Marxist criticism uses the terms and tools of Marxist philosophy to explain the production and meaning of literature. Based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels from the middle of the nineteenth century, Marxist criticism flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s (Vladimir I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong all wrote on literature) and was refined after World War II using more sophisticated poststructuralist theory and the rediscovered writings of Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, Antonio Gramsci, and other European critics.
Marx and Engels left no systematic study of literature, although they both discussed literature extensively in reviews and letters. Later critics have built their theory on Marx and Engels’s understanding of the crucial roles of social class and class struggle in every phase of human history, and the interdependence of the socioeconomic foundations or “base” of any society and its “superstructure” of law, religion, art, and other manifestations of culture and civilization. In Marxist criticism, social class is a key determining factor. An understanding of medieval poetry, for example, might start with the aristocratic and feudal class structure of that society. History is the story of the struggles between social classes—in modern times, and in Western culture, between a dominant bourgeoisie and an emerging proletariat. Literature, like all cultural products, plays a role in that struggle, whether the makers of literature are aware of that role or not.
Given such sweeping...
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