Marxist Literary Theory

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

Marxist Literary Theory

Marxist theory and practice is, first and foremost, a strategic orientation and critical methodology, which aims to transform collective social life. Marxists aspire towards the supersession of the capitalist mode of production. Unlike liberal and conservative thinkers, who tend to regard capitalism as the best of all possible worlds, despite its many injustices and inequalities, thinkers influenced by Karl Marx (1818—83) and by the wider socialist tradition regard capitalism as an unstable phase in the continuing development of human history.

Marxists investigate ways in which the economic organization of capitalist society, oriented around competition and exploitation, produces social and class antagonisms. This state of affairs leads to struggle between classes, but these struggles have no pre-determined outcome, hence the importance of human agency and intervention.


Marx’s historical view of capitalist society has often led Marxist critics of literature and culture to be particularly sensitive to the historicity (historical authenticity or actuality) of literary forms and genres. No one writes like Homer anymore and this has as much, if not more, to do with historical changes in social and economic structure as it does with the individual whims of particular authors.

Homer’s epics, for example, presupposed the mythic narratives that belonged to the cultural atmosphere of classical Greece, but that felt out of place in the mid-19th century:


What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Credit Mobilier?

If literary texts in some sense reflect their material, historical and social conditions of production, then claims about the capacity of literature to depict timeless truths of the human condition begin to look shaky, not least because the “human condition” itself is, for Marxists, another historical construction.

The writings of Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820—95) were primarily concerned with economics, politics and philosophy. They made only fragmentary comments on art and literature and didn’t elaborate a systematic aesthetic theory. As such, Marxist criticism of literature has been developed by a wide range of writers influenced by, but not beholden to, Marx’s ideas.

Marx’s thought was self-consciously oppositional, not least because “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”, as he quipped in The Communist Manifesto. Accordingly, Marxist critics have focused on issues including the role of literature as a form of ideological reproduction in capitalist society as well as the status of literary works as cultural commodities.


For much of the 20th century, Marxist criticism was identified with the “vulgar”, Soviet style of literary criticism, which reduced the role of criticism to an ideological analysis of the content of literary works, subordinating aesthetics to politics.

After the defeat of the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s, the theory and practice of so-called socialist realism became cultural policy, requiring Soviet artists and writers to produce edifying representations of the construction of socialism in the USSR.

Leon Trotsky (1879—1940) had articulated a less domineering perspective in Literature and Revolution (1924):


A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.

Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history.

They believe that “In the beginning was the Word”. But we believe that in the beginning was the deed.

Trotsky also criticized the Russian Formalist School for its “abortive idealism”:

One notable feature of socialist realism was its hostility to all forms of artistic modernism and aesthetic experimentation. Much of the literary criticism of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács (1885—1971) was devoted to polemical attacks on modernism because of its perceived subjectivism.


I dismissed modernists’ abandonment of the attempt to mirror social reality in their art by tending towards abstraction and non-representational experimentalism.

Lukács had offered a particularly sensitive appreciation of the novel in his pre-Marxist work The Theory of the Novel (1920). Much of his later work also concerned the novel. His critical studies of contemporary writers, particularly the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875—1955), were guided by an attempt to make 19th-century realism viable as a model of literary creation and social critique in the crisis-ridden conditions of the mid-20th century.

Realism was Lukács’s preferred genre. His defence of realism is linked to his concepts of reflection and typicality. Realist literature, for Lukács, provides a reflection of the complex totality of social life with characters who typify world-historical conditions.

His study of the 19th-century novel was characterized by a sympathetic engagement with the critical insights of the bourgeois cultural heritage. He developed these ideas in books including The Historical Novel (1947) and Studies in European Realism (1950). In these works, Lukács was partly indebted to Engels’ fragmentary comments on realism as a genre in an 1888 letter to the minor English novelist Margaret Harkness (1854—1923):


Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.

In the 1930s, Lukács debated the nature of realism with a number of other German Marxist critics, including Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch (1885—1977) and Theodor Adorno. Benjamin’s writings on Brecht’s drama were a high-point in mid-20th-century Marxist cultural criticism, as was his essay on the effects of mechanical reproducibility on the “aura” of a work of art.

Benjamin was loosely affiliated to the Frankfurt School, known for major figures including Adorno, Max Horkheimer (1895—1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1898—1979), who drew on the work of Marx and Freud in elaborating a critical theory of late-capitalist society. During the Nazi dictatorship, the Frankfurt School emigrated to the USA, where its leading thinkers continued to develop their critique of the “culture industry” and the homogenizing effects of mass culture. This group of writers is sometimes referred to under the label of Western (i.e. non-Soviet) Marxism.


In Marxism and Form (1971), the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson (b. 1934) introduced the work of major thinkers in the Western Marxist tradition into anglophone intellectual culture. Jameson drew upon the work of six European Marxists — Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács and Sartre — to formulate a dialectical* theory of literary history.


The thinker’s awareness of his position in society and history contends with the limits imposed on this awareness by his class position.

Always historicize!

In his more recent work, Jameson has focused on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalist society and the expressions of a utopian impulse in modern culture. Jameson has elsewhere reiterated his commitment to historicism.

The British Marxist critic Terry Eagleton (b. 1943) in his introduction to Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) reminded readers that:


Marxist criticism is not just an alternative technique for interpreting paradise lost or middlemarch. It is part of our liberation from oppression.

The primary task of the “Marxist critic” is to actively participate in and help direct the cultural emancipation of the masses.

This overtly political stance is a characteristic aspect of Marxist criticism. Eagleton would also readily acknowledge his debt to the work of Raymond Williams (1921—88). Central to both Williams’s and Eagleton’s critical work has been a refusal of the reductive view that sees a deterministic (or causal) relationship between economic “base” and cultural “superstructure”. This view risks seeing cultural production as a simplistic reflection of economic forces and overlooks its dynamic role in ideological production.