Marxist criticism

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

Marxist criticism

Marxist criticism: A type of literary criticism in which literary works are viewed as the product of work and whose practitioners emphasize the role of class and ideology in reflecting, propagating, and even challenging the prevailing social order. In light of the rapid reform of Soviet-style communism in the former USSR and throughout Eastern Europe, one might suppose that Marxist literary criticism would have become an anachronism. In fact, however, Marxist criticism has persisted. It is, after all, a phenomenon distinct from Soviet and Eastern European communism, having originated nearly eighty years before the Bolshevik revolution. Furthermore, since the 1940s, the approach has thrived mainly in the West — not as a form of communist propaganda but rather as a form of critique, a discourse for interrogating all societies and their texts.

Rather than viewing texts as repositories for hidden meanings, Marxist critics view them as material products to be understood in broadly historical terms. In short, literary works are seen as products of work (and hence of the realm of production and consumption we call economics). For instance, in Criticism and Ideology (1978), British Marxist critic Terry Eagleton outlined the complex relationship between the soaring cost of books in the nineteenth century, the growth of lending libraries, the practice of publishing “three-decker” novels, and the changing content of those novels. Other Marxist critics have examined the way in which literary works do identifiable work of their own — work that usually enforces and reinforces the prevailing ideology, the network of conventions, values, and opinions to which the majority of people uncritically subscribe.

Marxism began with Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher best known for Das Kapital (Capital) (1867), the seminal work of the communist movement. Marx was also the first Marxist literary critic, writing critical essays in the 1830s on writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare (whose tragic vision of Elizabethan disintegration he praised). Even after Marx met fellow German philosopher Friedrich Engels in 1843 and began collaborating on overtly political works such as The German Ideology (1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848), he maintained a keen interest in literature. He and Engels argued about the poetry of Heinrich Heine, admired Hermann Freiligrath (a poet critical of the German aristocracy), and faulted playwright Ferdinand Lassalle for writing about a reactionary knight in the Peasants’ War rather than about more progressive aspects of German history.

As these examples suggest, Marx and Engels seldom thought of aesthetic matters as being distinct and independent from politics, economics, and history. In fact, they believed the alienation of the worker in industrialized, capitalist societies had grave consequences for the arts. Mechanized and assembly-line production not only resulted in mass-produced identical products bearing no relation to the people who produced them but also served to “reify” those producers (in essence, to turn them into things themselves). Marx and Engels wondered how such workers could possibly be expected to recognize, produce, or even consume things of beauty.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels discussed the relationship between the arts, politics, and economics in terms of a general social theory. Economics, they argued, provides the base, or infrastructure, of society, from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art emerges. Although Marx later modified his view of the interplay between base and superstructure, admitting that changes in economics may not be reflected by immediate changes in ethics or literature and that gaps sometimes open up between economic forms and those produced by the creative mind, he retained his emphasis on economics and its relationship to superstructural elements of society. Central to Marxism and Marxist literary criticism was and is the following “materialist” concept: superstructural elements such as art owe their existence to consciousness, but consciousness is the product rather than the source of social forms and economic conditions.

Marx and Engels drew upon the early-nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s theories about the dialectical synthesis of ideas from theses and antitheses. But they rejected the Hegelian dialectic insofar as it anticipated divine intervention, embracing instead a theory of dialectical materialism which envisioned a political revolution that could bring about the secular and material salvation of humanity. They believed that a revolutionary class war (pitting the capitalist class against an antithetical, proletarian class) would lead to the synthesis of a new economic order, new forms of consciousness and belief, and, ultimately, great art.

The revolution anticipated by Marx and Engels did not occur in their century, let alone in their lifetime. When it did occur, in 1917, it did so in a place neither had expected: Russia, a country long ruled by despotic czars but also home to noted novelists and playwrights, including Anton Chekhov; Alexander Pushkin; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; and Leo Tolstoi, author of War and Peace (1864—66) and Anna Karenina (1866—67). Perhaps because of its significant literary tradition, Russia produced revolutionaries like Nikolai Lenin, who shared not only Marx’s interest in literature but also his belief in its ultimate importance. Examining the relationship between a society undergoing revolution and the literature of its bourgeois past in a series of essays on Tolstoi written between 1908 and 1911, Lenin reasoned that continuing interest in Tolstoi, whose views did not always accord with those of the revolutionaries, was justified given the primitive and unenlightened economic order of the society that produced him. Nonetheless, in essays like “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905), he looked forward to the day in which new artistic forms would be produced by progressive writers with revolutionary political views and agendas.

Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s comrade in revolution, also took a strong interest in literary matters, publishing a book called Literature and Revolution (1924) that is still viewed as a classic of Marxist literary criticism. Trotsky also worried about the future of Marxist aesthetic theory, responding skeptically to groups like Proletkult, which opposed tolerance toward prerevolutionary and nonrevolutionary writers and sought to establish a new, proletarian culture. He warned of the danger of cultural sterility, pointing out that there is no necessary connection between the quality of a literary work and its author’s politics.

In 1927, a few years after Lenin’s death, Trotsky lost a power struggle with Josef Stalin, a man who asserted that writers should be “engineers of human souls.” After Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, the views of groups like Proletkult and the Left Front of Art (LEF) and theorists such as Nikolai Bukharin and Andrei Zhdanov gained ascendancy. Socialist realism, a mode of representation characterized by an emphasis on class struggle and the glorification of communism, became the official literary form of the USSR in the 1930s, adopted by the Party Central Committee as well as the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, at which Russian author Maxim Gorky called for writing that would “make labor the principal hero of our books.” Under the Stalinist regime, the Soviet literary scene degenerated to the point that the works of writers like Franz Kafka were no longer read, either because they were viewed as decadent, formalist experiments or because they “engineered souls” in “nonprogressive” directions. Officially sanctioned works were generally ones in which artistry lagged far behind politics.

Of those critics active in the USSR after the expulsion of Trotsky and the triumph of Stalin, two stand out: Mikhail Bakhtin and Georg Lukács. Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, wrote a number of influential essays in the 1930s and 1940s that were not translated or published in the West until the 1980s. His work reflects an engagement with the Marxist intellectual tradition as well as an indirect, even hidden, resistance to the Soviet government. Bakhtin viewed language — especially literary texts — in terms of discourses and dialogues. A novel written in a society in flux, for instance, might include an official, legitimate discourse, as well as one infiltrated by challenging comments. In Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1940), Bakhtin examined what he called polyphonic novels, characterized by many voices or discourses. Marxist critics writing in the West have used Bakhtin’s theories to decode submerged social critique, especially in early modern texts; other critics have used his theories as the basis for a method of literary criticism called dialogic criticism. Bakhtin has also influenced modern cultural criticism, showing that the conflict between “high” and “low” culture occurs between classic and popular texts as well as between the dialogic voices that exist within them and is accentuated in works containing carnivalesque elements.

Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher who began his career as an “idealist” Hegelian critic and converted to Marxism in 1919, was more flexible in his views than the strident Stalinist Soviet critics of the 1930s and 1940s, as reflected in works such as The Historical Novel (1937). He disliked much socialist realism and appreciated prerevolutionary, realistic novels that broadly reflected cultural “totalities” and were populated with characters representing human “types” of the author’s place and time. But like his more censorious contemporaries, he refused to accept nonrevolutionary, modernist works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). He condemned movements like expressionism and Symbolism, preferring works with content over more decadent, experimental works characterized mainly by form.

Perhaps because Lukács was the best of the Soviet communists writing Marxist criticism in the 1930s and 1940s, non-Soviet Marxists tended to develop their ideas by publicly opposing his. German dramatist and critic Bertolt Brecht countered Lukács by arguing that art ought to be viewed as a field of production, not as a container of content. Brecht also criticized Lukács for his attempt to enshrine realism at the expense not only of the other “isms” but also of poetry and drama, which Lukács had largely ignored. Even more outspoken was Walter Benjamin, a German theorist who, in the 1930s, attacked conventional and traditional literary forms for conveying a stultifying “aura” of culture. In a noted essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Benjamin praised forms of art ushered in by new technology, such as radio and film, which he felt offered hope for liberation from capitalist culture. The most important contributor to the development of Marxist criticism, however, was probably Theodor Adorno, another German thinker who in the 1950s became the leader of the Frankfurt School of Marxist criticism. Adorno attacked Lukács for his dogmatic rejection of nonrealist modern literature and for his elevation of content over form and argued that the interior monologues of modernist works reflect modern alienation in a way that Marxist criticism ought to find compelling.

Non-Soviet Marxists also took advantage of insights generated by non-Marxist critical theories being developed in post—World War II Europe. Lucien Goldmann, a Romanian critic living in Paris, combined structuralist principles with Marx’s base-superstructure model in works such as Le dieu caché (The Hidden God) (1955) in order to show how economics determines the mental structures of social groups, which are reflected in literary texts. French Marxist Louis Althusser drew on the ideas of French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan and Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who discussed the relationship between ideology and hegemony, the pervasive system of assumptions and values that shapes the perception of reality for people in a given culture, in works such as his Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks) (1929—35). Like Gramsci, Althusser viewed literary works primarily in terms of their relationship to ideology; in “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État” (“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”) (1970), for instance, he associated literature with governmental structures and systems, which he argued serve to reproduce the existing relations of production in a given society and, hence, to ensure that the proletariat remains subordinate to the dominant class.

In Pour une théorie de la production littéraire (A Theory of Literary Production) (1966), French critic Pierre Macherey further developed Althusser’s concept of the relationship between literature and ideology. A realistic novelist, he argued, attempts to produce a unified, coherent text but instead ends up producing a work containing lapses, omissions, and gaps. Why? Because within any ideology there are subjects that cannot be covered, things that cannot be said, contradictory views that aren’t recognized as such. Furthermore, works don’t simply reflect ideology; they are also “fictions,” works of art, products of ideology that offer a worldview.

Macherey, like Eagleton, is sometimes called a post-Althusserian Marxist. Prior to Macherey’s work, Marxist interpretation in English was limited to the work of a handful of critics who generally eschewed Continental Marxist thinkers like Althusser: Christopher Caudwell, Christopher Hill, Arnold Kettle, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams. Williams, who focused on culture rather than ideology and is often associated with cultural criticism, believed Marxist critics unduly isolated economics from culture; undervalued individualism, opting instead to see people as “masses”; and had become an elitist group. In works such as Culture and Society: 1780—1950 (1958), he argued that culture is “lived experience” and, as such, an interconnected set of social properties, all grounded in and influencing history.

Eagleton and American literary critic Frederic Jameson, another post-Althusserian Marxist who refocused attention on ideology, are among the few contemporary Anglo-American critics who have significantly developed Marxist thought. In Criticism and Ideology (1978), which is in many ways a response to Williams’s work, Eagleton proposed an elaborate theory about how history — in the form of “general,” “authorial,” and “aesthetic” ideology — enters texts, which in turn may revivify, open up, or critique those same ideologies, setting in motion a process that may alter history. He showed how texts by Jane Austen, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot address conflicts at the heart of the ideologies behind them: conflicts between morality and individualism, individualism and social organicism.

In Marxism and Form (1971), Jameson took up the question of form and content, arguing that the former is “but the working out” of the latter “in the realm of superstructure.” In The Political Unconscious (1981), he used what in Marxism and Form he had called a dialectical criticism — a criticism aware of its own status as ideology — to synthesize a set of complex arguments out of structuralism and poststructuralism, Freud and Lacan, Althusser and Adorno. The fractured state of societies and the isolated condition of individuals, Jameson argued, could be seen as indications that an unfallen state of “primitive communism” originally existed. History — which records the subsequent divisions and alienations — limits awareness of its own contradictions and of that lost, Better State via ideologies and their manifestation in texts, which contain and repress desire, especially revolutionary desire, into the collective unconscious. In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), for instance, the knowledge that governing classes don’t deserve their power is contained and repressed by an ending that metaphysically blames Nature for Jim’s tragedy and that melodramatically blames wicked Gentleman Brown. All thought, Jameson concluded, is ideological, and only through ideological thought that knows itself as such can we eventually transcend ideology itself.