Marxist Criticism

Marxist Criticism refers to a method you'll encounter in literary and cultural analysis. It breaks down texts and societal structures using foundational concepts like class, alienation, base, and superstructure. By understanding this, you'll gain insights into how power dynamics and socio-economic factors influence narratives and cultural perspectives

This illustration depicts as woman who is looking through glasses that say "class" and "alienation"

What is Marxist Criticism?

Marxist Criticism refers to both

  1. an interpretive framework
  2. a genre of discourse.

Marxist Criticism as both a theoretical approach and a conversational genre within academic discourse. Critics using this framework analyze literature and other cultural forms through the lens of Marxist theory, which includes an exploration of how economic and social structures influence ideology and culture. For example, a Marxist reading of a novel might explore how the narrative reinforces or challenges the existing social hierarchy and economic inequalities.

Marxist Criticism prioritizes four foundational Marxist concepts:

  1. class struggle
  2. the alienation of the individual under capitalism
  3. the relationship between a society’s economic base and
  4. its cultural superstructure.

Related Concepts

Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Literary Criticism; Semiotics; Textual Research Methods


Why Does Marxist Criticism Matter?

Marxist criticism thus emphasizes class, socioeconomic status, power relations among various segments of society, and the representation of those segments. Marxist literary criticism is valuable because it enables readers to see the role that class plays in the plot of a text.

What Are the Four Primary Perspectives of Marxism?

Key TermsDefinitions
Classa classification or grouping typically based on income and education
Alienationa condition Karl Heinrich Marx ascribed to individuals in a capitalist economy who lack a sense of identification with their labor and products. The estrangement individuals feel in capitalist societies, where they become disconnected from their work, the products they produce, and even themselves.
Basethe means (e.g., tools, machines, factories, natural resources) and relations (e.g., Proletariat, Bourgeoisie) or production that shape and are shaped by the superstructure (the dominant aspect in society). Marxist criticism theorizes that the economic means of production within society account for the base.
Superstructurethe social institutions such as systems of law, morality, education, and their related ideologies, that shape and are shaped by the base. Human institutions and ideologies—including those relevant to a patriarchy—that produce art and literary texts comprise the superstructure.

Did Karl Marx Create Marxist Criticism?

Karl Marx himself did not create Marxist criticism as a literary or cultural methodology. He was a philosopher, economist, and sociologist, and his works laid the foundation for Marxist theory in the context of social and economic analysis. The key concepts that Marx developed—such as class struggle, the theory of surplus value, and historical materialism—are central to understanding the mechanisms of capitalism and class relations.

Marxist criticism as a distinct approach to literature and culture developed later, as thinkers in the 20th century began to apply Marx’s ideas to the arts and humanities. It is a product of various scholars and theorists who found Marx’s social theories to be useful tools for analyzing and critiquing literature and culture. These include figures such as György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, and later the Frankfurt School, among others, who expanded Marxist theory into the realms of ideology, consciousness, and cultural production.

So, while Marx provided the ideological framework, it was later theorists who adapted his ideas into what is now known as Marxist criticism.

Who Are the Key Figures in Marxist Theory?

Bressler notes that “Marxist theory has its roots in the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Heinrich Marx, though his ideas did not fully develop until the twentieth century” (183).

Key figures in Marxist theory include Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, and Louis Althusser. Although these figures have shaped the concepts and path of Marxist theory, Marxist literary criticism did not specifically develop from Marxism itself. One who approaches a literary text from a Marxist perspective may not necessarily support Marxist ideology.

For example, a Marxist approach to Langston Hughes’s poem “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” might examine how the socioeconomic status of the speaker and other citizens of New York City affect the speaker’s perspective. The Waldorf Astoria opened during the midst of the Great Depression. Thus, the poem’s speaker uses sarcasm to declare, “Fine living . . . a la carte? / Come to the Waldorf-Astoria! / LISTEN HUNGRY ONES! / Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the / new Waldorf-Astoria” (lines 1-5). The speaker further expresses how class contributes to the conflict described in the poem by contrasting the targeted audience of the hotel with the citizens of its surrounding area: “So when you’ve no place else to go, homeless and hungry / ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags” (lines 15-16). Hughes’s poem invites readers to consider how class restricts particular segments of society.

What are the Foundational Questions of Marxist Criticism?

  1. What classes, or socioeconomic statuses, are represented in the text?
  2. Are all the segments of society accounted for, or does the text exclude a particular class?
  3. Does class restrict or empower the characters in the text?
  4. How does the text depict a struggle between classes, or how does class contribute to the conflict of the text?
  5. How does the text depict the relationship between the individual and the state? Does the state view individuals as a means of production, or as ends in themselves?

Example of Marxist Criticism

Discussion Questions and Activities: Marxist Criticism

  1. Define class, alienation, base, and superstructure in your own words.
  2. Explain why a base determines its superstructure.
  3. Choose the lines or stanzas that you think most markedly represent a struggle between classes in Langston Hughes’s “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria.” Hughes’s poem also addresses racial issues; consider referring to the relationship between race and class in your written response.
  4. Contrast the lines that appear in quotation marks and parentheses in Hughes’s poem. How do these lines differ? Does it seem like the lines in parentheses respond to the lines in quotation marks, the latter of which represent excerpts from an advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria published in Vanity Fair? How does this contrast illustrate a struggle between classes?
  5. What is Hughes’s purpose for writing “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria?” Defend your interpretation with evidence from the poem.

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