Marxist Influences on Literature

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson analyzes Karl Marx's influence on the literature of the twentieth century. The lesson discusses how various works of literature endorse Marxist notions of historical materialism, ideology, and proletarian revolution, while others use fiction as a means to resist communist philosophy.

The Legacy of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was a nineteenth century socialist philosopher and economist. He is best known for his work, The Communist Manifesto, which he produced in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. Marxist philosophy has profoundly shaped twentieth century literature.

Notion of Historical Materialism

Marx's theory of historical materialism posits that a society's organization and development is fundamentally shaped by the material conditions of that society's mode of production. Thus, to understand transformations in society, Marx's historical materialism examines the means by which human workers labor. It also considers the relationships between different social classes and the ideologies (ways of thinking) of those social classes. Twentieth century novelists have engaged Marx's theory of historical materialism by portraying how human relations are, in essence, a conflict for control over the means of production. Take, for instance, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which narrates the story of British men who travel into the heart of Africa along the Congo River to hunt for ivory to export. Conrad's novel portrays the brutal acts of inhumanity that the colonists are willing to commit in order to control the labor and the goods of the indigenous people. Other postcolonial novels that present human conflict as, in essence, a struggle to control the means of production include Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude, and Karen Tei Yamashita's Through the Arc of the Rainforest.

Concept of Ideology

Marx is also known for his concept of ideology. Marx argues that the prevailing class maintains the position of power by controlling the lower class's ideology (way of thinking). He argues that the working classes internalize the beliefs and worldviews of the dominant class, which oppresses them. This, in turn, inhibits the working classes from revolting against the ruling classes. This notion of ideology is explored in a lot of twentieth century fiction, particularly fiction written by women and writers of color. Virginia Woolf's novels, for instance, explore how women might take control over their lives by taking control of the narratives about womanhood. Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison explore how African Americans can redefine what it means to be Black.

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