The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Marxism: A school of thought founded by Karl Marx, a German philosopher known for works such as Das Kapital (Capital) (1867) and two works he wrote with compatriot Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848).

Marx believed that historical change was primarily the result of class struggle and that the State, for as long as it has existed, has used its power to oppress and exploit the laboring masses for the benefit of a wealthy elite. He thus posited an oppositional relationship between the proletariat (the working class) and the capitalist bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production). In Marx’s view, economic factors and the class divisions they reflect and reinforce play a primary role in determining social institutions and actions.

Marx believed that the capitalist-run system would eventually and inevitably break down, due to the chasm of inequalities it engenders between the privileged few and the deprived, overworked many. He thought that a dictatorship of the proletariat would temporarily emerge in the wake of capitalism and ultimately be succeeded by a socialist, classless society without need or use for any such government.

Marx, who was himself a literary critic, wrote theoretically about the relationship between economics, politics, and the arts. In The German Ideology, he and Engels argued that economics provides the base of society, from which emerges a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art (including literature).

Marx’s ideas have had a profound effect upon a range of subsequent thinkers, from political philosophers to literary critics. In all corners of the globe, adherents have greatly expanded on and modified them in various (and sometimes contradictory) ways. For instance, Russian revolutionary Nikolai Lenin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong developed quite different forms of political organization that drew upon the heritage of Marxist thought. Marx’s ideas about literature and the other arts have powerfully informed the work of leading critics in Western Europe and the United States as well as in the former Soviet Union. As a result, Marxism has played a distinct and important role not only in the development of governments as different as China’s and Cuba’s, but also in the development of critical methodologies as different as those associated with cultural studies, dialogic criticism, the new historicism, and Marxist criticism. What Marxist approaches to literature have in common is the tendency to view the literary work as the product of work, as being ultimately rooted or based in the realm of economics and production.