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Marxism Literary Criticism

Perhaps there haven't been many ideologies in the history of civilisation that were as divisive as Marxism. A number of both military and ideological wars have been waged against this doctrine that provided the ideological framework for the political system known as communism. Have you ever wondered why this social and economic philosophy gained notoriety in history? 

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Marxism Literary Criticism


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Perhaps there haven't been many ideologies in the history of civilisation that were as divisive as Marxism. A number of both military and ideological wars have been waged against this doctrine that provided the ideological framework for the political system known as communism. Have you ever wondered why this social and economic philosophy gained notoriety in history?

Other than its enormous social and political influence, Marxism has also had an impact on different aspects of culture, such as the study of literature and arts. The branch of literary theory and criticism inspired by Marxism came to be known as Marxist literary criticism. It examines how literature portrays materialism and class struggles. Here is a brief look at the class ideology of Marxist literary criticism, its methodology, analysis, and examples.

Communism: is the system of government based on public ownership of property. It is closely aligned with the ideas of Marxism.

Marxism literary criticism: summary

Key philosophers behind classical Marxism are the German philosophers Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). Their books Das Kapital (1867), The Communist Manifesto (1848) and The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) laid the foundation for the theory and philosophy of Marxism. The Marxist theory combines philosophy, sociology, and economic theory to assert that society is fundamentally created in relation to its economic structure.

Sociology: the study of society and social issues.

In the Marxist theory of economics, social organisation and development are ultimately determined by what people do with their vocational tools, known as the 'forces of production', or simply 'the means of production'1.

It also divides society into two parts: base and superstructure. Base refers to the modes of production, and superstructure refers to everything else in society that develops in relation to the economic base. The economic base in society generates and shapes social systems called the superstructure. The superstructure is made of different aspects of life, such as religion, politics, philosophy, art, science, and literature.

The Marxist theory pays attention to the relations between the base and the superstructure.

Historical materialism is the Marxist approach to history that holds the view that social change (superstructure) takes place in relation to the economic base.

Dialectical materialism is the combination of dialectics (philosophy) and materialism that forms the theoretical foundation of Marxism. It examines the nature of things from the framework of materialism.

Communism is a system of government inspired by the principles of Marxism, based on the collective ownership of goods and resources, aspiring to create a classless system.

Ideology is a Marxist term that refers to dominant ideas that exist in a culture. Our culture is shaped by different kinds of ideologies. For example, religious ideologies, political ideologies, ideologies regarding art, culture, language and so on.

Ideologies influence how people think about these aspects of life and culture and shape popular thinking and cultural norms. The concept of ideology is closely tied to the idea of false consciousness. False consciousness refers to the set of beliefs and convictions that prevent an individual from perceiving the truth about social and economic realities. For Marx, ideology is a feature of the superstructure generated by the economic base and works to justify the base.

Marxism Summary StudySmarterFig. 1 Karl Marx remains an influential figure in many societies across the world.

According to Engels, ideology is like an illusion, prompting or nudging people to believe certain things about themselves and the world around them. Ideologies also provide them with values that signify their class identification.

Bourgeoisie (or bourgeois): a member of the middle class with materialist and conventional values.

Proletariat: members of the working class.

Marxism literary criticism: class ideology

As we discussed, from the point of view of historical materialism, people tend to form their social connections around their tools or vocation. These are called the relations of production. The relations of production and the means of production together are called the modes of production.

For instance, workers in a factory add more value to the raw materials so that the end product is worth more than the raw material they started with. This excess in value, known as the surplus, is owned by the capitalist (one who owns the means of production). The factory owner gets the profit from selling the product, and the worker is alienated from the results of their labour.

In addition to being alienated from the profits of their labour, in the capitalist economic system, the worker is also alienated from themselves because they sell their time and labour, reducing them to a commodity. The Marxist idea of alienation is widely discussed with regard to literature, especially if you view the book as a commodity.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Marx believed that history is essentially the story of different sections, known as classes, of society and their struggles and conflicts.

Marxism literary criticism: analysis

Marxist literary theory and criticism analyse literature from a Marxist perspective. There are many ways of explaining the role of Marxism in literature and literary theory. In general, Marxist literary theory examines

  • how literature is part of the superstructure and can never fully escape the influence of its social and economic contexts.
  • how literature may sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, become a channel to articulate certain ideologies.
  • how the economic mode of production, say capitalism in most societies today, determine, control, or influence the creation of a text, either in content or form.
  • how literary works interact with the ideologies around them.
  • the extent to which the social and economic background of the author informs the literary text.
  • how literature reflects the world around in its portrayal of characters and their lives, with an emphasis on class.

Marxism literary criticism: examples

As a theory, Marxism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and soon came to be reflected in contemporary literature.

A genre of literature and art known as socialist realism was declared the official mode of composition in the Soviet Union in 1932. It presented idealised narratives of people who persevered against all odds, predicated on socialism and a classless society. Even though socialist realism followed the realist tradition of writers like Anton Checkov (1860–1904), Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), it lacked the critical outlook of 19th-century Russian realism and is criticised as a propagandist mode of art.

Russian realism explored life in a direct manner, often through satire, humour, and a realistic depiction of life and the social environment. It flourished in the midst of ideological battles and tense social and political junctures.

Marxism and literature are connected in different ways. For example, we can do a Marxist analysis of a text that predates marxism.

Romeo and Juliet (1597) by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

The social background behind the love story in Romeo and Juliet is more broadly developed than in any other Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet are caught in the crossfire of a hereditary family feud between the Montagues and Capulets that dates back to feudal times. It is noteworthy that both families belong to a bourgeois social class with long-standing wealth. Shakespeare also introduces elements in the plot that highlight the class associations and conflicts of the main characters.

The lovers' struggle symbolises the conflict between the rising bourgeois values against feudalism during the transition from the middle ages towards Renaissance. This struggle is also palpable in the language Shakespeare uses in the play.

There are a number of fictional works that were inspired by Marxist ideology or offer a critique of communism and socialism.

Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell (1903–1950)

Now a classic, Orwell's novel is an allegory for the Russian revolution and the rise of Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) in Russia. It presents a critique of socialism and ideas of Marxism by including satirical plot threads on several core tenets of Marxism, such as class struggle. Orwell uses animals with human traits as characters in this story about animals on a farm who plot a rebellion against the human farmer for liberty and equality.

There are several books on the Marxist theory of literature and culture that advanced the Marxist ideas and made more nuanced arguments about class and citizenship in the era of globalisation and technology.

  • Marxism and Literature (1977) by Raymond Williams (1921–1988)
  • Prison Notebooks (1948) by Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937)
  • Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (1970) by Louis Althusser (1918–1990)

Marxism literary criticism: significance

Marxism is important in literary studies for several reasons:

  • A number of classics in literature today were inspired by Marxist ideology. For example, the works of Marx were a huge influence on the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956).
  • Works of Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) were written during the Soviet era and reflect life under communism. These are, therefore, inevitably linked to Marxism.
  • Marxism flourished as a theory of culture and society. Theorists such as Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), Aijaz Ahmed (1941–2022), and more have developed theories of art, culture and literature with Marxism as their foundation.
  • The intersection of Marxism and other branches of cultural theory allows for a closer look at the characters and circumstances in a text. For example, Marxist feminism is a merger of Marxist and feminist ideas that helps to examine the experiences of women in capitalist patriarchy.

Patriarchy: a system of government and social organisation in which men are dominant and hold positions of power.

Marxism Literary Criticism - Key takeaways

  • Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory that came to prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • The ideas and philosophy of Marxism are based on the works of the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
  • The central idea of Marxism is that society is structured around the economic activity of a society.
  • In any society, there is an economic base based on which other aspects of life (the superstructure) are generated.
  • Marxist literary theory is a type of literary analysis that examines works of literature from a Marxist point of view.


  1. 1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1867
  2. 2. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

Frequently Asked Questions about Marxism Literary Criticism

Marx proposed that in every society there is an economic base based on which all other aspects of life develop. Marx called this a superstructure. 

Marx approached literature from the framework of dialectical materialism instead of the outlook of idealistic aesthetics. 

Marxist literary criticism looks at the social and economic conditions that influence the creative processes behind a text as well as its ideological tensions and affiliation.

Marxist literary criticism examines how literature becomes part of the superstructure, how literature becomes a site for ideological battles and propaganda, and how it portrays class struggles and conditions of the world. 

Marxist-leaning writers write with an awareness of the ideas of Marxism and the Marxist analysis of the world. Even when a text is not explicitly political, it may still carry a worldview that reflects some form of ideology at all times. 

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