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Literary Theory

Liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism, including, more recently, post-Marxist social democracy and post-traditional conservatism, have represented the affirmation of modernity, and have raised no questions of science, accumulation, growth and development. Traditional conservatism, religious or secular, girded itself against the negativity of modernity.

The Nietzschean intellectual tradition, from Nietzsche himself to Michel Foucault, has been sniping at modernity, Christian or—to a much lesser extent—Islamic democracy, fascism, and Third World populism. Marxism defended modernity with a view to another, more fully developed modernity. Marxism was the theory of this dialectic of modernity, as well as its practice. After its main lines had been drawn in bold strokes, in The Communist Manifesto , the Marxian dialectical method also paid attention to the gender and national dimensions of modern emancipation.

Theory & Criticism

As passionate political analysts, Marx and Engels closely followed the national politics of their time, although most of their writings about it were responses to particular circumstances. The concrete case was England, the most advanced capitalist country, where, Marx and Engels concluded, social revolution was impossible without a preceding national revolution in Ireland.

Marxists of the multinational Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires soon had to pay more systematic theoretical attention to the concept of nation and its relation to class. What are the relations between art and human labour?

What are the social functions of art and what is its relation to myth? This approach obtained partially in such works as G. This argument was famously revisited by Pierre Macherey in his major Althusserian work of literary theory, Towards a Theory of Literary Production Routledge Classics, []. A landmark survey of the entire Russian literary terrain, it provides a unique record of the literary and stylistic upheavals brought about by social revolution.

The book locates in literary forms and styles the ambiguous political tendencies of their authors, and is driven by the ultimate goal of producing a culture and collective subjectivity adequate to the construction of socialism. This period of revolutionary ferment also gave rise to one of the most powerful and sophisticated intellectual schools in the history of Marxist literary criticism: the Bakhtin Circle.

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Led by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin whose own relation to the Marxist tradition is ambiguous , the Circle produced subtle philosophical analyses of the social and cultural issues posed by the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into Stalinist dictatorship. Centred around the key idea of dialogism , which holds that language and literature are formed in a dynamic, conflictual process of social interaction, the Circle distinguished between monologic forms such as epic and poetry associated with the monologism of Stalinism itself , and the novel whose heteroglossia a polyphonic combination of social and literary idioms and dialogism imbue it with a critical, popular resistance.


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Often overshadowed by Bakhtin, but of equal importance, are P. Anderson claims that, in contradistinction to previous generations of Marxists, Western Marxism is characterised by a period of political defeat to fascism in the s , a structural divorce of Marxist intellectuals from the masses, and — consequently — a written style that is often complex, obscure or antithetical to practical political action. If Lenin and Trotsky were concerned with literature primarily as an extension of immediate political struggles, critics of the mid-century were far closer to the preoccupations of the Bakhtin Circle, understanding literature as indirectly political — not least through the ideology of form.

Marxist Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reading Guide | Historical Materialism

As Adorno put it in an introductory lecture on the dialectic in The pinnacle of such dialectical criticism is to be found in the work of Adorno himself. Adorno was profoundly influenced by Walter Benjamin, eleven years his senior.

The pair first met in Vienna in and continued a lifelong friendship of lively intellectual debate thoroughly analysed by Susan Buck-Morss in The Origin of Negative Dialectics Free Press, In other works, however, this attachment to realism descends into anti-modernist literary-critical dogmatism see, e. In France, the work of Sartre on committed literature is well-known.

The masterpiece of this period and approach is What Is Literature?