Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2004

Lord of the Flies

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on September 7, 2004

Until sleepiness overcame me last night, I was watching the 1963 film “Lord of the Flies”. It was the first time I had seen it since that year when I was a college sophomore. I had also read the 1954 William Golding novel it was based on in high school. It was an extremely popular book, even more so than “Catcher in the Rye”. While watching it with jaded Marxist eyes this go round, it really impressed me how the book and the film served cold war ideological imperatives.

For those who never read the book or saw the film (or the 1990 remake, which I didn’t myself), it is the story of upper-class British school boys who end up on a remote island after their plane crashes. (In the novel, they are in flight from a nuclear war.) After an initial attempt at a kind of cooperative society, they eventually degenerate into a kind of caricature of primitive society with hunters brutalizing the hunted, both human and animal. The message is a distinctly Hobbesian one. Society is a jungle.

In an early scene, one of the boys discovers a conch shell on the beach which is used to summon the others to a kind of town meeting. When you hear him blowing through the shell, you will recognize it immediately from the opening musical theme of the TV show “Survivor”. It is highly likely that Golding’s cautionary tale influenced the thinking of Mark Burnett, the rightwing, ex-paratrooper. Both Golding and Burnett portray human beings as cruel and selfish to the point of wantonness. Golding, a devout Christian, traced this to Original Sin. Burnett, on the other hand, sees aggression as a virtue to be rewarded.

For a high school student like me, Golding’s novel reinforced the ideas contained in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Human nature is rotten. There will always be rulers and ruled. At least with parliamentary democracy, there are ground rules to keep our baser instincts in check. Furthermore, capitalism could exploit the competitive drive to make sure that goods and services matched market demand. In any case, socialism would only make things worse.

In what was obviously an ideological choice, Golding, a writer of modest talents, won the Nobel Prize in 1983. Graham Greene, a far more deserving (and left-leaning) novelist, was expected to win the prize that year but was passed over in favor of Golding. (Greene never did win the award.)

Golding became deeply pessimistic about humanity after fighting in WWII, as understandably he would. “Lord of the Flies” was followed by the 1955 “The Inheritors” which depicted the extermination of Neanderthal man by Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals are compassionate and communal, while the more sophisticated Cro-Magnons are both crueler and more advanced technologically. This sounds very much like social Darwinism mixed with Calvin.

Nowadays Golding is not much more than a footnote. I doubt that there are very many theses being churned out on the novels of William Golding. His worldview is very much with us, however. This idea that innate human cruelty prevents us from transcending an economic system based on private profit is deeply imbedded in art and social science.

The Lord of the Flies is an image that is drawn upon frequently to illustrate some “senseless” act of cruelty, the latest occasioned by a May 10, 2004 Independent editorial on abuse of prisoners in Iraq:

“One accused US female soldier is claiming that no one told her about the Geneva Convention. Gee. As a defence, this ranks just below the fellow who murdered his parents and then asked for leniency because he was an orphan. That soldier and her guilty colleagues have defouled and dishonoured a great army, a great nation and a noble cause.

Yet, albeit inadvertently, the girl was making an important point. She is not solely to blame for her appalling behaviour. Morality is more a matter of custom, habit and the constraints of circumstance than we care to acknowledge. When those all break down, Lord Of The Flies is never far away.”

With all due respect to our good liberal editors in Great Britain, the problem is one of profit-driven US imperialism rather than human nature.

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