Marxist Criticism Essay - Critical Essays

Marxist Criticism


Marxist Criticism

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.

Representative Works

Theodore Adorno
Dialektik der Aufklärung [Dialectic of Enlightenment] (nonfiction) 1944
Prisem: Kulturkritik und Geselschaft [Prisms] (philosophy) 1957

Louis Althusser
Pour Marx [For Marx] (nonfiction) 1965
Elements d'autocritique (nonfiction) 1974

Michael Bakhtin
The Dialogic Imagination [translation] (nonfiction) 1981

Earle Birney
Down the Long Table (novel) 1955

Mavis Gallant
What Is to Be Done? (play) 1983

Jurgen Habermas
Knowledge and Human Interests (nonfiction) 1971
Theory and Practice (essays) 1973
Philosophical-Political Profiles (essays) 1983

Fredric Jameson
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

Georg Lukács
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) 1963

Karl Marx
Der achtzehnt Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte [Particulars in Theory and Practice: 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte] (essays) 1852
Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie [A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy] (essays) 1859

Raymond Williams
Reading and Criticism (essays) 1950
Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (essays) 1958
Marxism and Literature (essays) 1977
What I Came to Say (nonfiction) 1989

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Ian H. Birchall (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 6755 words.)

Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 25044 words.)

Terry Eagleton (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)

Criticism: Marxist Interpretations

Raman K. Singh (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 6399 words.)

Geta LeSeur (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 4102 words.)

Monika Langer (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 9858 words.)

Christian Bök (essay date winter 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 4628 words.)

Phillippe Roger (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 5801 words.)

Peter Hitchcock (essay date March 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 6045 words.)

Criticism: Cultural And Literary Marxist Theory

George Bisztray (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 5097 words.)

Michael Ryan (essay date winter 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 5665 words.)

Dennis Dworkin (essay date 1997)

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,...

(The entire section is 19332 words.)

Gordon Graham (essay date April 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 4690 words.)

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 entire section is 5890 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 506 words.)