Friday, December 01, 2006

Marxist Criticism (1)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) were primarily concerned with economic, political and philosophical issues and worked out explanations of the capitalist theory and mode of production. They did not develop an ‘aesthetic’ of culture or literature, although they did say quite traditional things about Greek art which suggest that Marx himself believed in the relative autonomy of art (cf. Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, 1857, and Hans Robert Jauss’s article in New Literary History, titled The Idealist Embarrassment). However, Marxist principles and attitudes and modes of thought and inquiry have been adapted to create a Marxist theory of literature: what it has been, and what it might and, perhaps, should be. The Marxist critic (who tends to be primarily interested in content) writes from the definite standpoint of Marx’s philosophical ideas, and from his view of history in which the class struggle is fundamental, or in terms of socio-historical factors.

Much earlier Marxist criticism has been devoted to a reconstruction of the past on the basis of historical evidence in order to find out to what extent a text (say, a novel) is truthful and accurate representation of social reality at any given time. As Trotsky suggested in Literature and Revolution (1924): “Artistic creation is a changing and a transformation of reality in accordance with the peculiar laws of art.”

The concept of “Social Realism” (q.v.) marked and important advance in the development of Marxist and, ipso facto, Communist views on literature—and art in general. Basically, socialist realism required a writer (or any artist) to be committed to the working-class cause of the Party. And it required that literature should be ‘progressive’ and should display a progressive outlook on society. This necessitated forms of optimism and realism. Moreover, doctrine demanded that literature should be accessible to the masses. This was particularly true of the novel.

Modernism (q.v.) in Western literature was deemed to be decadent (especially by critics such as Georg Lukacs) because it was, among other things, subjective, introverted and introspective and displayed a fragmented vision of the world. By contrast, the 19th century realist novel was extolled. However, a certain amount of squaring of circles and an element of double-think was involved, especially in relation to such novelists as Dostoievski and Goncharow, for example, who were profoundly pessimistic and introverted.
(To be continued.......)

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