Marxist Literary Criticism: WTF? An Introduction to Marxism and Culture

Hello, my name is Tom and welcome back to my channel and another episode of What the Theory?. Recently, we’ve been taking a look both at some very fundamental approaches to understanding culture such as semiotics and phenomenology but also some very broad terms such as modernism and postmodernism. Generally speaking, these have been pretty successful videos (at least for my quite small channel) and it’s been really, really great to hear your feedback and thoughts and questions on them. Moving forward, what we’re going to do, however, is look in the gap between these; so, looking at some approaches to culture and understanding culture which both build upon those fundamental blocks of semiotics and phenomenology but which are also a little bit smaller and a little bit more useable for analysis than those “isms” which tend to describe ways of societal thinking. And, to start this off, I really wanted to take a look at Marxist Literary Theory but with the idea of using it in attendance to all kinds of culture rather than just literature. We’re gonna be taking a look at how the political and economic thinking of Karl Marx (and not forgetting his good friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels) has inspired a way of looking at and reading cultural texts which really places them into the societal context in which they were created. This is an approach which looks beyond formal decisions such as potentially rhyming schemes in poetry or the particular type of paint that an artist might use in doing a painting to look at the relationship between art and the society around it. Those of you have watched my Politix video introducing that other series that I’m working on will know that this is something that I am hugely interested in in my work, and so I’m excited to be doing this video and to be looking at some similar approaches in upcoming What the Theory? videos. As always, any questions or thoughts or suggestions for future videos are really, really valuable so please don’t hesitate to do that and, if you think this kind of thing is cool, then please do consider subscribing. However, without further ado, here we go. So, to understand Marxist Literary Criticism, it follows that we first need to have some kind of grounding in the thoughts and theories of Marx himself. Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist and political thinker who wrote such works as Das Kapital, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy the Grundrisse and, perhaps most famously for casual viewers, the Communist Manifesto. I’ve already explained some of Marx’s thinking in my other What the Theory? video on Social Class so, apologies if you’ve watched that one, there may be a tiny bit of repetition within this video. However, I’m always really keen not to assume knowledge in these What the Theory? videos and, also, we’re going to be taking these ideas in a slightly different direction because we’re going to be looking specifically how we might use these theories in the critique of culture. Marx argued that all societies throughout history could be viewed as a struggle between two different groups with differing amounts of power. The examples given by Marx and Engels themselves in the opening section of the Communist Manifesto are ‘Free Man and Slave; Patrician and Plebeian; Lord and Serf; Guildmaster and Journeyman; in a word, oppressor and oppressed’. The argument here is that, in any given society, wherever it lies placed in space and time, there is an imbalance of power; one group, usually smaller, tends to hold a lot more power than one other, much larger, group. In an industrial society, argued Marx, this manifests itself as a division between the bourgeoisie (or the ruling class) and the proletariat (or the working class). The former have a much larger amount of economic capital which, due to the way that our society is structured, tends to directly relate to power. Great. Super. But what does any of this have to do with literature or culture more generally? Well, Marx viewed these power relationships as the defining principle of any given society: he called these underlying power structures the economic base. Everything else he referred to as that society’s superstructure. Elements of a superstructure might include the form of politics that that society’s politics takes, it might include its religious or spiritual thinking, in might include its systems of law but, the thing that we’ll be focusing on mostly today, is its culture. Marx suggested that each of these superstructural elements tends to reflect, and in some cases legitimate, the economic base (or the power relationships lying beneath that society). If, at the end of this video I’ve potentially piqued your interest and you want to look further into Marxist Literary Criticism, I’d certainly suggest looking at some examples of how politics and religion can be viewed as reflecting a society’s economic base. Here, however, mainly for reasons of time, we’re going to focus exclusively upon culture. So, the consideration of how cultural texts might be influenced by the economic base of a society (those underlying power relationships) is the central activity of any Marxist critique of literature or culture more generally. In order to start thinking about how culture or, specifically, particular cultural texts might be influenced by the economic base of a given society, I’d like to start by taking a little look at some of the stories surrounding King Arthur which were popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Middle Ages. These narratives were born of a society in which power was overwhelmingly in the hands of Lords who had a considerable amount of control over the Serfs who worked their land. The various tales of King Arthur depict a chivalrous, benevolent nobility who live and fight not just for themselves but for the protection of all. Thus, these literary (or, perhaps most often at the time, verbally communicated) works legitimize the division between Lord and Serf. And they do so by overwhelmingly suggesting that Lords use their power wisely and, rather than masters, are in fact benevolent protectors of their Serfs. Thus, in this heavily simplified example, we can see how the culture of the Middle Ages, specifically in the cultural texts surrounding King Arthur, might have legitimized the economic base of that time. Through the communication of a certain ideology. Ideology, again, is a term introduced by Marx himself as a way of explaining the narratives and ideas which serve, through the superstructure, to legitimate that economic base. Throughout the religion, law and politics of the Middle Ages we again find this similar ideology propagated. This idea that Lords worked for the serfs in some way by protecting them and providing for them when, in reality, the relationship between lords and serfs was incredibly inequitable and oppressive. To fast-forward many hundreds of years, in a similar way there exists narratives within our own society which legitimate that underlying economic base of neoliberal capitalism. As I previously discussed in many of my videos, the economic structure of neoliberal capitalism essentially revolves around heavily unregulated trade both between individuals and, more often, between global corporations and incredibly low tax systems. The fallout of this is that redistributive systems, such as education and healthcare, tend to be heavily underfunded. This economic structure is legitimized by an ideology which tells us of the well-meaning, innovative entrepreneur (and thus the greatness of individualism) who goes on to make the technologies and the industries which will forge the future and serve for economic growth. At the same time, we’re often told that governments and states are bad things and that any regulation from those will lead to inefficiency and bloat. Such an ideology appears very bluntly in Captain America: Civil War, the very dramatic tension of which places that personification of brave, individual America, Captain America, against the dangers of government interference. And, here, we find a slightly more contemporary example of how the ideologies which support the economic base manage to work their way into cultural texts. However, I often find it’s in the understanding of ideology where some people get a little bit lost in understanding Marxist Literary Criticism and Marxist approaches to understanding culture. Because, when we use the word ideology, colloquially we tends to mean someone pushing an idea upon us with a very absolute intent to convince us. And, often what happens is people transpose this more casual view of ideology into their understanding of Marxist Literary Criticism and therefore tend to think that the Marxist approach to culture is to view all culture as some kind of capitalist propaganda. And, indeed, some very early Marxist literary theorists did take this view; they took the idea that, because all culture is produced within a capitalist system, it therefore must in some way end up being pro-capitalist. Yet this clearly isn’t the case. Not even a blockbuster film such as Captain America: Civil War can be accused of such blatant propagandizing and, clearly, there are many, many films and books etc that take a very critical approach to their understanding of the world around us. What we’re simply interested in when taking a Marxist approach to culture, then, is the ways in which a specific cultural texts takes ideas from the world around us, and presents them back to us. We’re interested in the relationship between the cultural texts and the economic base. As always, I find the best way of explaining many of these theories is through using an example. So, I’d like to wrap up with a piece of culture which I hope to most people would have seen or read, and that is Harry Potter. Particularly, I wanted to choose Harry Potter because I think it’s a cultural text which no one can really accuse of being in any way indoctrinary. Although, in later books and films, there are many allusions to the War on Terror in the response to Voldemort coming back, in the early books they come across as fairly politically disengaged. Despite this, we can still undertake a Marxist reading of Harry Potter in order to interrogate how that particular cultural text reflects the economic base of early 1990s neoliberalism. So, we might begin very obliquely with the Dursleys. Harry’s uncle, aunt and cousin who take him in after the death of his parents. Living in the middle-class, suburban Privet Drive, they are not a ridiculously wealthy family yet they are comfortably well-off. The Dursleys are portrayed as destructively self-interested particularly in their hatred for Harry. Rowling was writing Harry Potter in the early 1990s. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, by this point, had left office, yet their legacies were being upheld by John Major and George Bush the elder. The ideology pushed by both was one which sought to galvanize these middle-class voters in such suburbs through arguing that individualism was productive for society and that the greed of such groups was good for society at large because it leads to entrepreneurship and innovation. The Dursleys typify this view of society: they despise the fact they have to look after Harry who, ultimately, they see as not their responsibility and a drain on their resources. The plot proper kicks in, however, when Harry leaves for Hogwarts. In doing so, he becomes part of an exclusive community which most prominently, I think, has access to a certain kind of knowledge (magic) that the Dursleys and their like do not. And, in this, I think we can suggest there is the presence of an opposing ideology that existed at that time and exists to this day; that is, a certain prejudice towards vast swathes of society who they consider, through their disagreement with them, to be many times less clever than themselves. Throughout the books and films, the muggles are portrayed as being fairly simple in contrast to the Wizarding World. In fact, they can’t even be trusted to know that the Wizarding World exists, something we’ve never particularly given a reason for to my knowledge. Thus, even in trying to critique early 1990s individualism and neoliberalism, Harry Potter supports a slightly different ideology, namely a sort of intellectual elitism. In this, we can see how a Marxist Literary Criticism approach to understanding culture can allow us to explore the relationship between that economic base and a particular piece of culture. It allows us to look beyond the ideas of semiotics or phenomenology, which very much looked at how a cultural text makes meaning, to look at what the meanings it’s communicating are and how those relate to the world around them. Marxist Literary Criticism allows us to acknowledge the existence of ideology within a cultural text, whether it’s placed there intentionally or not, and, by extension, allows us to posit what that cultural text might say about the society that produced it. As I began this video by saying, Marx saw much of a society’s superstructure as a reflection of that underlying economic base. When we undertake a Marxist Literary Criticism approach to a piece of culture, then, we’re fundamentally viewing a piece of culture as a piece of evidence about the society that produced it, and we’re taking apart that piece of evidence to explore what the power relationships in a given society might have been. Thank you very much for watching this video. If I’ve piqued your interest here at all then I would suggest perhaps checking out Terry Eagleton’s Marxist Literary Criticism (I believe it’s called) which is very short and engaging introduction to the topic. Or, if you want some slightly more complex reading (but only very slightly more), I’d suggest Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature. Thank you so much for watching. If you have any thoughts, questions or suggestions for future videos than do place those down in the comments below. Other than that, I will see you next time I manage to find some time to put a video together. Thank you very much for watching and have a great week!

  1. Hey all, cheers for watching! Keen to look at a few different, slightly more practical approaches to analysing culture in my next bunch of What The Theory videos. Suggestions for what those might be very much welcome!

    PS Yes, before you ask, deconstruction is on that list already!!

  2. I appreciate your knowledge you are a great guy concerning culture can you do a video about orientatism

  3. Arthur Miller had a unique view of the delineation between the structure and the economic base. While still an adolescent Arthur got into a serious discussion of Marxism. Miller told his father that essentially his dad was a worker. Even though he found the capital to run his coat business and his later enterprises he was a worker in that he assembled the materials and employed the workers and organized the whole mishagas to produce the product. His father didn't have the capital. he borrowed it from the banks at the rates that his credit allowed. It should be noted that the Daily Worker's drama critic condemned "Death of a Salesman" as capitalist theatre. In the play Willy is forced to go to his boss and pleads to be allowed to work in the company's show room in New York. Howard, the son of the founder who at least Willy remembers as naming the boy Howard at Willy's suggestion, is about the last man Willy should have asked for help. Howard has no idea how Willy and his family live on his salary and has even less interest. He condescends to his oldest employee and explains the business to him as he would have to a rank beginner. What troubles me is that at least the Daily Worker critic doesn't allow the audience, much less Miller, the freedom to empathize or hold any but the orthodox Marxist view. At least the American Communist Party had a lot of trouble holding on to artists. The only exception I've found is the novelist Howard Fast who joined after the government had begun prosecuting the party leadership in federal court.

  4. This is absolutely excellent. Thank you very much for taking the time to post such helpful and mind-expanding content!

  5. Hi Tom! Thanks for the video. I am currently researching on the ideia os Gestus in brecht. Would ou have any recommendations of text about it?

  6. Hey Tom, love your videos so much! I'm in a preparation for my PhD next year. I'm interest on absurdism, I currently studying many things from Nietszche, Beckett, Camus to postmodernism. My basic is theater. Do you have any thoughts about the relation between Marxism, culture text and theater? Hope to see your video about it.

  7. Harry Potter: more coins than Scrooge McDuck
    Ron Weasley: Poor as Dirt
    Harry: Wow that sucks, mind if I mooch off ur fam for a while?
    then again I never finished the series. someone plz tell me he bought them a house or gave them money or something like wtf

  8. Culture is always a control issue. The idea is to control behavior, to illustrate acceptable and unacceptable behavior that has very little to with Marxist Class issues. It provides the imaginative context for the struggle of the inner self in relationship with others. It is a social activity that reflects the fundamental human dilemma of Good and Evil.

  9. I just started Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Thank you for your videos!!! They are incredibly helpful. Have you done one on Postculturalism? Again, thank you!

  10. That's why I didn't care for Harry Potter, the wizards were all inherently jerkish. Its rejection of nobility based on money is quickly replaced with a nobility based on intellect

  11. I'm taking a degree which is much more heavy on theory than I had fully anticipated and these videos are such a brilliant introduction to the subject, especially your use of clear (to me) examples! thank you so much

  12. You're delightful Brother!

    That was well structure, clear, and informative.

    Keep up the exquisite work.

  13. The Marxist idea of 2 opposing classes, the smaller group of oppressors and the larger group of oppressed fails to take into account more complex social structures. For example, in the post-Vedic varna system (mistakenly referred to as the "caste system" by Westerners) the top varna, the Brahmins are sworn to lives of austerity, meaning they were as materially impoverished as the bottom varna, the Shudras. The actual administrative varna is below the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas who were the warrior aristocracy. The the merchant varna, the Vaishyas were below the Kshatriyas.

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