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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Marxist criticism:

Criticism based on the historical, economic, and sociological theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. According to Marxism, the consciousness of a given class at a given historical moment derives from modes of material production. The set of beliefs, values, attitudes, and ideas that constitutes the consciousness of this class forms an ideological superstructure, and this ideological superstructure is shaped and determined by the material infrastructure or economic base. Hence the term "historical materialism." Marxism assumes the ontological priority of matter over mind and sees mind as the product of historical forces. There is thus a dialectical relationship between the literary work and its sociohistorical background. Dialectical criticism focuses on the causal connections between the content or form of a literary work and the economic, class, social, or ideological factors that shape and determine that content or form. Bourgeois writers, for example, inevitably propagate a bourgeois ideology that seeks to universalize the status quo, to see it as natural rather than historical. The notion that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the class consciousness of the writer, the ideology of the work, and the sociohistorical background out of which it emerges is often labeled vulgar Marxism, even by Marxists themselves. Sophisticated Marxism, however, as Fredric Jameson points out, is concerned with "the influence of a given social raw material, not only on the content, but on the very form of the works themselves.... [The dialectical interaction of work and background], this fact of sheer interrelationship, is prior to any of the conceptual categories, such as causality, reflection, or analogy, subsequently evoked to explain it."

Marxist criticism is by no means a monolith. Georg Lukacs, for example, praises realism but attacks modernism, seeing the latter, with its stream-of-consciousness techniques, as a decadent and desperate retreat into subjectivity, a feckless denial of the objective reality of class conflict and social contradictions, and an inadvertent testimony to the alienated state of the individual in mass society. The Frankfurt School, on the other hand, holds that the modernist experimentation with disruptive forms implicitly provides a critique of mass society -- its fragmentation, its estrangement, its dehumanization. Bertolt Brecht deliberately uses Formalist strategies -- baring the device, defamiliarization, and foregrounding -- for Marxist purposes. Attempting to dissolve the illusion of reification back into the reality of human action, Brecht insists that historical conditions must not be seen as mysterious powers but as human action and that the critical attitude begins when one sees one's own epoch in historical terms. The alienation effect, which Brecht heralds as the supreme dramatic technique, defamiliarizes the present in order to divest it of any aura of permanence. By baring the device and stressing the theatricality of theater, Brecht makes his auditors aware that objects and institutions, which seem natural because of their familiarity, are in reality historical. Since they are the products of change, they become in their turn changeable. Moreover, recent Marxist criticism incorporates aspects of structuralism and poststructuralism -- Barthian semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Derridean deconstruction, and feminist criticism. Louis Althusser, for example, assimilates structuralism to Marxism.

Like sociological criticism, Marxist criticism is perpetually oriented to the social realities that condition works of art. Class status, gender, ideology, economic conditions, the literary marketplace, the reading public, and so forth -- all these factors define the dialectical relationship between literary productions and their sociohistorical contexts.


© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
Director: Ian Lancashire.
Last modified: March 31, 1997