Marxist literary criticism is based upon the political and economic theories of the German philosopher Karl Marx. In works like The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, written with Frederick Engels , Marx proposes a model of history in which economic and political conditions determine social conditions. Marx and Engels were responding to social hardships stemming from the rise of capitalism. Appropriately, their theories are formulated specifically to analyze how society functions in a state of upheaval and constant change.
A materialist view of history
Using Hegel's theory of dialectic , which suggests that history progresses through the resolution of contradictions within a particular aspect of reality, Marx and Engels posit a materialist account of history that focuses upon the struggles and tensions within society. As society forms more complex modes of production, it becomes increasingly stratified; and the resulting tensions necessitate changes in society. For example, the introduction of heavy machinery into the feudal economic system fragmented existing social structures and necessitated a move towards capitalism.
The base and superstructure model
Within Marx's dialectical account of history is the idea that a given individual's social being is determined by larger political and economic forces. Marx writes that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines consciousness." Simply stated, the social class into which a person is born determines her outlook and viewpoints.
Marx then expands this concept of determination into one of the central concepts of Marxism--that of base and superstructure. The base is the economic system on which the superstructure rests; cultural activities--such as philosophy or literature--belong in the superstructure. To Marxist critics, a society's economic base determines the interests and styles of its literature; it is this relationship between determining base and determined superstructure that is the main point of interest for Marxist critics.
Marx believes that because the superstructure is determined by the base, it inevitably supports the ideologies of the base. Ideologies are the changing ideas, values, and feelings through which individuals experience their societies. They present the dominant ideas and values as the beliefs of society as a whole, thus preventing individuals from seeing how society actually functions. Literature, as a cultural production, is a form of ideology, one that legitimizes the power of the ruling class. In the eighteenth century, for example, literature was used by the English upper classes both to express and transmit the dominant value systems to the lower classes.
Georg Lukacs and the Social Realists
There is a great deal of difference in opinion among Marxist literary critics concerning the relationship...