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Zola’s Germinal


Not content merely to follow in the footsteps of such realists as Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary ), Émile Zola decided to create his own literary movement and call it “naturalism.” A variant of realism, it emphasizes even more than realism careful research to prepare settings and other details to be described. Zola’s theories also embody a kind of determinism in which the characters’ heredity and environment essentially determine their actions. Characters are representative types rather than unique individuals. Groups are often important. In addition, Zola’s naturalist novels usually end in some sort of large-scale catastrophe. Modern disaster novels and films can trace their heritage back to Germinal.

Germinalis part of a 20-volume series of novels depicting various aspects of life in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, intended as a kind of sequel to Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy, which was a lengthy series of stories and novels depicting the early part of the century. Characters reoccur in various books and are related to characters in other books. Étienne Lantier, for instance, was born to alcoholic parents in L’assommoir (1877) and became a leader of the radical and disastrous uprising of the 1870-1871 Commune in La débâcle (1892) and is the brother of the protagonist of Nana (1880). The series as a whole is called after the two families whose genetic inheritance determines the fates of their members: the Rougon-Macquart.

Labor groups objected that in L’assommoir Zola had depicted the laboring classes in an entirely unflattering light, neglecting the labor movement which was in the process of transforming capitalism; so he set himself the task of researching radical and reformist labor movements for this novel. The result is the only important 19th-century piece of fiction to take seriously the ideas of the labor movement of the time. Not that he entirely endorsed them: although Zola was eventually to become a socialist, at this point he did not ally himself entirely with the workers. Although he clearly sympathizes with their sufferings, he also portrays them as irrational and destructive.

It is vital to keep some facts in mind about the labor movement in France. As in most industrialized countries, workers tended to want more than higher wages and shorter working hours. In many cases, the labor organizations were socialist, aiming at the total transformation of society and the redistribution of property. The bourgeois readers who made up most of Zola’s audience certainly viewed them that way, and made no distinctions between mild reformers and revolutionaries. Essentially all labor organizing activities, including all strikes, were illegal, and were routinely broken up by force.

Most members of Zola’s audience in 1885 could remember the disastrous Commune of 1870, the first communist revolution in world history. When the characters of Germinal, set in 1866-67, predict that the revolution will come they are uttering a prophecy that the audience knew had come true just three years later. This is no empty radical gesturing, but a sober statement of historical fact. And the readers doubtless saw these predictions as a warning of what could happen again in the near future if conditions for workers were not improved.


Part One

Chapter 1

Germinal is famous for its use of a carefully controlled palette. Here the color black is prominent, and will remain so throughout the novel. What other colors can you find recurring throughout the novel, and what significance do they seem to have? It is March 1866 when the novel begins. Late March and early April together formed the Revolutionary month called “Germinal,” the month of germination. The calendar used during the French Revolution substituted rational, natural names for those traditionally given the months of the year: the rainy month, the foggy month, the windy month, etc. Germinal is the month in which plants first begin to sprout from the ground; but the image of sprouting plant life is also used throughout the novel (and particularly at its conclusion) to symbolize the rising consciousness of the workers as they realize the sources of their suffering and organize to combat them. Look carefully for mentions of growing things and germination, especially as they are linked to sex and reproduction. Although Zola claims to be a meticulous realist, in fact his descriptions are often deliberately overstated to achieve poetic effects. How realistic is it that a man’s hands would actually be bleeding from the lash of the wind if he could stick them in his pockets?

Le Voreux means “the voracious one.” Note the use of the word “devour” on this page. Look for instances in which the mine is compared to an all-devouring beast. This is one of the central metaphors of the novel, based partly on the legend of Melek or Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were sometimes sacrificed, and which came to represent human greed (Amos 5:26, compare “Mammon” in Matthew 6:24). Flaubert had memorably depicted such a child-devouring god in his novel of ancient Carthage, Salammbô. What does the imagery imply about the nature of the mine itself and of the economic system which has produced it? Montsou means “mountain of pennies,” which suggests a large number of very poor people clustered tightly together.

Bonnemort means “good death.” What about Grandfather Maheu has caused him to be given this nickname?

What evidence is there that Bonnemort has black lung disease?

Why is it ironic that his grandfather had discovered the mine? What connection is there between hard work and ownership in this novel?

What earlier image does Bonnemort’s vision of the “crouching god” connect with? What do you think this second god represents?

Chapter 2

Montsou is a “company town,” a relatively new, artificial mass of crowded-together buildings erected to house the miners and workers brought into the area. It has no historic roots, and little sense of itself as a place. How does Zola convey the depersonalized nature of this town as he introduces us to it?

Catherine is going to be the most important young woman in the novel. How is her description strikingly different from the sort of portraits we find of young female protagonists in most nineteenth-century novels? On the next few pages, how many instances can you find of a carelessness about sex that would have shocked Zola’s staid middle-class audience? What is he trying to say about the effects of poverty on these people?

Maheu’s brutality here is not paralleled anywhere else in the novel. Usually he is a model father and husband. Keep an eye on him as a representative of the miners. In this particular area of France (the far northeastern corner, near Belgium), the miners have adopted the custom of calling women by the feminine article La and their husbands’ or fathers’ last names with a feminine ending. Thus the wife of Maheu is La Maheude, the wife of Pierron is La Pierronne, and the daughter of Old Mouque is La Mouquette. A similar effect in English would be to call Mr. Smith’s wife “The Smithess” or “Smithette.” This pattern would have seemed as strange to Parisian readers as it does to modern Americans. La Maheude is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and the one whose transformations most fully reflect its themes. Try to note the changes she goes through.

Chapter 3

“Richomme” means “rich man.” Dansaert, as chief foreman, is neither owner nor laborer. Chosen by the mine administration to oversee the other workers, he is identified by both sides as not being truly one of them. How is his exploitative role reflected in his private life as well?

On his tour of a typical coal mine, Zola had taken careful notes about the cage (the elevator in which workers and coal are raised and lowered) which he here incorporates in the novel. What elements of his description go beyond mere documentation to a kind of symbolism? Many readers would have regarded La Mouquette as a “slut.” How does Zola try to convey a more positive image of her?

What does it tell us about Catherine that Étienne can mistake her for a boy? What has caused her immaturity?

Note the mentions of the leaks in the shaft casing which allow subterranean water to leak into the mine. Zola sets up in this scene much of what you need to know to understand the action in the rest of the novel, but without embarking on a dry technical lecture. He is highly skilled at integrating description with action, a technique that many other authors were to imitate.

The Maheu team calls the passageway where it works “hell.” Hellish metaphors are going to occur frequently in the novel. Chaval is pronounced almost the same as cheval– “horse.” What about Chaval is horse-like?

Chapter 4

What is the dilemma that keeps the team from paying proper attention to “timbering” (shoring up the roof with large timbers)?

Pierrot is a traditional Commedia dell’Arte figure you have probably seen in the form of porcelain figurines: a sad-looking clown dressed in white ruffles and a tall peaked cap. In what ways does Zola continue to break with the Romantic stereotypes of depicting the first encounter of two people destined to be lovers in his portrait of this encounter of Étienne and Catherine?

Lydie exemplifies the premature sexuality which pervades the novel. What causes this phenomenon? What effect is it designed to have on the reader? How is sex made animalistic here?

Zola began this novel with the intention of showing how Étienne had inherited his parents’ alcoholism. Try to decide as you follow his story whether he is genuinely an alcoholic.

Firedamp (methane) is an invisible, odorless, but deadly gas which occurs frequently in coal mines. It can cause suffocation or, by being ignited by a random spark, explosions. It is still one of the chief hazards of coal mining.

Chapter 5

Paul Négrel represents the type of the rebellious offspring of the bourgeoisie who rebels against his upbringing, but who does not really identify with the workers. Note his transformation in the crisis which comes later.

Explain Maheu’s analysis of what the change in payment means.

In classic love stories the lovers must overcome external obstacles, often in the form of a tyrannical father who opposes the match. What keeps Catherine and Étienne apart?

How does the protest against the Company begin? What role does Étienne play in it?

Rasseneur is a former activist, leader of an earlier strike, now living off what his wife’s tavern makes in defiance of the Company. Watch how his relationship with Étienne develops. Note that it is taken for granted among the workers that women work both as laborers and as business owners. The 19th-century stereotype of the housewife was reserved for the bourgeoisie.

Pluchart is an organizer for the Communist International Workingmen’s Association, an organization to which Karl Marx and Friederich Engels originally belonged. It tried to organize laborers from many countries into a single movement to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism.

Why does Étienne decide to continue working at Le Voreux?


Part Two

Chapter 1

Compare this chapter with Chapter 2 of Part One. In what ways are the settings, characters, and events deliberately contrasted to stress the differences between the workers and the owners? Have the Grégoires become rich through hard labor, or any other virtue? How does their story illustrate Marx’s dictum that those who work acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work?

Chapter 2

How do the pressures of poverty interfere with education?

Maigrat suggests maigre, “meager,” which alludes to the storekeeper’s stingy, greedy nature. He runs the company store, which is the only store that will advance credit to the miners when they have no ready cash. Perpetually in debt, they can only shop at this store where they are overcharged and abused in a pattern which in agricultural settings is known as debt peonage. They are never able to accumulate enough money to escape from the Company’s demands; and since they live in company-controlled housing, they have no basis for independence whatsoever. Company stores and towns were not built out of a charitable concern for workers: they were a means of shackling them firmly to the company in a state of semi-slavery. Zola here explores a theme much discussed currently: sexual exploitation by men in authority of women in their power.

The Grégoires have conventional ideas about charity. What do we know about the Maheus that makes their ideas unfair?

Why do the poor have more children than the rich?

Note La Maheude’s humble philosophy of life, and how it will change.

Chapter 3

What evidence is there that the workers lack a sense of solidarity with each other?

Why do mothers object to their sons getting married early?

How does Mme Hennebeau try to deny the suffering in front of her?

Chapter 4

Why would it make economic sense to reserve scarce meat for the father of the family?

Jeanlin’s tyranny over Bébert and Lydie is going to parallel that of the owners over the workers. Watch how he becomes transformed into a monster incarnating all the evils of their lot.

102-103: Why do you think sex is so insistently linked with reproduction in this novel? How is it linked to nature, to germination?


Part Three

Chapter 1

111-112: Why does Catherine allow herself to be dominated by Chaval when she really loves Étienne? How is the image of germination used here?

113-115: Souvarine (Russian Suvarin) is modeled on the violent anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who escaped from exile in Siberia to London. His split with Karl Marx caused the first International Workingmen’s Association eventually to collapse. He advocated terrorist acts of assassination and destruction to disrupt governments and inspire people to rise up against them and create a peaceful egalitarian utopia. Marx rejected secret conspiratorial activities on the grounds that only an open movement could provide the necessary basis for a true socialist revolution. Czar Alexander II was in fact assassinated by a terrorist plot in 1881, just four years before the publication of Germinal. The violent anarchists of Russia called nihilists were the leading image in most people’s mind of radical activists. They were said to act out of an irrational desire for destruction, and their ideals were normally ignored. Zola demonstrates remarkable insight in portraying Souvarine as a sensitive man traumatized by love, who has turned to violence out of compassion. This pattern in fact fits many of history’s most violent nihilists. What signs can you find here and later that Souvarine is in fact a loving, kindly man? It should be noted that although all anarchists were lumped together in the public mind, many of them rejected nihilism, and were in fact pacifists. Much of Poland was dominated by Russia in the nineteenth century. Why do you think the Russian Souvarine calls his pet rabbit “Poland?”

How do the workers view the famous French Revolution of 1789? Why do they feel the need for another revolution? The so-called “iron law of wages” of the English economist Ricardo was adopted by Marx in his own philosophy. It argues that in a capitalist society wages tend always to be depressed to the lowest minimum capable of allowing the workers to reproduce. How is this mechanism used to portray the workers as being treated as a commodity rather than as living people? Étienne is interested the ideas of Ferdinand Lasalle (German, 1825-1864), who believed in achieving socialism by popular elections which would force governments to set up self-governing , worker-owned cooperatives. His ideas lie at the opposite end of the radical political spectrum from those of Souvarine. Note how Zola is careful to distinguish among the many shades of radical opinion, usually lumped together in the popular mind.

The method of having teams of workers bid for mining contracts had in fact been outlawed shortly before this novel is set; but Zola includes it to illustrate how wages are set in a competitive environment in which there is a surplus of labor. What effect does this bidding process have on wages? How does it illustrate Ricardo’s “iron law of wages?”

Chapter 2

The nailmaker’s fair is a classic example of “slice of life realism,” a detailed description based on his observations and notes. Zola was an extremely efficient writer: he used in his novels almost every note he made, which led sometimes to more detail than is strictly relevant to the action being depicted. But in a time without film or television, readers were entranced by detailed depictions of unfamiliar places and customs. Note how in the dance scene he manages to describe the movements of the group as a whole, a technique he specialized in.

How is Étienne being changed by his studies?

How is the image of germination being used here? Keep this passage in mind. It is echoed at the end of the novel. The image of a crop of men growing out of the land comes from the Greco-Roman myth of the dragon’s teeth. Cadmus slew a dragon and planted its teeth, which sprouted into armed men. Zola was not the only writer to use this myth for political purposes. Upton Sinclair, an American radical writer, called his third novel Dragon’s Teeth (1942). Both ignored the part of the myth in which the newly-born men slew each other and had to be replaced by a new generation. Zola may be also drawing on the story of Deucalion and his wife, who plant bones which become a new race of men and women. Despite his radical literary theories, Zola was very fond of using classical mythology in his works.

What does the socialist slogan, “To each according to his worth, and his worth according to his work” mean? What changes would its implementation cause in the society of Montsou? How does La Maheude react to Étienne’s radical talk?

Chapter 4

In 1866 the French coal industry was struck by a crisis. America had stopped importing massive quantities of steel to build its railroads, which had the effect of lessening the demand for coal to manufacture the steel (see p. 306). What great historical event had interrupted the export trade and was eventually to lead to America building its own steel industry and becoming one of the world’s great industrial powers? Why is this a bad time for the workers to go on strike?

How does the Company try to separate the workers from Étienne? This technique is very widely used by oppressive groups: identify leaders as “outside agitators,” and insist that “our people” are contented if not “stirred up.” Is this a fair analysis of the situation in Montsou? Might the workers have struck even without Étienne?

Chapter 5

Note Jeanlin’s prophetic comment early in the chapter.

The cave-in is the first in a series of disasters in which Zola methodically explores all safety hazards of coal mining. Why is it logical that he should begin with a cave-in, given the developments that have preceded this accident?

How is La Maheude’s grief over Jeanlin’s accident warped by her poverty?


Part Four

Chapter 1

Madame Hennebeau’s affair is meant to provide the mine company manager with suffering to balance that of the miners. Is Zola successful it making you feel that his sufferings equal theirs? This motif is developed further in a passage below that Zola cited to someone who criticized his novel as being too sympathetic with the miners.

Marx argued that capitalists tend, during periods of economic growth, to over-expand, leading to the creation of excess capacity which is reduced only in times of economic recession. How does Hennebeau’s explanation of the current crisis reflect this theory?

Why is it ironic that Hennebeau thinks Rasseneur is responsible for pushing the miners toward a strike?

Paul Négrel is obviously familiar with the popular socialist slogan, “Property is theft,” which meant that under capitalism wealth was created only by owners expropriating the profits generated by underpaid workers. Socialism was driven not merely by a desire for equality, but by the conviction that the current system of economic exploitation was a form of legal robbery. What three conventional arguments does Grégoire give to defend himself as a capitalist? What weaknesses can you find in his arguments?

Why is Hennebeau not necessarily opposed to a strike? What advantages for him might a strike have over massive lay-offs?

Chapter 2

How well does Maheu serve as a spokesman for the miners?

What is the significance of the unknown god referred to at the bottom of the page?

Chapter 3

How has La Maheude changed?

What keeps Catherine from leaving Chaval?

Chapter 4

How have Étienne’s political ideas changed?

How do Souvarine’s ideas differ from Étienne’s? Note the reference to Bakunin (Pt three, Chapter 1).

What do we learn here about Souvarine that explains his powerful aversion to getting involved with women?

What effect does the attempt of the gendarmes to break up the meeting have on the miners?

Chapter 5

How is La Maheude continuing to develop?

Chapter 6

The wildness of Jeanlin and the other children prepares us for the animalistic behavior of their elders later.

Chapter 7

Note how the rally is punctuated by an ominous silence.

Zola does a fair job of summarizing typical 19th-century socialist ideals here. What are their main features? Note in the rest of the chapter how he depicts the collective emotions of the miners.

How does Étienne make use of Bonnemort?

Note the recurrence of the dragon’s teeth motif. How is it further developed here? What other motif is it connected to?

What effect does Zola create by balancing the shouts of the crowd against the silence of nature?


Part Five

Chapter 1

Le Tartaret refers to the Greek hell, Tartarus. What is Zola’s intended symbolism in creating an inferno underground which creates a paradise on the surface? What idea is he trying to convey?

Chapter 2

How does Catherine’s nakedness reinforce the symbolism?

What does Catherine’s fatalism tell us about the lives of most of the mining women?

Before the days of steam-powered lifts, ladders were used to descend into the mines and haul the coal out. Now they serve as emergency exits. Catherine has almost been asphyxiated when this crisis begins. Follow her through the rest of the following episode and see how Zola subjects her to almost unbearable suffering, though in the end she survives remarkably well. Try to list all the things that happen to her.

Chapter 3

Étienne begins drinking. Try to follow the course of his drunkenness. Does Zola convince you that it is the alcohol that causes his actions?

Note that although three thousand had sworn to strike last night, only a tenth as many have shown up for this protest. Watch as the numbers grow throughout the day.

Jeanlin with his horn is meant to suggest the Greek god Pan, who could inspire panic (named after him) by blowing on his pipes. Pan had goat’s legs, suggested here by Jeanlin’s crippled limbs.

How does Zola make the mine seem more human than ever here? Why is it ironic that it is Deneulin’s mine which is the first to be damaged?

Chapter 4

The immediate cause of the French Revolution was a shortage of bread. Both the miners and the owners are keenly aware of this as the former shout “Bread! Bread! We want bread!” They are symbolically calling not only for food, but for revolution. Is Étienne leading this riot? Is his drunkenness causing him to urge them on to excesses?

Old Quandieu (“when God”) faces down the crowd according to the standard 19th-century view of crowd behavior which argued that one bold individual could turn away a riotous mob.

What techniques does Zola use here and elsewhere to depict the mob as a group?

Are you convinced that Étienne’s actions are satisfactorily explained by his alcoholism?

Chapter 5

Why does Zola time Hennebeau’s discovery of his wife’s ether flacon to coincide with the arrival of the workers?

Zola prided himself on his visual sense. He was an important art critic, especially as a friend and defender of the Impressionists. He often spoke of his writing as a kind of painting. If he had lived in our time he would probably have become a film director. Try to visualize the scene that follows, as the women hiding with Paul Négrel peer out the barely-opened stable door and see the mob thundering past. The point of view is clearly established. How does Zola build this scene to a climax? The singing of the Marseillaise, the revolutionary anthem that was written for the 1789 revolution, was strictly forbidden. The miners are committing a revolutionary act by singing it. Which is the last and most violent group to pass? La Mouquette’s ultimate gesture of contempt may be Zola’s one slip in trying to build this awesome scene to a grand climax. Does he convince you that there is nothing comic about it?

Chapter 6

Although it is rather crudely done, Zola’s contrast between the point of view of the miners, which we know so well, and that of the owners is powerful. How do you react to it?

Vol-au-vent (“fly in the wind”) pastry shells are classic lighter-than-air containers for creamy fillings of various sorts, and are highly fragile.

Note how even Hennebeau, more sophisticated than most of the bourgeois, is so poorly informed about the political currents among the miners as to suppose that Rasseneur is some sort of revolutionary leader. See page 300 for Rasseneur’s real attitude.

This incident, in which the mining women and Bonnemort almost kill Cécile, is one of their more repulsive deeds. Why do you think Zola included it? To what extent it is symbolic of the entire class struggle depicted in the novel?

How does Zola contrive to make Maigrat at least partially responsible for his own death?

How does Zola use the scene of Maigrat’s mutilation to underline the theme–which runs throughout the novel–of the contrast in sexual experiences and attitudes between the bourgeoisie and the workers?


Part Six

Chapter 1

During the riot, most of the miners’ rage was directed against inappropriate targets in a way that did not further their cause. How is the owners’ revenge similarly inept? How is the Abbé Ranvier different from his predecessor, and what are his motivations?

What does Zola present as Étienne’s main contradictions and failings?

Chapter 2

Zola shows the miners as conducting a fairly successful campaign to continue the strike, and yet as lacking much of a sense of community. Do you find it persuasive?

How has the strike changed La Maheude?

Chapter 3

Note the ominous news of the collapse of the International. Try to note how many other disasters follow during the rest of the book.

What do you think of Souvarine’s critique of Étienne and the others?

Zola here avoids the traditional successful union of the lovers (or postpones it). How realistic do you think this scene is? What does it tell you about the two characters?

What is the significance of Jeanlin’s murder of the little soldier? What points do you think Zola is trying to make in this scene?

Chapter 5

This scene depicts a kind of confrontation repeated many times during labor and political struggles in modern times: angry protesters armed only with stones and bricks facing armed militia. Such confrontations have often had momentous consequences. How does this scene illustrate Étienne’s musings in the last chapter about the way poor people are manipulated into opposing each other? How do the deaths of the miners affect you? Does having lived with these characters through 350 pages make you regret their deaths more?


Part Seven

Chapter 1

The opposition newspapers would be those owned by parties opposed to the current government, and therefore seeking to make use of the shootings to discredit the leadership.

How has the strike affected Deneulin?

Probably no other 19th-century writer would have dared to use a girl’s first menstruation in this way. What is Zola trying to symbolize here?

How does the relationship between Étienne and Rasseneur change?

How does the transfer of the abbé Ranvier fit in one the other events in this chapter?

Chapter 2

Are Pluchart and Étienne completely discredited as leaders now? Why does Souvarine object to Étienne’s interpretation of Darwin?

How convincing do you find Souvarine’s explanation of his total opposition to love among revolutionaries? Can you understand his motivations in acting as he does in the rest of the chapter?

Why do you think love inhibits Étienne and Catherine?

Chapter 3

How does Zola’s description of the Torrent here go beyond the strict limits of realism?

The spectacular collapse described in these pages may seem far-fetched, but in fact it follows quite closely newspaper accounts of a similar event (an accident) which had happened at a coal mine in France the year before the novel was published. Does knowing that fact make you regard it as any more realistic? Should it? How does transform Souvarine into a symbol at the end of the chapter?

Chapter 4

Why is the Company anxious to hush up the fact that the disaster was caused by sabotage?

Which of the many forms of possible disaster in coal mining is depicted here?

What do you think of Zola’s attempt here to create an encounter which will encapsulate the conflict between workers and owners? Is it credible? Is it effective?

Chapter 5

Bataille means “battle.” Why is it an appropriate name here?

Does Zola convince you that this episode is caused by alcoholism?

Sensational stories of subterranean starvation or suffocation were very popular in the 19th century. What are the main effects of this one? How does Zola try to de-romanticize the experience? Does he also romanticize it? How? How does tragedy overcome old enmity here?

Chapter 6

This final chapter is a prose poem drawing heavily on the mythical themes that Zola had used earlier. Remember that Étienne is going off to join a revolution in Paris that in fact proved temporarily successful, if ultimately disastrous. Although the miners have seemingly been defeated on every front and the Maheu family has been reduced to a fragment, Zola has taken pains to plant signs of hope for the future throughout this chapter. How many of them can you find? Remember that hope for the miners may mean a successful uprising. What is the final stage in La Maheude’s development? How does Zola use nature imagery to reinforce his revolutionary theme? Note that the novel ends, as it began, in the month of Germinal (early April).

What do you think Zola was trying to accomplish in writing this novel? Revolutionary agitation? Conservative warning against revolution? Something else? What is your reaction to the events in this novel? With whom do you ultimately sympathize? How do you feel about the political views of the various characters?

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First mounted June 15, 1995.

Last revised March 22, 2005.

19th-Century Russian Literature

At the beginning of the 19th century much of Western Europe viewed Russia as hopelessly backward–even Medieval. It was considered more a part of Asia than an outpost of European thought. During the first half of the century, indeed, peasants (called “serfs”) were still treated as the property of their feudal masters and could be bought and sold, though they had a few more rights than slaves. Russian serfs gained their freedom only in 1861, two years before the American Emancipation Proclamation.

However, the nobility of Russia had looked to the West for ideals and fashions since the early 18th Century, when Peter the Great had instituted a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country. Russian aristocrats traveled extensively in Western Europe and adopted French as the language of polite discourse. They read French and English literature and philosophy, followed Western fashions, and generally considered themselves a part of modern Europe.

St. Petersburg was created the new capital of Russia in 1721, and remained the most Westernized of Russian cities. Indeed, Dostoyevsky was to consider it an alien presence in the land, spiritually vacuous compared to the old Russian capital of Moscow.

The German-born czarina Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, corresponded with Voltaire and fancied herself an Enlightenment monarch; but her plans for liberal reforms came to nothing, and she became better known as vainglorious autocrat.

Despite the general backwardness of Russian society, its openness to the West (briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s 1812 invasion) had profound influences on its literature throughout the 19th Century. The first great national author of Russia, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)–despite his celebration of Russian history and folklore–was profoundly influenced by such English writers as Shakespeare, Byron and Scott. Although he plays a role in Russian literature comparable to that of Goethe in Germany or even Shakespeare in England, his works were little known abroad during his lifetime.

It was Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)–who lived and wrote for many years in Europe and was profoundly Western in his outlook–that first brought Russian literature to the attention of European readers, but at the cost of often being considered an alien in his own land.

It was the twin giants Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose work exploded out of Russia in the 1870s to overwhelm Europeans with their imaginative and emotional power. To many readers it must have seemed as if this distant, obscure country had suddenly leaped to the forefront of contemporary letters. Both were profoundly influenced both by European Romanticism and Realism, but their fiction offered characters more complex and impassioned than those Europeans were used to.

Tolstoy is known chiefly for his two masterpieces, War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877). These works which wrestle with life’s most profound questions earned Tolstoy the reputation of perhaps the world’s greatest novelist. The first is a vast portrait of Russia during the period of the Napoleonic wars, and the second the story of a tormented adulterous woman treated far more seriously than Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Like the English Victorian novelists, Tolstoy sought to do more than entertain or even move his readers, taking the writing of fiction seriously as a moral enterprise. In the end Tolstoy became a Christian utopian, abandoning fiction altogether.

Dostoyevsky is famous for his complex analyses of the human mind. Unlike Turgenev or Tolstoy, he pays little attention to details of setting or the personal appearance of his characters, instead concentrating on their thoughts and emotions. His work and that of Tolstoy revealed to Europeans that modern fiction could serve ends far more sophisticated than it had in the hands of Zola or even Flaubert.

Dostoyevsky had a sensational life which is variously reflected in his fiction. He believed his father to have been murdered by his own serfs, a belief which led him to be obsessed with murder as a subject in many of his greatest works, such as Crime and Punishment (1866)and The Brothers Karamazov (1881). After being arrested for his involvement in a radical group (the model for The Possessed) he was abruptly notified that he was about to be shot, but was spared at the last minute and sent to Siberia for ten years. He often described the traumatic effect which this mock-execution had on him in his fiction, and devoted another novel (The House of the Dead) to the story of his time in prison.

While there, he developed epilepsy, and later made epileptic seizures one of the chief characteristics of the Christ-figure Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. He also analyzed his addiction to gambling in The Gambler. The fervent Christianity and anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment attitudes of his later years color much of his writing, and underlie the influential long story “Notes from Underground.”

Some Western readers, notably the very restrained American novelist Henry James, found Dostoyevsky’s fiction exaggerated. The combination of traditional Russian effusiveness with Dostoyevsky’s truly sensational life made for sensational writing. But it is important to note that though his characters always seem to be undergoing some sort of torment, he creates the extreme situations and emotions in his novels not out of mere sensationalism, but to plumb the depths of human experience.

Of the other Russian writers of the 19th Century, the only other one to make much of an impression abroad was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), whose short stories and plays used Realism in a much more understated way. His four great plays written just before and after the turn of the century–The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, along with the Realist masterworks of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen–helped to rescue the theater from the dismal state into which it had plunged after the time of the German Romantics. The theatrical genius of the 19th century seems to have gone into opera rather than stage plays; few of the plays written between Schiller and Chekhov are remembered or performed today, but his works are seldom absent from the stage for long.

Chekhov’s works are often seen as the last echo of a fading tradition before Stalinism made “socialist realism” into a suffocating orthodoxy. Under Communism, Tolstoy was regarded a great national writer despite his mystical leanings because of his sympathies with the peasants and utopian idealism; but Dostoyevsky was out of favor during much of the Stalinist period because he was an outspoken foe of socialism and fervent Christian. Yet abroad, his reputation continued to grow. He was seen as a prophet of the evils which followed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, as a psychologist who anticipated many of the most striking discoveries of Sigmund Freud, and as a welcome challenger to the pervasive celebration of modernity so characteristic of the period 1850-1960. Despite his anti-modernism, Dostoyevsky still speaks directly to many readers in ways that most of his contemporaries do not. In post-Communist Russia he is again celebrated as a national treasure, just as he is revered as a classic abroad.

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Created by Paul Brians March 22, 1998.

Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground


Notes from Underground is one of the most influential pieces of fiction in Western European history. It has attracted attention for many reasons. 1) It contains an all-out assault on Enlightenment rationalism and the idea of progress which foreshadows many such assaults in the mid-to-late twentieth century. 2) It is an outstanding example of Dostoyevsky’s psychological skills, depicting a character motivated by many contradictory impulses. Such contradictions were not clearly understood in the nineteenth century, but Freud and modern psychology generally were to explore in depth the irrational bases of much human thought. 3) One of the most salient characteristics of the Underground Man is his profound self-contempt combined with an exquisitely sensitive ego–a combination that is much discussed these days. 4) The story contains one of the first characters whose childhood experiences have led him to fear love and intimacy even though he longs for them: another topic of intense interest currently. 5) It portrays one of the first anti-heroes in fiction, a protagonist utterly lacking every trait of the Romantic hero and living out a futile life on the margins of society. Such figures were to dominate much serious fiction in the mid-twentieth century, notably Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger.

Because the narrator (he has no name) of this story is a thoroughly disagreeable person who seems to go out of the way to offend his readers, some care is needed to read the story well. First, it is important to keep in mind that the Underground Man, as he is traditionally called (“UM” below) is not Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as the notes at the beginning and end of the story make clear. He shares some of Dostoyevsky’s ideas, but he is also the target of Dostoyevsky’s satire. Dostoyevsky enjoyed handicapping himself by placing some of his favorite arguments in the mouth of a character he despised. In this and in other works, he strongly resists the impulse to sweep the reader away by making his views irresistible. He wants you to be aware of both their strengths and weaknesses, and make your mind up independently. Second, although some readers find that they are identifying with the UM to some extent, unlike most popular fiction, this is not a story in which you are expected to identify with the narrator. The danger is, in fact, that the reader will become so exasperated with his tone and manner as to simply refuse to pay attention what he is saying. Consider the UM as a complex portrait, lacking surface appeal, but filled with fascinating detail which reveals itself only upon close examination. Third, it is crucial not simply to let the UM’s self-contradictions cancel each other out and dismiss him as a madman whose ravings are not worth deciphering. It is precisely in the tension between various emotions and ideas that significance of the UM’s narrative lies. Close reading will reveal a careful and consistent psychological portrait.

The page numbers cited below are those of the MacAndrew translation published by New American Library. If you are using a different translation you will have to adjust the page numbers to match it.

Part One is a sustained argument containing scraps of illustrative narrative, introducing the UM and articulating his assault on rationalism and progress and delineating what he thinks is wrong with the modern self-conscious intellectual (himself). Part Two is a much more easily comprehensible narrative of an episode from his life in which he is offered a chance to escape from his web of self-hate and spite. In Part One he is all scorn and contempt for the reader; in Part Two this contempt turns on himself. A sensitive reading will reveal that there is much to pity in him. The numbers preceding each paragraph indicate the page number in the story which the question relates to.


Part One


84: How many self-contradictions can you find in the first paragraph? Does he really respect medicine? Explain? What does the fact that he refuses medical help out of spite tell us about his attitude toward freedom?

85: What evidence is there that he is acutely self-conscious about how he appears to others? Is he aware of having any need for human affection? Is he able to tolerate such affection?

86: Is he really indifferent to his readers’ reactions? How can you tell? He introduces what he calls a “stupid, useless excuse,” which turns out to be one of his main theses in the rest of Part I. What does this “excuse” mean? Is he more worried about being despised or being laughed at? How can you tell?


87: How can you illustrate already his thesis that “unhappy nineteenth century intellectuals” like himself are too “abstract and premeditated?” What does he mean by this?

88: What evidence is there that he is a masochist? (Look the word up if you aren’t familiar with it.)

89: What does it mean to be “guilty in the first place?” Is it possible to feel guilty without being aware of any specific wrongful act that caused the guilty feelings? Look for elements in his story later that might have led him to grow up feeling guilty, or–as people say today–with low self-esteem.


90-91: Can you contrast what the UM calls “the spontaneous man” or l’homme de la nature et de la vérité (man of nature and truth) with the “unhappy nineteenth century intellectual” he discussed earlier? What are the differences between them? What are his feelings toward each of them?

92-93: Look closely at the paragraph that begins “Thus you may. . . .” Does he care about our reactions? How can you tell? In the last full paragraph he satirically presents the central ideas of nineteenth century pragmatism, which argues that all morality is an illusion founded on self-interest, that there is no such thing as altruism (much as Voltaire had done earlier). He objects to the way in which such pragmatists (like the social Darwinists) complacently presented self-interest as scientifically proven superior to altruism. What is the point he is making about two plus two making four?


94-95: How does his example of the toothache illustrate this idea of the self-conscious intellectual? What changes when he becomes too self-aware about the pain he is experiencing? Examine the last paragraph in this section. He seems to be having a dialogue with his imaginary reader. How does he try to defend himself against this reader? How does this paragraph illustrate the point he was just making about self-consciousness?


95: Is it possible to be sincerely in love and faking it at the same time? Do you believe him when he says he fell in love simply out of boredom?


He is so desperate for some kind of identity that he is willing even to have an absurdly trivial identity. What example does he use? Your notes in the Afterword of this volume explain that this paragraph contains an attack on an artist named Gué (whose name begins with the same letter as the Russian word for “s___” and a writer named Saltykov-Shchedrin, who had written a story called “Something to Everybody’s Liking.” How serious is his last sentence? Do you think he feels ambivalently about it?


99-102: He begins by satirizing the ideals of the Enlightenment thinkers who thought that if people only acted out of enlightened self-interest they would become “kind and noble.” What examples does he use to try to prove this theory wrong? Why does the notion of automatic moral reform make him so angry? Why does he say it makes a human being into a “piano key or an organ stop?” (Today we would say a robot, or a cog in a machine.)

103-104: The first full paragraph is specifically aimed at Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? It was a utopian novel which used the metaphor of the Crystal Palace (the world’s first all steel-and glass building, erected to display modern machinery at a fair celebrating Queen Victoria’s reign in England). What are his major objections to living in a perfect world? Do you agree with him that individual freedom and utopianism necessarily conflict?


105: The UM says that if we ever completely understand human psychology to the point that we clearly grasp out motivations for our feelings, we will cease to have true, spontaneous feelings. Can you think of any examples where self-awareness of this kind has interfered with spontaneous feelings in your own life or anyone else’s?

106: How does he say desire relates to reason?

109: What is his reaction to the fact that at his time very little was known about what determined human desires? How do you think he would have reacted to today’s psychologists?


109-111: What is his argument against the typically Victorian notion that the essence of the human spirit is to be found in creativity and accomplishment?

112: Why does he keep talking about “twice two?” What is he using it as a metaphor for?


112-113: How do you think he would have reacted to Marxism?


114-116: How accurate do you think the self-analysis of the UM is? What does it show about his self-awareness? What evidence is there on this page that he feels he has revealed too much about himself in that paragraph? What does he mean by the sentence that begins “But there are things, too, that a man won’t dare to admit event to himself . . . ?” How does this theory relate to the Freudian concept of the unconscious mind (incorrectly often called the “subconscious”)? Rousseau’s autobiography was famous for revealing some very unpleasant details about his private life. If a person is scrupulously honest, as the UM says he is going to be, does that make him a good person? Why does the UM keep repeating that he intends that this writing will never be read by anyone?


Part Two


117: Nekrasov was a popular Romantic poet. This poem recurs in the story at p. 152. What situation does Nekrasov seem to be depicting here? The UM seems to break off in embarrassment in the middle of quoting this poem. How does this interruption relate to the major themes of Part One?

120: What does he say is the main difference between German and Russian idealists?

122: What are his vices? Are they really very vicious? What is it about the military officer’s action that offends him so much?

123: What does he mean by saying he longed for something more literary? How does it relate to the themes of Part One?

125: Why do you think he didn’t send the exposé of the officer in under his own name? Do you believe him when he says it was rejected because such exposés weren’t in vogue?

126-129: In the code of gentlemen the proper response to an insult was to challenge the offending party to a duel with swords or pistols. In what ways is the UM’s revenge a ridiculously inadequate substitute for such a duel? Note that in the last paragraph of this section he refuses to tell us how he felt when he finally realized what a fool he’d made out of himself. See if you can find other passages in which he censors what he is willing to reveal to us, despite the fact that he is usually eager to run on and on about his faults.


131: What is absurd about the fantasies he describes? What evidence is there that even though he ridicules these fantasies, he is defensive about them?


133: In what way does his treatment by his former school companions compare with his treatment by the officer?

139: Do you think these young men were really “incredibly depraved?”

140: What evidence does he present here that he is incapable of tolerating love and affection even though he desperately yearns for it? What do you think causes some people to be like this, powerfully attracting others and then rejecting them once it is clear the victim truly loves and admires the lover? Note that his passage strongly foreshadows his relationship with Liza.


145: Why do you think he doesn’t tell us the amount of his salary?

147-148: Can you analyze his emotions while he is denouncing the others at the party? How do they react to him?


153-154: What does it tell you about him that even a prostitute insults him? How do his plans for revenge illustrate his self-portrait in Part One? He seems to feel that by leaving his coat open he is making a boldly suicidal gesture. Winters in St. Petersburg can be brutal, but what evidence is there that it is not all that cold?

156: Why does he hope he is repulsive to the prostitute he chooses?


Nineteenth century authors usually avoided explicitly depicting sexual activity, so much so that modern readers sometimes miss their subtle cues that sex has occurred. You may take it for granted that when this section begins the UM has had sex with Liza and is lying beside her on the bed afterwards. An old stereotypical line used by a man to a prostitute is to ask, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” Try to figure out what the UM’s motives are in trying to convince Liza that she should not be a prostitute. Why doesn’t he succeed at first in making her feel ashamed of herself at first?

161: What does Liza’s reaction to his saying that she could still marry suggest about her background? What is it that he especially objects to in the life a prostitute which relates to a central theme of Part One?

164: What does her reaction to his portrait of a loving father reveal about her? Does she accept the argument that poverty is responsible for criminal behavior?

166: What does she mean by saying he’s “just like a book?” How accurate is she in her judgment of him?


During the time this story was published there was an immense amount of discussion about the social problem posed by prostitution, and there were many books and articles propounding exactly the same theme that the UM uses here. His speech to Liza is a chain of journalistic clichés.

167: What are in his motives in telling her all this? See also p. 177 for further evidence.

173: Why does she bring him the letter?

174: What do you think is the “obscene truth” he is realizing at the end of this section?

177-179: How do his fantasies about Liza illustrate his ideas about self-consciousness in Part One? Even rather poor persons could afford a single servant in the nineteenth century. Masses of them subsisted on negligible wages. What is ironic about the UM’s servant’s name?


184-185: What are his reactions when Liza appears?

186: Compare his silence with Liza with the incident at the dinner party earlier.

187-189: Why do you think he pours out this confession to her when she asks him to save her? What is the “very strange thing” that happens? Why do you think she reacts to him the way she does? Why does he react to her reaction the way he does?


“Won’t I hate her even more tomorrow, just because I’ve kissed her feet today?”

194-196: What emotions does the UM feel in the aftermath? Has the underground man learned from his experiences? What effect have they had on him? Does understanding one’s motives necessarily make one behave better? Can you see any way for the UM to escape from his trap?

Dostoyevsky was a devout Christian (his The Brothers Karamazov is one of the few great Christian novels). Can you find any evidence for his religious beliefs in this story, direct or indirect?

What do suppose his attitudes toward Voltaire were? In what ways is he like Faust? Have you ever met anyone like the UM? What effect did that person have on you?

Listen to Paul Brians discuss Notes from Underground on his podcast:

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Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First mounted June 17, 1995. Last revised March 28, 2006. Updated July 25, 2017.

Foreign Words and Phrases in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

F=French, G=German, L=Latin,

il faudrait les inventer (F)
They would have to be invented [variation on a phrase by Voltaire: “If God did not exist he would have to be invented.”]

J’ai vu l’ombre d’un cochier, qui avec l’ombre d’une brossefrottait l’ombre d’une carrosse (F)
I’ve seen the shade of a coachman who, with the shade of a brush, rubbed the shade of a coach.

un chevalier parfait (F)
a perfect knight, or gentleman

Mater Dolorosa (L)
sad or sorrowing mother [traditional image of the Virgin Mary grieving for the slain Christ]

plus de noblesse que de sincerité (F)
more nobility than sincerity

noblesse (F)

il y a du Piron là-dedans (F)
he’s like Piron

den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht (G)
Thank you, Ma’am, I ask for nothing*

Merci, maman (F)
Thank you, Mother

professions de foi (F)
declarations of faith

s’il n’existait pas Dieu il faudrait l’inventer (F)
if God did not exist he would have to be invented [Voltaire]

Notre Dame de Paris (F)
Our Lady of Paris [title of famous novel by Victor Hugo]

Le bon jugement de la trés sainte et gracieuse Vierge Marie (F)
The good judgment of the very holy and gracious Virgin Mary

bon jugement (F)
good judgment

ad majoram gloriam Dei (F)
to the greater glory of God

quid pro quo (F)
this for that [one thing in return for another

Dixi (L)
I have said it

Ci-gît Piron qui ne fut rien,/Pas même académicien (F)
Here lies Piron, who was nothing,/Not even a member of the [French] Academy

c’est fini (F)
it’s finished

vous comprenez, cette affaire et la mort terrible de votre papa (F)
you understand, this affair and the terrible death of your father

qui frisait le cinquantaine (F)
who’s almost fifty

c’est charmant (F)
it’s charming

c’est noble, c’est charmant (F)
it’s noble, it’s charming

c’est chevaleresque (F)
it’s chevalric, chivalrous

Satan sum et nihil humanum a me alienum puto (L)
I am Satan and nothing human is alien to me

C’est du nouveau, n’est-ce pas (F)
That’s something new, right?

Quelle idée (F)
What an idea

le diable n’existe point (F)
the devil doesn’t exist

je pense, done je suis (F)
I think, therefore I am [Descartes]

Ah, mon pere, ça lui fait tant de plaisir, a moi si peu de peine (F)
Ah. father. it gives him so much pleasure and me so little trouble

Ah, mais c’est bête enfin (F)
Oh. but that’s crazy!

Monsieur sait-il le temps qu’il fait? C’est à ne pas mettre un chien dehors (F)
Does Monsieur know what the weather like? I wouldn’t put a dog out in it.

a ne pas mettre un chien dehors (F)
I wouldn’t put a dog out in it.

le mot de l’enigme (F)
the answer to the riddle

Gott der Vater, Gott der Sohn, Gott der heilige Geist (G)
God the Father. God the Son. God the Holy Spirit

le diable n’existe point (F)
the devil doesn’t exist

vivos voco (L)
I appeal to them as witnesses

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*An excerpt from Schiller’s Der Handschuh, in which a woman drops her glove among lions, forcing the hero to leap among them and retrieve it. He proves his courage, but also his disdain, by flinging the glove in her face and delivering this stinging rebuke. (Source: Essais historiques sur Paris by M. de Saintfois.)

The Influence of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was notoriously unread and uninfluential during his own lifetime, and his works suffered considerable distortion in the hands of his sister Elisabeth, who managed his literary estate and twisted his philosophy into a set of ideas supporting Hitler and Nazism (Hitler had Thus Spoke Zarathustra issued to every soldier in the German army). By far his most often quoted utterance–seldom understood–is “God is dead,” which placed his thought beyond the pale for many readers.

But Nietzsche’s influence has been much richer and varied than these simple stereotypes suggest. It is not surprising that an author who embraced such contradictions should have influenced thinkers of an extraordinary variety.


The only philosopher to feel his influence while he could be aware of it was the Danish critic and philosopher Georg Brandes (1842-1927), who in the late 1880s developed a philosophy which he called “aristocratic radicalism” inspired by Nietzsche’s notion of the “overman.” Nietzsche’s insistence that the decay of religion (the “death of God”) requires that humanity take responsibility for setting its own moral standards inspired existentialists from Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Nietzsche’s relativism has had a powerful influence on two of the most important modern French Deconstructionist philosophers, Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984). (Summary of a 1971 Foucault essay relating to Nietzsche).

Oddly enough, he has also been a powerful influence on certain theologians, notably Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who developed an Existentialist, human-centered theology which tried to salvage elements of traditional faith while drawing on rationalism. Thomas Altizer (b.1927) created a sensation (and found himself on the cover of Time) in the 1960s by helping to create the oxymoronically named “death of God theology” together with a number of other theologians who argued for religion without God. Their constant use of Nietzsche’s catch phrase is a reminder of their indebtedness to him. Although the direct influence of this school hardly lasted out the decade, other theologians used Nietzsche’s thought as well, notably embracing his idea that human values should be based not on denial (“thou shalt not”) but on affirmation (“thou shalt”). The Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965)–also a great influence on Christian theology–translated part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Polish. He read Nietzsche’s works very early, beginning in 1892. His emphasis on process in theology resembles some of Nietzsche’s ideas.

Although he did not draw directly on Nietzsche’s work, the notions of “creative evolution” espoused by Henri Bergson (1859-1941) had a powerful influence on the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), who combined his studies under Bergson with his reading of Nietzsche to produce a version of what is known as “process theology” which is most readily studied in the little book The Saviors of God and is also expressed in his most popular novel, Zorba the Greek. According to Kazantzakis, God is the result of whatever the most energetic and heroic people value and create. This is clearly very similar to Nietzsche’s ideas about the sources of religion. Nietzsche’s notion of heroes as creators is at the heart of Kazantzakis’ philosophy.


The two grandfathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961), both had a deep admiration for Nietzsche and credited him with many insights into the human character.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) developed an “individual psychology” which argues that each individual strives for what he called “superiority,” but is more commonly referred to today as “self-realization” or “self-actualization,” and which was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche’s notions of striving and self-creation. The entire “human potential movement” and humanistic psychology (Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, etc.) owes a great debt to this line of thought. Even pop psychologists of “self-esteem” preach a gospel little different from that of Zarathustra. The ruthless, self-assertive “objectivism” of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is difficult to imagine without the influence of Nietzsche.


Besides Kanzantzakis, many novelists have drawn on Nietzsche. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) wrote repeatedly about him and his characters are often engaged in struggles to define their ideas in a world in which old philosophies are decaying, like Nietzsche, torn between romanticism and rationalism (notably in The Magic Mountain). Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) similarly explored the necessity for the individuals to overcome their social training and traditional ideas to seek their own way (Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game).

Many other famous writers influenced by Nietzsche include André Malraux (1901-1976), André Gide (1869-1951), and Knut Hamsun (1859-1952).


Given the poetic style in which he wrote, it is not surprising that numerous poets have been drawn to Nietzsche, including Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). He, like many writers influenced by Nietzsche, rejected the kind of traditional Christian dualism which sorts existence into good and evil with the physical and earthly being regarded as a source of evil and goodness identified with pure spirit and the life after death. His celebration of mortal life as a sort of religion is extremely Nietzschean. He was also became lover of Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman who ten years earlier Nietzsche loved unrequitedly.

Among many others, one can find strong Nietzschean themes in the works of Beat Generation poets such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Gary Snyder (b. 1930), who were drawn to the vitalistic, anti-dualistic themes also earlier expressed in the English and American traditions by William Blake and Walt Whitman. Blake, Whitman and Nietzsche form a sort of triumvirate whose influence runs through large swaths of modern literature in their rejection of dualism and embrace of the body as good. Like many other poets, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) combined an admiration for Blake with interest in Nietzsche.


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) expressed his version of Nietzsche’s struggle for power in his play Man and Superman, and more than one character in the plays of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) is under Nietzsche’s spell.

Influential ideas

If there are few names from the second half of the 20th century cited above it is not because Nietzsche’s influence has dwindled. Rather it so pervades modern culture that many who have never read him are influenced by his thought indirectly. Consider the following ideas circulating in American culture today, all of them traceable at least in part to Nietzsche, although many of them are much simpler than similar ideas held by him:


  • The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering or creating an identity for yourself.
  • The highest virtue is to be true to yourself (consider these song titles from a generation ago: “I Gotta Be Me,” “I Did It My Way”).
  • When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; listen to the wisdom of your body.
  • People who hate their bodies or are in tension with them need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds instead of seeing them as in tension with each other. The mind and body make up a single whole.
  • Athletes, musicians, etc. especially need to become so attuned to their bodies that their skills proceed spontaneously from the knowledge stored in their muscles and are not frustrated by an excess of conscious rational thought. (The influence of Zen Buddhism on this sort of thinking is also very strong.)
  • Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life.
  • Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
  • Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission.
  • Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health.
  • You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.
  • Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can or it is wasted.
  • People’s values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values.
  • Challenge yourself; don’t live passively.It is notable that none of these ideas flows from the traditional Judeo-Christian culture which dominated Europe for a thousand years. Many of them have their roots in Romanticism, with Nietzsche merely articulating impulses that others shared; but he is a major transmitter of them to the modern world.

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The USC Nietzsche Page Warning: this page downloads the opening to Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra to your computer, which can take a while; but at least it stops when it’s played through once.

Gallery of Nietzsche images

Created by Paul Brians, April 1, 1998


Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book One

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth century; but he was not influential in the nineteenth century. (See notes on the Influence of Nietzsche.) For various reasons which we will discuss in class, his works have had their major impact in the twentieth century, and that impact has been astonishingly widespread and varied. His choice of poetic prose rather than rigorous dialectic has sometimes caused him to be called no philosopher at all; yet his literary style has attracted readers who would not have been drawn to a Kant or a Hegel. Because he does not use traditional formal logic, there are no simple ways to understand his writings. A grasp of his message can only be achieved by a gradual process of gathering in his major attitudes and themes and inferring the meaning of any single passage in the context of his work as a whole. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche’s American translator and best explicator, provides on pages 3-22 a set of helpful translator’s notes which you should read; but the following questions and comments are meant to step you through the assigned portions of the work in more detail and to stimulate your thinking about it. Some of the questions are open-ended prompts to think about the issues involved, to prepare you for class discussion.

There are certain central concepts that it is essential to keep in mind about Nietzsche’s philosophy. He takes it for granted that the Enlightenment analysis of religion is correct, and that religion is a comforting but limiting self-delusion. He infers that all values (including religious values) are the creations of human beings and that therefore we are all responsible for creating high values and living up to them. Yet these values need not be shared. He is a thorough relativist, arguing that one person’s virtue is another’s vice. Once these basic principles are understood, most of his writing becomes quite clear. Another obstacle to comprehension, however, consists in his constant cultural references which may be unfamiliar to the untrained reader. Most of these will be explained in the following notes.

A final obstacle to comprehension is the simple aversion that his style arouses in some readers. Nietzsche writes sneeringly, imperiously, in a way that Americans in particular, with their national preference for self-deprecation and humor, find objectionable. It is pointless to waste much energy objecting to his tone; his message has been found appealing to many people who don’t share his emotional attitudes. Your task is to discover what it is in this message that has caused it to be so influential in the modern world.

Everyone finds something to object to in Nietzsche. Obviously conservative Christians find his anti-Christian attitudes objectionable, but even his most enthusiastic followers do not follow him on every point. As you will see at the end of this reading assignment, that is very much as Nietzsche would have wished it. Unlike in most of the works we are studying, the central figure here–Zarathustra–is to be identified with the author. Nietzsche merely uses him for a mouthpiece.

The numbers in the notes below refer to the section numbers in the Penguin edition of Kaufman’s translation.


Zarathustra’s Prologue

1: What other famous figure began his mission at the age of thirty by retreating into the wilderness? How long did the other figure stay there? How long does Zarathustra stay there? Much of the imagery here is probably borrowed from “The Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic. (Nietzsche generally disliked Plato, and disagrees with him on many points; but he was greatly influenced by him nevertheless.) Plato says that an enlightened thinker is like a man who gradually struggles free of the chains of illusion in an underground cave and who learns by ascending to the world above and viewing things in the light of day, finally discovering the essence of truth by gazing at the sun itself. However, it is not enough for the philosopher to grasp truth for himself: he has a responsibility to descend back into the cave of illusion and free the prisoners of falsehood. This is what Nietzsche means by “going under.” What arguments can you make that the discoverer of truth has an obligation to preach that truth to others?

2: The Old Man represents traditional religious hermitism. How is Nietzsche criticizing the tradition of the hermit or cloistered monk? Frequently Nietzsche has his characters say not what they would say in real life, but instead reveal what he thinks are their secret feelings. In other words, he puts his analysis of their motives into their mouths. Would a real monk likely say that he has stopped loving man? Why would Nietzsche feel justified in saying that he has? Nietzsche is fond of self-quotation. Here Zarathustra is amazed that the Old Man has not heard of one of Nietzsche’s most famous pronouncements: God is Dead.” (For the original context, see “The Madman” (Aphorism 125 in The Gay Science). This is probably the most widely-quoted and thoroughly misunderstood of all Nietzsche’s sayings. He does not mean to imply that God was ever alive. A clearer statement (though less dramatic) would be: “That period in history during which the idea of the Christian God expressed the highest ideals of Western Civilization has passed, and it is now clear that belief in him is a dead burden on a society which has outgrown him.” What changes in European culture might have led him to this conclusion? Have you ever heard someone argue against his statement that God is dead? Did their arguments demonstrate knowledge of what Nietzsche was actually saying?

3: Nietzsche did not accept many of Darwin’s findings, but he is clearly dependent on his theories for some of his language in this section. In what ways does his theory of the overman differ from the theory of Darwinian evolution? In what ways is it similar? What does he mean by saying the overman shall be the “meaning of the earth?” We often speak of discovering the meaning of something; why does Nietzsche instead depict meaning as something to be created? What effects does it have on people when they believe that truth is absolute, and must be discovered? What effects does it have on them when they believe that truth is relative, and must be defined by each individual? Which do you agree with? Why? What contrast is he drawing between those who are “faithful to the earth “” and the preachers of “otherworldly hopes?” Given what was stated above about his death of God theory, what does he mean by the paragraph that begins “Once the sin against God was the greatest sin . . . ?” What change in values is he preaching? What has been the traditional Christian view of the body (“flesh”) versus the soul (“spirit”)? (Hint: there are many relevant passages in Paul. See for instance Romans 8:1-13. Please note that such attitudes are distinctly unfashionable today, but have been powerful and widespread in the past.) How does Nietzsche react to these attitudes? “The hour of the great contempt” is for Nietzsche a way of describing the point at which one realizes that one’s earlier ideals were petty and mean, and aims for something higher. What is the effect of his constantly using the possessive pronoun in speaking of “your happiness,” “your reason,” and “your virtue?” Why does he criticize pity? Later Nietzsche will make a distinction between the sort of pity that he thinks is weak and self-destructive and the “gift-giving virtue,” which is compassionate, but proud and strong. Can you find any signs of such compassion even in the small portion of the book you have read so far? “Meanness” here means “stinginess,” “miserliness.” Since he clearly does not believe in the traditional notion of sin, why does he say what he does about it? How does the image of lightning express the virtue that he is preaching in contrast? How does this contrast with Voltaire’s fear of “enthusiasm?” Which do you think is the preferable view? Why?

4: The tightrope walker is a fairly obvious metaphor, spelled out by Zarathustra, of humanity in the process of transformation (going over) from the current stage of human consciousness to a more advanced stage. The speech that Zarathustra gives is clearly modeled on the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:1-12). In what way does he think being “a great despiser” is a positive act? What is the difference between loving virtue in general and loving one’s own virtue ? What is it about the latter that Nietzsche approves of? Paraphrase into plain English this statement: “I love him who casts golden words before his deeds and always does even more than he promises.” Why does he praise “going under?” In what way do these various people prepare for the development of the overman?

5: What is Zarathustra’s explanation for the fact that the people do not welcome his message? In what ways is “the last man” the opposite of the overman? What are the last man’s main characteristics? Why does he disapprove of quick reconciliation? What virtue might counterbalance it? Why does he scorn the caution about pleasure that aims above all at preserving health? What is the crowd’s reaction to his description of the last man?

6: In what ways is the jester like Zarathustra? Traditionally Christianity has offered as one of its main comforts the belief in life after death. How does Zarathustra offer the denial of life after death as a comfort? What problem in Christian belief is he hinting at here? (Hint: see Matthew 7:13-14.) The dying tightrope walker complains that if there is no life after death, his life has been meaningless. How does Zarathustra answer him? Does meaning have to be permanent to be worthwhile? Can you answer Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian philosophy of death?

7-8: This passage rather ponderously makes the obvious point that Nietzsche’s philosophy is aimed at giving meaning to life, and that death is irrelevant to it. Why doesn’t it matter that Zarathustra breaks his promise to bury the dead man?

9: What contrast is Nietzsche making between “the people” and “companions?” Is Nietzsche a believer in equality? Does he think that everyone can become an overman? In what sense is the lawbreaker a creator? How does the one who rejects old values help to create new ones?

10: One traditional Christian interpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve is that they committed the sin of pride, believing that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would give them the wisdom of gods (see Genesis 3). How does Nietzsche use the symbols of the serpent and the eagle to invert what he sees as traditional Christian attitudes? How do modern people feel about pride? Is it more often seen as a vice or a virtue? How about when we call it “self-esteem?” Nietzsche interprets the story of the fall as a parable denouncing the quest for knowledge, and by extension, science itself. Why might he have felt that Christianity was hostile to science? Do science and religion still come into conflict with each other at times?


Zarathustra’s Speeches

On the Three Metamorphoses

In one of the most important passages of the book, Nietzsche describes three stages of human development. Each stage has its own virtue, and each contributes to developing the ideal which he calls the overman. What are the main qualities of the camel as he describes them? What criterion does the camel use to choose his tasks? What do all of the questions have in common which begin, “Or is it this?” What attitude toward virtue does the dragon symbolize? What traditional Christian virtues is he here inverting? Based on what you have read earlier, why is it important for the lion to slay the dragon? In what way is this act of destruction creative? What is the difference between the sacred “no” and the sacred “yes?” People influenced by Nietzsche often use the expressions “yea-saying” and “nay-saying.” What attitudes are conveyed by these expressions? What does it mean to utter a sacred “Yes?” What does he mean by saying “he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world?” Hint: throughout most of this book Nietzsche often says the same things over and over in different ways. You have already encountered these ideas in different forms.

On the Teachers of Virtue

In praising sleep the sage praises the quiet conscience. He preaches the opposite of what Zarathustra preaches. What point do you think Nietzsche is making by letting his opponent express himself? What does Zarathustra’s final blessing of the “sleepy ones” mean?

On the Afterworldly

What by now familiar Nietzschean theme is the subject of this section? What does he say is the source of the human desire to create heavens (“afterworlds”))? How does he answer those who think they have directly experienced spiritual realms “transported from their bodies and this earth”)? Does he view such people as wicked or as sick? How does he say such people should be treated? How do you think he would react to people who say they have had “after death” experiences today?

On the Despisers of the Body

What is the significance of believing that the “soul” is a function of the body rather than a separate entity? One of the more influential themes in Nietzsche’s thought is his notion of the wisdom of the body. Can you think of any contemporary examples in which people seem to share that idea, for instance saying that one should “listen” to one’s body? In what sense can the body be said to have created the spirit?

On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions

Here Nietzsche is using the original meaning of the Latin word passio–suffering, and combining it with the more recent meaning of intense desire. What is his attitude toward passion? How is it similar to Faust’s?

On the Pale Criminal

How do you think Nietzsche would react to contemporary calls for more capital punishment? What arguments might be made to support his position that executions should not be a form of revenge? What arguments might be made against it? Why does he reject terms like “villain,” “scoundrel,” and “sinner?” What is different about the terms he proposes to use instead? The Pale Criminal here is often compared to Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who fantasized becoming a Napoleonic hero by rejecting ordinary morality and committing a robbery/murder with total disregard for normal ethics. However, he found he was not capable of such lofty detachment, and was haunted by a guilty conscience. Inter estingly, Nietzsche had not read Crime and Punishment, and arrived at this portrait quite independently. Clearly Zarathustra does not really mean to praise murder or robbery, so why does he criticize the criminal’s inability to admit to himself that what he really wants to do is commit a murder? How does this relate to the sentence, “Much about your good people nauseates me; and verily, it is not their evil?” What familiar Nietzschean theme is he continuing here?

On Reading and Writing

What does it mean to write with your blood? Is this a classical or romantic attitude? Why does Nietzsche think universal literacy is a bad thing? What influence might he think it has had on the quality of writing? Remember, magazines, newspapers and books were the mass media in the nineteenth century. According to Zarathustra, how are madness and reason related? What is his metaphor for the spirit of lightness and joy which he praises? Hint: this passage suggested the great waltz section in Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (the opening of the work is well-known as the “theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey” ).

On the Tree on the Mountainside

Why does Zarathustra feel the youth is not yet ready for freedom? Does he feel that freedom is good in and of itself? Do you agree with him? What criticisms does he make of those who pursue skepticism for its own sake in the paragraph that begins “Alas, I knew noble men . . .?”

On the Preachers of Death

This is largely a repetition of ideas already discussed in the sections entitled “On the Afterworldly” and “On the Despisers of the Body,” but he also takes up hostility toward sexuality. What are some of the kinds of people which he calls “Preachers of Death?”

On War and Warriors

Besides “God is dead,” this passage is probably quoted out of context more than any other part of Nietzsche’s writings. What is a warrior of knowledge? Nietzsche was an outspoken critic of German nationalism and militarism. What kind of war is he speaking about? What is the difference between a soldier and a warrior, as he uses the terms? (Hint: the first comes from the name of a Roman coin with which soldiers were paid, and originally designated a hired fighter.) Why does he object to uniforms? Interpret this sentence: “Your enemy you shall seek, your war you shall wage–for your thoughts.” Is he speaking here about traditional warfare, involving masses of soldiers obeying the orders of officers? Why does he say that you should find a cause for triumph even in defeat? Do generals tell their armies, “It isn’t who wins that counts, it’s how you fight the battle?” The next few phrases are frequently cited to show that Nietzsche was a proto-Fascist militarist who would have supported Hitler. Is this a fair interpretation? Explain. What good qualities does he say have been encouraged more by war than by the Christian virtues of neighborly love and pity? Is this an unconventional view? Why does he say you must not despise your enemy? Can you reconcile the seeming contradiction between the paragraph on recalcitrance and obedience with his earlier objection to uniformity and his general insistence on fighting for one’s own individual cause?

The State

German nationalism was on the rise at this time, as the modern country was slowly unified out of a variety of small principalities. How does he make clear in this passage that his praise of war must not be taken to support warfare in support of the modern state?

On the Flies of the Market Place

What qualities does he praise that conflict with a Hitleresque idea of the importance of the state? What does it mean to say “Never yet has truth hung on the arm of the unconditional?” Technically this statement contains a self-contradiction; can you re-word it so that it still conveys his meaning without being self-contradictory?

On Chastity

Why does he feel that chastity can be a vice for some people? Strikingly, he links suppressed sexuality and cruelty in much the same way that Freud was to do later in his theory of masochism. To understand the “parable” he offers, read Mark 5:1-20. Do es he say that everyone should indulge in sex? What does he mean by saying that “dirty” truths are not as bad as shallow ones?

On the Friend

Nietzsche seems to feel that having a friend makes one vulnerable. What qualities does he think a friend should have to prevent these dangers? Why does he argue that women are not yet capable of friendship? Do you think the desire for love can interfere with the ability to make and keep friends? Do you think such interference happens more among men or among women? Why does he think women’s love is inferior to friendship? Note: many readers are particularly offended by Nietzsche’s calling women cats, birds, and cows; but it is important to note that he has much harsher (and clearer) things to say about them that this (see On Little Old and Young Women). What does it imply when he says that woman is “not yet” capable of friendship? How does he use his comments on women to attack men?

On the Thousand and One Goals

Nietzsche strongly rejected the notion that there is one single purpose in life that all of us should discover and pursue. But he felt that peoples create an identity for themselves which is based on their group values. How does he say they choose these values? What did he think was the main value of the Greeks? “Zarathustra” is the name of a Persian prophet. What does he think the main values of the Persians were? What famous people took as central law “To honor father and mother?” How do you think Zarathustra reacts to this kind of virtue, judging by what he has said earlier? The fourth group of people is the Germans. In what way is his summary of them less neutral than the other three? Nietzsche says that the notion of the individual as a creator emerged only in recent times? What evidence is there in history to support this view? To what degree is it an overstatement? What mechanism does he argue has traditionally hindered individualism? How does he think humanity should define itself? Is the emergence of individualism entirely a good thing? Can you think of any disadvantages it has had?

On Love of the Neighbor

As in On the Friend, he argues that the need for close friends is a danger. What does he feel this danger consists in? Of all of Nietzsche’s teachings, this is probably the least followed. Most people who have been profoundly influenced by Nietzsche have also praised friendship highly.

On the Way of the Creator

What in this section repeats Zarathustra’s comments on freedom in “On the Tree on the Mountainside?” What is it that he calls on one to “murder” in the last paragraph on p. 63? Is he advocating literal murder of another human being? To what in history is he referring in his warning against holy simplicity? What does he say is your worst enemy?

On Little Old and Young Women

It is obvious that this passage expresses outrageously sexist attitudes toward women. What is not so obvious is that they are simply a more brutal expression of common nineteenth-century ways of praising women. Can you translate some of his statements into gentler-sounding equivalents that most nineteenth-century men and women might have agreed with? What kind of men does the old woman say that women hate? Why do you think she urges men to use the whip (violence) against women? Why do you suppose this is the only passage in which Nietzsche’s views are expressed through a character other than Zarathustra?

On the Adder’s Bite

What variations does Zarathustra make here on the Sermon on the Mount? (See Matthew 5:38-48.) He is not simply turning Jesus’ teachings upside down. How is he changing them? What are your own reactions to his suggested changes?

On Child and Marriage

This is pretty much just an editorial in favor of the overman, arguing that without the goal of producing a superior child, marriage is pointless, even destructive.

On Free Death

How does his teaching on dying at the right time relate to hotly-debated issues today? He says that Jesus (“that Hebrew”) died too early. What does he think would have happened had he lived longer?

On the Gift-Giving Virtue

1: Nietzsche argues that one should not idealize the poor as morally superior to the rich or idealize giving to them out of pity. What does he suggest should be the motive of charity?

2: Here he summarizes his basic teaching. What is his central point? Why would it be illogical to expect him to have described the overman in detail, with all his important characteristics?

3: How does he try to demonstrate that he wants each person to find his or her own truth?

What elements of Nietzsche’s thinking do you think are agreed with by most Americans these days? What elements do you think would be most widely rejected? Do most Americans believe in absolute values, relative ones, or a mixture of the two?

The only major idea of Nietzsche’s which is not addressed in these sections is “the eternal recurrence.

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

First mounted June 14, 1995.

Revised March 2, 2000.

Introduction to 19th-Century Socialism

Note: this subject more than most does not lend itself to purely “objective, unbiased” discussion. Old Cold Warriors see in 19th-Century socialism the seeds of the Stalinist terror, and Marxists see in it the hope for a better world. My own biases are somewhat more mixed: sympathy with some of the aims of the socialists, admiration for their analyses of capitalism, and general hostility for the forms of socialism which dominated much of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. My goal in this essay is to convey to the reader something of the background which led many intelligent, sensitive people to convert to socialism and advocate its implementation–without disregarding the often deplorable consequences.

One of the features of the Enlightenment was the exaltation of property rights to the status of a bulwark of liberty by philosophers such as John Locke. In older Europe property had always been accompanied by power; but that power was justified by the belief in the inevitability of aristocratic rule–the concept that the wealth of the nobility was their God-given right. To some slight degree it was balanced by a traditional Christian suspicion of wealth which endorsed holy poverty for the clergy and preached to the wealthy that they owed charity to the poor. Further, its power was limited by its basis–agriculture–which could expand only so far.

The Industrial Revolution had many profound effects on European civilization. It rendered much of the old aristocracy irrelevant, boosted the bourgeoisie to economic and political power, and drafted much of the old peasant class into its factories. The result was naturally a shift in attitude toward wealth. Capitalist wealth seemed to have no natural limits. Partly because the new industrial modes of production had no preassigned place in feudal order of things, the industrialists viewed themselves as the creators of their wealth and considered it something to be proud of.

This class also created the various movements for democratic government which swept across Europe; and it was only natural that they should have viewed their economic and political ideals as functioning hand in hand. Democracy was necessary to wrest power from the old nobility, to pass laws enabling business to thrive, and to guarantee their property rights.

Rousseau had argued in his Social Contract that true democracy could not thrive in a society with great extremes of wealth and poverty because power always naturally flows toward the wealthy, whatever the electoral system; but the sort of democracy the bourgeoisie advocated was for a long time reserved for property owners: merchants, manufacturers, landlords and bankers. One of the great struggles of the 19th Century was for the gradual expansion of the vote, first to working men, and–much later–to women.

The notion of liberty promulgated by the “liberals” of the 19th century (who held opinions now called “conservative”) was based on the concept that only on the basis of economic independence and security could freedom be secured; and that liberty was a product of natural law, not of a Christian theology which had sometimes censured excessive wealth. Indeed, greed itself was often celebrated as the engine that drove the economy and provided work and prosperity for all. Dependency was considered self-destructive, so the poor were punished for their poverty by harsh laws designed to drive them to work.

These ideas are very familiar to us today: just consider how the news eagerly reports increases in consumer spending as a sign of a healthy economy, how the current movements for “welfare reform” use much the same concepts that justified the draconian “poor laws” of 19th-Century England. Investment is viewed, now as then, as the engine that drives the economy. Any measure which can encourage investors to buy more stock is viewed as beneficial to society as a whole.

But such a profound revolution was bound to cause negative reactions as well as positive ones. Not everyone agreed that the shift of power into the hands of the new rich was entirely benign.

In the first half of the 19th Century the working classes in the newly industrializing countries of England and Germany suffered under many forms of exploitation. The old feudal restrictions which had fixed peasants in place on the land and limited their income had also guaranteed them a place in the world. They may not have prospered, but they were often able to fend off starvation and homelessness simply because they had been born onto estates from which they could not be removed against their wills.

The dissolution of this old order meant that workers could be hired and fired at will and had to sell their labor for whatever the going rate was–and that rate was determined by their competition with each other to work cheaply enough to gain them an advantage in the job market. Traditional rules and protections went by the board in the new factories, which often ran for twenty-four hours a day (two twelve-hour shifts), seven days a week under the most inhumane conditions. Women and children were absorbed into the work force as well, often preferred because they cost much less than men. Living standards and educational levels actually declined in many areas.

Many of the industries severely polluted their environments, their machinery maimed and killed many workers, and food in the new factory towns was often of poor quality and in short supply. Even many well-to-do people became concerned over the wretched conditions under which the new working class labored, as is reflected in the popular novels of Charles Dickens.

But other side-effects of the industrial revolution had more immediate effects on the middle classes. The older economy had been a regulated one, fairly predictable except for the traditional crises caused by plague, war, and drought. The new economy brought a new kind of crisis that seemed to have no natural or rational basis–the “bust.” What is now called “the business cycle” seemed to be beyond anyone’s control. There would be a more or less prolonged period of economic growth, with plenty of jobs and rising wages during which most people prospered; but then, for no apparent reason, profits and wages would begin to fall and millions would be plunged into unemployment and poverty, and even the wealthy could abruptly find themselves much less well off, if not absolutely impoverished.

Industrialists tried to stabilize these wild cycles of “boom and bust” in the runaway engine of the capitalist economy by passing regulations setting maximum wages and banning labor unions (to conserve profits), regulating imports (to preserve national commercial advantages), and combining into huge monopolistic “trusts” designed to reduce or eliminate competition.

Although competition is the engine of capitalism, it is not to the advantage of individual capitalists that it be entirely unfettered. The ultimate success in competition, indeed, is to absorb or destroy rivals and emerge at the top of the heap, able to dictate wages and prices. Although as the century passed these efforts to stabilize and concentrate wealth grew more successful, they were never able to prevent the recurrence of periodic “crashes.”

Some began to argue that this unstable new system which glorified greed while impoverishing the common people needed radical reform. These were the early socialists.

The notion of socialism can be traced back centuries in various forms, notably among the earliest Christians (see the remarkable story in Acts 4:34-5:11); and the model of monastic communism, with individuals owning nothing except what they collectively shared was constantly before the eyes of Europeans throughout much of the Christian era. But the roots of modern socialism lie in our period, in France, Germany and England during the period of the industrial revolution.

“Socialism” is an exceedingly fuzzy term which has been used to label an extraordinarily wide array of political and economic beliefs. Its definition is further obscured by the tendency of its enemies to label any idea with which they disagree “socialist.” But generally socialists advocate a democratically controlled economy run for the benefit of all. The unfettered competition of capitalists is replaced by cooperation and the business cycle by planned stability. Often they believe–like the early Christians–that property should be shared in common, and private ownership of industry and land abolished.

Many 19th-Century socialists rejected the argument that the wealthy deserve their wealth because they have created it, instead believing that wealth is created by the working classes and wrongfully appropriated by the rich who benefit disproportionately from their underpaid labor. Much ink has been spilled to “prove” the capitalist or labor theories of value; but they are in essence not theories that can be proven, but rather irreconcilable philosophical views. Clearly both capital and labor are vital to industry, and arguing which produces the other is a variation on the old argument over which came first, the chicken or the egg, except that it is far more fraught with political tensions.

Such arguments had little appeal for most ordinary socialists: they simply saw poverty and its attendant misery spreading around them and wanted to do something about it. Their ideals were equality, cooperation, democracy, and shared prosperity.

These ideals were also shared by two other groups: the anarchists and the Communists. We have touched on anarchism in the context of Zola’s Germinal, and it is sufficient to point out that its advocates rejected socialists’ trust in even the most democratic of governments, arguing that only the most decentralized grass-roots sort of organization could prevent tyranny. Their critique of the usual socialist program was an acute one, but they failed to achieve much because the more peaceful anarchists could change little and the violent ones aroused more reaction against themselves than against the state which they dreamed of destroying.

Communism’s relationship to socialism is a more complex matter. Traditionally, “communism” with a small “c” has been taken to stand for a form of social organization in which people live in groups, sharing labor and property collectively, whether this takes the form of a small commune or a large state. Those forms of socialism which merely emphasize publicly financed social programs based on the heavy taxation of private business cannot properly be called “communist.”

However, Marxists also consider themselves socialists. For modern Communists (with a big “C”), socialism is the more comprehensive term: Communism is regarded as an advanced stage of socialism, and this definition is adopted in this essay. Theoretically, the socialist state is an interim measure necessary to carry out the reorganization of society, which will then “wither away” to produce very much the same results as are aimed at in anarchism: a moneyless society in which market forces play no role, in which production is for the use of the producers, in which lands and factories are commonly owned by those who work them, and in which the state–and with it, war–is abolished. Unfortunately for this theory, the modern Communist states have withered only by retreating into capitalism, not by moving forward into anarchism.

It was not so clear in the mid-19th Century that socialism would not succeed. We are so used to capitalism by now that we take it for granted, supposing that investment, marketing and market forces must have been the central driving forces of human society for all time. This is very far from being the case. Property and privilege have always existed in some form, but not necessarily in the forms which they take under capitalism. It is difficult to remember, for instance, that in most early societies, including early Medieval Europe, few people ever handled money: barter was the rule.

Sophisticated thinkers in the 18th and early 19th Centuries were very aware that industrial capitalism had not always existed and indeed was emerging among lingering remnants of feudalism all over Europe. If such a profound revolution in social relations could take place in their own time, surely it was not unthinkable that another could succeed it–a socialist revolution.

The earliest thinkers to be called “socialists” were the Frenchmen Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and François-Marie-Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and the Welshman Robert Owen ( (1771-1858). All three of them were visionaries with little political sense, hoping to bring about a better society through the voluntary efforts of people of good will. In this they were very much products of the Enlightenment. Among them, Owen was the only one who was able to put any of his ideas into practice, since as an idealistic wealthy industrialist he had the means to do so. Various Owenite communities were founded, especially in America, but none of them lasted long.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), though more properly considered an anarchist, articulated a hostility toward capitalists that was echoed in the writings of many socialists. His slogan “property is theft” was a handy, if inflammatory, summation of the labor theory of value, and much influenced popular socialism among the working classes. However, like the majority of socialists and Communists, he was not strictly opposed to all private property: one should be free to own one’s own home and domestic goods, for instance. What he objected to was property used to extract wealth from the labor of others: factories, mines, railroads, etc.; and Marx, whom he met in Paris in the 1840s, generally followed this line of thought. He was also an important influence on Marx’s opponent, Bakunin, the Russian anarchist Zola used as inspiration for the character of Souvarine in Germinal.

When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, they were far from dominating the socialist movement. Proudhon had wider influence than they, and they often had to struggle to get their ideas taken seriously in socialist circles.

If it had only been idealistic industrialists and middle-class intellectuals who had espoused socialism, it never would have gotten far; but in its simpler forms its ideas found a fairly widespread appeal among working people. It comes as a shock to many modern students to discover that perhaps the majority of labor movements in the 19th Century embraced socialism as their goal. Zola’s miners were not alone in seeing union organizing as only a preliminary stage on the advance toward state power.

Well into the 20th Century, labor unions often had at least nominally socialist programs, even in the notoriously conservative U.S. In Europe they routinely organized labor parties which competed in elections on socialist platforms, and sometimes won, though rarely implementing more than a few of their more modest goals, such as nationalizing railroads, mines, and some other industries.

The link between labor organizing and socialism was reinforced by the efforts of capitalists to suppress all labor movements, viewing any form of unionization, no matter how mild, as posing the threat of revolution. Socialists like Marx welcomed these popular movements as providing the only viable vehicle for radical change.

Clearly, he thought, ever larger masses of workers drafted into the industrial armies of capital, tormented by poverty and the insecurity born of the wild fluctuations of the business cycle, would grow to be the dominant force in society, outnumber everyone else. Their pressure for radical change would inevitably lead to a confrontation in which the capitalist rulers of society would abandon all pretense of democracy and thereby become the targets of an irresistible armed uprising. Marx’s notion of revolution was always one of the vast majority of society seizing power from a tiny minority of capitalists for the common good of all.

That no such revolution ever took place is due in part to the remarkable successes of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Against incredibly difficult odds, often beaten, imprisoned, and shot, union members successfully waged campaigns to shorten the working day, increase wages, and improve working conditions until most workers no longer felt they had “nothing to lose” by destroying the system which they were substantially reshaping.

Meanwhile it should be said that the competitive forces of capitalism made their own contribution to worker prosperity despite the best efforts of the monopolistic trust-builders by continually producing more cheap, abundant goods which effectively raised the common standard of living. The new goods might lack the quality of the old hand-made products of the feudal age, but they were geneally available to people of even modest means. The twin pressures of maket competition and labor organization meant, on average, that–despite the misery prevalent in many quarters and the chaos created by periodic “busts,” the majority of workers during the second half of the the 19th Century were better off than their parents.

The wave of democratic revolutions in 1848 which established parliamentary government in a number of European nations did not embrace the socialist ideals of the Communist Manifestopublished that same year. It was not until 1864 that the International Working Men’s Association (the “First International”) was formed, powerfully influenced by Marxism, and became a dominant force in continental European socialism.

Meanwhile Marx’s fellow German, Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), was arguing for the formation of voluntary worker cooperatives as the basis of socialism. This reformist approach was worlds removed from Marx’s revolutionary ideas and brought down his scorn; but many, like Étienne Lantier in Germinal, were drawn to them. Lassalle’s cooperatives can be seen as the forerunners of many organizations thriving today even in the midst of capitalism: credit unions, mutual insurance companies, food coops, and the like. Cooperatives never succeeded in transforming society, but they have often offered alternatives to profit-oriented private enterprise.

Marx and Lasalle were the leading–and feuding–influences in the formation of the German Social Democratic Party, which was for some decades the leading Socialist organization in the world. Marx would have been astounded to discover that his theories were to find their most effective implementation in Russia rather than in his native Germany. By 1891 the party had a million and a half members and was experiencing substantial electoral success. However, the very political success of the Social Democrats meant that despite their fiery rhetoric–often more fiery than Marx at this period–their activities were absorbed into conventional political activities rather than into creating revolution.

Paralleling the shift of the successful labor movement, in the early 20th Century, the party became more and more moderate in its views, ultimately abandoning the goal of revolution altogether and aligning itself at the outbreak of World War I with the aggressive militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm in a move which destroyed its credibility with socialists abroad. The first great period of international socialism was destroyed by the war as labor parties all across Europe fell into line in support of their own governments, disproving the Marxist doctrine that enlightened workers would feel more loyalty to each other across international boundaries than they would to the governments dominated by their capitalist ruling classes. Only in the U.S. did the socialists refuse to endorse the war, but the American Socialist Party never gained more than six percent of the vote, and was a marginal factor in both national and international politics.

Social democrats were more successful in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, following a gradualist approach which involved high taxes to enforce relative economic equality, government regulation of industry, nationalization of large industries, and social welfare. Elements of these ideas are still in place throughout much of Europe, though increasingly under attack and now in the process of being largely dismantled, but not without vigorous resistance from workers who have benefitted by the systems built before the collapse of international Communism.

One brief moment in history, the Paris Commune of March 18 to May 28, 1871, is worth mention because it belies the anti-Communist stereotype that Communism was always a conspiratorial plot imposed from above by would-be tyrants rather than a popular political movement. In the wake of the defeat of France in the Franco-German War and the collapse of the Second Empire (1852-70), the citizens of Paris elected a radical government which included both old-style Republicans bent on recreating the politics of 1789 (the Jacobins) and followers of the socialist Prudhon. Other communes were created in Lyon, Saint-Étienne, Marseille, and Toulouse, but were quickly suppressed. The national government centered in Versailles used the army to suppress the Paris Commune in a wave of bloody retaliation. This story is told in the sequel to GerminalThe Débacle–in which Zola makes Étienne Lantier one of the leaders of the Commune.

The Commune was important not because of its concrete achievements, but because of its symbolism. Karl Marx duly noted and commented on the episode, and it encouraged many socialists as a sign that the working classes were ready for radical measures.

The story of the Russian Revolution of 1917 would take us beyond the scope of this course, but it is necessary to make a few observations about its consequences since without that revolution we would probably not feel the need to study Marx today.

Marx’s tough-minded “scientific” approach to socialism which dismissed the early socialists as idle utopians was hardened in the work of V. I. Lenin, whose pragmatism justified many harsh measures during and after the Russian Revolution which would have appalled Marx. His doctrine of “democratic centralism” which forbade further debate once an issue had been settled within the Communist Party and the role of the Party as the dominating “vanguard of the proletariat” can be argued as having sown the seeds of the homicidal tyranny that emerged under Joseph Stalin. Marxists are prone to argue that Marx would never have accepted Stalin’s excesses and that he should not be blamed for them, yet there is a harshness in his tone and an uncompromising dogmatism in his analyses which may have made figures like Stalin and Mao inevitable once power was gathered in their hands.

It is a tribute to the appeal of the logically dubious concept of “natural law” that both Communists and anti-Communists wound up appealing to it during the long nightmare of the Cold War. The Marxist notion of necessary, scientifically inevitable revolution was only a variation on the attempt of Voltaire to ground his ideas in reason and the laws of nature. Once socialism had been transformed from a mere philosophical ideal to the iron law of history, its inevitability was used to justify any number of repressive measures. And of course anti-Communist democratic forces appealed to the traditional notion of naturally based liberties to denounce Marxism.

Some argue that the reason socialism failed so catastrophically in the Soviet Union and China to attain its Marxist ideals was that these were preindustrial economies far from the stage of economic development which Marx viewed as the necessary platform for building Communism. He envisaged his revolution as redistributing a previously created wealth and seizing hold of a previously developed industrial system to run it more rationally and equitably. But the new socialist rulers of the U.S.S.R. and China had to create the very material base on which Marx assumed socialism would be built. They became the harsh taskmasters of the workers they claimed to represent, super-Capitalists, if you will, reproducing in an abbreviated period and on an unprecedented scale the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution, reproducing its accompanying misery as well, but without the countervailing pressure of a vital labor movement to moderate their extreme measures.

There is doubtless much truth in this theory. No modern industrialized state ever underwent the sort of revolution Marx envisaged, and the successes of socialism in places like England, Sweden, and Denmark fell far short of his vision. Thus it is often said that Marxism did not fail: it was never tried. However, the failures of such socialism as was built in the former Communist world suggest that even under the best of conditions, Marx’s ideals could not have been carried out on a large scale.

In the end the Communist economies failed to be more rational than capitalist ones partly because their leaders never had enough accurate data to plan and execute effective economic measures. The temptation of authorities from top to bottom of the system to lie about both supply and demand constantly disorted the process. It was not “totalitarianism” which destroyed the Soviet Union–it was the “private enterprise” of workers stealing from their factories, managers overestimating their output, and bureaucrats reporting whatever the current leadership would be most pleased to hear which in the end brought the system to its knees. Capitalism’s cycles may be irrational and painful, but they proved in the long run less self-destructive than vain attempts to control every aspect of large modern economies.

Oddly enough, as Communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe, devolved into a sort of Capitalism with a Communist face in China, leaving only North Korea and Cuba as true believers, Marxist thought has achieved extraordinary prestige in Western academies. Professors in the humanities and social sciences speak of “late capitalism” as if it were in its twilight years and debate the merits of such 20th-Century Marxists as Antonio Gramcsci, applying his ideas to social policy, art history, and literary theory. The result is that the aspiring graduate student would do well to have some Marxist background in order to understand much of the academic debate encountered in American and European universities these days; yet these debates seem headed nowhere in a world increasingly infatuated with a reinvigorated capitalism.

The situation of workers in contemporary America well illustrates the problems inherent in Marxist analyses. The power of labor unions has been largely crushed and capitalists are free to engage in huge mergers aimed at reducing labor costs and workers have been weakened dramatically. Their working hours have been lengthened and their income decreased relative to inflation, but they are mostly afraid to organize to resist lest they be thrown out of work entirely where no socialist-inspired safety net remains to catch them.

Meanwhile, almost half of all Americans have substantial sums invested in the stock markets through retirement-plan mutual funds. Downward pressures on the current incomes of workers may well enhance their future prospects in retirement and the inheritances of their offspring. In such a situation the line between “proletarian” and “capitalist” is hopelessly obscured. It is true that an ever-tinier proportion of the population possesses and controls an ever more enormous majority of the national wealth; but workers often identify their welfare with the prosperity of the rich, expressing little or no resistance to repeated tax breaks and other favors granted big business.

In an atmosphere like this, the academic study of socialism can seem futile indeed; but at the very least we need to understand the forces that got us where we are. In addition, the socialist critique of capitalism still has much persuasive power, and socialist arguments are often effectively wielded by non-socialist reformers. The dwindling of the socialist ideal to its present residual state may not be a permanent condition, since capitalism has not ushered in the golden age either for the poor of this world. It remains to be seen whether socialism can revive in some new, modified way at some point in the future. In the meantime, it must be frankly recognized that an era has passed–the era when Marxist socialism appealed to a broad array of people internationally as an alternative to capitalism.

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Created March 31, 1998.

Last revised March 28, 2005.

Misconceptions, Confusions, and Conflicts Concerning Socialism, Communism, and Capitalism

It is not surprising that after a century and a half of fierce conflict, the defenders of socialism, Communism and capitalism should have considerably muddied the waters by caricaturing each other’s positions and misusing each other’s terminology. One might suppose that with the collapse of Communist states internationally and the end of the Cold War these the ideas could be examined more dispassionately, but the problem is that leftist ideas are not being examined at all except in the rarefied atmosphere of Western universities and in scattered disempowered political movements around the world. Previous generations of Americans often had misconceptions about Communism, but the current generation usually has no conception of it at all.

Although there are some cases where common student notions are simply wrong (Karl Marx was not a Russian, for instance), clearly the most important controversies surrounding this subject cannot be settled easily; indeed, many of them cannot be settled at all. What follows is my own attempt to sort out some terms and ideas in a way that may help the student to make sense of history and current events without in any way claiming to be an authoritative “last word” on the subject. These are clearly just my own personal views, but may serve as a starting point to articulate your own, whether you agree or disagree with them. It is also only fair that someone who teaches such a highly controversial subject should let you know what his own attitudes are.

List of Misconceptions


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Created March 31, 1998

Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848 for the Communist League, had little influence in its own day. Only after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ other writings had made their views on socialism widely known did it become a standard text. For about a century it was one of the most widely read (and some would argue misread) documents in the world.

But why study it today? Most of the communist world has collapsed. Nominally communist countries like Vietnam and China are busily building market economies in defiance of everything Marx advocated, and Korea and Cuba are barely surviving, serving as models for no one. Has not Marxism been relegated to the ash-heap of history?

There are several reasons why The Communist Manifesto is still an important document. As a historically significant work, it has a certain intrinsic interest. It is good to know what the great ideas are which have shaped history. Some people would argue that Marxists so thoroughly betrayed Marxism that the document can be used to show why attempts at building communist states failed: they were never truly Marxist at all. If true Marxism has never been tried, then it might be worth reconsidering afresh. Or if, as others argue, Marxism has intrinsic flaws that doomed it from the beginning, we might hope to discover traces of them here which might teach us why Marxism should be shunned. The goal here is not to convert you, but to help you explore Marx’s writing from his point of view, so that you can understand his actual meaning while still maintaining a stance that can allow you to think critically about the subject and form your own opinions.

It is important to understand that Marx played two important roles in world history: as a critic of capitalism and as an advocate of socialism. He actually wrote very little on the latter subject. Although a strong believer in the importance of building socialism, he spent most of his time and energy on a subtle and complex critique of the capitalist system. This critique is still very influential on many historians, art and literature scholars, sociologists and others. There have been many neo-Marxisms which have been based more or less loosely on the original ideas of Marx and which are widely discussed today. Whether you want to explore such ideas or combat them, it’s good to have some notion of the subject.

A manifesto is a document which proclaims publicly–or makes manifest– the central ideas of a group or individual. Although the organization for which this one was written was underground (for the simple reason that it was illegal) Marx always envisioned the socialist movement as open. He rejected secret conspiracies because his ideal of building socialism was envisioned as a majority enterprise which could only accumulate the necessary momentum through an open, broadly-based campaign of education and exhortation.

Engels was Marx’s close collaborator and an important thinker and writer in his own right. He outlived Marx by many years, and produced several volumes which are still influential. Marx was clearly the more powerful thinker of the two, but Engels was the better stylist. Although Engels may have been responsible for much of the eloquent writing in the Manifesto, because it incorporates Marx’s ideas and embodies some central concepts of what came to be known as Marxism the following questions will refer to the authors simply as “Marx.”

The terms “socialist” and “communist” have been defined in a bewildering variety of ways. When reading them it is always important to know what the writer means by them. Marx seems to have used the terms interchangeably, though later Marxists influenced by Lenin often considered socialism the more comprehensive term, communism being an advanced stage of socialism. Early stages of communism (according to Marx) or socialism (according to Lenin) would prepare the way by nationalizing the “means of production” (factories, farms, mines, transportation, etc.) and putting them under the control of those he viewed as the sole producers of wealth: the workers. Marx viewed political equality and freedom as incomplete (or even illusory) without economic equality. Therefore this redistribution of economic power was aimed at extending democracy far beyond the limits envisioned by earlier democratic revolutions. Social services like health, education, and housing would be provided free, but people would still be paid wages according to their work.

When all nations had developed communist economies, they would begin to evolve into an international communist society. The vision of communism was very similar to that of anarchism: a stateless society in which central government had “withered away,” local, ground-up control of all affairs by strictly democratic processes based at the place of work, abolition of the market system (no money, no buying and selling) and its replacement by a system according to which people would voluntarily work for the common good to the extent they were able under the understanding that they could receive whatever they needed for free (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”). National boundaries and governments having been eliminated, war would cease.

Marx rejected the belief that such a society could be set up immediately as utopian. People would need a long period of reeducation to condition them away from the selfish orientation produced by capitalism and toward the wider perspective necessary to create communism. Many of his socialist and anarchist adversaries argued that it was impossible to achieve communism by passing through a stage which retained and even strengthened the centralized state government. Marx replied that it was impossible to leap directly into communism from capitalism. What’s your opinion on this question?

The most common reply is that both are impossible because “you can’t change human nature.” What Marx set out to prove was that not only had “human nature” changed many times in the past: there is no such thing as a static human nature. We are products of our environment, particularly of the economic system in which we live. People living under feudalism are motivated by feudal motives and think them natural and fixed, just as people living under capitalism are motivated by capitalist motives and think those natural and fixed. Occasionally in history people undergo what is now called a “paradigm shift” in values, based on an economic transformation. It is this process that he attempts to sketch in the first section of the Manifesto. If people’s values have changed radically in the past, he implies, they are certain to change again radically in the future. In a socialist society it would be nonsense to say that people will always naturally tend to become owners of factories because such owners would be as impossible, and such desires would be as irrational as the desire to own the Moon. Engels spent a good deal of energy studying so-called “primitive communist” societies to show that sharing could be as natural and widespread an attitude toward wealth as acquisition. What do you know about pre-capitalist cultures that might support or undermine this argument?

Although he does not address the question in the Manifesto, it is important to understand why Marx believed an armed revolution would be necessary to establish socialism. He was convinced that the democratic revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 had merely substituted one tyrant for another. The bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) had replaced the old aristocracy as the rulers in law as well as in fact. Their slogans of freedom and equality for all, he felt, concealed a determination to remain supreme over the proletariat (industrial laborers) which made up the vast majority of society. He did not reject bourgeois democracy because it was democratic, only because he felt it was limited to the bourgeoisie. Economic power, not the vote, was the ultimate guarantee of political power. He was in favor of using elections as an organizing tool, but he was certain that in most countries the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) would forcibly prevent any democratically-elected socialist government from taking power.

He once commented that in only two industrialized nations were democratic institutions so firmly entrenched that a transition to socialism might be peacefully achieved: the Netherlands and the United States. Why do you think this transition did not happen? He also felt that communism could be built only in highly industrialized countries. Why do you think communist revolutions happened first in nations with very little industry, like Russia and China? What effects did this fact have on the course socialism took in these countries?

The manifesto is meant to achieve two major goals: to convert the proletarians and their allies to Marx’s version of socialism (there were many other versions, much more influential than his) and to put the ruling class on notice as to the revolutionaries’ intentions. So it expresses both hopes and threats. Its central themes are well summed up in the long central paragraph on p. 6 of Engels’ introduction. Read it carefully. Note how he goes on to compare his theory of class struggle with Darwin’s theory of evolution, just as Étienne did in Germinal.


The opening words of the Manifesto are famous. Marx taunts his adversaries, saying they are terrified of communism without understanding in the slightest what it is. Since communism is such a threat, it must be important, and worth understanding. Hence the Manifesto.

I: Bourgeois and Proletarians

Marx felt that the revolutions of 1848 marked a major turning point, as is now undisputed. He sets out to trace the patterns which have run through all of preceding history. Unsurprisingly, he considers exclusively European societies, beginning with the classical world. What does he say is the main source of conflict throughout history? How does he say the bourgeoisie has differed in the way it has affected this pattern of conflict? He explains how the bourgeoisie (literally dwellers in towns) originated out of the old medieval peasant class, in opposition to the medieval titled aristocracy (kings, dukes, knights, etc.).

These people derived their wealth from trade rather than agriculture. Why was the age of exploration and colonization important to them? What caused the old guild system to collapse? What have the major effects of the ensuing industrial revolution been? What are the major achievements caused by the extension (expansion) of industry? As the bourgeoisie grew in power, what happened to the other old feudal classes like the aristocracy and the peasants? Did the bourgeoisie create capitalism or did capitalism create the bourgeoisie, according to Marx?

What does this famous phrase mean: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie?” Do you agree? Why? Note that he praises the bourgeoisie for having abolished the feudal system and prepared the way for socialism; but he does so ironically. What does he imply have been the main harmful effects of destroying feudalism? How has capitalism’s emergence changed ” human nature?” “Exchange value” is a typical Marxist term which does not exactly mean “price,” but in this context that is close enough. What does he say is the limit of bourgeois freedom? Do you think he is right in saying that occupations are only respected according to how much they are paid? Can you think of examples to illustrate his point about the reduction of “the family relation to a mere money relation” from Germinal? Keep in mind that he is speaking here mainly of the effects of capitalism on workers, not on the bourgeoisie. He uses the term “reactionaries” from time to time. What does it mean? (Look it up in a dictionary.) It is commonly misused to mean merely “those who react to something.”

To what cause does he attribute the bourgeoisie’s energy in creating railways, factories, etc.? Why do owners need constantly to create new ways of manufacturing and processing goods? How does competition drive this process? Can you think of modern examples, or counter-examples? How does the very essence of bourgeois production (capitalism, used interchangeably with “bourgeois society” below) make it by definition a revolutionary force? Why does capitalism have to spread worldwide? What tendencies undermine the independence of nation-states? Can you think of examples today of this sort of international economic interdependence? What forces generate expanded markets for capitalism? Can you think of examples of “new wants being created?

What effects does he say international trade has on “intellectual production” such as literature, philosophy, music, etc.? Is literature more or less international now than in the Middle Ages? Has nationalism been weakened as a force in the last hundred years, as Marx expected? Why or why not? He argues that all societies tend to become civilized (drawn into the social patterns of European civilization). To what extent is this true? What is the process by which he says the bourgeois society creates a world after its own image? How has capitalism altered the relationship between cities and the countryside? Has that process continued since Marx’s time? What does he mean by the “idiocy of rural life?” Farmers a hundred years ago were considered much less sophisticated than city dwellers. Is that still true? What analogy is he drawing between the city/country relationship and the “civilized”/”barbarian” relationship? According to Marx, how evenly is wealth distributed under capitalism? How has capitalism tended to create large countries with uniform laws?

What have been the main creations of capitalism during the preceding 100 years? Having described how the emergence of capitalism from mercantilism destroyed the old feudal system, Marx proclaims that a similar transformation is now taking place. How has capitalism created forces which work against its continued existence? A “commercial crisis” would more likely be called a depression or recession today. What pattern does he feel there is in these crises?

Why does capitalism tend to over-produce goods, unlike any previous form of economy? How does an over-abundance of goods produce an apparent “famine” (depression)? Is it possible to produce too much? How do economists today relate manufacturers’ inventories to the health of the economy? How could such over-production be prevented? Marx shows his Enlightenment heritage by objecting to such a result as absurd, irrational. What are some of the irrational contradictions that he sees in capitalism? What three methods does the bourgeoisie use to solve such a crisis? Why do these methods not really solve the ultimate problem? How have the bourgeoisie created the force which will destroy them? Why are laborers forced to sell their services for the lowest possible wages? What ” law” did we study in Germinal which states this proposition? In fact, in the century after the writing of the Manifesto the wages of workers tended generally to rise (though with many fluctuations and crises), until most workers under capitalism were much too prosperous to be enemies of the system which produced their wages. What forces do you think caused this result, contradicting Marx’s expectation?

Besides low wages, what other evils does Marx trace to modern industrialism? How could these evils be avoided? What is the relationship between the “repulsiveness” of labor and pay? To what extent is hard work not rewarded with more wealth? How is work made harder? Why has industrialism resulted in the entry into the workplace of more and more women and children? What effects does Marx thinks this has had on society? Can you illustrate this point from Germinal?

What happens to the “lower strata of the middle class” (what Marx elsewhere calls the “petit” [small] or “petty” bourgeoisie)? Can you think of an example from Germinal? What are the major stages in the class struggle as the proletariat develops? Can you illustrate these stages from Germinal? [Those who advocate destroying machinery to end its oppressive effects are called “Luddites” after a group of weavers who destroyed power looms in England inspired by a mythical figure named Ned Ludd in 1811-1816. ] How does Germinal illustrate the process by which workers begin to organize their opposition to the owners? As the conflict develops, most of its victims are not the large capitalists, but their small competitors (like Deneulin); thus Marx says ” every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.” The struggle is becoming sharpened. What forces continually strengthen the proletariat?

What unstable forces inherent in capitalism cause the workers to seek organizations which will help them stabilize their wages? Since most strikes and riots are failures, what is the “real fruit” of these struggles? Why can modern workers organize so much more easily than their medieval predecessors? What is the next step after the proletarians have become conscious of themselves as a class rather than as isolated individuals, and become organized? As Engels’ footnote points out, one of the early successes of labor organizations was the passing of a law restricting the normal work day to ten hours (as is the case in Germinal ), though overtime remained common. In earlier industrialism it was common to keep a factory or mine going around the clock with two shifts of twelve hours each.

How does the need of the bourgeoisie to seek allies among the proletariat help to strengthen the latter? Which of these two classes–bourgeoisie and proletariat–tends to grow the most? According to Marx’ s definitions, which class does your family belong to: bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production who live off of profits) or proletariat (people who work for a salary), or would you define their status in some other way? When Marx says that “a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class” he is thinking primarily of intellectuals like himself and Engels, who allied themselves with the workers despite their bourgeois background. The relationship of such idealistic Marxists to working class movements has been a troubled one. Can you think of any examples? What problems might these two groups have in relating to one another? Why does he call peasants reactionaries? Was Marx right? Can you think of an important modern Communist revolution which was created primarily among and for peasants?

Professional criminals, prostitutes, beggars, etc. make up what Marx calls the Lumpenproletariat.They too are not likely to be revolutionary, according to him. When Marx says that the proletarian is without property he doesn’t mean workers don’t own their clothes and toothbrushes. To what extent are the workers in Germinal “without property?” It is this narrow definition of “property” that Marx uses throughout his writings. He had no objection to people owning personal belongings. To what extent has modern capitalism stripped workers of their national character? Are proletarians less nationalistic than the bourgeoisie? Why does he believe that proletarians will be motivated to destroy the whole system of individual private property? What fact makes the proletarian movement different from all previous movements? Does Marx believe that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie can be carried out internationally, all at once? What might be the weaknesses of carrying it out country by country?

Why does Marx say the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule? The final paragraph of this chapter summarizes the argument of the whole. Read it carefully. He believes that capitalism inevitably creates its own destruction. What do you think of this thesis?

II: Proletarians and Communists

What does Marx say the relationship of the Communists to the proletarians as a whole is? In what ways are they different from other working-class parties? What are their immediate aims?

Marx argues that his theories are not mere intellectual inventions but scientifically provable facts. What effect might it have on political debate if one believes that one’s arguments are irrefutable fact? Marx now sets himself to answer many of the most common accusations against the Communists. What does he say is the usual argument in favor of the right of personally acquiring property (land, factories, mines, etc.)? What do you think of these arguments? What are his answers? Do you find them convincing?

What does he mean when he says that capital (the money and goods which make capitalism possible) is a social creation? Again he discusses the “iron law of wages.” He says that under capitalism living labor (the work of the workers) is but a means to increase accumulated labor (the wealth of the owners). What does he say is the aim of labor under communism? Does Marx want to abolish all individuality and freedom? Read the last paragraph carefully. What is he saying?

Some Communists have denounced all individuality and most individual liberty. Do you think Marx would have agreed with them? What does he mean by saying that the bourgeoisie has done away with private property for nine-tenths of the population? The fact that most Americans own no part of the means of production doesn’t seem to make them opposed to private property as such. Why not? Can you identify factors that Marx overlooked? When he says that the middle-class owner must be made impossible, he simply means that society must be reorganized so that no one is allowed to own large masses of productive property. Do you think he would have agreed with attempts to kill capitalists? What is his answer to the argument that the ambition to acquire property (become a business owner) is necessary to prevent “universal laziness?” (His answer continues on the next page.)

Marx says that the bourgeoisie fears that a proletarian revolution will destroy all culture because bourgeois culture will no longer be produced. What does he imply about the continued existence of culture? Why does he argue it is pointless to use arguments based on freedom, culture, and law against communism? The earliest Western theoretician of communism, Plato, had argued for a lottery rotating the matings of men and women to create a sense of solidarity in which all citizens would view themselves as part of one big family. Some other communists had argued for similar arrangements, like group marriage or ” free love,” but Marx did not. He did feel that people should be free to form their own unions without any role being played by the state. He was also opposed to the idea of “illegitimacy.” Here he sarcastically attacks his critics without making his own position explicit. Remembering Germinal, why do you think he says the family is “practically absent” among the proletarians?

He foretells the vanishing of the bourgeois family (though not necessarily the family in general). What evils does he say the bourgeois family causes? He answers those who argue that education will be destroyed and replaced by propaganda by saying that supposedly neutral bourgeois education is in fact filled with more or less hidden propaganda for capitalist values: there is no neutrality possible. The workers have to change the values taught to ones that support rather than undermine them. What do you think of this argument? Is it possible to have a truly unbiased form of education? Is it desirable? Do we have one now? What evidence does he offer that the bourgeoisie does not really value the family for its own sake? He then returns to the most sensational charge: the community (sharing) of women. Marx rejects this. A ccording to Marx, why do the bourgeoisie suppose that this is an essential part of communism? How does he argue that it is the bourgeoisie which has really promoted the “community of women?”

How does he say the abolition of the present system of production would change this situation? He agrees that the Communists do want to abolish countries and nationality. What are his arguments in saying that working people are not attached to their countries? Clearly this is not generally true. Even Stalin had to resort to patriotism to muster the support of Russians behind him during World War II. Why has nationalism proven so persistent and powerful? Does this fact undermine Marxism? What does the passage which begins in the last paragraphs on this page and continues on the next mean? (Hint: the point is discussed above, in the introduction to these questions.) This argument is one of the most widespread and powerful still being debated in academic and intellectual circles today, and it is important to understand it.

As Engels points out, the ten-point program outlined here is very conservative and preliminary, and would have been much more developed had the Manifesto been written later. Which of the points seem radical, which conservative? Which have been in fact commonly adopted in countries like the U.S.? Which do you agree with? Disagree with? Explain this ideal: ” the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Does this sound like communism as you understand it? As it developed in the Soviet Union?

III: Socialist and Communist Literature

In this chapter, which you are not required to read, Marx presents a now very dated summary of other socialist theories and tries to show how his is uniquely effective, scientific and rational.

IV: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

Much of this section can be summarized by simply saying that the Communists allied themselves with whatever groups they thought were moving in the right direction (“progressive”).

As Marx predicted, Germany developed one of the largest and most powerful socialist movements in the world; but the international socialist movement almost collapsed when Germany launched World War I and the socialist party supported the government. However, socialism remained popular enough so that Adolph Hitler thought he had to call his movement “National Socialism” to gain widespread acceptance, even though once in power he vigorously exterminated socialists. What does Marx say are the special aims worked for by the communists within the various reform movements? Most people misquote the ending of the Manifesto with the slightly more catchy “Workingmen of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” What weaknesses can you find in this call to revolution?

Do you think communism as Marx describes it is a desirable ideal, a foolish dream, a undesirable ideal, or something else? Why? Some people argue that true Marxism has never been attempted, and that if his original ideas were followed it might be more successful. Marxism, they say, has been discredited by people who betrayed Marx. What do you think of this argument?

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Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

Version of June 14, 1995.

Revised June 8,2016


French Impressionist Painting

French Impressionist painting is currently the most popular of all European bodies of art. Part of the romance of Impressionism comes from the stories of uphill struggles against the Academic painters and critics who dominated 19th-century French art, only to be swept into obscurity by the artists they had scorned. However, a reaction was bound to set in, and during the final decades of the 20th century, a number of politically oriented critics began to argue that far from being radicals, the Impressionists appealed to bourgeois tastes partly because their technique was easy to digest and their subject matter inoffensive. They point out that the industrialization of Europe is rarely reflected in their works, and that they paid little or no attention to the sufferings of the urban poor. Many of them were acutely conscious of their popularity, and eager to cash in on it.

This school of thought has had next to no impact on popular opinion, which still embraces the Impressionists fervently; but it did have an apparent impact on the series we are using for this course:Art of the Western World, hosted by Michael Wood. Rather than devoting an entire episode to the Impressionists, he covers them rather hastily in a much larger context. Since I find the “case” against the Impressionists rather shallow, I am supplementing the videotape you will be watching with this Web assignment, to give you a broader acquaintance with this important art movement.

First view the videotape, “Art of the Western World, 7: A Fresh View: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism” and do the writing assignment in The Bridge threaded discussion on this tape.

Later, for the second Impressionism assignment, you will return to this page and do the following:

Begin by reading the Wikipedia article on “Impressionism.”

Then click on the names of two of the Impressionist artists listed there and read what Wikipedia has to say about them.

Finally, explore some of these sites:

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics