A spectre is haunting steampunk—the spectre of Marxism! On February 21, 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto. By no means is steampunk a Marxist movement, but as this treatise influenced revolutions and built nations, its impact can be observed.
Marx based his philosophic worldview on the teachings of Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel. Hegel’s big theory of everything saw all human history, art, philosophy and whatever you can name fitting into a dialectical framework of resolving opposites. The dialectical formula states that thesis vs. anti-thesis equals synthesis. Basically, that says that an ideology comes up against its opposite and they synthesize into something better. This process keeps repeating until the opposites refine the best possible result. Hegel’s pupils split into two camps: the Old and Young Hegelians. The Old Hegelians found the contemporary Prussian state to be the super-awesome embodiment of human ideals. The Young Hegelians, frankly, thought that the state could use some work. Marx was a solid Young Hegelian.
Marx took Hegel’s dialectic and made it less esoteric. He was a materialist who thought that everything should follow in accord with the natural world. Marx applied the dialectic to history. Those who owned the means of production determined history, which has parallels with steampunk DIY maker culture. History boiled down to class struggle. According to Marx’s dialectical materialism, the capitalists controlled the means of production (the thesis). The proletarian workers produced the goods for the capitalist, but were alienated from these goods that they created. In order to overcome the alienation, they would have to control the means of production (the anti-thesis). The synthesis would be a communist revolution, coaxed along by the Manifesto.
Steampunk can be seen as participating in the materialist dialectic through its literature and lifestyle. The themes of class struggle and control of means of production recur.
The class struggle manifests in proto-steampunk works like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Welles literally shows us the classes devolving into two races, the underground Morlocks and the aboveground Eloi. In Metropolis, the hero Freder is an industrialist scion that mediates for the upper class in towers and lower class that live underground; he embodies the synthesis of the dialectic. Contemporary works tend to be less heavy-handed, focusing on an individual confronting the machinations of an empire. Michael Moorcock’s Nomad of Time weaves in and out of history, acting as a soldier in others’ battles. In the introduction to the Steampunk anthology (Vandermeer, Tachyon, 2008), Jess Nevins writes, “Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quite like that), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism.”
The attitudes attending the steampunk lifestyle uphold a materialist dialectic. Since the Industrial Revolution, tasteless boors have cheapened goods (thesis). Artisans should make quality goods (anti-thesis). We can make our own steampunk goods and maybe make a couple of bucks on Etsy (synthesis). The maker culture aspect encourages us to control the means of production: we sew our bustles and mod our Nerf guns.
Steampunk is not inherently Marxist or even necessarily left leaning. However, there has been an impact on its attitudes and culture. Although we have nothing to lose but our watch chains, we still cling to them.