Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Thoreau, Marx, and the Self under Capitalism

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By Wiz

One of the books that most inspired me to go to grad school was Staughton Lynd’s classic: The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. Its an old book now, and suffers from some of the defects common to writing from the 1960s (a slightly heroic and romantic vision of certain left heroes, a over-emphasis on white male authors, while more or less ignoring women and people of color, the slightly naive belief that there is one American radical tradition, etc…). But still, I think, an excellent reminder, as the American Right tries to co-opt all the symbols of our past, that America has a deep and long tradition of radicalism rooted in our oldest intellectual traditions. I’m excited to see that it has recently been re-issued.

Anyways… all this introduction is to bring up one of my favorite passages in which Lynd analyzes Henry David Thoreau’s reaction to capitalism. In a brilliant move he prints a paragraph of Marx, running down one side of the page, and a paragraph from Thoreau down the other, and dares us to guess who wrote which. “The reader may correctly identify the author of each of these passages, but I suspect it will take him a few moments,” Lynd concludes.

Like Marx, Thoreau was obsessed with the ways in which capitalism alienated man from his labor. In a passage in his journal, Thoreau described the dignity of a laborer, sweating as he hauled a stone, only to be disappointed when he realized that the only purpose of it was to enrich some employer. Like Marx he saw how industrialization turned men into appendages of the machine, or as he put it: “Men have become tools of their tools.” He predicts Marx’s obsession with how capitalism structures of the time of the worker, worrying about having to “sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society.” He even understood that the point of capital was “to get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky.” There is a chance that Thoreau read some of Marx’s dispatches in the New York Tribune, as he was a friend of Horace Greeley. But he certainly was not familiar with Marx’s philosophy and social critique.

And yet, I think, Lynd can also take this a bit too far. As Lynd himself suggests, the American political tradition that Thoreau came out of was still far more individualistic than Marx’s vision. For all of his acute analysis of capitalism, Thoreau never could get behind any collective solutions to the problem of wage labor, instead counseling that individuals simply drop out. He “suspected any enterprise in which two were engaged together,” and never really developed much of a class analysis. He would have bristled at Marx’s belief that we are social beings, and, for all his religious unorthodoxy remained a theistic of sorts and would have distrusted the supposedly atheistic scientific pretensions of Marx.

And so, I would suggest, Thoreau’s real interest to the Marxist tradition, lies less in his political and economic vision, and more in his understanding of how capitalism affects the self; how it, in a sense, colonizes the soul. Marx, of course, understood this. But I associate his twentieth century followers, especially the Frankfurt School, with really making this a source of intellectual concern, and drawing out the conclusions. Here, I would argue, by protesting how the market divided, mechanized, and distorted the self, the American Transcendentalists presaged European intellectual trends, and continue today to have valuable things to say to the Left.

So, with all respect to Staughton Lynd, whom I’m shamelessly ripping off, I’d like to present some dueling quotes by Thoreau and various 20th Century Cultural Marxists, about the impact of capitalism and the market on the self.

“I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand, not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less, because the man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case, the workman’s relation to his work is more poetic, he also shows more dexterity and is more of a man. You come away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails; but, in the case of the country man who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved.”

–Thoreau: The Journal October 19th, 1858

“If we follow the path taken by labour in its development from the handicraft via co-operation and manufacture to machine industry we can see a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker”

–Lukacs: History and Class Consciousness p. 88

“The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf… I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since as far as I have observed, the principle object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.”

–Thoreau: Walden p. 26

“We may distinguish both true and false needs. “False” are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice.”

–Marcuse: One Dimensional Man, p. 5

“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things… Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were,– its foundations broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds.”

–Thoreau: Life Without Principle p. 362

“Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced back to more primitive anthropological stages… the standardization of the intellectual function through which the mastery of the sense is accomplished, the acquiescence of thought to the reproduction of unanimity, implies an impoverishment of thought no less than of experience. “

–Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialect of Enlightenment p. 28


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 1, 2010 at 01:43

One Response

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  1. Thank you for a great essay. I’m a philosophy grad student and I’m taking classes both on Marxist theory and Thoreau by pure chance. I was very surprised and happy to find the connection. You quoted some of the same lines from Thoreau that drew my attention. Anyway, you should check out an essay called THOREAU, MARX, AND THE “RIDDLE” OF ALIENATION, by John P. Diggins.




    November 2, 2013 at 12:07

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