Marxist Criticism

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Understanding Marxist Theory and its Criticism in Literature


Marxist theory in literature examines how class struggle, economic power, and social inequalities are portrayed in texts. It critiques how literature often reflects and perpetuates the ideologies of the ruling class. By analyzing characters, settings, and themes, Marxist criticism seeks to reveal the socio-economic forces at play and to understand the power dynamics within the narrative.

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What is the importance of Marxist Criticism to the overall study of literature?

One way to go about answering the question of the importance of Marxist criticism to the study of literature is to look at the many iterations and extensions of Marxist criticism, some of which have come to dominate academic discourse (regarding literature at least) for the past several decades. 

Feminist literary criticism, as a loose body of various schools of thought, is seen as an outgrowth of Marxist criticism. Deconstruction also has some roots in Marxist thought, as do the highly influential theories of Michel Foucault. A central focus of each of these modes of criticism and academic discourse relates to the notion of power

While it is true that Marxist philosophy was initially interested in economics (and the political relationships inherent in economic systems), Marxist theories in the 20th century were closely associated with the notions of discourse and ideology. Language became both a "material" to be studied, questioned, and parsed, and a sign or product of power relationships and class conflicts. To put it another way, language for Marxist critics is an ideological tool or even an ideological machine. 

[A]lthough 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. (eNotes)

Feminist critical theory, deconstruction and Foucault in particular each looked at ways in which language and narrative were indications of power relationships, social economies if you will, wherein a "dominant ideology" was nearly always on display, forwarding itself through implication, insinuation, and presumptions of normalcy. The term "dominant ideology" is important to Marxist criticism and, according to scholar Raymond Williams, can be defined as a "'whole social process" and one in which a "system of meanings and values is the expression or projection of a particular class interest" (Marxism and Literature).

Marxist criticism proposes that the "social process" of ideology is on display in literature. The role of women in narratives is discussed widely in feminist criticism as are the implied and often vaunted "male" values of rationality and aggressive behavior (as in Helene Cixous' famous essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa"). Toni Morrison has written about the terminology of race that exists in common modes of the English language which activates and perpetuates racial bias, pointing to certain color-based terms and their connotations, both positive and negative, and suggesting that ethnic prejudice and the politics of race are to some extent built into the language.

If Marxist criticism pointed the way to analyzing literature in terms of its demonstration of social processes, social economies and power dynamics, we can argue that Marxist criticism opened the door to feminist criticism, queer theory, post-colonial criticism, and other modes of reading and assessing literature. In this way, Marxist criticism has contributed immensely to 20th century academic discourse(s) surrounding literature and film and other cultural products, informing these discourses with basic questions regarding the relationships between language and power and social structures. 

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What is Marxist literature and how does it criticize literature?

You have posted an interesting group of questions here because you ask for the definition of Marxist literature, but then you request how Marx himself felt about the dealings of literature and the criticism of said literature. In short, Marxist literature is simply literature written to espouse the theory of Marxism.

The simple definition of Marxist literature would be any work of writing that caters to the economic and political philosophy of Marx that the struggle between the classes continues under capitalism and, therefore, all peoples should work for a classless society instead. Marxist literature always supports the working class of any nation. This literature would be based on the progressive theories of Karl Marx who lived in the 19th century and who classified citizens into two groups: the working class (who Marx supported) and the ruling class (that Marx was generally against).

Marxist literature is also against most forms of profit which Marx believed was the true “exploitation of labor.” Marxist literature thinks profit is “surplus value” that is used to support only the ruling class or the capitalists. Marxist literature supports the great value there is in laboring and will always suggest that people labor as part of their work. Because they are always laboring, the working class will always be in a constant struggle. This is also reflected in Marxist literature. There is a mantra that should be found in all forms of Marxist literature which is none other than the following found in Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:

Working men of all countries, unite!

Now, what did Marx himself think about literature and why would he be against certain forms of literature? Well, considering his own desire to study philosophy and literature and his subsequent writings, Marx felt that literature should only be used to promote the ideals of a classless society. He would certainly be against the opposite reasoning for literature to be distributed: to promote capitalism. In this regard, Marx would certainly feel that literature espousing his political and economic theories would be considered just labor and worthy of praise. Marx would also feel that literature espousing capitalism would be considered unjust labor and worth of major criticism.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the literature espousing Marxism (or Marxist literature) is the kind most supported by communist countries, such as the former USSR. Any government that is in league with either communism and/or socialism will be very familiar with the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

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What is Marxist Theory in literature?

Marxist Literary Theory, or Criticism, is based upon the ideologies and theories of Karl Marx. This theory examines a text based upon its who it benefits (in regard to class, society, and social concerns). According to Marxist theorists, the one question needing attention (when applying Marxist Criticism) is as follows: Whom does the text benefit? If a text illustrates the oppression of the lower class structures, the text benefits the upper class. Contrastingly, if a text benefits the rise of the lower class, the text benefits the lower class. 

Marxist texts illustrate the change which is necessary to bring about a new order, giving power to the oppressed (whomever the text defines the oppressed to be). In some cases, the social background of the author becomes relevant based upon the way he or she illustrates or ignores oppressive actions or behaviors. 

Questions which Marxist Literary Theory ask are as follows:

- Is the text representative of the class it states it illustrates? 

- Are the class structures of the text realistic?

- Does the text illustrate a new class which falls back into the cycle of the old class? 

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