Marxist Literary Criticism: An Overview

Marx and Engels produced no systematic theory of literature or art. Equally, the subsequent history of Marxist aesthetics has hardly comprised the cumulative unfolding of a coherent perspective. Rather, it has emerged, aptly, as a series of responses to concrete political exigencies. While these responses have sometimes collided at various theoretical planes, they achieve a dynamic and expansive coherence (rather than the static coherence of a closed, finished system) through both a general overlap of political motivation and the persistent reworking of a core of predispositions about literature and art deriving from Marx and Engels themselves. These predispositions include:

(1) The rejection, following Hegel, of the notion of “identity” and a consequent denial of the view that any object, including literature, can somehow exist independently. The aesthetic corollary of this is that literature can only be understood in the fullness of its relations with ideology, class, and economic substructure.

(2) The view that the so-called “objective” world is actually a progressive construction out of collective human subjectivity. What passes as “truth,” then, is not eternal but institutionally created. “Private property,” for example, is a bourgeois reification of an abstract category; it does not necessarily possess eternal validity. Language itself, as Marx said in The German Ideology: Part One, must be understood not as a self-sufficient system but as social practice (GI, 51, 118).

(3) The understanding of art itself as a commodity, sharing with other commodities an entry into material aspects of production. If, as Marx said, human beings produce themselves through labor, artistic production can be viewed as a branch of production in general.

(4) A focus on the connections between class struggle as the inner dynamic of history and literature as the ideologically refracted site of such struggle. This has sometimes gone hand in hand with prescriptions for literature as an ideological ancillary to the aims and results of political revolution.

(5) An insistence that language is not a self-enclosed system of relations but must be understood as social practice, as deeply rooted in material conditions as any other practice (GI, 51).

To these predispositions could be added, for example, Engels’ comments on “typicality,” recommending that art should express what is typical about a class or a peculiar intersection of ideological circumstances. One might also include the problem raised by Engels’ granting a “relative autonomy” to art, his comments that art can transcend its ideological genesis and that superstructural elements are determined only in the “last instance” by economic relations: what exactly is the connection between art and the material base into which its constituting relations extend? Given the inconclusive and sometimes ambiguous nature of Marx’s and Engels’ scattered comments on art, the proposed solutions to such dilemmas have been as various as the political soils on which they were sown.


After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels’ attempt to shed light on his colleague’s aesthetic views was less assiduous than his clarifications of other aspects of Marx’s work. As Europe witnessed a widespread nascence of socialist political parties, together with the impact of Marxism in sociology, anthropology, history, and political science, the first generation of Marxist intellectuals included the Italian Antonio Labriola (1843–1904), who attempted the first effective synthesis of Marx’s thought and popularized the premises of Marxism. His works, translated into all the major European languages, exerted enormous influence and made a particularly striking impression on Georgi Plekhanov, who introduced his work to Russia, as well as on Lenin and Trotsky. In his Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History (1895–1896) Labriola reaffirms Marx’s premise that (material) being determines consciousness rather than vice versa but takes some pains to emphasize that while legal and political systems are “a true and proper projection of economic conditions . . . in artistic or religious production the mediation from the conditions to the products is very complicated.” Hence, although art and ideas can have no independent history, they are themselves a part of history in the sense that they too are a causal agency in subsequent economic and superstructural developments.

Another star in the firmament of early Marxist theory was the Prussian-born Franz Mehring (1846–1919). A one-time follower of Ferdinand Lassalle, Mehring became an outstanding Marxist historian and aesthetician who, along with Rosa Luxemburg and others, founded the German Communist Party in 1918. His writings included the first authoritative biography of Marx, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (1918), and The Lessing-Legend (1892–1893), which both applied Marxist categories to the analysis of major German literary figures and brought these within the reach of working-class readers. Mehring attempted to situate Marxist aesthetics, and Marxist thought in general, in necessary relation to the German classical philosophy and aesthetics which had preceded it. This elicited censure from such figures as Paul Reimann and F. P. Schiller, and later from György Lukács, who saw Mehring as a reactionary ideologue. There is much in Mehring which might justify such a response. One of the central questions he confronts is: how are objective aesthetic judgments possible, given the subjectivity of taste? Mehring urges that a “scientific aesthetics” must demonstrate, as Kant did, that art is “a peculiar and aboriginal capacity of mankind.” But Lukács somewhat overlooks Mehring’s account of Kant’s weaknesses: Kant’s inability, for example, to recognize that his aesthetic laws were historically conditioned and that a “pure” aesthetic judgment, dirempted from logical and moral considerations, was impossible. Moreover, Mehring’s analyses of specific literary texts bear out his view that, like all ideology, literary criticism must ultimately be determined by economic infrastructure.

German Marxist theory found a further advocate in Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), whose preeminence endured till around 1915. A propagandist for the Social Democratic Party, he founded in 1883 a prestigious Marxist journal, Die Neue Zeit, which offered a forum for the elaboration of Marx’s economic and political thought. His works included Karl Marx’s Economic Teachings (1887) and The Foundations of Christianity (1908). In the 1880s he produced a number of reflections on art such as “Development in Art,” “Art and Society,” and “Artist and Worker.” In The Foundations of Christianity Kautsky, typifying his method, showed how religious ideas are tied to the levels of artistic and industrial maturity allowed by a particular economic substructure. He developed the thesis that the major monotheistic religions arose in nations bound by a nomadic way of life; they had not developed the industry or art necessary to construct the localized human images of deities which facilitated polytheism. Ironically, these more backward cultures could make a leap beyond polytheism to a higher form of religion whose progress was retarded in more advanced societies.

Georgi Plekhanov (1856–1918), the “father of Russian Marxism,” was a founder of the Russian Social Democratic Party. His writings include Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883) and Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1908), as well as his highly influential Art and Social Life (1912) and some shorter pieces such as The Role of the Individual in History (1898). In the last of these he argues that the role of gifted individuals, such as Napoleon, in history has been exaggerated. Plekhanov’s own position is that such persons appear “wherever and whenever” social conditions facilitate their development: “every talent which becomes a social force, is the fruit of social relations.” Moreover, individuals can change only the individual character, not the general direction, of events. Hence particular trends in art or literature do not depend exclusively on certain individuals for their expression; if the trend is sufficiently profound, it will compensate the premature death of one individual by giving rise to other talents who might embody it. The depth of a literary trend is determined by its significance for the class whose tastes it expresses, and by the social role of that class. In Art and Social Life Plekhanov raises the crucial question of the relative values of “art for art’s sake” and a “utilitarian” view of art which sees it as instrumental in promoting the improvement of the social order. Plekhanov refuses to approach this question by abstractly asserting the priority of one or the other. Rather, he inquires into the principal social conditions in which each of these attitudes arises and arrives at the thesis that the “art for art’s sake” tendency arises when an artist is “in hopeless disaccord with the social environment.” The utilitarian attitude, which grants art a function in social struggles as well as the power of judgment concerning the real world, “arises and becomes stronger wherever a mutual sympathy exists between the individuals . . . interested in artistic creation and some considerable part of society.”7

Another area in which Plekhanov pioneered a Marxist standpoint was the significance of “play,” whereby human beings pursue an activity not for its usefulness but simply for pleasure. Plekhanov believed that Karl Bucher’s theory that in primitive cultures play and art preceded labor and the production of useful objects was a test case for the materialist explanation of history. If Bucher were right, the Marxist explanation would be turned upside down. As against Bucher, Plekhanov, following Herbert Spencer, maintains that play is a dramatization and imitation of labor or useful activity. Hence utilitarian activity precedes play and is what determines its content. The implications of Plekhanov’s comments on play were not taken up systematically by a Marxist until Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization appeared in 1955.

One of the most striking figures in the Marxist canon was Rosa Luxemburg (1870– 1919). Born into a Jewish business background in Poland, she migrated to Germany where she joined the Social Democratic Party, rising to a lofty prominence until her assassination in 1919. Her most renowned contribution was The Accumulation of Capital (1913). Centrally concerned with the reasons behind the stagnation and lack of development of Marxist theory, she was also anxious to preserve an aesthetic dimension for art, a recalcitrance to what she saw as reductive analysis. While acknowledging that both Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s doctrines were reactionary and mystical, she nevertheless praised their liberating effects on the reader and their profound response to social injustice. Luxemburg justified this by urging that the “social formula” recommended by an artist was secondary to the source or animating spirit of the art. The starting points of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, she affirmed, were not reactionary. She urged that a working-class culture could not be produced within a bourgeois economic framework, and that the workers could only advance if they created for themselves the necessary intellectual weapons in their struggle for liberation. Luxemburg believed that Marx provided much more than was directly essential for practically conducting the class war and that the theoretical fruits of his system could only be realized more gradually. Evident here is the implication that, in Luxemburg’s eyes, the superstructural world of art, law, and ethics cannot be appropriated by the revolutionary class in a manner consonant with the general displacement of the bourgeois political apparatus but must evolve, lagging slowly behind those more prosaic shifts in economic substructure.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924) occupied a central role not only in the revolution of 1917 but also in the unfolding of Marxist aesthetics toward a more politically interventionist stance. In the latter respect, Lenin’s most celebrated and controversial piece is his Party Organization and Party Literature (1905), which, along with certain comments of Marx and Engels, was later misleadingly claimed to authorize “socialist realism,” adopted in 1934 as the official party aesthetic. But hostile, non-Marxist critics have also misinterpreted Lenin’s essay, viewing it as an attempt to repress free creativity in literature. Such a view overlooks both the context in which the essay was conceived and its actual arguments. Written shortly after the general strike of October 1905, it belongs to a politically volatile period in which the work of revolution was far from complete, as Lenin emphasizes: “While tsarism is no longer strong enough to defeat the revolution, the revolution is not yet strong enough to defeat tsarism.”8 Moreover, free speech and a free press, as Lenin points out, did not in any case exist. It can come as no surprise, then, that Lenin insists that literature “must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, ‘a cog and screw’ of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism.” Lenin is well aware that art cannot be “subject to mechanical adjustment or levelling, to the rule of the majority over the minority.” But he is not prescribing partisanship (partinost) for all literature, only literature which claims to be party literature. He grants that freedom “of speech and the press must be complete.” What he is suggesting is that “freedom of association” must also be complete: the party reserves the right to circumscribe the ideological boundaries of writing conducted under its banner. Lenin also points out that in bourgeois society the writer cherishes but an illusory freedom: “The freedom of the bourgeois writer . . . is simply masked . . . dependence on the money-bag, on corruption, on prostitution.” The writers imagine themselves to be free but are actually dependent upon an entire prescriptive network of commercial relations and interests, “prisoners of bourgeois-shopkeeper literary relations.” In contrast, the free literature that Lenin desires “will be openly linked to the proletariat.” Also underscoring Lenin’s arguments is his recognition that literature “cannot . . . be an individual undertaking,” as liberal-bourgeois individualism would have us believe (149–152).

Lenin’s Articles on Tolstoy, produced between 1908 and 1911, exemplify through their detailed analyses both the political urgency informing Lenin’s aesthetic approach and his ability to explain the circumstances limiting the potential partisanship of great writers. According to Lenin, the contradictions in Tolstoy’s works – for example, his “ruthless criticism of capitalist exploitation,” his denunciation of “poverty, degradation and misery among the toiling masses” as against his “crazy preaching of ‘resist not evil’ with violence” and his preaching of a reformed religion – mirror the contradictory conditions of the revolutionary peasantry (9). Tolstoy’s misguided renunciation of politics reflected the “seething hatred, a mature striving for a better lot, a desire to get rid of the past – and also immature dreaming, political ignorance and revolutionary flabbiness” characterizing the peasantry (14). But while Tolstoy’s doctrines are “certainly utopian,” Lenin is able to call them “socialistic” and to hail Tolstoy’s portrayal of the epoch of revolution as “a step forward in the artistic development of the whole of mankind” (16). Lenin’s methodological insights are equally interesting: the contradictions in Tolstoy can only be apprehended from the standpoint of the class which led the struggle for freedom during the revolution (20). This helps to put into perspective some of Lenin’s earlier comments on “Party literature”: not only is it impossible to write as an individual, but equally, “individual” acts of reading and interpreting are conducted within parameters dictated by class interests. At a deeper level, Lenin’s approach to aesthetic value, embracing as it does the totality of historical circumstances including class, preceding literary traditions, and relation to political exigency, can be seen to derive from his acknowledgment of the dialectical character of Marxism. In his Philosophical Notebooks he cites “Dialectics” as the theory of knowledge of both Hegel and Marxism, a theory which focuses on the necessary connection between the individual and the universal, the infinite expansibility through various levels of an individual’s constituting relations, as well as the connections between necessity and contingency.

It can be seen from the foregoing that the early debates on art during and after the revolutionary period in Russia focused on questions such as the degree of party control over the arts, the stance toward the bourgeois cultural legacy, and the imperative to clarify the connections between the political and the aesthetic. A related question was the possibility of creating a proletarian culture. The other major protagonist in the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), played a crucial role in these debates. His works include Lenin (1924), History of the Russian Revolution (1932), and The Revolution Betrayed (1937), as well as his renowned Literature and Revolution (1923). Trotsky, already exiled in 1900 and 1905 for his revolutionary activities, was finally ousted by Joseph Stalin in the struggle for leadership following Lenin’s death in 1904. He continued, in exile, to oppose Stalin’s regime until his murder in 1940. The literary debates were far from academic: they are indices of bitter political alignments. In Literature and Revolution Trotsky stressed that only in some domains can the party offer direct leadership; the “domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command. It can and must protect and help it, but can only lead it indirectly.”9 But, just as Lenin’s views on this topic have been misread, so Trotsky’s claims for freedom of art have been subject to misprision. He states quite clearly that what is needed is “a watchful revolutionary censorship, and a broad and flexible policy in the field of art.” What is important for Trotsky is that the limits of such censorship be defined very clearly: he is against “the liberal principle of laissez faire and laissez passer, even in the field of art” (221).

Hence Trotsky cannot be accused of blatant tolerance of reactionary literature and ideas, although in a 1938 manifesto, Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, drawn up in collaboration with André Breton, Trotsky urges a “complete freedom for art” while acknowledging that all true art is revolutionary in nature. The latter position was adopted in reaction to what Trotsky calls Stalin’s “police patrol spirit.”10 In Literature and Revolution Trotsky also urges that the party should give “its confidence” to what he calls “literary fellow-travelers,” those non-party writers sympathetic to the revolution. What lies behind this is Trotsky’s insistence that the proletariat cannot begin the construction of a new culture without absorbing and assimilating the elements of the old cultures (226). Given the proletariat’s need for a continuity of creative tradition, it currently “realizes this continuity . . . indirectly, through the creative bourgeois intelligentsia which gravitates towards the proletariat” (227). In the same work, Trotsky addresses the question of whether proletarian culture is possible. The question, to Trotsky, is “formless” because not only will the energy of the proletariat be directed primarily toward the acquisition of power but, as it succeeds, it “will be more and more dissolved into a Socialist community and will free itself from its class characteristics and thus cease to be a proletariat . . . The proletariat acquires power for the purpose of doing away forever with class culture and to make way for human culture” (185–186).

Other aspects of Tolstoy’s approach to aesthetics are exemplified in his speech of 1924, Class and Art. Here, Trotsky suggests that art has “its own laws of development” and that there is no guarantee of an organic link between artistic creativity and class interests. Moreover, such creativity “lags behind” the spirit of a class and is not subject to conscious influence. Trotsky maintains that certain great writers, such as Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, appeal to us precisely because they transcend the limitations of their class outlook. Throughout his comments on aesthetics, Trotsky seems to travel a fine line between granting art a certain autonomy while viewing it as serving, in a highly mediated fashion, an important social function.

The call to create a proletarian culture was the originating theme of Proletkult, a left-wing group of artists and writers whose foremost ideologist was A. A. Bogdanov. This group, opposed by the Bolshevik leadership, insisted on art as a weapon in class struggle and rejected all bourgeois art. Also active in the debates of this period were the Formalists and the Futurists, notably the critic Osip Brik, whose term “social command” embodied the idea of interventionist art, and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote an influential pamphlet, How Are Verses Made? The Formalists and Futurists found a common platform in the journal LEF (Left Front of Art). The Formalists, focusing on artistic forms and techniques on the basis of linguistic studies, had arisen in pre-revolutionary Russia but now saw their opposition to traditional art as a political gesture, allying them somewhat with the revolution. All of these groups were attacked by the most prominent Soviet theoreticians, such as Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1937), Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933), and Voronsky, who decried the attempt to break completely with the past and what they saw as a reductive denial of the social and cognitive aspects of art.Valentin Voloshinov(Bakhtin) later attempted to harmonize the two sides of the debate, viz., formal linguistic analysis and sociological emphasis, by treating language itself as the supreme ideological phenomenon. A further group was the Association of Proletarian Writers (VAPP; later RAPP), which insisted on communist literary hegemony.


The Communist Party’s attitude toward art in this period was, in general, epiphenomenal of its economic policy. A resolution of 1925 voiced the party’s refusal to sanction any one literary faction. This reflected the New Economic Policy (NEP) of a limited free market economy. The period of the first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932) saw a more or less voluntary return to a more committed artistic posture, and during the second Five-Year Plan (1932–1936) this commitment was crystallized in the formation of a Writers’ Union. The first congress of this union in 1934, featuring speeches by Maxim Gorky and Bukharin, officially adopted socialist realism, as defined primarily by Andrei Zhdanov (1896–1948). Aptly dubbed by Terry Eagleton as “Stalin’s cultural thug,” it was Zhdanov whose proscriptive shadow thenceforward fell over Soviet cultural affairs. Although Nikolai Bukharin’s speech at the congress had attempted a synthesis of Formalist and sociological attitudes, premised on his assertion that within “the microcosm of the word is embedded the macrocosm of history,” Bukharin was eventually to fall from his position as leading theoretician of the party: his trial and execution, stemming from his political and economic differences with Stalin, were also symptomatic of the fact that Formalism soon became a sin once more. Bukharin had called for socialist realism to portray not reality “as it is” but rather as it exists in socialist imagination. Zhdanov defined socialist realism as the depiction of “reality in its revolutionary development. The truthfulness . . . of the artistic image must be linked with the task of ideological transformation.”11 But, as several commentators have pointed out, despite the calls for socialist realism to express social values as embodied in the movement of history (rather than embracing a static naturalism), the actual aesthetic adopted was largely a return to nineteenth-century realist techniques infused with a socialist content.

Socialist realism received its most articulate theoretical expression in the work of the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, the foremost Marxist aesthetician of the twentieth century. Lukács’ ideas are examined in some detail below; here, it is necessary merely to mention that his notion of realism collided with that of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). In some ways this debate can be regarded as a collision between two personalities, or between writer (Brecht) and critic (Lukács), since their “definitions” of socialist realism overlap in crucial aspects, a fact which is often ignored. According to Lukács, modern capitalist society is riven by contradictions, by chasms between universal and particular, intelligible and sensible, part and whole. The realist artist expresses a vision of the possible totality embracing these contradictions, a totality achieved by embodying what is “typical” about various historical stages. For example, an individual character might enshrine an entire complex of historical forces. Brecht, in his notebooks, also equates realism with the ability to capture the “typical” or “historically significant.” Realists also identify the contradictions in human relationships, as well as their enabling conditions. Socialist realists, moreover, view reality from the viewpoint of the proletariat. Brecht adds that realist art battles false views of reality, thereby facilitating correct views.12 Perhaps the conflict between the two thinkers is rooted in Lukács’ (arguably Stalinist-inspired) aversion to modernist and experimental art on the grounds that the ontological image of humanity it portrayed was fragmented, decadent, and politically impotent. In the 1930s Brecht’s work was viewed as tainted, though later he was received into the ranks of Marxist aestheticians. In contrast, Brecht’s experimentalism was crucial to his attempts to combine theory and practice in a Marxist aesthetic. Contrasting dramatic theater (which follows Aristotle’s guidelines) with his own “epic” theater, Brecht avers that the audience’s capacity for action must be roused and, far from undergoing katharsis, it must be forced to take decisions, partly by its standard expectations being disappointed (a procedure Brecht called “the alienation effect”). The action on stage must also implicitly point to other, alternative versions of itself. Far from being sterile, the disputes between Lukács and Brecht display the multidimensional potential of any concept approached from Marxist viewpoints as well as the inevitable grounding of those viewpoints in political circumstances.

Mention should also be made of the Italian Marxist theorist and political activist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whose main contribution to Marxism is widely thought to lie in his elaboration of the notion of hegemony. Autonomous revolutionary potential on the part of the proletariat could only be realized, argued Gramsci, through political and intellectual autonomy. A mass movement alone was insufficient: also, initiated through a vanguard with working-class roots and sympathies, this class “must train and educate itself in the management of society,” acquiring both the culture and psychology of a dominant class through its own channels: “meetings, congresses, discussions, mutual education.”13 The transformation to a socialist state cannot be successful without the proletariat’s own organic intellectuals forging an alternative hegemony. The notion of hegemony is effectively a metonymic affirmation of the dialectical connection between economic and superstructural spheres, stressing the transformative role of human agency rather than relying on the “inevitability” of economic determinism. Gramsci wrote some thirty-four notebooks while in prison, ranging from literary topics such as Dante and Pirandello to philosophical and political themes. These were not published until after Mussolini’s downfall. Gramsci’s literary criticism insisted on understanding literary production within its historical and political context (as against Croce’s ahistorical view of art as autonomous) and, following De Sanctis, viewed the critic’s task as one of harmonizing with the general cultural and political struggle toward a socialist order.

Later critics have continued to reinterpret and develop the insights of Marx and Engels. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, whose leading exponents were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, produced a number of philosophical and cultural analyses informed primarily by Hegel’s work and also by Freud. In general, these theorists saw modern mass culture as regimented and reduced to a commercial dimension; and they saw art as embodying a unique critical distance from this social and political world. Walter Benjamin argued in his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that modern technology has transformed the work of art, stripping it of the “aura” of uniqueness it possessed in earlier eras. Modern works are reproduced for mass consumption, and are effectively copies which relate to no original form. However, this new status of art, thought Benjamin, also gave it a revived political and subversive potential.

Subsequent Marxist cultural and literary theory, such as that of Louis Althusser, Lucien Goldmann, and Pierre Macherey, turned away from Hegel and was heavily influenced by the structuralist movements of the earlier twentieth century, which stressed the role of larger signifying systems and institutional structures over individual agency and intention. Louis Althusser emphasized the later Marx’s “epistemological break” from his own earlier humanism, and Marx’s scientificity and his departure from, rather than his debt to, Hegel. Althusser’s structuralist Marxism – as stated in his Pour Marx (For Marx, 1965) and his often cited Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, rejected earlier humanist and historicist readings of Marx, as well as literary-critical emphases on authorial intention and subjective agency. Goldmann rejected the Romantic–humanist notion of individual creativity and held that texts are productions of larger mental structures representing the mentality of particular social classes. He stressed the operation of larger forces and doctrines in literary texts, and developed the notion of “homology” to register the parallels between artistic and social forms. Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production (1966) saw the literary text as the product of the artist’s reworking of linguistic and ideological raw material, unwittingly exposing, through its lacunae and contradictions, ideological elements which the author had attempted to suppress into a false coherence. In this way, a critique of ideology could emerge through the literary text.

In the Anglo-American world a “cultural materialist” criticism was first revived by Raymond Williams’ work, notably Culture and Society 1780–1950, which analyzes the cultural critique of capitalism in English literary tradition. Williams rejected a simplistic explanation of culture as the efflux of material conditions, but stressed the contribution of cultural forms to economic and political development. The Long Revolution (1961) continued and refined this project using categories such as dominant, residual, and emergent cultures mediated by what Williams called “structures of feeling.” Williams’ work became overtly Marxist with the publication in 1977 of Marxism and Literature. In this work Williams undertook a critical review of earlier Marxist theories and offered his own analyses of fundamental Marxist notions such as ideology, hegemony, base and superstructure. His own cultural materialism as set forth here attempts to integrate Marxist conceptions of language and literature. Keywords (1976) examines the history of fundamental concepts and categories. In general, Williams’ work analyzed the history of language, the role of the media, mass communications, and the cultural connections between the country and the city.

The major American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson outlined a dialectical theory of literary criticism in his Marxism and Form (1971), drawing on Hegelian categories such as the notion of totality and the connection of abstract and concrete. Such criticism recognizes the need to see its objects of analysis within a broad historical context, acknowledges its own history and perspective, and seeks the profound inner form of a literary text. Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981) attempts to integrate this dialectical thinking with insights from structuralism and Freud, using the Freudian notion of repression to analyze the function of ideology, the status of literary texts, and the epistemological function of literary form. In subsequent work such as Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson performed the valuable task of extending Marx’s insights into the central role of postmodernism in determining the very form of our artistic and intellectual experience.

In Britain, Terry Eagleton has outlined the categories of a Marxist analysis of literature, and has persistently rearticulated the terms of communication, as well as the differences, between Marxism and much of modern literary theory. We can now undertake a closer examination of two Marxist critics whose ideas have been highly influential: the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács and the aforementioned critic Terry Eagleton, as his work relates to modern literary theory.


1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1952; rpt. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973), pp. 11–16. Hereafter cited as MCP.
2 Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1959; rpt. Moscow and London: Progress Publishers/Lawrence and Wishart, 1981), pp. 127–143.
3 Marx and Engels, On Religion (1957; rpt. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 39.
4 Marx, Capital: Volume I (1954; rpt. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977), p. 29. Hereafter cited as Capital.
5 “Preface and Introduction,” in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), p. 3. Hereafter cited as CPE.
6 Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, introd. Michèle Barrett (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 105. Hereafter cited as OF.
7 George V. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life (New York: Oriole Editions, 1974), pp. 177–178.
8 V. I. Lenin, On Literature and Art (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1967), p. 148. Hereafter citations from this volume are given in the text.
9 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York: Russell and Russell, 1924), p. 218. Hereafter citations are given in the text.
10 Leon Trotsky, Culture and Socialism and a Manifesto: Art and Revolution (London: New Park Publications, 1975), pp. 31–34.
11 A. A. Zhdanov, On Literature, Music and Philosophy (New York and London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1950), p. 15.
12 Berel Lang and Forrest Williams, eds., Marxism and Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism (New York: McKay, 1972), pp. 226–227.
13 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, trans. J. Mathews, ed. Q. Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1977), p. 171.
14 Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1984), p. 93.
15 Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1981), p. 84. Hereafter cited as WB.
16 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford and Minnesota: Blackwell/ University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 208. Hereafter cited as LT.
17 Terry Eagleton, Against the Grain: Essays 1975–1985 (London: New Left Books, 1986), pp. 81–82.
18 See Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1976), pp. 8–10.
19 Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: New Left Books, 1976), p. 54. Hereafter cited as CI.
20 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 9. Hereafter cited as POS.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Marxism

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