THE DIALECTICS OF CONAN
"..Let me tell you of the days of high adventure."
The most important part of any intellectual thought is criticism, especially self-criticism. This tradition has its roots as far back as Socrates. But Socrates is modern compared with the pre-historic hero of Conan, subject of John Milius' 1982 film Conan The Barbarian. Most major films, especially "action" films rely on special effects, car chases, and explosions to capture the goldfish-like attention span of the average man. Conan, however, is rich with themes reaching into the social and philosophical. This essay explores a Marxist interpretation of the film.
"No one in this world can you trust, Conan. Not men, not women, not beasts. This you can trust."
The film begins with a dialog delivered by Conan's father, who declares to Conan that the only thing of value in this world is steel, the prime commodity of this time period. As the film develops this view is shown to be incorrect. It is, in fact, a case of commodity fetishism, where commodities are assumed to have a value that is actually given value only because of people, the producers.
"...the commodity form, and the value-relations of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical and nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men and themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things."1
"There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, and steel meant more to me than gold or jewels."
Before modern capitalism, and indeed before mercantilism or feudalism, the only way for a man to enrich himself beyond subsistence was the process of primitive accumulation. This has actually happened in various times in history, and is simply the forceful extraction of resources. In Conan this occurs at the beginning when Thulsa Doom rides into the village expropriates wealth from the simple Cimmerians. But it is not simple commodities that Thulsa Doom plunders from the Cimmerians. His most important conquest is the enslavement of the surviving Cimmerians and their use as labor at the Wheel of Pain. This is the original beginning of exploited labor power.
"In the history of primitive accumulation, all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capitalist class in the course of its formation; but this is true above all for those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected, and rightless proletarians."2
"No one would ever know that my lord's people had lived at all."
The Wheel of Pain is a large mechanical object designed for grinding what one presumes is grain. It's operation is simple, one simply pushes the wheel in a circle. Now, repeat this process all day ad infinitum. The Wheel of Pain symbolizes the division of labor and its dehumanizing effects.
"Unfitted by nature to make anything independently, the manufacturing worker develops his productive activity only as an appendage of that workshop. As the chosen people bore in their features the sign that they were the property of Jehovah, so the division of labour brands the manufacturing workers as the property of capital."3
"He did not care anymore. Life and death - the same."
The Pit sequence of the film shows Conan fighting other slaves in mortal combat. The exploiters enrich themselves while the slaves kill one another. Very analogous to the struggle of working people against one another for employment. Conan's great strength proves his asset against other pit fighters, and his owner sends him to the East to receive further training. This advanced training given by the exploiters is also their own undoing. As the workers gain strength and numbers they attain the militancy and organization necessary to overthrow their exploiters!
"But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more... Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots... This organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently, into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier... The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."4
"...freedom, so long an unremembered dream... was his."
On a dark stormy night, Conan is freed. Contrary to our expectations, Conan's freedom is given to him and not taken BY him. But remember! The feudal serf was transformed into a freed laborer on the basis of economic necessity. The transition from slave labor to freely contracted labor was a necessary step in economic progress.
"At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organization of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder."5
Following Conan's release from his servitude several very important things occur. Immediately after his release he is seen fleeing from a pack of wolves, still dragging the remains of his chains behind him. That Conan's newfound "freedom" consists of being chased by the "wolves" of capitalism need hardly be commented upon. But, during this chase he finds an ancient tomb and within it - an ancient sword. It is with this sword that he emerges from the tomb, amidst the sound of howling wolves, and symbolically cuts the last chains from his foot. This sword is IDEOLOGY. The ideology of Marxism that enables the proletariat to cut off their remaining chains and become truly free.
"The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes."6
"We are thieves... like yourself."
In being free Conan begins to find companions such as himself. They are against the social order. They are criminals, thieves, and rebels. Today they would be revolutionaries. They begin engaging in acts of thievery and discover the powerful religion of Thulsa Doom, a snake cult. But this religion, while promising enlightenment to the uninitiated, is actually simply a vessel for perpetuating hierarchy and numbing the pained spirits of the masses.
"What else does the history of ideas prove, than that... the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."7
"Krom, grant me one request, grant me revenge!"
Eventually, Conan fights a pitched battle with the forces of Thulsa Doom. During this battle he fights the High Priest of Thulsa Doom, who wields the sword that belonged to Conan's father. In their struggle, his father's old sword breaks, and Conan kills the High Priest. The breaking of the sword shows first that the power of capitalism - a power of commodities over people, is breakable. Secondly it shows that the ideology of the exploiters, bolstered by religion, to be destroyed in the face of working-class resistance.
"In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat."8
"I am the wellspring from which you flow."
Conan travels again the Mountain of Power and beheads Thulsa Doom, thereby destroying his cult. But Conan does not assume leadership of the cult and turn himself into a new ruling elite. He allows the cult to dissolve intself into the night. The end of history, and class struggle, has occurred.
"...communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience."9
1. Capital vol. 1, Ch. 1, Section 4
2. Ibid., Ch.26
3. Ibid., Ch.14, section 4
4. The Communist Manifesto