The Bourgeoisie Built the Cave: An Application of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to Marxism Ailish Beveridge College

More than a thousand years ago, Plato wrote of a cave in which three prisoners were chained in such a position where they could only see the wall in front of them. This being their only perceived reality, they came to believe that the shadows they saw moving across the wall were real and not just the shadows of real objects−they had never seen anything to prove otherwise. In the allegory one of the prisoners breaks free from their bonds and manages to escape the cave. Once outside, they realize that their previous existence was a mere shadow of what really exists and quickly rush back inside to free their fellow prisoners and explain what they’ve seen. Unfortunately, the remaining prisoners are so conditioned to know the shadows as reality that they antagonize the freed prisoner and ultimately kill him for having the audacity to suggest that there was something more than chains and shadows.

Since it was written The Allegory of the Cave has been interpreted, meditated on, and added to by a myriad of authors and philosophers throughout history; from Baudrillard and the hyperreality, to Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.[1]A slightly less obvious, but equally relevant, application of the Allegory comes in the works of Karl Marx. Marx offers a critique of capitalism that fits the heuristic of Plato’s cave-the cave being capitalism and the outside world being a communist utopia-and his ideas further fit the Allegory given their subsequent reception from the symbolic prisoners still within the cave of capitalism. The Allegory of the Cave contains numerous key components that integrate the story and its’ broader application to reality. A key component is the narrative of the freed prisoner. The story of the freed prisoner in the Allegory follows three distinct stages. The first is their identification of the existence of the cave, the second is their transition from the darkness of the cave to the light of a true reality, and the last is their decision to (and consequential) return to the cave. Analyzing Marxist ideas through this narrative reveals key parallels between Karl Marx’s formulation of communism and the narrative of the freed prisoner.

The first stage of the prisoner’s story is the identification of the cave and the components thereof: for Marx this was recognizing the restrictive nature of capitalism and its power to condemn the proletariat to an endless cycle of oppression and exploitation coupled with the commodity fetishism that rendered perceived reality nothing more than Plato’s shadow world.In the allegory,“the people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck. Thus, they stay in the same place so that there is only one thing for them to look that: whatever they encounter in front of their faces.”[2]Although less literal than actual chains, Marx argues that the proletariat is in a comparable position, as the Bourgeoisie controls all aspects of proletariat life and even their perception of reality-in that way the Bourgeoisie acts as the force chaining the proletariat in place and controlling the shadows they see. When describing the endless toil of the working-class, Marx demonstrates the powerlessness of the proletariat, “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity.”[3]Within a capitalist system “the proletarian has lost all individual character, and, consequently. . .becomes an appendage of the machine.”[4]The commodification and dehumanization of the individual under capitalism renders the proletariat the prisoner of the Bourgeoisie, condemned to live in shackles they don’t know they’re wearing. Beyond their chains the second aspect of the prisoner’s plight within the Allegory is their perception of reality. Plato posits that if shown nothing other than an artificial reality, a person will rationalize that reality as their true reality, this idea applies to Marx’s ideas through his development of commodity fetishism. In Capital Volume 1, Marx describes the innate discrepancy between what we perceive as reality and unobscured reality through the perception of labor and commodities. This discrepancy lies in the assignment of value not predicated on observation, but on manufactured principles intended to serve the bourgeoisie.[5]Basically “the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.”[6]The assignment of value not predicated on tangible, or real world, qualities creates a pseudo reality disconnected from what really exists. When individuals are inculcated with commodity fetishism, this artificial reality becomes their only reality, as “in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.”[7]Marx’s described disconnect between what is and what capitalism creates is analogous to the relationship described by Plato between the shadows and the real world.

Continuing the arc of the Allegory of the Cave, it would logically follow that upon realizing the proletariat had become nothing but an artificial commodity themselves-imprisoned by the market and the Bourgeoisie-Marx would identify an alternative outside the confines of the capitalist cave he’d previously been indoctrinated into. The comparison to Plato’s Allegory continues to apply, as Marx then began writing on the possibility of communism as an escape from capitalism. In the context of Marx, this idea of a communist utopia is very in keeping with Plato’s description of the world outside the cave. This comparison is evident in Plato’s description of the freed prisoners “process of acclimatization” in which “he would first and most easily be able to look at shadows and after that the images of people and the rest of things as they are reflected in water.”[8]This first step would be Marx’s previously identified description of the exploitation of the proletariat and prevalent commodity fetishism, and the next step of realization is “he would be able to view the things themselves.”[9]Looking at reality for how it truly is, without the programmed lenses through which it is generally viewed gave Marx a clear image of the extent to which “it (the Bourgeoisie) creates a world after its own image.”[10]Upon escaping the common perception that the Bourgeoisie constructed perspective is the only perspective, Marx begins to postulate a world predicated on equality, (not inequality) and cooperation (not competition). It was Marx’s reevaluation of previously held convictions that allowed him to develop a revolutionary new perspective for what the world could be, it was looking away from the shadows and towards the light that provided the illumination to see a better world. The last distinct stage of the freed prisoner’s journey is their return to the cave. It’s evident, although more implicitly so, that Marx followed this step as he chose to publish the Communist Manifestoand other communist texts; thus, attempting to help others escape the bonds of capitalism. When describing the attitude of the freed prisoner in regard to “the people with whom he once was chained,” Plato concludes that “he would consider himself lucky because of the transformation that had happened and, by contrast, feel sorry for them.”[11]Although this mentality requires a level of arrogance surrounding an air of personal superiority that isn’t directly reflected by Marx, but the desire to bring others out of the cave certainly is. This goal is shown through Marx’s numerous persuasive texts explaining the necessity of communism in providing a solution to the intrinsic harms of capitalism. By advocating for the world outside the cave and trying to help others wind their way their Marx is functionally following the path of the freed prisoner to its conclusion.

Tragically, the conclusion of the Allegory rests primarily on the reception of the freed prisoner and their new ideas by those still in the cave, and in the case of communism and Marx that reception was incredibly similar to that detailed in the Allegory. Plato postulates that “if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him? They certainly will.”[12]The reflexive condemnation of the unknown is equally applicable to Marx’s development and proliferation of communist ideology. Directly after Marx published the Manifesto, he immediately earned the scorn of numerous individuals and institutions, perhaps the most notable of these groups being the Catholic Church. In 1849 (a year after the publication of the Manifesto) Pope Pius IX published the encyclical, Nostis Et Nobiscum, which unconditionally renounced the ideas of communism, referring to communism and socialism as “perverted,” “pernicious,” and “wicked theories.”[13]The church’s backlash is reflective of the chained prisoner’s reaction to their freed peer telling them a better world exists, and is attainable. Humanity’s disposition towards the known makes the embrace of new ideas difficult-which primarily explains the human penchant for existing happily in the cave-and the church is generally the paramount of consistency and conservativism. Their tendency to reflexively reject alternative perspectives-especially more revolutionary ones is comparable to the chained prisoners’ hostile reaction to the freed prisoner.

Ultimately, the reception of Marx’s ideas regarding communism has been fraught with disagreement and one of the more polarizing concepts of history. But one surprising detail in the development of communism is its applicability to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Beginning with Marx’s identification of capitalism as the cave and subsequently moving into the light of a communist utopia, Marx followed the path of the freed prisoner. The fear of communism as a solution is also analogous to Plato’s narrative given the antagonism the freed prisoner described in the allegory receives. Given the philosophical significance of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, its application to a political concept such as the development of communism allows for a unique heuristic for identifying the stages of Marx’s enlightenment.

[1]Kellner, Douglas. “Jean Baudrillard.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. April 22, 2005. Accessed November 19, 2018; Bradbury, Ray, 1920-2012. Fahrenheit 451. New York :Simon and Schuster, 1967.[2]Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.” Accessed November 19, 2018.[3]Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto,(New York: Pocket Books, 1964), 68[4]Ibid 69[5]Marx, Karl. “Capital Volume One. Part I: Commodities and Money.” Marxist Archives. Accessed November 19, 2018. [6]ibid[7]Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.”[8]ibid[9]ibid[10]Marx and Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 65[11]Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.”[12]ibid[13]Pius IX, B. (1849). Nostis Et Nobiscum – Papal Encyclicals. [online] Papal Encyclicals. Accessed November 19, 2018