Study Guide

Marxism

Marxism Introduction

At Marx U, you don't pick your class—your class picks you.

Meet Karl, venerable founder of Marx U. He's a big, bearded, 19th-century bourgeois, and he spent much of his adulthood in the British Library. Imagine his portrait on the wall: he's not smiling.

Okay, he may not seem like the likeliest founder of the world's most radical intellectual and political movement, but beneath that grandfatherly exterior lurks a wickedly subversive mind.

For Karl, it's all about the power struggle: rich versus poor, owners versus workers, cats versus dogs. And when we say it's all about the power struggle for this dude, we mean it's all about the power struggle. We're looking at you, literature. That's right: for Marx, the power struggle plays out in every novel, poem, movie, song, whatever.

That means, according to Marxists, that anytime you write, you're advancing your cause. Don't know what your cause is? Marxists sure do.

According to Marxists, every story tells us something about the world—and about which side the author is on. The goal of the Marxist critic is to figure out what that is. And thanks to Marx, we can make some pretty good guesses before we even open the book.

Say what? Well, Marxists think they have the answer to pretty much any question you might have. They even think they can predict the future. So what's this all about? Is it mind reading? Sorcery? Mumbo-jumbo? Well, according to Marxists, what they have to offer is a total theory of history and society. We're talking a total theory of everything.

So pick up your hammers and sickles, comrades, because it's time for Communist Literature 101.

What is Marxism About and Why Should I Care?

Why Should Readers Care?

Ever wondered why the heck it matters that the rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA? That the image of a rose appears three times? That the hero gets rich, or the heroine gets married? Haven't you got more important stuff to worry about?

Well, Marx says that literature is directly connected to real life, and he says he can prove it. Maybe more than any other literary theory, Marxism tries to explain exactly what that book has to do with the real world.

Marxism takes the text out of a vacuum. If New Criticism is all about the text and nothing but the text, Marxism is all about the context. Swedish rhyme schemes, imaginary roses, and rich couples? Yeah, not so much.

Marxists are interested in money, food, and material goods above all else. That means that they read texts to see how those texts depict material and socioeconomic reality; it also means that they read texts to see how material and socioeconomic reality of the author and the author's time actually shaped those texts in the first place.

Why Should Theorists Care?

Base and superstructure, right?

Okay, wait: first things first. You might be thinking, "Got it, Shmoop. Marxism is all about economics, sociology, and politics. What does is really have to do with literature?"

Word in Marxland is that if you want to know how they think about literature, you have to understand a big, basic distinction first. Marxists call the read world… the Real. They call the world of ideas… Ideology. (They're trying to keep it simple, we guess.) Basically, that novel you're holding isn't a free play of ideas, or an inspired vision from on high, or a… well, you get the idea. It's an ideological reflection of the real world.

Boom. THEORY.

Simple as this may seem, Marxists will tell you it's totally deep when you get into it. For example: ever hear of a little thing called the realist novel? Marxists are here to tell you that it's totally a bourgeois genre.

Meaning? It's a recent invention that reflects the world we live in, a world that came about only after the French and Industrial Revolutions. How do Marxists know this? Well, they like to point out that a big defining feature of the realist novel is its focus on an individual hero or heroine. It's the novelist's way of showing the triumph of the individual—and that just happens to be a basic belief of capitalism. Got that?

We're used to thinking of a book-length story focusing on an interesting character or two as just something totally natural, but Marxists are here to show us that it's actually a recent invention. Think Twilight would exist if the French king hadn't been beheaded, and the English hadn't built factories? Not so, say the Marxists.

Marxist may not be too hot on poetry or close reading, but they sure are champs at giving us the bigger picture… or their version of the bigger picture, depending on how you look at it. Even if you don't agree with their answers, they do ask some pretty tough and important questions… and often, they're the only ones asking them.