Marxist Literary Criticism
By Allen Brizee
Introduction to Graduate Studies
The workers of the world are being oppressed!! Everyday, the capitalist system exploits millions of people. And by participating in this repressive abuse, we in turn, oppress textile workers in southwest Virginia who are now jobless - at the mercy of our capitalist government. By participating in this repressive abuse, we exploit sweat shop workers in third world countries who toil for pennies a day so they can barely survive. Our role in the capitalist system makes us guilty of oppression!
The capitalist economic system is designed to keep the upper classes (the rich and the middle class) wealthy, while at the same time the lower classes remain firmly entrenched (trapped) at the bottom of the imbalanced structure. The workers' tragedy is compounded because they are forced to support a system that continually keeps them from improving their condition. We must break free of the capitalist dogma! This is not an easy task; capitalism and its bastard offspring, consumerism, saturate our reality. Our daily lives are soaked with the belief that the American dream is a worthy and healthy goal. But the so-called American dream was built on the broken backs of workers who suffered to fulfill the exploitative schemes of the founding fathers. This misleading dogma pervades our lives: our education teaches us to deify the very people who slaughtered millions of indigenous people to fulfill the odious Manifest Destiny; our religion lulls us into a false stupor of security and indoctrinates us into a repressive, hierarchical state of mind; our literature recreates and celebrates every aspect of the consumer lifestyle; we, in turn, consume this literature and believe its lies!
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Whew, quite a mouthful! It is difficult for suburban bourgeois (weaned on MTV) to relate to the revolutionary attitude the Marxists (and their rebellious brethren) developed in the early and middle 19th century. Perhaps this is because capitalism has finally won the battle, and we now believe that "everything is ok. Why complain?" But when studying Marxist literary criticism, we must place ourselves in the mindset of the revolutionaries so that we can effectively examine text as they would. Marxism has come a long way since the 1800s, and Marxist critics today certainly take a less dogmatic approach to literature. But at the same time, we cannot disregard the original dogma that sparked the social movement that changed our world.
This web site will examine three Marxists: Karl Marx (the father of the workers' movement), Friedrich Engels (Marx's lifelong friend and partner), and Georg Lukacs (one of the "First Disciples," of Marx and Engels). I will attempt to clarify some of the confusing aspects of Marxist criticism, and augment what we have read in Richter, Tyson, and Barry. However, some information on Marxism requires emphasis, and I apologize for any repeated data.
While studying Marxist literary criticism one must remember that when Marx and Engels created the foundations of the workers' movement, and wrote the key texts that spread the word, they were more concerned with the actual revolution than with literature. However, Marx and Engels were both intellectuals - so they knew history and they knew art and literature. And of course they could not overlook the important role art and literature play in the development (and support) of a society. Marx and Engels primarily wrote about the approaching revolution, but they also wrote about their philosophy as it relates to literature. They believed that the aristocracy (read Bill Gates) and bourgeois used literature to reinforce and strengthen their position as hegemonic rulers of the world - oppressing the toiling workers!
For your further surfing pleasure, I have provided some Internet links to web sites dedicated to Marxism, both its literary and its social issues (Marx would not see a difference between the two, but hey, this is my site, not his!).
This web site can be surfed in various ways. Links at the left side of the pages allow you to move around the site at will. Or you can begin on the homepage and work your way through the site by clicking on the chain at the bottom of each page, thereby moving on to the next page in order.
First, though, here is a quick history and outline of Marx, Engels and the beginnings of the revolution. (Or, click here to go directly to traditionalist Marxist views on literary criticism.)
Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1895) were both born in the same area in Germany, the Rhine Province. The importance of their upbringing in the Rhineland during this time period speaks for itself: Marx and Engels were heavily influenced by the French Revolution (1789 - 1793). In fact, citizens of the Rhine Province sympathized with, and actually took part in Napoleon's initial victories in Germany. Marx and Engels were also heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution in England (commonly seen as beginning in 1760 and ending around 1830). The formula of influence here is clear: the oppressed masses threw off the yolk of the Monarchy (the Bourbons and the Orleans - both French dynasties) during the various incarnations of French uprisings only to be re-oppressed by the bourgeois as the Industrial Revolution and Benthamism (or the Manchester school of economics - think Charles Dickens and Hard Times) seized the workers, stripped their rights, and threw them out in the streets, unemployed because of advances in machine production. The time was right for revolution.
Marx attended the University of Bonn for a year and then transferred to the University of Berlin, where he began associating with students who shared his revolutionary ideas. While studying law and philosophy in Berlin, Marx was introduced to the writings of Hegel, a monumental step for the young Rhinelander. Soon after, he joined a student club named the Young Hegelians, who, after growing in number and political strength, were forced out of the university system by the Prussian government. Marx's political activism continued, but his studies began to slip. Regardless, Marx submitted his doctoral thesis (a Hegelian analysis of the differences the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus) to the University of Jena. Marx received his degree in 1841. Engels, meanwhile, had served in the Prussian army (1842) and began working at his father's cotton mill in Manchester, England. Engels left England and moved to Paris to begin writing for the revolutionary publication, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Yearbook) in 1844; and it was here that he met Marx. In 1846, Marx and Engels joined the Secret Communist League. In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto) for the League, which outlines the basic ideas regarding the communist revolution for "working men of all countries."
Marx and Engels continued to write and publish various revolutionary newspapers and magazines, two of which are the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhine Newspaper) (1848 - 1849), and the Politisch-oekonomische Revue (Political Economic Review) (1850). Engels was also involved in various communist uprisings in Elberfeld, the Palatinate and Baden. Ironically, after these revolts were violently suppressed, Engels returned to Manchester in 1850 to work for his father's cotton mill. Though now a part of the industrial machine, Engels continued to support the revolution by assisting international workers' organizations and publishing many books on the plight of the oppressed proletariat (these books are listed on his page). After the German revolts were put down, Marx was expelled from Prussia, France, and Brussels, and so fled to England with his family where he continued his work for the revolution by forming the International Working Men's Association. Marx also contributed to the New York Tribune while assimilating vast amounts of information in the British Museum on political economy. In 1867, Marx published his monumental Das Kapital (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy), Volume I). Capital examines the struggle of the working class throughout history using vigorous scientific approaches (other works by Marx are listed on his page).
Engels financially supported his ailing friend until Marxís death on March 14, 1883. After Marx's death, Engels wrote numerous pieces defending Marxism while also moving slowly away from Marxís dogmatic approach to the struggle and to literature. Details of this ideological drift can be found on the Engels page. Engels died on August 5, 1895.