AD's English Literature : Literary Criticism: Marxist Literary Studies

Monday, January 23, 2012

Literary Criticism: Marxist Literary Studies

Marxists differ on the extent to which the cultural superstructure is determined by the economic base. The so called ‘vulgar Marxists’ of the pre war period saw a direct cause effect relationship between the socio economic base and literature,  and saw the writer directly conditioned by his/her social class. Marxists are of the view that writers can never escape ideology and their social background so that the social reality of the writer will always be a part of the text.

Later in their readings of literary texts, they tried to see the text as independent of the author’s political views, however not separate the text from its social reality. This gave them a better picture of the real world of class conflicts and political tensions. This allowed Marxist critics to read the works of even the most reactionary writers against the grain of their political views, so that the bourgeois writers can also be appreciated from Marxist point of view. George Lukacs holds Balzac and Tolstoy in high regard, because it is only in their panoramic novels that the reader is confronted with the historical truth. The characters in their novels are to some extent independent of the author’s ideological convictions, and accurately reflect the historical reality.  These novels offer a total overview of all the social forces involved. For Marxists, such an approach which takes all parties and positions and their dynamic relationships into account and thereby allows a fuller understanding of the whole is dialectical.

Karl Marx
Another important reading is derived from Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production. For Macherey, literary works are pervaded by ideology. So in order to get beyond a text’s ideological dimension, the reader has to begin with the cracks in the facade, the sites where the text is not fully in control.  In order to expose the ideology of a text, the interpreters must focus on what the text does not say, on what the text represses rather than expresses. It is only in the gaps, silences that the unarticulated is found. Thus, literature reveals the gaps in ideology. The text might be almost said to have an unconscious to which it has consigned what it cannot say because of ideological repression. (Effects of psychoanalysis). Macherey finds these gaps not in the dominant themes which are fully controlled by ideology, but in textual elements which are only tangentially related to the main theme/s.

Therefore it can be said that through the politics of the text –its ideological dimension, Marxist criticism addresses the politics of the outer world.


  • Dialectical materialism - "the theory that history develops neither in a random fashion nor in a linear one but instead as struggle between contradictions that ultimately find resolution in a synthesis of the two sides. For example, class conflicts lead to new social systems"

  • Material circumstances - "the economic conditions underlying the society. To understand social events, one must have a grasp of the material circumstances and the historical situation in which they occur"

  • Reflectionism - associated with Vulgar Marxism - "a theory that the superstructure of a society mirrors its economic base and, by extension, that a text reflects the society that produced it"

  • Superstructure - "The social, political, and ideological systems and institutions--for example, the values, art, and legal processes of a society--that are generated by the base" 

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