Marxist Literary Criticism Today

Barbara Foley’s introduction reflects the strengths but also some of the weaknesses of contemporary Marxist writing on literature, finds Dragan Plavšić

Barbara Foley, Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto 2019), 288pp.

Conventional wisdom is invariably conventional but rarely wise. In the field of literary criticism, it holds that Marxists have little to offer in the way of insights because they reduce literature to economics and weaponise it for politics. On this view, Marxists make the fatal error of forgetting that literature is literature thereby numbing the very ‘aesthetic sensibility’ we need to appreciate it. When we throw in the fact that Marxism is routinely derided as a dead ideology, you can begin to see what Marxist literary critics are up against.

The last time Marxist literary criticism enjoyed a revival was in the 1960s and 1970s when the left had more of a mass, militant presence. We are a long way from that today, of course, but years of neoliberal austerity have nevertheless provoked a search for real answers, leading to a greater level of openness to left ideas than has been the case for years.

All of which makes Barbara Foley’s Marxist Literary Criticism Today timely. It is the first introduction to the topic since Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) and Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature (1977), and Foley clearly seeks to reach a newly receptive audience with it.

Of course, it’s one thing to seek an audience but quite another to reach it. Nevertheless, three things tell in Foley’s favour here. The first is that she writes with the lucidity of a teacher who appreciates what it takes to explain unfamiliar ideas to the uninitiated, without compromising on substance or indeed politics, setting an example that frankly cries out to be replicated by a host of academic Marxists.

The second is that Foley brings an awareness of the background misconceptions that spring to mind when the word ‘Marxism’ is uttered, particularly in the US where she is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University. And the third is that she is determined to ‘return to the basics of Marxist theory’ in order to ‘preserve’ its ‘analytical and strategic paradigms’, not out of a misguided sense of nostalgia but because of their enduring value.


All this necessitates what Foley herself calls ‘a kind of polemical stance’ (p.xviii). Acknowledging that ‘it is social movements based upon gender, sexuality, “race”, ethnicity and environmental awareness, not class struggles against exploitation, that have been proposed as the present sites of oppositional political practice in recent decades’ (p.xi), she nevertheless argues that it is those ‘who have given up on the class-based critique of capital who are behind the times’ (p.xii).

Foley’s point is not of course to undermine these social movements, but to draw attention to the fact that the oppressions that underlie them cannot be abstracted from the material contradictions of society as a whole. Class is the key category of oppression because as it cuts its way through otherwise disconnected oppressions, it also weaves them together into an interrelated totality which provides the material basis ‘for a broad-based strategy’ (p.18), one Marxists argue needs to be consciously developed and organised if oppression in all its forms is indeed to be overcome. This class perspective gives Marxism an advantageous character, Foley argues, because it ‘draws upon and completes the insights made available through other lenses’ and thus ‘proposes itself as a “meta”-theory … one possessing overarching explanatory power’ (p.88).

After this propitious introduction, Foley proceeds to divide her book into two parts of three chapters each. The first part addresses the ‘fundamental principles of Marxist analysis’ needed for understanding and appreciating ‘what Marxism brings to the study of literature’ (p.xvi).The second looks at how these principles apply in the field of literary criticism. This is a sensible division as Foley prudently declines to make assumptions about what, after four decades of neoliberalism, the interested reader may know about Marxism.

Base and superstructure

A key section of the first part of the book is the one in which Foley discusses the so-called base-superstructure model, the starting point for a distinctively Marxist study of society and thus of literature too. However, it is also the focus of much criticism and debate, so we need to pay particular attention to it.

On this model, the base covers two things: the means we use to produce for our needs and the social relationships we form, independently of our will, in order to do so: master/slave, lord/serf and capitalist/worker. These relationships form the economic structure of society on which a superstructure rises up corresponding to and determined by it. This superstructure consists of the legal and political order (the state) and the multiple ideologies by means of which we become conscious of the struggles of class society.

The relations between base and superstructure cut both ways; just think of how the state intervenes in the economy. But although this is an interactive totality, its distinctive characteristic is that it is made up of two unequal forces, with the base in the end decisive, because it is where we produce the vital means of our subsistence.

This is then the model that provokes hostile critics into making the charge of economic reductionism, particularly in relation to literary activities conventionally situated at the opposite end of the spectrum to the grubby economics of churning out commodities for profit. But it is all too easy to make this charge if you turn Marxism into a vulgar caricature of itself, one where base determines superstructure with automatic immediacy and dynamic social relationships between humans are treated as if they are mechanical relationships between things.

Foley defends the base-superstructure model as firmly as she rejects the charge of reductionism, arguing that Marxism is ‘not economic determinism’ but ‘historical materialist determination – which is not at all the same thing as determinism…’ (her emphasis). Abandoning the model would entail falling back on a multi-factorial, pluralist theory of society which lacks decisive driving forces and thus any discernible pattern. Above all, she points out that though ‘anti-Marxists continually try to reduce Marxism to a rigid model of purely economic causality…the best correctives to vulgar Marxism come from within the Marxist tradition itself’ (p.30).

These ‘correctives’ are the notions of ‘mediation’ and ‘relative autonomy’ which Marxists of different schools have used to deflect the charge of reductionism. Foley employs them both just about equally throughout her book, indicating that she considers them to be compatible, though there are cogent reasons to doubt this.

Mediation vs. relative autonomy

Mediation is the idea that the base does not, generally speaking, determine the superstructure automatically or immediately. On the contrary, the transmission of its impact through the body of society is mediated, which means that it is reworked and reshaped by us in accordance with the specific logic of the superstructural activities we are undertaking.

For example, economics is reworked and reshaped by us in accordance with the differential logic of politics, which means politics is not an automatic ‘mirror’ of economics with no room for our own intervening, that is, mediating, activity. The economic dividing line between employers and workers is not therefore reproduced with parallel clarity by the Conservative Party on one side and Labour Party on the other; instead, in politics, it runs through the Labour Party.

Similarly, the multiple ideologies of the superstructure – political, social, religious and so on – do not sprout automatically from the base. They are the mediated products of a whole body of experience made up of desires, emotions, passions and needs which are conditioned by socio-economic circumstances, and which we then rationalise by developing existing ideological traditions. In this way, ideology is itself a mediated fusion of feelings and thoughts. When writers write, therefore, they reshape and rework already mediated ideas and experiences by filtering them through the further mediating mesh of literature’s specific logic.

Abbreviated though these examples are, they nevertheless provide some flavour of the ‘many mediations’ (p.125) necessary to do justice to an intricately mediated reality. It is therefore difficult to see what the alternative notion of relative autonomy can add here that isn’t negative.

The question of autonomy, for example, is better viewed as the need to understand the differential logic of the specific means by which the material roots of a given society are mediated by us through it. In contrast, the emphasis on autonomy, however relative, encourages a tendency to disengage ideas from their material roots and to detach the superstructure from a meaningful relationship with the base. Indeed, as Louis Althusser, the French Marxist who developed the notion of relative autonomy, once revealingly wrote, ‘From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the “last instance” [of the economic] never comes’.[1]

What is literature?

The second part of Foley’s book turns to specifically literary issues, not the least of which is the vexed question of what literature is. In the early 1980s, Terry Eagleton argued in his Literary Theory that literature ‘distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist’.[2] In other words, literature has no essence, a case Eagleton maintains, albeit in modified form. He now argues that there are ‘family resemblances’ between texts, an idea taken from the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein; just as family members resemble some members more than others, so texts share characteristics with some texts more than others. But there are no characteristics shared by all family members or texts.[3]

Foley also takes this ‘family resemblance’ approach and lists as many as fourteen ideas ‘most frequently invoked, whether in literature classrooms or the culture at large’ to describe ‘literariness’ (p.91). She then evaluates each one with a dialectical eye.

To take three examples. Foley demonstrates how the conventional idea that literature is defined by its ‘fictionality’ is partial when we consider many poems (Wordsworth used metaphor to wander lonely as a cloud, but how was this fictional?) and ‘nonfiction novels’ such as Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (p.95). She subverts the idea that literature conveys truths about a ‘universal human condition’ but instead reconfigures it to convey a quite different universal, the ‘human need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (p.106). And she shows up the limitations of the idea that literary works possess a ‘formal unity’ which students should be trained to discover, by pointing out that technical flaws can be oblique symptoms of deeper contradictions essential for understanding texts (p.112).

In this way, Foley concludes not that the fourteen ideas she lists are wrong so much as partial or misconstrued. As long as we retain a dialectical appreciation of their limitations, the shifting ‘family resemblance-like’ combinations of these fourteen ideas allow us to grasp what literature is. Although Foley’s specific points here are strong, the real problem is the pluralist notion of ‘family resemblances’ which frames them. As she acknowledges, her list of literary traits is ‘by no means exhaustive’ since ‘various readers might reject some and substitute others’ (p.91). Indeed, the overall impression is of a jigsaw whose pieces can be fitted and refitted together in multiple combinations but without ever forming a picture we can actually see.

A different approach is hinted at by Foley when she writes that her approach fosters ‘the impression that literature is a stand-alone, non-dialectical category’ determined by its own traits, whereas in fact ‘literature is not infrequently constituted by its implied opposition to what it is not’ (p.93). Later she adds that a literary work can ‘be seen as a source of knowledge – one that is different from the kinds of cognition available to science, but not for that reason any less useful as an aid to understanding the world beyond the text’ (pp.96-7).

Here Foley brushes lightly against an essentialist tradition which views art as a particular form of knowledge, one dialectically related to and therefore distinct from scientific knowledge. Thus, science proceeds primarily by reasoned, logical concepts that appeal to the mind; art proceeds primarily by intuitive, sensuous images that appeal to the senses of sight, sound and touch. Science produces conceptual knowledge; art produces sensuous knowledge. Science rationalises the world; art feels the world.

Given the unique expressiveness of its linguistic medium, literature stands out here; it is able to know the world with a completeness unmatched by any other art form, whether music, painting, sculpture or even film. At its best, it forges an intuitively sensuous path through the numbing distractions of everyday life to give us reality as we have never seen it before, to ‘strike through the mask’ in the words of Captain Ahab’s famous cry in Moby-Dick (p.99). In this essentialist perspective, then, fact and value meet, the normative and the evaluative are joined, and essence merges into quintessence.[4]

Marxist literary criticism

In broad terms, ‘criticism is nothing but the translation of a work from the language of intuition into the language of logic’.[5] And since literature is the product of society, it follows that there can be no proper ‘translation’ of it if we ignore society’s oppressions. In her final chapters, Foley looks at how literary critics have used Marxism in their analyses.

Key here is Foley’s observation that ‘just as society is riven by contradictions, so too are the literary works emerging from it’ (p.130). It follows from this that texts can often be revealing in ways that go beyond a writer’s intentions. Because if writers are indeed to ‘strike through the mask’, if they are to be true to reality, they cannot do otherwise than show up society’s contradictions in ways that often undermine their own worldviews. Thus, Engels famously wrote of the novelist Balzac, a reactionary supporter of the French nobility, that he was ‘compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudice’ in order to depict society in its true light.[6]

However, things are not always quite so straightforward. The American Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, has developed the original insight here into the idea of the ‘political unconscious’, drawing attention to the repressed political dimension of literary works. As Foley notes, this repression often surfaces ‘at the level of form’ in ‘moments of stammering, inconsistency and reticence’ such as ‘implausible narrative closure in novels’.

Here Foley points to Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 industrial novel Mary Barton, where bitter class tensions are ‘resolved’ when the Chartist worker is overcome with remorse for committing murder and dies, the factory owner becomes an enlightened philanthropist and the eponymous heroine skips off to Canada to start a new life. In this way, the repressed hollowness at the heart of Gaskell’s ‘pro-capitalist liberalism’ (p.133) becomes manifest in the sheer implausibility of the novel’s ending.

The guiding principle Foley relies on here is Jameson’s famous injunction: ‘Always historicize!’ (p.125) – and she uses it to illuminating effect in her analysis of one of the great American novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The much-lauded central section of the novel, on which its reputation essentially rests, captures the way in which, isolated aboard a raft on the Mississippi, the twelve-year-old Huck and the runaway slave Jim develop a friendship which promises to transcend the social limitations of their lives ashore. This contrasts sharply with the much-derided final chapters when, back ashore, Huck turns to ridiculing Jim who reverts to stereotype as the novel descends into satire.

Foley historicises Huckleberry Finn by noting how the final section signals Twain’s ‘ironic recognition of the reinstated power of the plantation-owning class and the institutionalization of Jim Crow’ segregation after slavery’s abolition. It reflects his ‘troubled recognition’ of the ‘arrested historical dialectic’ of black liberation at the moment of the novel’s writing. In this way, the formal contradictions between the lauded central chapters and the derided final ones ‘mediate the larger historical contradictions shaping the late-nineteenth-century US South’ (p.194).

The value of all this is that it allows us to refute the charge so often made by hostile critics that Marxists illegitimately politicise literature. In fact, writers politicise their own works, often unconsciously, especially when it comes to form and structure, because it is impossible for them not to. To coin a phrase, writers write their own literary works, but they do not write them just as they please.[7] Thus, Marxists cannot politicise what has already been politicised.

All in all, Foley has written a valuable book that reflects the strengths but also some of the weaknesses particularly of the body of Marxist writing on literature that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.


[1] Louis Althusser, For Marx (Verso 2005) p.113. Compare this to Engels, ‘There is…interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself’ (my emphasis) Letter to Borgius 25 January 1894.

[2] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Blackwell 1983) p.11.

[3]See Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature (Yale University Press 2012). Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblances’ idea was first applied to the arts in the 1950s by the American philosopher of aesthetics, Morris Weitz.

[4] These two paragraphs attempt a very condensed summary of the ideas of a tradition whichhas seen art as sensuous cognition (and ‘essence’ as more than what texts have ‘in common’, however understood). Inspired by Hegel’sAesthetics, these ideas were taken up in nineteenth-century Russia byliterary critics such as Belinsky before being embraced by Marxism, first by Plekhanov, and then in the 1920s by the unjustly neglected Aleksandr Voronsky, an associate of Trotsky’s (whose own writings on literature are essentially in this tradition). Like Trotsky, Voronsky was one of Stalin’s many victims.

[5] Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky, Art as the Cognition of Life: Selected Writings 1911-1936 (Mehring Books 1998) p.207. The predominant role of intuition in art explains why artists are often at a loss to explain themselves. As Goethe noted: ‘An artist who produces valuable work is not always capable of giving a reasoned account of his own achievements or those of others.’ By contrast, critics are able to provide reasoned accounts, but usually lack the sensuous intuition to produce art.

[6]Letter to Margaret Harkness, April 1888 (my emphasis).

[7]This is why writers sometimes feel as if their works write themselves. T.S. Eliot made much the same point when he wrote, ‘In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain wrote a much greater book than he could have known he was writing. Perhaps all great works of art mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning: certainly, Huckleberry Finn is the one book of Mark Twain’s which, as a whole, has this unconsciousness.’ See his ‘Introduction to Huckleberry Finn’ in Harold Bloom, ed.,Mark Twain (Modern Critical Views) (Chelsea House 2006) p.40.

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).