Essay on Marxism and Literary Criticism.

Question) Eagleton's essay on Marxism and Literary Criticism.


Marxist Criticism

Marxist Criticism studies the nature, existence and function of art and criticism on the basis of the ideas propounded by Marx and Engels. Marxist Criticism interprets art and literature in the light of these revised and modified interpretations by various critics such as. Raymond Williams, George Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht, Louis Althusser, Lucien Goldmann, Terry Eagleton and many others.

Materialistic basis of the world

Marx supported the materialistic basis of the world, as compared to the philosophical basis. He believed in the primacy and supremacy of matter over spirit. This is called his philosophical materialism. Marx's doctrine of dialectical materialism is based on Hegel's philosophy of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Influenced by this idea of Hegel, Marx believed that the entire nature was in constant flux and motion and it was undergoing a continuous clash between the contradictory forces like body and soul, heart and head, war and peace, etc.

History according to Marx Marx considers history not a story of the rise and fall of the kings and emperors or administrators. He says that the whole of history has been a process of the relationship between the two classes the rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He also believes that there has been constant exploitation of the poor by the rich. He holds that in future, the poor will bring a revolution and this will result in the establishment of a classless society called communism. This classless society will be an ideal society because it will be based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.



Our life depends upon the production of materials such as foodgrains, cotton, oil, vegetables, petrol, cloth; etc. The labour class produces the foodstuff while the management is done by the capitalist class. Thus there exists a relationship between the capitalist class which owns the means of production and the proletariat class which works as labour and whose power is purchased by the capitalist as they come together. These relations of production form the economic base or infrastructure.


There is a relationship between the capitalist class and the proletariat class in the matter of the production of the necessities of life. This is known as an economic base. Out of the economic base, there emerges the superstructure. Superstructure means our political, social, intellectual, religious, ethical life, etc. The superstructure includes such things as religion, morality, law, philosophy, culture, art, literature, etc. According to Terry Eagleton superstructure consists of certain forms of social consciousness (political, religious, ethical, aesthetic and so on.).

Relationship between base and superstructure

Before Marx, it was thought that superstructure had an independent and autonomous status. It was supposed to be self-sustaining, eternal and universal. The superstructure was considered God-given (as in the case of religion and morality). Literature and morality were thought to be inspired from above. Laws and judicial ideas were the results of universal human wisdom. Marx broke this notion of super-structure. He revolutionized the idea of super-structure. He connected all forms of the superstructure with the economic base. He said that the base determines the superstructure and that the changes in the base bring about the Su changes in different aspects of the super-structure. Some of the critics and philosophers misinterpreted the above ideas of Marx. They felt that Marx was establishing a one-to-one correspondence (relationship) between base and superstructure. That is, if the base is good, the super-structure will also be good because the super-structure always emerges out of the base. However, if the base is bad, then the superstructure will also be poor. Marx's friend Engels clarified that Marx never meant to establish this kind of one-to-one relationship between base and superstructure. Even out of a poor base, a wonderful work of art (which is a part of super-structure) could be produced. The Greek Age which had a poor economic base produced wonderful works of art.

The relationship between super-structure (also called "consciousness by Terry Eagleton") and economic base is a dialectical process. This relationship is very complex. Sometimes, the super-structure can change the base. Out of all aspects of the superstructure, political ideas affect the economic base in the most obvious manner. It is this which led Lenin to say that politics is concentrated economics (base). The political ideas of any party or any class in fact represent the economic interests of that class. Thus the political ideas (superstructure) affect the economic base. Likewise, laws and legal ideas (superstructure) emerge out of the obligations and expectations of the ruling class. Laws also emerge as a result of economic changes and in this process, both the ruling class and the proletariat (labour) class have their own interests and play their own role in formulating laws. Thus we see that the super-structure (political ideas, laws etc.) can change the economic base of society.


The super-structure consists of certain definite forms of social consciousness (political, religious, ethical, aesthetic and so on). This is called "ideology" in Marxism. The function of ideology is to legitimate the power of the ruling class in society. The dominant ideas of society are the ideas of its ruling class. Ideology is not a set of doctrines. It signifies the way men live out their roles in class society, the values, ideas and images which tie them to their social functions and so prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole. Ideology plays a great part in society. According to Karl Marx, ideology consists of a definite structure that strengthens or supports the power of a particular social class; but Eagleton says that ideology never simply reflects the ideas of the ruling class. On the contrary, it is a complex phenomenon that may incorporate contradictory views of the world. To understand an ideology we must analyse the relations between different classes in a society and to do that means grasping where those classes stand in relation to the mode of production.

The place of Art in Marxism Art is,

for Marxism, a part of the superstructure of society. To understand literature means understanding the total social process of which art is a par Literary works are therefore inspired not by the author's life and psychology They are particular ways of seeing the world. The work of art reflects the social mentality or ideology of an age. All art springs from the ideological conception of the world. Ideology signifies the way men live out their role in class society.

Relationship between literature (super-structure) and base,

Eagleton says that literature may be a part of the superstructure but it is not a passive reflection of the economic base.' He says that there is no one-to-one relationship between base and superstructure. That is, it is not always correct to say that a good society or a good economic base would always produce good literature. A poor economic base can also produce good literature. For example, the Greek Age which had a poor economic base produced remarkable literature. So, it is not only the economic base alone that is important in the production of good literature. Good literature (super-structure) can also bring reformation in the base by affecting change in the thinking and attitude of people (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat). But it is not correct to say that literature alone influences the Economic Base. Other elements of the superstructure such as the revolution of the labouring class, political, legal and philosophical theories, religious ideas (super-structure) also influence the economic base.

The relationship between literature and ideology

All art springs from an Ideological conception of the world. Classical Marxists like Plekhanov believe that a work of art is never devoid of ideological content. According to the classical Marxists, The Waste Land is ideological; it shows a man making sense of his experience in a particular way and this method does not give us a true picture of society. There are two extreme positions-one is that literature is nothing but ideology in a certain art form that works of art are just expressions of the ideology of their time. Eagleton says that this view of literature is reductionist and it is upheld by "vulgar Marxist Criticism" Another extreme position is that literature challenges the ideology it confronts. Both are extreme views. Authentic art, as Ernest Fischer argues in his Art Against Ideology always transcends the ideological limits of its time, yielding us insights into the realities which ideology hides from us.


Map of Society and How Superstructure dominates the Base.

Marxism and classless society

Marxism aspires for a classless society in which everyone should enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities regardless of caste, colour and creed. Everyone should get the wages according to his capacity, potentiality and requirements. The whole struggle of Marxism is the struggle for a classless society. Reductionist form of Marxism The reductionist form of Marxism lies in the view that literature is nothing but an ideology in a certain art form and that works of art are just expressions of the ideology of the time. Eagleton says that this view of literature is reductionist (narrow) and it is propounded by "vulgar Marxist Criticism." Literature is too comprehensive to be bound by a particular ideology. The Marxist view that literature always justifies the power of the ruling class over the labour class is also reductionist (narrow). Since some of the Marxist critics believe that literature is the product of the socio-economic milieu (Base) they emphasize the study of the Marxist content in literature. This is a reductionist view of literature because they ignore the study of the aesthetic aspects of a work of art. The formalist critics of the early 20th century emphasized the form of the literary work and undermined the content of a work of art. The neo-Marxist critics like, Terry Eagleton, Lucian Goldmann, George Lukacs, Althusser, Pierre Macherey and others have emphasized the study of the socio-economic factors responsible for the production of a work of art (content) as well as the technical, formal and generic innovations (form) in work of art. The relationship between Content and Form The neo-Marxist critics like Terry Eagleton believe that there should be a unity of form and content, Forms are determined by the kind of contents the literary works have to embody. The form is changed and transformed as the content itself changes. Content is prior to the Form. Content is the base and Form is the superstructure. There is an inevitable relationship between the two. Terry Eagleton holds that we should not only analyse the economic factors (content) that give birth to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land but we should also study the structure and internal complexity (form) of the poem. Marxist Criticism should take cognizance of the fact why T.S. Eliot has chosen the experimental technique in writing this poem. To understand King Lear, The Dunciad or Ulysses means to understand the complex indirect relations between these works and the ideological world they inhabit the relations which emerge not just in themes but in style, rhythm, image, quality and form. Form and content are correlated.



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