Definition of Marxism Literary Criticism:

Marxist Criticism deals with focusing on the ideological content of a work of literature and its explicit and implicit assumptions and values about matters like culture, race, class, and power. It is based on Marxism, or the theories of Karl Marx. Marxists believe that a work of literature is not a result of divine inspiration or pure artistic endeavor, but that it arises out of the economic and ideological circumstances surrounding its creation. Marxist Critics view the literature as a reflection of the author’s own class or as an analysis of class relations.

One of the most important forms of sociological criticism is Marxist criticism. Karl Marx (1818-1883) developed a theory of society, politics, and economics called dialectical materialism. Writing in the nineteenth century, Marx criticized the exploitation of the working classes, or proletariat, by the capitalist classes who owned the mines, factories, and other resources of national economies. Marx believed that history was the story of class struggles and that the goal of history was a classless society in which all people would share the wealth equally. This classless society could only come about as a result of a revolution that would overthrow the capitalist domination of the economy.

Central to Marx's understanding of society is the concept of ideology. As an economic determinist, Marx thought that the system of production was the most basic fact in social life. Workers created the value of manufactured goods, but owners of the factories reaped most of the economic rewards. In order to justify and rationalize this inequity, a system of understandings or ideology was created, for the most part unconsciously. Capitalists justified their taking the lion's share of the rewards by presenting themselves as better people, more intelligent, more refined, more ethical that the workers. Since literature is consumed, for the most part, by the middle classes, it tends to support capitalist ideology, at least in countries where that ideology is dominant.

Marxist critics interpret literature in terms of ideology. Writers who sympathize with the working classes and their struggle are regarded favorably. Writers who support the ideology of the dominant classes are condemned. Naturally, critics of the Marxist school differ in breadth and sympathy the way other critics do. As a result, some Marxist interpretations are more subtle than others. Take the Marxist approach to Shakespeare's The Tempest for example. The standard Marxist party line would be to interpret Prospero as the representative of European imperialism. Prospero has come to the island from Italy. He has used his magic (perhaps a symbol of technology) to enslave Caliban, a native of the island. Caliban resents being the servant of Prospero and attempts to rebel against his authority. Since Prospero is presented in a favorable light, the Marxist critic might condemn Shakespeare as being a supporter of European capitalist ideology. A more subtle Marxist critic might see that the play has far more complexity, and that Caliban has been invested with a vitality that makes it possible for audiences to sympathize with him. Certainly, the Marxist view of the play brings out ideas that might be overlooked by other kinds of critics and, thus, contributes to the understanding of the play.

Fundamental premises of Marxism

Psychoanalysis distracts our attention from the real forces that create human experience: the economic systems that structure human societies. Economics is the base on which the superstructure of social, political, ideological realities is built. Class structure referred to as “socioeconomics” not economic class b/c economic power includes social and political power. All human events and productions have specific material/ historical causes or circumstances that need to be understood. Marxist praxix (methodology) says that theoretical ideas are judged by their applicability to the real world. Humans divided by socioeconomic classes like the Haves Bourgeoisie and Have-Nots Proletariat. Proletariat permits differences to separate them into factions- accomplish little social change. Few believe proletariat will develop class consciousness and revolutionize against oppressors to create classless society

The Class System in America

It is becoming increasing difficult to classify as bourgeoisie or proletariat. Bourgeois come to refer to middle class, and there is no distinction between owners and wage earners. You can classify according to lifestyle. There are striking difference in lifestyle- material possessions, education, career opportunities, financially established, luxury items, wealth, and ownership. America’s 5 classes are underclass, lower class, middle class, upper class, and “aristocracy”. Underclass and lower class are economically oppressed; aristocracy and upper class- economically privileged. The middle class is in-between. The struggle to survive keeping down oppressed- more oppressed by ideology.

The Role of Ideology

Ideology is a belief system produced by cultural conditioning. There are undesirable ideologies which promote repressive political agendas. They pass themselves off as natural ways of seeing the world so that they are accepted among citizens, instead of a product of cultural belief. They prevent understanding the material/ historical conditions we live in because they do not acknowledge that those conditions have any bearing on the way we see the world. Marxism is a nonrepressive ideology. It works to make us constantly aware of all the ways in which we are products of material/ historical circumstances and of repressive ideologies that blind us to this fact in order to keep us subservient to the ruling power system. Ideals that function to mask its own failure are false ideals or false consciousnesses to Marxists. A false ideal’s purpose is to promote the interests of those in power.

To Marxists, ideology is important in maintaining those in power. Ideologies like Classism, Patriotism, religion, rugged individualism, and consumerism are used to show the Marist view of repressive ideologies. Marxist critics identify the ideology at work in literature or other works and analyze how that ideology supports or undermines the socioeconomic system, the power structure, in which the work plays a major role. Marxists believe that culture cannot be separated from the socioeconomic system that produced it

Marxism and Literature

A Marxist reading would focus o how the psychological problems of a character are produced by material/historical realities within which the family operates. Marxist Critics sometimes overlap with or barrow other concepts to service Marxist goals.
Authors are assumed to create works that embody ideology because human beings are produces of their socioeconomic and ideological environment. Because of this, Marxist critics are interested in two things: The literary work might reinforce in the reader the ideologies it embides or it might invite the reader to criticism the ideologies it represents.
Realism is the best form for Marxists because it accurately and clearly represents the real world with all of its socioeconomic inequities and ideological contradictions, and encourages readers to see the unhappy truths about material/historical reality, whether the author intended it or not they are bound to represent socioeconomic inequities and ideological contradictions if they accurately represent the real world. Nonrealistic or experimental fiction is rejected by Marxists, though many value it because of the fragmentation of experience it represents and the estrangement the reader experiences constitutes a critique of the fragmented world and the alienated human beings produced by capitalism in today’s world.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: a User-friendly Guide. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Marxist critics are careful readers or viewers who keeps in mind issues of power and money, and any of the following kinds of questions:

· What role does class play in the work; what is the author's analysis of class relations?
· How do characters overcome oppression?
· In what ways does the work serve as propaganda for the status quo; or does it try to undermine it?
· What does the work say about oppression; or are social conflicts ignored or blamed elsewhere?
· Does the work propose some form of utopian vision as a solution to the problems encountered in the work?

Characteristics of Marxist Criticism:

  • Based on the beliefs of Karl Marx, who criticized exploiting the working class by the capitalist (owning) class
    • Believed history of class struggles lead to goal of classless society of equally shared wealth
    • Utopian society result from working class overthrowing the capitalist domination of economy

  • Humans divided into classes- working and owning
    • Major difference in lifestyle between the classes

  • Working class oppressed- kept from rebellion

  • Working class produce labor but capitalist receive all the rewards- justified by their superiority

  • Sympathize with working class

Examples of Marxist Criticism
Marxist Criticism of Heart of Darkness by Conrad