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The Robinsonade and Capitalist Modernity: a Historical-Critical Approach to the Enduring “Myth” of Robinson Crusoe

Lithography by Wal Paget (1891). 
Source: https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/paget/69.html (image scanned by Philip V. Allingham)

By Martín Koval

Robinson Crusoe, the castaway who reproduces Western civilisation with the help of nothing but his mind, his hands and some utensils recovered from his vessel, embodies, like no other hero in world literature, the myth of modern individualism, forged in England while the country is in the process of becoming the first industrial power (Ian Watt 1999, esp. 164-171). His story, narrated in The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe, is based on a real person, Alexander Selkirk, and becomes an immediate best-seller at the moment of its publication. The term “Robinsonade” is first used in the preface to the first of the four books of the novel Insel Felsenburg (1731, 1732, 1736 and 1743), by the German writer Johann Gottfried Schnabel. There, Gisander, the fictional editor, defends his publication by stating that his work is not made up of “shavings of Robinsonades cobbled together” (1979, 5). In doing so, he indicates how the literary market is flooded with this type of narrative – indeed, 25 works of this genre appear between 1719 and 1731 only in Germany.

Gisander’s statement is also a complaint against the schematic nature of the Robinsonade. Prototypically, it is made up of a series of characteristic episodes: economic or social failure in Europe, adventures of all kinds on different voyages, a shipwreck, survival on a desert island, learning experiences and restitution of either an economic (e.g., by finding a treasure) or moral kind (by means of emotional healing or religious conversion); finally, the alternative between returning to civilisation and staying on the island.

Despite the objections raised by Schnabel’s character, it is true that the standardised fantasy of the isolated man stranded on an island turns out to be very attractive in the context of the Aufklärung, up until the late 19th century, because it is a conduit for reflecting upon human “nature” and the alleged “contractual” origin of the institutions that regulate social life. Robinson’s island and the Robinsonades alongside it have eventually become a veritable “field of verbal warfare” (Maximillian E. Novak 1963, 483) in areas as diverse as economics, anthropology, philosophy, history and pedagogy.

The “Robinsonade” does not go unnoticed for Karl Marx, who draws upon it to denounce a peculiar mode of ideological legitimation in bourgeois societies (Grundrisse). Defoe’s Robinson also helps Marx illustrate the relation between labour and value, and reflect upon modes of production not based on the exchange of commodities – socialism in particular (Capital). Friedrich Engels’s interest in Defoe’s novel has a different goal entirely: a critique of the metaphysics of violence. In the subsequent Marxist literary tradition, from Rosa Luxemburg to the Frankfurt school, Robinsonades continue to serving polemical purposes and are still used to reflect upon the diverse forms of alienation under capitalism. Conversely, there is Milton Friedman’s liberal utopia, conceived of as a society of “Robinson Crusoes”. Edward Said, in turn, focuses on how the subaltern subject is subdued. At the end of the 20th century, when the island is replaced by Mars, there reappears – according to Fredric Jameson – the enlightened utopia of the “new beginning”, which nowadays is but the expression of the feeling of the imminent end of the conditions of life on earth.

1. “The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades”. Not without sarcasm, does Marx use the term “Robinsonade” in 1857 to subject to critique bourgeois economists and, in general, “cultural historians” – J.-J. Rousseau among them – whose contrat social “brings naturally independent, autonomous subjects into relation and connection by contract” (MEW 42, 19; Marx 1993, 83).

These “eighteenth-century prophets” think of the individual “[n]ot as a historic result but as history’s point of departure, [a]s the Natural Individual appropriate to their notion of human nature, not arising historically, but posited by nature” (ibid.; ibid.). According to Marx, the Robinsonade authors’ interest in the non-corrupted (pre-social) beginnings of humankind does not mean longing for a paradise lost (“nature”). It is rather a theoretical and ideological justification of the free-competition society, which is “making giant strides towards maturity in the eighteenth [century]”. He adds: “In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate” (ibid.; ibid.).

Marx, whose main target is not Defoe’s novel but economists’ prevailing way of reading it (Siegbert S. Prawer 1978, 274), considers that the idea of individual production (and the individual origin of society) is as absurd as thinking that language could have emerged magically in isolated individuals. Instead, he puts forward the following: “Individuals producing in society – hence socially determined individual production – is, of course, the point of departure” (MEW 42, 19; Marx 1993, 83). Indeed, Marx criticises “in the myth of Robinsonism the idea of a societal ground zero”, which lies at the root of the notion of social contract (Ricardo Piglia 2005, 156) and of the Robinsonades themselves.

In Capital (1867), Marx draws upon Robinson Crusoe derisively, again. The Robinsonade is evoked to illustrate a form of production not based on the exchange of commodities; the activities performed by the “undemanding” castaway, “the independent man” (MEW 23, 90; Marx 1982, 169 and 170), emerge as the “archetypal example of human labour as the prime determinant of value” (Pat Rogers 2018, 50). At the same time, Robinson’s situation is leveraged by Marx when describing the socialist form of production, which would mean making available for everyone what only one man – the unit of production and consumption – enjoys in Defoe’s novel: “Let us finally imagine […] an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are repeated here, but with the difference that they are social instead of individual” (MEW 23, 92; Marx 1982, 171).

In Anti-Dühring (1877), Engels tackles the Robinsonade from a different perspective. He evokes it in the debate with Eugen von Dühring’s positivist enthronement of violence as an “original” principle in history. With the Robinsonade in mind, Dühring does not merely illustrate but actually offers an explanation for an alleged primordial setting in which the rule of man over man – i.e., the master-slave relationship (cf. his 1873 Course of Political and Social Economy, above all) – would have been established, once and for all. Such a relationship would conceal a sort of “original violence” upon which, according to Dühring, the ensemble of social and economic relations is built. These relations remain present in current capitalist societies, in which such violence persists, albeit covered and camouflaged. The Gewalteigenthum or “ownership […] based on violence” (qtd. in MEW 20; qtd. in Engels 1894, 36) is thus a metaphysical category or, at any rate, an extra-historic phenomenon, i.e., one independent of the development in the relations of production and exchange, which are subjected to the course of history.

Following Dühring’s logic, Engels addresses, in this regard, Crusoe and Friday as the new Adam and Eve (or, rather, Adam and Adam): “The Adam, who is here called Robinson Crusoe, makes his second Adam – Man Friday – drudge for all he is worth” (MEW 20, 145; Engels 1894, 177). Here lies the origin of the economic system and social inequality; eventually everything harkens back to the natural tendency to dominate others, to “oppression, [to] force” (ibid.; ibid.). Engels expands on this: for Dühring, “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 […] and inasmuch as ‘property founded on force’ […], 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” (147s.; 181).

By refuting Dühring’s arguments with the weapons of literary criticism, Engels turns back to Defoe’s novel to “prove” three things: 1. that Robinson does not subdue Friday because of his thirst for power, but due to economic profit; 2. that Robinson gains ascendance over Friday with the aid of his technology; 3. that Friday’s slavery is possible because Robinson owns the means for the former to live and work. Engels recalls: “before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared” (149; 182).

2. In The Accumulation of Capital, Luxemburg uses the term “Robinsonade” polemically, along the lines of Marx in the Grundrisse. She objects to J.-Ch.-L. Simonde de Sismondi’s starting his investigation, “[a]s usual, […] with Robinson Crusoe” (2003, 154) and to J. K. Rodbertus’s mistaking Robinson’s economy for the capitalist economy by not offering any type of mediation; in the former, “‘capital’ is the means of production pure and simple” (239). Luxemburg notices Otto Bauer’s “childish fantasy of a capitalist society on Robinson Crusoe’s island” (1972, 137), which does not tally with the reality that a given society’s capitalist production and accumulation only thrive in its interrelation with others, a key observation in explaining the problem of imperialism.

In History and Class Consciousness (1923), György Lukács refers to “an individual isolated consciousness a la Robinson Crusoe” (1971, 135). This consciousness has been “isolated artificially by capitalism”, which is decisively hampered in its self-awareness (1971, 135). This epistemological interest is, conversely, left aside in the 1934 article “The Novel as Bourgeois Epic” (published in Russian in 1935), in which Lukács identifies in Crusoe’s optimism and industriousness [Arbeitsamkeit] an indicator of how Defoe is “inclined positively towards [his] epoch, towards [his] class [i.e., the bourgeoisie]”. Lukács states that in the period when the bourgeoisie universally achieves the status of ruling class, its “progressive, active character” comes to the fore. That is why he calls attention to each shoveling or hoeing with which the protagonist exerts violence upon nature on his island, as those actions hint at “the struggle of man with nature as a symbol of the emerging dominance of society over nature […] depicted in the first part of Defoe’s ‘Robinson’”. Lukács makes it clear that this optimism does not mean concealing “how terrible” the “concrete manifestation” of “the social forces” with which man subdues nature truly is; it only means that those forces “have not yet fully taken on that dead spectrality [tote Gespenstigkeit], which is characteristic of them in the already firmly established and automatically functioning capitalist society” [modified translation].

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer think of Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC) as a primeval Robinsonade whose hero is already a homo oeconomicus subjugating mythical nature to the ratio principle by means of his cunning. Isolation, facilitated by insularity, reflects the condition of human beings in capitalist societies, in which “they are forced […] into a ruthless pursuit of their atomistic interest” (2002, 48). Adorno and Horkheimer also raise a psychological hypothesis about the causes of the colonialist mindset: the childish impotence castaways feel when the waves throw them against the rocks “functions as an ideology for their social predominance” (ibid.), expressed as vindictive violence on indigenous inhabitants. Finally, it is alluded that the flipside of all this is the castaway’s loneliness, as an indicator of his alienation: “all other human beings […] appear […] only in estranged forms, […] always as instruments, things” (49).

In 1941, Erich Fromm draws upon Robinson Crusoe to think of the “powerful” “fear of isolation” – physical and, above all, mental – of contemporary men (1960, 16). Partly agreeing with him, Adorno states in 1953 that Franz Kafka “wrote the consummate Robinson Crusoe story, that of the phase [of the development of capitalism] in which each man has become his own Robinson, adrift with his accumulated things on a rudderless raft” (1988, 266). Adorno thus refers to man’s alienation from fellow human beings and from things under late capitalism. This analysis sheds light, namely, on Robinson’s remarks after his survival on the desert island: “I walk’d about on the Shore, lifting up my Hands […], reflecting upon all my Comerades that were drown’d, and that there should not be one Soul sav’d but my self; for, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any Sign of them, except three of their Hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows” (2007, 41). The two shoes that do not make a pair can be interpreted as the expression of a civilising disaster. It can be extrapolated to the incomprehensible nature – or the lack of meaning – of the contemporary world, which the individual faces as an objectified or dead reality.

3. If Marxists have made use of the Robinsonade to unmask the bourgeoisie’s strategies of ideological self-legitimation and alienated consciousness, as well as to reflect upon the multidimensional violence inherent to the capitalist civilising process, Friedman, cofounder of the Chicago school of economics, strikingly evokes – as late as 1962 – Crusoe’s story to justify his ideal of a free market society, which is nothing but “a collection of Robinson Crusoes”, in his work Capitalism and Freedom (2002, 13). In this society, individuals would freely cooperate – “Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion” (ibid.) – insofar as, according to the paragon figure of neoliberalism, they exchanged their products for personal profit without any paternalistic state control.

4. In postcolonial studies, Said recalls that Robinson Crusoe is, above all, an imperial agent (1993, xii and 70) and that the novel as form (and Defoe’s in particular) is “immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences” (xii). Said’s vindication of the subaltern subject is, in fact, preceded in the 1960s and 1980s by the literary efforts of Michel Tournier (Friday, or, The Other Island, 1967), Julio Cortázar (cf. his radiophonic piece “Goodbye, Robinson”, 1977) and J. M. Coetzee (Foe, 1986), who analogously engages in the polysemic subversion of the bond between Robinson and Friday.

The 20th and 21st-century Robinsonades introduce new topics, such as the fear of nuclear calamity (a series can be outlined which sets off from Dark Mirrors, by A. Schmidt, published in 1951, to Plop, by the Argentinian R. Pinedo, published in 2002). Another theme – in keeping with Adorno’s and Fromm’s emphasis in the 1940s and 1950s – is the “existential” loneliness in hyper-developed societies (The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer, published in 1963). The lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have updated these two thematic lines in which the Robinsonade is readapted as the literary expression of a justified concern about our fate as a species. Nevertheless, it is possible that the appeal Robinsonades still hold lies, as Jameson suggests when analysing K. S. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, in that they make us fantasise with the utopian possibility of “an absolute new beginning” (2005, 402) – as the many 18th-century readers of Robinsonades would have done.

Trans. by Cecilia Lasa


Martín Koval holds a Ph. D. in Literature from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). He is a research fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet, Argentina) and a teacher at the UBA and the National University Arturo Jauretche (UNAJ). He is also a former German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship holder. He has delivered seminars as a visiting professor at the University of Brasília (Brazil) and the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany). He is the author of the book Vocación y renuncia. La novela de formación alemana entre la Ilustración y la Primera Guerra Mundial (FFyL/UBA, 2018). He has translated into Spanish works by E. T. A. Hoffmann, J. W. Goethe, J. G. Schnabel and, recently, J. K. Wezel.


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