How can Marxism inform our understanding of society, history, and the arts?

Marxism can inform our understanding of society, history, and the arts by highlighting how they reflect the way the dominant class in society wants us to think. From a Marxist point of view, our ideas of society, history, and art are distorted by the ruling class, which wants to serve its own interests.

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Marxism argues that how societies understand history, society, and the arts is determined by the ruling class. In our society, the ruling class is the small capitalist group that owns the means of production, such as the industrial companies that build cars and planes, the high tech companies that produce and track information, and the banks, which manage money. This class uses mystification, a terms that means creating a mist or fog around reality, to put forth as truth its own, self-serving, and often distorted version of reality. (It is important to note that Marx would say that any society—totalitarian, warrior, or aristocratic—does the same thing.)

From a Marxist point of view, therefore, we have to take the histories we read, the dominant ideas about how society should be organized, and the art we experience with a big grain of salt. All of these narratives are not "objective" but promote the view that the ruling class wants us to hold.

This is why, Marx argues, history books, paintings, and works of literature glorify upper class people and obscure or downplay the many contributions to society that working class people make. The ruling class wants to be seen as made up of heroic leaders who are exceptionally brilliant and talented and work for the common good of society. This is why, Marxists would argue, for many years American history texts downplayed the slave owning aspects of the founding fathers. This is why, Marxist historians like Howard Zinn argue, the labor movement is often left out of history books or only given marginal notice.

Likewise, the ruling class wants people to believe the way society is organized, which is largely for its own benefit, is the only way it can be viably organized. This is why ideas that deviate from private ownership are often ridiculed in capitalist societies as impractical or unworkable. When "knowing" people bring out such ideas as austerity for the masses as what "the adults in the room" know is the "only" way to organize society, this is an attempt to shut down discussion of other perspectives.

The literature the ruling class likes tends to be what gets published, and this is usually literature that doesn't in any significant way challenge the existing social order. It is notable that books that critiqued slavery, such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or which critiqued out-of-control capitalism, such as Sinclair's The Jungle, initially were turned down by major publishers.

Marxism's value is in encouraging us to put on the interpretive "glasses" that critique the existing social order. Fortunately, capitalism has thus far had the flexibility to adapt and right its worst abuses, such as slavery and the horrible conditions workers labored under in The Jungle. Marxist critique helps with that process.

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