Why Marxism?

·    Relevance to current cultural/political debates.

·    Tool for cultural and literary analysis (Parker says, “contemporary Marxist criticism is often less about provoking social change than about using Marxist ideas to interpret culture,” 190).

·    In addition to history, the reader, the structure, and gender, it gives us an account of how class and economics determine and shape reality.

Not attempting to give a full account of Marxism but to discuss those elements that matter most to current literary and cultural critique.

Karl Marx – an underpinning worldview:

1.   A materialist (as opposed to idealist) analysis of culture (Parker 188)

2.   Economic determinism: everything in life is determined by economics; human relations and every cultural activity are thoroughly shaped by some preceding and controlling economic content.

People find themselves born in a process independent of their will; they cannot control it; they can only seek to understand it and guide their actions accordingly. [Connections: Karl Marx (economic determinism, human behavior controlled by forces OUTSIDE self, class struggle, workers unite for utopian change); Darwin; Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis, psychological determinism, man behavior from forces INSIDE the self, interior forces, man’s taboos and rules govern self and world, self-analysis)].

Marx’s account of history:


1)   History is moved along by material forces:


Primary needs   → division of labor       → division of classes     → competition

                                                        (bourgeoisie and proletariat)


Note: Marx’s model applies to postindustrial class conditions; he lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of factories)


2)   History has a direction, and moves through necessary economic stages (modes of production).... It is marked by progress from a more primitive to higher stage …in this view, capitalism is not all bad, in Marx’s view: it’s certainly an improvement over feudalism, but it is not the ultimate achievement of humankind …


The dialectic of history: each stage of society develops until it reaches its limits; it then breaks down because of its own internal dynamic. Ongoing class struggle would eventually resolve into a spontaneous revolution, resulting in a socialist future (a classless, propertyless state):


Primitive Communism - Classical slave-owning societies - Feudalism - Capitalism - Socialism



False Consciousness

Class Consciousness

Revolutionary Consciousness


Marx’s critique of Capitalism:


1.       Alienation of labor (Parker 190-1)

2.       Use value versus exchange value (sign-exchange value) – Parker 191

3.       Commodification / reification / commodity fetish – Parker 191. Commodities become more important than people

4.       Inequitable power relations; money concentrated into the hands of a few


Gaps in Marx’s thinking: See link, Marxism, that discusses pros and cons.

Contemporary brands of Marxism – labeled new Marxism or post-Marxism – place Marx’s system in dialogue with poststructuralism. They are critical of the base/superstructure model of classical (or “vulgar”) Marxism, seeking “more flexible ways of understanding the relation between economics and culture” (Parker 1977).


Marx’s model BASE / SUPERSTRUCTURE, according to critics:

a.   oversimplifies “the variety and unpredictability of human behavior” (Parker 198). There is no one-way relation or simple top-down relation between base and superstructure; and it

b.   attributes too much to one cause, economics.

See Note on page 195 of Parker text:

·         (193-94): Antonio Gramsci: hegemony; “consent of the masses”; cultural leadership;

·         (198-201): Louis Althusser: ideology and interpellation; “ideological state apparatuses”

o   Example of education, page 199-200 / “Go West” campaign.


Looking ahead to American Born Chinese:

*       Socio-economic class / classism:

o   How might the opening narrative sequence on the Monkey King serve as an allegory for “class” and class relations?

o   Do you see representations of particular class categories: the bourgeoisie (the upper class) and the proletariat (working class)?

o   What mechanisms do characters in the novel use to sort out and determine “class”? Hint: it’s not always money, per se, that relegates one to a particular class.


*      Commodities / Consumerism

o   What signs in the text come to exist as “commodities”?

o   How do commodities give one sign-exchange value” (a commodity that signifies social status)?

o   In what ways are commodities more than merely indicators of class but instruments of its fashioning?


*      Ideological programming / interpellation into dominant hegemony (Parker, 198-201)


*      False consciousness / class consciousness (Parker, 204-5)

o   Cite examples of false and class consciousness in the text.