Karl Marx: Song of a Sailor at Sea

“Song of a Sailor at Sea”:

You may frolic and beat and roll
Round my boat just as you will,
You must carry me to my goal;
For you are my subjects still.

Blue waves beneath that now,
My little brother’s there.
You dragged him down below,
His bones became your fare.

I was a boy, no more;
Once rashly he cast off,
He seized hold of the oar,
Sank by a sandy reef.

I vowed a vow so true
By the waves of the briny sea,
I’d be revenged on you,
Lash you relentlessly.

Soul’s oath and word I’ve kept,
Them I have not betrayed.
I’ve whipped you and I’ve whipped,
On land have seldom stayed.

When booms the stormy main,
The bell rocks in the tower,
When blows the hurricane,
When raging winds do roar,

I’m driven from my bed,
From seat secure and warm,
From cosy quiet homestead,
To sail through wind and storm.

With wind and wave I fight,
To the Lord God I pray,
And let the sails fill out;
A true star guides my way.

New strength comes, with the breath
Of joy and ecstasy,
And in the game of death
Song from the breast bursts free.

You may frolic and beat and roll
Round my boat just as you will,
You must carry me to my goal;
For you are my subjects still.


Interpretative Analysis:

Yesterday (May 5) was Karl Marx’s birthday.  Unlike those who virtue signaled him on Twitter without any actual knowledge of Marx’s philosophy and what it entails, I was out with friends and colleagues in a philosophy reading group session where we actually read and discussed Marx and his works.  One of the works of Marx I had decided to read was this poem – many people don’t know Marx was a poet in his youth before devoting his later writings to topical philosophy and analysis.

Song of a Sailor at Sea is a poet masterpiece that unites elemental ontology and metaphor to Marx’s dialectical understanding of history.  The sea is a metaphor for the chaos and relentless force of capitalism.  The sailor is a metaphor for the proletariat worker who is being carried to his destination through the dialectic.

The poem opens on the sea and the sailor lamenting about the death of his brother.  Capitalism, as we know, is a brutal and relenting force.  Moved by the death of his brother the sailor makes a vow to avenge his deceased brother by confronting the sea and taming her – the confrontation and taming of capitalism the goal of the antithesis (socialism) in Marx’s dialectical understanding of history.

Yet, Marx remarks that the sailor – driven from his comfortable and secure homestead because of the destructive nature of the storm of capitalism – that the sea is carrying him to his destination.  This is important to recognize within Marx’s dialectical vision of History.  Marx was not so much a critic of capitalism as popularly presented as he was a theorist and analysist of capitalism.  Marx penetrated into the inner workings of capitalism and wrote about what it did to people.  For Marx, however, the epoch of capitalism is necessary for the dialectic to push forward.  It is, like the sea, carrying us to our destination (communism).

Marx is actually, paradoxically, very much “pro-capitalist” but only from understanding dialectical history.  Capitalism arises to destroy feudalism and, through its running its course, atomizing and alienating humans, will be met by the antithesis (socialism) represented by the fighting sailor who confronts the stormy seas.  However, the sailor (like the proletariat revolutionary) eventually realizes that he needs the sea (the proletariat needs capitalism) to carry him to his ultimate destination.  The end result of the dialectic between capitalism and socialism is not socialism – it is communism.  Socialism is no good, you see, because conflict and material exhaustion still occurs in the socialist epoch – driven on by the fumes of capitalism like the stormy waves (capitalism) dying out (socialism) and finally bringing us to dry land at end (communism).

The sailor, at the end of poem, acknowledges the destruction that capitalism (the sea) has: “You may frolic, beat and roll” around the boat but you must still carry me to the goal.  Marx has a deterministic view of History in which capitalism plays a destructive, it is true, and morally damaging, to be sure, role in History.  Through capitalism the antithesis will arise and at end, the final destination, the calm shore of peace, unity, and harmony restored (communism).  You cannot jump from feudalism to socialism and consider socialism the end of history.  You cannot jump from capitalism to communism without the conflict that is the intermediary age of socialism (represented in the poem by the sailor confronting the sea).

We must remember, for the orthodox Marxist, socialism is not the goal.  It is not the end of history.  Communism is.  Communism is when all class conflict and agonism ceases.  Conflict and agonism define the Marxist view and understanding of socialism.  Socialism arises in conflict to capitalism hoping to, at first, tame it but fails.  Then socialism accepts capitalism to carry History forward to the goal: communism.  When the capitalist age ends the socialist age (the tepid wave running on the fumes of the storm) commences where there is still conflict between distributers and receivers, until this conflict ends with the exhaustion of all of what capitalism bequeathed and we resettle into the land and freely, harmoniously, leisurely, and humanistically, work without conflict, with objectifying others, and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor just as it was at the beginning of history (pre-history).

Marx is not guilty of the sins of the Marxists.  The usefulness and importance of Marx rests in his analysis of capitalism and what insights he saw and what he understood about how it worked and pulverized communities, families, and the individual.  But committed to his own deterministic reading of History, all of this was actually necessary to allow capitalism to self-exhaust itself, meet its confronter in socialism, wherein the epoch of socialism entails class conflict too, before itself expiring to the end of history: Communism; the sailor having accepted the necessity of the sea to bring him to his destination.  Realize, via the determinism of Marx’s materialist dialectic, that freedom is accepting and acting in accord with the dialectic, not trying to alter it.  The sailor was freed when he accepted the necessity of the cruel and chaotic storms of the sea to bring him to his restful destination at the end of it all.

Marx’s critique of capitalism was not a blueprint to confront capitalism.  It was an insightful analysis as to how it worked, for understanding how it worked is how one was able to understand how to conform to the movement of the dialectic through History.

3 thoughts on “Karl Marx: Song of a Sailor at Sea

    1. I have very strong mixed feelings about Rousseau, mostly in the negative. First, I find his anthropology to be absurd. Man is not naturally good. Evolution has been a bloodbath, and we now from archaeology that primitive man was deeply violent without all the complex structures that supposedly corrupt man’s natural goodness. Likewise, his belief that man is not a social animal can be so easily disproven by history, empirical observation of human interaction, and the fact that human loneliness is known to be a significant force in the rise of suicide and alienation. His assertion that all political society, and civilization, is wicked and illegitimate is quite laughable. Not to mention that his brand of politics can easily slip into totalitarianism with his emphasis on unanimity which turns everyone into like-minded yes men and drones wherein any dissenters will be “forced to be free” by the power of the majority enforcing unanimity upon any minority. His concept of the noble savage is something few serious anthropologists, scientists, and philosophers would agree with. And his thoughts on civil religion also very dangerous — he would approve, in principle, of “Americanism.”

      On the flip side, I do approve (though not whole-heartedly) his views that man should live simpler lives and not be obliterated from understanding himself as part of nature rather than apart from nature. His romanticism is something I – myself being somewhat sympathetic with romanticism – also find some agreement with. Not over romanticization (which I think Rousseau is guilty of), but I do think he’s right that the bourgeois city dweller is hollow and nihilistic at core. He is right, in my view, though he is in good company among most of the Roman historians and poets, in seeing the glory of Rome being in her promotion of law and countryside nobility rather than the forced coercion of the imperium and licentious ethos bred from the cities. His analysis of the liberal man of Grotius, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, and utilitarian society more generally is, for the most part, on the mark. His solution, though, I do not regard as the answer or even remotely close to it. So you can say on the areas I agree with him I agree that he is getting the symptoms of our ills somewhat correct but getting the antidote wildly wrong, in part, because he (and I) are starting from different metaphysical premises.

      Within the spirit of the philosophy of critique he has some worthwhile comments to give us pause and to mull over. On the whole, however, I find him wildly wrong on most of the things he discussed. What he, in my opinion got right – though others before him saw this as well but Rousseau is counted among the canon so he’s often the first canonical philosopher one reads to have seen this – was the hollowness of liberalism and the inherent power dynamics that result in liberal societies where money, industry, and property coalesce around political power and clearly skews political power to those who live in urban environs at the exclusion of the countryside, as well as the servile urban poor.

      Personally, I think Emile is part of the problem of the homogenization of education and the destruction of the humanities that has followed with the attempts to produce and indoctrinate students with a universal system of education. His idea of negative education is so clearly a tool for indoctrination in the guise of “well-regulated freedom.”

      Liked by 1 person

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