The Basics of Marxist Criticism

During the twentieth century, many philosophies bloomed and attempted to understand the world in various ways. The literary criticism, as a different school of thought, perceives, defines and interprets the world considering several ideologies. Marxist school of criticism is one of them that set its aim to explain the world with logical and concrete evidence.

Marxist perspective opposes the idealist philosophy that focuses on conceptualizing a spiritual world. The idealistic approach believes that spiritual world controls and influences the material world we live in. However, Marxist criticism perceived literary work as a product whose practitioner or creator emphasized the role of ideology and class.

Marxists did not only emphasize the social role, but also they propagated, reflected and challenged the prevailing social norms, classes, and order. Rather than considering texts merely a repository to interpret hidden meaning, Marxist critics saw texts as the product material that does not only needs to be deciphered but also understood by considering historical terms.

That is to say, the core definition of Marxist theory encapsulates materialist philosophy. It endeavors to explain the existence of this world without assuming the latent natural forces that exist in the society or the world. On the contrary, Marxists critical theory focuses on exploring scientific, concrete and rational explanations of this world with the observable facts.

What is Marxist?

To understand ‘what is Marxist,’ it is essential that we know how other materialist philosophies eliminated the significance of having a logical explanation of things. Unlike these approaches, Marxist perspective does not only emphasize to understand the ideologies of the world but also focus on changing it.

Marxist critical theory employs historical materialism as a functioning approach. The theory explains the phenomena of ‘changes’ in various material conditions (ways of people producing life necessities) and how does it influence the social organization. To put it simply, the way someone works defines his/her aspiration and existence.

It formulates a ground-up theory to view human society – the superstructure (high cultural qualities) which is based on lower cultural qualities (the base). Marxist critics called this thinking process as material dialectic.

History of Marxism Criticism

Marxism represents the philosophy of Karl Marx, a famous German Philosopher of nineteenth century. ‘Das Kapital’ is one of the popular philosophies of Marx written to represent the communist movement. Not only this, Karl Marx was the first literary critic who represented Marxist’s school of thought. His literary work included many critical essays that analyzed the work of renowned authors like William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang in 1830.

In 1843, Karl commemorated the journey of political writing when he met Friedrich Engels and wrote ‘The German Ideology ‘(1846)’ with mutual collaboration. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is another precedence of excellence of Karl Marx written in 1848.

Despite the drastic shift towards political work, Karl Marx managed to maintain his keen interest in literary work and literature. He discussed the relationship between politics, economic realities, and arts in the context of different social and general theories. Karl argued and provided the infrastructure and base of social institutions, from which superstructure, comprising of philosophy, art, politics, and religion emerges.

The revolution of Marxist criticism that both Engels and Marx anticipated did not come in eighteenth century. It did not even occur in their lifetime. The reminiscent of Marxist‘s perspective began to evoke in 1917, in a country unimagined by both the theorists  – Russia. The country had seen an extended period of imperialism of despotic czars. At the same time, the literary work of powerful playwrights and novelists such as Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Chekhov, and Leo Tolstoy enlightened Russia.

There is no denying that revolutionaries like Lenin did not only add value to Russian literature but also took Karl’s literary work and his beliefs as inspiration. You can see the influence of Karl’s literary work in the magnificent writing of Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The remarkable work of ‘Literature and Revolution   is quintessential to prove that. The classic piece of literature is one of the best writings produced in Marxist criticism.

Hence, Marxism emerged as a deviation from traditional philosophies and tried to change the perspective of how people used to view and interpret the world. The approach contained a revolutionary nature that convinced many authors about Marxism philosophy.

The Framework of Marxist Theory and Literary Criticism

Both superstructure and base are the fundamental constituents of Marxist theory, scaffolding the framework of it. According to traditional Marxism, the base contains the major means of production such as raw material, machines, and factories. These are the substantial components of social institutions that primarily determine the elements of the superstructure and influence it. However, later, the critic modified this approach and found that superstructure equally affects the base.

Marxist tradition views literary texts as something that needs validation with logical explanations. It does not take literary texts as a mysterious creation judged typically on the basis of unchanging artistic criteria. Marxist takes it as material products of societal work. Besides that, Marxist school of criticism believes that class stratification and conflicts are always there in the base that reflects in the power struggle between the socioeconomic classes.

To put it simply, the Marxist framework has a significant impact on the social class of authors. It argues that the prevailing ideologies and the social status of an author influence the way he writes and what he writes. According to Marxist analysis, literature is a vast domain and is not restricted to reflect only social institutions and classes it has emerged from.

However, it works with an ideological function. That is why; scholars in Marxist criticism specifically focus on the role of money and power at work. Plus, they further take the position of the book into account. They explore who is going to benefit from the story of the book?    Does it trigger propaganda in favor of status quo or against it?  Are there any ignored conflicts in the book?

 Basic Principles of Marxism

With its broad horizon, Marxism explored the critical societal institutions playing a significant role in its progress. Marxist critics believe that society progresses when there is a struggle between existing opponent forces. Typically, the struggle is between the opposing classes of a society which can cause a social transformation.

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History also progresses via this inevitable class struggle. The school of thought believes that this class stratification and struggle is not something new, however; it originated long ago with the exploitation of the lower class by as superior class. It happened throughout the history. You can easily trace it from the feudal period when there used to be a tension between peasants and feudal lords.

Unfortunately, the industrial age could not liberate itself from the toxic social norm of the class system. The struggle remained the same between the proletariat (working class) and bourgeoisie (capitalist class). Although both the classes share common interests, their socioeconomic background is what stratifies them. According to Marxist, this confrontation intensifies the relationship between social classes and often replaces the society’s structure by socialism.

As Marxism was a mélange of many ideas, ’Dialectic’ was one of the prominent concepts among them. Developed in the eighteenth century by Hegel, a German philosopher, the concept refers to the emergence and assimilation of new ideas as a result of two confronting ideas. Hegel believed that it is material existence and thoughts that govern this world. Plus, it is the demonstration of immaterial spiritual beliefs.

On the contrary, Marx applied the same idea but in a different way. He used this concept for interpreting the material world and its progress. He formed contradictory ideas as compared to Hegel and ensured not give primacy to the ideas of immaterial spirituality but tried to reverse it. In Marx’s neologism, the idea called ‘Dialectal materialism.’

Marx’s Idea of Dialectal Materialism

According to Karl Marx, the real economic and social existence shape all the ideological systems social existence. For instance, there is a clear dominance of a superior class on the legal system during specific historical periods. That reflects the interests of this class and benefits it rather than manifesting a divine reason.

The phenomena of Marxist dialect are easy to understand if you consider it a scientific philosophy of abstract and general laws of nature, thoughts and society development. Marxists perceive this universe and society as an integral whole where everything is independent. It is not a mixture of isolated things. The internal contradiction is what sets everything apart from each other. Primarily, this is the reason that causes change, development, and motion in the world.

Using dialectal materialism as a foregrounded approach, Marxist analysis establishes an understanding of societal structures. Marxists used it as a useful tool to reveal the secrets of social processes and decide the future development.

The concept of base and superstructure is one of the fundamental concepts of Marxist that establishes a relationship between the cultural world of ideas and production means. Typically, it is a symbolic concept that Marxists explain through a building structure. The foundation of this structure reflects production modes and socio-economic relations, while the superstructure is for religion, law arts and politics, most importantly represents a particular ideology.

Precisely, the base structure highlights the hegemony of a bourgeoisie class. There are certain historical conditions which govern the culture and allow dominance of a superior class to prevail in the society. According to the Marxist perspective, religion, art, philosophy, and morality portray the process of real life in any society. Marx himself described them as phantoms men’s brain has created. From this perspective, there is an inevitable relationship between cultural products and the economic base.

Marxist Criticism – Further developments

With an innovative approach and point of view, Marxist criticism soon flourished in many European countries after Russia. In the 1920s, Marxism formed a new perspective called ‘Russian Formalism.’ The communist party did not accept it and disbanded it. According to them, this approach did not comply with the party’s theoretical perspective.

Even though the Soviet Union suppressed Russian formalism, it emerged in different forms in America, Prague, and Germany. Mikhail Bakhtin was a member of the Soviet Union who continued his political and critical practice to support Marxism.

He introduced a concept called ‘Dialogism’ to affirm variety and plurality. With this concept, he wanted to raise an argument against the absolute hegemony of authorial control. He emphasized the need to consider ‘otherness.’. In other words, not only did he want to take the Marxism perspective ahead but also raise awareness about increasing homogenization of political and cultural life.

Like Mikhail Bakhtin, many Marxists, with the same perspective to raise their voices in different countries. Marking a new beginning of Marxist criticism, many critics started various revolutionary movements. Rene Wellek and Prague Linguistic circle are few examples of these movements.

In 1923, Frankfurt school in Germany founded by Marxist aesthetics was another significant precedence of Marxist’s movement. Some eminent figures ran the school, a political research center, including Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin.

All these members attempted to combine both Marxist theories and Formalism to revitalize a new form of Marxism approach. Together they produced many studies on social domination, mass culture and their role and effects on the society. Moreover, the Frankfurt School generated models for cultural studies to criticize and analyze cultural production, cultural texts, political economy and how the audience reacts to cultural artifacts.

Bottom Line

Overall, Marxism has a significant impact on the social institutions and analyzes how certain classes hegemonizes the working class and controls everything. The approach helped literary critics understand the cultural and ideological influence of the society a writer depicts in his writing.