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Marxist literary criticism is a loose term describing literary criticism based on socialist and dialectic theories. Marxist criticism views literary works as reflections of the social institutions from which they originate. Most Marxist critics who were writing in what could chronologically be specified as the early period of Marxist literary criticism subscribed to what has come to be called "Vulgar Marxism." In this thinking of the structure of societies, literary texts are one register of the Superstructure, which is determined by the economic Base of any given society. Therefore, literary texts are a reflection of the economic Base rather than "the social institutions from which they originate" for all social institutions, or, more precisely human social relationships, are in the final analysis determined by the economic Base. According to Marxists, even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function, based on the background and ideology of the author. The English literary critic and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton defines Marxist criticism this way:
Marxist criticism is not merely a 'sociology of literature', concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class. Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and, meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history.
The simplest goals of Marxist literary criticism can include an assessment of the political 'tendency' of a literary work, determining whether its social content or its literary form are 'progressive'. It also includes analyzing the class constructs demonstrated in the literature. Further, another of the ends of Marxist criticism is to analyze the narrative of class struggle in a given text. Does the text serve to perpetuate the ruling class ideology; to subvert that ideology, such as William Morris's News from Nowhere; or to signify both a perpetuation and subversion of the dominant ideology, such as in the works of Charles Dickens with Hard Times being the novel that most openly textualizes such a double signification as it offers a damning criticism of capitalism while also and at the same time seeking a perpetuation of a class-structured society.
Karl Marx's studies have provided a basis for much in socialist theory and research. Marxism aims to revolutionize the concept of work through creating a classless society built on control and ownership of the means of production. In such a society, the means of production (the Base in the architectural metaphor Marx uses to analyze and describe the structure of any given society in written human history) are possessed in common by all people rather than being owned by an elite ruling class. Marx believed that Economic Determinism, Dialectical Materialism and Class Struggle were the three principles that explained his theories. (Clarification: Though Marx does attribute a teleological function to the economic, he is no determinist. As he and Engels write in The Communist Manifesto, the class struggle in its capitalist phase could well end "in the common ruin of the contending classes," and as Terry Eagleton argues in Why Marx Was Right, "Capitalism can be used to build socialism, but there is no sense in which the whole historical process is secretly labouring towards this goal") The Bourgeoisie (Dominant class who control and own the means of production) and Proletariat (Subordinate class: the ones who do not own and control the means of production) were the only two classes who engaged in hostile interaction to achieve class consciousness. (Clarification: In Marx's thought, it is only the proletariat, the working class, that must achieve class consciousness. The bourgeoisie is already quite well aware of its position and power in the capitalist paradigm. As individuals, workers know that they are being exploited in order to produce surplus value (value produced by the worker that is appropriated by the capitalists); however, the working class must realize that they are being exploited not only as individuals but as a class. It is upon this realization that the working class reaches class consciousness). Marx believed that all past history is a struggle between hostile and competing economic classes in state of change. Marx and Friedrich Engels collaborated to produce a range of publications based on capitalism, class struggles and socialist movements.
These theories and ideologies can be found within three published works:
The first publication Communist Manifesto (1848) argues that ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle’. As class struggle is the engine room of history, to understand the course of history, one must analyse the class relations that typify different historical epochs, the antagonisms and forms of class struggle embodied in such class relations. This involves the development of class consciousness and follows the revolutionary movements that challenge the dominant classes. It extends to rating the success of these revolutions in developing new modes of production and forms of social organization.
In contrast to the Manifesto, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and Capital (1867) focus on the unfolding logic of a system, rather than class struggle. These provide an alternative account of historical development and emphasize the self-destructive contradictions and law of motion of specific modes of production. The Preface argues that society’s economic organization consists of a distinctive pattern of forces and relations of productions. From this foundation arises a complex political and ideological superstructure, where economic development impacts upon societal progress.
Capital was more concerned with the genesis and dynamic of capitalism. As Mclellan (1971) states, ‘it refers to class struggle mainly in the context of the struggle between capital and labour, within capitalism, rather than over its suppression’. Capital was less concerned with forecasting how capitalism would be overthrown, than considering how it had developed and how it functioned. The key to understanding this logic was the ‘commodity’ form of social relations – a form that was most fully developed only in capitalism.
It is through the theories of class struggle, politics and economics that Marxist literary criticism emerged. The thought behind Marxist Criticism is that works of literature are mere products of history that can be analyzed by looking at the social and material conditions in which they were constructed. Marx’s Capital states that 'the mode of production of material life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being, that determines their consciousness.' Put simply, the social situation of the author determines the types of characters that will develop, the political ideas displayed and the economical statements developed in the text.
Although Marx and Friedrich Engels detailed theories of socialism in the mid-nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that Marxist literary theory was systematized. The greatest impetus for this standardization came after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. The event instigated a change in belief around socialist ideals in government and society. While these ideals developed, socialist realism was accepted as the highest form of literature – a theory based on an art movement that depicted and glorified the proletariat's struggle towards societal progress. These ideas guided both literary creation and official literary criticism in the Soviet Union, where works focused on the lives of the different classes. In the years since then, the beliefs of some Marxist schools regarding literary theory have been modified to acknowledge that literary creation is a result of both subjective inspiration and the objective influence of the writer's surroundings. This system of belief relies on the social classes as well as the economic and political development of society. Thus, Marx’s theories intertwined with the emerging ideologies of the new Russian movement and spread throughout the world.
In addition to being the guiding principle behind most literary works in Soviet Russia, Marxism also greatly influenced many Western writers. Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Bertold Brecht were deeply influenced by Marxist and socialist theories of the day, and much of this type of reflection is evident in their writings of the time.