Sociology Focus
Author: Ami Stearns

The Zombie Manifesto: Marx & The Walking Dead

AMC’s award-winning zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead is currently in its third season of undead annihilation. The show’s protagonists are a motley crew of survivors, led by Sheriff Rick Grimes, who have beat the odds to stay alive in the Georgia wilderness. In this post, Ami Stearns pits the human group as communists employing classic Marxist tenets to avoid being eaten by the cold-blooded symbols of capitalism.

The Walking Dead Logo

“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed…” Karl Marx, The Zombie Communist Manifesto

The Face of Capitalism?

That sound of a twig snapping in the forest? For the small band of survivors on The Walking Dead lead by Sheriff Rick Grimes, it’s much more likely a zombie staggering along in search of a fresh human snack than it is a deer or a squirrel. Zombies, called “walkers” in this high-adrenaline drama, can only be stopped with a bullet to the head or a swift decapitation. In this world, letting down your guard or relaxing your weapon means you might be the next item on the walker’s lunch menu. With episode after episode featuring an exponentially increasing zombie population, it’s a miracle that any humans are able to survive at all. Or is it a miracle?

I’m a sociologist, so I did what sociologists do; I analyzed the zombiepocalypse sociologically.

The survival tactics of Grimes’ warm-blooded group in The Walking Dead can be viewed through the lens of Marxist theory. Without complete cooperation, shared responsibility, and equal allocation of assets, the entire fate of the human race would be doomed. The zombies embody the classic Marxist critiques of capitalism. The heartless creatures mindlessly devour resources (i.e. human brains) in the same way that capitalism pursues profit for its own sake. In case you’ve been holed up in the woods preparing for the next pandemic (hint…it’ll be zombies!), here’s a quick overview of Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

In the mid–1800s, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto within the context of the Industrial Revolution. The epic struggle of zombies versus humans in The Walking Dead can help illustrate the principles of each orientation. Capitalism, according to Marx, reached into the far corners of the globe to dominate markets, exploit workers, and destroy local culture. The zombies in The Walking Dead have completely overtaken urban Atlanta, and it’s not long before hoards of walkers begin pillaging the surrounding small towns and countryside as well. The zombies symbolize capitalism’s insatiable need to constantly expand, exploiting (or feeding on, more appropriately) people to reach its end goal, which is merely to sustain itself.

The main idea of Marx’s Communist Manifesto is the elimination of private property. Grimes and the survivalists must keep on the move to stay a step ahead of the zombies, so claiming any property as private would be futile. They inhabit campgrounds, a farmhouse, and a prison as shared, communal property, abandoning shelter and moving on when threatened.

Marx also advocates abolition of the family as another principle in the Communist Manifesto. Although a few family units are represented on the show, the members of the group care for one another communally. One character recently stated that the survivors are his family. A communist society, Marx says, will cause differences and antagonisms to diminish. We see this is true among Grimes’ community of survivors. The characters who have shown intolerance toward one another due to race or gender present a danger for the group’s safety and have been eaten by (or left to be eaten by) zombies. The desire for profit is absent among the group, as it would be absent among a communist society. Instead, survivors rely on one another to meet basic needs. Finally, not only does money never change hands, but it has become completely obsolete in this society.

The Walking Dead’s human survivors versus zombie dynamic illustrates some of the basic principles in Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. Theory can sometimes seem dry and undead, but viewing a popular show through a sociological lens can help bring theory to life.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Could the zombies and human survivalists in The Walking Dead be interpreted with a different sociological theory?
  2. How have communist or socialist groups been presented in the past in American society?
  3. Can the communal survival tactics used by the survivors on The Walking Dead be as successful in a larger scale context?
  4. Zombie themes have been prevalent lately in pop culture. Have you seen the movies Zombieland or Warm Bodies? Can these movies also be interpreted with Marxist theory?
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