November 8, 2021
From Marxist Update

….The petty-bourgeois intellectuals are introspective by nature. They mistake their own emotions, their uncertainties, their fears, and their own egoistic concern about their personal fate for the sentiments and movements of the great masses. They measure the world’s agony by their own inconsequential aches and pains.

James P. Cannon, 1940. The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

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Reading notes on: Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory by David Anshen (2017)

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Chapter Two: Major Marxists’ Approaches to Literature and Culture


Eagleton [Marxist Literary Theory] recognises that the drowning of independent perspectives in the USSR leads to the next series of thinkers affected by and largely hesitant towards Soviet-style orthodoxy. What he terms ‘ideological criticism’ refers to a group of extremely sophisticated thinkers that dominated Marxist literary criticism until the present day….

Rather than primarily taking Marxist analysis as reducible to simple and direct sociological explanations of particular authors and their texts, which, at times, leads to biographical, historical, or political studies that reduce works of art, effectively, into direct political statements, these theorists saw the literary as more autonomous….

….it is possible to find the material history which produces a work of art somehow inscribed in its very texture and structure, in the shape of its sentences or its play of narrative viewpoints, in its choice of a metrical scheme or its rhetorical devices (Marxist Literary Theory 11)’.

….and after the World War II….  generally pursued Marxism almost entirely through the lens of culture rather than paying attention to political strategy for revolution

….attention to the importance of consciousness, particularly the importance of class consciousness or the search for an explanation of its absence.

….an almost ahistorical pattern that concerns the centrality of ideology and politically presents either an almost messianic confidence in the potential of the proletariat as it become class conscious, or, conversely, shows a deep pessimism concerning a perceived convergence of fascism, Stalinism and liberal democracy, destroying hope for change. This prognosis, in turn, leads to aestheticism as a substitute for revolution, seen as foregone for the immediate future, possibly for centuries.

….these issues are ‘superstructures’ or social and cultural realms, not the directly economic.

….exclusive attention to culture and ideology tends toward extreme optimism, or pessimism, or some strange mixture of the two.

….Lukács goes so far as to write, ‘When the worker knows himself as a commodity his knowledge is practical. That is to say, this knowledge brings about an objective structural change in…. the object of knowledge’ [italics in original] (169). Now, to be fair, Lukács stresses that such knowledge is an eminently practical affair, but he does lapse into a kind of equation of consciousness and practical activity that at times ignores the complex tasks of building a Marxist party that may determine whether ‘objective structural change’ takes place. For Marxism, knowledge in itself cannot change reality.

….literary analysis focused around the very centrality of the problems of alienation and reification and how this manifests in literary products and indeed all of human existence. However, to simplify his point, perhaps unfairly, if the issue of ‘structural change’ derives merely from class-consciousness, understood as intellectual realisation of and by the proletariat of their nature as an oppressed class, why have there been so many violent difficulties and failures when workers have attempted socialism?

This emphasis on the centrality of ideas may explain why the ‘ideological’ Marxist critics oscillate between extreme pessimism and optimism….

….Lukács’s work attained enormous influence beyond the arguably skewed or simplified conceptions he offers….  History and Class Consciousness….  stressing the importance of the way that commodity relations, that is, the buying and selling of greater and greater amounts of products, including humans as wage-labourers, shapes and permeates the totality (a key term for Lukács) of our ‘inner’ and ‘outer life’….By ‘inner life’, he refers to the psyche, mind, consciousness, feelings and attitudes towards oneself and others, which includes alienation and the transformation of human experiences under the impact of capitalism displacing traditional pre-modern conditions. By ‘outer life’, Lukács means the sum total of the institutions, social relations, legal relations, economic conditions, ‘superstructure’ and externally imposed conditions that impact on humans and society….

Commodity fetishism….  involves the confusion of symbols, such as money, for the real-life conditions and human labour power that generates all economic value.

….involves the confusion of symbols, such as money, for the real-life conditions and human labour power that generates all economic value.

….Money, which is abstract labour power, appears as a personified deity that strikes everything in its path.

….Lukács develops an extremely influential theory of capitalist ideology straight out of Marx. Indeed, seeing cultural products as paralleling the formal, structural, and even economic features of capitalist commodity relations, first developed by Lukács in his 1923 work, becomes one major approach to Marxist literary theory that continues to this day among leading contemporary Marxist literary theorists such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton. For example, many critics have noted that commodity relations in late capitalism involves the competitive and often international struggle to sell goods and services generally produced in mass standardised form for larger and more depersonalised markets in which the humans involved in producing goods are often far removed from those consuming them. This creates an almost mystical, abstract and impersonal relation to the products of human labour. This feature of capitalism can be detected in the ways in which impersonal economic forces like stock and bond markets, currency trading, debt, etc., can suddenly lead to the displacement or evaporation of jobs or social services and there is literally no individual that can be held accountable.

….parallels and explains the features of contemporary and Modernist literature and art, which also often abstracts from particular human features and can be noted for depicting fragmented, subjective, and at times confused and confusing social relations.

….we see a diminishing clarity – according to more traditional standards – in the depiction of human life and existence.

….Jameson conceives of postmodernism as our increasing inability, due to the new super-globalised, so-called ‘post-industrial’ capitalist economy, to ‘think historically’ or in terms of any relationship between our fragmented individual subjectivities and the set of economic and social relations that actually determine our existence. Jameson, in effect, updates Lukács’ analysis to the more extreme forms of artistic productions encountered in the present.

….direct clear connection between an individual and their social setting gets increasingly called into question.

….homology between aesthetic forms or what the Marxist critic Raymond Williams termed ‘structures of feelings’ and the increasing deeper…. depersonalisation of modern life arguably gets worse in what has been termed ‘postmodernism’.

….novels of early capitalism largely feature individuals who face conflicts and through their distinct individual choices successfully overcome difficulties. The coming-of-age novel, the bildungsroman, represented a major subgenre of the novel concerned with young people (generally men) who overcome poverty and other obstacles and eventually make their way in the world.

….To a Lukács-influenced critic such as Lucien Goldmann in his work Towards a Sociology of the Novel (1964), the important feature to note early in the genre of novels concerns the individualistic attitude placed among various features that determine the protagonists’ psychology and social development.

….one might view such characters as ‘homologous’ or structurally similar to the features of the bourgeois individual of early capitalism who (supposedly) freely chooses in the marketplace and whose social networks are primarily personal, direct and tied to individual freedom of choice.

In early capitalism….  Characterised as realism (which is both an aesthetic movement claiming to reproduce life in a realistic manner through certain conventions and conceptions of human psychology and a goal for writers to imitate the world in a convincing way), these works of literature distinguish themselves from, say, Romanticism, mythology or folk tales in their avoidance of mystical or supernatural events and their goal of situating characters in situations where their development links to clear causal determinations that result from their personality and the choices they make.

….Goldmann points to the ‘New Novelists’, a series of novels and novelists beginning in 1960s France, who focus on detailed descriptions of the world of objects to the exclusion of characters with a developed inner psychology. Prominent ‘New Novelists’ include Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras and Natalie Sarraute, and their work is known for its hostility to the traditional psychology seen as bourgeois individualism. Goldmann attempts to explain this literary trend as based on movement away from the type of individualised characters with a unique inner psychology that characterises early novels in the history of the genre. Such early novels are characterised by the similar features of novelistic characterisation and the explicit ideology of free individuals that accompanied the development of capitalism.

….Goldmann makes a fairly convincing argument that the modern novel transforms from paying attention to characters with an inner psychology that determines their fate based on the choices they make, to more abstract and interchangeable characters who increasingly face a world of events and situations growing beyond their control.

….considering the characters in Dickens’ novels such as Pip from Great Expectations (1861) and contrasting them to the characters in William Faulkner’s Modernist classic The Sound and the Fury (1929), with Benjy the autistic, schizophrenic or mentally deficient narrator of large sections of the novel. In Dickens, events remain comprehensible, to readers and characters alike, and derive from choices and attitudes of the protagonists. In Faulkner’s novel, an effort of reconstruction remains necessary to make any sense of the depicted events.

….such transformations derive not from formal innovations considered as immanent to the novel but rather from sociological and economic transformations in the spread of capitalist values and capitalist social conditions. As humans face more impersonal, abstract and alienating experiences of life and growing distance from the economic processes that increasingly dictate their ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds, the old mode of storytelling transforms accordingly.

….consider the prescience of Herman Melville’s short story, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853) that depicts a character, Bartleby, who presents a complete enigma to the narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, who oversees the copying of legal documents. Bartleby engages in the rote, repetitive work typical of early capitalism. However, he possesses an almost postmodern sensibility. Over time, the mysterious Bartleby refuses to carry out orders with the famous refrain, ‘I prefer not to.’ He remains a complete blank slate, a character with an imperceptible personality who rebels against the meaninglessness of repetitive labour….

….He sticks to the words ‘I prefer not to’ with all their ambiguity as a wish or statement of desire, not a clear refusal of authority, until the forces of private property place him in jail where he dies, rremaining an enigma to the narrator and readers alike.

….he remains the ghost in the machine, the semihuman labourer who rebels unto death and seems to predict a new type of subjectivity in the face of the increasingly formal relationship between proletarians and capital as capitalism intrudes into greater realms of human existence.

….what such analysis allows is a Marxist explanation for the transformation of character types and situations in the literature of mature capitalism.

….many Marxist critics have noted these features in the transformation from realist literature and art to modernist and postmodernist works with the latter attenuating, almost completely, the role of the individual and their capacity to affect their environment.

….another major thinker in the tradition of ideological criticism who remains influential and also alternates between the extremes of hope and despair is Walter Benjamin.

….Marxist literary scholar Michael Sprinker in his essay ‘The Grand Hotel Abyss’, makes a compelling argument situating Benjamin in response to views that asserted the automatic, inevitable victory of the proletariat, promoting passivity even in the face of growing fascism while also maintaining, sometimes simultaneously, that socialism remained impossible until fully developed capitalism went into a major economic crisis.

….The fact that the great Marxist theorist of allegory and symbolism, Walter Benjamin, felt compelled to employ such devices in his political analysis contains much irony but also testifies to the power of Stalinism and reformism to compel Marxists to utilise the literary in order to talk about Marxism.

….Sprinker, sympathetic but critical of Benjamin, writes:

Is it plausible that ‘every second of time is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter’? Does every moment in history present a revolutionary opportunity, as Benjamin thought?

    The experience of the proletariat during the last one hundred and fifty years argues otherwise. Dutifully aware of the great heroism of the Communards, and mindful of the example the Commune offered for the classless society of the future, Marx nonetheless judged the insurrection sternly: it was illtimed and doomed to failure; the forces arrayed against it were too powerful. Both Lenin and Trotsky would come to similar conclusions concerning the failed Revolution of 1905—which is not to say that this failure was devoid of future significance. (135)

The point Sprinker articulates, drawing upon the examples of the Paris Commune (when workers rose up in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century and took power until they were militarily suppressed and murdered on a mass scale) and the 1905 revolution in Russia (when workers participated in a revolution but were temporarily defeated until the famous October revolution of 1917) discusses Benjamin’s admirable but mistaken approach to fighting against theories that leave out the necessity for determined revolutionary struggle and preparation of the kind advocated by Sprinker and Lenin (who also sharply condemned voluntarism and fatalism). Benjamin’s assertion of revolutionary possibilities seems valuable in the face of a political approach that completely ignores the human and subjective factor during extreme economic crisis, but becomes more confused when he promotes the idea that objective factors will automatically solve the problems of war, depression and fascism.

….The alternative of either extreme voluntarism or fatalism, for Sprinker, remains ‘only patient, sustained preparation for the moment when state power might be seized’ (136). This sympathetically critiques the apocalyptic language and strategy implied by Benjamin’s essay on history. However, what remains fascinating is the mixture of theological and symbolic images combined with political and social analysis.

….illustrates one aspect that often recurs with ideological critics and their employment or attention to the poetic and the literary – such features serve as a substitute or a displacement for political conditions that blocked direct, open political action and discussion or debate.

….If ideological critics may have felt a triumphalist spirit in their attitudes, at times there was an opposing tendency, often among the same individuals, toward extreme pessimism. The two main figures in the Frankfurt school, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, developed increasingly pessimistic views about the possibilities of social revolution. In both cases they largely turned to a complete discounting of the revolutionary potential of the working class, and in the case of Adorno, virtually any political resistance at all. Adorno went so far in his dismissal and pessimism of political resistance that he opposed the student movement of the 1960s and its opposition to the Vietnam War 

In his book One Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse claims that the industrial working class in the richest capitalist countries, particularly the United States, no longer represent a force of negation and opposition to capitalism but rather find themselves assimilated almost completely into the system. Writing about the ‘integration’ of the working class into the capitalist system he claims, ‘they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation’ (xlv). He goes further and comes close to denying any future class struggle….

….appears to be predicated on extrapolating from a given moment of capitalist prosperity and harmony, roughly the 1950s till the 1970s, when the first signs of post-war prosperity ending manifested themselves. However, Marcuse seems to have drawn the conclusion that the traditional contradictions of capitalism and the cycle of crisis and growth (growth built upon wars, new imperialist ventures, or breaking the working class through fascism and other defeats) ended permanently.

….Marcuse to draw, arguably, unwarranted and very pessimistic political conclusions in relation to social transformation, based on relatively short-term conditions.

….Marcuse remained convinced of the utter irrationality and destructiveness of capitalism, even if no easy, viable revolutionary force seemed possible.

….placed their revolutionary hopes of the peoples of the third world engaged in struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism; at the same time, under Marcuse’s influence such would-be revolutionaries looked to various racial and ethnic groups and disaffected elements in capitalist society, including social outcasts such as, at times, criminal elements including motorcycle gangs such as the Hell’s Angels.

….What the New Left rejected, in common with Marcuse, was any revolutionary potential for the industrial working class, particularly in the US and Europe.

….the ‘concentration of radical politics in active minorities, mainly among the young middle-class intelligentsia and among the ghetto populations’ (51).

We should note that the rebellion against the ‘commodity form of men and things’ echoes the central points about alienation, commodity fetishism, and reification that we saw introduced as a major feature of Marxist analysis by Lukács….

….Marcuse also drew the conclusion that aesthetics, art and cultural innovation represented a frail but real hope for challenging the capitalist system.

….a permanent middle class (which hardly exists anymore but seemed permanent….)

….the beautiful in this culture, against its all too sublimated, segregated, orderly, harmonious forms.

‘The rebellious music, literature, art are thus easily absorbed and shaped by the market….

….market—rendered harmless’ (47). So art remains a form of resistance, but a weak one.

….Marcuse shifted his views on the revolutionary political potential of art, or at least what he emphasises about it, several times in his career. While always viewing art as containing some liberating, ‘desublimating’ features (that is, removing us from the channelling of our life force and Eros into what he terms the ‘performance principle’, referring to an unnecessary amount of discipline and renunciation of joy due to modern capitalist principles)….

‘Unlike the truth of theory, the beauty of art is compatible with the bad present [….] In a world without happiness, however, happiness cannot but be a consolation: the consolation of a beautiful moment in an interminable chain of misfortune’ (Negations 118).

….Marcuse argues that art serves the function of providing an ‘affirmation’ of unjust societies.

….in the authentic works, the affirmation does not cancel the indictment: reconciliation and hope still preserve the memory of things past’ (10).

….defends the revolutionary value of great works of art, defined as ‘by the content having become form’ (8) and argues that art ‘is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres’ (9). Such an optimistic view of art seems to replace the traditional Marxist view that places revolutionary struggle by the working class at the centre of liberation with aesthetics instead serving that role. Art becomes an expression of revolution for a non-revolutionary situation.

….the question hinged around what types of art, if any, could still play a critical role in society.

….most negative vision of Western culture ever penned within the Marxist tradition in their 1947 work Dialectic of Enlightenment.

….attack on the ‘culture industry’, referring to the set of capitalist institutions that produce and sell movies, books, TV programmes and other forms of popular culture to the masses as commodities with profit as the motivating force and dictating principle.

….lose virtually all real critical principles in their analysis. They argue that the majority of forms of entertainment that working people and most individuals consume function purely to dumb down and ideologically enslave the masses. As they put it:

[…] culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform in every part. […] The result is a circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. […] The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness. (120–21)

They go on to specifically attack popular culture, and reject entire aesthetic mediums like film, popular music including jazz, and almost the entirety of literature or art, of any kind, available to the masses. As they explain, ‘What is new is not that it is a commodity, but that today it deliberately admits it is one; that art renounces its own autonomy and proudly takes its place among consumption goods […]’ (157).

….the analysis seems strangely onesided

….the profit motive leads to standardised, unoriginal products. Today, more so than ever, the production of cultural objects takes a form similar, in their example, to the production of cars on an assembly line. However, this is not the end of the story.

….strongly one-sided and therefore undialectical nature of their analysis.

….Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis removes contradictions by seeing art as purely ideological and devoid of critical or artistic potential, seemingly forever. To put it simply, they see art as merely rubbish designed to enslave and sedate the masses. Besides, the flip side of this thesis presents common people as mere passive recipients of whatever simplistic junk the masters of culture throw our way – although to be fair to these thinkers, they do stress their conviction that the choices of the marketplace are illusory.

….incongruous with the Marxist conviction that the proletariat will restructure society in a more ethical, humane and cultured way than the savage conditions we inherit from centuries of bourgeois rule and thousands of years of class rule.

….this attack upon films, music and literature took place in 1947. Within a decade or so, powerful and convincing analysis claimed hidden artistic virtue for these mediums that had been previously overlooked as art. Film, music and literature developed greatly and a real claim can be made that these artistic mediums went through a renaissance.

….Adorno’s lifelong disdain and hatred for jazz music as simplistic – a view few musicologists hold today. Indeed, in literature while many popular bestsellers used boilerplate formulas, similar to the negative pronouncements of Adorno and Horkheimer, it seems absurd to consign literature as a whole, in the present, to the dustbin of history. This is particularly true since novels became increasingly cosmopolitan, critical in content and often formally adventurous, while simultaneously achieving bestseller status.

….to note the increasing capitalist nature of cultural products, as Adorno and Horkheimer did, should not lead to the shortsighted and one-sided conclusion that meaningful art is therefore dead. Indeed, even commodities are not merely commodities since, as Marx points out in Capital, they presuppose a use or use-value as a precondition to serving as items that are bought and sold.

….Adorno and Horkheimer denied virtually any remaining value and autonomy to art

….relatively short-term stabilisation of capitalism in the richest capitalist nations that came out of World War II as victors led to long-term prognoses about the changing function of art and politics. Marcuse remained relatively positive while Adorno and Horkheimer became increasingly negative. But they all seem blinded by the horrors of fascism, war and the post-World War II temporary and relative stabilisation of capitalism.

….both seemingly opposite views (art as substitute for politics, and art as completely void) appear similarly shortsighted in the face of the present moment where art has neither saved us spiritually nor become completely ideological and useless. Rather, at the present time, it appears politics comes to the fore again.


7 November 2021