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What Is Marxist Criticism?

S. Ashraf
S. Ashraf

Within the area of language and humanities, Marxist criticism is an approach to literary criticism that grew out of the economic, social and political ideologies originally developed by Karl Marx during the 19th century and, as a result, concentrates on the ideological content of a work of literature. Marxist criticism examines a literary effort from the standpoint of the assumptions that it makes and the values that it displays regarding such issues as power, class, race and culture rather than elements of artistic style, form, quality of writing, plot or other yardsticks more commonly used in literary criticism. Although Marxist literary criticism makes use of more traditional literary analysis techniques, concerns about the aesthetics of a piece of literature are secondary to exploring the ultimate political and social meanings that it contains.

In addition to the more traditional techniques of literary criticism, Marxist criticism looks at how the characters relate to each other. Of special interest is the interactions that show the social hierarchy and individual mannerisms of the characters that can be related to different social classes. Marxist criticism is especially interested in what kinds of jobs the characters have in order to place them within the class or economic system. How much they have to work and the level of luxury they live in will often be part of the analysis.

Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.
Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.

The use of free time by the characters is of interest. Free time reflects the individual’s free choice and degree of conformity to society. The role that the government plays in the literary work is analyzed to identify how it played a role, what tools it used and how successful it was with the public.

For Marxist criticism, analyzing literature from a political or social point of view is a natural outgrowth of Marx’s theories. Viewed by a Marxist, the foundation of literature is the ideology and background of the writer. Literature is considered to be a social institution with an identifiable ideological function.

Marxist criticism looks at a work of literature and sees it not the result of either divine or human inspiration or as the purely artistic effort by a writer. Instead, literature is considered to come from the ideological and economic circumstances in which the writer was immersed. For Marxist criticism, the final and most important source of a person's experience is the socioeconomic system of which he or she is a member. The Marxist critic sees literature as just another product of work. Writers produce, the work is sold in the marketplace, and readers consume — it’s all economics.

Discussion Comments


Does anyone know a lot about this topic and can elaborate more? So do Marxists believe that all literature has an agenda and is a propaganda tool for a certain ideology?


@donasmrs-- I don't agree with you. Writing always reflects the social, political and economic ideologies of that society for that time period. That's why historians are able to learn so much about what society was like by reading literature. How else would we know about Ancient Greece if it weren't for the important literature that was written at that time like Homer's works.

These tells us a lot about the type of society Greeks lived in, how the society was administered, how they were organized, the types of jobs people did, what the social classes were like and their religious beliefs and scientific knowledge.

We all have a worldview, and it's shaped by all of these things. Its inevitably expressed when we write. That's what so great about literary criticism. We can learn so much by analyzing literature. And it's no different with Marxist criticism.


Does Marxist criticism truly serve much purpose?

I can see how someone can read a piece of narrative to infer about someone's cultural and social environment. But won't this be just specific to the writer? Not everyone writes to reflect the condition of a whole society. People can lead very enclosed lives.

And what about fiction? Many writers write from the point of view of someone else. Some develop the characters entirely with random sources of inspiration. Sometimes, the characters aren't even human, such as in sci-fi.

So I think that Marxist criticism would only work with certain type of writing and with certain authors. And I don't think that this type of analysis would produce the most objective or accurate result.

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    • Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.
      Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.