Fundamental Problems in Marxist Literacy Criticism: Form, History and Ideology

What has generally been called marxist literary criticism in the United States is, with rare exceptions, actually sociological rather than marxist. That is, it is concerned only with the raw material, the manifest content, of a novel, play or poem, and with the author’s attitude towards these facts. This misrepresentation is related to the popular stereotype of marxism as simple economism. Unfortunately it is not entirely the fault of unfriendly outsiders. All too often communists themselves, in their opposition to formalism, have proclaimed or implied indifference to formal literary values. Despite recent theoretical developments these images of marxism — rooted in the 1930s and before — remain with us. It therefore makes sense to revisit some of the formative figures of the tradition to see how their understanding of certain key problems can ground the present discussions of literature and of criticism.

In the early thirties, when almost the only approach most New York literary circles took seriously was either that of the “New Critics” or that of the communists, Mike Gold’s attack on Thornton Wilder’s “Genteel Christ” preoccupied three full issues of The New Republic. But Gold’s polemic dealt only with Wilder’s subject matter and personal values. In The New Masses, first edited by Gold, the prolonged debate on the nature of proletarian literature, which he initiated, continued long after his two years in office. Still there were really no issues raised as to formal criteria. The questions argued were whether proletarian literature meant literature about proletarian life, literature written by proletarians, or simply literature which took the side of the proletariat in the class war.

Of course the critical practice of the debaters in discussing individual works was often much better than their theorizing, and their creative achievements were, as Alan Wald and others are now showing, among the most valuable of their time. But I am here speaking only of their conscious aesthetic. This simplistic approach is all the more surprising in that both Marx and Engels attributed such enormous importance to the specific form of economic exploitation as it varied from slavery through serfdom to wage labor. They both stressed the extraordinary effect on all human relations and social institutions when exploitation took the disguised form of commodity production, and envisioned another upheaval only when the capitalist forces of production became incompatible with the form. Emphasis on the historical specificity of a given form applies as well to the matter of literary production.

No doubt, attention to formal values is characteristic of all good literary criticism. There is no claim that it is peculiar to marxism. But since few students in the United States today have any idea that marxist critics are, and always have been, seriously concerned with literary form as well as content it is worth taking time to provide some illustrations from the formative years of our practice.

As with all original thinkers, there are often differences between individual marxists as well as between marxist and catholic or freudian critics. I will therefore make the obvious explicit by stating directly the general assumptions which all marxists accept.

We believe there is an external world, which exists independent of our beliefs, and that our representations of it can, more or less accurately, refer to and describe this world, including our reactions to it. We believe that it is a natural world with no supernatural powers in control, and that we ourselves are part of it with a real biological and social history relating us to, and in some respects distinguishing us from, other living things. We believe that people as they now exist are social beings with needs, capacities, emotions and ideas formed through thousands or hundreds of thousands of years of group life, and that our imaginative ability to create and enjoy aesthetic experiences is an important part of our being.

We also believe that while men and women generally act so as to serve, or in ways that they think will serve, their individual interests this is by no means true of all of them at all times. Human beings, like dogs and cats and birds and many other species, will often deliberately sacrifice their individual well-being or even their lives for the benefit of others. Men and women may also do so in support of an idea or an ideology.

In the following pages we will be dealing with the treatment of three central literary problems by a number of very diverse marxist critics, drawn predominantly from the classic works of the twenties and thirties, since these have come to inform later discussions. It is our conviction that without this historical grounding, contemporary debates, whatever their merits, would lack sufficient context to evaluate the larger significance of critical endeavors. The problems are: 1) the relation of form to content, 2) the relation of literature to history, 3) the relation of an author’s ideology to his or her creative work.

I. Form and Content

Both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in their books, reviews, and voluminous literary correspondence discussed’ controversial questions of literary form, often praising or criticizing specific examples. Marx’s profound knowledge of and interest in the Greek tragedies is well known, as is his analysis of the incompatibility of the epic form with an industrial age. He was equally concerned with formal questions in dealing with contemporary material. In a critical letter to an aspiring playwright who had asked his advice on a matter of historical interpretation he emphasized the very great importance of dramatic form, writing:

You would have to Shakespearize more, while at present I consider Schillerism, making individuals the mere mouthpieces of the spirit of the times, your main fault….I think the scene between Sickengen and Charles V particularly successful although the dialogue on both sides sounds more like lawyers’ speeches.

Similarly, Engels wrote a friend who had asked him to criticize the manuscript of her novel:

I am far from finding fault with your not having written a purely propaganda novel…to glorify the political views of the author. … The more the author’s views are concealed the better for the work of art.

In another such letter—both he and Marx spent an extraordinary amount of time responding to requests for literary advice-Engels said:

I am not at all an opponent of tendentious poetry as such. The father of tragedy, Aeschylus, and the father of comedy, Aristophanes, were both decidedly tendentious poets, just as were Dante and Cervantes;…The modern Russians and Norwegians who are writing splendid novels, are all tendentious. But I think the bias should flow by itself from the situation and action, without particular indications, and that the writer is not obliged to obtrude on the reader the future historical solutions of the social conflicts pictured.

One notes this concern with questions of form in every one of the 19th and 20th century marxist critics. Whether in a casual comment such as Franz Mehring’s remark that “symbolism is important, but a fact is almost always its own best symbol/’ or in a considered pronouncement such as Leon Trotsky’s polemical statement:

One cannot approach art as one can politics, not because artistic creation is a religious rite or something mystical, as somebody here ironically said, but because it has its own laws of development, and above all because in artistic creation an enormous role is played by sub-conscious processes — slower, more idle and less subjected to management and guidance just because they are subconscious….

Mayakovsky wrote a very powerful piece called The Thirteen Apostles, the revolutionariness of which was still rather cloudy and formless. And when this same Mayakovsky decided to swing himself round to the proletarian line, and wrote 150 Million, he suffered a most frightful rationalistic downfall. This means that in his logic he had outrun his real creative condition.

Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1923) and his argument against the attempt to ignore Russia’s traditional literary forms and cultural heritage are well known, but few remember that Lenin himself had much earlier asserted in a talk on October 2,1920:

We shall be unable to solve this problem unless we clearly realize that only a precise knowledge and transformation of the culture created by the entire development of mankind will enable us to create a proletarian culture. The latter is not clutched out of thin air; it is not an invention of those who call themselves experts in proletarian culture. That is all nonsense.

Lenin felt special love for the work of Pushkin and Turgenev and invoked their power in his bitter opposition to the dogmatism of the Proletcult. He declared that “the most stupid attitudes are propounded as something new offered under the guise of pure proletarian art and proletarian culture.”

Despite the general impression to the contrary, one finds the ability to penetrate the manifest content and understand the whole work as a formal entity everywhere in these early Soviet critics. The first Soviet Commissar of Education, Anatol Lunacharsky, is an excellent example. His remarkable memorial essay on Alexander Blok, written immediately after the poet’s suicide in 1921, offers one of the most perceptive analyses of symbolist poetry to be found anywhere. It reads, in part:

He tries to see this existence either as an obstacle to be overcome or as a symbol, a hint at some other, radically different state of being….[He] uses the word as though it were a note of music… he elected to become a musician who operated words and images to suggest a yearning for that which is beyond speech and varied the approaches and the glimmering half-caught visions in many keys….

With equal insight Lunacharsky spoke, in his book-length study of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of the true substructure of that polyphony which Bakhtin has noted in Dostoyevsky’s novels and novellas, relating it to both the writer’s life and the political developments of the time.

In the early 1930s another Soviet critic, J. Kashkeen, writing about a very different subject in International Literature, said:

Only a writer of Hemingway’s rank can thus convey the most intense, the most intimate, the most subtle moods by an accumulation of external details; not by directly expressed thought, which is inexpressible, but by an impulse, by pulling a bell that is to reverberate later in the reader’s mind, by a scrupulous selection of external and trivial things, i.e., in fact by straining to restrict his power to see.

Both Brecht and Lukacs called themselves realists but there were significant differences in their understanding of the term. Lukacs, born in 1885 and steeped in the classic tradition, was concerned from his early years with the great 19th century European novelists. He saw realism largely in its traditional form and criticized Brecht’s experimental “epic” theater as unrealistic. Their polemics in Der Wort, Sinn und Form, and other such periodicals were closely followed by the socialist world in the thirties and forties. In a 1937 radio broadcast Brecht, after paying due respect to his senior’s discussion of literary realism, added:

Our conception of realism needs to be broad and political… independent of convention. Realism means laying bare society’s causal networks emphasizing the dynamics of development, concrete so as to encourage abstraction.

Years later in his Organum for the Theater, he amplified this, writing:

The realistic theater has no use for the symbolism of the expressionist and existentialist stage which expressed general ideas, nor can it turn back to the naturalist stage with its crude mixture of the relevant and the trivial. Just to copy reality isn’t enough; reality needs not only to be recognized but also to be understood. A tennis ball is not in a position to understand the laws of motion.

A radio talk on the experimental theater given in East Berlin in 1959 and published in the Tulane Quarterly two years later resumed this discussion:

The expressionism of the postwar period showed the World as Will and Idea and led to a special kind of solipsism. It was the theater’s answer to the great crisis of society, just as the doctrines of Mach’s were philosophy’s. It represented art’s revolt against life: here the world existed purely as a vision, strangely distorted, a monster conjured up by perturbed souls. Expressionism vastly enriched the theater’s means of expression and brought aesthetic gains that still have to be fully explored, but it proved quite incapable of shedding light on the world as an object of human activity. The theater’s educative value collapsed.

As we would expect, Lukacs is far less sympathetic with, or interested in, such forms of modernism as Expressionism. He does recognize, as more conventional critics failed to, “the hidden — one might say the repressed — social character of the protest underlying this obsession with psychology, its perverted Rousseauism, its anarchism,” but spent little time discussing its various forms. He summarized:

Clearly, this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem. It is an ontological problem deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man. The literature of realism, based on the Aristotelian concept of man as zoon politikon, is entitled to develop a new typology of each new phase in the evolution of a society. It displays the contradictions within society and within the individual in the context of a dialectical unity but the ontology of Geworfenheit [being thrown about] makes a true typology impossible; it is replaced by an abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially-average… Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare.

Unlike most critics Lukacs continued to rethink his positions all his life. During my last interview with him in Budapest May, 1968 he said he had been reviewing two polemics carried on with Anna Seghers and with Brecht during the fifties. He still felt he had been right in opposing her somewhat restrictive view of the radical writer’s responsibility but now he believed his own opposition to Brecht’s broader view of realism had been mistaken. He added that he very much regretted never having written on the matter before Brecht’s untimely death.

Whatever their differences in interpreting or judging specific literary approaches both men saw a profound sense of history as absolutely essential for any great literature. This emphasis on history is in fact a central part of marxist thought in every field, and it is to the relation between historical understanding and any novel or drama that we must now turn.

II. The Relation of Literature to History

By 1936 Brecht had fully formulated this basic assumption of marxist aesthetics for himself. He said in a lecture translated by Eric White and included by White in a volume called Life & Letters:

The bourgeois theater emphasized the timelessness of its objects. Its representation of people is bound by the alleged “eternally human.” Its story is arranged in such a way as to create “universal” situations that allow Man with a capital M to express himself: man of every period and of every color. All its incidents are just one enormous cue, and this cue is followed by the “eternal” response: the inevitable, usual, natural, purely human response…. The cue can take account of what is special, different; the response is shared, there is no element of difference in it. This notion may allow that such a thing as history exists but it is none the less unhistorical. History applies to the environment, not to Man. The environment is remarkably unimportant, is treated simply as a pretext; it is a variable quantity and something remarkably inhuman; it exists in fact apart from Man, confronting him as a coherent whole, whereas he is a fixed quantity, eternally unchanged. The idea of man as a function of the environment and the environment as a function of man, i.e. the breaking up of the environment into relationships between men, corresponds to a new way of thinking, the historical way.

In a discussion with his actors at the Berliner Ensemble almost twenty years later Brecht stressed the loss in dramatic impact and perspective for any theater which held that “plus 9a change, plus c’est la meme chose” or that “you can’t change human nature.” He said:

Moliere’s public laughed at Harpagon, his L’Avare. Usurers and hoarders had come to seem ridiculous in a period when the great merchant was coming in with his acceptance of risks and his reliance on credit. Our own public could laugh better at Harpagon’s stinginess if it saw this represented not as a particular feature, a peculiarity, a human failing, but as a kind of occupational disease, as an attitude that had only recently become ridiculous, in short as a social offense. We must be able to portray the human without treating it as eternally human.

This marxist emphasis on the concrete understanding of history as source of a work s power has nothing to do with accuracy of historical detail, individual character portrayal, etc. The brilliant Soviet director,. Grigori Kozintsev, says in his extraordinary Shakespeare: Time and Conscience (1966):

The problem is not that this tragedy is a reflection of life and that it is up to the director to translate reflection into reality. The Elizabethan period is well enough known. Hamlet is not a mirror but a mine detector: old shells not yet deactivated are concealed in the flesh of every century, and in thoughts concerning this tragedy they reveal their presence.

This ability to “feel the future in the instant” especially characterizes the great writer, and it is the ability to recognize and interpret this that especially — not, of course, exclusively — distinguishes marxist criticism. Marx was fond of referring to himself as an historian rather than as an economist; his most dismissive scorn was reserved for those would-be disciples who “thought having a materialist understanding of history was sufficient reason for needing to know no history whatever.” But to know history does not mean to know the dates of wars and deaths of kings or even simply the passage of laws and changes in the form of government, important as these are. As Engels said:

in every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of the epoch.

We have already noted in Kettle’s discussion of Hardy the importance he attributes to Hardy’s unconscious awareness of the underlying economic movement of his time, the conflict and the direction in which it was so rapidly moving. Other aspects were apparent in the United States where mere had never been a peasantry to destroy.

The increasing isolation of each individual in a competitive commercial society “disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of fellow-creatures.” In his remarkably prescient book, Democracy in America (1831) the French observer de Tocqueville continued:

[it] makes every man forget his ancestors,…hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

Almost all the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, our first really great American novelist, deals with the growing coldness, loneliness, joylessness of his society, inexplicable to him in a growing prosperous land. His reputation diminished steadily through the first part of the twentieth century when he was presented by most critics and editors as an admirable stylist concerned with quaint historical vignettes and moral problems seen in semi-religious terms. A marxist critic, Newton Arvin rescued him for us, exclaiming:

What human theme could have been closer than Hawthorne’s to the drift of American life in his day and indeed of American life from the beginning […] Dispersion, not convergence… the philosophic anarchist in his hut in the woods; the economic individualists, the captain of industry; the go-getter, the tax-dodger, the bootlegger.

The best and the worst of humanity…but united after all in their common distrust of centrality, their noble or ignoble lawlessness….

Similarly Charles Humboldt, editor of Mainstream, explained the power of a short fiction, Bartleby the Scrivener, by Hawthorne’s still greater young contemporary, Herman Melville. “Bartleby presents in miniature a real world in which there is left no other bond between man and man (or man and nature) than naked self-interest, than callous cash payments.” Yet most discussion of the work before had argued whether Bartleby was really insane!

The socialist William Dean Howells was the only writer in the United States to condemn the Haymarket murders and to oppose the Spanish-American War from its inception. He would probably have called himself a Utopian socialist rather than a materialist but his concern with economic injustice and his understanding that “Liberty and poverty are incompatible-economic equality is the mother of all other equalities.” deserves a better name. A group of talented regional writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman depicted the dying New England towns whose sons had never returned after the Civil War, moving westward to the territories. Howells speaks warmly of them but contrasts them with their contemporary, Hamlin Garland, who wrote his best work about the losing battle of his parents and other small farmers in the middle west. Howells says that in spite of the New Englanders’ often superior skill at both characterization and description their stories never achieve a greater depth than pathos while Garland’s resonate with the tragedy of the period — the defeat of the last independent small entrepreneurs facing the new power of “the octopus” — the railroad and other corporations. He concludes:

If anyone is still at a loss to account for the uprising of the farmers in the west [the Populist movement] which is the translation of the [German] peasant War into modern republican terms, let him read [Garland’s] Main-Travelled Roads.

Other examples of the way in which a sense of history enriches criticism as well as creative writing jostle for attention, but these must suffice. I should repeat that this sense is by no means the exclusive property of those who have read Marx and his students. But just as many today think in ways that would have been impossible before Freud, so many have been affected by the marxist understanding of history and its representations.

(Literary chronicles have also happily been affected. During the first quarter of our century most of the college anthologies explained changes in literary fashions in terms of the art itself with no reference to the world below. Today there is scarcely a high school collection which does not make some attempt at relating new literary developments to what is happening to readers as well as writers instead of telling us, for example, that romantic poetry began because people were tired of Pope’s stiff couplets.)

III. Ideology and the Writer

Marx and Engels first developed their concept of ideology in the joint work of 1845-6, The German Ideology. They explained what Antonio Gramsci later called the hegemony of ruling class ideas saying:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production so that, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

Five years later in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx expanded this explanation adding the metaphor of base and superstructure which has since been so widely used and so often misused. He said:

Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual who derives them through tradition and upbringing may imagine .that they form the real motives and starting point of his activity…. And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality.

Metaphors are sometimes misleading and this one of superstructure has been misinterpreted in two different ways. First it has been used to belittle the power of thought, the importance of ideas and their dissemination. Marx himself was well aware of this danger and warned against it. He emphasized that “Although material force must be overthrown by material force, theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”

Engels too strove valiantly, sometimes with evident exasperation, to correct this anti-intellectualism.

At seventy-five, twelve years after Marx’s death, he was still battling. He wrote a student, J. Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless abstract senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form…. We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones etc. and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part although not the decisive one.

However it is not this denigration of the superstructure which concerns us here but a second almost contradictory misinterpretation. That is the belief that the work of an author can be understood in terms of his personal acceptance or rejection of the ruling class ideology. The debates of the thirties often considered work almost entirely in terms of its author’s class allegiance and conscious beliefs. But a great work often offers deeper insights and a more profound understanding than its writer was aware of possessing or could have stated propositionally. The novelist whom both Marx and Engels considered the greatest in European history is an extreme example of this contradiction.

Balzac was a Catholic and a Royalist. He apparently accepted in tpto both the respect for titles of nobility, calling himself Honore de Balzac, and the commercial ethos of his time. Yet Engels writes:

Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas, past present, or future, gives us in his Comedie Humaine a most wonderfully realistic history of French society, 1848, the ever-increasing pressure of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles that established itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could (tant Men que mal) the standard of the vieille politesse frangaise.

He describes how the last remnants of this, to him model society, succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar moneyed upstart or was corrupted by him. How the grande dame, whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself, in perfect accord with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoise who acquired her husband for cash or cashmere. And around this central picture he groups a complete history of French society from which, even in economic details (for instance, the redistribution of real and private property after the French Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.

Well, Balzac was politically a legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the irreparable decay of good society; his sympathies are with the class that is doomed to extinction. But for all that, his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply — the nobles. And the only men of whom he speaks with undisguised admiration are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the CloTtre Saint-Mery, the men who at that time (1830-36) were indeed representatives of the popular masses. That Balzac was thus compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favorite nobles and described them as people deserving no better fate; that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found — that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of realism and one of the greatest features in old Balzac.

Marx planned to write a book-length study of Balzac but although he never found time for an extended critique he referred to Balzac more often than to any other writer except Shakespeare. He appears in many letters and is quoted approvingly in both the first and second volumes of Capital.

As Yeats warned, we should trust the song, not the singer. A man may believe in his daily life what on a deeper level he knows to be untrue. And ideologies are not simply a matter of intellectual beliefs. They consist also of habits, associations, life styles, tastes, etc. George Eliot said that one might warm himself at revolutionary French theories with no danger of scorching as long as he was still particular about the French polish of his boots. But rationalize his behavior as he will in his everyday life, a truly great writer finds himself living at a deeper level when he takes his pen in hand. Eagleton tells us in his Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976):

Frederick Engels remarks in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1888) that art is far richer and more opaque than political and economic theory because it is less purely ideological. It is important here to grasp the precise meaning for Marxism of ideology. Ideology is not in the first place 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. In this sense The Wasteland is ideological: it shows a man making sense of his experience in ways that prohibit a true understanding of his society, ways that are consequently false. All art springs from an ideological conception of the world; there is no such thing, Plekhanov comments, as work of art entirely devoid of ideological content. But Engels’s remark suggests that art has a more complex relationship to ideology than law and political theory, which rather more transparently embody the interests of a ruling class. The question, then, is what relationship art has to ideology.

While there may be many whose practical lives were as little affected by their skepticism as was Balzac’s there must be few who could see so clearly the total bankruptcy of a world they admired. Certainly there are very few indeed who can report it so fully and honestly. One might cite William Faulkner’s picture of the old patriarchal south he mourned, but perhaps his ambiguity came more easily since it was already dead rather than dying. Of course, as Antonio Gramsci argued, the hegemony of no ideology is absolutely unquestioned. Ideologies in the modern world are never totally self-consistent. They are historical constructs embedding many vestigial elements which may be irrelevant or even damaging to the structure as a whole. And men in outliving them may still accept fragments of greater or less importance while already rejecting some which run most directly counter to their own personal experience or needs. Arguing that “existence preceded essence” Jean-Paul Sartre attacks the widely accepted idea that man was made for a purpose and can fulfill or fail to fulfill his proper function. This belief makes no sense, he says, after one has ceased to believe in a supernatural creator but many devout atheists continue to accept it. Similarly, as George Santayana pointed out, the question “Why evil?,” meaningless in a godless world, still torments many a materialist.

Writers have, sometimes consciously, dealt with their ideologies in a great variety of ways. Radicals and mystics, among others, have totally rejected them, constructing oppositional frames of belief. Some, like Tolstoy, have attempted to retain contradictory ideas in uneasy balance, accepting, rejecting and questioning not only throughout a lifetime but in the compass of a single work. And it is he at whom we will now look. Although Krupskaya, Zetkin, Gorky and a host of now forgotten memoirialists speak in some detail of Lenin’s unusual knowledge of classic Russian literature only Lukacs seems to have noted his penetrating study of Tolstoy. In the first of his four essays devoted to the novelist, Lenin begins by calling him “the mirror of the [1905] revolution.” He then immediately asks himself how one can call anything a mirror which so distorts reality with its “talk of God, its obsession with Christ, its crackpot preaching of submission and non-resistance to evil.” But like his predecessors with Balzac, Lenin saw the great Russian realist’s insight unobscured by the thin veil of unexamined personal beliefs and religious ideology. Unlike many of his less perceptive comrades who, at best, were willing to ignore or forget Tolstoy’s idealist solutions because he so dearly exposed the actual evils of his time, Lenin saw that the novelist’s Utopian hopes, his impossible solutions, had to be seen as inextricably part of his absolute identification with the real Russia, a peasant Russia. He exulted to Gorky one evening:

Here’s an artist for you! And do you know something still more amazing? You couldn’t find a genuine muzhik in literature until this count came on the scene…. Can you put anyone in Europe beside him?… No one!

It was that identification that enabled Tolstoy to sense so strongly the coming 1905 revolt ten years before its inception and to sense too that it was a doomed revolt. And it was the desperation he shared with the peasants that forced him to grasp at nonsensical hopes as they too often did.

A final very different example of a writer’s almost schizophrenic inability to accept or reject the ideology of his time is offered by Mark Twain’s greatest book, Huckleberry Finn. This appears in a sort of double exposure since the dilemma is, in a sense, Huck’s as well as his creator’s.

In an absorbing and superficially innocuous story, told by an honest, intelligent, ignorant but self-reliant teenager of the pre-civil war south we find no doubts about the rectitude or truth of its mores. Huck does in fact transgress many of its rules but he knows he is doing wrong and, if he can’t avoid punishment, accepts it as just. Among other beliefs he holds that Negroes are properly slaves, that it is wicked of them to try to escape, that such wickedness is fully exposed when an escaper came “right out flat-footed [saying] he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.” But though Huck is shocked by such wickedness and horrified to find himself abetting it he continues to help Jim evade his pursuers. The rich finely nuanced first four-fifths of the book includes a similarly ironical unstated critique of many other aspects of the ideology Huck himself never consciously questions. But finally he is overcome by guilt and shame at the idea that he has become a thief and writes a letter informing the owner where her slave can be recaptured. The climactic scene ends with Huck’s deliberately defying the ideology he still theoretically accepts:

It was a close place. I took it [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was atrembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “all right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tore it up.

Huck’s creator was not so decisive. The work had been going rapidly, the public was clamoring for what was supposed to be simply a sequel to Tom Sawyer’s adventures, and Twain was, as always, anxious for publication. But he found himself unable to continue and put it aside for several years. Finally he yielded to his publisher’s demand and got rid of the problem by adding ten absurd chapters which denied Huck’s humanity, Jim’s dignity and made peace with a slaveholding society. A happy ending is secured by the deathbed conversion of Jim’s owner who kindly bequeaths him to himself.

Several essays in The Pilot and the Passenger (1988), by the coincidentally named Leo Marx, analyze this failure of nerve when it became necessary for Mark Twain to make explicit the implicit social criticism of his book and disappoint readers with an unhappy ending. Leo Marx says:

It may be legitimate, even if presumptuous, to indicate certain conditions which a hypothetical ending would have to satisfy if it were to be congruent with the rest of the novel It is surely reasonable to ask that the conclusion provide a plausible outcome to the quest….Yet freedom, in the ecstatic sense that Huck and Jim knew it aboard the raft was hardly to be had in the Mississippi Valley in the 1840s, or for that matter in any other known human society. An honest answer would inevitably cause the reader some frustration. That Clemens felt such disappointment to be inevitable is borne out by an examination of the novel’s clear, if unconscious, symbolism…

To say that Clemens only half escaped the genteel tradition is not to say that he failed to note any of the creed’s inadequacies, but rather that he had “nothing solid” to put in its place. The raft patently was not capable of carrying the burden of hope Clemens placed upon it… Clemens did not acknowledge the truth his novel contained… having only half escaped the genteel tradition, one of whose prominent characteristics was an optimism undaunted by disheartening truth, [he] returned to it. Why he did so is another story, having to do with his parents and his boyhood, with his own personality and his wife’s, and especially with the character of his audience. But whatever the explanation, the faint-hearted ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains an important datum in the record of American thought and imagination.

Of course that other story is precisely the one a thorough-going marxist criticism would have undertaken, thereby further illuminating both the work and its society. The critic concludes this story by adding, more kindly than fairly: “Fortunately, Clemens broke through to this truth [that in his society the quest could not succeed] in the novel’s last sentences.” In those Huck soliloquizes: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The three great writers above differ widely, and in nothing are they more different than in their attitudes to the dominant ideologies of their societies. Not one of them is an avowed radical consciously opposing it as was the 19th Century Scandinavian writer Martin Anderson Nexo, whose Pele, The Conqueror, is probably the greatest proletarian novel. None is even an outspoken bitter critic as was me mature Charles Dickens. But surely some of their readers must look up from their pages with faith troubled and acquiescence undermined. Oppositional beliefs do develop in the most authoritarian societies, and imaginative as well as lived experience may help erode a belief in what one knows to be untrue.

In earlier centuries critics often arrogantly prescribed limits for new art, limits determined by the material and approaches of the art with which they were familiar. But, as the outstanding American critic, the socialist F.O. Matthiessen, said in discussing the responsibilities of the critic:

[Artists] try to do everything they can to break through all expected reactions, to disturb, to shock, to compel people to keep life fresh by not allowing it to stay hardened in any conventional molds…this is the awakening function of art…. the responsibility of the artist is not to solve in advance the tensions of the society he lives in but simply…to give to the full existence as he has known it to be…to keep alive the vital, delicate, and always menaced accuracy of communication, without which there can be no renewed discovery of man by man.

The good critic, whatever his or her orientation, must first of all be a good reader interested in, sensitive to, and respectful of, the writer’s work. There may be levels of meaning of which the writer was not fully aware, and appreciative criticism may well make those accessible to readers and even to the writer himself or herself, but one should not treat creation as automatic writing. A novel is a work, not a dream. Brecht did not patronizingly assume Moliere to be ignorant of the context in which his miser showed absurd as well as greedy; Kettle did not suppose Hardy indifferent to the historical development he mourned but could not propositionally present.

A good marxist critic will use his own materialist understanding of history and his consciousness of social forces to make more fully apparent the significance of a work and the art of its creator, not to substitute for them. This is true whether or not the writers have fully accomplished the task they set themselves. As in Leo Marx’s analysis of Huckleberry Finn, the discussion of a partial failure may also enhance our appreciation of an intention not fully realized and deepen our understanding of the artist and his world. And that is, finally, the critic’s essential function. Marxist literary criticism adds an attention to the relation between the inner world of the work and that which lies beyond it. This critical relation operates in both directions. In the controversies over interpretation of the formal qualities of a work, in which the sense of history is always brought to bear, the different ways in which history can be understood, are also often opened up.


By far the best anthology of marxist critical writing, with lengthy and illuminating editorial introductions to excerpts from the work of some thirty-five writers, is Maynard Solomon’s Marxism and Art, first published in 1973 by Alfred Knopf and republished in paperback by Vintage Books, Random House, the next year. This also contains a voluminous bibliography.

Several individual books of special importance are Brecht on Theater, edited and translated by John Willett (1957), Georg Lukacs’s Studies in European Realism (1964) translated by Edith Bone, and his The Historical Novel, translated by H. & S. Mitchell (1963). These are easy to find but another, Anatoly Lunacharsky’s On Literature and Art, presented by Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1965 — thirty-two years after his death and twelve years after Stalin’s — has never been reprinted here.

In the English speaking world alone there is a wealth of valuable periodical criticism, now largely forgotten, by a group of writers loosely associated with the London based Left Review (1934-1938). There were articles by R.D. Charques, T.A. Jackson, Edgell Rickwood and Rex Warner, among others. Two young contemporaries were killed fighting with the Loyalists in Spain at the beginning of their careers. Ralph Fox’s The Novel and the People, a pioneering effort, offered perceptive comments wittily expressed as in his remark that “Art for Art’s sake was the hopeless answer of the artist to art for money’s sake — hopeless because ivory never was a good material for fortification.” Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality, in galleys when he died in 1937, is one of the very few full length studies of lyric poetry by a marxist. It is original, imaginative, and provocative.

Other works quoted in the foregoing text are identified there.

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