What are some Marxist ideas about literature?  

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Karl Marx was a nineteenth-century German philosopher who looked at human history and society in terms of economics. Marx believed that human history consisted, for the most part, of the domination of the lower economic classes by the higher economic classes.  In other words, the rich dominated and controlled the poor. By the nineteenth century, the “rich” were the capitalists – people who owned industries and lived off their profits and investments. These people typically exploited the poor.  The nineteenth-century poor, whom Marx called “the proletariat,” were the workers who provided the labor necessary to the industries owned by the rich. It was to the economic advantage of the rich to pay the poor as little as possible. It was to the economic advantage of the poor to escape the domination of the rich, although such escape seemed impossible unless the poor could act as a unified force. Hence the Marxist slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!”

Marx is usually considered the founder of modern-day communism.  Communism, according to Marx, was an ideal which would be achieved only after much class conflict, including revolutions. In a communist society, each person would contribute society to according to his abilities, and each person would benefit from society according to his needs.  This, at least, was the theory, although twentieth-century efforts to implement communism in such places as the Soviet Union, Communist China, Eastern Europe, North Korea, etc., did not work out very well (to say the least) for the people of those nations.  Partly because of this record of practical failure, Marxism as an actual way of governing countries has now largely withered away, except in North Korea.

Nevertheless, Marxism has often been popular among literary intellectuals. Marxist literary theorists have sometimes made such arguments as the following:

  • Literature tends to serve the interests of the ruling class.  (This is an argument associated with so-called “vulgar” – that is, unsophisticated – Marxism.)
  • Literature can either serve the interests of the ruling class, help to subvert those interests, or do a bit of both. (This is an argument associated with more recent versions of Marxism, particularly the version propounded by Pierre Machery in his book A Theory of Literary Production.)
  • Writers, whether they want to be or not, are inevitably affected by socio-economic conditions and issues.  There is no way to avoid being affected.
  • Audiences, too, cannot escape being affected, in one way or another, by socio-economic conditions and conflicts.
  • Literature is always rooted in the material conditions of its time and must therefore be studied historically.
  • The purpose of Marxist criticism is not merely to study literature but to help transform society in ways that promote socioeconomic progress for “the masses.”
  • Writers have an obligation to write in ways that promote the socioeconomic progress of “the masses.” Thus, in the words of Kim Jong Il (which typify the ways Marrxist theories were often put into practice),

Communist art and literature are the endeavour to describe model examples of a new type of person who strives devotedly for the building of [national] socialist and communist society . . . . [see link below].

  • Issues of class and of economic conflict will be reflected in literature even if this is not the writer’s intention.

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