marxism literary criticism by sichankomik

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           Marxist criticism is a type of criticism in which literary works are viewed as the product
of work and whose practitioners emphasize the role of class and ideology as they reflect,
propagate, and even challenge the prevailing social order. Rather than viewing texts as
repositories for hidden meanings, Marxist critics view texts as material products to be understood
in broadly historical terms. In short, literary works are viewed as a product of work (and hence of
the realm of production and consumption we call economics).
         Marxism began with Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher best known
for Das Kapital (1867; Capital), the seminal work of the communist movement. Marx was also the
first Marxist literary critic, writing critical essays in the 1830s on such writers as Johann Wolfgang
von Goethe and William Shakespeare. Even after Marx met 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. In The German Ideology, Marx and
Engels discuss the relationship between the arts, politics, and basic economic reality in terms of a
general social theory. Economics, they argue, provides the base, or infrastructure, of society,
from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art emerges.
          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 unimagined by either theorist: Russia,
a country long ruled by despotic czars but also enlightened by the works of powerful novelists and
playwrights including Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Russia produced revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, who shared not only Marx's interest in
literature but also his belief in its ultimate importance. Leon Trotsky, Lenin's comrade in
revolution, took a strong interest in literary matters as well, publishing Literature and Revolution
(1924), which is still viewed as a classic of Marxist literary criticism.
         Of those critics active in the Soviet Union after the expulsion of Trotsky and the triumph
of Stalin, two stand out: Mikhail Bakhtin and Georg Lukács. 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. Lukács, a Hungarian who converted to Marxism in 1919, appreciated pre–
revolutionary realistic novels that broadly reflected cultural "totalities" and were populated with
characters representing human "types" of the author's place and time.
         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. In Germany, dramatist and critic Bertolt Brecht 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. Walter Benjamin praised new art forms ushered in by the age of mechanical
reproduction, and Theodor Adorno attacked Lukács for his dogmatic rejection of nonrealist
modern literature and for his elevation of content over form.
         In addition to opposing Lukács and his overly constrictive canon, non-Soviet Marxists
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 order to show how economics determines the
mental structures of social groups, which are reflected in literary texts. Goldmann rejected the
idea of individual human genius, choosing instead to see works as the "collective" products of
"trans-individual" mental structures. French Marxist Louis Althusser drew on the ideas of
psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan and the 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.
Althusser’s followers included Pierre Macherey, who in A Theory of Literary Production (1966)
developed Althusser’s concept of the relationship between literature and ideology; Terry
Eagleton, who proposes an elaborate theory about how history enters texts, which in turn may
alter history; and Frederic Jameson, who has argued that form is "but the working out" of content
"in the realm of the superstructure."
        Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and
Supriya M. Ray. Copyright 1998 by Bedford Books.


Karl Marx (1818-1883) was primarily a theorist and historian (less the evil pinko commie
demon that McCarthyism fretted about). After examining social organization in a
scientific way (thereby creating a methodology for social science: political science), he
perceived human history to have consisted of a series of struggles between classes--
between the oppressed and the oppressing. Whereas Freud saw "sexual energy" to be the
motivating factor behind human endeavor and Nabokov seemed to feel artistic impulse
was the real factor, Marx thought that "historical materialism" was the ultimate driving
force, a notion involving the distribution of resources, gain, production, and such matters.

The supposedly "natural" political evolution involved (and would in the future involve)
"feudalism" leading to "bourgeois capitalism" leading to "socialism" and finally to
"utopian communism." In bourgeois capitalism, the privileged bourgeoisie rely on the
proletariat--the labor force responsible for survival. Marx theorized that when profits are
not reinvested in the workers but in creating more factories, the workers will grow poorer
and poorer until no short-term patching is possible or successful. At a crisis point, revolt
will lead to a restructuring of the system.

For a political system to be considered communist, the underclasses must own the means
of production--not the government nor the police force. Therefore, aside from certain
first-century Christian communities and other temporary communes, communism has not
yet really existed. (The Soviet Union was actually state-run capitalism.)

Marx is known also for saying that "Religion is the opiate of the people," so he was
somewhat aware of the problem that Lenin later dwelt on. Lenin was convinced that
workers remain largely unaware of their own oppression since they are convinced by the
state to be selfless. One might point to many "opiates of the people" under most political
systems--diversions that prevent real consideration of trying to change unjust economic

                                    Marxist Criticism

According to Marxists, and to other scholars in fact, literature reflects those social
institutions out of which it emerges and is itself a social institution with a particular
ideological function. Literature reflects class struggle and materialism: think how often
the quest for wealth traditionally defines characters. So Marxists generally view literature
"not as works created in accordance with timeless artistic criteria, but as 'products' of the
economic and ideological determinants specific to that era" (Abrams 149). Literature
reflects an author's own class or analysis of class relations, however piercing or shallow
that analysis may be.
The Marxist critic simply is a careful reader or viewer who keeps in mind issues of power
and money, and any of the following kinds of questions:

      What role does class play in the work; what is the author's analysis of class
      How do characters overcome oppression?
      In what ways does the work serve as propaganda for the status quo; or does it try
       to undermine it?
      What does the work say about oppression; or are social conflicts ignored or
       blamed elsewhere?
      Does the work propose some form of utopian vision as a solution to the problems
       encountered in the work?

                 Marxist Literary Criticism: Brief Guide
Along with psychoanalytical, feminist, and cultural criticism, Marxist literary criticism
exemplifies what the French philosopher Paul Ricouer terms a "hermeneutics of
suspicion." These are approaches that concern themselves not with what the text says but
what it hides. As Terry Eagleton, a leading Marxist critic, writes, the task of Marxist
literary criticism "is to show the text as it cannot know itself, to manifest those conditions
of its making (inscribed in its very letter) about which it is necessarily silent."

By its very nature, ideology is silent. Like the water in the aquarium breathed by the fish,
ideology is virtually invisible. Its invisibility gives it greater power. Ideology - defined in
general as the shared beliefs and values held in an unquestioning manner by a culture -
exerts a powerful influence upon a culture. Those who are marginalized in the culture are
most aware of the ways in which an ideology supports the dominant class in the society.
Those who enjoy the fruits of belonging to a dominant group of the society barely
generally are filled with what Marx called "false consciousness." Since it is not in their
interest to notice the ways in which an economic structure marginalizes others, they tend
to buy into an ideology that supports that structure.

Recurrent terms in Marxist literary criticism:

      Base vs. Superstructure: Base in Marxism refers to economic base.
       Superstructure, according to Marx and Engels, emerges from this base and
       consists of law, politics, philosophy, religion, art.
      Ideology: the shared beliefs and values held in an unquestioning manner by a
       culture. It governs what that culture deems to be normative and valuable. For
       Marxists, ideology is determined by economics. A rough approximation: "tell me
       how much money you have and I'll tell you how you think."
      Hegemony: coined by the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, this "refers to the
       pervasive system of assumptions, meanings, and values -- the web of ideologies,
       in other words, that shapes the way things look, what they mean, and therefore
       what reality is for the majority of people within a given culture" (See glossary in
       case studies in contemporary criticism book).
      Reification: often used to describe the way in which people are turned into
       commodities useful in market exchange. For example, some would argue that the
       media's obsession with tragedy (e.g.the deaths of Jon Benet Ramsay, Diana, JFK
       Jr., the murders at Columbine High School in Colorado) make commodities out of
       grieving people. The media expresses sympathy but economically thrives on these
       events through ratings boost.

What do Marxist literary critics do with texts?

      They explore ways in which the text reveals ideological oppression of a dominant
       economic class over subordinate classes. In order to do this a Marxist might ask
       the following questions:
           o Does the text reflect or resist a dominant ideology? Does it do both?
           o Does the main character in a narrative affirm or resist bourgeosie values?
           o Whose story gets told in the text? Are lower economic groups ignored or
           o Are values that support the dominant economic group given privilege?
               This can happen tacitly, in the way in which values are taken to be self-
      They look at the conditions of production for the work of art. For example, they
           o What were the economic conditions for publication of a work?
           o Who was the audience? What does the text suggest about the values of this

What other approaches resemble Marxist literary criticism?

      Marxist literary criticism often shares with feminist criticism a desire to challenge
       the power structures in contemporary society. For feminist, the issue is a
       marginalized gender; for Marxists, the issue is not gender but economic power,
       leading to political power.
      Marxist literary criticism can also be viewed as a type of cultural criticism, in
       that it seeks to analyze a discourse (of power) that makes up one of the discourses
       that determine a text's historical meaning.
                       Marxist Literary Criticism
                                By Allen Brizee
                        Introduction to Graduate Studies
                                 Prof. Hausman
                                  Spring 2000

The workers of the world are being oppressed!! Everyday, the capitalist system
exploits millions of people. And by participating in this repressive abuse, we in
turn, oppress textile workers in southwest Virginia who are now jobless - at the
mercy of our capitalist government. By participating in this repressive abuse,
we exploit sweat shop workers in third world countries who toil for pennies a
day so they can barely survive. Our role in the capitalist system makes us
guilty of oppression!

The capitalist economic system is designed to keep the upper classes (the rich
and the middle class) wealthy, while at the same time the lower classes remain
firmly entrenched (trapped) at the bottom of the imbalanced structure. The
workers' tragedy is compounded because they are forced to support a system
that continually keeps them from improving their condition. We must break
free of the capitalist dogma! This is not an easy task; capitalism and its bastard
offspring, consumerism, saturate our reality. Our daily lives are soaked with
the belief that the American dream is a worthy and healthy goal. But the so-
called American dream was built on the broken backs of workers who suffered
to fulfill the exploitative schemes of the founding fathers. This misleading
dogma pervades our lives: our education teaches us to deify the very people
who slaughtered millions of indigenous people to fulfill the odious Manifest
Destiny; our religion lulls us into a false stupor of security and indoctrinates us
into a repressive, hierarchical state of mind; our literature recreates and
celebrates every aspect of the consumer lifestyle; we, in turn, consume this
literature and believe its lies!

Whew, quite a mouthful! It is difficult for suburban bourgeois (weaned on
MTV) to relate to the revolutionary attitude the Marxists (and their rebellious
brethren) developed in the early and middle 19th century. Perhaps this is
because capitalism has finally won the battle, and we now believe that
"everything is ok. Why complain?" But when studying Marxist literary
criticism, we must place ourselves in the mindset of the revolutionaries so that
we can effectively examine text as they would. Marxism has come a long way
since the 1800s, and Marxist critics today certainly take a less dogmatic
approach to literature. But at the same time, we cannot disregard the original
dogma that sparked the social movement that changed our world.

This web site will examine three Marxists: Karl Marx (the father of the
workers' movement), Friedrich Engels (Marx's lifelong friend and partner), and
Georg Lukacs (one of the "First Disciples," of Marx and Engels). I will attempt
to clarify some of the confusing aspects of Marxist criticism, and augment what
we have read in Richter, Tyson, and Barry. However, some information on
Marxism requires emphasis, and I apologize for any repeated data.

While studying Marxist literary criticism one must remember that when Marx
and Engels created the foundations of the workers' movement, and wrote the
key texts that spread the word, they were more concerned with the actual
revolution than with literature. However, Marx and Engels were both
intellectuals - so they knew history and they knew art and literature. And of
course they could not overlook the important role art and literature play in the
development (and support) of a society. Marx and Engels primarily wrote
about the approaching revolution, but they also wrote about their philosophy as
it relates to literature. They believed that the aristocracy (read Bill Gates) and
bourgeois used literature to reinforce and strengthen their position as
hegemonic rulers of the world - oppressing the toiling workers!

For your further surfing pleasure, I have provided some Internet links to web
sites dedicated to Marxism, both its literary and its social issues (Marx would
not see a difference between the two, but hey, this is my site, not his!).

This web site can be surfed in various ways. Links at the left side of the pages
allow you to move around the site at will. Or you can begin on the homepage
and work your way through the site by clicking on the chain at the bottom of
each page, thereby moving on to the next page in order.

First, though, here is a quick history and outline of Marx, Engels and the
beginnings of the revolution. (Or, click here to go directly to traditionalist
Marxist views on literary criticism.)

   Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895) were both born
in the same area in Germany, the Rhine Province. The importance of their
upbringing in the Rhineland during this time period speaks for itself: Marx and
Engels were heavily influenced by the French Revolution (1789 - 1793). In
fact, citizens of the Rhine Province sympathized with, and actually took part in
Napoleon's initial victories in Germany. Marx and Engels were also heavily
influenced by the Industrial Revolution in England (commonly seen as
beginning in 1760 and ending around 1830). The formula of influence here is
clear: the oppressed masses threw off the yolk of the Monarchy (the Bourbons
and the Orleans - both French dynasties) during the various incarnations of
French uprisings only to be re-oppressed by the bourgeois as the Industrial
Revolution and Benthamism (or the Manchester school of economics - think
Charles Dickens and Hard Times) seized the workers, stripped their rights, and
threw them out in the streets, unemployed because of advances in machine
production. The time was right for revolution.

Marx attended the University of Bonn for a year and then transferred to the
University of Berlin, where he began associating with students who shared his
revolutionary ideas. While studying law and philosophy in Berlin, Marx was
introduced to the writings of Hegel, a monumental step for the young
Rhinelander. Soon after, he joined a student club named the Young Hegelians,
who, after growing in number and political strength, were forced out of the
university system by the Prussian government. Marx's political activism
continued, but his studies began to slip. Regardless, Marx submitted his
doctoral thesis (a Hegelian analysis of the differences the natural philosophies
of Democritus and Epicurus) to the University of Jena. Marx received his
degree in 1841. Engels, meanwhile, had served in the Prussian army (1842)
and began working at his father's cotton mill in Manchester, England. Engels
left England and moved to Paris to begin writing for the revolutionary
publication, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Yearbook) in
1844; and it was here that he met Marx. In 1846, Marx and Engels joined the
Secret Communist League. In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote Manifest der
Kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto) for the League, which
outlines the basic ideas regarding the communist revolution for "working men
of all countries."

Marx and Engels continued to write and publish various revolutionary
newspapers and magazines, two of which are the Neue Rheinische Zeitung
(New Rhine Newspaper) (1848 - 1849), and the Politisch-oekonomische Revue
(Political Economic Review) (1850). Engels was also involved in various
communist uprisings in Elberfeld, the Palatinate and Baden. Ironically, after
these revolts were violently suppressed, Engels returned to Manchester in 1850
to work for his father's cotton mill. Though now a part of the industrial
machine, Engels continued to support the revolution by assisting international
workers' organizations and publishing many books on the plight of the
oppressed proletariat (these books are listed on his page). After the German
revolts were put down, Marx was expelled from Prussia, France, and Brussels,
and so fled to England with his family where he continued his work for the
revolution by forming the International Working Men's Association. Marx also
contributed to the New York Tribune while assimilating vast amounts of
information in the British Museum on political economy. In 1867, Marx
published his monumental Das Kapital (Capital: A Critique of Political
Economy), Volume I). Capital examines the struggle of the working class
throughout history using vigorous scientific approaches (other works by Marx
are listed on his page).

Engels financially supported his ailing friend until Marxís death on March 14,
1883. After Marx's death, Engels wrote numerous pieces defending Marxism
while also moving slowly away from Marxís dogmatic approach to the struggle
and to literature. Details of this ideological drift can be found on the Engels
page. Engels died on August 5, 1895.

Karl Marx loved the Greek classics (art and mythology), Shakespeare
(specifically, Timon of Athens), and the German philosopher, Hegel. Georg
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) was the primary philosophical
influence of Marx's age. Hegel was offered the position of chair of philosophy
at the University of Berlin in 1818. Hegel is best known for "offering a
metaphysico-religious view of "Absolute Spirit," which draws on pantheistic
ideas of the identity of the universe and God, together with theistic ideas
concerning the necessary "self-consciousness" of God. The peculiarity of
Hegel's view, on this account, lies in his idea that the mind of God is actual
only via the minds of his creations, which serve as its vehicle. It is as bearers of
this developing self-consciousness of God that those finitely-embodied
inhabitants of the universe - ourselves - can be such "finite-infinites'"
(Stanford). Richter states that "like his teacher, Hegel, Marx believed that
historical transformations occur through a dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and
synthesis, whereby each historical force calls into being its Other so that the
two opposites negate each other and ultimately give rise to a third force, which
transcends this opposition" (385). However, Marx disagreed with Hegel on
some key issues, which essentially gave birth to Marx's economic determinism.

Marx did not believe that spiritual contradictions led to historical changes;
rather, Marx believed that economic contradictions led to historic change and
conflict. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states "Marxists
were thought of as taking the historical dynamics of the Hegelian picture but
understanding this in materialist rather than idealist categories." Richter adds
some insight to this by stating "Marx posited that major historical changes
occur not as a result of spiritual contradictions, as Hegel had thought, but
because of economic ones. It is in this sense that, as the cliché puts it Marx
stood Hegel on his head" (Richter 386). So what does all this have to do with
literature? Hegel believed that "art is an aspect of religion (and vice versa)
rather than a separate spiritual mode, and the collective expression of a society
rather than of an individual voice" (Richter 359). Contrary to this belief, Marx
felt that a societyís economic structure (and the dominant socioeconomic class
of that structure) determined the creation of art and literature. This belief
evolved into what Marx called economic determinism.

Marxist Essentials
The following section highlights the basics of traditional Marxism:

Alienation: Primarily, Marx believed that the "getting and keeping [of]
economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities,
including education, philosophy, religion, government, the arts, science,
technology, the media, and so on" (Tyson 50). And because of this, the
workers become, at the most basic level, alienated. In his book, Marx, Engels
and the Poets, Peter Demetz states "the laboring man [according to Marx] is
subject to a triple alienation: first, he alienates himself into the object he
produces, which glares at him coldly...; second, he alienates himself through
the act of production itself, for labor "belongs only externally to the worker,
"and he alienates himself from the human race, for whatever advantage he has
over the animals as a conscious producer becomes a degrading handicap" (62).
This oppression, and the alienation it causes, transcends all levels of our lives,
including literature.

Religion: Marx took Hegel's theory of religion (that "religion was revealed as
the fatal self-projection of mankind, for mankind though its concept of God had
alienated itself from its own essence" (Demetz 59)) even further saying that
religion, and its institutions, were merely puppets of the upper classes, and that
religion was used to keep the lower classes in line by promising them a better
life in heaven if they accepted the hierarchical, oppressive economic paradigm
in this life. The commonly used phrase "religion is the opiate of the masses"
derives from this ideology.

False Consciousness: Another key idea to Marxists is false consciousness.
False consciousness basically means that "an ideal functions to mask its own the case of the American dream, then, the question for Marxist
analysis is, "How does the American dream enlist the support of all Americans,
even those who fail to achieve it, in promoting the interests of those is power?"
(Tyson 55).

Capitalism: Essentially, capitalism, by its very nature, is designed to oppress
the lower classes. Politics, religion, education, law, and culture exist in the
Superstructure, which sits on top of the Base (a line designating, essentially, the
poverty line). The elite (the aristocrats and bourgeois) of the society exist
above the Base; the Proletariat exist at or below the Base. The elite posses
surplus capital. The elite can re-invest this surplus to obtain more capital. The
lower classes are not able to reinvest any capital because they use ALL their
capital to survive. The Superstructure rests upon, but also reinforces, this
exploitative system of economics. Capitalism develops a system in which the
vast majority of people do not benefit from the profits of labor. The revolution
in Europe began to take shape as soon as the cottage industries began falling
victim to feudal lords, and then to the rising bourgeois (or merchant class) in
the cities in the mid 1300s. European workers began their struggle with the
capitalist system when the value of their products was no longer self-
determined, but determined by the elite and the merchants. In turn, the
workers' only commodity became their labor, a commodity that was all to often
cheaply bought. Labor was again undermined when the Industrial Revolution
displaced workers whose jobs were now accomplished by a machine.

Economic Determinism: Economic determinism is another important theory
Marx developed. Essentially, the theory of economic determinism states that
since capitalism is based on private ownership, this implies that the minimum
amount of property someone could own is ZERO. The maximum amount of
property someone could own is EVERYTHING; there are no limits. Also,
assuming that humans need a certain amount of capital to live (food, shelter,
clothing), unless you fall into the category that owns everything, you have a
good change of not having enough capital to survive. Therefore, the
oppressive, capitalist system permiates every aspect of your life; it controls
you, and creates conflict at every level. You are either oppressed, or an
oppresser. This, in turn, will undeniably influence your creativity; in fact, your
creativity is a result of the conflict this system creates.

Classism and Commodification: Also important to remember are classism
and commodification. Basically, classism is "an ideology that equates one's
value as a human being with the social class to which one belongs: the higher
oneís social class, the better one is assumed to be because quality is 'in the
blood,' that is, inborn" (Tyson 55). Commodification "is the act of relating to
objects or persons in term of their exchange value or sign-exchange value"
(Tyson 59). People commodify when they buy expensive cars so they can
impress people while driving around the drill field with their stereos booming.

These then are some features of Marxism we should keep in mind when
reading literature as a proletariat. So letís put on our green overalls and black
ski cap and get to WORK!

Marx and Literature
Up to this point, we have been discussing the basics of Marxism as it applies to
society: how the structure of society reflects the upper classes repressing the
workers. But how does Marxism work in literature? First, letís examine
Marxís view of the birth of the novel.

The Birth of the Novel: History, to Marx, is the continuing struggle of the
oppressed lower classes attempting to free themselves from the bonds of
tyranny and assert their self-determined future in an equal society. With this as
a given, we could travel as far back in history as records would allow to begin
this section. However, that would be a daunting effort. Let us begin then with
the struggle to throw off feudalism. In his book, Marxism, Ideology and
Literature, Cliff Slaughter states "the flowering individualism [which began the
downfall of feudalism]...was characterized by Marx as a 'historically
justified'...because it reflected the contemporary necessity of
overthrow the feudal order. While it was true that the individuals who carried
through this struggle, and their descendants, must be differentiated into
exploiters [bourgeois] and exploited [peasants], individuals had to be freed
from feudal ties if modern industry and the modern proletariat, the prerequisites
of a social revolution which could end class society and provide the material
conditions for true individual liberty, were to be created" (9). In other words,
the first step toward true freedom in Europe came when the lower classes
overthrew feudalism; however, the emerging bourgeois also had much to do
with this revolutionary process.

This new social class used the novel to support and maintain their dominance.
Slaughter continues by stating "[Marx asked] is not the novel form then a
spontaneous literary reflection of the appearance of capitalist life...the product
of the aggregate of self-interested individual actions?" (12). Whereas the epic
represents what Marx called the 'natural conflict' and tragedies reflect
characters "confronting the awesome necessity of the break from the limitations
of gentile society and its kinship-bound solidarity," novels "[are] a product of
the men thrown into struggle by the specific contradictions of the given social
formation. In their literature and art men do not produce some mysteriously
congruent copy of the social structure; rather they express the content of the
fundamental struggle with nature and with their own nature which that society,
at its particular stage of development, carries forward or inhibits, or does both
at the same time" (Slaughter 23). In other words, novels represent the universe
centered on the hero and that characterís struggle "inner turmoil...against the
break-up of the normality of relations between the individual and his world,"
caused by the capitalist system as shown in the explanation of alienation

Given this level of alienation, Marx believed that people viewed themselves in
one of the following four categories "(1) a romantic-reactionary yearning for
some lost idyllic, organic past order, (2) disillusion, pessimism and despair or
impatience, indiscriminate rage and violence, (3) a philosophical resignation to
what is taken to be 'the human condition,' or (4) a confused combination of or
oscillation between any of these; alternatively, they may seek, against these
moods, a revolutionary theory and practice to overturn the existing social
order" (Slaughter 11).

So what does Marxism consider to be good contemporary literature? Since the
novel is merely a reflection of bourgeois ideals, and so supports capitalism,
"serious literature rejects the bourgeois formula for freedom, and the hostility
of capitalism and commercialism" (Slaughter 14). In a sense, realism, and its
view of the world as it 'really' occurs, plays into this formula. But one walks a
thin line here, because true literature to Marx would not realistically reflect, say
my life, because I live in, and support a capitalist society. A Marxist story
would run along these lines: Keep in mind that I am not the main character!
Coming from the middle-class suburbs, I am ignorant of the class struggle.
While at Tech, I volunteer at a soup kitchen for the unemployed textile workers
in the area. The main character is rallying the group into a communist
organization. They are planning a revolution. Finally, seeing their plight, and
the misery of the workers as they fall victim to the capitalist system, I join their
ranks. However, I never really quite fit in because of my bourgeois upbringing.
In the end, I am killed by the police (thus representing the death of the
bourgeois system) as the workers march on Richmond to overthrow the state

Marxist Criticism: I will not spend an exorbitant amount of time on this
section because these web sites are meant to augment what we read in our
texts. A relatively good explanation of Marxist criticism can be found in
Tyson, Barry, and Richter. However, to give you a better sense of what
Marxist criticism would do with a piece of literature, I have included a link to a
Marxist critique of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales I just wrote for
my Canterbury Tales course with Dr. Tony Colaianne. The basic premise of
the paper is that the Three Estates system (from the feudal era) is thrown into
turmoil as the bourgeois becomes more and more powerful. Upon first reading
The Canterbury Tales one might think that it is a critique of the classist system
in which Chaucer lived. However, upon closer examination, it is obvious that
Chaucer is not critiquing the dominant social paradigm; rather Chaucer is
setting the stage for the ascension of his own social class, the bourgeois or
merchant class, into the Estates system by questioning the accepted societal
order. Chaucer does not advocate an overthrow of the system because that
would jeopardize his own class; rather, Chaucer wants people to question the
Three Estates system, with all its oppressive ideology, only enough to allow for
change. This change is the establishment of a Fourth Estate: the bourgeois. A
good explanation of the paper can be obtained from the introduction section.
Chaucer's Bourgeois Message in the Canterbury Tales.

Many critics of Marxism claim that because of its Hegelian roots (rather
dogmatic and rigid in structure), Marxism is itself too dogmatic and rigid. The
Viennese critic Hermann Bahr said that Marxism was "from a critical method
for ordering experience into a dogmatic axiom as a substitute for experience..."
and that its methodology reminded him of a "tin vending machine." Bahr
stated "as soon as one deposits the shabbiest ten-penny question in the top,
unfailingly a long chapter of Marxist wisdom comes out at the bottom; a first-
rate, reliable mechanism that never fails" (Demetz 141). To this end, as
Friedrich Engels continued to study the class struggle and write about
socioeconomic issues, he developed a more flexible, a more complex approach
to Marxism.

                     Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)
Friedrich Engels is often eclipsed by the monumental figure of Karl Marx.
Also, Engels is often perceived as possessing the same views on class struggle,
as well as sharing Marx's views on aesthetics and literary criticism - this in not
the case. In Marx Engels and the Poets, Peter Demetz states "Marx and Engels
are not identical twins...but rather distinct personalities of a unique stamp; their
literary tastes exhibit nuances just as important as those of their theoretical
formulations" (116). The most dramatic difference between Engels and Marx
regarding literary criticism is that "Engels never even remotely suggested that
he regarded realism as the only fruitful method of art; even less did it occur to
[Engels] to proclaim realism as the only permissible mode of proletarian
literature" (Demetz 128). Essentially, Engels grew far less dogmatic in his
approach to literature after Marxís death. Nowhere is this more obvious than in
his correspondence with Marxist writers in the early 1900s - one such example
I will use here to show how Engels views a text according to the more
dogmatic approach to Marxism.

Margret Harkness, an acquaintance of Engels, wrote a novel called A City Girl
(1887) in which a poor working class woman from London falls in love with a
janitor. She, however, falls victim to the selfish advances of a rich suitor and
becomes pregnant. With the help of the English Salvation Army, she survives
the ill-fated delivery of her child (who dies) and is reunited with her true love,
the janitor. Miss Harkness asked Engels to review her book, which she claimed
was "A Realistic Story." Engels praised Miss. Harkness for her subject matter;
however, he points out that "the working class figures as a passive mass, unable
to help itself and not even making any attempt at striving to help itself...[is] not
quite realistic enough...all attempts to drag it [the proletariats] out of its torpid
misery come from without, from above (the English Salvation Army)" (Demetz

    Later in his life, however, Engels moves away from this dogmatic approach:
"Engels warns the younger generation not to confuse the ideas of his deceased
friend, to whom he ascribes in retrospect a rather tolerant sensibility, with the
rigid dogmatism of Hegelian philosophy. Marx's theories, Engels stresses, are
to be used merely as a 'guide to study,' by no means as a crude 'lever' for
ideological construction out of touch with historical and social realities...the
younger generation must begin anew to study individual phenomena in their
characteristic elements: 'All history must be studied anew...the conditions of
existence in the various forms of society must be investigated individually
before one attempts to derive from them the political, legal, aesthetic,
philosophical, religious and so on, ways of viewing things that correspond to
them'" (Demetz 140). In other words, Engels is saying that materialism may
not be the monumental and only factor that Marx thought it was. Engels was
more flexible in his approach: "[the] materialistic method turns into its opposite
when it is not used as a guide to historical study but rather as a prefabricated
pattern according to which one adjusts the historical facts" (Demetz 141). In
fact, Engels goes on to outline a new superstructure we must consider when
approaching society or literature: "(1) primary political forms, such as the class
struggle; (2) secondary elements, such as legal forms; (3) 'the reflexes' of the
conflict 'in the minds of those taking part in it'; and finally (4) the 'further
development of these reflexes to complete systems of dogma.' In contrast to
Marx, Engels thus unfolds in the intellectual superstructure a finely organized
system of differentiated spheres" (Demetz 145). Engels continued to revise this
superstructure to the point of even questioning economic determinism.

As Engels developed his Marxist ideology, he felt that "economic impulses are
incapable of creating new intellectual phenomena; they are merely able to
determine changes and continuations of intellectual traditions. This reduction
of the economic aspect is supported by Engels' new conception of reality as a
richly complex cosmos of differentiated spheres of an intellectual and
economic kind, in which complexity triumphs once more over the linear
differentiation of matter and intellect" (Demetz 145-6). To Engels, these
spheres exist more autonomously than Marx would have thought. Until his
death in 1895, Engels continued to revise and develop Marxism, while at the
same time, defending Marx's approach to society and literature as a base, a
crticial touchstone. This evolving pattern of Marxism leads nicely into the next
Marxist critic, Georg Lukacs, one of the "first disciples" of Marx and Engels.

                      Georg Lukacs (1885-1971)
I will forgo any biographical information on Lukacs as Richter provides
adequate information on the critic's life. Lukacs primarily wrote against the
literary quality of modernism using two essentially Marxist strategies: that a
mere reflection of the world around us does not accurately represent reality,
and that inner contradictions caused by class struggle (rather than anything
else) cause the development of history. As reflected by his essay, The Ideology
of Modernism, Georg Lukacs "reject[s] the 'naturalism' of the...recent European
novel, he returns to the old realist view that the novel reflects reality, not by
rendering its mere surface appearance, but by giving us 'a truer, more complete,
more vivid and more dynamic reflection of reality...[that] the literary work
reflects not individual phenomena in isolation, but ëthe full process of life.'
However, the reader is always aware that the work is not itself reality but rather
is 'a special form of reflecting reality'...a 'correct' reflection of reality,
therefore...involves more than the mere rendering of external appearances"
(Selden 76). In other words, Lukacs "rejects such merely 'photographic'
representation (76). Lukacs also works off of the theory in Marxism (rooted in
Hegelian ideology) that states, "development in history is nor random or
chaotic, not is it a straightforward linear progression, but rather a dialectic
development. In every social organization, the prevailing mode of production
gives rise to inner contradictions which are expressed in class struggle" (Selden
77). I have attempted to break down Lukacs' essay, The Ideology of
Modernism, into an outline that, to me, seems a littler easier to digest. All the
quotations are from The Ideology of Modernism in Richter.
Modernism is not the enrichment, but the negation of art" because,

1. "Exaggerated concern with formal criteria, with style and literary technique"
are proliferated by the bourgeois modernist critics. These elements DO NOT
differentiate modern literature from traditional literature (and its oppressive
ideologies) because,

2. Of the "static and sensual" nature of the modernist novel. The novel reveals
the realized intention of the work, not the "writer's conscious intention." In
other words, regardless of what the author was trying to do, the modernist
novel, in its form and content, reveals its bourgeois roots by,

3. Attempting to posit a solitariness as a human condition, rather than a
condition of any social influence or historical exploitation (or alienation caused
by those elements). Also,

4. That retreat into any form of psychopathology is an inaccurate and
particularly bourgeois example (that leads to no solution) of man's alienation
(counter to the Marxist view that the solution to alienation is not nothingness,
but revolutionary action). Also, Lukacs believed Freud was mistaken by
"believ[ing] he had found the key to the understanding of the normal
personality in the psychology of the abnormal" (hmm, sound familiar?). Also,

5. That modernist angst itself was a particularly bourgeois ailment. And,

6. "Modern allegory and modernist ideology...deny the typical (proletariat)
[perspective]. And finally,

7. That modernist "atheistic bourgeois intelligentsia," not typical and its
approach is off target because "modern atheism is the fact
that unbelief has lost its revolutionary élan [and that] religious atheism shows
that the desire for salvation lives on worshipping the voice created by godís
absence...if there is a God here, it can only be the God of religious atheism." In
other words, the NEED for God has not been relinquished; the opiate of the
masses still has a major influence even in its absence (unlike Marxism that
posits that when society is truly free and equal, the need for religion, and its
exploitative structure, will disappear).

My hope is that this outline helps clarify Marxist literary criticism as seen by
Lukacs. I will now briefly present an overview of Lukacs' theories as they
developed during his life.
   In the beginning of his philosophic studies, Lukacs was heavily influenced
by Neo-Kantianism. However, like Marx and Engels, Lukacs "turned to Hegel
for a more total view of human life" (Demetz 200). Because of his political
obligations, Lukacs spent many years away from philosophy and literary
criticism. These hiatuses are marked by three distinct periods: The Heidelberg
Period, The Doctrinaire Period, and The Octogenarian Period.

The Heidelberg Period: This period of Lukacs' life is marked by his belief that
"the theory of any genre coincides with its history, which in true German
fashion, he believes begins with the inimitable art of Greece. At this point,
Lukacs feels that "the novel, as a late product of the mind, seems more liable to
degradation than any other genre…it is not the writer's craftsmanship that is
ultimately decisive but the philosophical basis of the work" (Demetz 203). Like
Hegel (and German idealism), Lukacs also believed that "the
individual…symbolically represents and incarnates an important moment in the
philosophy of history and receives an ontological blessing from a power far
beyond individuality…Lukacs has touched upon the question of the
representative type that will turn into one of the central issues of his middle
period" (204). Next, we move on to The Doctrinaire Period.

The Doctrinaire Period: This stage is called the Doctrinaire Period because
Lukacs' philosophy evolved into a more hardline, traditional Marxist ideology.
Lukacs' theories, however, were also heavily influenced by his joining the
Hungarian Communist Party in 1918, and falling under the control of Stalin,
who was a strict Leninist: "Lukacs bases the literary norm of his doctrinaire
period on a crude motif from Lenin's epistemology. Like Lenin in his conflict
with the philosopher Ernst Mach, Lukacs insists upon a fundamental dualism of
objective, real, external, and internal world that together form a unified and
knowable universe" (Demetz 207). He also developed arguments against
"naturalism" and "formalism:" "naturalism is blind because it lacks intellectual
form; formalism is empty because it lacks material appeal to the senses"
(Demetz 208). Lukacs undergoes some dramatic changes in this dogmatic
approach to literature during his final stage: The Octogenarian Period.

The Octogenarian Period: The Octogenarian Period is marked by more
flexible approaches to literature. This change reflected personal reflection
following Stalin's death and the ascension of Krushchev to the head of Soviet
Russia (Demetz 217). For example, Lukas published Realism in Our Times in
1958 in order to "retain traditional realism as the most productive middle
course between the aberrations of 'naturalism' and the degeneration of socialist
realism into the schematic propaganda literature [of Soviet]…henchmen" (217).
Trying to coalesce radical members of the revolution and more traditional party
members, Lukacs "stresses the unifying elements of intellectual tradition than
its contradictions, and tends to by-pass Hegel and Marx in the quest for an
unexpected and belated alliance with Aristotle" (219). This attempt was less
than successful as Demetz states: "unfortunately, Lukacs often continue[d] to
judge many works of art on the basis of their author's theories and dulls his
sensitivity to the possibility that the work may contradict theoretical intent"
(226). Lukacs died in 1971.

    Lukacs states "It is necessary, in considering the Marxist view of
literature, to make a critical appraisal of the developments of the theory
and practice of Marxism itself, within which views of literature having
evolved" (Slaughter 6).

   Lukacs "refused to recognize the literary possibilities of modernist
writings. Because he thought the content of modernism was reactionary,
he treated modernist form as equally unacceptable" (Selden 77).

Bahr, Ehrhard, and Ruth G. Kunzer. Georg Lukacs. New York: Frederick
Unger 1972.

  Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural
Theory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

  Bennett, Tony. Outside Literature. London: Routledge, 1990.

   Demetz, Peter. Marx, Engels, and the Poets: Origins of Marxist Literary
Criticism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1967.

   Feenberg, Andrew. Lukacs, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory. New
Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

  Jameson, Frederic. Marxism and Form. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1971.

  Richter, David. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary
Trends. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

   Selden, Raman, and Peter Widdowson. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary
Literary Theory. 3rd ed. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1993.

  Slaughter, Cliff. Marxism, Ideology and Literature. London: Macmillan,
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland, 1999.

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