The following entry discusses Marxist criticism, which is based on the socialist theories of Karl Marx and examines literature as a reflection of the social institutions from which it arises.
Based on the socialist and dialectical theories of Karl Marx, Marxist criticism views literary works as reflections of the social institutions out of which they are born. According to Marxists, even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function, based on the background and ideology of the author. In essence, Marxists believe that a work of literature is not a result of divine inspiration or pure artistic endeavor, but that it arises out of the economic and ideological circumstances surrounding its creation. For Marxist critics, works of literature often mirror the creator's own place in society, and they interpret most texts in relation to their relevance regarding issues of class struggle as depicted in a work of fiction. Although Marx did not write extensively on literature and its place in society, he did detail the relationship between economic determinism and the social superstructure in various texts, including Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (1859), where he stated: “The mode of production of material life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being, that determines their consciousness.” Thus, although he did not expound in detail on the connections between literature and society, it is agreed among most scholars that Marx did view the relationship between literary activity and the economic center of society as an interactive process.
Although Marx and Friedrich Engels detailed theories of Socialism early in the twentieth century, it was not until the 1920s that Marxist literary theory was systematized. The greatest impetus for this standardization came after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. The resulting socialist form of government and society, although uncertain about the length of time it would take for the new economic standards to create a new culture, believed that such a change was imminent. In the meantime, Socialist Realism was accepted as the highest form of literature, guiding both literary creation and official literary criticism in Russia. In the years since then, Russian literary theory has modified its extreme socialist stance to acknowledge that literary creation is a result of both subjective inspiration and the objective influence of the writer's surroundings. Outside of the Soviet Union, one of the most influential Marxist critics was Georg Lukács. Born in Hungary, Lukács joined the Communist Party in 1918 and later migrated to Russia. He has defined his Marxist theories of literature and criticism in such works as Die Eigenart des Asthetischen (1963), and remains central to the study of Marxist criticism today.
In addition to being the guiding principle behind most literary works in communist and socialist Russia, Marxism also greatly influenced Western writers. Many writers, including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Joyce, were deeply influenced with Marxist and socialist theories of the day, and much of this reflection is evident in their writings of the time. In stories such as “Long Black Song” and “Down by the Riverside,” Wright explores fundamental Marxist ideas. In the case of Claude McKay, Marxist theory provided a framework for issues of racial inequality and justice that were often addressed in his works. Following the failure of the Communist revolution, Marxist critics and writers were faced with the realization that Socialism had failed as a practical ideology. This sense of failure is reflected in such works as Mavis Gallant's What Is to Be Done? (1983) and Earle Birney's Down the Long Table (1955). Both texts explore the failure of Marxist philosophy in the modern world, and in his essay discussing these writers, Christian Bök notes that while both stories are about people yearning for a socially responsible society, the writing is permeated with a sense of failure regarding the effectiveness of this vision.
In recent years, literary criticism has expanded in scope to address issues of social and political significance. Marxist critics such as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson have expanded their realm of study to include cultural and political studies in their interpretations of literature. In this regard, Marxist critics, along with feminists, have begun studying literary criticism as an aspect of cultural sciences, notes Michael Ryan in his essay on the state of contemporary cultural and literary studies.
Dialektik der Aufklärung [Dialectic of Enlightenment] (nonfiction) 1944
Prisem: Kulturkritik und Geselschaft [Prisms] (philosophy) 1957
Pour Marx [For Marx] (nonfiction) 1965
Elements d'autocritique (nonfiction) 1974
The Dialogic Imagination [translation] (nonfiction) 1981
Down the Long Table (novel) 1955
What Is to Be Done? (play) 1983
Knowledge and Human Interests (nonfiction) 1971
Theory and Practice (essays) 1973
Philosophical-Political Profiles (essays) 1983
Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (essays) 1972
The Political Unconscious, Narrative as Socially Symbolic Art (essays) 1981
The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986 (essays) 1988
Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (nonfiction) 1990
Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein: Studien über Marxistische Dialektik [History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics] (nonfiction) 1923
Über die Besonderheit als Kategorie der Ästhetik (nonfiction) 1956
Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen (essays)...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Birchall, Ian H. “Marxism and Literature.” In The Sociology of Literature: Theoretical Approaches, edited by Jane Routh and Janet Wolff, pp. 92-108. Keele, Staffordshire: University of Keele, 1977.
[In the following essay, Birchall sketches out a brief history of the Marxist theory of literature and its main deviants.]
Marxism is a body of ideas which sees all human history as the history of class struggle. In particular, it is concerned to analyse the dynamics and contradictions of the capitalist system, and to show how the working class has the historical potential to overthrow capitalism and establish a classless, socialist society. Marxism stands or falls by its ability to interpret existing society, and to mobilise men and women to change it.
A Marxist theory of literature—or, for that matter, of music, sexuality or carpet-weaving—is conceivable only if situated within such a framework. At first sight, it might not appear that the consideration of so-called ‘creative literature’ has very much importance for Marxism. If it had nothing to say on the matter, its validity as a revolutionary theory would scarcely be challenged thereby.
In fact, Marxism has always had a great deal to say about literature and to its practitioners. The major figures of Marxism from Marx and Engels to Gramsci and Trotsky all wrote at length, if fragmentarily, about...
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SOURCE: Fokkema, Douwe, and Elrud Ibsch. “Marxist Theories of Literature.” In Theories of Literature in the Twentieth Century: Structuralism, Marxism, Aesthetics of Reception, Semiotics, pp. 81-135. London: C. Hurst & Company/New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.
[In the following essay, Fokkema and Ibsch analyze Marxist literary theory from a metatheoretical point of view.]
Marxism is a philosophy of contradictions, and any attempt to explain Marxist theory in a rational way will encounter apparent inconsistencies. The belief in the primacy of material conditions and the simultaneous effort to emphasize the human role in changing these conditions is one of the most characteristic contradictions of Marxism. How can materialism and heroic revolt be considered as compatible?
If one were to accept that this contradiction can be solved by resorting to the dialectical method, a new problem arises, namely the question whether any criticism of the dialectical method is possible at all. Different from Russian Formalism or French structuralism, Marxist literary theories have a basis in a normative philosophy with explicit ideas about epistemological questions. Marxist theory cannot accept any criticism on a purely empirical basis. On the other hand, the criticism of Marxist theory on the basis of norms derived from that same theory cannot be considered satisfactory either. For instance,...
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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Marxism and the Future of Criticism.” In Writing the Future, edited by David Wood, pp. 177-80. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
[In the following essay, Eagleton discusses the difficulty of dealing with the future in terms of Marxist literary theory.]
Marxists differ from most other theorists in that for them the future is at once the most crucial and most neglected historical tense. A Marxist is only secondarily enthused by the current hermeneutical or deconstructive wrangles over the knowability or otherwise of the past, and the relation of past to present, since for Marxism there is no important knowledge of either past or present which is not always under the sign of a possible or desirable future. History is to that extent for a Marxist constructed backwards—not just, as many would agree, from the present, but from a calculable future of that present, which may or may not arrive. The future is where Marxism takes its political stand in order to decipher both present and past—an odd assertion, since the future, even more palpably than the past, has no existence. The space where Marxism takes its stand would therefore seem a non-space, an impossibly non-existent vantage point, and the whole theory would therefore seem to hang in empty air. This particular aporia would seem coupled to another, namely that Marxism appears at once to discuss the future, and...
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Criticism: Marxist Interpretations
SOURCE: Singh, Raman K. “Marxism in Richard Wright's Fiction.” Indian Journal of American Studies 4, nos. 1-2 (1974): 21-35.
[In the following essay, Singh examines Richard Wright's works in the context of his Marxist leanings.]
Marxism may be said to be the chief ideological influence on Richard Wright. From the early stories in Uncle Tom's Children (written in the thirties) to The Outsider (1953), the impact of Marxist thought is felt in one way or another. Even though Wright left the Communist Party, he continued to be influenced by the general precepts of Marxism; a study of Wright's selected fiction shows that he often used Marxism to shape the major themes.
I have divided Wright's fiction into three broad categories; these categories are not illustrative of any real progression of thought in Wright but rather indicate the various Marxist elements that he used. The three categories are: 1. Class, Caste, and Capitalism: Under this heading, I shall examine three stories of the thirties (“Long Black Song,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “The Man Who Saw the Flood”) that focus on some fundamental Marxist ideas. 2. The Quest for Marx: All the elements of the previous category are present here, but now there is a specific quest for Marx. Native Son, the only novel in this division, is discussed from two major perspectives: one illustrates...
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SOURCE: LeSeur, Geta. “Claude McKay's Marxism.” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, pp. 219-31. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989.
[In the following essay, LeSeur explores the impact of Marxism on the works of Claude McKay.]
Claude McKay remains today part of the acknowledged literary triumvirate of the Harlem Renaissance. He shares this prestigious position with Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. Each in his own way made a lasting contribution to Afro-American literature and politics because of the uniqueness each possessed. McKay, however, was perhaps the most controversial of the three, because of his involvement with Marxism early in his career. The two primary dilemmas of McKay's life were as follows: the first was to resolve for himself whether socialism indeed was the answer to the “Negro question”; the second, the role of the black artist in a society that gives judgmental statements on both. The years 1922-1923, when he visited Russia to assess the workings and values of Marxism, were crucial for McKay. It took a lifetime to resolve these dilemmas and yet they were never satisfactorily resolved for him or his public. It was only during his final years that he found peace in the spiritual world of Catholicism.
In his study Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, Stephen H. Bronz regards...
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SOURCE: Langer, Monika. “Sartre and Marxist Existentialism.” In Sartre Alive, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven, pp. 160-82. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Langer contends that Jean Paul Sartre's ideas about the freedom of human spirit supply the philosophical foundation that Marxism seems to lack.]
A recurrent theme in the philosophical literature of the last quarter-century has been the relationship between Sartrean existentialism and Marxism. Much of the discussion has centered on the unorthodox nature of Sartre's Marxism as presented in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and on the connection between that work and his earlier Being and Nothingness. Thomas Flynn's book Sartre and Marxist Existentialism constitutes one of the most interesting recent contributions to the debate. Flynn contends that “Sartre's is an authentic, though ‘revisionist,’ Marxism” which, in combining “salient features” of existentialism and Marxism, incorporates “the morally responsible individual into the sociohistorical context.”1 My essay takes issue with Flynn's position on the grounds that Sartre's Marxism as articulated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason is basically at odds with authentic Marxism—whether classical or revisionist. I contend that the lately published second volume of the Critique...
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SOURCE: Bök, Christian. “The Secular Opiate: Marxism as an Ersatz Religion in Three Canadian Texts.” Canadian Literature 147 (winter 1995): 11-22.
[In the following essay, Bök notes that the three Canadian texts under discussion present a problem for Marxist critics seeking works that offer an analytical representation of Marxist failure.]
Proletarian literature in Canada often produces ideological misgivings in Marxist critics, particularly Robin Mathews in “The Socio-Political Novel” (146), Bruce Nesbitt in “The Political Prose” (175), and Clint Burnham in “The Dialectics of Form” (101), all of whom suggest that few noteworthy Canadian texts, if any, present Marxism in a way thematically palatable to a revolutionary consciousness, and even writers with leftist reputations often portray Marxism in a context that can easily undermine the political philosophy to which the writer purports to subscribe: for example, Down the Long Table by Earle Birney, What Is To Be Done? by Mavis Gallant, and In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, all present problems to a Marxist critic seeking a completely positive affirmation of a socially viable politics rooted in dialectical materialism. Misgivings in such a Marxist critic may arise in part from the depiction of the labour movement as a kind of ersatz religion, a secular cult, that acts as its own opiate and thus prevents...
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SOURCE: Roger, Phillippe. “Barthes with Marx.” In Writing the Image after Roland Barthes, edited by Jean-Michel Rabaté, pp. 174-86. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Roger examines Barthes' involvement with theater and Marxism in the 1950s.]
For a long time, French grade crossings have greeted road travelers with this warning: Attention! Un train peut en cacher un autre. (Caution! One train can hide another approaching train.) It is no less true of titles, and mine might well hide another. In fact, the first draft of this chapter announced “Barthes and Marx.” No matter how slight, the distortion had me worried; somehow, it sounded too much like David and Goliath. Thanks to Jean-Michael Rabaté's diligence, the original with has been restored, only to elicit new concerns that the chosen conjunction might be misleading. It is not my intention here to examine Marx's work as a possible source or influence on Barthes. Such a task would not only go against Barthes's constant caveats (“I do not believe in influences”); it would also prove embarrassingly disappointing. Of no greater interest would be an exhaustive recapitulation of Barthes's statements, qualified or not, in favor of Marx or Marxism: no posthumous Barthesian Pour Marx will emerge from these wanderings through Barthes's early writings. My with was and...
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SOURCE: Hitchcock, Peter. “Answering as Authoring: or, Marxism's Joyce.” Mosaic 32, no. 1 (March 1999): 55-69.
[In the following essay, Hitchcock draws a parallel between various crises in the development of Marxist thought and its ongoing interpretations of James Joyce's work, noting that Marxist critics have ignored Joyce's own positions in his writing in favor of discussions regarding the political agenda of his work.]
Marxist literary criticism has always occupied a somewhat Janus-faced position between aesthetic and social-science concerns—never hesitant to proclaim the idealism of the one while steadfast in its resistance to the material certitudes of the other. This tension between the imaginary and the real remains a hallmark of materialist analysis, but one that is overdetermined by the vicissitudes of history. Indeed, it is history that gives the lie to any univocality in Marxist critique and shows instead that the hard line, or the party line, was ever only a tactical orientation within a whole range of approaches fed and famished by the contradictory demands of scientific and aesthetic inquiry. While it is quite possible to measure such a history in terms of the fate of core Marxist ideas, the literary itself can play a more forceful role in understanding the various trajectories of Marxist criticism without sacrificing the question of the social that is its first concern. It is here...
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Criticism: Cultural And Literary Marxist Theory
SOURCE: Bisztray, George. “Marxism and the Pluralism of Critical Methods.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 26 (1977): 10-16.
[In the following essay, Bisztray outlines the dialectical methods used by Marxist critics as an underlying criterion for the Marxist perspective in literary interpreation.]
We are told that we live in an era of pluralism of literary methods. Today, in German literary scholarship, Methodenpluralismus is a fashionable term, which has already inspired a number of studies and anthologies. Jost Hermand's pioneering Synthetisches Interpretieren (1968) was followed by several similar investigations.1 In France and the English-speaking countries, methodological discussion has been less profuse than in Germany, Scandinavia, and the East-Central European world. Nevertheless, even here the signs of change cannot be missed. In France, structuralism and its outgrowth, semiotics, challenged the monopoly of post-war existentialism (and, for that matter, pre-war explication de texte). Meanwhile, here in the United States, it has become fashionable to write obituaries for the “New Criticism”—even while it still thrives, disguished and undisguised, in hundreds of freshmen English classes around the country.
Those who advocate the use of the term Methodenpluralismus assume that modern literary scholarship is witnessing...
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SOURCE: Ryan, Michael. “Literary Criticism and Cultural Science: Transformations in the Dominant Paradigm of Literary Study.” North Dakoka Quarterly 51, no. 1 (winter 1983): 100-12.
[In the following essay, Ryan examines the expansion of traditional literary criticism to include politicization, attributing this change to the renewal of Marxist study in the West.]
Literary criticism is being transformed; it is becoming at once more broad in subject matter or scope and more pointed in its political tone and purpose. Radical and Marxist critics like Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and Tony Bennett increasingly depart from the traditional canon of literary study as well as from the traditionally disinterested and apolitical tone of literary scholarship and instead study culture with a view to transforming it politically. This development is due in part to a renewal of Marxism in the West that has provoked a rediscovery of non-elite or popular culture as well as a rediscovery of politically engaged intellectual work. The work of Jameson and Bennett is exemplary of the broadening of the scope of literary criticism. Each began with studies of Marxist literary criticism, and each now is engaged in cultural studies—Jameson of post-modernism in all its interdisciplinary variety, and Bennett of popular culture and communications. The work of Williams and Said is indicative of a new activism in...
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SOURCE: Dworkin, Dennis. “Culture Is Ordinary.” In Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies, pp. 79-124. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Dworkin provides an overview of cultural Marxism in Britain, focusing particularly on the works of Raymond Williams.]
One of the most far-reaching consequences of the New Left experience was the pivotal role it played in creating cultural Marxism in Britain. British cultural Marxism grew out of the effort to generate a socialist understanding of postwar Britain, to grasp the significance of working-class affluence, consumer capitalism, and the greatly expanded role of the mass media in contemporary life. These changes posed a threat to the traditional Marxist assumption that the working class would inevitably usher in a socialist society. They also undermined the traditional Left's exclusive reliance on political and economic categories, for postwar transformations affected “the whole way of life” of working people and were reshaping their identities in new and complex ways. Cultural Marxists attempted to identify the contours of this new terrain and, in doing so, redefine social struggle. In opposition to orthodox Marxists who reduced culture to a secondary status—a reflection of real social relations—and conservatives who saw it as the best that has been thought...
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SOURCE: Graham, Gordon. “Lukács and Realism after Marx.” British Journal of Aesthetics 38, no. 2 (April 1998): 198-207.
[In the following essay, Graham attempts to analyze Georg Lukács' theory of literary realism in light of the fact that the Marxist theory on which it was based is no longer viable.]
To the memory of Mark Goodman
The purpose of this paper is to explore the following question. What, if anything, can be retained of Lukács's defence of literary realism if we suppose (as there is reason to) that the Marxist theory to which it was so closely allied is no longer viable? To limit the scope of this question, I shall be concerned solely with the version of realism which Lukács discusses in the three essays gathered together under the title The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.1
The connection between realism, Marxism, and Lukács's account of the importance of literature as explained in these essays is relatively easily stated. Human beings, he contends, are essentially socio-historical beings. Thus to describe the human condition in an illuminating way, the writer must tell stories and create characters that reflect the socio-historical determinants of real life. These determinants are not, however, static; they form a process or...
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Criticism: Marxism And Feminist Critical Theory
SOURCE: Papke, Mary E. “American Marxwomen: Duelling with Historical Materialism.1” In Germany and German Thought in American Literature and Cultural Criticism, edited by Peter Freese, pp. 454-69. Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1990.
[In the following essay, Papke examines American, socialist, and feminist interpretations of the place of women in the context of Marxist critical theory as well as the use of Marxist theories for feminist critical debate.]
In 1971, the British socialist feminist Juliet Mitchell in response to the radical feminist position that one must focus on women's oppression by men as “the problem” wrote that “We should ask the feminist questions, but try to come up with some Marxist answers” (99). In the same year, the American socialist feminist Lillian S. Robinson also warned that
Feminist criticism, as its name implies, is criticism with a Cause, engaged criticism. But the critical model presented to us so far is merely engaged to be married. It is about to contract what can only be a mésalliance with bourgeois modes of thought and the critical categories they inform. To be effective, feminist criticism cannot become simply bourgeois criticism in drag. It must be ideological and moral criticism; it must be revolutionary.
So that feminist criticism...
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Brenkman, John. “Raymond Williams and Marxism.” In Cultural Materialism: On Raymond Williams, edited by Christopher Pendergast, pp. 237-67. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
An analysis of Williams's writing that demonstrates his contribution to significant contemporary cultural and political issues.
Castellitto, George P. “Willy Loman: The Tension between Marxism and Capitalism.” “The Salesman Has a Birthday”: Essays Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, edited by Stephen A. Marino, pp. 79-86. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2000.
An evaluation of Willy Loman's character as being representative of the tension between capitalism and socialism.
Castillo, Robert. “Ezra Pound: The Marxist Anti-Semitic Zionist?” Journal of American Culture (fall 1994): 49-54.
Critical evaluation of Tim Redman's interpretation of Pound as a left-wing extremist and anti-Semitic.
Elliott, Charles F. “Freedom, Marxism, and Modern Man: Solzhenitsyn's Moral Critique.” In Marxism in the Contemporary West, edited by Charles F. Elliott and Carl A. Linden, pp. 149-71. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1980.
A comparative analysis of Marx and Solhenitzyn's philosophies regarding socialism....
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