Karl Marx and World Literature

Reviewed by John

S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature

Perhaps the most crucial lesson that arises out of the dialectical materialist method designed by Marx and Engels is the contradiction between capitalist social relations, based on the hierarchy of ownership over labor, and what Marx calls “human emancipation,” or the struggle to create a world based on the pragmatic needs of collective sustainability. Notwithstanding the laments of postmodernists—including those in the post-Marxist camp—who often denounce Marx’s methodology as utopian, reductive, economistic, and the like, dialectical materialism still exists as an essential tool for understanding the inconsistencies of capitalist modernity, revealed in the recent global crisis, as well as for imagining a world beyond capitalist hegemony, which in our own time has found expression in the revolutionary impulse unleashed by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movements, and other global actions for economic and social justice, such as the Maoist struggle against state repression in central India. For S.S. Prawer, Marx’s dialectical materialism is fueled by aesthetic concerns which consumed Marx’s working hours: for Marx, the literary imagination was not only an agency of expression but what Prawer calls the “self-constitution” of the revolutionary impulse to create an alternate version of social relations beyond capitalism: “Marx believed, then, that though many authors are spokesmen for a dominant class, great literature is able to rise above a prevalent ideology. When this happens, it may constitute an area of relatively unalienated labour, a realm in which an author can express himself—to a considerable extent—as a total human being” (404).

The importance of Prawer’s argument in this book, which was originally published in 1976, lies in his analysis of how Marx’s critical reading of world literary texts coincided with the development of his materialist method. Marx’s utilization of literary texts from throughout world history is much more than just an adornment to his critical writing about capitalism. On the contrary, the convergence of aesthetic experience and political praxis in Marx’s work makes possible a deeper understanding of the scientific method itself. Through the “chronological scrutiny of Marx’s references to and uses of literature,” Prawer traces the inextricable relationship between Marx’s revolutionary conceptions of society and his inclusive knowledge of world literary texts, presenting an epistemology of dialectical materialism and the varying forms it takes throughout Marx’s career. The continuity between what critics often call “early” and “late” Marx – between his critique of philosophy and ideology and his critique of political economy – emerges in his understanding of world literature as a site of struggle and for forging a vision of the “total man.” As Prawer writes, “Literature, it would seem, can veil in specious beauty things that are ugly when looked at in their nakedness. But literature … can also help to make clear what men, and things, really are” (74).

Prawer’s book reads like a critical biography of Marx, from the early years after his doctoral studies, when he worked as a journalist, through his collaboration with Engels and participation in working-class political organizations, to what we may see as the “mature” Marx who dedicated the rest of his life to the critique of political economy – all seen through the lens of world literary influence, which Prawer argues is ever-present in Marx’s life-work. Focusing on the early Marx until 1845, when his cooperation with Engels started to flourish, Prawer draws attention to how Marx was able to transfer “the terms of literary criticism to other spheres of human activity” in order to develop a “view of cultural history which embraced at once its particularities and its recurrences” (30f). In other terms, Marx’s intimacy with world literary texts, from Western and Eastern Antiquity to the 19th century, was used as a foundation for building and analyzing the contemporaneity and historicity of human social relations, as a reflection of external conditions and as a basis for positing a world beyond the constraints of capitalist class domination. As Prawer argues, “[Marx’s] habit of literary quotation and allusion thus helps to make his social philosophy a true anthropology,” in which Marx seeks out the interconnections between the different dimensions of social activity (49).

Prawer points out how Marx’s early engagement with world literary texts becomes the basis for his critical engagement with the ideological dimensions of class-based society, reflected in his Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology, and the Communist Manifesto. In chapters 5-12, Prawer analyzes some key theoretical manifestations in Marx’s work from the years 1845-62, such as the formulation of the dialectical method, his analysis of private property under capitalism, the division of labor and commodity fetishism, and the formation of revolutionary communism, based on the inevitable conflict between capital and labor outlined in the Manifesto. For Prawer, the Marx of The German Ideology was particularly concerned with the role of the writer in class-based society: “What, then, of the intellectual, what of the artist, and his class affiliations? Here we must remember what has been said about ‘oppositional’ writers and thinkers in The German Ideology. Such men … can identify themselves with forces already at work in their society … destined to change radically the socio-economic relations obtaining in a given society and hence, ultimately, to change intellectual and artistic life too” (147). Marx’s concern here with the role of the committed artist would become a central tenet of Marxist literary and cultural criticism in the 20th century, through such figures as Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Mao Tse-tung, among a host of others in the Marxist tradition, yet it also draws attention to the representations of literary form in class-based society, its functionality in the course of revolutionary transformation, and the turn it would ultimately take in the post-capitalist world.

The final chapters of Prawer’s book look closely at Marx’s turn to political economy, specifically Capital I. As noted, throughout the course of Marx’s work, literary references were used as a form of praxis, to demonstrate the historical setting of human development in a particular era, and to augment the hopes of a revolutionary future based on creative labor, a central principle that contemporary post-Marxists like Antonio Negri draw upon in their own work. As Prawer notes, “What Marx looks for, in Shakespeare as in Sophocles, is the forceful expression, or suggestion, of an outlook which is the exact opposite of that which he attributes to the modern capitalist” (330). By analyzing Marx’s use of world literary texts in Capital I, we can see the materialist method at work, for it symbolizes for Marx the antithesis—the negation of the negation—of capitalist social relations, sanctified by the instabilities and contradictions of the marketplace which find delimiting expression in the commodity form. Ultimately for Marx, creative labor, drawn from all parts of the world, will form the paradigm of ideological resistance against capitalist alienation, which reduces imaginative capabilities to bourgeois utility.

The concern with Prawer’s book is that it lacks a concrete discussion of the concept of world literature, a topic that has come into fashion in the last decade. Prawer could have utilized what he saw in Marx’s foresight to investigate the question of world literature as it appears today. His analysis could be useful in uprooting some of the postmodernist discourse on this topic, which remains resistant to dialectical materialism. Although his book does not cover the last 35 years, it insightfully examines the aesthetic components of Marx’s methodology – a scientific method that is often reduced to mechanistic scrutiny, or what many in the postmodernist camp see as the “vulgar” approach of Marxist criticism. The continuity in Marx’s reading praxis of world literary and cultural texts reveals his work in a humanistic light, while simultaneously opening it up to new ways of thinking about the system of dialectical materialism and its revolutionary potentiality. As the recent crisis of global capital demonstrates, those of us working in Marx’s revolutionary tradition must learn from such practice if we are to create a new global community, one that encapsulates some of the humanity which Marx sees working through world literary texts and their authors.

John Maerhofer City University of New York Jjmaer@aol.com