In This Article Marxism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Marxist-Inspired Existentialism and Postmodernism
  • Marxist Anti-Racism/Critical Race Theory
  • Socialist Feminist/Anti-Racist Critical Race Theory
  • Contemporary Marxist Theory

Literary and Critical Theory Marxism
by
Wendy Lynne Lee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0031

Introduction

Marxism encompasses a wide range of both scholarly and popular work. It spans from the early, more philosophically oriented, Karl Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology, to later economic works like Das Kapital, to specifically polemical works like The Communist Manifesto. While our focus is not Marx’s own contributions to philosophy or political economy, per se, it is important to note that the sheer breadth of scholarship rightly regarded as “Marxist” or “Marxian,” owes itself to engagement with texts ranging across the works of a younger, more explicitly Hegelian, “philosophical Marx” to those of the more astute, if perhaps more cynical, thinker of his later work, to the revolutionary of the Manifesto’s “Workers unite!” Hence, while it is not surprising to see an expansive literature that includes feminist, anti-racist, and environmental appropriations of Marx, it is also not unexpected to see considerable conflict and variation as a salient characteristic of any such compilation. Indeed, it is difficult to capture the full range of what “Marxism” includes, and it is thus important to acknowledge that to some extent the choice of organizing category is destined to be arbitrary. But this may be more a virtue than a deficit since not only have few thinkers had more significant global impact, few have seen their work applied to a broader range of issues, philosophic, economic, geopolitical, environmental, and social. Marx’s conviction that the point of philosophy is not merely to know the world but to change it for the good continues to infuse the essential bone marrow of virtually every major movement for economic, social, and now environmental justice on the beleaguered planet. Although his principle focus may have been the emancipation of workers, the model he articulates for understanding the systemic injustices inherent to capitalism is echoed in Marxist analyses of oppression across disciplines as otherwise diverse as political economy, feminist theory, anti-slavery analyses, aesthetic experience, liberation theology, and environmental philosophy. To be sure, Marxism is not Marx; it is not necessarily even a reflection of Marx’s own convictions. But however far flung from Marx’s efforts to turn G. F. W. Hegel on his head, Marxism has remained largely true to its central objective, namely, to demonstrate the dehumanizing character of an economic system whose voracious quest for capital accumulation is inconsistent not only with virtually any vision of the good life, but with the necessary conditions of life itself.

General Overviews

For a general overview of Karl Marx, look to Sidney Hook’s Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation (1933), Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx (1963), Louis Dupré’s The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism (1966), Frederic Bender’s Karl Marx: The Essential Writings (1972), or David Mc’Lellan’s Karl Marx: Selected Writings (1977). General overviews of Marxism present, however, a more daunting challenge. These range not only over an expansive array of subject matter, but also across a wide and diverse span of application. A distinctive feature of Marxist scholarship is the effort to include interpretation of Marx’s original arguments and their application to a range of issues. Georg Lukacs offers an example of this strategy in History and Class Consciousness (Lukacs 1966). Louis Althusser takes a similar tack in Reading Kapital (Althusser 1998) and For Marx (Althusser 2006) arguing for an important philosophical transition between the young Marx and the Marx of Kapital—that Marxism should reflect this “epistemological break.” Throughout a career which included Marx and Literary Criticism (Eagleton 1976), Why Marx was Right (Eagleton 2011), and Marx and Freedom (Eagleton 1997), Terry Eagleton demonstrates why Marx and Marxism remain relevant to our reading of literature. In On Marx (Lee 2002), Wendy Lynne Lee endeavors to bridge the gap between general introduction and application via contemporary examples relevant to Marxist scholars and civic activists across a range of disciplines and accessibility. John Sitton’s Marx Today (Sitton 2010) takes a historically contextualized approach to contemporary socialist theorizing via The Communist Manifesto. Through a diverse selection including Albert Einstein’s “Why Socialism?,” John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney’s “Monopoly-Finance Capital and the Paradox of Accumulation,” and Terry Eagleton’s “Where Do Postmodernists Come From?,” Sitton demonstrates the continuing relevance of the Marxist commitment to make philosophy speak to real world issues. One of the best general works, however, is Kevin M. Brien’s Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom (Brien 2006). Brien argues that Marxism can and should proceed from the assumption that, contrary to Althusser, Marx can be read as a coherent whole. As Marx Wartofsky puts it, Brien’s reading of Marx creates opportunities to theorize an internally consistent Marxism, but also incites “lively criticism.” Lastly, though perhaps less a general introduction to Marxism than to a Marxist view of political/economic revolution, the Norton Critical Edition of The Communist Manifesto (Bender 2013) includes essays situating Marx’s incendiary pamphlet in the history of Marxist scholarship. It includes a rich selection of pieces devoted to themes including the revolutionary potential of Marx’s critique of capitalism (Mihailo Markoviç), his theory of wage labor (Ernest Mandel), Marxist ethics (Howard Selsam), and the applicability of Marxist analyses to contemporary dilemmas (Slavoj Zizek, Joe Bender).

  • Althusser, Louis. Reading Kapital. London: New Left Review/Verso, 1998.

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    In Reading Kapital Althusser argues for an epistemological break between the young Marx and the Marx of Kapital. Marxist analyses, according to Althusser, should not only reflect this maturation in Marx’s thinking, but should seek to understand and capitalize on the important changes in Marx’s view of capitalism.

  • Althusser, Louis. For Marx. London: New Left Review/Verso, 2006.

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    In For Marx Althusser continues his argument for an epistemological break between the young Marx and the Marx of Kapital utilizing specifically Freudian and Structuralist concepts to support his analysis. The focus here is on the “scientific” Marx as opposed to the younger, more Hegelian thinker. But, as Althusserlater acknowledged, more attention needed to be paid to class struggle.

  • Bender, Frederic, ed. The Communist Manifesto: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2013.

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    The Norton Critical Edition of The Communist Manifesto includes essays situating Marx’s incendiary pamphlet in the history of Marxist scholarship. It includes a rich selection of pieces devoted to themes including the revolutionary potential of Marx’s critique of capitalism (Mihailo Markoviç), his theory of wage labor (Ernest Mandel), a socialist feminist interpretation (Wendy Lynne Lee), a Marxist-inspired ethics (Howard Selsam), and an analysis of the applicability of Marxist work to contemporary dilemmas (Slavoj Zizek, Joe Bender).

  • Brien, Kevin M. Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2006.

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    In Marx, Reason, and the Art of Freedom Brien argues that Marxism can and should proceed from the assumption that Marx can be read as a coherent whole, that is, that there’s no “epistemological break” as identified by Althusser. As Marx scholar Marx Wartofsky puts it, Brien’s reading of Marx creates opportunities to theorize an internally consistent Marxism, but also incites “lively criticism.”

  • Eagleton, Terry. Marx and Literary Criticism. Oakland: University of California Press, 1976.

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    In Marx and Literary Criticism, Eagleton’s seminal work, he shows how and why it is that Marx is relevant to our reading not only of political economy, but to a wide array of literature. Among other topics, he offers an analysis of the relationship of literature to its historical context, and of literature to political activity. He also situates Marxist critique in the larger context of understanding the human relationship to society and civilization.

  • Eagleton, Terry. Marx and Freedom. London: Phoenix House, 1997.

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    In Marx and Freedom, Eagleton continues his critique of capitalism, arguing that freedom means not only liberation from material constraints to more creative praxis, but emancipation from capitalist labor as a variety of alienation. Eagleton incorporates a very rich account of individual perception and activity as key to realizing freedom.

  • Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

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    In Why Marx Was Right Eagleton adopts a more combative tone, defending against the claim that Marxism has outlived its usefulness. He takes on a number of common objections to Marxism, including that it leads to tyranny, or that it’s ideologically reductionistic.

  • Lee, Wendy Lynne. On Marx. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002.

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    Lee’s aim is to offer an introduction to Marx and to Marxism accessible to a wide range of disciplines and audiences. On Marx also provides concise possible applications of Marxist themes for use in environmental philosophy and feminist theory with an emphasis on bridging the gap between philosophical comprehension and activist application—theory and praxis.

  • Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1966.

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    History and Class Consciousness offers a classic example of a strategy common in Marx scholarship, namely, an interpretation of Marx’s work (particularly the concept of alienation), the influence of G. W. F. Hegel on Marx, and an application of Marx to contemporary themes, in Lukacs’s case, the defense of Bolshevism.

  • Sitton, John. Marx Today: Selected Works and Recent Debates. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230117457E-mail Citation »

    Marx Today takes a historically contextualized approach to contemporary socialist theorizing via The Communist Manifesto, among other Marx’s works. Aimed at a broad audience, this anthology includes both sympathetic and critical readings. Sitton’s selections demonstrate the relevance of the Marxist commitment to make philosophy speak to real world issues.

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