Marxist literary criticism; is the loose term describing literary criticism based on social and dialectic theory. It views literary work as reflections of social institutions from which they originate. According to Marxists even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function based on the background and ideology of the author. Duiker and Spielvogel (2008)
Eagleton (1976) defines Marxist literary criticism as, “it is not merely sociology of literature concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class. Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully and this means a sensitive attention to its form, styles and meaning but it also means grasping those forms, styles and meaning as the product of a particular history.
Marxist criticism, is a term for a number of critical approaches to literature that draw inspiration from social and economic theories of Karl Marx. Marx maintained that material production or economics ultimately determines the course of history, and in turn influences social structures. These social structures, Marx argued that a writer should not be held in place by the dominant ideology, which serves to reinforce the interest of the ruling class. Marxist criticism approaches a struggle with social realities and ideologies.
Generally, Marxist literary theory is a theory based on an art movement that depicted and glorified the proletarian struggle towards societal progress. These ideas as started by Carl Marx guided both literary creation and official literary criticism in Russia where works focused on the lives of different classes. Thus Marxist intertwined expertly with the merging ideologies of the new Russian movements and spread throughout the world.
History of Marxism
Karl Marx is often heralded as a founder of socialism and his studies have provided a basis for much studies in a socialist theory and research. Marx and Friedrich Engels collaborated to produce a range of publications based on capitalism, class struggles and socialist movements. As Mclellan (1971) states “it refers to class struggle mainly in the context of the struggle between capital and labor within capitalism rather than over its suppression”. It is through the theories of class struggles, politics and economics that Marxist literary criticism emerged. Marxism emerged in the mid 19thC Europe as a popular political and economic movement at that time. It was a result of the work and writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883), A German sociologist, economist and revolutionary leader and his compatriot Federerich Engels. For nearly one century and a half, Marxist ideology shaped the communist-socialist manifesto in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Mushengezi (2003). It became the only alternative model to capitalism, which had become an unpopular ideology in many parts of the world. Capitalism was associated with Western imperialism and neo-colonialism especially between 1950s and 1970s. In many countries where there were struggles for independence or popular liberation movement to overthrow dictatorial regimes especially in Africa, Marxism easily appealed to revolutionary sentiments due to its populist ideals.
The thought behind Marxists criticism is that works of literature are mere products of history that can be analyzed by looking at the social and material condition in which they were constructed. According to the Marxists, it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. Put simply, the social situation of the author determines the types of characteristics that will develop political ideas displayed and economical statements developed in the texts.
Although Marx and Federerich Engels detailed theories of socialism in the mid 19th C, it was not until 1920s, that Marxist literary theory was systematized. The great influence for this standardization came after the October revolution of 1917 in Russia. While socialist ideas developed, socialist idealism was accepted as the highest form of literature.
The theory was supported by western writers such as Richard Wright, Claude Mc Kay, Jean Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir and James Joyce). In Africa it was particularly supported by writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and O. P’Bitek in East Africa, Alex la Guma in South Africa, Wole Soyinka, Sembene Ousmane, and Christopher Okigbo in West Africa and Jack Mapanje in Central Africa. Mushengezi (2003). These were influenced by socialist and Marxist theory and their writings reflect this.
These are some of the major views held by Marxist critics:
The writer as an activist: They view the writing and study of literature essentially as an activity with socio-political consequences. The goal of writer should be to heighten people’s feelings and desires to rise up and demand for radical change. Ibid (2003:82). Literature therefore becomes, in the main, a tool for socio-political transformation. It should be mimetic, that is, it should mirror the real situation in the society and cause change where change is due. In particular a writer should be a voice of change for those who are disadvantaged or oppressed. Writers like Ngugi, Sembene, and Ayi Kwei Armah reflect this obligation.
Ngugi’s commitment to activism for instance is no doubt total in his novel Devil on the Cross, Petals of blood and Matigari. He calls upon the Kenya masses to rise in a popular revolution and fight for their land and their rights. Ibid. (2003:82). In Sembene’s “Gods Bits of Wood”, he presents a massive strike of railway workers demanding for their rights, better pay and improved working conditions. This for Marxist critics should be the role of literature; to cause change where change is due.
History is literature:
Marxist critics determinedly historicize the study of literature unlike Russian Formalists and new critics. Their argument is that, history is the horizon within which literature should be written and understood. According to them a novel, poem or play can only be best analyzed if the experiences of the people their political and economic relations and their social systems are all examined. The writer has to recast the historical record in an artistic way without reducing a literary text into a history textbook. That is why writers like Ngugi always begin from the history of their people as a starting point. The Marxist point of view is that history illuminates the present and forecast the future. Ibid: 83.
Marxism is also a sociological approach to literature that viewed works of literature or art as the products of historical forces that can be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. In Marxist ideology what we often classify as world view (such as Victorian age) is actually the articulations of the dominant class. Kristi (N/D)
Literature and ideology:
Ideology is a set of beliefs and practices made by human beings and it is human beings who should change them. Marxism is concerned with the issue of ideology in literature. For Marxist scholars like Terry Eagleton it signifies the socially constructed ideas, images, values and norms that bind us to particular roles which underpin our relations as individual sexes or social classes.
It constitutes all those beliefs and practices that you have acquired through your culture, religion or political convictions. Something that is socially constructed is that which is not natural or created by God but by human beings for the purpose of guiding human conduct. So ideology is a social construct. Ibid:84 It is largely unconscious, we follow it blindly, we rarely question and this prevents us from change. Marxists therefore argue that ideology creates blind spots in our vision.
Literature being a product of ideology of a particular society or group, therefore it is not free from ideological positions of the writer and the people. However the writer should challenge certain ideologies that are considered dangerous and misguiding the society.
The superstructure and class relations.
Literature does not only reflect the ideology of a society but also its superstructure, economic base and social relations. For example judiciary, executive, legislature, the military and religious institutions. They are concerned with the way “the national cake” is produced and equitably shared by the rulers, capitalists, industrialists and elite and workers and peasants. These groups are social classes. Writers need to reflect their social class leaning in what they write. An important question to ask yourself as a writer is – Who am I writing for? Am I merely paying lip service to the powers that be, or am I championing the interests of the voiceless, disadvantaged masses? For Marxists a good writer is the one who does the latter. Ibid:87
Marxism generally focuses on the clash between the dominant and repressed classes in any given age and also may encourage art to imitate what is often termed an “objective” reality… superstructure refers to the social political and ideological systems and institutions for example values, art, and legal processes of a society-that are generated by the base. Kiristi ( N/D)
Appeal to the novel form
Marxists prefer a novel form to poetry and drama. It is their feeling that the novel offers the best opportunity for the writer to survey the history, class struggles and other sociological realities of his people in unrestricted manner. They argue that the novel is the modern literary form that offers the writer and reader a good opportunity to reflect on their past and present struggles in order to forge a better future for all.
How objective is the approach
Realistically speaking, Marxist theory has been very objective in literary criticism and the study of literature in general. Many writers who embraced this theory have produced the works which in one way or another have awakened the oppressed masses to demand their rights. It started to show its strong influence during colonialism when most writers wrote condemning the evils of colonialism and its oppressive tendencies. The influence has continued to post independent Africa as the corrupt African regimes have continued to exercise the same evils as those the colonialists used to pose over Africans. To see the objectivity of this approach let us examine the following cases, and some readings reflecting Marxism.
Literature as a tool for social transformation. According to Marxist theory literature should aim at changing some of the outdated social convictions that we practice in our societies. It aims at transforming our culture, norms, beliefs, and values that we find bad, and suggest the new ones. The role of literature therefore should be to awaken the people to demand changes where change is needed. It should expose the wrongs in the society and in particular the writer should be the voice of change for the oppressed. Ama Ata Aidoo, does this well in Dilemma of The Ghost, when she criticizes one of the outdated culture of choosing the spouses for young men. The author shows how Ato Yawson struggles to change that culture. Ato comes from America with an Afro-American spouse, who is strongly rejected by his family. However he struggles to show them the importance of discarding that outdated culture. In page 16-20 the whole incident is discussed. Refer the conversation between Ato and his people on the matter.
Akyere: If so, what is her tribe?
Ato: She has no tribe, she does not come…
Nana: She has no tribe? The story you are telling us is too sweet, my grandson. Since I was born
I have not heard of a human being who has no tribe. Are there trees which never have roots?
According to Marxism a literary work/author should be the mirror of the society. Since the author is the product of the society and doesn’t come from a vacuum, so should be what he/she writes. In other words he/she should write what actually is in his/her own society. The author exposes the evils in his/her society, but unlike the mirror he/she may also suggest the better alternatives or leave it to the society to decide. The clashes that always prevail between the politically and economically powerful classes like; the ruling class, capitalists, industrialists, against the proletariat class of peasants and workers. For example Ngugi wa Thiong’o being one of the prominent supporters of Marxism ideology, he champions the interests of the poor Kenyans who were deprived of their land and consequently they work for capitalists. In his I Will Marry When I Want page 3 he says:
The power of our hand goes to feed three people.
Imperialists from Europe,
Imperialists from America,
Imperialists from Japan,
And of course their local watchmen.
The labor of our hand is the real wealth of the country”
Marxists believe that the writer heightens people’s feelings and desire to change. Marxists believe that there are always social-political and economic classes in any society, and the classes are always in conflict on how the national cake is produced and equitably shared among the capitalists, rulers, industrialists, elite and peasants and workers. The writer should reflect these conflicts and particularly should challenge the ideology of the superstructure, in order to promote the interest of the workers and peasants-the oppressed and exploited masses. For example Ngugi in I Will Marry When I Want shows how the poor can rise to demand for their rights when even the legal justice organs have failed to stand for their rights. In page 101 he writes.
Don’t you know how it pains?
When I truly know that
It’s your son who lured her away from home?
Now I’ll prove to you that
I am a human being.
This sword is my law and my court.
Poor people’s law court.
Marxist propose that the writer should not propagate the dominant ideology for its own sake but rather he/she should challenge certain ideologies that are considered dangerous and misleading the society. Mushengezi (2003). Eagleton considers ideology as the socially constructed ideas, image, values and norms that bind us to particular social roles which underpin our relations as individuals, sexes or social classes. A good writer should awaken the people not to follow certain ideologies blindly and without questioning. But rather they should question what they do and why they do it. When the people have the opportunity to question their social practices they open doors for changes, and this should be the role of the Marxist writer.
Marxism criticism is a type of criticism in which literary works are viewed as the product of work and whose practitioners emphasize the role of class and ideology as they reflect, propagate, and even challenge the prevailing social order. Rather that viewing the texts as material products to be understood in broadly historical terms. Ross, & Supryia (1998)
Marxists also believe that history is the horizon within which literature should be written and understood. Literature cannot exist independent of history of the people the writer is writing about. Mushengezi puts it this way; “a novel, poem or play can only be best analyzed if the experience of the people, their political and economic relations and their social systems are all examined.” However the writer should be careful when dealing with historical events in the work of ark in such a way that a literary text should not look like a history book. That’s why writers like Ngugi, always in most of his works begins or at least depicts the history of Kenyans as a starting point. In his play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi he depicts the history of Dedan Kimathi who is a real and not a fictional character. But the way he is developed in the text makes him more of a literary character than a historical figure.
Dedan Kimathi (also known as Kimathi wa Waciuri) was an important member of Kenya’s militant Nationalist group, The Mau Mau. In 1956 Kimathi was captured with Wambui his “forest wife” and sentenced to death. He was hanged on February 18.1957 at Nairobi Prison and was buried in a mass grave. Andesine (N/D)
The Marxist argument is that history illuminates the past and forecasts the future.
The author according to Marxism should be an activist. As an activist the author has the role of standing for people’s rights and demand changes where change is due. The writer should be the voice of the disadvantaged ones. The writer should totally indulge himself/herself in championing the interests of the poor. As Mushengezi puts it in the following paragraph
Ngugi’s commitment to activism is no doubt total. In his novels Devil on the Cross, Petals of Blood and Matigari he ceaselessly calls upon the Kenyans to rise in a popular revolution and fight for their land and their rights. (2003:82)
According to Marxist critics this should be the role of literature: to cause change where change is due. In Trial of Dedan Kimathi for example Ngugi shows how people can wage a struggle to recover their land and lost rights. Here a Woman talks to a Boy on what can be done. Page 21
WOMAN: Your words contain wisdom, son. Kimathi was never alone… will never be alone.
No bullet can kill him for as long as women continue to bear children. Let a thousand bullets be shot through our heads, but this I believe: one day, the soil will be restored to the people. Our land shall one day be truly ours…
Therefore, it is very true that Marxist and its history for years now have remained central to the study of literature. The objectivity of this argument manifests itself through how Marxist writers have devoted themselves in championing the interests of the disadvantaged masses. It is commonly believed that a good theatre and text is that which is on the side of the people, that which, without masking mistakes and weaknesses, gives people courage and urges them to higher resolves in their struggle for total liberation. So Marxists provides the challenges that provide a correct perspective that can positively exert true changes in their societies.
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