Study Guide

Marxism Basics

  • Beginnings

    In the beginning was the Class Struggle. Well, according to Marxists, it was there all along—but it took Karl Marx to point it out to everyone. You've probably heard of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. No? Well that was the Big Bang of Marxism. And it's no dry lecture; it opens with Kasper the unfriendly German ghost proclaiming: "A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism." Uh oh.

    Ever since, Marx has been the bogeyman to tubby Monopoly men in top hats everywhere.

    In 1917, the Russian Revolution made Marx's dream a reality. The workers rose up and took power and outlawed capitalism and Jamba Juice and Abercrombie. (Well, they would have, if they had had them.) No more bosses, no more inequality, right?

    Well, not exactly. Things turned ugly pretty quickly: in this case, achieving equality kind of meant killing off or sending into exile everyone who seemed a little more equal than others. Still, for a few years in the 1920s, the Soviet Union was a giant experiment in Communism, and no idea was too wacky to be given a shot.

    It was also around this time (the 1920s) that Marx's ideas started to get applied to literature, and Marxist literary theory was born. In the Soviet Union, there was Leon Trotsky heading the roster of Marxist critics. He was a curly-haired genius who later got offed with a pickaxe in Mexico (rough times). In the West, brilliant thinkers like György Lukács and Walter Benjamin were inspired by the world's first Marxist state.

    Hey, from a distance, the Soviet Union looked like quite the party.

  • Big Players

    Karl Marx

    So, let's get one thing straight: Karl didn't actually write literary theory himself. Have you seen the size of the books he wrote? He didn't have to just sit down writing about novels. Nevertheless, his ideas about culture's place in society were revolutionary, and they totally form the basis for current Marxist theory. Marx said that you can't understand a book if you don't understand where it came from, and that's a big idea that 20th-century theorists put to work.

    Lukács, the Frankfurt School, and Some French People

    György Lukács (LOO-katch), a Hungarian Marxist critic, did not direct Star Wars. That was George Lucas. What Lukács did do was write about the interaction of history and fiction. He was all about the big picture, and he thought that the way to study literature was as a specific phenomenon of history.

    At the same time, a bunch of German critics, including boys Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, started to take popular culture very seriously—as seriously as only Germans can. With a few others, these guys became known as the Frankfurt School, which lasted until after the Second World War.

    A little bit later, in the 1960s and 1970s, some French smarty-pants, including Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, who were influenced by Freud as well as Marx, went ahead and revived Marxism, this time creating a theory about how literature fits into the economy.

    Postmodernism and Cultural Studies

    Around the same time, two Brits were updating Marx for a new postwar generation. Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, two university professors, did something miraculous: they wrote clearly. You can pretty much understand every word they wrote.

    Not impressed? Go and read Frederic Jameson. We dare you. This American is possibly the smartest cookie in the Marxist pack. Some people consider his work on the "political unconscious" to be the best Marxist criticism there is—but it's some tough stuff to slog through.

    What all of these critics do is update Marxist theory to address specific issues like postmodernism and contemporary politics. Ever heard of a little thing called cultural studies? This is where it comes from.

  • Key Debates

    If there's anything Marxists hate more than Ronald Reagan, it's other Marxists. Marxism is notorious for in fighting. Okay, these are professors we're talking about, so the body count is pretty low. But still.

    The biggest fight inside the Marxist ranks was one was between "Vulgar" Marxists and, well, everyone else. Basically, "Vulgar" Marxism says that literature is a direct reflection of society. If your economy is x, then your novels are y. Basically, the idea is that everything in the novel is totally determined by socioeconomic factors.

    This "reflective" theory is pretty discredited by now. (Don't writers think for themselves just a little bit?)

    There are two alternatives: "Ideology" versus "Cultural Materialism." Theorists like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson argue that literature is a form of ideology. In other words, it's a way for the people in charge to spread their view of how the world works. For these theorists, even writers who aren't explicitly trying to justify an ideology are still probably doing it without knowing it, since their whole livelihood depends on keeping things the way they are.

    For theorists like Raymond Williams and Alan Sinfield, on the other hand, literature is just a part of culture. Culture, for them, is not just about artists justifying the way things are. Instead, books, songs, and movies are complex; they say more than one thing—and often stir things up.

  • State of the Theory

    When the Soviet Union—the world's first Marxist state—fell in 1991, Marxism was deader than disco. But when the world economy hit the fan in 2008, Marxism as a political program came back from the grave. Marxists like David Harvey made headlines explaining how capitalism had always been a bad thing. And anybody remember a little thing called Occupy Wall Street?

    There's a difference between Marxism as a critique (what are the world's socioeconomic problems?) and Marxism as a program (how should the world be run?). These days, Marxist literary theory—which is on the critique side—pretty much tries to keep its louder, older brother—Marxism as a program—out of sight. In the work of contemporary critics like Frederic Jameson and Franco Moretti, Marxism actually looks pretty respectable—even (gasp) bourgeois. 21st-century Marxist professors don't talk too much about workers, or even about class struggle.

    In fact, some of the best Marxist literary theory often has very little to do with Marxism as an explicit political program. Marx's ideas have influenced a lot of other kinds of theory: check out the attention to society and power structures in feminism, post-colonialism, and queer theory, for example. Or, for something a little different, check out the connection between Marxism and psychoanalysis in in Frederic Jameson or Slavoj Žižek.

    These days, even the creaky old 19th-century theory has got with the times. Scholars like Franco Moretti are now using computer visualizations to do "distance reading"—that is, looking at big patterns across hundreds of texts. That's what Marx wanted all along: to see literature as part of much bigger historical phenomena.

    Now, to be sure, most Marxists will still argue that to get the most out of Marxist literary theory, you have to believe in Communism, even if it's not exactly a requirement.

    We'll let you make your own minds up.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Man or woman on the street: "Literature—it's books, right? Stories and poems and plays? Maybe good stories and poems and plays?"

    For Marxists, this is only the beginning of the answer. They ask: How did fiction become separated from other kinds of books, like history? How did we separate the good books from the bad ones, and who decided which was which? Why are some books taught in school and others not?

    According to Marxists, literature is what powerful institutions—like schools, the government, the New York Times, and Amazon.com—say it is. Literature is the books people study and teach, not to mention the books rich corporations decide to sell.

    Above all, literature is the way our society tells itself it is doing the right thing. Marxists argue that most stories, poems, and plays aim to make us feel good about our behavior. In their lingo, it is the way that "bourgeois ideology" (capitalism and everything that goes with it) maintains its dominance. Its sneakiest trick is to make something very specific—a way of maximizing private profit—seem the most natural thing in the world.

    What is an author?

    For Marxists, an author is not a genius churning out inspired masterpieces in isolation. He or she is simply channeling the class struggle, whether he or she knows it or not. Some authors know it—they are "committed" (see "Buzzwords"). Most authors don't, though—they are more or less hypocritical.

    It doesn't always matter. Authors can reveal a lot about the world in their stories unconsciously, without realizing it. That, according to Marxists, is because literature is a product of society as much as an individual.

    What is a reader?

    A reader is a representative of his or her class. If deconstruction is all about free play, then Marxism is all about how what we get out of a text is predetermined. In other words, how we read has everything to do with who we are, and what our socioeconomic background is.

    The point of Marxism is that readers are not who they think they are—or, not only who they think they are. Most of us aren't aware of our biases, prejudices, and received ideas; we take things for granted without noticing them.

    Marxists claim to make each of us a better reader. Instead of just getting out of a text what we put in (our subjective reading), Marxism says that it gives us a way to do an objective reading. According to Marxists, once you know where you are coming from, you can be less single-minded.