What is Marxist literary criticism?

I know next to nothing about literary criticism. I do, however, know a fair amount about Marxism.* So every time I see references to “Marxist literary criticism,” I find myself somewhat intrigued. Can this creature exist? In what does it consist?

This is a genuine question for those who are more familiar with what goes on in literature departments than am I (not a hard thing to be), not a series of claims. It is a question that is motivated by a series of claims, however, which I will now set forth.

Claim: I take Marxism to consist, essentially, of three interconnected things, in rough order of importance:

1) A theory of historical teleology (historical materialism);

2) A set of positions on abstract/high-level philosophical, economic, and political questions (the labor theory of value, materialism rather than idealism, the explanatory primacy of base over superstructure, etc.); and

3) A set of claims about social relations and phenomena in, variously, capitalist societies (e.g., commodity fetishism), all pre-socialist societies (e.g., class conflict, alienation), and societies in general (e.g., ideology).

Claim: It’s hard to see the immediate relevance of literature to any of these things. The one exception, and it’s undoubtedly a very big exception, is the analysis of ideology. Literary criticism that consists in pointing out how works of literature reflect and support the ideology of a given set of relations of production seems like a genuine part of the Marxist program. But I take it that “Marxist literary criticism” includes not only that, but a whole host of other things besides. Perhaps I’m mistaken in this?

Claim: For something to be “Marxist,” it must directly relate to the central concern of Marxism, that is, how people obtain the conditions of their physical survival and reproduction. Merely discussing how a work of literature portrays that process does not seem like the sort of direct relationship that would authorize the use of the term, in the way that discussing how a work of literature is a part of that process (the analysis of ideology) would.

Question: SO… is the enterprise that goes by the name “Marxist literary criticism” just an analysis of ideology? Or is it something more? And to the extent it is that something more, is there an argument for genuinely calling it “Marxist?”

Calling all literature people!


* This is what happens when one starts to do research in historical teleology. One becomes very familiar with Marxism, very quickly.

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