likely have been familiar with heroic stories of real-life ‘Robinsons’ born of maritime trade. Two probable sources for Defoe’s story were the East India Company’s Robert Knox, who spent nineteen years captive in modern-day Sri Lanka, and the privateer Alexander Selkirk, a castaway for a mere four years on an uninhabited island off Chile.
James Joyce had it that Robinson Crusoe is the ‘true prototype of the British colonist’. It is hard to disagree. The all-new possibilities and fantasies of British imperialism defined Defoe’s age—something emblematised by frenzied investment in the South Sea Company. A joint-stock venture created in 1711, the South Sea Company consolidated the national debt of £9 million: creditors had their loans converted into shares, the idea being that the company would also have a hugely lucrative monopoly over trade in South America. As rumour spread of the untold riches to be had by investing in the South Sea Company, share prices escalated and a lot of people made a lot of money—and just as quickly were ruined in the South Sea Bubble of 1720, a year after the publication of Robinson Crusoe, when stock prices collapsed dramatically.
Crucially, there was never any great profit to be had in the South Sea Company as Spain held control over trade in South America. The craze for company shares, which certainly brought considerable wealth for its governors, was based on an unfullilable promise. What seems vital here is that early maritime empire-building was of a piece with the development of fictive, speculative capital: indeed, the transatlantic slave trade, in which the South Sea Company played a large role, was the principle driver of the insurance industry in the eighteenth century, hypothetical values being attached to such precious seaborne commodities as gunpowder, sugar, and black people.
Yet if imperialism goes hand-in-hand with the specious world of credit and finance, it is likewise true that the modern English novel develops in the same period. And it hardly seems like a coincidence that one of the major commentators on the South Sea Bubble was none another than Daniel Defoe, who was a business journalist long before he turned his hand to fiction. ‘Avarice is the ruin of many people besides tradesmen’ he wrote in 1726, ‘and I might give the late South-sea calamity for an example, in which the longest heads were most over-reached, not so much by the wit or cunning of those they had to deal with, as by the secret promptings of their own avarice.’
Before he turned his hand to fiction. Just as Robinson reimagined his island through the lens of a burgeoning capitalist society, perhaps I am grafting contemporary distinctions between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ onto a period in which such clear dividing lines were hardly obvious.
Maybe we need to be asking: If a foremost eighteenth-century writer on economics was also responsible for tales of ripping adventure on the high seas, might this not be a reminder of the murky, fictive logic of capitalism? Is it not a system predicated on a wild fallacy, viz. constant growth, a truly mystical and magical idea wherein and whereby money breeds more money? And doesn’t Robinson Crusoe also teach us that this fallacy means that capital has always been international, the quest for new markets necessarily attended by racist ideas of conquest? ‘The conclusion is obvious’ wrote Ian Watt. ‘Follow the call of the wide open places, discover an island that is desert only because it is barren of owners or competitors and there build your personal empire with the help of a man Friday who needs no wages and makes it much easier to support the white man's burden.’
Informed by our concern both with the social basis of consciousness and the havoc wreaked on thought by the development of capitalist society, I wish to pose a strange question: Is our Robinson deep in the thrall of what we would now call obsessive compulsive disorder? The clues are there right in the beginning. ‘My head fill’d very early with rambling thoughts’, we are told; ‘I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea’—the point being that ‘going to sea’ is hardly some innocuous fantasy, adventure for adventure’s sake, but something bound up with untold profit.
Obsession fully takes hold on the island. The contentedness Robinson has achieved for himself, his cosy capitalist peace—at once this is wrecked upon the appearance of the footprint. It breeds misery and self-doubt and catastrophic thinking, Robinson’s once-settled world turned upside down:
I slept none that night; the farther I was from the occasion of my fright, the greater my apprehensions were, which is somewhat contrary to the nature of such things … But I was so embarrass’d with my own frightful ideas of the thing, that I form’d nothing but dismal imaginations to myself … Sometimes I fancy’d it must be the Devil ...
When Robinson later stumbles upon surefire evidence of cannibalism (the shore scattered with ‘skulls, hands, feet and other bones of human bodies’), his dismal imaginations go into hyperdrive, such that he soon becomes fixated on the fantasy of massacring every last ‘savage’ on the island with his pistols and sword. ‘This fancy pleas’d my thoughts for some weeks,’ Robinson explains, ‘and I was so full of it, that I often dream’d of it; and sometimes that I just going to let fly at them in my sleep.’
Robinson’s obsessions give rise to a ritual: he finds a thicketed spot on a hill in which he is well hidden ‘and where I might sit and observe all their bloody doings, and take my full aim at their heads’. Every morning, for months, he traipses three miles to this spot to keep watchout for savages, a temporary and always fruitless ‘fix’ for his restless thoughts, bound to be repeated the next day, and the day after that. (It would hardly be out of place to suggest that Defoe was something of an obsessive: he published between three and five hundred works, using nearly two hundred pseudonyms.)
A thought: is not capitalism its own type of obsessive compulsive disorder? Aren’t the demands of profit—what we have already called ’a truly mystical and magical idea wherein and whereby money breeds more money’—inherently ritualistic, not to mention never-ending? Put this way, Robinson Crusoe is not just a book about capitalism, but of capitalism, the obsessive and fantastical speculation of the market reproduced in the book’s style no less than its content. It is a study—a gripping study—in the mental turmoil engendered by capitalism. Robinson’s itching for maritime escapades and a quick buck leads to dreams of the mass murder of foreigners: so it really is the perfect bourgeois parable, I suppose.
 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I (London: Penguin, 1990), p.169 .
 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (London: Penguin, 2012) , p.162.
 Ibid., p.96.
 Robinson Crusoe does not feature any llamas.
 Marx, Capital, pp.169-70.
 Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique (1915): https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/anti-critique/ch05.htm.
 Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1947) : https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch14.htm.
 Engels, Anti--Dühring: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch15.htm.
 James Joyce, Joseph Prescott (trans. & ed.), ‘Daniel Defoe’, Buffalo Studies 1 (1964), p.24.
 Daniel Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman (1726), p.72.
 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1957), p.87.
 Defoe, Crusoe, p.1.
 Ibid., p.150.
 Ibid., p. 160.
 Ibid., p.164.
 Ibid,, p.165.
More articles from this author
- Radical Christmas Songs, Vol. IV
- Yet another 10 radical Christmas songs
- The London Dream: Migration and the Mythology of the City - book review
- Can socialism come through Parliament? - explainer
- Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways - review
- Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: a short introduction
- Sunak steps up to sell the self-employed short - CounterBriefing 26 March