Jonatan Swift's Gulliver's Travels through the Lens of the Theory of Alienation by Karl Marx

Power, Politics, and Swift

There’s no doubt that Swift’s life and works are heavily influenced by the politics of his day. As eager as he was to be involved with them, he was quick to criticize the political workings around him. This discontent with England’s political underbelly is shown, through witty satire, throughout Gulliver’s Travels, specifically in parts one and two and can be related to Marx’s idea of estrangement and the division between mental and material labor.

Understanding this notion of estrangement can help illuminate Swift’s motivations for his satire and the many complex attitudes towards his political friends and enemies, and allow for new considerations on Jonathan Swift.

In German Ideology, Marx delineates the circumstances necessary to produce a feeling of unhappiness and estrangement in someone. If one is separated from his work, from the product he creates or works on, or the commodity or value that the work is worth he develops a certain dissatisfaction with the work itself.

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Often this separation from the fruits of his labor comes from the oppression of an “intolerable power.” (Marx, 161) The effects of this estrangement, Marx argues, will eventually end in social “revolution” or upheaval.

In order to relate Swift and GT to Marx’s theory of alienation, we must first demonstrate and find evidence for Swift’s discontent. Perhaps the clearest example of Swift’s attitudes towards politics is in part one of Gulliver’s Travels wherein Gulliver explains the internal political machinations of Lilliputian society.

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He explains that Lilliputian government officials are chosen through “a dance on the rope”, a test completely unrelated to their ability to govern. “Whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office.” (Swift, 31) This is made all the more outrageous when it is revealed the Emperor of Lilliput rewards various colored threads of silk to officials who excel at different, but all the same politically irrelevant, tests of dexterity. This mindset permeates throughout all Lilliputian politics. Put on a good show and always make the Monarch happy and you will find political success. Further evidence of this is given when Gulliver, having just defeated the Blefuscudian navy, stands by his morals and refuses to enslave the Blefuscudians. Despite all the good Gulliver has done him, this angers the Emperor and eventually leads to Gulliver’s need to escape to Blefscu. Both of these examples show the senseless double standard of Lilliputian politics. In the first, political office is chosen without any mind towards political ability. In the second, a person with great power is blind to the overall good of a subordinate when faced by one slight against himself.

These occurrences are very likely allusions to Swift’s own experiences in the courts of England. While working for the Whig party, Swift consistently desired compensation, in the form of higher positions in the Church (and later, the courts), for his work as a writer and was consistently denied it. Many positions he sought would be given to someone else, even someone he “hated…as he never hated another man” (Fiore, 428). Explained by Jordan D. Fiore in his article, Jonathan Swift and the American Episcopate, this led Swift to “assist in promoting the downfall of the Whigs”, whom he called “ungrateful dogs,” later in life by acting as the Tories’ lead propagandist (Fiore, 430). Under Robert Harley, a prominent Tory political figure and future Earl of Oxford, he was very close to the powers that be in government, but had very little substantial say or effect on these political forces. He heard, but was not listened to, and grew to resent his position. Clearly, this illustrates the possibility for Swift’s unhappiness with, and estrangement from, many aspects of politics and power, but how does it relate to the aforementioned passage of Gulliver’s Travels? By showing the double standard of Lilliputian politics, and comparing it to English politics, Swift shines a critical light on the inner workings of the courts. He criticizes the lack of common sense in politics, and dislikes how much politics centers around making a few key, powerful people happy.

In part two of Gulliver’s Travels, there appears a more direct form of criticism directed towards European politics and society. While outlining English society and government to the Brobdingnagian king, Gulliver is asked various questions that shed a light on the many pitfalls and shortcomings of government such as “whether a stranger, with a strong purse, might not influence the vulgar voters to choose him before their own landlord, or the most considerable gentleman in the neighbourhood?” (Swift, 160) Later, after Gulliver gives a history of his people, the king describes them to be “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” (Swift, 164) No doubt this caustic description is designed to shock the reader into a self-analytical viewpoint and question their own opinions to such an easily corrupted system of government. By posing these questions and comments from the king’s point of view, the reader receives a more direct dose of Swift’s criticism. Now his satire does not come in the form allegorical situations or allusions, it is straightforward questions posed directly to Gulliver, who represents society.

Through the king, Swift critiques the methods used to gain political office. As explained by Downie, he attacks “measures not men,” (118). Many different scholars will point to Swift intending to portray prominent figures of his day as characters in his works, including Gulliver’s Travels, although it is not always agreed upon who represents who. One theory, seemingly supported by Downie, is the idea that the king’s questions are more or less directed at Robert Walpole (118-119). It was commonly thought, at least by Swift, that Walpole attained his political influence through suspect political mechanisms. This blatant question from Swift, through the king, is very likely directed at Walpole and the later classification of men as “odious vermin” is no doubt a further slight to Walpole and his ilk, who represent the oppressive powers mentioned by Marx. His dissatisfaction and estrangement with the political culture of his time shines through his writing and knowing these particular dissatisfactions help illuminate additional meaning behind these passages.

Now that we have established the existence of discontent, caused by his estrangement, within Swift, we can discuss estrangement and alienation as a whole. “[lf] the conditions of work, of leisure, and of life” are oppressed, it impairs the individual’s “capacity to become a multidimensional, authentic being.” (Young, 27) In essence, suppressing an individual’s purpose results in the individual feeling separated from purpose altogether. Though Marx focuses much of his attention on this oppression being caused by more modern, capitalistic societies, there is no doubt that the possibility for alienation was present in Swift’s era.

Marx also speaks of the division of labor in society. Within the ruling class, there exists a division between “mental and material labor.” Mental laborers “appear as the thinkers” of society. These are the ideologists and theorists. Material laborers are the “doers” of society. The politicians, managers, executives, etc. that often use the mental labor and enact it in the physical world. Swift easily fits into the description of mental laborer. He was a writer, not only of literature, but of the propaganda used by the material laborers. Marx speaks of “certain opposition and hostility” that can brew between these two divisions. Certainly, this hostility can be explained by the possible estrangement of mental laborers, as they see their work used, and often twisted, by those of the material ruling class (Marx, 173).

This notion can be related to Swift’s anger towards those in power and can help to illuminate his motivation for ridiculing them. Swift worked as a Tory propagandist. He was responsible for spreading and strengthening the influence of the Tory party, but received little compensation for it. He became dissatisfied, developing a desire to satirize the political underbelly he had so much contact with. He sought, through his literature, his own sort of “revolution.”

This idea of Swift seeking a change and revolution are strengthened when one looks at the example from part 11. If the Brobdingnagian king’s questions towards Gulliver are seen as direct criticisms of the failings of English politics, then the Brobdingnagian’s own political scheme may be seen as Swift’s more ideal form of government. It is party-less and suffers from little political corruption. While there are references to past political conflicts and civil wars, Swift seems to soften these as nothing more than the inevitabilities that come with any sort of political system. Swift worked under and for both of the prominent political parties of his time, the Whigs and the Tories, and he often “split tickets” (Downie, 118) suggesting dissatisfaction with both sides. There were, after all, material laborers in each party. In knowing this, one can further see why Swift might portray a partyless government, under a benevolent king, as slightly utopian. This also seems to coincide with Marx’s idea that the estranged and alienated will all eventually seek to lessen the oppression of the ruling class by making them equal with themselves in line with Marx being a proponent of Communism).

Many literary critics can agree on there being a note of anger and dissatisfaction within Swift’s satirical writings. However, it is the inclusion of Marx’s theory of alienation into this discussion that, I believe, solidifies everything together. Lanny Thompson, in his article “The Development of Marx’s Concept of Alienation: An Introduction,” further defines Marx’s idea of alienation as the notion of “separation of subject from itself.” (24) Indeed, Swift did this literally within the context of Gulliver’s Travels when he hid all mentions of “Jonathan Swift” from its publication (at least at first). While this can be seen as an attempt by Swift to remove personal motivations from the analysis of GT, to let the satire stand by itself – something I am most certainly going against in this essay – and brings with it discussions of Foucault’s notion of the importance of authorship, it can also be seen as proof of the oppression Swift received, and his resulting alienation. Figuring out which of these conclusions is true, or indeed if they are even mutually exclusive, is not the intent or importance of this essay, however.

What is important is the desire to highlight the very human aspects of Swift’s satire. Estrangement is a human issue. A socio-psychological phenomenon caused by the oppression of those in power. It is a separation of oneself from one’s work and the inability to gain any enjoyment or personal growth of that work. “The product that the worker creates is not his, but is appropriated by the capitalist. This product stands opposed to him as capital.” (Thompson, 25) Swift wrote propaganda, writings designed to acquire and keep power within government. But he received none of the power his writings brought. He was separated from his mental labor by those with material labor, leading to his alienation. As a result he left (or, more precisely, was exiled) to Ireland, were he began his own form of rebellion. Here he could create his work and have full power over it.

Though many critics have noted both Swift’s anger at politicians and his own role as a propagandist for the Tory party, using Marx’s theory of alienation, Swift’s complex attitudes towards his political friends and enemies are illuminated. The political satire in parts I and II of Gulliver’s Travels can be seen as a direct response to the oppression he felt during his time surrounded by, and working for, the ruling, government class. Realizing that Gulliver’s Travels come from such a social, human origin gives it, and the satire contained within it, much more weight and importance. It’s more personal to Swift and thus more significant.

Works Cited

  1. Downie, J. A. “Political Characterization in ‘Gulliver’s Travels” The Yearbook of English Studies 7.No. (1977): 108-20. JSTOR. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. Gives historical background to events in Gulliver’s Travels and how they relate to Swift’s life and political career. Specifically, it shows evidence of certain characters in GT as representing prominent figures from Swift’s era and gives the motives and effects of Swft’s criticism of them.
  2. Fiore, Jordan D. “Jonathan Swift and the American Episcopate.” The William and Mary Quarterly 11.3 (1954): 425-33. JSTOR. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. Give’s historical background to Swift’s attempts to gain prominent political and clerical status. Though focusing mainly on how it relates to the opportunities in America, there is much information about his trials in English politics, which tie in directly with events in Gulliver’s Travels.
  3. Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1996. Eighteenth Century Fiction. George Faulkner, 1996. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. <http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.uh.edu/openurl/openurl? ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:ilcs us&rft_id=xri:ilcs:ft:ecf:Z000047221:0>.
  4. Thompson, Lanny Ace. “THE DEVELOPMENT OF MARX’S CONCEPT OF ALIENATION: AN INTRODUCTION.” Mid-American Review of Sociology4.1 (1979): 2338. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. Focuses on Marx’s Theory of Alienation and how it has developed overtime. Is better at defining the theory concisely and thoroughly than many other articles. Also helps provide historical background info behind Marx’s theory.
  5. Tucker, Robert C., Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.
  6. Young, T. R. “KARL MARX AND ALIENATION: The Contributions of Karl Marx to Social Psychology.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 2.2 (1975): 26-34. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. A well written article highlighting Marx’s Theory of Alienation and its contributions to social psychology. Focuses less on the actual definition of the theory and more of its relation to human consciousness. Compares Marx theories, dealing with societal causes and implications, with Freud’s focus on the human psyche.

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Jonatan Swift's Gulliver's Travels through the Lens of the Theory of Alienation by Karl Marx. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/jonatan-swift-s-gulliver-s-travels-through-the-lens-of-the-theory-of-alienation-by-karl-marx-essay

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