The Mysterious Sword of Robinson Crusoe.


Somewhat randomly reading Engels’ Anti-Dühring today,  I always enjoyed its style and I think many of our contemporary discussions would benefit from Engels’ healthy sarcasms and such, although I can see many interlocutors getting offended, proposing theories about types of humans to deal with, accuse Engels’ of ad hominem attacks (probably rightfully so) and so on. Engels would be a horribly “trolling” blogger, that’s for sure. 

In Part II on Anti-Dühring there is a nice discussion of Gewalt, rendered “force” in English, but first some nice stabs at this poor fellow, Eugen Duhring, who is only known today because he was attacked by Engels (note this fact, young passionate bloggers):

That is Herr Dühring’s theory. In this and in many other passages it is simply set up, decreed, so to speak. Nowhere in the three fat tomes is there even the slightest attempt to prove it or to disprove the opposite point of view. And even if the arguments for it were as plentiful as blackberries, Herr Dühring would give us none of them. For the whole affair has been already proved through the famous original sin, when Robinson Crusoe made Friday his slave. That was an act of force, hence a political act. And inasmuch as this enslavement was the starting-point and the basic fact underlying all past history and inoculated it with the original sin of injustice, so much so that in the later periods it was only softened down and “transformed into the more indirect forms of economic dependence” {D. C. 19}; and inasmuch as “property founded on force” {D. Ph. 242}, which has asserted itself right up to the present day, is likewise based on this original act of enslavement, it is clear that all economic phenomena must be explained by political causes, that is, by force. And anyone who is not satisfied with that is a reactionary in disguise. [*]

Nice. Emphases added (as in I underlined my favorite parts). So this Robinson Crusoe business comes up here. Engels further mocks Dühring’s theory for using the example of Crusoe’s enslavement of Friday to prove a point while the example itself clearly shows the opposite: “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.” Friday is enslaved for the economic advantage of Crusoe, he is not enslaved first (“for fun”) and then used as “stomach-filling agency” by Crusoe.

Engels’ point is simple: 

Crusoe, “sword in hand” {D. C. 23}, makes Friday his slave. But in order to manage this, Crusoe needs something else besides his sword. Not everyone can make use of a slave. In order to be able to make use of a slave, one must possess two kinds of things: first, the instruments and material for his slave’s labour; and secondly, the means of bare subsistence for him. Therefore, before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared.

So enters the mysterious sword of Robinson Crusoe: forcing others to work for you requires not only sheer physical force of the sword, but also a developed economic base such as means of production and a way to maintain slavery once its established, so slavery does not come from sheer force of the sword but from an economic need. Prisoners of war are killed, not enslaved, when there is no use for them as slaves, no economic base. 

The subjugation of a man to make him do servile work, in all its forms, presupposes that the subjugator has at his disposal the instruments of labour with the help of which alone he is able to employ the person placed in bondage, and in the case of slavery, in addition, the means of subsistence which enable him to keep his slave alive. In all cases, therefore, it presupposes the possession of a certain amount of property, in excess of the average. How did this property come into existence?

That’s a question that Engels repeats again in the next chapter where the discussion of Gewalt continues: 

Crusoe enslaved Friday “sword in hand” {D. C. 23}. Where did he get the sword? Even on the imaginary islands of the Robinson Crusoe epic, swords have not, up to now, been known to grow on trees, and Herr Dühring provides no answer to this question. 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. We must apologise to the readers for returning with such insistence to the Robinson Crusoe and Friday story, which properly belongs to the nursery and not to the field of science — but how can we help it?

Indeed, how can we help it? I love that “up to now” in the third sentence – so we imagine that Crusoe’s sword mysteriously appeared on a tree one day, he happened upon it in the woods, took it, tried it and realized he can enslave Friday with it. The same mysterious appearance of a loaded revolver in the hands of Friday would in turn enslave Crusoe and so forth. Engels spends a large amount of text giving us a short history of military and their guns. The mysterious force of the sword is then not so mysterious for Engels, because swords do not grow on trees, they come from specific economic circumstance and so on, the argument is well-know (I hope).  

I loved Robinson Crusoe character as a child, I remember often thinking about the unlikely situation in which I would find myself on a deserted island and how I would manage this or that task. However, acquiring a sword and enslaving another person was never a scenario I contemplated. In the case of Dühring, Crusoe functions as a second Adam (that’s Engels’ characterization from the first chapter of Part II), as a kind of original figure that plucks swords of trees or salvages necessary objects from his ship in order to establish his island existence. This sort of original situation that allows Crusoe to survive is what always bothered me about the story (including its contemporary variations like LOST where the people magically happen to find the briefcase with guns or knives and so forth).

Where does the power of the sword come from then? What is its mysterious force? I think that Engels’ playful scenario in which one day Friday shows up with an AK-47 he stumbled across on the beach is only funny, as the argument about the development of armed forces shows, until Crusoe or Friday come across an H-bomb somewhere in the woods (maybe it looked something like this, I don’t know). However, even with an H-bomb, the ultimate source of destruction, power/force/oppression does not just come about mysteriously as if from nowhere, does it? The slavery then is not in the sword and its threat, but in our willingness to submit to the mystical power of this sword – is this power then based on threatening us with death? Most certainly, as someone like Hobbes would argue, but what if we are not afraid of death? How does one threaten and call to obedience those who are ultimately not afraid of death, say very very religious people? What if Friday was from a tribe of those who think that life is useless and the best one can make of it is to find a worthy cause to die for? 

Back to Engels for a second: 

To Herr Dühring force is the absolute evil; the first act of force is to him the original sin; his whole exposition is a jeremiad on the contamination of all subsequent history consummated by this original sin; a jeremiad on the shameful perversion of all natural and social laws by this diabolical power, force. That force, however, plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms—of this there is not a word in Herr Dühring. It is only with sighs and groans that he admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation—unfortunately, because all use of force demoralises the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution! And this in Germany, where a violent collision—which may, after all, be forced on the people—would at least have the advantage of wiping out the servility which has penetrated the nation’s mentality following the humiliation of the Thirty Years’ War. And this parson’s mode of thought — dull, insipid and impotent—presumes to impose itself on the most revolutionary party that history has known!

The use of force demoralizes those who use it – is that really so? One has to assume that those who use force are originally “moralized” to be eventually demoralized by the use of force. What if this force is not an obvious sword in Crusoe’s hand with an obvious use but a series of dispersed middle managers who make small decisions and are never really responsible for any significant event? A society full of humble middlemen and middlewomen who do their daily jobs without ever considering the consequences of their actions? Are they then really demoralized? 

All of this, of course, has little to do with Engels’ original points, just some observations on the spur of the moment.

4 thoughts on “The Mysterious Sword of Robinson Crusoe.

    • The Roman Empire is dead, too, but that shouldn’t stop me from reading Tacitus (or even Caesar). Since when does the value of ideas depend on their having remained popular?

  1. Just recently read Robinson Crusoe-for the sake of textual accuracy the sword was pilfered from the second wrecked ship that was stranded upon a rocky outcrop near his island. All aboard were drowned but there were several items that were salvageable.

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