marxist viewsOverview

Marxists believe that economic and social conditions determine religious beliefs, legal systems and cultural frameworks. Art should not only represent such conditions truthfully, but seek to improve them.

Marxist aesthetics is not flourishing in today's consumerist society, but continues to ask responsible questions.


Karl Marx (1818-83) turned Hegelism on its head. Far from making thought govern the world, and seeing history as the gradual unfolding of Reason, Marx argued that all mental systems (ideologies) were the products of social and economic realities. To these realities he ascribed religious beliefs, legal systems and cultural expression. Marx emphasized that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but the other way about. And whereas philosophers have interpreted the world variously, the important need was to change it.

But revolution did not come where the flaws in capitalism were most evident, in Germany or Britain, but in Russia: an agrarian, perhaps even medieval country bankrupted by war and economic mismanagement. Marx had not foreseen nor made provision for the increasing bureaucratic and centralized control of industrialized societies, but this was precisely what Lenin and then Stalin were obliged to create. The democratic and practical politics of Marx became abstract under Engels (dialectic materialism), and then centralized under Lenin. The extreme poverty and backward nature of Russia, together with the wars which the fledgling Bolshevik state fought against Tsarist and capitalist armies, called for extreme measures. Art, philosophy and literature, which have always possessed some autonomy, were brought into the war effort. They had to be accessible to the masses and promote their needs: the arts had to exemplify and instruct. Entertainment could only be escapism and divert the proletariat from their task. At times the arts must descend to propaganda to put their points across. Even censorship, self- or state-imposed, could be required. Mistakes need to be pointed out, but political leaders should not be undermined, nor hard-won Marxist principles be thoughtlessly discredited. {1}

Theorists in Communist Regimes

Georg Lukács (1885-1971) attempted a philosophical justification of Bolshevism in his 1923 History and Class Consciousness and became the leading Marxist theoretician of literature, writing from the Soviet Union and his native Hungary. {2} In Lukács's view, realism meant more than rendering the surface appearance: it meant providing a more complete, true, vivid and dynamic view of the world around. Novels were reflections of life, and therefore not real, but they nonetheless involved the mental framing that eluded photographic representation. Writers created an image of the richness and complexity of society, and from this emerged a sense of order within the complexity and contradictions of lived experience.

Lukács also adopted the Hegelian dialectic in stressing the contradictions of class struggle. Capitalism had destroyed the feudal order, replacing it by more efficient production. Yet the private accumulation of capital was in its turn a necessary step to factory production, and from the consequent exploitation of labour came social protest and finally communism.

Given this nineteenth century viewpoint, Lukács had little patience with modernist experimentation. He criticized the techniques of montage, inner monologues, streams of consciousness in writers like Joyce, Kafka, Beckett and Faulkner, and saw these narrow concerns with subjective impressions as a contribution to the angst and alienation prevalent in western societies. Capitalism deprived workers of a common purpose, and the ideology of modernism then emphasized the triviality and impoverishment of such isolated lives.

Bertolt Brecht, in contrast, was a maverick. He fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, wrote in exile during the war years, continued in America before being hauled in front of the McCarthy Committee, and finally settled in East Germany where his prestige was a mixed blessing for the authorities. Social realism was his detestation, and his famous technique of "baring the device" derives from the Russian Formalist concept of defamiliarization. Actors in Brecht's plays express emotion, but only by gestures which the audience can understand but not identify with. Improvisation is used extensively, plus anything that came to hand: Brecht rejected a formal construction of plays and was constantly attempting to unmask the disguises of an ever-devious capitalist system. {3}

The Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse went further than Brecht in rejecting social realism altogether and by giving a privileged position to art and literature. These alone can resist the domination of a totalitarian state. Popular art inevitably colludes with the economic system that shapes it, whereas Modernism has the power to question. Art acts as an irritant, a negative knowledge of the real world. Built of Freudian and Marxist elements, their Critical Theory advocates an art that makes the down-trodden masses aware of their exploitation and helplessness. Absurd discontinuities of discourse, the pared-down characterization, the plotless depiction of aimless lives — all these are needed to shake audiences from the comfortable notion that the horrors and degradations of the twentieth century have left the world unchanged. Commercial exploitation of music in advertising and films, for example, forces serious composers like Schoenberg to produce fragmental atonal work. Each note is cut off from harmony with its neighbours and thus proceeds directly from the unconscious, much as individuals are forced to fend for themselves in monolithic free-market systems. {4}

Walter Benjamin, though associated with Marxism and Surrealism, adopted various positions at first, most of them subtle, not to say ambiguous. Art, he thought, occupied a fragile place between a regression to a mythic nature and an election to moral grace. After his reading of Lukács and meeting with Brecht, he saw art as a montage of images specifically created for reproducibility. Stripped of mystique and ritual awe, the artist had now to avoid exploitation by revolutionizing the forces of production. Technique was the answer. Innovations arise in response to the asocial and fragmented conditions of urban existence, and mass communications should be harnessed to politicize aesthetics. {5}

European Structuralist Marxists

Both Marxists and Structuralists see society as the fundamental reality. But where Marxists believe that society is a historical entity, evolving out of contradictions, Structuralists believe that societies are underlain by deep, self-regulating and unchanging rules. The Rumanian critic Lucien Goldman used Structuralist ideas in his study of Racine's tragedies, finding similarities of form between the tragedies, Jansenism and the French nobility. In his Pour une sociologie du roman of 1964, Goldman looked at the modern novel, again finding elements that reflected the market economy. Just as the state and the big corporations increasingly turn values into commodities, so we see objects in contemporary novels being given a status formerly enjoyed by individuals.

Louis Althusser foreshadowed Poststructuralism by regarding society as decentred, having no overall structure or governing principle. Levels exist, but in complex relationships of inner conflict and mutual antagonism: a far cry from the economic foundations of simple Marxism. Art is something between science and ideology, the latter being "a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their existence". Art is therefore not entirely a fiction, nor of course the view of its author. {6}

Pierre Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production regarded a text as not an autonomous or once-created object, but an assemblage of material unconsciously worked over. Ideology may be lived entirely naturally, but once ideology enters into a text all its gaps and contradictions become exposed. The author attempts to cover them up — the very choice of saying something means that other things cannot be said — and the critic attends to the repressed and unspoken: a theory with obvious psychoanalytic ramifications. Recently, Macherey has placed more emphasis on the educational system, and removed art from the privileged status it enjoyed under Goldman and Althusser. {7}

Post-structuralist Marxism

The English Marxist Terry Eagleton took over the Althussian view that literary criticism should become a science, but rejected the hope that literature could distance itself from ideology. Literature is simply a reworking of ideology, by which Eagleton means a reworking of all those representations — aesthetic, religious, judicial — which shape an individual's mental picture of lived experience. With the arrival of Poststructuralism, Eagleton shifted from studies of the English novel to a reappraisal of Walter Benjamin, employing Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis to undermine certainties and fixed forms of knowledge. {8}

The American Frederic Jameson sees ideology as strategies of containment which allow societies to explain themselves by repressing the underlying contradictions of history (in a Hegelian sense.) Texturally, these containments show themselves as formal patterns. Some are inescapable. Narrative, for example, is how reality presents itself to the human mind, in science as well as art. And reality still exists, exterior to human beings: Jameson does not accept the Poststructuralist view that everything is just a text. Indeed, in his reading of Conrad's Lord Jim, Jameson shows how past interpretations — impressionist, Freudian, Existential, etc. — both express something in the text and describe the demand for capital in the modern state. {9}


Though the Marxist is one of the most vigorous and varied of twentieth century schools of aesthetics, its bases of evaluation are difficult to establish. {10} Neither Marx nor Engels supposed that the superstructure of the state — political, legal, artistic — simply reflected its economic constitution, but insisted that such a constitution was still the ultimate reality. How men worked defined their existence and aspirations. All other aspects of human life — love, fraternity, nationalism, honesty, etc. — had eventually to be translated into economic terms, and these judged against Marxist orthodoxy.

Then there is the cultural life of communist countries. Marx stressed praxis, the practical, relative and culturally determined. Regardless of what liberalism claimed in theory, the reality in nineteenth century Europe was inequality and exploitation. Lenin, who had spent long years in exile struggling with the theoretical aspects of Marxism, had clear notions of what theory implied and needed. Artistic freedom may have been equated with social liberation in the heady days of the Bolshevik take-over, but cultural diversity would only weaken a state fighting for its life. Experimentation was stigmatized as decadently bourgeois, and the debate polarized between communist (good) and noncommunist (bad). Artists were either for or against progressive ideology: there was no in-between.

So the social realism. Yet the trouble was not the stereotyping — the tireless factory manager, the smiling peasants — but that the stereotyping was untrue. The communist world was very different from what artists were allowed to show. Control was very crude. Art must provide appropriate models for behaviour since what people read they would act upon, and criticism had therefore to be curtailed or stifled. And art which the west might appraise on several grounds — flowering of tradition, depth of feeling, subtlety and expressiveness, keenness of observation, wealth of inventiveness — came to be judged on one criterion alone: political correctness. {11}

There are more fundamental problems. Literature is broad and richly diversified: Marxism is not. How can the second encompass the first? Of course if Marxism were a scientific theory, a small number of laws would serve to explain a wide range of effects. But Marxism is not a scientific theory. Deductions from its generalizations have been spectacularly inaccurate. The rise in living standards of capitalist working class; revolution in Russia of all places; the Russian-Chinese conflict; the repression under Lenin, Stalin and all Soviet leaders to Gorbachev himself, the uprisings in Berlin, Budapest, and Prague. Marxist theory "explained" all these events, but only by cooking up suspect subsidiary hypotheses. If Marxism fails intellectually, do not its aesthetics fall to the ground? {12} Similarly, where supported by them, is not Marxist aesthetics open to the objections levelled at Structuralism and Lacanian theory?

Not so, say modern Marxists. Possibly, at least outside China and North Korea, the communist world has crumbled away, but events do not necessarily invalidate Marxism. We should study political thought and the circulation and reproduction of capital in the modern state without the presuppositions of class struggle. Moreover, totalitarian Russia under Stalin was very far from anything Marx envisaged, {13} and it has seemed to some western economists that market economies succeed in spite of the farrago of unproved and mutually conflicting theories they are taken as representing. {14}

Perhaps there is no one, coherent Marxist philosophy. The attempts outlined above to rehabilitate Marx have drastically revised or even rewritten him. The same can be said of analytical Marxism, which has combined analytical philosophy with economics and game theory. Both it and Marxist thought generally (i.e. produced in western bourgeois societies: little was allowed inside communist countries) is excessively theoretical and rarefied. It thrives in university departments of literature but not in the workplace. Prominently, it fails in its first requirement, which is not simply to analyze society, but to change it. {15}

But western apologists have answers. One is to take the line of Terry Eagleton's: "When Shakespeare's texts cease to make us think, when we get nothing out of them, they will cease to have value. But why they ´make us think´, why we ´get something out of them´ (if only for the present) is a question which must be referred at once to the ideological matrix of our reading and the ideological matrix of their production. It is in the articulation of these distinct moments that the question of value resides." {16} Unfortunately, the unspoken assumption is that the ideological matrix will endorse the Marxist view. Certainly Shakespeare's plays offer abundant material for analysis in terms of social history, late Renaissance thought, hermeticism, Tudor political theory, etc., but such analyses would start from assumptions very different from Marxist, and reach different conclusions.

A second line is to postpone aesthetic discussion until bourgeois society is replaced by a more egalitarian, Marxist society. Then perhaps the arts can enjoy a more independent role, and questions of political subservience will fade away. Little in the world now encourages a Maxist solution, but American foreign policy after 9/11, and the financial crisis, have accelerated a search for more viable societies.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. The literature on Marx and Marxist cultural theory is vast: approx. 2000 works are listed in Chris Bullock and David Peck's Guide to Marxist Literary Criticism (1980).
2. This and other summaries of Marxist theoreticians are modelled on the very clear but somewhat uncritical account in Chapter 2 of Raman Selden's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985, 1989). See also the theoretician and topic entries in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1995), and Chapter 11 in Oswald Hanfling's (Ed.) Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992). For Lukács see his The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1963).
3. Bertolt Brecht's On Theatre (1978).
4. Jay Martin's The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School (1973), and Theodor Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music (1973).
5. Walter Benjamin's Understanding Brecht (1973), Richard Wolin's Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (1982)and Gary Smith's Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History (1989).
6. Louis Althusser's For Marx (1977).
7. Pierre Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production (1978).
8. Terry Eagleton's Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) and his Against the Grain (1986).
9. Frederic Jameson's Aesthetics and Politics (1977) and his The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981).
10. A vast literature. See the bibliographies in works listed above in note 1. Also Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature (1977).
11. Anon (New Left Review's) Marxism: A Critical Reader (1977, 1983), and pp. 447-56 in Hanfling 1992.
12. Particularly Marx's notion of "surplus value". But see the following: Ronald Duncan and Colin Wilson's Marx Refuted (1987). Also Bracher 1982 and Wright 1986.
13. p. 60 in Karl Dietrich Bracher's The Age of Ideologies: A History of Political Thought in the Twentieth Century (1982) and Anthony Wright's Socialisms: Why Socialists Disagree — and What they Disagree About. (1986).
14. pp. 311-312 in Howard Sherman's Reinventing Marxism (1995), Guy Routh's The Origin of Economic Ideas (1977) and G. Brockway's The End of Economic Man (1991).
15. See the Marxist philosophy entry in Cooper (1995), Sherman 1995, Bracher 1982, and Wright 1986. Also Andrew Gamble's An Introduction to Modern Social and Political Thought (1981), which includes a useful bibliography.
16. p. 169 of Eagleton 1976.

Internet Resources

1. Introduction to Literature: Marxism. Michael Delahoyde.
. Short article and references.
2. Marxist Literary Criticism: Brief Guide. HHGateway/Gateway/Marxistlitcrit.html. Short article.
3. Iain Sinclair: Revolutionary Novelist or Revolting Nihilist? Ben Watson. Appreciative review of Sinclair's novels and poetry.
5. Marxist Literary Criticism. Stephen Conway. 1996. Short but cogent article.
6. Marxism and Art: An Introduction to Trotsky’s Writings on Art. Alan Woods. Dec. 2000.
marxism_and_art.html. Long article, with links to more of Trotsky's writings. NNA
7. Marxist Internet Archive. Very extensive directory.
8. Marxism. Brief article but good links.
9. Karl Marx. Jonathan Wolff. Aug. 2003. Detailed entry, with short bibliography but only one link.
10. Georg Lukács. Eve Tavor Bannet. 1997. hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/georg_lukacs.html. Detailed article, with some intext links.
11. Existentialism. Georg Lukács. 1945/2001. Example of Lukács's writing, translated from the German by Henry F. Mins.
12. Bertolt Brecht. Introduction, with a few links.
13. Bertolt Brecht. 1995. goodwoman/brecht_bio.html. Encyclopaedia Britannica entry.
14. International Brecht Society. Feb. 2004. Very full resources.
15. Max Horkheimer. ehorkheimervita.htm. Detailed biography and bibliography.
16. Theodor Adorno. Brief outline of ideas, plus links.
17. Theodor W. Adorno. Lambert Zuidervaart. May 2003. Detailed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
18. Herbert Marcuse Association. Christian Fuchs. Aug. 2003.
. Good bibliographies and listings.
19. Fragments of the Passagenwerk. A meander through the Arcades project of Walter Benjamin
20. International Walter Benjamin Gesellschaft. Donate Lissner and Karl Solibakke. Very extensive site, in German and English.
21. Illuminations: The Critical Theory Website. Douglas Brown and Douglas Kellner. Dec. 1998. Short collections of links relating to the important figures of the Frankfurt School.
22. Louis Althusser. Jan. 2004. Introduction, with in-text liks.
23. Marxist Media Theory: Althusser. Daniel Chandler. Oct. 2002.
Documents/marxism/marxism09.html. A critical look at Marxist media theory.
24. Louis Althusser Archive. Brief articles and links.
25. Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". Mary Klages. Nov. 2001.
ENGL2012Klages/1997althusser.html. Marxism and Structuralism, an extended essay.
26. Pierre Macherey. Sep. 2003. Brief notes.
27. Terry Eagleton. 1999. critical/eagleton.htm. Brief biography.
28. In the Gaudy Supermarket. Terry Eagleton. May 1999. A London Review of Books review of A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present by Gayatri Chakravorty.
29. Frederic Jameson. William McPheron. 1999. Excellent introduction, with exerpts, interviews, links, etc.
30. 'Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism' by Frederic Jameson. Wes Cecil. 1990.
. Book review.
31. Fredric Jameson. Douglas Kellner. illuminations/kell19.htm. Rather technical article on Jameson and Postmodernism.
32. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. Introduction to types, bibliographies and Internet listings.
33. Why Marx is man of the moment. Francis Wheen.,6903,1530250,00.html. Sunday July 17, 2005 article in UK Observer on Marx's continuing relevance.