The Marxian Imagination: Representing Class in Literature

Julian Markels, The Marxian Imagination: Representing Class in Literature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003.

In the trio of critical concepts — gender, race and class — that often recur within academic discourse, the notion of class is rarely paid more than lipservice. This is partly because both gender and race, while primarily being a focus of oppression, can also be celebrated positively as a locus of identity. Class relations, in contrast, always involve conditions of inequality, exploitation and expropriation. The issue of class in the final analysis also poses the question of power: who rules? This is why academics, who tend to move in a very middle-class world, find the political implications of class rather uncomfortable, to say the least.

In the sphere of literary criticism the debate about class has for a long time gone out of fashion altogether. This is also due to the fact that class in literature raises questions about class-consciousness, the social function of writing and the ideology of the text hardly favorite postmodern issues. It is therefore a brave and bold venture of Julian Markels to defy the postmodern hegemony and place the representation of class at the heart of a discussion about the Marxian imagination in both literature and society. This is also a timely intervention since some of the most recent critical debate is in fact shifting under the pressure of world events towards what is often tentatively called the ethical turn, which acknowledges a moral dimension to the literary text. Markels not only faces this new-found ethical awareness head on, he reasserts the much more audacious and long-lasting claim of Marxism as a master narrative of class and class conflict, one which also provides us with a most powerful instrument for dissecting the central moral issues in literature.

It is perhaps somewhat less of a surprising critical move that Markels chooses to focus primarily on the 19th- and 20th-century realist novel as the genre most accommodating to a discussion of class as a point of entry to the literary text. Realism has been a favored mode of writing among radicals ever since Marx himself celebrated the work of Victorian writers like Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell and the Brontës, ‘whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.’1 But Markels is not so much interested in merely reiterating the classic Marxist ‘triumph of realism’ argument, about how great works of literature can transcend the conservative prejudices of their authors.

Instead, his discussion of the social-realist novel in particular of Robert Tressell, Mary Heaton Vorse, Myra Page and others is unusually challenging in its critique of the fundamental lack of imagination and convincing representation of class in the work of these otherwise politically radical writers. In Tressell’ s case however, although I would agree that his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in some parts reads like a political tract, I reacted with surprise to Markels’ s characterization of the work as being ‘stupefying to most readers’ (32). This would hardly explain its enormous popularity among ordinary people in Britain and elsewhere (judging by the literally dozens of new editions in which the novel has been reprinted). In dealing with proletarian writers like Tressell, who might otherwise be deemed sympathetic to Marxist ideas about class, Markels’ s book nevertheless provides an original and stimulating contribution to the perennial debate about the troubled relationship between politics and the novel. Here the litmus test of realism is, rightly, the fictional representation of working-class characters. In many of the social novels discussed in the book, this involves either dull, slice-of-life versions of fictional reportage or the similarly reductive caricaturing of workers as either helpless victims of poverty or stainless steel proletarian heroes.

Another difficult problem, which this book addresses, is that of the nature of ideology. How for instance does ideology impact the daily lives of ordinary people? Raymond Williams, one of Markels’ s prime sources of critical inspiration, famously suggested the term ‘structures of feeling’ to capture this elusive relationship between life and ideas. Ideology is, according to Williams, a continuum of past, present and future, a subjective mixture of residual, dominant and emergent thoughts and emotions that affect our individual and social behavior. In his own more dialectical view of ideology that moves away from Williams’ ’empiricist subsumption of literature to sociology’ (114), Markels locates this most slippery of concepts within the imagination, in how we make sense of the world. Since this is also the prime domain of literature, the novel is perhaps one of the richest sources of insight into the way ideology works itself through from the personal to the political, how thoughts and feeling are translated into everyday praxis. Such a claim for the radical potential of literature lies also at the core of Markels’ s polemic with other Marxist critics such as Fredric Jameson, whose ‘superstructuralist idealism’ (115), in Markels’ s view, not only denies the political agency of authors, but also leaves little room for the dialectical leaps in imaginative awareness of class that one finds in Shakespeare, Balzac and Dickens. As Markels explains:

On the understanding of class as a historically structured, socially invisible, overdetermined process of transient expropriation, I argue that the representation of class requires the abstracting power of imagination… Not being directly visible, this process can only be represented indirectly, and its indirect manifestations need to be represented with sufficient variety and scope to produce a literary structure through whose point of entry class is overtly thematized and not left to be retrieved from a political unconscious. (21)

Markels’ s discussion is at its strongest not primarily in this brief yet thought-provoking encounter with Marxist theoretical debate, but rather in his close ideological reading of the texts themselves. In particular, his discussion of Dickens’ s Little Dorrit shows just how fruitful a central focus on class can be. Dickens of course belongs to a popular radical tradition in English literature that goes back to Bunyan and the medieval morality plays. However, it was the decisive conjuncture of Victorian capitalism and the emergent realist novel that allowed for Dickens’ s imaginative grasp of the impact of class society on the individual. It was also this nexus of literature and society that enabled him to transform his novel-writing into a highly politicized art form. To be sure, Dickens more often than not shies away from drawing the most fundamental, revolutionary conclusions about class society, choosing instead – as in Hard Times – to bridge the antagonistic social gap by means of a utopian resolution to class conflict. The circus in Hard Times represents just such an escapist alternative to the irreconcilability of class interest. In Little Dorrit however, Markels argues, Dickens’ s potential as a revolutionary writer is fully realized through his clear and uncompromising image of capitalism as a prisonhouse of expropriation, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

Radical literary critics must, in Markels’ s view, act boldly within their chosen sphere, challenging the dominant academic discourse, which tends to retreat within its intellectual ivory tower. Despite the intellectual confusion caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the postmodern end-of-history/ideology debate, the class struggle itself has clearly not gone away. The issue of class continues to haunt the political scene like a return of the repressed. It is therefore both refreshing and inspiring to come across a Marxist critic like Julian Markels who enters this critical debate with such a profound understanding of the implications class has on any ideological reading of the literary text. The Marxian Imagination is a welcome intervention that reaffirms both the power of literature to reveal the world and the radical need to change it.

Reviewed by Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg


1. Marx, Karl, ‘The English Middle Class, in Baxandall, Lee, & Morawski, Stefan, Marx & Engels on Literature and Art (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), p. 119.

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