Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column is best fits the genre of dystopian literature. In his novel, Donnelly depicts a world gone wrong. Disappointed and disillusioned by the politics of his era, Donnelly creates a dystopian society in Caesar’s Column. Donnelly begins his novel with a first person narrator, Gabriel Weltstein. He uses this narration in conjunction with structuring his novel as a series of letters from Gabriel to his brother. Gabriel Weltstein is a wool merchant from Uganda, who leaves his home to travel to New York City in order to attempt to sell his product directly to American manufacturers without the interference of an international cartel.
Written in 1890, Donnelly creates a scientifically advanced, futuristic society. Though people in this society still travel by horse and carriage and communicate via letters and couriers, news and documents are depicted on glass walls and the city is illuminated by tapping into the Aurora Borealis. Subways operate below transparent sidewalks and travel by airships; the military version of which are called “Demons.” Upon his arrival in the city, Weltstein notices a beggar, Maximilian Petion, trampled by the coach of Prince Cabano, the American President. Gabriel quickly comes to the rescue of Max as the driver of the carriage begins to attack him with a whip. Gabriel takes the whip and turns against the driver, saving Max. Crowds quickly circle around the carriage and Max, who is actually one of the three leaders of a secret resistance organization, hurries Gabriel away from the scene to protect Gabriel from an inevitable, indefinite arrest. Max soon reveals himself to Gabriel and removes his disguise, revealing to Gabriel that he is in fact wealthy and a member of a secret organization, the Brotherhood of Destruction. Through Max, Gabriel begins to learn of the class struggle present in New York City, a city riddled with an oppressive social and economic order.
Throughout the course of the novel, Gabriel learns more and more about the secret society and about the struggle of the proletariat. In Caesar’s Column, “the right get richer and the poor get poorer” to quote the colloquial phrase. The Brotherhood of Destruction, infuriated by the disproportionate wealth of the upper class, plans a revolution led by the proletariat. The leader of this society, Caesar Lomellini is a ruthless fanatic and leads the violent revolution alongside his vice president, described as a Russian Jewish criminal, and Max, who seeks revenge for his father’s wrongful imprisonment. The proletariat in the society can hardly afford to eat and toil endlessly while the wealthy control the government, newspapers, and economy.
Finally, the Brotherhood organizes a rebellion and succeeds in eliminating the oligarchy in a bloody, merciless manner. Caesar orders the corpses to be stacked in a pyramid and covered in concrete in order to mark the revolution. However, the revolution does not lead the proletariat to success. The vice president of the Brotherhood takes over a million in wealth and leaves on a Demon with some followers to Europe and the masses murder Caesar in the fear that he will do the same. Max and Gabriel flee with their wives and families to Uganda and form their own utopian society while New York City remains in a state of chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed.
Karl Marx’s theories at the time of Ignatius Donnelly’s work was just beginning to peak and Caesar’s Column echoes Marxist beliefs through its governance, economics, and theories on labor. The society in Caesar’s Column is ruled by the wealthy upper class, the oligarchy while the proletariat provides the means of labor and force of production. Though this class produces all the labor and products in society, they own nothing while the upper class disproportionately owns nearly all land and capital. Donnelly uses the Marxist belief of the revolution of the proletariat in order to describe the formation of the Brotherhood of Destruction in Caesar’s Column.
As the domination and arrogance of the ruling class increased, the capacity of the lower classes to resist, within the limits of law and constitution, decreased. Every avenue, in fact, was blocked by corruption; juries, courts, legislatures, congresses, they were as if they were not. The people were walled in by impassable barriers. Nothing was left them but the primal, brute instincts of the animal man, and upon these they fell back, and the Brotherhood of Destruction arose. (Donnelly 81)
As the proletariat grew increasingly enraged by their suffering and oppression, they united in resistance. This class conflict is analogous to the class struggle described my Marx between the ownership class that controls production and the laboring class that provides the forces of production. In addition, Donnelly mentions the labor theory of value in his novel, a direct connection to Marxist theory. Although the laboring class of the Brotherhood of Destruction represents the Marxist proletariat revolution, they fail to meet the Marxist standards in the end. Their revolution leads to murderous chaos without structure and without the establishment of and effective government. However, Max and Gabriel’s utopian settlement in Uganda exemplifies Marxist thought.
In their utopian community gold and silver are eliminated as currency in amounts more than five dollars and replaced with paper currency. Education is mandatory and the illiterate are not allowed to vote. All private schools are eliminated aside form the higher institutions and that all children, rich and poor, are educated and associate together. Racial, religious, and cast prejudices are abolished as the community unites and grows as one communal unit. All interest is abolished in order to prevent the oppression of lenders and banks that was endemic in the previous civilization. The state in this utopia owns all roads, streets, telegraph and telephone lines, railroads and mines, and exclusively control mail. Those who accept public office temporarily relinquish their right to vote as “the servants of the people have no right to help rule them” (Donnelly 262). Further, the governing body is separated into three branches: one of the producers, one of the merchants and manufacturers, and one of the scientists and “literary people.” This is meant to maintain a balance of power as each law must be passed with a majority in each of the three branches or a two-thirds vote in two of them. The executive is elected every four years and may only serve one term and is elected by the branches. Commercial relations with other nations is only permitted so long as the prosperity of their working class is as high as their own. This system of governance is meant to create the perfect society and civilization.
The Marxist thought surrounding Donnelly’s time clearly impacts his work and his belief of a utopian society. The idea of economic and legal equality in Max and Gabriel’s utopia clearly resonates with the ideals of Marxism. The rise of industrialization in America during this time period left Donnelly disappointed and disillusioned with the society and government of his time. Industrialization spread throughout the United States following the Civil War, during Donnelly’s lifetime. The working conditions were disastrous and unregulated by the government. Long work days in poor conditions and child labor were each elements of the industrial work force during this era. In addition, numerous political scandals arose throughout the nation at every political level. The rise of the free-market system and capitalism during this time period in America also market a definitive change in the social structure (Bean 601). The influence of unions also began to grow in influence during this time, resembling the unification of the lower class in the Brotherhood. Even more so than communism however, Donnelly’s work portrays the influence of Agrarian populism on his beliefs. Agrarian populism emerged in the late 19th century in retaliation against the values and social arrangements evolving from the Gilded Age (Johnson 87). The populists felt that these emerging values failed to mark progress for the masses of working people in the labor class. Gabriel, a shepherd and representation of wisdom and purity, goes to New York City as a witness of the corruption and destruction of civilization that embodied these same traits. He then returns to the hillside and establishes a utopian community in which the people rule. Combined, these factors clearly influenced Donnelly’s work.
Ignatius Donnelly includes many of the utopian and dystopian course themes discussed in class. However, the most important of these themes are the role of government in society, and the economy and how labor should be managed and wealth distributed throughout society. Ultimately, through his plot Donnelly uses a class struggle set in the future in order to warn society of the problems they will face without change. In the civilization in Caesar’s Column, Donnelly states that no type of reform or system can simply “fix” their society. Rather, the government requires destruction and the establishment of an entirely new class structure and government. Donnelly uses the demise of both the proletariat and upper class in order to display the danger of allowing the current situation to ensue. He further uses the utopia set up by Gabriel and Max in order to describe the perfect system of labor and government. In short, as Donnelly himself stated, the purpose of this novel was “to do some good and to make some money (Trimble, Winters 111). Donnelly uses the dystopia to highlight the influence of Marxism on political thought and uses his own populist beliefs in the structure of his utopia.
Bean, Christopher B. “Industrialization And The Transformation Of American Life: A Brief
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Johnson, Michael N. “Nineteenth-Century Agrarian Populism And Twentieth-Century
Communitarianism: Point Of Contact..” Peabody Journal Of Education (0161956X) 70.4 (1995): 86. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Trimble, Steven, and Donald E. Winters. “Warnings from the Past: Casear’s Column
and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Minnesota Historical Society Magazine: 109-14.