Marxist Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Marxist Theory

Phillip E. Wegner

The question of the novel has long been central to Marxist theory. Karl Marx “was a great reader of novels,” noted Paul Lafargue, and he “admired Balzac so much that he wished to write a review of his great work La Comédie Humaine as soon as he had finished his book on economics” (Baxandall, 150). Conversely, some of the most important and influential contributors to the theorization and history of the novel arise from Marxist theory. This is in part because Marxist theory develops during the peak of the novel's cultural importance; and in part, because of the central role of narrative in Marxist theory.

To understand Marxist theory presupposes a larger question about the nature of Marxism itself. Although many answers have been offered, an especially useful one is that proposed by Fredric Jameson. Marxism is less doctrine or unified theory than a problematic, “not a set of propositions about reality, but a set of categories in terms of which reality is analyzed and interrogated, and a set of essentially ’contested’ categories at that” (1983, “Science Versus Ideology,” Humanities in Society 6(2—3):283). Marxism is the science (a continuously evolving, axiom producing, and totalizing epistemological project) of the capitalist mode of production, and dialectically invested in both ideology and economics—expressed as the binaries of superstructure and base, subject and object, idealism and materialism, freedom and determinism—with the issue of social CLASS at its center. Finally, the political questions of conflict and struggle, and the transformation of our understanding, institutions, and ultimately our world, form a practical horizon that “always interrupts the ’unity of theory’ and prevents it from coming together in some satisfying philosophical system” (Jameson, 2006, “First Impressions,” London Review of Books 28(17):7).

What draws together the great variety of Marxist theory is the question of the relationship of the novel, as both particular works and a larger institution, to its historical situation. How the novel relates to that historical context—reflecting, critiquing, dissimulating, intervening in, shaping—is the substance of debate among the tradition's major figures. The answers range between viewing the novel as a mere epiphenomenal (superstructural) reflection of more fundamental economic realities (base), to seeing it as a concrete expression of a class worldview, to taking it as a significant force in both shaping capitalist society and its ultimate overthrow. As a result, Marxist theory has produced rich and diverse contributions to our understanding of the novel.

Although suggestive reflections on the novel are scattered throughout Marx and Engels's writings, one of the first explicit statements is to be found in Friedrich Engels's Apr. 1888 letter to novelist Margaret Harkness. There, Engels defines realism as implying “besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (Baxandall, 114). He then praises Honoré de Balzac, who offered a “complete history of French Society” and, even more importantly, who despite “his own class sympathies and political prejudices...saw the necessity of the downfall of his favorite nobles” (Baxandall, 115—16). This short essay establishes a significant line of development of Marxist theory as it encourages a reading of the form and content of novels against the grain of an author's conscious political affiliations. Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870—1924), for example, writes of the way Leo Tolstoy's novels reflect their author's “epoch” (Eagleton and Milne, 42); and Engels's notion of “typicality” reappears in Georg lukács's work on the historical novel, work Jameson calls “perhaps the single most monumental realization of the varied program and promises of a Marxist and a dialectical literary criticism” (Lukács, 1983, 1).

It is in the struggles for socialism that the practical questions of literature's role come to the fore. One of the most influential statements in this regard is Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924), which argues that a proletarian revolution must also produce a new art and culture. While critical of the Formalist and Futurist schools (see FORMALISM), Trotsky is far from offering a blanket dismissal of modernism, and is equally cautious of demands for a doctrinaire realist proletarian literature, arguing that these are “dangerous, because they erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day” (205).

The two most important early Marxist theorists of the novel, lukács and bakhtin, also arise out of the political and cultural ferment of the Russian revolution. Lukács produced his first major work, The Theory of the Novel (1916), before his encounter with Marxism. Influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770—1831) and SImageren Kierkegaard (1813—1955), Lukács constructs an ideal typology of the genre that he famously describes as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God” (1971, 88). The novel thus struggles to give “form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life” (1971, 60). Lukács's pioneering genre study, The Historical Novel (1937), takes a more materialist approach, tracing out the conditions that enabled Walter Scott to found both the genre and its new historical sensibility. Part of the originality of Lukács's study is his suggestion that any genre has moments of vitality followed by decline, the latter occurring for this quintessential bourgeois genre after the revolutions of 1848. Lukács's later work expresses a deep hostility toward modernism (though he too was critical of socialist realism as well), arguing for the greater political potentialities of classical realism. This would put him in conflict with a number of his contemporaries, including Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Theodor Adorno (their debates are reprinted in Bloch, et. al, Aesthetics and Politics, 1977).

Bakhtin's approach to the novel is a different one, at once deeply populist and sympathetic with modernism, and this put him at odds with the Soviet Union's increasingly rigid literary establishment. For Bakhtin, the novel is deeply rooted in popular culture's satirical traditions, and is distinguished from classical genres such as the epic in that it offers a stylized expression of the rich “polyphony” or “heteroglossia” of different groups and classes, each locked in “dialogic” struggle with its competitors. In the “English comic novel,” for example, “we find a comic-parodic re-processing of almost all the levels of literary language, both conversational and written, that were current at the time” (1975, 301). The study of the novel thus needs to be a “sociological stylistics” exposing “the concrete social context of discourse” (1975, 300).

The closing of the revolutionary horizon, the onset of the Great Depression, and the rise of Fascism created a climate less propitious to the development of Marxist theory, although the 1930s did see important reconsiderations in Granville Hicks's Great Tradition (1932) and V. F. Calverton's Liberation of American Literature (1932) of the class dimensions of American literary history, and scathing critiques of British literature by Christopher Caudwell in Studies in a Dying Culture (1938). This was also the moment of Kenneth Burke's influential theorization of literature as “symbolic action” (see Frank Lentricchia, 1983, Criticism and Social Change). The postwar moment witnessed an institutional reluctance to engage in Marxist theory, although even here important interventions appear. These would include C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953), a study of Herman Melville's fiction, as a diagnosis of capitalist modernization and its tendency toward totalitarianism; and Adorno's formulations in Notes to Literature (1991) and other works of a modernist aesthetics whose political import lay in its thoroughgoing negativity.

The political, cultural, and theoretical ferment of the 1960s saw a revival of the fortunes of Marxist theory. In addition to reconsiderations of earlier interventions, three distinct trends can be identified. First, Lucien Goldman develops a Marxist sociology of the novel whose central problem is “that of the relation between the novel form itself and the structure of the social environment in which it developed, that is to say, between the novel as a literary genre and individualistic modern society” (Eagleton and Milne, 209).

Secondly, Louis Althusser's structuralist Marxism provided an impetus for original work (see STRUCTURALISM). Pierre Macherey developed a strategy of “’symptomatic reading’ which enables us to identify those gaps and silences, contradictions and absences, which deform the text and reveal the repressed presence of...ideological materials” (1966, A Theory of Literary Production, viii). A decade later, Terry Eagleton further expands upon the Althusserian turn, reading the literary text not as the expression of ideology but as “a certain production” of it (1976, Criticism and Ideology, 64). However, Eagleton soon turned from structuralism, something evident six years later in The Rape of Clarissa (1982), a study that combines historical materialism with poststructuralist theories of textuality, psychoanalysis (see PSYCHOANALYTIC), and feminism (see FEMINIST).

Finally, evolving out of a left humanist tradition and contributing significantly to the development of British cultural studies, Raymond Williams also produced a deeply influential body of scholarship. Williams argues that novels give voice to what he calls “structures of feeling,” “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” (1977, 132). For example, in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970), Williams explores how the nineteenth-century novel registers a crisis in the sense of nation and “knowable community”; and his masterpiece, The Country and the City (1973), maps how a tradition of British literature extending from sixteenth-century country-house poetry through contemporary global fictions both reflect changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and register emerging sensibilities before they enter into explicit public discourse.

The most elaborate contemporary statement of Marxist theory is to be found in the work of Jameson. Questions of the novel and narration already play a central role in his Marxism and Form (1971). However, his most influential theorization of the novel occurs in The Political Unconscious (1981), a work whose opening motto, “Always historicize!” (9), signaled a turn in the 1980s from formalism to deeper attention to concrete situations out of which cultural texts emerge. Bringing together the seemingly antithetical strains represented by Lukács and Althusser, and supplementing these with insights drawn from psychoanalysis (see PSYCHOANALYTIC) and structuralism, Jameson develops a threefold hermeneutic that reads any text in terms of their “symbolic acts,” “ideologemes,” and “ideology of form” (1981, 75—6). His deeply dialectical approach also challenges readers to be sensitive to utopian figurations in novels.

The publication of The Political Unconscious opened a richly productive period in Marxist theory. At the forefront of this new work stands Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel, 1600—1740. McKeon sets for himself the task of explaining “how categories, whether ’literary’ or ’social,’ exist in history: how they first coalesce by being understood in terms of—as transformations of—other forms that have thus far been taken to define the field of possibility” (4). McKeon shows how the “simple abstraction” of the novel comes into being as the culmination of a centuries-long debate over the two intertwined sets of epistemological and social concerns, “questions of Truth” and “questions of Virtue.” The novel emerges as the negation of both the authority of established texts and the aristocratic code of behavior found in the chivalric romances.

This moment also witnessed a new centrality of gender in Marxist theory that reconfigures in significant ways traditional understandings of class. For example, Rachel Bowlby's Just Looking (1985) explores how naturalist novels stage the spectacular growth of modern consumer society and its effects on class and gender identity (see NATURALISM). Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction challenges the portrayal of women novelists as victims by showing how their work participates in the triumph of middle-class culture. The novel was so successful in this political work precisely because it presents itself as domestic, feminine, and apolitical. Bruce Robbins's The Servant's Hand (1986) further complexifies the analysis of nineteenth-century British novels by looking at the crucial role played by the figure of the servant.

Franco Moretti, building upon the work of Lukács, has also been a major figure in the recent development of Marxist theory. His The Way of the World explores the mediatory role of the bildungsroman in nineteenth-century Europe and the development of “youth” as “a value in itself” (177). In Modern Epic (1996) and Atlas of the European Novel, 1800—1900 (1998), Moretti offers highly original contributions to the “spatial turn” in theory, examining how the novel, in its thematic, formal, and institutional dimensions, reflects and furthers global transformations wrought by capitalist modernity.

Other recent work in Marxist theory has also increasingly turned to questions of imperialism, postcoloniality, and globalization. Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (1993) is a landmark in this regard. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who forged a Marxist theory informed by feminist theory, subaltern studies, and deconstruction, maps out “the vicissitudes of the native informant as figure in literary representation” (1999, Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 112). Peter Hitchcock's Dialogics of the Oppressed (1993) deploys the critical resources made available by Bakhtin in a nuanced reading of postcolonial women's novels. Kojin Karatani's Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1993) explores the role of the innovations in the novel form in the modernization of Japan; Mary N. Layoun's Travels of a Genre (1990) looks at the twentieth-century migration of the novel into Greek, Arabic, and Japanese cultures and its role in debates between the “modern” and “tradition;” and Jean Franco's Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (2002) investigates the effects of the Cold War on the Latin American novel.

Marxist theory has also provided a significant impetus to an engagement with popular novels. Drawing upon Brecht, Darko Suvin developed a theory of science fiction “as the literature of cognitive estrangement,” and hence as one of the great modernist genres (1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 4). Jameson has famously argued for the need to think about the specificity and originality of such forms as science fiction and “Third-World literature” (see Jameson, 2005, Archaeologies of the Future and 1986, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15:65—88). In Delightful Murder (1984), the political economist Ernest Mandel has written about ideology and form in the “crime story”; and Michael Denning has explored the ideological work of British spy thrillers in Cover Stories (1987) and nineteenth-century American dime novels in Mechanic Accents (1987) (see DETECTIVE). All of this work, as well as a wealth of recent studies by a new generation of scholars, shows that Marxist theory continues to be an indispensable resource for developments in the study of the novel.


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1975), Dialogic Imagination.

3. Baxandall, L. and S. Morawski (1973), Marx and Engels on Literature and Art.

4. Eagleton, T. and D. Milne, ed. (1996), Marxist Literary Theory.

5. Jameson, F. (1971), Marxism and Form.

6. Jameson, F. (1981), Political Unconscious.

7. Lukács, G. (1971), Theory of the Novel.

8. Lukács, G. (1983), Historical Novel.

9. McKeon, M. (1987), Origins of the English Novel.

10. Moretti, F. (1987), Way of the World.

11. Trotsky, L. (1924), Literature and Revolution.

12. Williams, R. (1973), Country and the City.

13. Williams, R. (1977), Marxism and Literature.