Marxist Alienation and Acts of the Servant

Karl Marx, photographer John Jabez Edwin, c. 1870Dr Claude Crabtree was the first to apply Marx’s ‘Theory of Alienation’ to Acts of the Servant. Dr Crabtree was a member of the Communist Party from 1931 until his suicide in 1957 shortly after the Russian invasion of Hungary. While accepting that he had the courage of his convictions and the decency to know when he was betrayed, I find much of Dr Crabtree’s analysis of Acts of the Servant questionable. However, as it has gained considerable traction in certain left-wing Oxford institutions I must counter it as best I can.

I shall take the most obvious point first: Marx’s ‘Theory of Alienation’ was written in 1844, when he was still a young man, but did not appear in print until 1927, half a century after MacGregor’s death. It follows that whatever connection Acts of the Servant may have with Marx’s ‘Theory of Alienation’, it was not directly influenced. I agree with Dr Crabtree that MacGregor read Marx’s Communist Manifesto shortly after its publication in Germany in 1848 and that he later acquired a copy in translation which he kept in his library at Arbinger. Where I differ with Dr Crabtree is that I do not believe MacGregor was in sympathy with Marx’s theories, despite both men recognising many of the same ills in society. The evidence is the copious notes MacGregor wrote in his copy of the Communist Manifesto many of which are highly critical.

Farmers Planting Potatoes, Vincent van Gogh, 1884Be that as it may; we must explain what Marx’s ‘Theory of Alienation’ is since I doubt it is familiar to many readers. Essentially, Marx theorised that in an industrial society the majority of workers were alienated from their own labour: that is, there is no natural connection between labour and livelihood, such as exists in an agrarian society where food production is the primary employment. Instead of acquiring through his labour that which directly sustains him, the worker is paid in money which he exchanges for those things he needs to live; or rather, that which he needs to survive, since in Marx’s view the necessity of labour means the individual is no longer a free man but a waged slave without an independent life of his own. Moreover, at no point does the employed man own the thing he makes, either in a legal, moral, or artisanal sense, or receive its full value in his wage. Rather, it remains the property of the owner of the land, machinery, or materials with which he works. I confess to some sympathy with this aspect of Marx’s theory though suspect it is rather more pertinent today than in Marx’s time. One cannot imagine, for example, that the employees of a call centre or a supermarket enjoy rich and satisfying occupations compared to the farmer or woodsman working on the land; however, I believe Dr Crabtree was mistaken to see much of Marx’s ‘Theory of Alienation’ in Acts of the Servant.

Saltaire woollen mill, Bradford, north Yorkshire, artist anonymous, late 19th century, courtesy of Bridgeman Art Librarycruddys-supports-bard-of-tweeddaleThe principal conflict for the characters in Acts of the Servant is not concerned with their employment; rather, the character’s natural abilities or inclinations conflict with their expected role in society. Thus, Captain Wolfe, Bheathain Somhairle, Lord MacDonald, Sir David Mackenzie and Paavo Jukola are, to greater or lesser extent, conflicted between what they are or wish to be and that which society requires of them. Only Eolhwynne and, to a lesser extent Màiri Mulcahy, have reconciled their nature with their role in society. At this, I find myself recalling Marx’s famous maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, since it is apparent that several of the characters in Acts of the Servant are unwilling to use their abilities and therefore do not have what they need. However, as in a number of cases these abilities are supernatural in nature, they hardly fall within Marxist Theory which regards magick, along with religion, as “the opiate of the people”.

There is, however, one character in Acts of the Servant to whom Marx’s Theory of Alienation applies very well: the admirable Uilleam M’Illathain, the last kelp-gatherer of Staffin Bay. Rather than using kelp to manure the land, M’Illathain burns it to make soda-ash, a substance used in glassworks and soap manufactories. He has no direct use for soda-ash – it is in fact quite toxic – nor does he own that which he manufactures since the greater share of its value goes to the estate first and then to agents who broker it to industry.

Harvesting Kelp. Outer Hebrides circa 1925, photographer unknownThe kelp industry was a major source of employment and income in the highlands and islands during the Continental Blockade but the end of the war with Buonoparte brought access to better sources of soda-ash overseas and the value of kelp dropped by a quarter in the following decades, bringing mass-unemployment to coastal communities. It seems likely that M’Illathain personifies MacGregor’s oft-stated criticism of the mismanagement of highland estates but unlike Dr Crabtree I cannot therefore conclude that MacGregor was sympathetic to Marxism. After all, one can acknowledge society’s ills without seeking to overthrow the established order and nothing in MacGregor’s writing indicates he harboured revolutionary ideals. Rather, I believe he wished the existing order had more compassion and took it upon himself to indicate where compassion was most needed.


Bard of Tweeddale


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