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When farmers became factory workers, modern society (and all its conveniences) began. For Marxists, this is also when thing started to get all messed up. People used to be tied to the land and to their families, but after the Industrial Revolution, country boys and girls left home for the cities to make it big. But instead of fame and riches, they got to work long hours for low pay and live in overcrowded tenements. The result? First some good old alienation, and then—you guessed it—CLASS STRUGGLE!
Inspired by the events of the American Revolution, the French overthrow of their king in 1789, an event that, in turn, inspired Marx and other haters of the rich and powerful. The lesson for history? If the king could be killed, anything was possible; before this, the king had been pretty much a god, and what he said was what went down. Modern democracy and dreams of liberation (think Civil Rights) were during these revolutions.
Here's where the counter-culture all began. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's punchy little pamphlet—you know it as The Communist Manifesto—really caught people's attention. It called out the rich on their exploitation, and it called for revolution. A lot of oppressed people still think of it that way today.
A brutal catastrophe, World War I made millions of thinking people lose faith in the ways things are (or were). People started thinking that if democracy and monarchy couldn't stop millions of violent deaths, then maybe a different kind of politics was needed. Marxism got a huge boost from this and stepped in to fill the gap—especially in Germany and Russia.
Russian Marxists took power in 1917 and established the world's first government by the workers, for the workers. (Or at least that was the idea, at first.) Everyone looking for an alternative form of government after World War I now looked to Russia, and the events there inspired many of the best literary theorists to become Marxists.
Ultra-smart, even kind of readable, these central Europeans made popular culture a legit thing to study. Rather than seeing it as cheap trash, they looked at movies, music, and pulp fiction as sophisticated forms of ideology. Dissertations on Miley Cyrus's tongue movements? Thank Walter Benjamin. (He has an essay on Mickey Mouse.)
Yep, they were protesting in France, too—in their own way. Back in '68, students occupied universities and brought the French government to its knees in order to protest against French capitalism. It was short-lived, but it was a case of revolutionary ideas in action, and it was a formative experience for many European literary critics.
It was the end of the Communist dream, at least in Europe and America. For many, this was proof that Marx's political vision just doesn't work. For Marxists, this just marked the end of "Stalinism"—not real Marxism. For Marxist literary theorists, the dream was still alive. They went quiet for a while, though, until…
When banks failed and the stock market crashed, lots of people lost their jobs, their savings—even their houses. Marxists poked their heads out and said, "SEE! We've been telling you all along! Capitalism is inherently unstable…" Right or wrong, Marxists reminded people that our financial system is based on risk—and a certain amount of gambling. Sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose.