Marxist Literary Criticism

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What is the Marxist view of the relationship between Ideology and Literature ?

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The Marxist response to literature is complex and multifaceted, but it is fair to say that, in general, Marxist critics view literature as the product of ideology.

To be clear, let us define “ideology“ using Louis Althusser’s definition. His definition states that ideology is “a system (possessing its logic and proper rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas, or concepts according to the case) endowed with an existence and a historical role at the heart of a given society.” For a Marxist critic, then, literature, both in its content and in its form (as poetry, novel, essay, and so on) are expressions of the ideology of the culture that produced it. The job of the Marxist reader is to reveal the ideological origins of work and, in doing so, more fully comprehend its meaning. The results of such analyses are, therefore, inherently political. An underlying principle of Althusser’s concept of ideology is that it exists in a kind of closed loop. As a “system“ of “representations,” ideology makes sense to those who exist within the loop, but the assumption is that there is a vantage point (the vantage point of the critic) from which we can see the system for what it is: self-limiting and self-justifying. In this sense, the purpose of literary criticism is to reveal the ideological basis for literature as a kind of critique of ideology itself.

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The Marxist view of the relationship between ideology and literature is a profound one.  For the Marxist literary critic, ideology is the basis for the production and formation of literature.  As Eagleton notes, it is more than mere references to "the working class."  Marxist literary criticism believes that examining the literature's ideological point of view actually enhances an understanding of it:

Its [Marxist literary criticism] aim is to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history.

For the Marxist literary critic, examining the relationship between literature and ideology enhances the understanding of the work.  It delves into the nature of how the work came into existence as well as the fundamental issues of class and socio- economic reality that is in the work.  Ideology is seen as the basis of consciousness, and the Marxist literary critic argues this point in assessing the relationship between it and the literature in question.  This relationship is a strong one, and one that will allow a greater understanding of the premises of any given work.

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What is a Marxist view on literature?

Marxism, originally an economic theory, has inherent social implications with its emphasis on class and class relationships. Marxism essentially focuses on the interaction between the upper-class—the bourgeoisie—which holds the wealth and owns the means of production, and the lower class—the proletariat—which owns little to nothing and are oppressed by the wealthy class. This relationship, based on the disproportionate distribution of wealth in a capitalist society, has significant consequences for the ways in which people live and behave, and according to Marx, it has the been the underlying cause of nearly every violent conflict throughout history. Money and possessions are the source of value and therefore the source of power, and those with more material wealth have more control over the government of any nation. Therefore, they are able to tell others how to live, and this is often met with rebellion.

To read a text from a Marxist perspective, you must consider the text in economic terms. What has value in the text? Is there anything being exchanged for something of higher value? This does not have to be (and likely will not be) something material, but can be more abstract. A sexual encounter, for example, can be seen as a transaction between individuals where something of value is given or taken.

Also ask yourself if you can see the power relationships in the text. Why is one individual more powerful than another? What valuable thing do they possess that the other does not? (Again, it does not have to be material.) How does the other, who does not own that thing, respond?

Marxism is discussed in terms of power, economy, oppression, rebellion, and valuable items. Look for these key points in any text, and you should be able to complete a Marxist reading of it.

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What is a Marxist view on literature?

Simplistically, Marxist literature focuses upon the position of society and the ideas of society as being the ones which should be upheld and embraced. Marxist texts do not contain hidden meanings; instead, the works use ideas and language which support its ideology on society which are provided as 'instruction manuals' which readers can follow and learn by.

Typically, there are issues that arise with any work looked at using Marxist views. Many readers may find that they disagree with texts which tell them how to feel, how to live, and what to do. Many times, the texts are scrutinized given the historical perspective which the text was written in.

You can find a very detailed and explanatory answer to your question at the link at the end of this page.

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What are some Marxist ideas about literature?  

Karl Marx was a nineteenth-century German philosopher who looked at human history and society in terms of economics. Marx believed that human history consisted, for the most part, of the domination of the lower economic classes by the higher economic classes.  In other words, the rich dominated and controlled the poor. By the nineteenth century, the “rich” were the capitalists – people who owned industries and lived off their profits and investments. These people typically exploited the poor.  The nineteenth-century poor, whom Marx called “the proletariat,” were the workers who provided the labor necessary to the industries owned by the rich. It was to the economic advantage of the rich to pay the poor as little as possible. It was to the economic advantage of the poor to escape the domination of the rich, although such escape seemed impossible unless the poor could act as a unified force. Hence the Marxist slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!”

Marx is usually considered the founder of modern-day communism.  Communism, according to Marx, was an ideal which would be achieved only after much class conflict, including revolutions. In a communist society, each person would contribute society to according to his abilities, and each person would benefit from society according to his needs.  This, at least, was the theory, although twentieth-century efforts to implement communism in such places as the Soviet Union, Communist China, Eastern Europe, North Korea, etc., did not work out very well (to say the least) for the people of those nations.  Partly because of this record of practical failure, Marxism as an actual way of governing countries has now largely withered away, except in North Korea.

Nevertheless, Marxism has often been popular among literary intellectuals. Marxist literary theorists have sometimes made such arguments as the following:

  • Literature tends to serve the interests of the ruling class.  (This is an argument associated with so-called “vulgar” – that is, unsophisticated – Marxism.)
  • Literature can either serve the interests of the ruling class, help to subvert those interests, or do a bit of both. (This is an argument associated with more recent versions of Marxism, particularly the version propounded by Pierre Machery in his book A Theory of Literary Production.)
  • Writers, whether they want to be or not, are inevitably affected by socio-economic conditions and issues.  There is no way to avoid being affected.
  • Audiences, too, cannot escape being affected, in one way or another, by socio-economic conditions and conflicts.
  • Literature is always rooted in the material conditions of its time and must therefore be studied historically.
  • The purpose of Marxist criticism is not merely to study literature but to help transform society in ways that promote socioeconomic progress for “the masses.”
  • Writers have an obligation to write in ways that promote the socioeconomic progress of “the masses.” Thus, in the words of Kim Jong Il (which typify the ways Marrxist theories were often put into practice),

Communist art and literature are the endeavour to describe model examples of a new type of person who strives devotedly for the building of [national] socialist and communist society . . . . [see link below].

  • Issues of class and of economic conflict will be reflected in literature even if this is not the writer’s intention.

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