marxist criticism

what exactly is marxist criticism?

Like the name suggests, it’s criticism (of art, literature, etc.) from a Marxist perspective. So, for literature, for example, it asks, first, what was the social class of the writer? Then it looks at how social class is portrayed in the work, and how oppression is portrayed, and whether the work supports the societal status quo or questions it.

What Captain Amazing said, plus at one point the question “Why a duck?” must appear. :smiley:

You want a good example of Marxist criticism? Try Trotsky’s Literature and Revolutioin.

Of course, that should be more specifically Marxist literary criticism. There’s philosophical criticism, scientific criticism, economic criticism, social criticism, artistic criticism, and so on and so forth. Although I haven’t read the work by Trotsky I mentioned above in quite a long time, I feel rather safe in asserting that real Marxist literary criticism would go far beyond the crassly oversimplified limits Captain Amazing set forth in his post.

The essence, however, is that nothing is to be taken on faith - not the conclusions reached, not the methods used to reach those conclusions, not even the science used to develop the methods by which the conclusions are reached. The answers are to be found, sometimes easily, sometimes not so easily, either in the material world around us or in the workings of human society.

Or Herbert Marcuse’s “The Aesthetic Dimension”…or most of the work of The Institute for Social Research.

Not to crassly oversimplify, of course.

What is the answer to this question supposed to be? “Working class authors are good, bourgeois authors are bad”? Is that supposed to be the end of it, then? Trotsky, in the introduction to Literature and Revolution, disagrees:

Nowhere does he say that being for or against the Revolution is determined by one’s position in society. Therefore the question of a writer’s social class becomes irrelevant to any literary criticism. In fact, Trotsky argues that the new culture developing in a revolutionary society necessarily draws elements of the old culture into it:

So, again, I say that using an author’s social class as a basic criterion for literary criticism is a crass oversimplification.

No, of course not. There’s not even any reason to bring “good” and “bad” in it. Marxist artistic and literary criticism starts with the idea that art is not, and can not be, indepedent of class and economic reality. So when you look at a piece of art or literature, you have to ask yourself: “How is this novel, painting, whatever, influenced both by the economic and class structures of the society in which the artist finds himself, and also, how is it influenced by the artist’s personal economic and class reality”. A working class author and a bourgeois author are going to have different perspectives that are going to be reflected in their writing, even if they’re in general agreement on issues.

For marxist literary criticism, classic figures include Gyorgy Lukacs, and Raymond Williams, plus more recently Terry Eagleton, and on the theoretical side Fredric Jameson. Lukacs really set the field, although Williams was hugely important in Britain.

This page at Duke provides a little summary, particularly regarding Lukacs:

However, it should be noted that there are many differences between Marxist critics. And you don’t need to be a Marxist to do Marxist criticism (although it helps to believe in Marx’s ideas about how society is presently constructed you certainly don’t need to share his conclusions about future social systems).

Also, while Marxists critics typically considers truth to be a social and historical construct, they are ideologically quite distinct from those deconstructionists and post-structuralists who deny the possibility of truth. A corrolary of this is that although many deconstructionists hold left-wing beliefs, not all left-wingers performing literary criticism are doing marxist criticism.

There is simply no way that a writer’s social class is “irrelevant” to Marxist literary criticism in the modern sense of the term.

From this site

While these points do not specifically mention the author’s social class, the author’s social class is relevant to nearly every one of these questions.
One of the more tedious aspects of this board (and of literary criticsm, and especially Marxist criticsm) is that any effort at summarizing any subject is bound to provoke a knee-jerk accusation of “crass oversimplification”.

This statement was ill-conceived and I retract it and apologize if I offended anyone. I do think people are too quick to pin the label of “oversimplification” but I did not mean to pounce on **Olentzero **. Furthermore, I confess I am not particularly sympathetic to Marx or Marxist Literary Criticism, but (1) that is just IMHO, and (2) I should not paint with such a broad brush.

Perhaps the most important question in constantine’s quote is “Whose story gets told in the text?”

Asking this question was not normally a part of standard literary criticism or, for that matter, other social, political, and historic criticism well into the 1960s.

In this sense, Marxist criticism is a forerunner of many of the new criticisms - feminist theory, queer theory, racial politics, even cliometrics. All of these looked as aspects of the text - whether the text was a literal one or history itself - from a different viewpoint, not assuming that the perspective of the upper class white male was the correct or only one. Yes, they overthrew the Great Man, specifically the dead white European male, style of understanding history and culture. [Simplification indeed, but hopefully not crass.]

These new approaches have contributed vast amounts of new understandings of history and culture, and also enormous amounts of sheer blather. I have many dented walls from where I threw books at them.

When I was in college (pre-feminist theory and most of the others) I found reading Marxist critiques of history to be illuminating, as almost all outsider perspectives of a culture are. This is not at all the same thing as saying that the Marxist critiques were entirely correct or that they had workable replacement ideas. But I’ve come to realize that you simply cannot be said to be well read in a subject until you have examined the outsiders’ critique of it.

Then WHY do they DO it so OFTEN?

Marxist criticism is remarkably similar to a lot of the “literary criticism” that one can get from fundamentalist Chrsitian outlets.

I took a quick look at several of the chapters in Literature and Revolution over lunch and found no references whatsoever to the social origins and/or class of the authors and poets Trotsky subjects to criticism. Instead, his criterion is how a given writer relates to the events and the social change around him - in this case, the Russian Revolution and the preparations for the building of a new type of society. If Trotsky ignored writers’ class origins in the immediate aftermath of one of history’s biggest social explosions, how can it be any more relevant in today’s relatively quiet times?

All of these dogmatist schools of criticism end up boiling down to a lot of “us good, you bad” essay-scribbling, generating no more of worth than the benighted predecessors upon whom they so like to spit. They are still part and parcel of the very selfsame progressivist dogma and social paradigm that they claim to be transcending. The only difference is that they have changed the labels. No improvement, merely a means for the ivory-tower to get even more out of touch with reality.

Oh, by the way, refusal, that was an excellent site! Definitely worth a look.

From the science side an excellent example is The Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin ( 1985, President and Fellows of Harvard University ). It’s a somewhat interesting book for the novel perspective, even if you ultimately don’t buy into their ideas.

  • Tamerlane

Thanks for the reminder, Tamerlane - I’ve wanted to read that one for a while. Another good one from the scientific side is Stephen Jay Gould, especially The Mismeasure of Man.

Now that I re-read this, in fact this is an oversimplification. The very essence of Marxist criticism, and indeed what many people find so objectionable about it, is to take all kinds of Marxist dogma on faith, most alarmingly,

  1. That everyone in a society (other than the enlightened Marxists, of course) is governed by their “ideology” (read: their beliefs, which are entirely determined by their economic conditions);
  2. That Marxists, and Marxists alone, are able to “step outside” this ideology and see “what is really going on.”
  3. that anyone who does not accept the Marxist approach is suffering from “false consciousness,” and indeed, the fact that so many people don’t accept the Marxist approach just proves how right it is.

Look, I’m all for skepticism. I’m all for questioning those in power, and I’m all for asking supposedly “neutral” authorities how they benefit from the status quo. I’ll go futher than that. I think that Karl Marx, for all his faults, made a significant contribution to western thought by drawing attention to many important issues, particularly how economic conditions shape so much of society, and how, throughout history, the only voices that got heard were—with extremely rare exceptions–the voices of those in power.

But I just can’t buy the idea that Marxist critics don’t take anything on faith.

You wanna back those assertions up with cites, please?