Literary Theory and CriticismMarxism

Marxism Literary Theory and Criticism in Literature

4 Mins read

Marxist criticism is a theory that is commonly related by people to communism. Marxism is used in communist countries, such as USSR or Soviet Union (Russia), China, North Korea, and Cuba. This theory was developed by a German philosopher named Karl Marx, and he developed this theory along with his friend, a German sociologist named Friedrich Engels. Marxism is also related to the social-economy classes, especially the higher and lower class. The class itself was formed when the Industrial Revolution began in England.

Basics of Marxism

The economy is the base form of our life. Tyson stated that getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities for Marxism. Economic is the base upon which the superstructure of social, political, and ideological realities is built.

From the Marxist’s point of view, “the differences in the socio-economic class divide people more significantly than just dividing them into religion, race, ethnicity, and gender.” The socio-economic class is divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots,” or in other, we can say bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The bourgeoise are those who control the world’s natural, economic, and human resources. They seem like the leaders of society. They have everything needed to rule the community itself. They are superior to the people who are in the lower class. The proletariat is the majority of the society and population who live in substandard conditions and have always performed manual labor, like mining, factory work, railroad building, etc.

The proletariat, although they have a large number of ‘members,’ always under the rule of the bourgeoise, and they cannot do anything because economically, they have no enough money or wealth. The bourgeoise have the money and capital to rule those large numbers of people because money is their weapon.

To Marxism, ideology is ‘the ruling ideas of the ruling class’ or the belief system, and all these religions are the products of cultural conditioning. For example, capitalism, communism, religion, etc., are not ‘innocent’ but are ‘determined’ by the economic base’s nature known as economic determinism.

Read About: Defamiliarization in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

Marxism in Literature

Marxist literary criticism incorporates phenomena like base, superstructure, economic determinism, and ideology remarkably. Let’s see the definition of Michael Rayan, who defines Marxist literary criticism as “… an understanding of the social roots of literature with a sense of its political ramifications”. 

French Marxist theoretician, Louis Althusser, contributes a lot to the Marxist perspective. His ideas are indebted to structuralism also. He theorizes that an effect arises from a variety of causes; it is over determinism. In his notion of relative autonomy, he propounds that art has a degree of independence from economic forces despite the connection between culture and economics.

Now, ideology is a crucial term for Althusser like other Marxists. He defines, “Ideology is a system of representations (image, myths, ideas or concepts according to the case) endowed with an existence and a historical role at the heart of a given society.” He sees that a work of literature neither provides a complete understanding of the natural world nor does it simply lend expression to a specific class’s ideology.

He further theorizes that ideology works through ISA (Ideological State Apparatuses- the political system, the law, education, organized religion, etc.). What we do or believe is ideological. Even when we think that we are acting according to our free will, it is really by the RSA (Repressive State Apparatuses – the police, the army, the jail, etc.). But, the ideology like democracy makes us feel free, but RSA ties us. Here prevails the trick- Interpellation- as Althusser calls. A novel makes its audience think that the characters are free in the world depicted in the text, but they are also in the ideology’s grip.

Before Althusser, an Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, has focused on hegemony which becomes another essential issue in this literary criticism. To Gramsci, hegemony is “the whole lived social process as practically organized by specific and dominant meanings, values and beliefs of a kind which can be abstracted as a ‘world-view’ or ‘class outlook.’

How to Analyse Literary Work from Marxist Viewpoint?

The critic regards literature as the product of material or historical conditions. A text reflects the existing ideology of a particular society. He/she also shows the relationship between it and people, or the subjugators and the subjugated. He/she examines whether the text is the critique of Capitalism or any Ideology. The critic must analyze whether the work is the critique of capitalized society or the ally of it. So, he/she considers some questions: is the literary work an analysis of any ideology? How is Marxism reflected in the creative work?

The text’s content is of two types: the overt (surface) and covert (latent) content. The critic relates the covert content to the basic Marxist themes – such as class struggle. He/she also describes the content of the text to the social class status of the author. The critic, then, explains the significance of the literary genre in terms of the social period which ‘produced’ it. For example, a feudal society produces a tragedy, and it speaks of a particular society, like Shakespeare’s King Lear.

King Lear dramatizes the conflict between the aristocracy and emerging capitalism thoroughly. Not only this, but it also symbolizes the contemporary ‘crisis of aristocracy’ caused by the loss of its economic power /land, and finally exposes the old and blind system is destroyed, but the destruction ushers the vision of a new, more compassionate, and just system to be established.


In his work, Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, states, “(Marxist criticism) analyses literature in terms of the historical conditions that produce it.” It is, however, not merely ’sociology of literature.’ So, the importance of the application of Marxist theory to literary analysis is undeniable.

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