Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Marxist Criticism

Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde


Karl Marx (1818-1883) was primarily a theoristand historian (less the evil pinko commie demon that McCarthyismfretted about). After examining social organization in a scientificway (thereby creating a methodology for social science: politicalscience), he perceived human history to have consisted of a seriesof struggles between classes–between the oppressed and the oppressing.Whereas Freud saw “sexual energy” to be the motivatingfactor behind human endeavor and Nabokov seemed to feel artisticimpulse was the real factor, Marx thought that “historicalmaterialism” was the ultimate driving force, a notion involvingthe distribution of resources, gain, production, and such matters.

The supposedly “natural” politicalevolution involved (and would in the future involve) “feudalism”leading to “bourgeois capitalism” leading to “socialism”and finally to “utopian communism.” In bourgeois capitalism,the privileged bourgeoisie rely on the proletariat–the laborforce responsible for survival. Marx theorized that when profitsare not reinvested in the workers but in creating more factories,the workers will grow poorer and poorer until no short-term patchingis possible or successful. At a crisis point, revolt will leadto a restructuring of the system.

For a political system to be considered communist,the underclasses must own the means of production–not the governmentnor the police force. Therefore, aside from certain first-centuryChristian communities and other temporary communes, communismhas not yet really existed. (The Soviet Union was actually state-runcapitalism.)

Marx is known also for saying that “Religionis the opiate of the people,” so he was somewhat aware ofthe problem that Lenin later dwelt on. Lenin was convinced thatworkers remain largely unaware of their own oppression since theyare convinced by the state to be selfless. One might point tomany “opiates of the people” under most political systems–diversionsthat prevent real consideration of trying to change unjust economicconditions.

Marxist Criticism

According to Marxists, and to other scholarsin fact, literature reflects those social institutions out ofwhich it emerges and is itself a social institution with a particularideological function. Literature reflects class struggle and materialism:think how often the quest for wealth traditionally defines characters.So Marxists generally view literature “not as works createdin accordance with timeless artistic criteria, but as ‘products’of the economic and ideological determinants specific to thatera” (Abrams 149). Literature reflects an author’s own classor analysis of class relations, however piercing or shallow thatanalysis may be.

The Marxist critic simply is a careful readeror viewer who keeps in mind issues of power and money, and anyof the following kinds of questions:

  • What role does class play in the work; whatis the author’s analysis of class relations?
  • How do characters overcome oppression?
  • In what ways does the work serve as propagandafor 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?

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. “Marxist Criticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 147-153.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature