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Marxism

Literature (Year 12) - Readings

Erin Tuckwell

What is Marxism? Historical context, origins, and development


Marxism is an ideology centred around the political and economic ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Relevant to Literature is the concept of applying a Marxist lens, or a Marxist reading practice, to a particular text in order to gain a better understanding of the class struggles, power dynamics, and economic systems of the society depicted.


Marxism emerged in the 1800s, spurned from the rapid industrialisation, social upheaval, and capitalist rise that happened during this century. Its origin story is as a critique of the mainstream socio-economic conditions of the time, which were characterised as poor working conditions, extremely unequal distribution of wealth, and the inherent trappings of the class in which an individual was born into; it was almost impossible to ‘create’ a better life for yourself.


Marxism emphasises the idea of class struggle as being the main thing that drives historical change. It became increasingly well-known during and after the revolutions of 1848, which were a series of challenges against European monarchies, starting in Sicily and continuing to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Despite all resulting in failures, these events highlighted the deepening issues of capitalism and the disillusionment the working class was beginning to feel with their living and working conditions.


Marxism as a lens is a very useful tool to understand and critique capitalist societies. When applying this reading to a text, it offers a great opportunity to appraise multiple aspects of a character or situation.


Significant ideas

Ideology

Ideology is the key blueprint behind a Marxist reading of a text. A Marxist lens is intrinsically shaped by the ideology created by Karl Marx and Engels, and hence the greater understanding you have of Marxism itself, the more easily you will be able to apply its concepts and offer a criticism of the features of a text that do not align with a Marxist view of the world.


Economic factors

When applying a Marxist lens to a text, examining who has control of the means of production is a useful way to situate the character’s economic position in your head. These economic factors are easily understood particularly through examples of commodification and exploring how material goods and wealth is viewed. Commodification refers to the process of turning abstract matters or items that were free/gifted into objects for sale.


Through a Marxist lens, this is seen as a major fallacy of capitalism and as eroding the significance of concepts that are often commodified. Commodification is often linked to objectification through a feminist reading of a text, and there are certainly many similarities in terms of their mutual origins in desire, power, and control. However, commodification is the notion that is reflective of capitalism, whereas objectification is reflective of patriarchy and lends itself to a criticism of that.


Class struggle

When looking at the different classes in your text, it is important to understand whether the novel suggests it is possible to rise/fall in class. This helps to give you an understanding of the perspective of the novel. If all characters, acting as representations of their classes, seem to be fixed in their position, then it is possible to see the text as serving the interests of the higher classes, who are most likely to be satisfied with their role in society and hence not as likely to think about a ‘class struggle’ existing at all.

If this is the case, then it is particularly easy to apply a critical Marxist reading to comment on injustice, poor living/working conditions for those not favoured by the system, and other noticeable differences between the wealthy and ‘others.’


Alienation

Alienation through class is a concept that can be easily understood via common language conventions, which can include metaphors and similes of the ‘other’, and diction creating a demonisation effect towards those who are looked down upon in the text. Marxism argues that in a capitalist society, alienation exists in the separation of individuals from their own labour, its products, other people, and eventually from their own spirit. Due to Marxism being a fundamental criticism of the workings of capitalism, it expresses that individuals are alienated from their own labour by being forced to work in the most efficient, profitable way, rather than being permitted to show their own capabilities and creativity.


Additionally, a Marxist lens can look at how capitalism creates social alienation through the promotion of competition and conflict for resources instead of cooperation and unity. The products of their labour become commodities to be sold, contributing to a sense of impersonal market forces. In a text, it can be useful to look at whether characters are being mistreated by those with power over them, and if they are letting this separate them from individuals in the same position as them, or whether this is assisting with collaboration and the formation of groups such as labour unions.


Alienation expresses the dehumanising impacts of a capitalist system upon those who live in it. By identifying these aspects in a text, you can provide a multifaceted criticism of those features and follow them to potential themes conveyed by the author, such as the need for revolutionary change to liberate the society from alienation and encourage greater overall happiness.


Revolution/social change

Social change or revolution through a Marxist lens concerns the evolution of societal structures and power dynamics through class struggle, away from a strong capitalist system. From this point of view, social change is driven by the failures and inherent issues with capitalism.

It is not necessary to understand all of the aspects of Marx’s envisioned transformation of societies from capitalist systems to his imagined utopia. His fundamental components are essentially class struggle, the overthrow of capitalism, revolution stemming from the working class, and cultural and ideological transformation alongside economic structural change. Its ultimate goal is of achieving social justice, equality, and liberation. As such, the identification of similar themes in a studied text can lend itself to a Marxist reading.


How to apply a Marxist lens

There are multiple ways in which you can use a Marxist lens to enhance your writing. One of these is to construct an entire essay or short answer through a Marxist perspective. This could involve, for example, writing a paragraph about the class struggle in the text, a paragraph about the treatment of a particular character who may be disadvantaged by the system, or a paragraph about how distinct classes are represented – are poorer individuals depicted as villainous or not? Are the wealthy shown as being critical of the lower classes, or concerned about the injustices they face?


Another way to apply a Marxist lens in a piece of your writing is as a single idea among a few, in an essay that relates more than one reading practice to the studied text. For example, your paper could have a paragraph about a Marxist perspective on the text, one about a Feminist reading, and one about a postcolonial point of view. When performed correctly, pieces that examine a text from multiple perspectives can offer a greater degree of nuance than those focusing on just one reading; however, you can run the risk of not going into enough depth on one or more of your points, and hence lose marks on your textual analysis or comprehension.


The essentials of applying a Marxist lens to your reading is to state it in your introduction, restate it in your conclusion, and continuously link points being made in your body paragraphs to basic concepts of Marxism.


Questions to ask whilst you read

1.     Is a particular character/s oppressed because of their social status?

2.     What are the working conditions like for the lower class?

3.     What was the social status of the author of the text?

4.     Can the author’s context be linked to the historical/social context of the text?

5.     Are there any examples of class struggle in the text? This could be exemplified through character interactions, social events, or textual conventions such as diction and symbolism.

6.     How are money, goods, and labour exchanged and valued in the text?


A Marxist reading lens is one which is often widely applicable to an array of texts, and as such understanding this technique can be fundamentally important to being able to provide a deep critical analysis and interpret given themes.


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