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Charlie Chaplin and Karl Marx in conversation

On Working and Being in Modern Times

Originally published: Public Seminar by Steven Stoll (September 21, 2020)   | 

Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin, was released in 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression. It opens with a clock marking the beginning of the working day and a sentence: “A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” Stampeding sheep dissolve into men entering a factory, punching in, taking their places. The president of the Electro Steel Corporation orders a subordinate through a screen—“Section 5, speed her up, 4-1!” In the film that follows, no one achieves happiness, and no one rewards the industry or enterprise of a working-class couple fighting merely to stay alive and out of jail.

Modern Times makes an argument about dignity in the midst of denigration that resonates today.

At a time when some predict that the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic could leave many unemployed for months or years, and when the working-class already endures the worst of everything, in a rolling crisis of despair, Modern Times doesn’t look like an excavated relic but a message from the dawn of the American Century to its dusk. The story of the Worker, played by Chaplin, and his homeless partner, the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard, depicts alienation from and disillusionment with capitalism, law enforcement, and the world of industrial work that had failed the working class.

Chaplin wears the same mustache, bowler hat, and tight-fitting coat that he introduced in 1914 as the Tramp, now living in a far harsher world. New Deal programs provided income and work to mitigate the financial collapse, but union drives exposed a more longstanding conflict between labor and capital. In 1934 alone, a series of spectacular strikes escalated into violence between workers and police, including the Minneapolis General Strike, the Westcoast Longshore Strike, and a street battle between autoworkers and the Ohio National Guard in Toledo. Modern Times suggests the structural relationships that produced violence, the alienation, cruelty, and impoverishment that seemed endemic to working-class life in the United States.

The despair that drove workers to defend themselves is the constant, weary theme of Modern Times. Worker and Gamin need all the enterprise and industry they can bring forth just to survive modern times. Watching the film again, I thought of a book by another social critic written ninety-two years earlier.

Chaplin could not have read it. Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 wasn’t published until 1932 and not in English until 1960. It’s a series of notes in which the twenty-six year old philosopher jotted down his first thoughts about life and labor and what it means to be human in a moment of furious change.

In these notes, Marx also grappled with his greatest inspiration, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. After arriving at what is now Humboldt University of Berlin in 1836, Marx spent a good deal of time arguing in cafés with other young Hegelians. Most wrote about people as purely intellectual or spiritual, as Hegel did. But Marx begins with man as animal. “Man is directly a natural being,” he wrote. “As a natural being and as a … natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature.” He also rejected the version of human nature promoted by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, which defined humans as inherently profit-seeking—assuming the very thing that, Marx believed, needed to be explained.

Marx called his version of human nature species being. He looked past transient qualities acquired by living in a society to timeless, essential things: food and home, love and companionship, meaningful work and a little fun. Humans who lived in industrial societies gained food and home from the money they earned by working. But what happened when the industrial division of labor failed to meet these needs? What happened when work undermined love and fun?

Modern Times meditates on these questions. It’s really about species being—our fundamental needs, our drive not to be dehumanized, the survival of our spirits as well as our bodies, the full expression of this limited creature.


The Worker turns bolts, making something we never see. The foreman yells at him; a fly pesters him; a fellow worker accosts him. The faster he turns bolts, the faster everything moves. He can’t stop his own repetitive motion, turning invisible bolts even when he takes a break. Meanwhile, a salesman demonstrates a feeding machine that would save time and make the factory more profitable. The Worker becomes the experimental subject, locked into a chair as a robotic arm feeds him like a baby. When the mechanism malfunctions, it dumps soup all over him and grinds food into his face. It feeds him bolts. Back at work, he can’t keep the pace. He falls into the great machine, rolling over its gears, consumed by it.

Only in the factory sequence is the Worker dehumanized. Only on the assembly line are his human capacities seized to render him an extension of the factory itself. Turning invisible bolts presents a reflection of himself the Worker doesn’t recognize, as though he is seeing himself elongated or shrunken in a hall of funhouse mirrors.

Just as mirrors are supposed to show us how we really look, our work is supposed to express our authentic talents, resulting in things that we recognize as coming from us. But Chaplin and Marx tell us that is not true: the factory warps the commodity, the worker, and a world increasingly shaped by industrial power. “The worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object … Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not,” Marx muses. “By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

How we make things, makes us.

The machine spits the Worker out. Reborn, he’s apparently lost his mind. He dances around, still turning imaginary bolts, now including nipples wherever he sees them. He merrily declares war on the factory—cranking cranks, flipping switches, squirting oil in everyone’s face. Fun is the purest rebellion against regimentation. It asserts the very anarchic creativity suppressed by industrial discipline.

Only the Worker is not really having fun; he is having a complete breakdown, for which he is arrested and sent to a mental hospital.

Throughout the rest of movie, Chaplin plays with the false choice between food and freedom. Following his release, the Worker stumbles into a street protest and is jailed for being a communist. He finds that he prefers the sustenance and shelter of the lockup to the privations of unemployment since liberty means starvation.

There is a third way, however fleeting: theft. The Worker meets the Gamin when she lifts a loaf of bread and, fleeing the police, slams into him. She subsists at the waterfront by pilfering food from cargo ships and feeding hungry children. Hungry himself, the Worker sits down for a giant meal with no intention of paying for it, then calls the police to arrest him. While an officer holds him by one arm, he helps himself to a cigar from a newsstand with the other.

Everything is free on your way to jail. If life is reduced to a series of incarcerations, there are no consequences and no social contract. Later, when the Worker is hired as a night watchman in a department store, a group of armed men break in and start shooting up the place. Big Bill, his comrade from the factory, is among them and recognizes the Worker. “We ain’t burglars,” says Big Bill. “We’re hungry.”

It is the germ of a rebellion, a battalion of the unemployed roaming the night.

Marx would have recognized the dramatic situation. “The man who, being without capital and rent, lives purely by labor … is considered by political economy only as a worker … It does not consider him when he is not working, as a human being; but leaves such consideration to criminal law, to doctors, to religion, to the statistical tables, to politics and to the poor-house overseer.” The worker who steps out of wage-earning presents a problem for capitalism and the state, lacking a clear purpose.

We even call them unemployed, defining them by the value-producing jobs they lack. They’re constantly harassed by payday lenders, landlords seeking rent, and courts for bail and fines. Marx doesn’t argue against work but in favor of work that sustains and expresses life, and it provokes some of most affecting language in the Manuscripts. Work is so much more than security against hunger. “Productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species—its species character—is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species character.” Yet the way we work tends to flip this relationship, writes Marx. When “labor occurs only in the form of wage-earning activity” we don’t live for meaningful work but work just in order to live.

Gamin and Worker sit on the curb of a residential street after escaping the police. They share a fantasy of domestic happiness. “Can you imagine us in a little home like that?” he says. They imagine it. Lemons and grapes hang outside every window and door. A cow delivers milk on command.

All they want is to dine at their own table. The film’s subversive quality comes from their insistence that they deserve security against hunger and exposure. Their steadfast dignity is defiant and sad, even as we laugh. Most of all, they never believe the image of themselves reflected back at them. Their daydream is broken by an officer looming behind them. Later, the Gamin finds them a home, a falling-down shack by the waterfront. They make the best of it, and the Worker takes a factory job again, but it all falls apart in his clownish hands.

He’s no longer willing, or able, to contort himself into an employee.

A key moment comes when the owner of a café observers the Gamin dancing in the street and hires her. She thrives as a performer, appearing happy and smartly dressed when she greets the Worker on his next release from jail. After her act, it’s his turn to sing. But he’s lost the shirt cuff where he has written lyrics. Put on the spot, he croons in gibberish, pantomiming a seduction.

It’s one of Chaplin’s greatest moments on film. The “Nonsense Song” isn’t nonsense. It universalizes the film by refusing to wall it off in the specificity of language, making it speak to all the world’s hungry, ragged, suffering creatures. The audience goes wild, prompting the owner to offer them permanent jobs.

For a moment, work expresses life activity. But the police appear instantly with a warrant for the Gamin, and the couple is on the run again. “What’s the use of trying?” she asks. But he insists they’ll “get along.” It’s not a happy ending, but neither does it leave them begging on the street or in a cell. They walk away together, hungry but free, as though that’s the best Chaplin could do for them.


Chaplin and Marx are really saying the same thing: What we consider normal is anything but. What we are often told is essential to an economy isn’t. They ask us to look differently on what we accept by authority and practice. In a recent article, writer Lynn Steger Strong decries the precarity of existence in the United States and an economy organized to cheat the unwary. “We had checked all or most of the boxes we were told to check in our professions, even as our lives remained in constant states of anxiety and fear,” she writes. “Work—the ability not only to get it and to do it but to not ever stop it—is the attribute that is perhaps flaunted and celebrated most of all. One of the reasons many of us don’t share the ways we do not have enough money is, I would argue, because we’re ashamed to say we’re struggling. We’ve internalized that our suffering is our fault—that it is because we must not be working hard enough.”

Strong is talking about the failure of “avenues to stability” disappearing for workers of all kinds, the middle class and the working class; the creative class and the para-professional hospital workers who stood between us and COVID-19. It is a systematic crisis caused by the funneling of money and opportunity—of safety—to the top.

And it is an even quicker slide to the bottom. More than 20 million people—roughly 20 percent of the 110 million Americans living in rented homes—could face homelessness by the fall, according to an analysis that draws on data from the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.

“We’re… going to face the biggest homelessness crisis that this country has faced in decades, probably since the Great Depression,” former Democratic presidential candidate and HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in an interview with Salon. “We’ve never seen anything like that in our lifetime… Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump—it’s not surprising that they’re so disconnected from the lives of everyday people. That’s what people are thinking about. That’s what they’re worrying about. How am I going to pay the rent?”

Yet species being is alive and well, asserting itself through innumerable people and organizations, and imagining possibilities for remaking our world. The Eviction Defense Network is dedicated to “Housing is a Human Right” and calls the affordable housing crisis a health crisis. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University tracks housing insecurity. They maintain, “a stable, affordable home is central to human flourishing and economic mobility,” so understanding “the sudden, traumatic loss of home through eviction,” is crucial to understanding the causes of poverty. Many organizations now fight for prison reform and the rights of the incarcerated, especially Nation Inside.

And there are organizations dedicated to food insecurity in every state, like City Seed in New Haven, Connecticut, not just to provide quality food regardless of income but to shape how and where its grown.

Debt can be canceled. The International Monetary Fund has canceled $125 million in debt payments for twenty-five poor countries so that they can use it to fight the pandemic. The G20 nations also announced that they would suspend (not cancel) debt payments for the rest of year for seventy-seven countries, a sum of $12 billion. It’s only a fraction of the overall debt, but it acknowledges that the survival of citizens and a government that can serve them stand above profit. The Jubilee Debt Campaign, a UK centered organization founded in 1996, is dedicated to securing debt cancelation. Next System is a collaborative dedicated to thinking about how the entire economy can and will reflect human needs and a stable environment.


During one of his incarcerations, the Worker drinks a cup of tea with the spouse of a visiting minister. We hear it gurgling in their intestines as they both look embarrassed. Our differences are social, not biological. Everything that divides us is conditioned on conditions. “To say that man is a species being,” Marx wrote, “is … to say that man raises himself above his own subjective individuality, that he recognizes in himself the objective universal, and thereby transcends himself as a finite being.”

This might be taken as ignoring the differences we celebrate or even as squelching individuality. It’s neither. Marx is only saying that we have the capacity to think of ourselves as a species, as having a human condition that links us together. We’re individuals born into classes and cultures—but we don’t have to be trapped in them.


Steven Stoll is professor of history at Fordham University and author of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (FSG, 2017).

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