Torturing the Proletariat: A Marxist Critique of Ellison’s “Battle Royal” (2/14/10)

30 Sep

It’s important to remember first that Marxism wasn’t originally a literary movement, but a political ideology that counterpointed America’s capitalism. In my opinion, Karl Marx was one of the first to truly understand the plight of the lower class. While he never really comes out and says this, I think Marx was working for the single mom that works three jobs, the school teacher who has the most important job but a low salary, and the minorities that were fighting for equality. Recently, in a discussion between friends about Marxism, I realized that free will battles equality. In that right, it’s a stretch for Marxism to work very well as a political system. Leon Trotsky, however, had a vision to place those ideas of social influence and class conflict into critiquing literature and the arts. Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” takes a Marxist critique very easily, in that there isn’t much happening in the text without conflict between classes.

            “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison, 261). This advice from the narrator’s grandfather to the narrator sits at the core of the class conflict. As the narrator is African-American, he is understood under capitalism and the current controlling hegemony to have a certain social place: low. In response to that structuring of Blacks as somehow less than whites, the narrator engages in the position of the proletariat. The white, rich, gluttonous population that sets up these torturous and inhumane events stands as the hegemony, or the overarching cultural influence. The narrator states of his grandfather’s last words, they were “like a curse” (261). It seems as though the “curse” referred to is the social pressure of overcoming the present hegemony, as it obviously involves rebellion and work.

            “All of the town’s big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars” (262). This is not only the hegemony in the piece, but it reveals Ellison’s position on capitalism. The “big shots” referred to are partaking in the central cog to capitalism: consumerist tendency. Their clothes are high end; they are gorging on trophs of food made at their every command; they are drinking alcohol and smoking cigars, both understood to have a high class connotation. These are all elements of the bourgeoisie, the higher class over the working-class proletariat. Often times, the pressure from the bourgeoisie is conveyed in discrimination and oppression. Not only do these affect the African-Americans within the text, but there is a section where it seems as though a mass group of drunken, horny guys almost rape a girl. The narrator describes them as standing in a circle around her, then trying to touch her, and eventually erupting in a chase where they throw her around. It’s never really stated if they do carry out any rape, but it’s understood that females are viewed as eye candy or in a lower class.

            As far as social situations during the time of publishing, it was the early 1950s, but many people say it was Ellison’s response to black oppression in the 1920s. Many also theorize that he was trying to connect the Black identity with Marxism in light of the developing Cold War and communism in Russia. Ellison was also said to be expressing his support for the reformist Booker T. Washington. “But as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told” (264). Yet another view of capitalist overarching control, this quote embodies how the blacks may have felt against America’s hegemony in the 20s-60s. Up until Martin Luther King, there was virtually no progression toward African-American equality besides suffrage. Ellison also seems to comment on the coming generations and how they will rebel against the bourgeoisie. “In one corner I glimpsed a boy violently punching the air and heard him scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post” (266). Basically, he seems to be saying that the coming generations will rebel with mainly anger in mind, and it will result in further persecution. That sounds like a foreshadowing for Malcolm X.

            The scene in the middle where the white men put a bunch of money on an electrically-charged carpet drills home the class conflict. “I would get the gold and the bills, I thought, I would use both hands. I would throw my body against the boys nearest me to block them from the gold” (268). The control is very evident here, as the lower class can’t help but engage in the capitalist struggle because it was already a created social structure. It’s like saying that the union workers should revolt against the managerial employers but when raises are proposed, the majority of the workers will generally stay quiet and go back to working. It’s in the best interest of the lower class to concede to the higher class because the economy depends on the flow of money. The beginnings of revolution fall under alienation of the working class, creating a fragmented society that will generally end in violence. I don’t think there’s ever been a recorded case where Marxism or Communism has worked as a political ideology.

            Within the piece, however, the ending assaults a Marxist critic for the simple reason that the narrator feels rewarded because of a capitalist gift from the hegemony. A calfskin briefcase with a scholarship to a “negro college” automatically results in thankfulness from the narrator. I almost wonder if Ellison was making an example of the narrator in this scene, to say that he shouldn’t have taken the briefcase. The scholarship and briefcase are both ploys of consumerism, I feel. By getting the black proletariat to take the bait of a college degree – basically a lump sum of money to pay for a degree that will furthermore get him more money in the career he chooses – the hegemony enforces the capitalist ideology. In that move, though, I imagine Ellison’s ideal readers would be the hegemony that has victimized others for so long. All in all, Ellison’s “Battle Royal” completely embodies Marxist theory.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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