The Relevance of Marxist Critique

Matthew Beeber

Marxist Literary Criticism Today
By Barbara Foley
Pluto Press, 2019, 272 pages, $27 paperback.

IN 2001, THE late Argentinean philosopher Ernesto Laclau and Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, foundational proponents of what would become known as “post-Marxism,” asserted the following premise:

“In the mid-1970s, Marxist theorization had clearly reached an impasse. After an exceptionally rich and creative period in the 1960s, the limits of that expansion — which had its epicentre in Althusserianism, but also in a renewed interest in Gramsci and in the theoreticians of the Frankfurt School — were only too visible. There was an increasing gap between the realities of contemporary capitalism and what Marxism could legitimately subsume under its own categories.”

The two go on to observe that:

“This situation, on the whole, provoked two types of attitude: either to negate the changes, and to retreat unconvincingly to an orthodox bunker; or to add, in an ad hoc way, descriptive analyses of the new trends which were simply juxtaposed — without integration — to a theoretical body which remained largely unchanged.”*

Almost 20 years later (and more than 30 years after Laclau and Mouffe first formulated their position), the debate continues over the usefulness of “orthodox” Marxism — as opposed to any number of post- or neo- Marxisms like that of Laclau and Mouffe. Barbara Foley, Distinguished Professor Emerita of English at Rutgers University-Newark and a specialist on African-American and proletarian literature, unapologetically asserts the continued relevance of Marxism, and in particular the continued necessity for a class-based critical approach to literature, in her recent book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today.

Some critics will no doubt consider her position a “retreat” to an “orthodox bunker” — indeed the introduction to the volume makes clear its intentions to return to the “basics” of Marxism. As a whole, however, the book manages to depart from the dichotomous paths described by Laclau and Mouffe, charting a model for the “integration” of orthodox Marxism with our contemporary economic and social order.

While steadfast in its determination that Marxism still provides the necessary tools for the analysis of our present moment, the volume represents more than mere retrenchment. It addresses head-on many of the critiques made of Marxism’s limitations, offering rebuttals to such critiques that draw on a wide range of scholarship.

Entry into the Conversation

In its prologue and throughout many offset explanatory text boxes, Marxist Literary Criticism Today puts forth a coherent political position, representing a valid entry into discourse surrounding the continued relevance of Marxist theory.

Foley argues (against the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, who are referenced directly as foils), that neoliberal or “late” capitalism is still capitalism, that a class-based analysis is thus as necessary as ever, and that “it is those who have given up on the class-based critique of capital who are behind the times.” (xii)

Foley’s claim for the continued relevance of Marxist critique derives from an analysis of our current neoliberal moment as continuous within — rather than a departure from — capitalism as an overarching economic structure. We are, according to Foley “still very much in the longue duree […] of capitalism,” such that the critique of capitalism provided by Marxist analysis is as relevant today as it was during Marx’s time.

Working within what many would consider an orthodox Marxist framework, the goal of the book, and of its version of Marxist literary criticism, is to “contribute to the project of constructing what Antonio Gramsci called an alternative hegemony: an oppositional common-sense understanding of the ways in which artistic production and reception can either foster or fetter revolutionary change.” (124)

The offset text boxes answer what could be considered FAQs of Marxism, socratically voicing and responding to possible critiques. These text boxes do much of the work towards making the book’s topics relevant to today.

Foley does not shy away from such controversial topics as “What does it mean to say that class is the ‘primary’ analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary social change? What about sexism and racism and modes of domination, and gender and race as modes of identity?”

Or, “What is the difference between chattel and free labor? Are they features of qualitatively different modes of production, or can they exist within a single social formation?;” or “Is Marxist value theory obsolete in the era of the internet?”

Many of these sidebars address questions that might indeed be asked by an undergraduate student, whereas others address questions of Marxism’s limitations which would more likely be raised by those already working within a Marxist framework.

The responses to these questions — such as the assertion that class, as an analytical tool, is in fact not an “axis of oppression” on par with gender or race but rather an “ur” category of Marxist analysis (which of course then includes the other two) — follow from Foley’s premise that the locus of contemporary oppression is not “multi-faceted,” but “unitary,” and “situated … in capital.” (xi)

Foley openly advocates for communism, yet does not engage in a defense of past or current regimes who identify with that term. The book makes clear that its interests lie in the idea of communism as theorized by Marx and Engels, not any historical substantiation of it. Indeed, the volume gives a wide berth to historical questions regarding the achievements or atrocities of past self-described communist regimes.

Despite this, Foley does not dismiss the “huge challenges” that “are posed not only by the coercive and ideological power of current elites but also by certain historical limitations in the legacy inherited from Marx and Engels themselves — as well as by problems inherited from past movements carried forward under the banner of one or another version of Marxism.” (xv)

An explanatory text box rhetorically asks, “Why do I use the term ‘communism’ rather than ‘socialism’ to denote the classless society superseding capitalism?” Foley responds by clarifying that despite their seeming interchangeability (even a return to Marx does not clear up the distinction, as he used both terms inconsistently), in the vocabulary of today, socialism often denotes a reformist position, one which many consider compatible with aspects of capitalism.

Foley writes that “countries designating themselves as socialist (the Soviet Union and China figure prominently here) retained so many features of capitalist inequality — including nationalist politics, unequal wages, and continuing divisions between mental and manual labor — that they reverted to capitalism.” (9)

 Foley here both rejects a stagist approach — in which socialism is seen as the first stage towards achieving communism — and also any reformist version of socialism which could exist within capitalism. She simultaneously, if somewhat tacitly, argues that historical regimes such as the Soviet Union did not in fact achieve communism as Marx envisioned it, thus removing the burden from contemporary Marxist critics to either defend or condemn them.

Lit Crit Primer

Informed by the continued necessity of Marxist critique, the main text of Marxist Literary Criticism Today puts into practice the politics it advocates for in its prologue, explaining the basics of class-based criticism and demonstrating its applicability to a wide range of contemporary literature.

The book fills a need for such a volume, being the first entrant into that field since Terry Eagleton (Marxism and Literary Criticism, 1976) and Raymond Williams (Marxism and Literature, 1977). The first half serves as a foundational course in Marxist studies more broadly (not limited to its application to literary criticism).

This is both a primer on the work of Marx and Engels and on Marxist studies since Marx, akin to books such as Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism. Foley divides this first section into three major areas of Marxist studies: historical materialism, political economy, and ideology.

The first, “Historical Materialism,” draws mainly from Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and from the famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, giving a general overview of Marx’s philosophy, including his reformulation of Hegelian dialectics, the distinction between materialism and idealism, and the relation between base and superstructure.

The following section, “Political Econ­omy,” offers an overview of Marx’s critique in Capital, defining key concepts such as commodities, surplus value, and alienation.

The third section, “Ideology,” begins by explaining that Marx himself uses the term in three distinct senses: 1) “illusory consciousness,” 2) “the standpoint of a class,” and 3) “socially necessary misunderstanding.”

Marx’s multifaceted use of “ideology” as a term — and his incomplete theorization of it as a concept — has contributed to its being one of the richer fields of interrogation by 20th-century Marxist thinkers. Foley charts the development of ideology critique, giving concise overviews of Lukács on reification, Althusser on interpellation, and Gramsci on hegemony.

In particular, the focus on hegemony powerfully anchors the volume as a whole, emphasizing the role of literature — and of the critique of literature — in its “capacity to encompass a wide range of modes of resistance to ruling-class hegemony.” (83)

The second half of Foley’s book directly addresses the ways that Marxist analytics can be put to use in a practice of literary criticism, and in turn how literary criticism can play a role in challenging ruling-class hegemony.

Foley divides this half of the book into three sections, the first attempting to define literature itself, the second addressing many current strains of Marxist literary criticism, and the third giving several examples of Marxist analyses of classic literary texts.

The first of these makes a convincing argument for the need to conceive of literature as a bounded category of cultural production, and usefully articulates the political implications of how we define this category. The book’s attempt to actually provide a definition of “literature” is, however, less convincing, comprised of thirteen characteristics of which many are either vague or subjective, such as “greatness” or “depth.”

The strength of the second half of the book lies in the “Marxist Literary Criticism” section, in which Foley both traces dominant strains of Marxist critique of bourgeois literature (the majority of which expresses the ideology of the ruling class), but also addresses the role of critique regarding overtly revolutionary texts.

Foley begins with Paul Ricoeur’s concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” providing a list of “maneuvers” of which the Marxist critic is rightly suspicious, such as dehistoricism (capitalism has always been the dominant economic mode) and naturalization (hierarchical social structures are natural).

Another major strain of Marxist criticism, “symptomatic reading,” attempts to locate what Fredric Jameson calls the “political unconscious” of a text, such that we “view the given text as a mediation — indeed, a series of mediations — of the contradictions shaping the world from which it emerged.” (131)

Foley also responds to critics who have questioned Marxist critique for a number of reasons, allowing for the validity of some (e.g. critical techniques such as symptomatic reading are better suited to analyzing bourgeois literature than to overtly political writing), while vehemently rejecting others.

In particular, Foley responds to claims from Rita Felsky and others that Marxist criticism ignores the “‘joy, hope, love and optimism’ embedded in great works of literature,” arguing that “this accusation constitutes little more than an updating of Cold War-era formalism, extending the radical-baiting historically directed at specifically Marxist criticism to the entire domain of politically charged cultural critique.” (136)

Closing Arguments

In the book’s final section, “Marxist Pedagogy,” Foley performs Marxist readings of a range of texts, providing both useful examples to students and a formidable resource to teachers of Marxist criticism.

The section offers pairs of poems organized by themes such as “art,” “nature,” and “alienation,” often putting canonical bourgeois texts in conversation with overtly radical works.

In one particularly effective example, Langston Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines” (1925) serves as the foil to Archibald MacLeish’s oft-taught “Ars Poetica” (1926).

Whereas “Ars Poetica” argues that “A poem should not mean / But be,” suggesting its relevance purely to the aesthetic realm, Hughes’s poem directly addresses the political, specifically the conditions of the “240,000 natives working / In the Johannesburg mines.”

Yet while Hughes asserts that poetry should in fact “do” things in the political realm, his poem “interrogates the limits of literary representation,” asking, “What kind of poem / Would you make of that?” Thus, while both poems ultimately question the political utility of art, MacLeish’s serves as a condemnation of poetry which attempts any kind of political engagement, while Hughes’s on the other hand laments poetry’s limitations in fully expressing political conditions.

Foley contextualizes her readings of both poems, explaining that “In the hands of the New Critics — who, we will recall, elevated formalism to the level of political and cultural orthodoxy during the Cold War — over the decades MacLeish’s poem would come to stand in for a critique of the entire tradition of socially committed poetry that had exercised widespread influence during and beyond the Depression years.” (222)

Through such pairings, Foley demonstrates the utility of Marxist criticism in understanding both “politically engaged” work as well as art that participates in the pretense of an apolitical “art for art’s sake.”

Overall, Foley makes a convincing argument both for the “continued need for a classless future,” and for the continued relevance of Marxist critique in achieving this project, against post-Marxists and others who would suggest that Marxism has become rather “part of the problem.”

In its capacity as a literary criticism primer, the book practices its politics, demonstrating the applicability of Marxist critique to a wide range of cultural production, both contemporary and historic.

In so doing, Foley avoids the twin accusations of Laclau and Mouffe — either blind retrenchment to orthodoxy or ad-hoc application — offering a model for the elusive integration of orthodox Marxism with the present social and economic landscape.

Laclau and Mouffe published their seminal work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, in 1985. A second edition was published in 2001 with a new introduction, from which this quotation was taken (viii).

November-December 2020, ATC 209

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