On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist needn’t spend much time in academic, literary circles before they receive an eye roll catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where  the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I want to explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

We need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in emergent industrial capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and practitioners. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

I haven’t forgotten those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a Marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the Marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

The author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” Marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elucidated a useful marxist analytic method along these lines: “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels reiterates:

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literature?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person, which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees:

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk given in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chess, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction and revision.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

Works Cited:



(3) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/375283?uid=3739656&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103610862593

(4) http://www.amazon.com/The-Lives-Michel-Foucault-Biography/dp/0091753449/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393745187&sr=8-1&keywords=9780091753443

(5) http://books.google.com/books?id=8Brl14Nk5rgC&pg=PA89&lpg=PA89&dq=engels+propaganda+literature&source=bl&ots=4q7YntOmQt&sig=yESUaycK_x3miFounCRg7BNrnqY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sPYfU_XUOMLl2QXH44H4Dg&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=engels%20propaganda%20literature&f=false

(6) http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/introduction.htm

(7) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm

(8) https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/lyotard.htm


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Filed under Academia, Dialectics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Marxism, Student

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