Throughout time, people of all ideologies and social standings have agreed that poverty is an undeniable hindrance to society at any stage. Marxists, communists, capitalists, and even anarchists across time have all agreed that poverty is the ultimate obstacle to achieving a flourishing society. Adam Smith once said, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
As a devout capitalist and successful tycoon, Smith knew well that in order for a society to do better they must be blessed with a wealth that lifts them out of poverty, or else the whole society would suffer and be held back. More than Smith knew of the limiting nature of poverty on society, people and thinkers like Andrew Carnegie and Karl Marx understood this to be truthful as well.
Karl Marx especially emphasized this point to no end. One of Marx’s core insights into the human condition was that when people are driven by money and greed, they doom themselves to be overcome and overrun by the underprivileged. This is one of the core teachings of Marxism, and is the most obvious and widely understood truth of his philosophy. This idea of greed overcoming mankind and destroying civilization is explored by many, however it is explored in an abstract and problematic way in Joseph Conrad’s novel, “Heart of Darkness.”
In a work that is almost allegorical, Conrad shows us the consequences of human greed and lust for power during the time of his writing. By showing the suffering of the native Congolese people in his work, “Heart of Darkness,” Conrad either consciously or unconsciously outlines the follies and evils of the capitalist system and demonstrates that such a system almost always leads to barbarism, inhumane actions, and the exploitation of people who are less capable than ones self.
Capitalism has long been used as a justification for the accumulation of grotesque amounts of wealth, as well as a justification of actions taken by those who seek to gain more wealth and power for themselves at any cost. The great robber barons of our societies have long been those willing to undercut and harm anyone and everyone who would seek to challenge their position in the world or seek to accumulate wealth in a similar manner as them.
Tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan all exploited labor laws, lower class citizens, and even children in order to gain the amount of wealth that they did, and once these men reached a level of power over their respective markets and surroundings, they abused their power in order to manipulate government bodies, destroy competition, and exploit consumers in order to grow their already vast power.
In regards to “Heart of Darkness,” Conrad shows us how the inherently greedy nature of the capitalist system through his use of an organization called simply “The Company.” “The Company,” that nameless, all-powerful agent of capitalism, had expanded its “empire” into the Congo, but not to instill Western beliefs or society, but simply to take advantage of the natives for what amounts to slave labor, and to appropriate the ivory from this untamed, new land.
“The Company” impacts each and every one of the characters in a different way, however Kurtz has become the brutal embodiment of the capitalism practiced by “The Company.” In no way do the natives benefit from the ivory trade. In no way do they reap the spoils of their goods. Instead, they collect the ivory for their “master” – Kurtz, the newest member of the bourgeoisie. Kurtz, the newest god in Africa, a god with an appetite for power and adoration. A man whose original purpose in Africa had become so lost in his living personification of the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutley.”
“Kurtz’s methods only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts,” Conrad wrote. “I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men” (Conrad 52). Kurtz’s actions reflect that of most of Europe at this time, taking brutal advantage of the continent of Africa in the West’s relentless expansion.
Rooted in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this approach emphasizes issues such as the class struggle between the proletariat & bourgeoisie, the inevitable failure of capitalist systems, and the tendency of the empowered to exploit the disenfranchised. Marxists consider imperialism to be the peak of capitalism and, coincidentally, Heart of Darkness has been considered as an anti-imperialist work, so the work invites a Marxist approach in itself.
This anti-imperialist attitude is apparent throughout the novel as the protagonist, Marlow, surveys his surroundings: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (Conrad 41). Here, Marlow is observing the nature of his work and its exploitative nature of the native slave labor he sees.
Marlow is sympathetic towards the slaves and shows a good degree of class consciousness when he states, “Your power is just an accident arising from the weakness of others” (Conrad 41). Here, it is clear that Conrad meant to portray the natives as the oppressed proletariat class, driven from peaceful lives to work for the benefit of their oppressors. The white oppressors, or bourgeoisie class, ruthlessly enslave the natives to acquire ivory for trade.
The application of the Marxist approach in this novel brings to the foreground an important central theme: man’s inhumanity to man. It is perfectly exemplified through the exploitation of the natives. Repeatedly, Marlow reveals the greed of the bourgeoisie “pilgrims” as despicable.
In one instance, for example, he comments on a fat man who is unfit to survive in the jungle: “I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. ‘To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said, scornfully” (Conrad 57). This draws an unsettling parallel between monetary gain and brutal exploitation, showing how capitalism is inherently exploitative. The subject and driving force of all of the greed, ivory, is established as a symbol for emptiness.
This serves to make trivial the characters’ procurement of wealth, specifically in the case of Kurtz. Marlow explains, “Everything belonged to Kurtz” (Conrad 91), which juxtaposes private ownership (capitalism) with Kurtz’s rampant immorality and inhumanity. However, ivory is also used to foreshadow the inevitable downfall of the operations. As Marlow watches Kurtz die, he observes, “It was as though a veil had been rented. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair” (Conrad 115).
Here, a parallel is drawn between Kurtz’s death and the inevitable death of the ivory trade, or capitalist system. This is reinforced with the usage of the word “ivory” in reference to Kurtz’s face. Kurtz’s morals are not called into question, rather, he self-destructs due to his excessively greedy practices. The Marxist approach focuses on social commentary; the use of anti-imperialist rhetoric makes a strong case against Europe’s invasion and abuse of Africa. Whether by coincidence or by design, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is replete with Marxist ideals.