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Karl Marx

Marxism is a field of literary criticism based largely on the theories of Karl Marx and the principles of socialism. Marxist theorists employ a dialectical approach to literature and its socioeconomic conditions. They often analyze the relationship between the bourgeoisie (the class in economic and social power) and the proletariat (those under the power of the bourgeoisie) and how that relationship is depicted in literature, as well as how the conditions of such literature reflect this same conflict.

Contrary to popular belief, contemporary Marxism has little to do with communism[1]. Although many of the core tenets of early Marxism are similar to those reflected in Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Marxism has come to embody a wide array of concepts and tactics, many of which deviate from Marx’s notion of economic determinism. Contemporary Marxism often combines traditional socialist ideas with practices from other literary theories such as Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Beyond exploring the economic disparity between classes, contemporary Marxists examine the ways in which ruling classes maintain their hegemony in a variety of ways, introducing such concepts as ideology and interpellation in explaining why social conditions repeat themselves over time.

Marxist critics deviate from other literary theorists such as New Criticism in that they do not approach a text as complete in and of itself. Rather, they consider the social and historical contexts of a piece of literature in order to expose the political nature of art and the conditions that produce it. While some Marxists differ in their interpretations of the functions of literature and art, most argue that their politicization is necessary and central to the practice of Marxist criticism.


Marxism is a form of socioeconomic analysis, founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism is revolutionary by default, as it was established through the fight for self-emancipation of the working class from Bourgeois institutions and ideologies. Marxism is revolutionary socialism, seeking freedom for the working class from exploitation of capitalism. It aims not only to eliminate the capitalist structure, but also to eradicate all forms of institutionalized violence or injustice. For capitalism to truly be overthrown, classes must not only change but also disappear. The goal is not for a role reversal, but rather a dissipation of classes and hierarchy. Marxism aims for collective agency, and power through it.

Marx and Engels began by subjecting the institutions and ideologies of the Capitalist state to intense critique. Origination mid nineteenth century, Marxism began as thoughts of advocacy for socialism. These thinkers were charismatic and shared of vision of a bright future society, which improved the current living conditions towards a socialist future. This socialist movement, however, was scrutinized and taken trivially due to its lack of scientific basis. One of the reasons real evidence was lacking is due to the self-emancipated of the working class, therefore the proletariats inability to understand their exposure to injustice. Marx and Engels, growing in frustration for the lack of recognition of legitimacy, continued their critique of existing ideology, driven by a motivation of a working class revolution. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was the dominant philosopher during Marx’s youth. [2] Hegel philosophized that historical products are what shape the forms which humans interpret reality. This thought was alluring to Marx due to its practicality. Ludwig Feuerbach, another influential philosopher of the time, revealed Hegel’s views as a form of theology—a belief of the governance of God or another entity shaping these forms. Feuerbach however appropriated Hegel’s philosophies, encouraging the thought that humans also created the forms guiding them. French sociologists at the time scrutinized that people are both products and creators in the world in which they exist.

Marx, influenced by all those theories, thought that ideas are products of social relations, which then function to sustain those relations. This behaviour is produced and reproduced, repeated enough that it forms the superstructure of society. Philosophy, according to Marx, gives one a deeper window into the nature of the social realities that have often been abstracted. The daily reality of a Capitalist society is constant buying and selling, and the vastly uneven market relations, which have been repeated to seen natural. Marx aimed to expose the ideological content found in day-to-day life, where class and capital can be exposed. Comments on James Mill was Marx’s first literary work, written in 1844, which critiqued the political economy. Marx and Engels also collaboratively published a newspaper in 1948, called Neue Rheinische Zeitung. [3]Their newspaper, publishing regularly, promoted and organized workers movements. Their most popular book, The Communist Manifesto, published February 21st 1848, was also passionately revolutionary. The aim of Marxism is to bring understanding and a voice to the oppressed classes, and Marx became an extremely revolutionary figure, uniting the working class and encouraging a proletariat democracy.[4]

As the 20th century progressed, Marxism adapted to the contemporary era through constant restructuring and innovation, as the surrounding culture, as well as perspectives generated outside its conceptual space, generated many fleeting currents, schools, groups and unique individual trajectories. The integration of new social and political contexts led to confrontation concerning issues previously unmentioned in Marxism, such as economical globalisation, generalised urbanisation, the effects of revolution brought about by information and communication technologies, and questions of the impact of race, gender, imperialism, and ecological threat. The ‘centre of gravity’ of Marxist work also shifted towards the anglophone world, especially in its universities.[5]

Key Figures

Karl Marx

Karl Marx was a Prussian economist, philosopher, and sociologist. Together with Friedrich Engels, he developed The Communist Manifesto, his most famous work that outlines his socialist ideology and calls for a reform to what he perceived to be a corrupt capitalist system. Marx's theories laid the groundwork for a great deal of other socialist thinkers, many of whom have expanded upon and interpreted his ideas to form the basis of contemporary Marxism.

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher and critic, one of the most important members of the Frankfurt School and a key figure in the development of Marxism. His 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility" is a critical work that examines the role of art and technology and their ability to inspire change, and its influence helped shape the views of other important Marxist figures such as Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor Adorno was an influential voice in the German Frankfurt School of similarly minded Marxists, who promoted the values of socialism while condemning capitalism through their work. His ideas are in alignment with the pessimistic side of Marxist thought, and his writings on the current state of the world, especially what he termed "The Culture Industry" painted humanity as cogs of a dominating machine from which we are unable to escape.

Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser was a Structural Marxist philosopher, French Communist Party member, and professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His readings of Karl Marx, as well as his own theories on social apparatuses, interpellation and relative autonomy, were discussed and debated worldwide. He is most famous for his concept of ideology, which has been broadly deployed in the social sciences and humanities and has provided a foundation for much post-Marxist philosophy.

Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams was a Welsh academic, novelist and critic. He was heavily involved with defining and understanding culture and its fluid state, as well as its impact on individuals. He coined the term cultural materialism and expanded his theories through the concepts of dominant, residual and emergent culture. Through these concepts he explores the flexible process of cultural impacts, rather than an unchangeable, untouchable authority. This expands the views and implications of process and power, and reveals a vulnerability of hegemony. Williams' optimistic and explorative concepts lead to him writing and publishing an extensive amount of novels, essays, short stories, critiques, and dramas. He helped shape and reform the field of literary studies, especially for late twentieth century Britain.

Jacques Rancière

Jacques Rancière is French critical theorist, University of Paris professor, and former student of Louis Althusser. His 'distribution of the sensible', which argued against the elitism of presupposing a scientific structure to ideology that can't be grasped by the working class, and against Marxism adhering towards the politics and aesthetics of Platonism, has greatly shaped Contemporary Marxist thought. Rancière also promotes the teacherless 'universal education', where students teach each other, as he believes that the traditional teacher/student model only perpetuates societal inequality.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian theoretician and once leader of the Italian Communist Party. He famously rejected the notion of economic determinism and distinguished between politics and culture (the state and civil society) and sought to move the focus of Marxist criticism from economics to culture. Gramsci’s notion that the bourgeoisie maintains its power by disseminating self-serving cultural practices in such a way as to gain the consent of the proletariat was highly influential and has become an important element of contemporary Marxism; Althusser’s critical concept of ideology, for instance, reflects Gramsci’s line of thinking.[6]

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. He is known by Marxist critics for promoting Louis Althusser's relative autonomy, through an acting principle that he dubbed the 'defamiliarization effect'. This involved revealing a play's methods of production through allowing the lights to be clearly visible, having actors clearly identify themselves as such, and reading out the stage directions. The audience's attention would therefore be drawn to the play's ideological assumptions, rather than being interpellated by its seemingly unquestioned truth and realism.[7]

György Lukács

György Lukács was a Hungarian philosopher who contributed to the beginnings of what became Western Marxist thought. He spread these ideas primarily from his position in the Hungarian Communist Party. Similarly to Adorno, he was primarily interested in the current culture and art and published many influential books and essays regarding his theory on aesthetics. Lukacs believed that realism was the dominant aesthetic form and published an essay titled "Realism in the Balance" in which he defends traditional realist values and condemns rising forms under the umbrella of modernism.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu was a sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, and renowned public intellectual who has had an immense influence on social theory. With over 25 books and 300 essays and articles written, Bourdieu has had a substantial impact on the academic field. Originating from a small farming village in France, Bourdieu was encouraged to pursue his education, to much success.[8] He began his studies at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, studying under Louis Althusser. Bourdieu's work focus above all on the dynamics of influence in society. His work highlighted the corporeal nature of social life, and accented the important of repetition and incorporation in social dynamics.[9]

Key Terms

Capitalism - The social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned by a minority of the population, who often oppress and take advantage of those who are outside the privileged few.

Materialism - The world as made up of natural, physical things (food, shelter) rather than idealistic or spiritual abstractions.

Economic Determinism - The view that economics form the basis of everything else.

Proletariat - The world, in a Marxist perspective, is divided between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. The Proletariat are those who labour to produce products and goods, selling their labour.

Bourgeoisie - Those who have capital, and use it to purchase labour through wages, exploiting the labour (and the Proletariat) to acquire personal wealth.

Capital - Money that capitalists use to purchase goods or labour for the purpose of making a profit.

Alienation of Labour - Workers produce products but see one small part of what they produce and never see it in its entirety, therefore losing a sense of worth as the labour they are doing is being fragmented.

Use Value - Value from workers using the thing that they produce.

Exchange Value - Commodities generated by workers for the purpose of being sold on the market.

Commodification - People being valued mainly as producers and purchasers of commodities, generating fabricated human worth through numbers, statistics and cogs.

Commodities - Products produced by human labour that can be bought and sold.

Commodity Fetish - The cycle of commodities provoking the desire for even more commodities.

Sign Exchange Value - Something that represents status (e.g. an expensive suit).

Socialist Realism - The reasonable portrayal in art of contemporary life, as a vehicle for social or political opinion.

Traditional/Organic Intellectuals - Antonio Gramsci's theoretical distinction, with 'traditional' intellectuals, who are disinterested in sectarian or topical interests, due to their ties to the hegemonic order, and 'organic' intellectuals,who speak for the interests of a specific class, including those of working class who will generate counter-hegemonic ideas and ambitions.[10]

Ideology - An arrangement of ideas and ideals. The views on ideology differ significantly depending on the theorist, including Louis Althusser and Raymond Williams

False Consciousness - The impediment towards a person through a way of thinking preventing thought towards their authentic social or economic situation.

Marxism in A Bug's Life

A Bug's Life Movie Poster

A Bug’s Life illustrates the impact of Marxism using the media. Just as fervently as Marx himself, a young ant named Flik leads a rebellion against the greedy grasshoppers. This 1998 Disney Pixar film exposes the overt discrepancy between the working class (a colony of ants) and the bourgeoisie (the grasshoppers).[11] While the ants work all year to supply food, the gluttonous grasshoppers exploit their labor by eating and taking their food supply, leaving scant leftovers. Young Flik slowly inspires others to see their commodification and to join the rebellion to challenge the impeding capitalist structure.

The grasshoppers do not respond well to Flik’s attempts at equality, and he soon realizes he must ally the ants to have a voice loud enough to be heard. A unified collective has the potential to overpower an established system, the system being one that allows the grasshoppers to live lives of comfort, abundance, and laziness, while profiting from the ants. A Bug’s Life reveals the hierarchal system in Capitalism, and how often those at the bottom, who vastly outnumber those at the top, do not realize the disjuncture of the system due to a process of naturalization. Hopper, the leader of the grasshoppers, says, “those puny little ants outnumber us 100-to-1, and if they figure that out, there goes our way of life”. The ants are so familiar with the grasshoppers coming and taking their commodities, and leaving them to replenish them and labor, without having class-consciousness. For the grasshoppers to preserve their ideological control, they must enforce the system of repetition without question.

However, Flik’s recognition of the absurdity of this bourgeois-ruling system allows him to lead the revolution, attaining a collective agency for the ants. Eventually the ants are able to possess agency and control over their labor and means of production, and even use machines to boost production. The ending of A Bug’s Life is a post-revolution, somewhat Marxist society, as independence for the ants is restored and they are able to produce and benefit from their labor.[12]


  1. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. 220.
  6. Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. 227-228.
  7. How to Interpret Literature - Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies pg. 242