On December 7th lecture Professor LaVaque-Manty alluded to the film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin (1936). Although filmed some time after Karl Marx and Friedech Hegel’s The German Ideology (1845) and The Communist Manifesto (1848), Chaplin’s first talkie cites some Marxist concerns. Modern Times displays Marx’s idea of alienation and the worker being part of the machine to exhibit the lower-class struggle during the Great Depression
As stated in lecture, Chaplin presents an extreme and comical interpretation of Marx’s concept of alienation. At the beginning of the film, Chaplin’s character is mindlessly screwing in cogs without being allowed the satisfaction of seeing the end product. Marx describes this isolation as the, “material life appears as the end, and labor, the producer of material life…appears as means” (796). The protagonist is only a source for the machine, feeding it, instead of the machine being used by the worker to create something. This idea is reiterated further in the next scene of a machine being used to feed Chaplin in order to decrease his lunch break. Because of the desperate times of the depression and the structure of capitalism, Chaplin’s character has little choice but to submit to, “the existing totality of productive forces not merely to achieve self-activity but to secure their very existence” (796). In order to survive, the character develops “individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production” (796). Marx’s concept of appropriation is shown humorously as the main worker is unable to stop his hand jerking motion. His degree of appropriation has reached such an extent that he is sent to the insane asylum to get rehabilitated. As stated, “the isolation of individuals and the particular private gain of any individual have become accidental” (797), meaning that it is surprising if any worker, including the character of Chaplin’s film, actually benefits from his work.
In addition to the Marx’s alienation theory, the idea of workers being only fractions of a machine is also displayed in Modern Times. Chaplin’s character, although comically, physically displays this “cog in the machine” belief by being rolled through moving gears in the large machine. He is, as Marx suggests, “an appendage of the machine” (802). Furthermore, Marx argues that the laborers direct their attacks, “not against the bourgeois condition of production, but against the instruments themselves” (802). Chaplin’s character is unable to stand up to his bosses but does manage to destroy a hefty bit of machinery as he runs from the police. Also, Chaplin shows the idea of humans as just materials when the woman of the film is thrown aside as an orphan, “like a commodity…exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market” (802). The hunger of her family or herself is of little consequence to the capitalists.
Ultimately the alienation and dehumanization of laborers not only degrades their labor but also their means of life. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times displays this merging of industry and individual satirically but also utilizes important concepts of Marxism.