JTREL - January 2015
Volume VI Number 3
ISSN 0975 – 8828

Marxist Approach to Literature: An Introduction

Aditya Kumar Panda
National Translation Mission, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore-570006

In 20th century, literary criticism has witnessed influences from many schools of critical inquiries. One of the major schools is Marxist literary criticism. This paper highlights the major tenets of Marxist literary criticism. In other words, it studies the Marxist approach to literature.

Literary criticism, Formalism, Marxism


    Twentieth century literary criticism has been influenced by Marxist ideologies. To Marxism, literature belongs to the superstructure which is a product of the base realities. Marxist approach relates literary text to the society, to the history and cultural and political systems in which it is created. It does not consider a literary text, devoid of its writer and the influences on the writer. A writer is a product of his own age which is itself a product of many ages. Bakha’s struggle in the Untouchable of Mulk Raj Anand and Balaram Halwai’s struggle in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger depict the social realities in India where social class has been playing a vital role. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes the history of colonizers, their politics with the natives and the white domination over the natives of Africa. Many such literary pieces witness the social historical and political processes which happen in the real world.


        At the outset let me consider Marxism and literature as synonymous with existence and essence. How one exists and why is the answer of why one exists and how. When one thinks about Marxist approach to literature, the existential approach comes to one’s mind. Both target at the base realities of life, but the first one finds an order, a law, and logic in the world, the latter one finds irrationality, disorder and uncertainty in the world where we live. Both approaches look at life as it is lived by the human in this world.

        In Sartre’s words, existentialism is “an ideological moment within Marxism”. We can recall the essay Search for a Method in Jean Paul Sartre’s The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) where he has declared that existentialism has become a subordinate branch of Marxism and it will enrich it. Historical changes are due to the material realities of life or lives, not because of the ideological superstructure. Human existence in a real world determines who is that human, what does he/she think and why. A literary text exists in social historical cultural and political contexts. It is also an outcome of these contexts which a writer experiences during a period.  ‘The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle’ says Marx in the Communist Manifesto (1848). In a Marxist approach to literature, we have the following factors which need to be discussed:

  1. There is a class history and class struggle in a literary text.
  2. Struggle is there means there is a domination and oppression. And in that, someone has to win and someone has to defeat. It belongs to a particular society and culture.
  3. There are influential factors like political motives behind the production of a text. (the text is for whom ? and why ?)

        So, the social historical political and cultural conditions behind literary texts need to be discussed when we are looking at a text through Marxist approach. To Marx, the literature belongs to the superstructure and should reflect the base realities. In Das Capital (1867), Marx writes that 'the mode of production of material life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.' The background in which something is written decides what to be written and about whom to be written. What is written? Why it is written? and how it is written? are the questions which need attention in the Marxist approach to literature.

        After the October, 1917 revolution, the Marxist approach to literature became dominant and was defined through the light of socialist realism. Andrei Sinyavsky defined the socialist realism as

“…the basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism” (Sinyavsky, 1934).

       This approach took the life struggle of working class, whether of farming or factory or any other field, into account. It described them as they were when they were working, when they were struggling, when they were achieving their goals. Such ideas of socialist realism inspired literature and in Russia, it generated a belief that a writing is influenced by both the author’s subjective factors and the influence she/he receives from her/his surroundings. Socio-political and economical factors influence the form and content of a writing.

        Marx and Engels considered literature as a production of the base structure. In other words, literature, culture, law, religion etc are in the superstructure as defined by Marx and Engels. According to Marx, the base structure determines the superstructure predominantly. It is also possible that the superstructure influences the base and this is why Raymond Williams considered both the structures as mutually influencing each other (Williams, 1977). The base includes all the necessary conditions behind a production.

        To Abrams, Marxists view literature "not as works created in accordance with timeless artistic criteria, but as 'products' of the economic and ideological determinants specific to that era" (Abrams 149).

        According to Terry Eagleton, the English critic and Cultural theorist, it is not only concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class but also it gives a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history. Terry says that a text cannot know itself, so the Marxist criticism tries to explore about the hidden necessary conditions which make the text possible.

        Marxist criticism has been critical of the so called Formalism which considers a work of art as an independent entity (form determines the content, not the writer, not the sociohistorical background). It is Leon Trotsky, a Russian Marxist revolutionary theorist, asserted that the form of art is independent, but the artist, the writer and the user or the spectator who is enjoying it, are not empty machines. They are living people, with a crystallized psychology representing a certain unity, even if not entirely harmonious. This psychology is the result of social conditions. He summarizes the questions which are to be asked in a Marxist approach to literature as follows:

“to which order of feelings does a given artistic work correspond in all its peculiarities? What are the social conditions of these thoughts and feelings? What place do they occupy in the historic development of a society and of a class? And, further, what literary heritage has entered into the elaboration of the new form? Under the influence of what historic impulse have the new complexes of feelings and thoughts broken through the shell which divides them from the sphere of poetic consciousness?” (Trotsky,1923)

        Marxist approach also studies the social class to which an author belongs and the effects of the author on her/his society. It explores how the author has interpreted the society, culture and political systems. It emphasizes on the social reality, it does not give importance to the aesthetics of a text.


        If I can use a quote as Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), to describe Marxism, I should say, I am, therefore I think. Firstly, I come to existence, then I can think. This is why; we can consider Existentialism as an extended Marxism. Existence includes a history, a culture, a time which determine who someone is or what something is. The foundation of Marxist approach to literature is very strong in reality. There is no literature, where there is no subjectivity. Literary texts are woven around the experience of the human who exists and the existence of many things which human perceives. Our living world can be compartmentalized as society, history, culture, and politics under one big unstable compartment called time. And no literary text and writer can by-pass any of these compartments. This is what a Marxist approach does and it is relevant today and will be relevant tomorrow also.