Bringing ideas to life

A Marxist approach to ‘Snowed up: A Mistletoe Story’

Published in Latest Posts by Maria Alicia Vetter on December 30, 2014

image by Liz West

image by Liz West

For a Marxist reading of ‘Snowed Up’, a story by John Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), one would have to re-examine basic, and controversial, notions of Marxism such as base and superstructure, dialectical contradictions, commodity production, and crisis in capitalist production.  Since ‘Snowed Up’ is set at the end of the nineteenth century, it would also be necessary to take into consideration the stage of capitalist development ‘Snowed Up’ happens in, namely laissez-faire (Let us Alone!), the cry for freedom from restrictions, the call for free trade of the Physiocrats, who also argued that land is the only source of wealth and labor on the land the only productive labor (Huberman 144).

Also from a Marxist standpoint, ‘Snowed Up’ can be read as a call for fascism.  Crisis leading to catastrophe could potentially be answered with the rallying call of “Socialism or Barbarism,” or that of fascism which calls for the armed forces to come to rescue society from itself and re-establish order.

A Marxist reading of ‘Snowed Up’ does also intersect with a feminist one, since feminism’s preoccupation with the lot of women as “commodities” brings into question women’s place in production and their reproductive functions as part of the labor process.

The base/superstructure metaphor, much maligned as “economic reductionism,” serves to represent two very basic tenets of Marxism: (1) that society’s base consists of those social relations formed in economical interchange and that it is on that base that the political corpus arises, largely to manage the affairs at the base, and that social consciousness is created in the superstructure, largely again to justify the management of the base by the political body; (2) that it is from material life that we develop ideas, and not the other way around.  In other words, that we exist before we think, and that our ideas depend a lot on how we exist in material ways before they get formulated (Larrain 42-45).

Why is this metaphor useful in a reading of “Snowed Up”?  Well, Jefferies creates a scenario where, due to an uncontrollable phenomenon of nature, the base and superstructure of society disappear catapulting it into chaos and barbarism.  Though the snow stops, and we can assume that the structure is put back into place, Jefferies has raised the unthinkable- what if the snow wouldn’t have stopped?  The story shows us how the superstructure is the first to go, with the base following in close pursuit.  It also shows us how class privileges might hold for a while, but are quickly obliterated after the institutions of the bourgeoisie are gone.

Unwittingly, since Jefferies was not a Marxist, he has drawn a picture of the “deconstruction” of the base-superstructure metaphor which raises the question of the role of crisis in general, and in capitalist society in particular.

Crisis, in Marxist terms, is the breakdown of the operating principles of society.  There are two types of crisis that Marxists address: economic crisis and transformation.  Economic crisis are economic falls and downturns of a chronic nature.  They are due to the intrinsic contradictions of capitalism, which it normally recuperates from.  Transformation, on the other hand, is the erosion, the destruction of societal relations, of economic and political activity (Shaikh 138-143).  Transformation could theoretically come about in a variety of ways.  Capitalism could die a natural death due to its own contradictions (such as running out of markets), or its demise could be brought about by the clash of classes due to their irreconcilable contradiction (class struggle).  Both could come about quickly if aided by natural disaster.  Again unwittingly, Jefferies has in his story brought society to a transformative moment.  As it is the case with Marxism, it does not escape Jefferies, nevertheless, that this is a moment of definition, of “either, or”.  But while Marxism would argue that it is “socialism or barbarism”, Jefferies opts for the fascist formula.  With the Austrian Prussian Empire looming large in the horizon, and with the economic theories of the physiocrats pushing a late capitalist phase, we can see an incipient fascism taking form.  Marx had in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte outlined the stage of the “bonapartiste coup” which would be repeated in the 20th century once the economic conditions that lead to fascism, namely late capitalism, would be in place (Bottomore 162-163).  Marx understood that the military was the institution that any force in society attempting to take power, or retain it, would make use of in the name of order, fatherland, family, and church.  Jefferies understands it too, only that while Marx makes a mockery of Bonaparte (life repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce), Jefferies portrays the military in the story as the only sector of society fit to rule and restore order.  Coincidentally, or maybe not so, Bonaparte claimed to represent, or speak for, the small-holding peasantry, a class dear to Jefferies because of the importance he placed on agriculture and the country.  There is no doubt that Jefferies was also influenced by Darwinism, and that in times of extreme crisis the idea of totalitarianism exerted by those thought to be the strongest in society appeals to the imagination, or lack of it, of those that cannot conceive of other alternatives.  In fact, Jefferies does not seem entirely comfortable with this solution, if we are to hear him through Edie and her reluctant resignation to the new fate that has been decided for her.  But, it seems to be a “necessary evil” of sorts.

Edie refers to herself as a “commodity”, an unusual remark for a 19th century young woman, I am sure.  It evidences Jefferies’ concern with the economy and makes manifest his awareness of the fetishism affecting human relations objectified by the increasing value put on things of exchange.  Although Edie is not a commodity, unless we conceive of her labor as slave labor, Jefferies calls our attention to the situation of women whose only productive labor is reproduction.  In a capitalist economy, particularly in its laissez-faire phase, everything must have an exchange value.  Since Edie is not a producer of commodities, she must become a commodity herself, or better yet, a reproducer of producers of commodities.  It is her awareness of this fact, and her discontent, that permeates the entire story with a criticism of the economic system, or at least with a discomfort at its most distasteful features.

Jessica Maynard, in her Marxist reading of ‘Snowed Up’, has found places where Marx and Jefferies intersect.  She believes that they both had a distaste for capitalist development and looked romantically at agriculture (133).  I disagree.  Marx believed that revolution would come from the struggle of industrial workers against capital, and that this process would necessitate an advanced state of capitalist production.  Furthermore, where one might read in Jefferies a certain appeal for the destructive forces in nature and their regenerating potential, nothing of the kind can be attributed to Marx.  Again, Marx believed that it was through the dialectical movement of history, in other words the resolution of the final contradiction between classes through the elimination of classes, that transformation would be achieved, thus ushering in the history of humankind.

About


Maria Alicia VetterMaria Alicia holds masters degrees in Modern Languages and Literatures and in Adult and Continuing Education. She has recently (2013) obtained an Ed D from Northern Illinois University in Adult and Continuing Education. Her areas of interest are: Labour History, with an emphasis on the history of the working class; Hispanic and Latin American history and literatures, with an interdisciplinary approach to both; and the education of adults, informed by social theory. Maria Alicia has taught at several colleges in the North American Midwest, and she currently works as an independent researcher.

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