Study Guide

Marxism Critics

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

    The sum total of […] relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.

    How you earn a living determines how you think—and not vice-versa. Besides putting career counselors out of work, this theory also tries to put literature in its place. According to Marx and Engels, the way you write literature is also determined by your socioeconomic status, because it's your socioeconomic status that determines how you think.

    Literature, in this model, is an expression of the author's social and economic conditioning, and it reflects back on the big social and economic forces Marx and Engels think shape history. Even Harry Potter, for these guys, is something that has been shaped by class struggle and the means of production.

    With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

    One thing you've got to know about capitalism: it's always changing. When those changes come (like the Civil Rights Act or the iPhone 7), ideology changes with them. And when ideology changes, guess what else changes? That's right: literature.

    Except: according to Marx and Engels, economic changes can be studied precisely, because economics is a science. (That's what they say, anyway.) But changes in literature? That's tougher. Studying changes is literature is more of an art than a science, because the variables are hard to pin down. It can get pretty subjective, because that's just how literature rolls.

    And that's why there are so many literary theories, right? Well, Marxism has a theory about that, too. Read on…

  • Fredric Jameson

    This book will argue the priority of the political interpretation of literary texts. It conceives of the political perspective as not as some supplementary method, not as an optional auxiliary to other interpretative methods current today—the psychoanalytic or the myth-critical, the stylistic, the ethical, the structural—but rather as the absolute horizon of all reading and interpretation.

    Thou shalt have no other god but Marx. For Marxists, the class struggle is a jealous deity.

    Well, okay. So what Jameson is actually arguing is that Marxist theory is the first among equals. It is not the only theory—just the best. And why is that? Well, if you ask Jameson, it's because Marxism is objective. It's true. It's the way things are. Right? Right?

    So, sure, you can dabble in some feminism or some psychoanalysis if you want, but you should probably try to fit them within Marxist theory somehow if you want to be legit.

    History is therefore the experience of necessity. […] History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis…

    Grrr, feel the burn. History might hurt, but Marx wears historical UnderArmor. No pain, no gain.

    Jameson's point: Literature is not real. History is real. And when the two meet, it is literature that must give way.

    The conclusion: literature's value is based on its relationship to history. It doesn't have its own intrinsic value. A novel is good because it accurately or objectively reflects specific historical situations, not because it has pretty language or memorable characters or an original message.

    For the most part, and particularly in the United States, the development of postindustrial monopoly capitalism has brought with it an increasing occultation [magicking away] of the class structure through techniques of mystification practiced by the media and particularly by advertising. […] As a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work on the world that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience.

    If all that class-struggle stuff seemed a bit far-fetched, this is why. "What is this new devilry!" rumbles Marx from his grave, as another Tweet is sent. In the 21st century, there is black magic afoot.

    That word occultation is revealing—we're talking, like, the occult. Television, cinema, the internet—for Marxists these are just tricksier and tricksier ways of bedeviling you little hobbits.

    But why? Does Twitter exist just to shrink our tiny minds even further? Well, Jameson would say that it exists in order to mask the true relations of production.

    Huh?

    Basically, Jameson's point is that the reason you can't see the class struggle is… because the capitalists hid it. Jameson himself only knows it's there because he can see through ideology. Skeptical? All right. But think: where is your car made? Your clothes? How much are the people who make it being paid? And how rich are the people that pay them? Like supermarket chicken, everything we own has to come from somewhere…

    While you're pondering that, ask yourself: what part does literature play in all this? Does it help us see larger patterns in society? Does it help us see through ideology? Does it get us concerned about where are products and services come from, or does it encourage us to think that iPhones grow on Apple trees?

  • Friedrich Engels

    The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may even crop out even in spite of the author's opinions. [...] That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found—that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.

    Good ol' Balzac. For those without fond memories of the guy, he was a great French realist novelist. He loved the upper classes, and wasn't so fond of the lower orders, but according to Engels, Balzac was such a great realist because despite his own interests in prejudices, he couldn't help recreating history in his novels—even when that history went against his own ideology.

    For Engels, it's not about how talented you are with words or how unique your perspective is or how well you understand your characters—it's about how accurately you describe reality. (Marxist reality, that is.)

  • György Lukács

    Marxism searches for the material roots of each phenomenon, regards them in their historical connections and movement, ascertains the laws of such movement and demonstrates their development from root to flower, and in so doing lifts every phenomenon out of a merely emotional, irrational, mystic fog and brings it to the bright light of understanding.

    Here Lukács shows what Marxism hates: fog. And what it loves: roots and flowers. Think sun-loving mountain goat.

    Okay, let's translate. Lukács is trying to show that Marxism is historical. It's all a question of origins: where did things start, how did things happen, and what caused it all? The Marxist answer is always material: money, technology, location (usually the city), and so on.

    Lukács thinks this answer—that the basis of everything that ever happens is material—is more scientific than other explanations. Shakespeare was an inspired genius, you say? He was great because he created psychologically complex characters in existentially complex situations? Whatever, says Lukács: Shakespeare's plays are about class relations, and they were written for money.

  • Dorothy Hale

    For the Marxist, then, the objective study of literature is fashioned from an objective knowledge of what it means to be authentically human along with an equally objective understanding of how ruling classes have generated false realities—ideologies—to pass for the Real.

    Did you know Marxism had a soft side? As well as snarkily sniping at capitalists, Marx also had a positive idea about human happiness. We are fulfilled by doing what we are good at—the work we do feeds more than our bellies. (Not by bread alone and all that). Pretty deep, Karl.

    Marxist literary theory is more sensitive than all the talk of workers, factories, and struggle would suggest. It's not all dog-eat-dog in Marxland: the humanity of literature shows through. After all, even theorists don't read literature like a textbook.

  • Alan Sinfield

    Societies need to produce materially to continue—they need food, shelter, warmth; goods to exchange with other societies; a transport and information infrastructure to carry those processes. Also, they have to produce ideologically. […] They need knowledges to keep material production going—diverse technical skills and wisdoms [sic] in agriculture, industry, science, medicine, economics, law, geography, languages, politics, and so on. And they need understandings, intuitive and explicit, of a system of social relationships within which the whole process can take place more or less evenly. Ideology produces, makes plausible, concepts and systems to explain who we are, who the others are, how the world works.

    Here's how the Marxist sees the world. Literature is last but not least: you can't eat books or make a house out of them—not even the three little pigs tried that one—but novels, plays, and poems make sense of our lives. That's something that people find important.

    According to Sinfield, humans live to make meaning, or ideology. Literature, like art and religion, is a meaning- or ideology-making machine.

  • Raymond Williams

    Literature lost its earliest sense of reading ability and reading experience, and became an apparently objective category of printed works of a certain quality. [...] Three complicating tendencies can then be distinguished: first, a shift from "learning" to "taste" or "sensibility" as a criterion defining literary quality; second, an increasing specialization of literature to "creative" or "imaginative" works; third, a development of the concept of "tradition" within national terms, resulting in a more effective definition of "a national literature."

    "Literature" used to mean your smarts—it had more to do with literacy than literariness. As a category, it used to include science and politics and philosophy and any other subject with a textbook that costs more than $100. Then "literature" came to mean "cultured" books—stuff that it looked good to have read, like War and Peace.

    Later, the word "literature" started to mean specifically fiction, and then lo and behold, people started squawking about specific "national" literatures, like English literature, American literature, Russian literature, French literature, Klingon literature, and on and on, as if these were and had always been coherent traditions.

    And why is that? Well, this is Marxist crit, so you can probably guess: the idea of a national literature strengthens the idea of the nation itself, and who ultimately benefits from that? The people with the moolah, of course.