Literary Theory: Marxist Criticism

I have already talked at length about Russian contributions to the field (here and here), so it was really only a matter of time before I would get around to Marxism. As you will hopefully all remember from history class, the aim of Marxism is to bring about a classless society, based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange; it sees progress as coming about through the struggle for power between different social classes. I won’t go through the entire Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital with you, but only focus on those ideas and concepts that shape Marxist literary criticism.

At its core, Marxism is a materialist philosophy, which, according to Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, means that it

tries to explain things without assuming the existence of a world, or of forces, beyond the natural world around us, and the society we live in. It looks for concrete, scientific, logical explanations of the world of observable fact.

Unlike other materialist philosophies, Marxism does not just seek to understand the world, but wants to change it. It employs the approach of historical materialism; according to this theory, changes in material conditions (how people produce the bear bare necessities of life) affect how society is organised. This means that how men work defines their existence and aspirations. It is a ground-up view of human society: the “higher” qualities of culture (the superstructure) are founded on the “lower” qualities of life (the base). This process of thinking is called “the material dialectic.”

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The base primarily determines the superstructure; in orthodox Marxism, this was a one-way street, but later critics tinkered with the model and found that the superstructure affects the base as well (though the base-to-superstructure influence is still the predominant one).

In the Marxist tradition, literary texts are not mysterious creations to be judged according to timeless artistic criteria, but material products of work, and since there will always be conflict between the classes in the base, this power struggle will be reflected in them. This means that an author’s social class and its prevailing ideologies have major bearing on what they write. According to Marxist critics, literature does not only reflect the social institutions from which it emerges, but also has an ideological function. Therefore, these scholars pay close attention to the role of power and money in a work. Which position does the book take? Whom does the story benefit? Does the work serve as propaganda for status quo or try to undermine it? Which conflicts are ignored?



Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981).
In The Political Unconscious, Jameson claims that political interpretation should be of primary importance when analysing a literary text, instead of being used as an auxiliary method. After all, both literary creation and our interpretation cannot take place in isolation and are coloured by ideas inherited from the respective cultural traditions.

Lukács, Georg. “Realism In The Balance” (1938).
In this text, Lukács defends realist writers like Thomas Mann and claims that, even though modernist movements are a historical necessity (each advance means we’re one step closer to the eventual revolution, after all), these authors’ techniques highlight individualism and thus correlate with the capitalist system. He believed that literature could truly change the world, but James Joyce could never be one of the revolutionaries.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).
In this essay, Benjamin discusses how perception has changed in modern times and how original works of art have lost their “aura” through mass consumption and mechanical reproduction.

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