Marxist Literary Criticism

Manuel Campos


In this lesson, you will learn all that you need to about Marxist literary criticism.

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, and socialist revolutionary.

Due to his political publications, Marx became stateless and lived in exile with his wife and children in London for decades, where he continued to develop his thought in collaboration with German thinker Friedrich Engels.

Marxism aims to revolutionize the concept of work by creating a classless society built on control and ownership of the means of production. In such a society, the means of production are possessed in common by all people rather than being owned by an elite ruling class.

He was a heavy drinker so he had poor health. He died in 1883 when he was 64.

Although Marx and Engels detailed theories of socialism in the mid-nineteenth century, it was not until the 1920s that Marxist literary theory was systematized.

The greatest impetus for this standardization came after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia.

Questions in Marxist Criticism

Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question:

  • How are the lower or working classes are oppressed – in everyday life and in literature?
  • What social classes do the characters represent?
  • How do characters from different classes interact or conflict?
  • Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed?
  • What is the social class of the author?
  • Which class does the work claim to represent?
  • What values does it reinforce?
  • What values does it subvert?

Marxist Literary Criticism

Features found in Marxist Literature and perspectives used when analyzing literature

  • The Marxist school follows a process of thinking called the material dialectic which is the belief system that maintains that “...what drives historical change are the material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art that is built upon that economic base
  • Society progresses through the struggle between opposing forces. It is this struggle between opposing classes that result in social transformation. History progresses through this class struggle. Class struggle originates out of the exploitation of one class by another throughout history.
  • There will always be conflict between the upper, middle, and lower (working) classes and this conflict will be reflected in literature and other forms of expression; art, music, movies, etc ( Henrik Ibsen in A Doll’s House)
  • Main features include the idea that ruling classes keep power through ideology. Marxist literary analysis aims to uncover the illusions or mystifications that the ruling class uses to maintain its control.  (Virginia Woolf in A Room Of One’s Own)
  • Marxists believe that at birth people are equal but their environments begin to shape their realities. The state of Haves and Have-nots emerges from this, with the Haves controlling the factors of production while the Have-nots work in production to the benefit of the Haves.
  • Aesthetic and artistic elements are less important. The historical, social and political meanings are considered more important.

Writers Influenced by Marxist Criticism

Marxism also greatly influenced many Western writers such as:

Claude McKay was a Jamaican writer and poet, and was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism and one of the leading figures in 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism.

Simone de Beauvoir Beauvoir wrote novels, essays, biographies, and monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues. She was known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women’s oppression

Bertold Brecht German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet. Brecht had been schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch. Korsch’s version of the Marxist dialectic influenced Brecht greatly, both his aesthetic theory and theatrical practice

More Information about Literature

These are some resources that can help you analyze the literature

  1. A Guide to Romanticism in Literature
  2. A Guide to The Enlightenment Literature
  3. A Guide to Postmodernism in Literature
  4. A Guide to Renaissance Literature
  5. A Guide to the Beat Generation in Literature
  6. A Guide to Modernism in Literature
  7. The Beginner’s Guide to Realism in Literature
Manuel Campos, Docente de Inglés

About manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English

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