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Marxist Ideas in "The Difference Engines" and "The Communist Manifesto"

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The Difference Engine, co­written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, imagines an alternate historical outcome during the industrial era of Europe in the late 19th century. The book follows three characters with different stories that intertwine respectively with their relation to the Kinotrope cards, a technological innovation that guarantees societal power to the holder. The first character introduced to us, Sybil Gerard, acts as a prostitute and thief in order to avoid her connection to her father, a former Luddite riot leader who met his demise. She accepts Mick Radley’s request to become an apprentice adventuress because of his wealth and promises to erase her past. The first part of the book sets up the political atmosphere as Mick involves Sybil in his relations with Houston while also introducing the importance of the Kinotrope cards that connect all three stories. We follow her storyline until Swing, an antagonist in pursuit of the cards, murders Mick. We then follow Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, an acknowledged savant and paleontologist who discovered the brontosaurus in this time setting. Although the authors assert Mallory’s humble and turbulent background, they immediately change his status from common man to wealthy and reputed. He becomes the holder of the cards after a violent encounter with Swing and then becomes targeted by Swing throughout his story. Swing ruins Mallory’s life by accusing him of murder and destroying his esteemed position in research. In attempt to keep his reputation and life, Mallory befriends many high positioned people including Fraser and Oliphant. Mallory’s story ends when he teams up with his two brothers and Fraser in order to hunt down and kill Swing, an endeavor they succeed in. The last part of the book follows the cards in the hands of Oliphant, a detective of high class who remains stuck on the case of Mick Radley. He meets Sybil near the end of the story and promises her safety in return for information. The ending of the book reveals the narrator as a machine capable of consciousness, ultimately commenting on the innate power technology provides and reveals the authors’ warning of the dangers of a technological age.

Marxism looks at society as an organized system of power which drives production and progression. Founded and based on the works and ideas of Karl Heinrich Marx and influencers including Friedrich Engels and G.W.F. Hegel, the theory argues that the political, economic and social climate of a population depends on a class system and how, in literature, the characters and plot remains driven by either economic pressure or a general pursuit towards power (Habib 527). Marx’s most prominent book, ‘The Communist Manifesto‘, describes, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” (Marx 40). This asserts a Dialectical Materialism interpretation that history exists due to the tensions between the hierarchies of class (Siegel). To examine literature, the theory focuses on this class struggle of oppressors and oppressed and how an individual or community fits into this system. Emphasis exists on materialism as the reader views the conspicuous consumption of a character or setting and the commodification, or the implicit value of an object, which society encourages (Siegel). These points of emphasis come from Marx’s critique of the skewed system of power that exists between the bourgeoisie and the working class in capitalism and its imperialistic nature, thus, arguing an, “economic interpretation of history” (Morrow). Additionally, these points of emphasis go on to prove that individuals remain obstructed from freedom and spirituality because of the materialism and class restrictions projected through art and literature in society. Marxism influenced many different branches of literary theory including the feminist theory and historicism, yet, it falls short in acknowledging human nature of greed as it assumes a population to labor willingly and over exaggerates “the reach of capitalism,” (Morrow). Overall Marxism outlines how literature directly correlates with the material and societal values of a setting and how class and power drive history.

Gibson and Sterling use the distribution of class and power in relation to the budding technology in ‘The Difference Engine’ to highlight the progression of history as proposed by the Marxist Theory. As the book focuses on the Babbage Engine to create a science fiction narrative, the the new controllers of technology and engines replace bourgeoisie of victorian England in this novel (Sussman). Technology begins to replace people, the former force of production. Thus, an emphasis on Kinotrope cards arises as the cards become the key to a new technological innovation, making them the key to power. The holder of the cards can become the controllers of a new age of production and, as Marxism proposes, the top of the pyramid of class. Through this set up, Gibson and Sterling create a setting with new aspects of class and struggles between the classes in order to propose a new outcome through violence and a society dominated by its technological advances. Due to this new structural hierarchy, the old production force of laborers fight back giving rise to the Luddites described as industrial rioters and antagonists like Captain Swing who wish to control the new technology and return power to the common laborers. The Marxist idea of material and production dictating history permeates throughout Gibson and Sterling’s story as a vehicle for progression. Gibson and Sterling reimagine history using the structural basis of class and production provided by Marxism and suggest a prompt change in society arising from the dichotomy between the common man’s role and the wealthy’s influence.

Renowned for his political, economic, and philosophical ideas, Karl Marx proposed a new perspective on history and economy that remains admired today. Born 1818 in Prussia, Marx’s grew up influenced by ideas of the enlightenment including those of Voltaire which later shaped his interest in philosophy. His Jewish family lived in wealth as he went on to study law at the university of Bonn and, later, Berlin. Throughout his early life Marx participated in radical groups including the Young Hegelians and felt passion in fighting for reform. He became a journalist soon after graduating and wrote for radical newspapers in Paris until he being exiled whereupon he moved to London. Ultimately, Marx abandoned this path of law and journalism when he became intrigued by philosophy and the ideas of G.F.W. Hegel. Inspired, he began to devise his own theory on work and capitalism and coined the term “Materialist Conception of history” as his philosophy (Berner). Along with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, Marx published his theories in his most influential book, ‘The Communist Manifesto.‘ Marx explored the dangers of capitalism and how class tensions of capital and labor perpetuate history in his works and wrote many other novels, including ‘Capital,‘ expanding upon his ideas. Marx’s legacy lives on through his influential works as they inspired a new perspective on labor and reform.

Marx built his core thesis around the idea of a Materialist Conception of history where class and labor tensions perpetuate a society. In his model, the base of society depends on the modes of production: machines, land, and laborers (Morrow). This dependence leads to a separation of power that establishes a class system, an integral part in the Conception of history. The upper class, referred to by Marx as the bourgeoisie, hold control over the modes of production and, inevitably, the laborers that make up the proletarian class. The bourgeoisie and proletarians innately divide into upper and lower classes, even though each depends on the other. This natural hierarchy causes tension, raising conflict and resolutions which progress society (Berner). Marx describes this cycle as a Materialist Conception of History, stating that a society organizes and develops based on the conflicts of inequality. He explains, “Definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations,” (Marx). This describes how people who control production make up a base and superstructure, or influence over society, and with this form an economic foundation. They hold power through their influence as they control the availability of material and the flow of ideas, described as “The production of ideas . . . is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men” (Marx).The force of production, made up of laborers, conflict with the base due to an imbalance of power and soon initiate a social revolution, meaning to destroy the current system and establish a new one (Berner). However, if successful, a new hierarchy replaces the old superstructure and history continues. New generations prosper from the work and products left by the old generation and, by building upon each last generation and exploiting new material, the cycle of conflict and resolution endures. Thus, Marx’s proposition of a Materialist Conception of History outlines why social classes remain in most societies and how this hierarchal system initiates development and structure.

Gibson and Watson explore an alternate history of the industrial age in Europe where they place emphasis on how Babbage’s work came to transform the means of production and its impact to the hierarchies of class in the setting. While acknowledging the Victorian aspects of this age, the authors introduce the effect of technology as an impetus for change of the classical Victorian hierarchy model (Sussman). The revolutionary machine described as, “Babbage’s very first Engine, now an honored relic, was still less than thirty years old, but the swift progression of Enginery had swept a whole generation in its wake, like some mighty locomotive of the mind,” acts as a catalyst to shift power (Gibson & Watson 150). As a new source of production, technology triumphs as the key mode of production in a growing society, making it the ultimate source of power. These new modes of production replace the laborers of the old lower class which allows tension and conflict to arise, epitomized by the industrial radicals who fought to maintain relevance in society. Sybil epitomized the failure of this conflict as her father, the leader of the industrial radicals, failed and left her unable to seek valuable methods of production to survive. Although she could not produce material value to the society, through social relations, Sybil gained access to the cards, thus, giving her power in society. Her key role at the end of the novel, revealing the truths about Mick and the cards to Oliphant, proves that her worth and power came from the connection to the new force of production, the cards. Contrastingly, Oliphant epitomized the upper class that did not explicitly produce material in society, but held control over those who did. His character exemplified an important influence over the other two characters as Mallory acted in accordance to higher power and Sybil capitulated to his investigation, showing his incorporeal impact to society. Ultimately, the authors use Mallory as an in­between character, describing him as a humble scholarly man who worked for his research, digging and living in the arduous environment of Wyoming, and came back still a middle class man of little influence and power. However, Mallory immediately gains wealth through a gamble and suddenly becomes holder of the cards, giving him power of wealth and control. This sudden shift displays the imbalance of the hierarchy as one can climb up through chance, showing the flaws of capitalistic model as described by Marx. Nevertheless, despite his humble beginnings, Mallory becomes accustomed to wealth, buying antiques for his sister and a new abode for himself, while still seeking the status of savent through his research. This new gained power allowed him to make connections with Oliphant and Fraser, integrating him into the upper class slowly. However, Mallory’s rough and humble personality triumphed when Swing begins sending men to kill him and ruining his reputation as a scholar in order to obtain the Kinotrope cards. Swing displays a new form of lower class that seeks social revolution in order to gain value in society, value that machines replaced in this alternate setting. Mallory, as a part of a bourgeoisie class, retaliates using the proletarian method of protest and physical battle, and succeeds in obstructing the force of revolution. Through his success he shifts society in favor of an upper class system as new savants take power and control over society and technology triumphs over laborers. The progression of power abides to Marx’s theory as society continues to progress by those who control production, symbolized by the holder of the Kinotrope cards throughout the novel.

Marx’s friend and co­writer of ‘The Communist Manifesto‘, Friedrich Engels ‘played a key’ role in shaping and defining the ideas of the Marxist theory. Born November 28, 1820 in Barmen, Prussia, a town focused on industry and production, Engels grew up around industry and manufacturing (Hammen). His father, a textile manufacturer, influenced Engels to pursue commerce and, in turn, Engels did not have a formal education. However, Engels proved intelligent and formed radical ideas of his own during his mandatory military service in Berlin where he met some Young Hegelians (Hammen). Dissatisfied with his career in business, he began writing as a journalist and observed the structure of capitalism in Manchester when working with his father. When he later went to Paris and discussed his ideas with Marx, they realized the similarities in their philosophies and decided to write their ideas together. His own works exploring labor includes ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England,‘ a work inspired by his time in Manchester (Hammen). However, unable to support himself and Marx with only his career in writing, Engels eventually returned to business but ultimately sold his shares when he became financially stable. He spent the end of his life expanding on his ideas with Marx in London until his death in 1895.

As co­writer with Marx, Engels shared the same ideas as Marx, yet, found ways to apply structure to science and history as an explanation of a chronicle of society. His theory, called Dialectic Materialism, expanded on the Materialist Conception of History by proposing that the value placed on objects and a society’s need and want of these objects cause the cycle of conflict and resolution. Engels write, “The state is nothing but an instrument of oppression of one class by another ­ no less so in a democratic republic than in a monarchy” (Engels). This asserts that people in power purposely restrict other classes from obtaining material value in order to control power. This “oppression of one class by another” reinforces Marx’s explanation as the state becomes the vehicle of conflict in a society. However, contrastingly to Marx, Engels suggests, “The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations” (Engels). He implies that the material world came from the common man as the bourgeoisie were once common men that grew to power in accordance to Marx’s cycle of revolution. Thus, Dialectic Materialism implies that the common man set up a system of material power, fought their way into higher classes, ultimately becoming the bourgeoisie, and being replaced by previously common men in continuation of the cycle. Whereas Marx asserts that the bourgeoisie cause the materialist cycle, Engels proposes a new perspective in which the common man perpetuates history. The lower classes perception of the upper class causes them to fight and replace the bourgeoisie, ultimately making the common man the perpetuator of the cycle of conflict and resolution.

Gibson and Sterling critique the structure proposed by Dialectics Materialism by using a common man and giving him power and status. Edward Mallory displays the trope of the common man and the authors emphasize his rough and tough exterior that has been shaped by his hardships growing up in a lower class with a big family and pursuing archeology under illegal pretense. Mallory worked hard and took any opportunity available for his research or wealth. During his lowest point he pleads, “Let us away from the fashionable Palace, to a house where they don’t mind letting in a man with nothing left but the coat on his back” (Gibson & Sterling 238). He rejects the “Palace” which symbolizes safety and wealth for a place where he would be accepted as a beggar, even after experiencing the privilege of wealth and power. Similarly, the antagonist, Captain Swing, presents a common man fighting for the cause of the common man. Swing believes, “The country in the hands of learned lunatics with too much money and hearts of stone” (Gibson & Watson 228). He symbolizes the lower class rising up to destroy the established bourgeoisie which reflects Marx’s perspective. However, Gibson and Sterling use Mallory, a common man who rose to the upper class, to defeat the uprising Swing initiates. During the confrontation between characters, Mallory sheds the wealthy composure he adapted and becomes the humble yet tough Wyoming man that was first introduced. Thus, a common man, Mallory, defeated the common man’s revolution. The authors convey Engels perspective with this plot line as the common man causes the perpetuation of society, not a bourgeoisie.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a prominent philosopher in the late 18’th century, set the foundation for Marxism through his ideas and works. Born in Stuttgart on August 27, 1770 to a revenue officer and a mother who held high status in society, Hegel lived a privileged life for his time period (Froeb). His mother died during his childhood but his father made sure Hegel got a formal education. Thus, he attended a Latin school until the age of 18 and found interest in ideas of the German Enlightenment and continued his studies of philosophy at the University of Tbingena, a Protestant seminary (Froeb). He took up the occupation of private tutor in order to continue his independent study of philosophy and Greek and Roman classics. During this time he wrote essays and various texts until problems with the family he worked for pushed him to seek another job. He became a Professor at Privatdozent soon after and published his first work, ‘The Phenomenology of Mind‘. Hegel highlighted the idea of contradiction and how negation shapes a society. Financial pressures motivated Hegel to keep writing as teaching did not pay (Froeb). Unable to live off his career, he moved to Bamberg and became an editor (Froeb). Though he held many careers through his life, he continued writing his theories throughout his life. Hegel’s legacy lived in his works and the students following his ideas who called themselves the Young Hegelians. At the end of his life he went to teach at the University of Berlin and died in Berlin in 1831.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Hegel looked toward the larger perspective of Totality which emphasizes the outcome more than the method while still analyzing the inherent contradictions that influenced the outcome. According to his view of Totality, “Only the whole is true. Every stage or phase or moment is partial, and therefore partially untrue.” (Spencer). This makes the method of achieving the end, whether the bourgeoisie or common man cause the change, irrelevant. Notably, Hegel inspired the Marxist theory, so his perspective remains a broader idea than those of Marx and Engels. Within Hegel’s theory he notes negations, or, the inherent contradiction in the course of history. For example, the violence of a revolution and uprising ultimately leads to a new order and structural base for society. This paradox of violence bringing order describes the course of history in Hegel’s perspective. In his theory of Negation lies three main types of contradiction: Being, Essence, and Notion. The contradiction of Being describes a juxtaposition where seemingly contradicting aspects actually relate upon closer inspection. Essence defines, “opposed pairs immediately imply one another” (Spencer). Lastly, Notion relates to Totality at it emphasizes “concepts . . . whose component parts . . . are conceptually interrelated,” (Spencer). Hegel looks at history as a sum of outcomes by ignoring the impetus towards the outcome while acknowledging the relations and contradiction between the causes. Overall, Hegel beckons focus on the current outcome and the awaiting outcome to define our place as a society.

Gibson and Sterling uses Hegel’s viewpoint of Totality and negation to reimagine the course of history. The outcome of a technology dominant society still organized in a hierarchy of class evidently describes the success of industry over labor in the setting of this novel. The events that led to this outcome, the Luddite revolution, becomes irrelevant and forgotten as the search for Kinotrope cards, the leading innovation, conquers the characters. The authors write, “Succession of power is everything,” noting that only the successors matter in the present setting (Gibson and Sterling 385). Gaining power establishes control and the challenges faced to obtain power do not matter once one dictates power. For example, Swing’s revolution initiated a conflict between classes and reclaiming power. Mallory, as a wealthy man, returned to his humble beginnings and defeated Swing, causing society to continue as before, except Mallory gained higher status and power. Although Mallory’s defeat of Swing obtained him power, his victory no longer remains relevant and he continues with his new life as he was meant to be there all along. This describes the theory of Totality as power ultimately remained in technology even after conflict and resolution. However, the negation of being becomes acknowledged through the conflict of revolution. The authors write, “Dire violence has been done to the true natural course of historical development” (Gibson and Sterling 343). Violence, in connotation to destruction, ultimately built history and society. The plot of the novel asserts Hegel’s theory of Totality as the overall outcome arises from contradicting actions, ultimately causing only the end to matter.

In order to reimagine the past, Gibson and Sterling used Marxist ideas to create a new future filled with the inevitable conflict between man and power. The use of three characters of different statuses and their interaction with power highlighted the universal plight for power that Marx argued. Mallory exemplified this struggle of conflict and resolution outlined by the Materialist Conception of history and Dielectric materialism. He proved that a humble man can rise in status and, despite his initial values, succumb to the aims of the bourgeoisie class. In writing his plot line, the authors critique the overall system and how, although different people obtain power, the outcomes and goals remain the same for everyone. This idea correlates with Hegel’s theory of Totality and reveals to the readers the irrelevance of the conflict as the resolution remains the same. Overall, The Difference Engine explores Marxist ideas in the creation of a new history and disregards conflicts in the face of progression.

Works Cited

  1. Walmsley, Joan, and Trevor Walmsley. “KARL MARX.” Karl Marx Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
  2. Hammen, Oscar J. “Friedrich Engels | German Philosopher.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
  3. Froeb, Canfora. “Illustrated Hegel Biography­”Illustrated Hegel Biography­, 2006. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
  4. Spencer, Llyod Spencer, and Andrzej Krauze. “Hegel FOR BEGINNERS.”Hegel FOR BEGINNERS. Icon Books, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
  5. Habib, Rafey. “Marxism.”A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 527­53. Print.
  6. Siegel, Kristi. “Introduction to Modern Literary Theory.”Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
  7. Morrow, Sarah, and Robert Lusteck. “The University of Alabama.”Marxist Anthropology. The University of Alabama, 2009. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

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Marxist Ideas in “The Difference Engines” and “The Communist Manifesto”. (2018, Jun 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from
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