Marxism and Literature, Or Bread and Roses



 “You can become a Communist only when you enrich your mind with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind” (V.I. Lenin, “The Tasks Of The Youth Leagues,” Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 413).

“… we can still learn from Balzac and Tolstoy, but should we really be urging comrades to read … Jane Austen?” (Ian Birchall, International Socialism, Series 2, Number 5, Summer 1979, p. 70).

Marxism provides a critical method that is useful and necessary to explain the broad sweep of literary history and also to analyze specific, individual works of literature.

We might first attempt to answer the underlying question, “Why bother?” After all, capitalism gives us a number of urgent matters to discuss. I think we can answer this question strongly and without apology. There are several important and overlapping approaches.

First, we concern ourselves with art because the need for it is within us as human beings; it’s part of what defines us as human. The means of expression change along with economic growth, and with it come changes in form and genre, but underneath it all is a vital need for self-expression. We are hard-wired to tell stories and to see, read, or hear them.

What’s more, if you believe, as I do, that viewing and reading are also creative acts, imaginative activities, then the scope of art cannot be defined narrowly but much more widely.

Our own political movement—that is, the labor movement in the United States—argued strongly for art. More than a hundred years ago a textile strike by immigrant workers in Lawrence, Mass., made famous the song “Bread and Roses.” Its praise for women is well remembered, but it also includes a kind of programmatic demand for art and culture: “Hearts starve as well as bodies/Give us bread, but give us roses.”

And the next stanza adds, “Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew/Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.” More than a hundred years later the struggle for a life free from alienation and oppression, a life where hearts do not starve but prosper, is still our struggle.

Secondly, the analysis of art inevitably becomes an analysis of the society and culture that produced that art. The analysis of literature, for instance, becomes an analysis of the ideas within literature, of its social content, and a criticism of the social relations embedded in the work. Such a criticism complements and may even complete the political critique that Marxists typically would advance. In other words, art reveals society, and in that illumination art suggests certain political lessons.

A third reason to concern ourselves with art is this: If art reveals society, art can also influence society. Art and literature highlight, comment upon, satirize, etc. all of the political and economic issues of their time. Art can make new all that is taken for granted. In the novel alone, think of how this point is shown by this list of characters: Oliver Twist, Jean Valjean, Anna Karenina, Raskolnikov, Bigger Thomas, and my favorite, Yossarian.

How to approach art from a Marxist view?

In Marxist literary criticism, various theories have been developed. Naturally enough, they all derive, in the first instance, from the commentary of Marx and Engels themselves. Marx and Engels never found time to work out a fully articulated critical method for literature, but they did at least provide the ingredients for it.

The source material of Marx and Engels on art and literature roughly falls into three broad categories:

  1. General: the theory of historical materialism, observations about the relationship between the economic base of society and the institutions and ideas that emerge from it and a critical method of analysis.
  2. Fragments: This includes comments on literature and art found in published works, letters, and recollections from family and friends.
  3. Literary References: This includes how Marx and Engels use literary references to illustrate a political or economic point or cite examples from literature.

The first of these sources allows modern critics in the Marxist tradition to analyze literature by means of analogy. We can look at how Marx and Engels critiqued philosophy, religion, law, etc. and essentially transfer their method to literature, allowing for the fact that art will be connected less directly to the economic base.

The letters and published commentary provide a direct, if limited and narrow, approach to literary analysis that can be applied to other literary works.

Let’s briefly cite two well-known examples from Marx’s and Engels’ comments. The first is from Marx in an 1854 letter where he praises Dickens, Thackeray, “Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell” for their ability to portray a literary portrait of the English middle class: “The present splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class.”

Our second reference comes from an 1888 letter by Frederick Engels: “… ‘La Comédie humaine’ gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French ‘Society,’ describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848, the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles … and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economical details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.”

Marx’s and Engels’ letters suggest an analysis that looks to broad trends of artistic and cultural development that can be connected to developments in the productive relations of society. Their emphasis and source of their praise is on history and the extent to which literature is able to reveal the conflict and turmoil that lies beneath the surface of everyday life—in Marx’s words, the “political and social truths.” The emphasis is less on aesthetic concerns and more about the theme and content of a work.

Overall, these comments suggest an analytic approach that demonstrates how the social conditions shape, if not determine, the artistic work and cultural products in general. Generally speaking, and to oversimplify matters, this broad overview approach that shows how art can illuminate social reality and class struggle has been the preferred method of most of the Marxist thinkers who write about literature.

Without entering into a long series of quotations, we can refer to at least some of the following: Lenin’s articles on Tolstoy, Luxemburg’s article on Korolenko, Lunacharsky’s essay “Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism,” and Trotsky’s book “Literature and Revolution,” where he examines the different trends in pre-Soviet and Soviet Russian literature.

So, allow me to repeat what I said at the outset: Marxism provides a critical method that is useful and necessary to explain the broad sweep of literary history and also to analyze specific, individual works of literature. We can assert this point in the following way: The literature of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as “an immense accumulation of texts,” its unit being a single text. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a text.

“Pride and Prejudice”

To discuss the validity of a Marxist approach to literature, it’s only fair to select an example that is not overtly political. We’ll take for consideration Jane Austen’s novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” published in 1813. Briefly put: the novel is a story of courtship and romance set in England of the early 1800s.

Before proceeding further, we should consider the role of the author in producing this work. Of course,it was written by a human being who lived in a certain time and place, who had certain experiences but not others, who occupied a certain position in class society, and was of a certain gender, with all the opportunities, perspectives, etc. that might reasonably apply to that gender.

Terry Eagleton, for instance, called attention to the class position of Jane Austen, “in whose work the situation of the pride-prejudice-title-pageminor gentry offers a peculiarly privileged focus for examining the conflicts and alliances between aristocracy and bourgeoisie” (“Ideology and Literary Form,” from “The Eagleton Reader,” ed. Stephen Regan).

We’ll begin with a consideration of some additional formal, literary qualities. In fact, by focusing on a few words, key words, we open up a window from the novel to the larger social landscape, the world in which the story lives.

In Chapter III we are introduced to Mr. Bingley, a wealthy, eligible bachelor and a friend of a major character, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is notable for his decency and goodness. His “amiable qualities” are set against his friend’s “disagreeable countenance”—thus setting up these characters as foils, in which the positive features of one highlights the negative features of the other. One has what the other lacks. These qualities, along with several more virtues and a few shortcomings (Mr. Darcy is more handsome and clever), combine to produce a well-rounded, balanced character description.

This kind of formal criticism is absolutely necessary for an understanding of the novel. Marxist criticism does not reject but absorbs and builds on this level of analysis. Our method is to go beyond the world of the novel and into the world of its time. So, let’s move to some historical and political considerations. We do so, in the first place, in order to understand the novel better.

Relations between the sexes have been aptly described by Engels as follows: “The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.” The husband, on the other hand, enjoys “a position of supremacy without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat” (“The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” p. 137, International Publishers, 1970).

This is indeed the world of “Pride and Prejudice”—and decades beyond. Simply put, the husband is powerful; the wife is powerless. This relationship of gross inequality is fortified by law, endorsed by religion, and supported by tradition. The social isolation of an individual family would only favor the authority of the husband.

The word “patriarchy” does not overstate the circumstances. The law of primogeniture ensures that wealth and landed estates are passed on to the first male heir of the family—not divided in some fashion among all the children. Then, entailment requires that this heir essentially maintain an estate so that it could, in turn, be inherited by his male heir. Entailment also means—and this is especially important to the Bennets—that absent a male heir, land and property would go to the nearest male relative. He could determine what inheritance the female relations might receive, if any.

Once we understand the reality of the social relations in which the author lived and in which the work was formed, and once we bring this knowledge to bear on the text, we cannot help but obtain a more full and complete understanding of what we have read or observed.

In reference to “Pride and Prejudice,” we can return to the novel with some greater insight. Given what we know of marriage in England in the first half or so of the 19th century, we can regard Mrs. Bennet, for all her flaws, a little differently. Her worry and resolve to get her daughters married, and married well, gives her ample reason to “suffer,” as she says. What’s more, the necessity of marriage for women and the perils it may contain, which turn out to be an important sub-plot of the novel, show readers that Mrs. Bennet is not nearly as frivolous and foolish as she is often portrayed. So, too, Mr. Bennet’s attitude of amused indifference is not so admirable in its disregard of the social realities in which his daughters are entwined.

Furthermore, an unmarried woman has a vital reason to determine whether a future husband will be “amiable” and “agreeable.” The quality of her life and the possibility of her happiness depends considerably upon the extent to which the man possesses these virtues, perhaps even more than the fortune he may also possess.

So, even in this small example, we can conclude that going further than the pages of a novel allows us the opportunity to know that novel better than if we had confined ourselves strictly to the text. Greater understanding or art, and, with it, greater appreciation and pleasure are essential elements of literary criticism. It is also, to use different concepts, a successful combination of theory and practice.

At this point in the commentary – to speak in terms of method – it would be appropriate for a Marxist critic to pivot to the present, to consider at least the novel’s themes, especially for the world in which the reader lives. An analysis of literary style, techniques, form, and so on would hardly be out of place, either. To develop these points properly, an additional article would be necessary.

Finally, though, from our look into “Pride and Prejudice,” what can be determined about the analytical scope of Marxist literary criticism?

We can point to a set of provisional conclusions:

  • Marxism operates on the “macro” level, showing how the broad sweep of social history and class conflict affects the trends and development of literary history.
  • Marxism also contributes on the “micro” level, that is, the traditional study of literary techniques and methods.
  • Marxism combines these approaches, revealing how they are connected. In this process, each is enhanced by the other.

The Marxist critic will go further by relating past to present, by situating the literary work’s conflicts and themes, etc. into present-day reality in order to understand more deeply the ideology and conflicts of our time.

It’s a kind of “permanent revolution” in criticism: in fulfilling the traditional function of a literary critic, the Marxist investigation into art must grow over directly to include a historical dimension that develops into a social critique.

Thus, if the overall purpose of art is, to borrow the classical expression, “to delight and instruct,” to provide pleasure and knowledge, then Marxism carries out its political mission by helping literature fulfill its artistic one.

Illustration: Jan Austen, in a portrait based on a drawing by her sister, Cassandra.




Related Articles

A Tale of Two Summits

Last week (June 8-10) there were two summits in Los Angeles, California: the Summit of the Americas hosted by the US State Department and the Peoples Summit hosted by US and international activist organizations. The two summits were held in the same city at the same time but could not be otherwise more different.