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 status.

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 do not.

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:

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:

        1. Feudalism (inherited wealth)
        2. Capitalism (ownership of private property); individual identity = consumer
        3. Socialism (transitional stage)
        4. Communism (era of equality and mutual harmony in which the individual will become free
            and no longer defined by her/his economic status) Marxist Literary Theory / Criticism-- Some Common Critical Methods and Assumptions: