Marxism-- Lecture Outline
Notes from Bressler
Let's begin with making a distinction between Marxism
as a social enterprise with all of its negative connotations (Communism;
Stalinist Russia; Iron Curtain; Berlin Wall) and Marxism as an intellectual
movement that has profoundly affected political theory, sociological concerns,
religion, literature and literary theory (to name a few).
Marxism always seems strange and alien to us, especially
as Americans because of our history in the 20th century of being "anti-Communist,"
the defenders of freedom and liberty throughout the world. But we need
to begin by seeing how concerns raised by Marxism are at the heart of the
American experience. Consider this quotation:
"The most common and most durable source of faction has
been the various and un-equal distribution of property . . . . Those who
hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests
in society." (James Madison, Federalist #10)
America was founded (or so our core mythology tells us)
by people seeking freedom of various sorts, especially religious and economic
freedom. People came to America to escape the limits of a class-based society
where one was defined and determined by their class and their economic
status. In America one could, through individual hard work and effort,
achieve material wealth and rise to a higher social class. This premise
is at the core of the American Dream.
However, as Madison warns in the Federalist Papers, issues
of class and the distribution of material wealth, continue to be concerns
for our nation both at its inception and even today. Far from being a class-less
society, American was founded on the presumption of class and economic
Originally, only (white male) property owners were given
full rights as voting citizens. Our contemporary notions of America as
a completely participatory democracy have only come about through many
difficult struggles for greater equality for all people. While we
still have much work to do in these areas as a nation, Marxism would argue
that the biggest issue facing American is not race or gender but access
to material goods and economic equality. Money does matter. Money
is power, and those who possess it have access to opportunities that others
At its core, Marxism details a plan for changing the world
from a place of bigotry, hatred and conflict due to class struggle to a
classless society where wealth, opportunity, and education are accessible
for all people. Notice that its core principles resonate with the
core principles of America's national identity.
So Marxism is about changing and transforming society
as we know it. Despite its gloomy, negative legacy in the 20th century,
its ambitions are very positive and highly idealistic. It seeks to create
a better world for all humanity, one that will eliminate alienation and
despair and create harmony and mutual cooperation.
However, given this focus, what does Marxism have to do
with literature and literary theory? Why have many important authors and
literary scholars turned to Marxism as an important intellectual resource?
The answers can be found in some of the core principles of Marxist thought
which many writers and scholars find significant:
Far from being relative and unknown, reality itself can be
defined and understood. Representations of reality can be accurately created.
Society shapes human identity and human consciousness.
Social and economic conditions directly influence how and
what we believe and value.
Karl Marx (1818-83)--
German social critic and philosopher who focuses primarily on questions
of social class and economic conditions that shape people and society.
Marx said very little about literature, but his ideas have become the basis
for the emergence of Marxist literary theory and criticism in the 20th
century. While Marxist approaches to literature vary, they all seek to
understand the relationship between a text and the society that reads it.
Marx-- Some critical assumptions
about the nature of reality:
Found in The German Ideology (1845) and The Communist
"consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness."
Compare with Rene Descartes famous, "I think, therefore, I am." In other
words, for Marx a person's consciousness is not shaped by some spiritual
entity or preexisting "mind." Through daily living and interacting, humans
define themselves. Our ideas and concepts about ourselves are fashioned
in everyday discourse in the language of real life and are not derived
from some Platonic essence or any other spiritual reality.
The economic means of production in a society (the BASE),
both creates and controls all social and legal institutions (the SUPERSTRUCTURE),
political and educational systems, religions, art, and even our understand
of history (and the future). The beliefs and institutions develop as a
direct result of the economic means of production and not the other way
1. Feudalism (inherited
Four stages of historical development or progress:
(ownership of private property); individual identity = consumer
(era of equality and mutual harmony in which the individual will become
and no longer defined by her/his economic status)
An intricate web of social relationships emerges when any
group of people engage in the production of goods. For example, a few will
be the employers, but many more will be the employees. It is the employers
(the Bourgeoisie) who have the economic
power and who readily gain social and political control of their society.
Eventually, the upper/middle class will articulate their beliefs and values
through a variety of political, social, cultural and even religious institutions.
Consciously and unconsciously, they will force these ideas or their Ideology
on the working class or Proletariat.
In such a system the bourgeoisie's ideology effectively perpetuates the
system on which it is founded. Referred to as false consciousness by Marx,
this ideology also describes the way in which the dominant social class
shapes and controls an individual's self-definition or social consciousness
Marxist Literary Theory / Criticism--
Some Common Critical Methods and Assumptions:
In a capitalist society like the U.S., Marx declares that
such an ideology leads to fragmentation and alienation from of individuals
at all levels but especially the proletariat. Individuals become cut off
from the full value of their work as well as from each other, each performing
a discrete, isolated role. One's work or economic function determines
one's identity. We identity with our work but ironically become increasingly
alienated from it. Our identity is determined by what we do, not by who
Is there a single Marxist approach to literary analysis?
Does one have to espouse Marxism as a socio-political principle
or position to find Marxism useful as an approach to literature?
The analysis of a literary work (or any other text) cannot
be isolated from the cultural situation from the text emerged. The study
of literature and the study of society are inextricably related
Marxist criticism moves beyond the analysis of conventional
literary themes and elements (style, plot, characterization, figures of
speech, literary devices) and seeks to uncover an author's world and her/his
world view (ideology). A Marxist critic will begin such an analysis by
showing how an author's text reflects his/her ideology through an examination
of characters, settings, or society. They may look at an author's social
class and how that might influence her/his work. Or a Marxist critic may
look at the history and culture of the times and investigate how the author
either correctly or incorrectly pictures this historical era.
See "Questions Marxists Ask About Literature," page 222.