When one thinks of the economy one doesn’t usual think about the human aspect to it, yet the human aspect is the most important element of the economy itself. The economy is the very foundation of how we build character and is ideally central to any moral life. One of the most well known economies in the world is the capitalist economy that is predominantly practiced in the United States. Many writers and scholars had their own reasons for disliking the capitalist system but two of the most influential anti-capitalists are Henry David Thoreau and Karl Marx. Henry David Thoreau saw the lack of individualism in the capitalist system in Concord Massachusetts as described in the chapter titled “Economy” in his book Walden, when it comes to the entire idea of capitalism itself Henry David Thoreau isn’t the biggest fan of that form of economy. Henry David Thoreau views the capitalist economy as poisonous to the human soul and in the end will never allow us human beings to be truly fulfilled. While Karl Marx Similar to Thoreau has a distaste for capitalism, yet unlike Thoreau his dislike for the capitalist system originates from the class struggles and the instability and inequality between the bourgeoisie who are the rich ruling class and the proletariat who are the working class, as well as how capitalism in Marx’s view was necessary in the beginning but was bound to end over time and be replaced with communism. I will compare these two similar yet very different viewpoints regarding capitalism and examine the issues that Henry David Thoreau and Karl Marx will bring up about capitalism.
First let’s examine Henry David Thoreau’s “Economy” in Walden including his other works such as Civil Disobedience and Slavery in Massachusetts, and compare them to Karl Marx views in the communist manifesto and his other works critiquing capitalism, this time period was the mid 19th century when industrialization was sweeping the entire world, and these two scholars were at the forefront of this progressively changing world. Due to the rise of industrialization some sentiment against capitalism was beginning to fester, and Thoreau in response to this change in the world wanted to compare and contrast his life spent at Walden pond and the industrial city life that most people were accustomed to. The main theme within this chapter of Walden as well as in his many other works has to do a lot with the idea of simplicity or living deliberty. As Thoreau states ““I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (Walden pg 71) Thoreau describes the simplicity of life in nature, which is then contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the city of Concord Massachusetts, yet this also extended to farmers who in Thoreau’s view were enslaved to their labor even though they don’t live in the big city. The idea of the simple life meant that we as human beings only need the bare necessities (water, food, shelter, and clothing) in life in order to survive and live, everything else such as the luxurious that modern industrialized society has provided us is not necessary for us to live a fulfilling life and does nothing for the soul, it is simply just extra nose in the background that is keeping us stuck in our current positions in society. As Thoreau states “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Walden pg 8) by this he means that men aren’t truly enjoying life and are not really reaching their full potential. Karl Marx also sees the capitalist system as a form of enslavement, how the proletarians have to work in dangerous factories and are basically looked down upon by the upper class, as Marx states “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” (Communist Manifesto chapter 4) These men in Concord and in Capitalist societies in general are simply slaves to their labor, believing that there is no alternative to their current situation as Thoreau puts it “…it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to no other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.” (Walden Pg 9) Due to this belief people aren’t able to branch out and find who they truly are as individuals and what they are truly meant to do in life in Thoreau’s eyes. These men are cursed to live this existence which forces them to desperately try to survive day to day life and have no other choice but to conform into the capitalist system since there’s no “other” alternative to that way of life. While people scramble to make enough money to even survive let alone live, they won’t have anytime to actually live life, they have no time to appreciate the little things such as the natural world and discover their true passions and desires. The workers are just stuck in a hive mind of ants following the same repetitive system that over time truly destroys the human soul. living simply is one of his main goals at Walden pond, while people in Concord are enslaved in the capitalist way of life are too obsessed with luxury and greed so much that they forget what is truly needed and not just a want.
Then there comes one of the main features of Thoreau’s economy and his works and that being the idea of transcendentalism which is the philosophical movement which dealt mainly with how divinity is derived from all nature and humanity. While Marxism is an economic system where there is no class division, yet these two ideas are similar in a way they both seek an ideal world, free from established religion and the restrictions of state and classes. Henry David Thoreau suggests a different form of economy, this economy puts nature first as the main priority and he suggests a reform of the current capitalist system to something more oriented to that. Karl Marx and Thoreau both believe in reforming the economy but both have different approaches to this, Marx focuses a lot on the collective change while Thoreau is more focus on the individual change and the individual’s morality and through the individual we can change the world. Marx goes into the disparity of the classes and the way the proletarian is trampled on by the upper class. Due to all this a Marxist can have the idea of an ideal society that is free from class divisions, where everyone can be truly equal in the economic world. While a transcendentalist can visualize an idealistic society as well yet their ways of going about it are very different, Marxism with the social classes and Thoreau through the individual changing through the natural world building that moral character that can then be implemented into a much more nature centered economy, each has a similar end but with different means to get there. Karl Marx unlike the transcendentalist didn’t believe in such a divinity within nature, he viewed that very idea of religion or spirituality as in and of itself oppression of the masses. As Karl Marx famously stated “Religion is the opium of the masses.”
The next point is Thoreau and Marx view of the work itself in a capitalist economy, Thoreau sees how industrial work (conveyor belt, etc) slowly deskills the workers overtime. While in the Marxist view the labor in a society is extremely valuable, and the worth of a commodity is worth the amount of work that is put into it. Thoreau pays little or no care for the commodities that are created in industrial factories, since they in his view do nothing for the soul as well as do nothing in the way of building moral character. With this in mind it goes back to Thoreau’s concept of simplicity as he states “ A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things..” (Walden pg 9) This reinforces how much industrial work in modern society to Thoreau is enslavement itself, While Marx views the ones on the top of the economic food chain not the work itself as what is enslaving the lower class.
In conclusion these two concepts of Transcendentalism and Marxism has to combine together in order to achieve an economy that is right for the people, for freedom to be reached one must satisfy the ideal and the real. The idea of necessity being fulfilled is a central idea of Thoreau’s philosophy and has roots within Marxism itself. Transcendentalism in respect to the economy takes the ideal path of individuality, breaking away from conformity, the importance of the natural world in the economy, and the humanity behind the economic system. Whereas when it comes to Marxism it focuses on the material world, class conflicts, and empiricism. In truth these two ideas must work together in order to reach true fulfillment in ourselves and as a collective, and create an economy that does take from us like capitalism does, being that of the material or the spiritual, since as separate ideas it can lead to a fully materialism view or a not fully realized transcendentalism.