Marxist Literary Criticism Today

Marxist Literary Criticism Today

by Barbara Foley


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In the first introduction to Marxist literary criticism in decades, Barbara Foley argues that Marxism continues to offer the best framework for exploring the relationship between literature and society. She lays out in clear terms the principal aspects of Marxist methodology—historical materialism, political economy, and ideology critique—as well as key debates about the nature of literature and the goals of literary criticism and pedagogy. Examining a wide range of texts through the empowering lens of Marxism—from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, from Frederick Douglass’s ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ to Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’—Foley provides a clear and compelling textbook of Marxist literary criticism.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745338835
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/15/2019
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Barbara Foley is distinguished professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark. She has published widely in the fields of Marxist criticism, US literary radicalism, and African American literature. Her books include Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro.

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Historical Materialism

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

— Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Associated with the writings of Karl Marx (1818–83) and his close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95), Marxism is at once a philosophy, a method of analysis, and a guide to revolutionary social change. Although, as Engels recalled, Marx himself once famously declared, "I am not a Marxist" (FE to Schmidt, 5 August 1890, MEC), since the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 Marx's writings have probably had a more significant effect on revolutionary movements around the world, from Europe to Asia to Africa to the Americas, than have those of any other writer. His ideas have also had a widespread impact upon scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities.

As the most cursory library or internet search will reveal, a tremendous amount has been written about Marx and Marxism. In addition, there have been many offshoots from the original texts by Marx and Engels that have claimed the heritage of Marxism, some of these in quite emphatic opposition to one another. The brief discussion of Marxism supplied in this chapter and the two that follow will not pretend to cover these debates, let alone resolve any of them; parenthetical citations will guide interested readers to relevant primary and secondary sources. Our principal focus in Part I is on those features of Marxism that are essential to the Marxist approach to literary criticism developed in Part II. An understanding of key Marxist fields of inquiry — historical materialism, political economy, and ideology — is indispensable if we wish to devise a set of critical tools for approaching a wide range of literary texts and traditions, of varying political perspectives, as well as for appreciating the particular challenges embodied in texts committed to revolutionary social transformation.


The term "materialism" in everyday usage is somewhat derogatory, referring to an excessive concern with shallow, consumerist values. But in philosophical usage "materialism" signifies the grounding of behavior and thought in the way a given society is organized. Its opposite, "idealism," does not refer to lofty — if somewhat unrealistic — aspirations, as we often use the term in everyday speech, but instead to the notion that the way people think and behave can be detached from the concrete conditions in which they live. For materialism, social being shapes consciousness; for idealism, consciousness shapes social being. From the standpoint of Marxism, then, these terms' usual overtones are inverted: idealism is to be avoided, materialism to be embraced. Some forms of idealism are purely retrograde. For instance, the conservative doctrine that progress in history has taken the form of movement toward the triumph of the free market is an idealist apologia for oppression and inequality. By contrast, the early Christian notion that the meek shall inherit the earth, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.'s modern liberal notion that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but ... bends toward justice" (King 1965), commonly articulate a desire for a better world on the part of oppressed populations. Indeed, such idealist expressions of yearning can themselves be understood in materialist terms. Marx's famous description of religion as the "opium of the people" was premised upon the notion that, in however inadequate and flawed a way, religion recognized the needs of the "heart" in a "heartless world," of the "soul" amid "soulless conditions" (Introduction, CHPR). Materialism acknowledges the important role played by idealist declarations in motivating historical actors and shaping historical developments; however, it would treat neoliberal economic theory, ancient utopianism, and liberal civil rights-era political discourse alike as reflections of the pressures and limits generated by social conflicts of the day, rather than as objective explanations of why things are the way they are — much less as feasible programs for change. One of the tasks of Marxist literary criticism, we shall see, is to recognize the limits of texts that express the desire for a better world in idealist terms, while understanding that this idealism is itself grounded in historical circumstances that are comprehensible in a materialist framework.

"Historical materialism," the term Engels used to describe his and Marx's approach to analyzing society and history, is premised upon the notion that the modes of organization shaping how people live and think are constantly undergoing change. There are, for Marx, very few social phenomena that can be abstracted from history and seen as timeless; instead, just about all human habits of behavior and thought are anchored in the epochs — and sometimes the specific historical circumstances — from which they arise. Change, while slow in some periods and rapid in others, derives from the continual interaction between the level of technological development on the one hand and the division of labor on the other — an interaction in which the struggles between different social groups possessing different economic and political interests often play a determining role. The division of labor, it bears noting, pertains not just to the ways in which production and distribution are broken down into component tasks performed by different laborers. The term more generally applies to the allocation of different kinds of work to different people in various historical moments and geographical settings. These range from the original biological division of labor between women and men; to the designation of people of African descent for slavery in the United States; to the present-day division of much of the world's manufacturing labor between the so-called global North and global South. ("So-called" because there are clearly hierarchies and divisions within each of these zones, which also span both hemispheres.) While the sexual division of labor is, at least in its early phases, largely biological, based upon the child-bearing and lactation capacities distinctive of women, most divisions of labor throughout human history have been coercive, although routinely justified by ideologies of sexism, racism, and other doctrines of inherent difference and hierarchy. The identities by which people define themselves (or are defined by others) are grounded in demographic categories based in the division of labor and global uneven development; these identities can seem natural, but they came into being in history. Perhaps the most fundamental division of labor throughout the history of class-based societies has been the division of mental from manual labor, driving a wedge between those who perform a society's brain-work and those who carry out its grunt-work.


Here are some key terms essential to an understanding of historical materialism. "Means of production" signifies the tools and raw materials that go into the production of something. Instances of different means of production in different phases of human development would be a stone arrowhead, an ox-drawn plow, a steam-powered engine, and a computer. "Forces of production" refers to the means of production in conjunction with labor. Important here are the type and level of technology involved. When the steam engine replaced machinery powered by mills located alongside rivers, for instance, the increased speed of production required that laborers accommodate themselves to the regime of an increasingly segmented labor process. The introduction of the cotton gin in the US South greatly enhanced the productivity of labor, thereby expanding and consolidating the institution of chattel slavery. "Relations of production" refers to the ownership and deployment of the means of production, as well as the ways in which forms of property-holding shape relationships between owners and producers. In European feudalist society, peasant families were generally bound to the land owned by the lord, for generation upon generation (except in such unusual situations as the aftermath of the mid-fourteenth-century Black Death, which produced such a dire demand for labor that formerly bound peasants were able to move from site to site and bargain for their labor). In the Latin American hacienda system of the nineteenth century, a combination of free and forced labor, usually performed by indigenous workers, enriched the owners of vast plantations producing commodities like sugar, wheat, wool, and hides for the world market. By contrast, in present-day capitalist society, despite the continuing presence of human trafficking and indentured servitude, most wage-earners are generally at liberty to move from employer to employer (although, as Engels ironically observed, this "fine freedom" allows "the proletarian ... no other choice than that of either accepting the conditions which the bourgeoisie offers him, or of starving, of freezing to death, of sleeping naked among the beasts of the forests!" [CWCE, ch. 3]). The term "proletarian" refers to a worker; "bourgeoisie" refers to those owning the means of production in a capitalist society. The paradoxical freedom/unfreedom of the wage-earning worker figures as a key theme in many literary texts from the capitalist era, from Charles Dickens's Hard Times (2003 [1854]) to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), from Thomas Cooper's "'Merrie England' — No More!" (1995 [1845]) to Ousmane Sembene's God's Bits of Wood (1962 [1960]).

"Mode of production," a broadly encompassing term, signifies the entire social complex constituted by the conjunction of the forces and relations of production. The different forms of social organization that people have to this point devised — ranging from primitive communalism to ancient slave society to a range of geographical variants on feudalism to capitalism — are designated as modes of production. The mode of production expected eventually to supersede capitalism is communism, which builds on the achievements developed under earlier forms of class society — often at great human and environmental cost — while reconstituting, on a higher level, the egalitarian social relations characteristic of pre-class societies. Communism is characterized by the absence of an oppressive state apparatus; the abolition of money; the disappearance of social classes; and the principle that goods and services should be produced and distributed on the basis of social need. As the poet Bertolt Brecht wrote of communism: "The exploiters call it a crime / But we know / it is the end of crime. ... It is the simple thing [but] so hard to achieve" (Brecht 1965, 73).

Modes of production, while qualitatively distinguished from one another by the ways in which the few live off the labor of the many, are not static, but themselves undergo continual development. Capitalism, for instance, has evolved over hundreds of years through its merchant, industrial, monopoly, finance, and neoliberal phases, accompanied in its global dimensions by colonialism and imperialism. (The terms "neoliberalism" and "globalization," often used to describe our current moment, need continually to be anchored in an analysis of the capitalist mode of production; otherwise they can be too readily separated from their situation in the historical arc of capitalist development.) The term "social formation" describes the ways in which various traces of past modes of production, as well as features anticipating modes of production still to be fully realized, can be simultaneously present in any given society at any given time (Poulantzas 1973). The cultural historian Raymond Williams introduced the terms "dominant," "residual," and "emergent" to designate the co-presence of different historical tendencies in a given social formation at a given moment (Williams 1977, 121–27). The term "combined and uneven development" stresses both the historical and the geographical dimension of this imbalance on a global scale: the coexistence of mule-drawn plows with combustion-engine tractors, for instance, or of patriarchal forms of the family with women's independent participation in a waged workforce (Anievas and Matin 2016). Another pair of terms useful in describing different phases of economic development within a mode of production is those differentiating between what Marx calls the "formal subsumption" and the "real subsumption" of labor. The first of these denotes a phase when an emergent set of relations of production has gained a foothold but does not dominate an entire branch of industrial or agricultural production. The latter designates a phase when what was emergent is now dominant. Needless to say, what is emergent in one part of the world may already be dominant in another.

While apologists for capitalism would have us think that growth entails prosperity for all — a doctrine captured in the cliche that a rising tide lifts all boats — present-day global capitalism in fact requires that large regions of the world remain underdeveloped in comparison to others. One of the key priorities of communist societies would be — along with breaking down the division between mental and manual labor (Gomberg 2007) — the abolition of the deeply racist legacy of capitalist uneven development.

Although the distinctions between and among such terms as "means," forces," "relations," and "mode" of production may initially sound like theoretical hair-splitting, an understanding of their interrelations is, as we shall see, crucial to the methodology of historical materialism. We should also bear in mind that none of these entities is static; all are continually developing. Moreover, they constitute a totality; it is not in their isolation, but their mutual interconnectedness, that these entities — which are at once both structures and processes — describe and explain social reality. We should remember, too, that these entities are separable mainly for analytical purposes: "forces of production," for instance, includes not just technologies of various kinds but also the skills of the people who deploy them. Finally, we should emphasize that production — a much broader concept than "economics," with which it is often confused — figures centrally in Marx's materialist analysis of social formations. While the economic and psychological pressures of life in modern capitalist society often lead us to associate "production" with such negatively inflected terms as "productivity" and "productivism," which signal the primacy of profit over human or environmental needs, for Marx "production" more generally signifies any activity that contributes to the enabling, preservation, and reproduction of social existence. It is a neutral term, describing activity that is rendered alienating only by the way in which money becomes the measure of all value in our present-day socioeconomic system. Indeed, some things that people do which count as leisure-time occupations under capitalism — such as building a tower out of blocks with a child — would be considered productive in a communist society. At the heart of Marx's emphasis upon production is, simply, his understanding of the centrality of socially organized labor to the definition of what it means to be human.

Marx, preoccupied with understanding the origins and development of capitalism, focused his major writings on its emergence from feudalism in Europe, especially England. As cities gained in importance in the medieval world, the property relations and legal practices advantageous to the agrarian landed nobility were increasingly burdensome to the rising merchant class. The bourgeois revolutions in various nations — accompanied by "bourgeois-democratic" forms of government — both reflected and enabled this shift in social forces. (For Marx, the term "bourgeois" signifies a ruling elite that draws its wealth from industry or commerce — not a well-off social stratum characterized by somewhat crude tastes and mannerisms, as the term is often used today.) But the larger purpose of Marx's narrative was to understand how the contradictions within capitalism — primarily, its inevitable tendency toward self-induced crisis, as well as its creation of a class of propertyless laborers "with nothing to lose but [their] chains" (CM, ch. 4) — might create the conditions for the emergence of communism. This is what Marx meant when he described communism as "the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being. ... [It] is the riddle of history solved" ("Private Property and Communism," in EPM). Where previous aspirations toward a classless society had of necessity been idealist, confined to the realm of hope — what the revolutionary Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan called "the living dream of dead men everywhere" (Bulosan 2007, 593) — the material realization of this dream was made possible by the development of modern forces of production. What distinguishes the proletarian (that is, working-class) revolution from all previous social revolutions is that it does not substitute one ruling class for another but abolishes class as such. Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound, the goal of the proletarian revolution is the abolition of the proletariat itself, creating "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all" (CM, ch. 2). As many writers of revolutionary working-class literature (sometimes called proletarian literature) have recognized, it is by heightening class consciousness in the present that true human universality can be achieved in the future. As the potential for such transformation lurking in the present, communism — which Marx and Engels in 1848 described as a "specter haunting Europe" (CM, Preface) — remains the spectre that haunts the entire capitalist world order in our time.


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Table of Contents

Preface Part I: Marxism 1. Historical Materialism 2. Political Economy 3. Ideology Part II: Literature 4. Literature and Literary Criticism 5. Marxist Literary Criticism Part III: From Theory to Practice 6. Marxist Pedagogy Notes Bibliography Index

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