Marxism is the political philosophy and economic practice based upon a materialist interpretation of history,
a critical analysis of capitalism, a theory of social change, and an atheist view of human liberation derived
from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Marxist philosophy is three-fold:
1. The dialectical and materialist concept of history — A society’s history results from its internal conflicts
between social classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), and among the forces of production (technology, labour,
institutions); a society's future derives from the developments resulting from said social conflicts.
2. The critique of capitalism — In a capitalist society, an economic minority (the bourgeoisie) dominate
and exploit the working class (proletariat) majority. Per the labor theory of value, under conditions they do
not control, workers produce more output, and create more value, than necessary to meet societal needs; with
the surplus value (over-production), the capitalists accumulate more wealth and political power.
3. The theory of revolution — In a capitalist economy, the workers are alienated because they do not
control their labour, thus are alienated from society, from the products they make, and from Nature. The
solution is uniting in labour unions and political parties, thereby, the workers assume politico-economic
power from the bourgeoisie.
Marxist literary criticism/theory
Marxist literary criticism is a loose term describing literary criticism informed by the philosophy or the
politics of Marxism. Its history is as long as Marxism itself, as both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels read
widely (Marx had a great affection for Shakespeare, as well as contemporary writings like the work of his
friend Heinrich Heine). In the twentieth century, many of the foremost writers of Marxist theory have also
been literary critics, including Georg Lukács, Leon Trotsky, Raymond Williams, and Fredric Jameson.
The English literary critic and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton defines Marxist criticism this way:
"Marxist criticism is not merely a 'sociology of literature', concerned with how novels get published and
whether they mention the working class. Its 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."
The simplest goals of Marxist literary criticism can include an assessment of the political "tendency" of a
literary work, determining whether its social content or its literary form are "progressive"; however, this is
by no means the only or the necessary goal. From Walter Benjamin to Fredric Jameson, Marxist literary
critics have also been concerned with applying lessons drawn from the realm of aesthetics* to the realm of
*Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics or esthetics) is commonly known as the study of sensory or sensori-
emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. More broadly, scholars in the field
define aesthetics as "critical reflection on art, culture and nature.” Aesthetics is a subdiscipline of **axiology,
a branch of philosophy, and is closely associated with the philosophy of art. Aesthetics studies new ways
of seeing and of perceiving the world.
**Axiology is the study of quality or value.
A sociological approach to literature that viewed works of literature or art as the products of historical forces that can
be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. In Marxist ideology, what we often
classify as a world view (such as the Victorian age) is actually the articulations of the dominant class. Marxism
generally focuses on the clash between the dominant and repressed classes in any given age and also may encourage art
to imitate what is often termed an "objective" reality. Contemporary Marxism is much broader in its focus, and views
art as simultaneously reflective and autonomous to the age in which it was produced. The Frankfurt School is also
associated with Marxism (Abrams, p. 178, Childers and Hentzi, pp. 175-179). Major figures include Karl Marx, Terry
Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser (ALT-whos-sair), Walter Benjamin (ben-yeh-MEEN),
Antonio Gramsci (GRAWM-shee), Georg Lukacs (lou-KOTCH), and Friedrich Engels, Theordor Adorno (a-DOR-no),
Edward Ahern, Gilles Deleuze (DAY-looz) and Felix Guattari (GUAT-eh-ree).
Key Terms (note: definitions below taken from Ann B. Dobie's text, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to
Literary Criticism - see General Resources below):
Commodificaion - "the attitude of valuing things not for their utility but for their power to impress others or for their
resale possibilities" (92).
Conspicuous consumption - "the obvious acquisition of things only for their sign value and/or exchange value"
Dialectical materialism - "the theory that history develops neither in a random fashion nor in a linear one but
instead as struggle between contradictions that ultimately find resolution in a synthesis of the two sides. For example,
class conflicts lead to new social systems" (92).
Material circumstances - "the economic conditions underlying the society. To understand social events, one must
have a grasp of the material circumstances and the historical situation in which they occur" (92).
Reflectionism - associated with Vulgar Marxism - "a theory that the superstructure of a society mirrors its economic
base and, by extension, that a text reflects the society that produced it" (92).
Superstructure - "The social, political, and ideological systems and institutions--for example, the values, art, and
legal processes of a society--that are generated by the base" (92).