Marxism has provided one of the most extensive critical perspectives on literature, and literary theorists have been using it as a resource for almost two centuries. This article explores three key ideas in the Marxist tradition of literary criticism. It begins with a discussion of Marx’s own position on literature. We then explore the idea of the sociology of literature, along with the introduction of social analyses into literary subjects more broadly. We conclude by considering the role of certain material forces in the production of literary works, and the relationship between ideology and literature.
The Marxist Approach to Literature
What do we know about Marx’s relationship to literature? Nobody studies literature for no reason, and it is often worth trying to situate an abstract, theoretical approach in the more subjective, personal reasons for developing said approach in the first place. In short, Marx was an exceptionally voracious reader whose reading habits were as omnivorous and multi-lingual as they were quantitatively extensive.
Marx made several early attempts at literary writing as a young man, including an unfinished novel and a fair amount of poetry. He also left several proposed projects on literary or literary-adjacent subjects unfinished at the time of his death: one on the theory of art and culture and another one on Balzac’s novels. Yet, as Terry Eagleton (whose work this article owes a great debt to) puts it, the direct engagement with literary topics in the work of Marx and his main intellectual collaborator, Friedrich Engels, is fairly thin on the ground.
1. The Social Conditions of Literature
One of the most basic Marxist insights that has had a bearing on the theorization of literature ever since is the idea that a work of art is, in large part, a product of the historical conditions that produce it. A complete understanding of that work of art will include an analysis of those conditions.
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It is particularly important in the context of an artwork that it is seen as the product of work. It is the culmination of a productive process, and just as a certain kind of historical situation gives rise to certain industries, certain patterns of labor, and resource distribution, a certain kind of historical situation gives rise to certain kinds of art.
One of the ways this manifests is in the so-called ‘sociology’ of literature, which includes an attempt to study the social conditions that go into the production of a work. These include, but are not limited to, the social demographics of both writers and readers, literacy, the economic and social constraints on publishers, and determinations of taste. It is important to distinguish this discipline from Marxist criticism, which tends to attempt to understand works of art themselves in light of these insights about society.
Another related insight is the idea that historical conditions do not only produce works of art, but they also produce ideologies. The term ‘ideology’ is a loaded one in the context of Marxist thought, but we can think of ideologies for now simply as the way that people conceive of the societies in which they live. These needn’t be fully formed, coherent worldviews—indeed, emotional responses and gut instincts themselves constitute elements of ideology.
2. Literature as The Product of Material Forces
As we have already observed, the Marxist view of literature stresses the relationship between art and the social context which produces it. This emphasis on the ‘material’ goes beyond a claim about art and extends to a claim about human beings and their psychological states.
In The German Ideology, Marx’s text which focuses on the relationship between ideas and material forces most explicitly, the idea is put in the following terms:
“The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the spiritual intercourse of men, appear here as the direct efflux of men’s material behaviour…we do not proceed from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as described, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at corporeal man; rather we proceed from the really active man… Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness.”
It is worth stressing that ideology is never neutral—rather, its function is to legitimate existing structures of political and social organization. Art is a part of this ‘superstructure.’ It is a tool for ideology formation.
We might think that Marx offers a basic sense of what Marxist criticism involves, namely, the following pattern. Because works of art have their own symbolism, their own structure, and only an oblique and indirect relationship to the social worlds that constitute them, there is no question of simply analyzing the societies in which they are created. Rather, one must constantly move back and forth between a work of literature and the “ideological worlds they inhabit” (as per Eagleton).
We might wish to say that there is a third, distinct thing to be considered: the psychology of the writer themselves. Don’t works of art often express something about those who create them? Isn’t knowing an artist’s mind potentially important, even if we don’t wish to suggest that analyzing a work of literature is just an attempt to figure out what was intended by it?
While we certainly can and should think about the writer as well as their writing, but it is important to keep in mind that it is an implication of this Marxist perspective that the psychology of an author is also a product of societies in a certain historical moment. This perspective will clearly have an effect on the way we, along with literary biographers and literary critics, approach authors.
3. Literature and Ideology
One thing that Eagleton stresses when writing about Marxist literary criticism is that Marxism is less concerned with drawing distinctions between the work of art and the productive processes which condition its creation, than in recognizing the ways in which they are unified. Indeed, one thing that we should stress is that the Marxist tradition, and certainly its most famous and important thinkers, do not take the view that art itself is ever a transparent reflection of social conditions.
Indeed, the value of art, art criticism, literary theory, and so on, is partly a result of art being one of the most sophisticated, most complicated, and therefore most illuminating sites of ideology. At this point, it would be useful to take a step back and ask: what is ideology, really? Ideology, in its non-Marxist (or not necessarily Marxist) sense, tends to refer to political dogma, a set of clear prescriptions with some political significance. Whereas ideology in a Marxist context may not be usefully defined in terms of political beliefs or some such. Rather, ideology is a broader set of things—values, ideas, judgments, emotional responses, perhaps even suppressed or unconscious reflexes—by which a society is conceived, and by which the real structure of society is hidden.
A Range of Views
Eagleton observes that, in a Marxist conception, art can relate to ideology according to two extreme positions. One is the position that says that literature, in particular, is a kind of artistic form for ideology itself—that’s all that literature ever really is. So that would mean that what literature is, is an artistic conception of society itself.
Another position, which is really the opposite of the first, holds that literature amounts to a repudiation of ideology (or at least, that’s what good art really involves). So this is the position held by Ernst Fischer in Art Against Ideology, and on this view, literature is especially worth paying attention to insofar as it supplies us with alternatives to ‘ideology.’
Another position still, held by the famous French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, is that art and literature are not themselves ideology but represent a certain experience of ideology, which can be more or less radical. In this view, art can provide a space at a distance from the prevailing conceptual norms of a society, by which those norms can be criticized. For Althusser, however, the fact that criticism cannot come from within literary works themselves is strictly a representation of knowledge rather than experience. Marxism has conventionally walked a fine line between over-intellectualization and philistinism, and nowhere is that balancing act clearer than in the Marxist conception of literature.