How awful the thought of oneness… One merging into all and all merging into one. Just think of merging into Herbert Hoover.
In 1952, facing harassment from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Charlie Chaplin left the United States and moved to Switzerland. Chaplin shared personal tragedy with thousands of suspected communists across American society, swept up in the blacklists and persecutions of the McCarthy era. Perhaps more so than many of the “subversives” whose nonidentity with white middle class culture earned them the communist label, Chaplin’s social criticism really did take on the monopoly capitalism of his day. It’s not difficult to read Marxist themes into Chaplin’s slapstick depictions of Taylorism and “scientific management” in Modern Times (1936). But to honor the creativity of Chaplin, it is important not to conflate his respectful willingness to think alongside Marxist problems with a dogmatic commitment to thinking exclusively within them.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is an ambiguous meditation on the political economy of his day. Though Modern Times speaks most recognizably through a Marxist lens, it gestures beyond Marx in its ambivalent depictions of the social roles played simultaneously by various institutions. While Chaplin’s “Tramp” is dehumanized by the factory’s reduction of his individuality to an appendage of private profit, his work advances the narrative in ways that outstrip profit.
At points, Modern Times does feel like a dramatization of Marx’s descriptions of capitalist industry in the Communist Manifesto. In the first part of the Manifesto, Marx writes that the modern factory worker “becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.” Marx describes this enslavement of men to machines as “alienation,” in the sense that their labor becomes directed towards alien ends rather than their own. Chaplin portrays this zero-sum formulation to comic effect in the opening factory sequences, in which The Tramp disastrously switches his attention back and forth between the assembly line and his coworkers, losing track of both.
However, this Marxist formulation is complicated and undermined at the level of narrative. Even as this opening scene manifestly depicts a contradiction between The Tramp’s labor and attention serving his own ends and those of capital, both cohere narratively in maintenance of the society more broadly. Events outside of the factory—on the street, at home, and in prison—work in tandem with those inside the factory to produce a narrative that contains each of these settings. While prison seems to serve the capitalist class structurally as an institution to discipline troublemakers before they are sent back to the factory, The Tramp also finds that within prison he is self-directed. This is played for laughs, but the irony of prison being a place for self-directed behavior belies a paradox of Marx’s critique of alienation: that self-directed collectives require institutional mediation beyond their immanent boundaries.
Of course, Marx would be the first to admit that factories rely on other parts of society for maintenance and reinforcement. “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he received his wages in cash,” Marx writes, “than he is set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” While Marx here is allowing for events beyond the factory to be socially meaningful, the social whole in which they cohere is conflated with the social goals of the bourgeoisie. And to be sure, Modern Times does clearly critique the prison and the factory for working in tandem. But contra Marx, it does not necessarily follow from the film’s critique of wage labor that every institution under capitalism serves capital as its ultimate end.
We see a similar polyvalence in the café that The Tramp and his love interest (“the Gamin”) work at, where management’s discipline of the employees does not fully define the terms by which the café can be engaged. The Tramp’s job in the café is waiting tables, and at first this seems to resemble his stints at the factory, in which he is unable to conform his body to the rhythm and pace of work. This seems to culminate in a diner’s roast duck being thrown across the room, but at the moment that this happens, it is caught by a group of athletes and the scene breaks into a performance of a rugby chase that destabilizes the clear division between diners and servers. The diners are folded into a theatrical production, not as a negation of their respective class positions, but as a social valence that was always there to be read.
Later, when The Tramp loses the lyrics to the song he is supposed to perform, he makes up his own song that wins over the audience. Unlike in the factory, The Tramp’s creativity and deviations here are rewarded. The café offers many analogs of social mediation at once, insofar as its social valuation is figured as multidirectional and polyvalent. Whether The Tramp’s mimetic creativity is allowed is a social decision that implicates more than just management. The diners, wait staff, and management are responsible in different ways for the social meaning of The Tramp’s performance.
Leftists today who are anxious to unify around a single mass organization or “theory of change” would do well to study Chaplin’s non-identical engagements with the problems and themes of Marxism. At a 1942 dinner held in Chaplin’s honor, Chaplin frustrated an FBI informant in the audience with this exact maneuver. “I am not a Communist,” Chaplin declared, “but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist.”