Of all books that have an afterlife, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has had a spectral success, from imitations to condemnations, from Swift’s Gulliver through to the Swiss Family Robinson lost in space. Since Marx gives Robinson a key place in the opening chapter of Capital Volume One, it would not do to leave him marooned on the shelf. In a free association game, we might start anywhere and still end up alone on the island. Instead, let us pay tribute to the widow Robinson leaves behind, stranded in London. Women are absent in the text, yet without them, no Robinson, no Prospero, no Will Rogers. The reproduction of myth serves as cover for a deeper reproduction.

This is, as ever, reason to start in again on Marx and his use of literary examples. Gayatri Spivak uses the occasion of Derrida saying ‘hello to Marx’ in 1993 (Spivak 1995:78), in his book Spectres of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international (Derrida 1993/1994), to make some necessary points about women in the contemporary condition of financialised capitalism. Along the way Spivak offers a reading of the late Assia Djebar’s Far From Medina and notes the ghosts of many women who must be retrieved from this text on Islam. I am not able to engage with Fatima, like Spivak I am ‘no Islamic scholar’, and anyway you must read both Spivak and Djebar as the call to literature takes you. However, I still consider Spivak more interesting on Marx, and on fianacialisation and women, than anyone else writing on this. It is curious and wrong that so few Marxists take this up; as class conscious ‘future socialists’ we cannot ignore the need to work through such questions, as we shall. Spivak insists:

‘According, then, to the strictest Marxian sense, the reproductive body of woman has now been “socialized” – computed into average abstract labor and thus released into what I call the spectrality of reason – a specter that haunts the merely empirical, dislocating it from itself. According to Marx, this is the specter that must haunt the daily life of the class-conscious worker, the future socialist, so that she can dislocate him herself into the counterintuitive average part-subject (agent) of labor, recognize that, in the everyday, es spukt. It is only then that the fetish character of labor-power as commodity can be grasped and can become the pivot that wrenches capitalism into socialism’ (Spivak 1995:67-8)

Derrida also does not take up women, or reproduction, in his version of Marx, though he had explored women and writing via Nietzsche, we might have expected that to spur him along … but there are always going to be mediating men and partners in the way. If I were a better historian, the rest of this text would be about Eliza Fraser, shipwrecked, marooned, kidnapped, molested off the coast of Queensland. A haunting story we might explore as a latter-day take on Robinson, with much in it to say about the character of the times, indeed as Robinson tales so often tell. With Eliza waiting in for her passage, what of Robinson as hero?

Derrida has said ‘hello’ to Marx. Marx says ‘hello’ to the captain. In the fourth section of the opening chapter of Capital, Robinson is used to show that the operations of use-value are not somehow prior or isolated from exchange as relations of production. Even alone, Robinson calculates. It is not an innate nature, but a social condition (that can be changed).

‘The first example is Robinson Crusoe, to demonstrate that the relations of production can be known even in a situation of “pure” use-value’ (Spivak 1995:76)

Immediately before this, in search of ghosts, Derrida finds that the translation occludes the literal ghost in referring to the ‘magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour so long as they take the form of commodities’ (Marx 1867/1970:76 L&W Pen-169, Derrida 1993/1994:164). Necromancy substitutes for spuk and Derrida wants to stress the apparition, the ghost, is something like Marx’s familiar, whom he wants both to exorcise and retain.

But Spivak notes that Derrida ‘goofs a bit’ here:

‘the passage quoted on page 164 [by Derrida] does not directly refer to the socialist future, as Derrida seems to think. Marx’s point is that simply to see the relations of production clearly is no big deal’ (Spivak 1995:76)

It may be worth thinking through why which characters are present, and who appears on stage and who not – remember Hamlet’s father saying ‘I am dead’? Well, what of Robinson, and indeed Friday? Or Eliza? Why is it important that Friday not be mentioned? Or the others in Robinson’s tale? Marx wants to say that even the isolated Robinson on his island makes his objects according to a social code, not as an isolated individual. We are all social, even when it seems not. We are not even mentioning Robinson’s own mother here, but this is a key and clear point, isn’t it? But more, the literary historian Pawler shows that Marx works this story up more and more over time. He explains that it is the bourgeois isolated individual that Marx has in mind, already writing of ‘Robinsonades’ in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1848 and again in the economic manuscripts of 1857, The Grundrisse. Long birthing pains, but the allegory of Robinson in Capital is more developed than its first impoverished appearance, where ‘every man is a hermit and produces only for himself’ (Prawler1978:134). In the middle passage, at the time of the Grundrisse:

Robinsonaden’ offer ‘not the image of some primitive social organization, but as so clear a view of tendencies inherent in English society of the eighteenth century that they can serve as a symbolic adumbration of that society’s future. On closer examination the loneliness of Robinson Crusoe becomes a symbol for social alienation in the ‘civil society’ of the nineteenth century” (Pawler 1978:275-6).

This may be sailing further than Marx wants or needs us to, and as Spivak points out, the relations of production can be seen even in a situation of ‘pure’ use. Friday has not yet arrived, Robinson is well aware of how much labour it costs him to do his various tasks, necessary and futile as they may be, and even the political economists can understand this much, they just fail to ask why ‘labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value’ (Marx Capital 1(ch4). Nevertheless, Robinson can also stand for alienation in a society unable to acknowledge, or even properly perceive, the circumstances of its own conception. By the time Marx’s full laden version of Robinson appears in Capital, Robinson is keeping a set of books, listing his possessions, and working out the sums of his own labour time, and presumably in the end, with the arrival of another, calculating the labour time of the unfortunate Friday. Here Pawler suggests Marx has found in Robinson a personification of a class relation, a starting point for the critique of the professors of political economy, Ricardo, and Smith, but also the East India Company apologists, Macauley, Malthus, Peel and Senior. Robinson offers the ‘character-type of “economic planners” in general and the “true-born Englishman” in particular … [and] … affords a simple model of economic activities in a setting in which the value of an object can be directly proportional to the quantity of labour expended upon it, undistorted by market considerations’ (Pawler 1978:335).

It certainly looks as if with the discussion of Robinson on his Island, as an English book-keeper, Marx is having fun, but the key part is the exposure of the fetish, the trick, not of individualism, or even of alienation as such, but the failure of political economy to adequately ask the question of the value of labour. Robinson was a necessary step in the text. Subsequently we ‘transport ourselves from Robinson’s island, bathed in light, to the European middle ages shrouded in darkness’ where the hierarchy of serf and lord, compulsory labour, services and payments in kind, entails a society where the social relations are personal, and ‘not disguised under the social relations between the products of labour’ (Marx 1867/1970:77L&W). We need not go back to examine the different forms of common property, though Marx shows he has the scholarship to do this, but we can see the distribution of the work and consumption of produce in the peasant family is not one organised by commodities, but subject to arrangements of age, sex, the seasons, a spontaneously developed division of labour, etc. A hint here, just as Friday is absent in commentary and the text – we should remind ourselves that Robinson is on the island over 25 years before Friday turns up – and although there are anti-colonial reasons to insist on his return, and what was his ‘real’ name, who was his mother, etc., – see Sylvia Federici’s brilliant Caliban and the Witch: the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004) for discussion in the context of capital and reproduction – so also the question of women’s labour in the so-called dark ages, in the peasant family, in the too easy characterisation of the peasantry as male, stupidly heroic field workers, when these fields were populated by a mix of genders, and the darkness was in the kitchens and birthing rooms also, largely occluded from peasant histories… Robinson does not even masturbate, though he will in the Tournier version, wallowing in mire, down in a hole (Tournier 1967/1969) … He likes to keep goats, he has a pet dog. Only at the very end of the tale, receiving his plantation wealth which has accrued, as if by itself, on his slave plantation holdings in the meantime, does he settle with his former ‘widow’, marry again and have three children, all in a few quick paragraphs by way of wrapping up. Attuned to this political context and writing often on slavery, the direct commentary on Robinson’s later life is unavailable in Marx, perhaps he did not know the 1719 publication by Defoe of The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, And of the Strange Surprising Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe. Discussion of that must wait, though there are consequences built into Marx’s slave commentaries. To make his point on Robinson he does not need to travel to the end or, as might have been anticipated, liberate Friday or the other sailors.

Marx instead leaves Robinson to his fate on the island. And instead asks us to ‘picture to ourselves, for a change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common’ (Marx, 1867/1970:78 L&W). Social labour-power and social product, planned distribution, surplus consumed according to – in this, again not the only possible assumption – and distributed according to input of labour-time.

‘The social relations of the individual producers, with regard to both their labour and their products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and with regard not only to production but also to distribution’ (Marx 1867/1970:79 L&W)

There may be different forms in which this distribution is organised, according to the level of development of the productive forces, and a future communism would not assume distribution according to labour time but rather to each according to need, yet this scenario where production has stripped off its ‘mystical veil’ [this veil stuff is from Schiller’s ‘The Bell’, as Prawler shows, 1978:322] and is ‘consciously regulated’ in ‘accordance with a settled plan’ comes only at the expense of ‘a long and painful process’ (Marx 1867/1970:80 L&W). Marx’s point in the next pages is to show that the commodity as bourgeois form has everything reversed – like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing who things ‘reading and writing come by nature’ (Marx 1867/1970:83 L&W Pen.177, D.98).

The ‘mysterious’ and mystical character of the commodity comes not from use value – its miracle of being of use to us, but from its ability to carry congealed social labour as if it were a objective characteristic of itself – social relations are reflected as a relation between objects: ‘the specific social characteristic of ‘private labour’ appears (ersheinen) only within the exchange of products’ (Marx 1867/1976:160)

Defoe based Robinson Crusoe upon an impressive array of tales identified as sources – Shakespeare’s Tempest, Dampier’s Travels, Pilgim’s Progress, Homer and more – but as Katherine Frank exhaustively and impressively documents, alongside the accepted story of castaway Alexander Selkirk (Severin 2002), it is Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of Ceylon, published 1681, that provides a framework for the tale.

Apart from the problem of designating influences, sources, suggestions of theft, plagiarism and the impossibility of translating questions of influence now into practices then, Robert Knox was the son of an East India company captain, whose ship The Anne, on which both father and son served, suffered storm damage off Ceylon and they and crew became captives and (mostly very well-treated) prisoners of the king of Kandy for almost twenty years (Frank 2011:4).

The Anne was an East Indiaman on EIC trade but English sailors stranded in Ceylon were caught between rivalries that set Dutch East Indies Company at odds with the rescue efforts of the English Company, complicated by English ambitions to establish a trading base in opposition to Dutch control of the Ceylon trade.

Rediker does not mention Knox at all, and instead puts all of Robinson’s individual eggs in the basket of Selkirk. His critique of Defoe is important however, noting that he writes almost in anticipation of Ricardo and Adam Smith and that Robinson’s self-starter braggado in exile as ‘model for the modern individualist hero’ is emphasised over social ties – to Friday, to others – that populate his story. Defoe ‘makes Crusoe the solitary independent individual, shorn of all natural ties, living outside society, involved only with nature’ (Rediker 2014:62). It is no big deal to recall that Marx had already punctured this construction, taking us back in imagination to that island bathed in light beloved of the political economists with their ‘Robinsonades’, but recall also Swift’s Gulliver seven years after Defoe’s book, as a more damning rendition.

Social commentators today are more like Gulliver than Robinson of course, and critics too are worried about which end of the egg to cut – there are several types, including arrogant ones, all starting in the middle. To be concerned with origins or with copyists reveals, and conceals too. Calling these Robinsonades is a worthy, mocking judgment, deployed for grander purpose. Defoe was battling the debtors prison, and Marx knew a little about being in hock to the muse also. Will write for rent – a troubling all too real predicament.

Rediker shows that Robinson’s isolation (2014:62) relies upon an acceptance of storytelling that serves the ideology of individualism against the collective and co-operative insurrectionist tendency that set itself against capital, even within the novel. Is it possible to read Robinson against the Robinsonades, as escapee, even as castaway bourgeois, Robinson sides with those fleeing capital but will later profit manifold. The escapees, pirates, the Spanish captives, band together as often happens within pirate narratives, in a collective and collaborative community of association working together, and exchanging skills (Robinson and Friday) just as much as they necessarily also confront hostile, ‘cannibalistic’, ‘savagery’. Unruly alliances perhaps, but this too is a filter of ideology to which, consider, pirate community is often subject. Why is it that these otherwise deadly, thieving, rapists are also held in high esteem, romanticised as much as feared. Eliza is still nowhere to be found, or she is saved only to be shamed and returned to her slave status as kept. The Robinson narrative relies on this ‘romance’ in part also, as does many such individual in the collective hero narratives[i] – Robin Hood of Nottingham, Zorro, Ned Kelly – where the individual heroic narrative transmutes the collective commitment, hidden labour, solidarity alliance and unevenly shared endeavour that is recognised but displaced in the pirate mythology.


Defoe, Daniel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner,

Defoe, Daniel 1719 The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, And of the Strange Surprising Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe.

Derrida, Jacques 1993/1994 Spectres of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international

Djebar, Assia 1991 Far From Medina, London: Quartet Books.

Federici, Sylvia 2004 Caliban and the Witch: the Body and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia.

Frank, Katherine Crusoe: Danel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth, London: The Bodley Head.

Marx, Karl 1857-1861?1973 The Grundrisse Harmonsdworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl, 1867 Das Kapital editions from penguin 1867/1976, Lawrence and Wishhart 1867/1970, Progress Press, and

Radiker, Marcus 2014 Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, Beacon Press.

Spivak, 1995 Ghostwriting, Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2. (Summer), pp. 64-84

Tournier, Michel 1967/1969 Friday, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.