Influence of Karl Marx on Modern Literature

Marx and Freud have influenced life and literature in the twentieth century more deeply and extensively than the earlier great thinkers and scientists like Copernicus and Darwin influenced the life and literature in their own respective eras. Karl Marx (1818—83) and Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) had very different fields and orientations.

While Marx was basically a social philosopher, Freud began his career as a doctor specializing in the physiology of the nervous system and the treatment of such disorders as neurosis and hysteria. He soon became the founder of psychoanalysis and thereby one of the seminal figures of the twentieth century. And as regards Marx, he started with the study of Hegelian dialectic at the university in Berlin and Bonn but soon gave a new direction to socio-political thought by publishing, along with Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). This makes him the “father of Communism.” Freud’s psychoanalytical theories and Marx’s Communism both proved revolutionary and highly impactful throughout the world.

Let us now consider the impact of Marx on twentieth-century English literature.
Marxian Thought and English Literature:
Marx’s philosophy is known as “dialectical materialism-.” No place is given by him to the soul or the spirit. According to him, religion is the opium of the masses which keeps them in a world of material reality. He adopted the Hegelian dialectic to give a materialist account of social formations. His concept to class conflict is a basic point. Conflicts arise from the desire to control the means of production. He attacked the laissez faire policy which allows the industrialists and capitalists to exploit the working class without let or hindrance. Marx was for Communism, i.e., the supremacy of the community of workers rather than of a few individuals in control of the entire wealth and its generating sources. The proletariat should rule a country jointly instead of a king or an elected parliament, which normally protects vested masses throughout the world. His teachings inspired the Russian Revolution and then the Chinese, not to speak of another dozen or more on smaller scales throughout the world.
Fourfold Influence:
So far as English literature is concerned, Marx’s impact manifests itself in four different ways:
(i)         A greater concern for the poor exploited masses, without any overt projection of the Marxian ideology. Even non-Marxian writers in the twentieth century tend to give a much greater representation to the working class in their works. In the novels of Arnold Bennett, for example, we have mostly working-class heroes. And Lawrence’s proletarian hero sometimes walks away with an aristocratic lady.
(ii)        Use of literature as a means of communistic propaganda. See, for example, the English Socialist theatre of today.
(iii)       A tendency to subvert the conventional literary forms and techniques by condemning them as constructs of the bourgeoisie. Here the Marxians are on avant-garde ground.
(iv)       A reaction against Marxian ideology which seems to encourage statism as against the concept of the sanctity and freedom of the individual and abject materialism as against spiritualism and “the higher values of llife.” Witness George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm.
Influence pa-Poetry:
Let us now consider the influence of Marx on English poetry, dirama, novel, and literary criticism of the twentieth century, in this order.
The impact of Marx is most clearly discernible in the work of Oxford poets of the 1930s, viz., W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. They were committed leftists the aim of whose poetry was the propagation of Communist ideology. Poetry in their hands become political action, a contribution to the proletaian struggle against the bourgeoisie the ruling elite. At least two of the four Oxford poets got actually involved in the Spanish Civil War.
Auden is now given the status of a major poet of the twentieth century. In the 1930s he was the voice of his generation. Linda Williams observes: “His verse is full of topical reference to the social and international crises of the time; it gives direct expression to the anxieties of the contemporary intelligentsia as perhaps no other writing has done.” Spender for some time remained a member of the Communist Party and as such supported the Republicans’ cause in the Spanish Civil War. His poetry is less overtly propagandist than that of Day-Lewis. MacNeice had Socialist leanings but was not a committed leftist.
Influence on Drama:
G.B. Shaw was a Fabian, a mild kind of Socialist, to start with. Several of his “problem plays” are built around the problems created by economic exploitation of one section of society by another. His first play Widowers’ Houses is about slum-landlordism. Mrs. Warren’s Profession is about the economics of prostitution as a profession in a laissez faire, exploitative society. And so on. Shaw had the passion of a debunker rather than of a rigid ideologue. Galsworthy in his plays like Strife, Justice, and The Silver Box tries to highlight class struggle, miscarriage of justice, irrationality of consigning criminals to solipitary imprisonment, and so on. In the 1950s several dramatists came under the influence of Brecht. The most important of them was Arden who used the theatre like Shaw for a thorough exploration of political and social ideas. Contemporary British theatre is dominated by Socialists like David Edgar and David Hare.
Influence on the Novel:
Of all the literary genres it is the novel that allows an author to represent life the most comprehensively-even more than he can in drama, because whereas drama only shows, the novel can both show and tell. That is why the novel all over the world has been the most eligible literary medium of propaganda. But, strangely, in England no Marxian novels worth the name have appeared in modern times; propagandists have used drama instead.
But if there have been practically no English novels based on Marxian theories like the materialistic basis of social formation and class struggle, there have been novels representing the life of the poor, exploited classes with all its unrelieved gloom. The two novelists who wrote such novels with some distinctiveness were George Gissing and George Moore. Gissing was influenced more by Schopenhauer than by Marx. Cazamian observes about him: “Bitterness sank to the core of his nature, and permeated all his fibres; it became the very food of his imagination   Gissing describes the diseases of society without any hope of curing them. He believes neither in the philanthropy of the rich, nor in the revolt of the poor.” In his novel Demos, “the career of a plebeian agitator…teaches us the vanity of the socialist dream.”
George Moore, unlike Gissing, was a rare combination of an uncompromising realist and a refined aesthete. He tries to make beautiful artifacts out of the gloomy ugliness of life. Cazamian says: “George Moore reconciles the audacity of crude, brutal observation with the sensuous refinement of a voluptuous aesthete.
George Orwell’s well-known novels Animal Farm and 1984 are satires on Socialism and Stalinism. The former has the form of an allegorical beast fable. The latter came after World War II. According to Andrew Roberts, this novel is “a vision of a world “ruled by dictatorships of the Stalinist style, taken to an extreme in which private life and private thought are all but eradicated by surveillance, propaganda, and the systematic perversion of language.”
Influence on Literary Criticism:
Marxian thought has had a tremendous impact on literary criticism not only in Socialist countries, but the world over. Marx did not have a comprehensive theory of art and literature, but his fierce attack on bourgeois idealism have given new directions to literary criticism. To Marx literature was only part of the “superstructure” of which the “base” was formed by economic conditions and dispensation of a society. In its purity Marxian criticism tends to be simplistic if not severely blinkered. But it has its own insights to offer. The Marxian school has in its ranks such great critics as Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Gramsci, and Macherey, to name just a few. Several latter-day critics have tried to relate Marxism with Structuralism, psychoanalytic theories, and even Reconstruction, leading to new insights if not comprehensive systems. In England Raymond Williams (1921—88) has been the best-known Marxian critic. Among the practising critics in today’s England Terry Eagleton (1948— ) is by far the most eminent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s