Economic Themes in The Grapes of Wrath: Socialism, Communism & Marxism

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' describes social conditions during the Great Depression. This type of condition creates the opportunity to analyze from socialist, communist, and Marxist perspective.

Economic Themes

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a book about the Joad family who must leave their farm in Oklahoma to find work in California during the Great Depression. Steinbeck carefully wove common economic themes throughout the novel that we will take a look at in this lesson: Marxism, socialism, and communism.


When people hear the name Karl Marx, likely they think of communist ideology, based on his pamphlet with Friedrich Engels entitled The Communist Manifesto. Marx's theories are based more in economics than politics. Marx explains how class conflict is created and economic disparity increases between those who have (bourgeoisie) and those who do not (proletariat). An example of Marxism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath comes early in the novel.

The banks and business owners are the bourgeoisie. They control the wealth and own the land. Steinbeck describes the banks as 'machines and masters all at the same time.' The men who represent these banks are 'proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters.' They come to the farmers, who have worked the land their entire life, and tell them 'the bank, the monster, owns it. You'll have to go.' The land has become dry and not arable. The bank is not making money from the farmers. They have to go.

The farmers have nowhere else to go. They leave the land; they have no work, no crops, no money, and no place to live. But the bank doesn't care. It wants only money, and if 'they don't get it, they die the way you (the farmers) die without air.' The men who want to work, who need to work in order to provide sustenance for their family, are having this ability taken away from them by the banks and the men who run them. This is just the beginning of the Marxist class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

As the banks confiscate the land, the farmers are forced to head west to find work. Not only are they being displaced, but their ability to work is taken away. When they finally find work, they find that the banks and the bosses hiring them control the wages to the point where a man can barely subside. The owners have an abundance of workers, and play them against one another in order to drive the wages down. Tom Joad finds this out first hand.

Tom Joad gains employment but learns from the proprietor how the wages are determined. Since the banks hold the loans on nearly all the lands worked by farmers, they dictate the wage. Mr. Thomas, who hires Tom to work, indicates that the bank said the 'wage is twenty five now. If you pay thirty, it'll only cause unrest.' This information just fuels the fire for Tom. He learns from Jim Casy, a friend of the family, about the division growing between the wages of the workers and the profit of the banks. He tells Tom that the owners are 'helpin' to starve kids.' The Marxist idea of class conflict reaches its apex.


Socialism is the state between Marxism and Communism. At this stage people are more inclined to govern themselves than allow the state or government to interfere in their lives. The government camp best exemplifies the idea of socialism. The camp is surrounded by a fence, and 'no cop can come in. . . without a warrant.' Everyone within the camp is held accountable to contribute to the success of the community. In return, they are provided with a place to stay.

The Joad family learns through various interactions within the camp that there are certain jobs one can hold to help out others in the camp, such as cleaning facilities or assisting with laundry. The members of the camp elect their leaders, and these leaders can be removed if they are not effective. Another aspect of socialism in the camp is that no one goes hungry. If one cannot pay for the food, they are given credit with which to purchase items. Repayment can come in various forms, but it is not held against the individual if they never make any sort of payment.

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