Marxist criticism in arts, or particularly Marxist literary criticism, is based on the materialist philosophy of Marxism rooted in the works of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles.
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What is Marxist Criticism?
Marxist view of history, economics, politics, culture, and social conflict is grounded in class struggle. Marx and Engels developed their economic and cultural theories amidst the peaking industrial capitalist society of 19th-century Europe, specifically Britain.
Marx and Engles addressed a broader interplay between ideas, society, and historical development. While Marx’s works focused on economic aspects, Engels reflected on the role of ideas and culture, especially in his letters to Marx and others. He traced the dialectical relationship between economic conditions and ideas in his book ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy’ (1888). Like Marx, he revered great art and did not assign economic circumstances as its sole determinants.
However, in the 20th century, some forms of Marxism became rigid and dogmatic, rejecting any autonomy to art (see FAQs). Simultaneously, some critics known to be practicing Englesian Marxist criticism adopted a flexible approach to analyzing art and literature, reflecting on how it both reinforces and challenges the dominant status quo. The Engelsian critics became more acceptable as they sought to understand the intricate relationship between artistic expression, social context, and historical dynamics from a Marxist perspective.
Marxist Model of Society
The fundamental Marxist view is that the working of society, its social groupings, dominant ideas, and political institutions are determined by its “material production,” i.e., the organization of economic resources like production and distribution of material goods.
Thus, in a Marxist explanation, society is formed by two constituents superstructure, i.e., culture, art, or the world of ideas, and its base, i.e., the material world or resources of production, distribution, and trade; the base or economic base determines the superstructure or other aspects of society like culture and art.
Key Marxist Terms and Concepts
The following are the crucial Marxist terms and concepts:
The Proletariat is the working class in the Marxist theory, which is the subservient and exploited class. Marx and Engles used the term proletariat to define the powerless class in a modern capitalist society, which does not own the means of production and thus must sell their labor to the bourgeoisie to generate income and sustain themselves. Marxism anticipates a proletarian revolution wherein workers will unite to overthrow capitalism, establishing a classless society.
The bourgeoisie is the ruling class in Marxist theory, which reinforces its power by exploiting the proletariat and appropriating the value of their labor. Marx and Engles used the term bourgeoisie to define the dominant class in the modern capitalist system, which owns the means of production and distribution. The bourgeoisie gained prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of capitalism, as they owned capital and controlled trade and production, wielding economic and political power.
Ideology is an essential concept for all Marxist critics. It is the set of dominant ideas and values in any era that perpetuate and legitimize the supremacy of the ruling class; such values or beliefs are usually covert and may go unrecognized, but they percolate all the culture and art of the given era. French Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser defined ‘Ideology’ as “a system (possessing its logic and proper rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts according to the case) endowed with an existence and a historical role at the heart of a given society.”
Introduced by French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in Marxist theory, interpellation is the process through which class dominance is maintained and reinforced not by physical force but through the ideological modulation of individuals. Individuals are tricked into thinking they are free agents in making choices, but the available options constantly perpetuate the ruling class’s dominance, making people internalize the social organization. Institutions like education and media are often used to interpellate individuals while seemingly offering a wide array of choices.
Introduced by Louis Althusser in Marxist theory, the term repressive structures refers to the direct physical force or overt political control exerted by the dominant class, primarily through state institutions like prison, army, police, courts, etc. To suppress dissent or revolutionary tendencies and reinforce the existing social structure, the ruling class uses direct coercion through repressive structures to overpower the proletariat. Antonio Gramsci used the term “rule” for such repressive structures in his ‘Prison Notebooks’ (1929-1935).
Introduced by Antonio Gramsci in Marxist theory during the 1930s, hegemony contrasted with “repressive structures” or “rule” refers to the covert power exerted by the state or the dominant classes through subtle manipulation of values, ideas, and culture. It subverts the revolutionary consciousness while shaping people’s consciousness in a way that makes the dominant class’s worldview seem ‘natural’ like it is just ‘the way things are.’ Louis Althusser’s ideas of “ideological structures” and “state ideological apparatuses” are similar to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony.
Economic determinism refers to the traditional Marxist theory wherein the economic structure of the society determines and shapes everything from political institutions and class relations to culture, history, and art. Traditional Marxism has often been criticized for such an oversimplified explanation of the development and history of societies, which ignores the complexities of various other factors that impact the changes in human society.
Introduced by Althusser in Marxist theory during the 1960s, the idea of overdeterminism undercuts the simplified explanation of economic determinism, arguing that society and history are determined or shaped by multiple interconnected factors, including economic, political, cultural, psychological, etc. Borrowing the concept of overdeterminism from psychoanalysis, Althusser provided a broader Marxist understanding of society, overcoming its limitation of a simplistic explanation of societal development.
The concept of relative autonomy in Marxism is the view that acknowledges a certain degree of independence of art and culture from the economic structure of the society. It does not disregard the connection between art and economics or, in Marxist terms, between the cultural superstructure and economic base, respectively; instead, the concept attributes partial independence or relative autonomy to art, including literature, thus crediting it a role in change, complexity, and resistance within capitalist society.
Key Methods of Marxist Literary Criticism
Marxist critique of literature includes the following crucial methods:
- Marxist criticism considers the authors and their work significantly influenced by socio-economic circumstances. Thus, it is assumed that the context of a work is related to the social class of the author. However, the authors might be unaware of any such class or its ideological impact, which, according to Marxist perspective, is always present in the text overtly or covertly.
- Marxist literary critics, like psychoanalytic critics, often find the covert or hidden themes or motifs in a work of literature that are related to primary Marxist concerns, such as class struggles or conflict of interests, the impact of socio-economic forces, and the progression of society due to manifested class conflicts.
- Marxist critics also relate the formation of a literary genre or movement to the socio-economic circumstances of the time in which it emerged. For instance, Marxists often consider novels as a product of the middle class; the growth of the novel is related to the expansion of the middle class during the 19th century as industrialism was at its peak.
- Another Marxist point of view includes situating the literary form within the socio-economic and, specifically, political context of the times in which it was dominant. For instance, for some Marxist critics, formal forms such as sonnets (dominant during the Elizabethan era) and the use of strict metrical patterns convey discipline, order, and stability; for some, realism bears and conveys a validation of the bourgeoisie social structure, and for others, ballads rooted in oral traditions with fluid patterns, refrains, and simplicity reflect working-class culture.
Vulgar Marxism, which emerged during the 1930s in Soviet Russia, was an orthodox approach to Marxist theory that followed a crude form of economic determinism, disregarding the role of any other factors that could contribute to societal change or development. Thus, art or literature was also reduced to an effect of economic circumstances, and authors were considered mere viewpoints of their respective social classes. The approach is criticized within Marxism; Gramsci’s and later Althusser’s ideas, like hegemony, overdeterminism, and relative autonomy, target such reductionist, limiting, and simplistic approaches toward Marxist criticism.
Frankfurt School, founded in 1923 as a political research institute under the University of Frankfurt, Germany, is a social theory and criticism school. During the 20th century, significant thinkers of the school, including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer, expanded simplistic traditional Marxism and challenged Soviet propaganda by taking an interdisciplinary approach emphasizing the role of hegemony aiming to understand various forces and complex relationships between culture, politics, and economics.
When modernist writers were banned in Soviet Russia during the 1930s as propagandist literature and straight social realism were advocated to present the ruling communist party’s views methodologically, the Frankfurt School approved modernist literature, which, according to them, through disruption and experimentation, exposed the ideological workings and unconscious processes of capitalist society that perpetuate oppression and resist resistance. Literary Marxist Bertolt Brecht presented innovative modernist but Marxist theatre.
Challenging orthodox Marxism while expanding the limits of traditional Marxism, Revisionist Marxism reinterprets the Marxist theory, offering pragmatic and flexible concepts amidst the dynamic capitalist society. It emerged in the 20th century against the rigid views advanced in Soviet Russia. Revisionist Marxism expands beyond economic determinism and offers complex ways of how society works while sticking with Marxism and keeping it relevant in changing times. Louis Althusser is the most recent theoretician who provided a rich theoretical base for flexible but strictly Marxist revisionist thinking.
Recent prominent Marxist critics include Louis Althusser (French), Raymond Williams (Welsh), Terry Eagleton (British), Fredric Jameson (American), Franco Moretti (Italian), Slavoj Žižek (Slovenian), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Indian), Judith Butler (American), Catherine Belsey (British), David Harvey (British), Aijaz Ahmad (Indian), and Nancy Fraser (American).
If you are interested in reading more about Marxist criticism, you can read from the sources mentioned below:
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Translated by Samuel Moore, Penguin Books, 2004.
- Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Translated by Ben Brewster, Verso (New Left Books), 2014, pp. 232-272.
- Walter, Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version].” Translated by Michael W. Jennings, Grey Room, no. 39, 2010, pp. 11–38.
- Eagleton, Terry. “Capitalism, modernism, and postmodernism.” New Left Review, no. 152, July/Aug 1985.
- Jameson, Fredric. “The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodernism Debate.” New German Critique, no. 33, 1984, pp. 53–65. JSTOR.