I share today another chapter of my current book project, Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate. Since I am still in the revisions process, I am particularly interested in feedback.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, while very interested in making our lives better, don’t have a lot to say about how literature can help. I include them in this book, however, because certain left-leaning literary theorists think that literature can join with class politics to advance human liberation.
Had things turned out differently, it’s possible that Marx would have had a lot to say about literature since, at 17, he was a brilliant student who wanted to study literature in college. (Instead, his father made him study law, which he finessed into law and philosophy.) He wrote some poetry, short fiction, and a play before shifting over to philosophy, especially the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. After leaving the university, he became a journalist increasingly interested in socialist causes.
Meeting Friedrich Engels was a major turning point in his life. Engels, the son of a Lancashire textiles factory owner, had researched the abysmal living conditions of mill hands, producing the landmark Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). Increasingly disenchanted by Hegel’s idealism, which believed that ideas shape history, Marx turned his attention to economics and worker activism. In 1848, a year that saw revolutions break out all over Europe, Marx and Engels co-authored The Communist Manifesto, designed to transform working class dissatisfaction into a mass movement.
As Marx and Engels see it, more inclusive forms of society invariably replace less inclusive forms, meaning that the proletariat will one day replace the bourgeoisie as the bourgeoisie replaced the landed classes. The desired end is a communal state where each individual, free of worrying about physical needs, can develop his or her particular potential to the fullest. Marx’s analyzed the workings of capitalism in Capital, his masterpiece. Engels, meanwhile, would go on to write, among other works, The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State.
According to his daughter Elaine, Marx was a fan of Shelly, whom he considered as “one of the advanced guard of Socialism.” It’s important to distinguish between the two, however. Defence of Poetry is closer to the Hegelian idealism that Marx rejected in that Shelley sees visions of human liberation, grasped by the great poets, inevitably seizing hold of human society and changing it. In other words, consciousness (including literature) shapes history, even though it can take a while.
If Marx is said to have stood Hegel “on his head,” it’s because he saw economic forces influencing consciousness, not the other way around. Shelley may have called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but Marx became increasingly interested in actual legislating. What does it take for power to change hands?
Consciousness and literature still have a role to play, however. To understand how, we must look at the relationship between what Marx and Engels call “the ideological superstructure” and “the economic base.” The superstructure involves “ideas, concepts and consciousness”—the mental structures that influence how we see ourselves—while the base concerns “the material intercourse of man”:
The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the spiritual intercourse of men, appear here as the direct efflux of men’s material behavior…
The Marx-Engels passage has led to many debates about whether material life or culture (life or literature for us) is primary. At first glance, it appears that Marx and Engels consider material life to be more important:
We do not proceed from what men say, imagine, conceive….[R]ather we proceed from the really active man…Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness.
While this may seem to definitively relegate consciousness to the second tier, it’s actually more complicated than that. In pushing against Hegel’s contention that consciousness determines history, Marx and Engels may overstate the case, going to the other extreme. “Interwoven,” I think, gives us a better sense of the actual relationship. Literature can’t act independently from the material conditions on the ground, but it is through people’s ideological sense of themselves that the economic conditions manifest themselves. History may involve impersonal forces, but it takes place through actual people.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a labor organizer who thought about these issues when locked up in Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, helps clarify the relationship. As he sees it, workers (economic base) and cultural activists (ideological superstructure) need each other. Without connection to actual working conditions, culture laborers (including poets) are prone to airy abstractions, while without the efforts of those who work with ideas, manual workers are vulnerable to what Engels calls “false consciousness” and Gramsci “bourgeois cultural hegemony.”
As Gramsci sees it, the middle class uses the institutions of culture (the media, universities, religious institutions) to “manufacture consent,” with the result that the middle class need not rely only on armies and the police to stay in power. The existing power relations will appear, to the working class, as just the way things are, what Gramsci calls the “common sense” values of all. William Blake, in his poem “London,” captures how people forge mental shackles for themselves. Although miserable, they do not cast off the internal restraints:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
When the reigning power structure can convince people to forge mental manacles for themselves, we have what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power.”
If culture helps enforce existing power relations, however, it also can challenge them. Gramsci himself is more interested in how political philosophy can break the hold of bourgeois “common sense” on worker minds, but we will be examining literature’s ability to do so. W.E.B. Du Bois, Bertolt Brecht, Frantz Fanon, and various feminists (Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Tania Modleski) all examine ways that poetry, fiction and drama can break the hegemonic power of, respectively, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. If Sir Philip Sidney is right that literature is the best way to teach virtue, then maybe it is also the best way to break the hold of oppressors over our minds.
We will also see a contrary view expressed by Victorian poet and thinker Matthew Arnold, who openly calls for poetry to be used to ensure middle class hegemonic control, not challenge it. Literature, as Arnold sees it, should be taught in worker schools because it will “civilize” the masses, by which he means persuade them to be content with their lot in life.
Marx and Engels do not disagree with Arnold that great literature can play a reactionary role in class struggle. For instance, they both noted how members of the rising middle class used Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for their own purposes. One can see how the story of a shipwrecked mariner creating a new society would appeal to entrepreneurs, casting someone like them as a heroic protagonist in a drama that breaks with the past and forges a new path into the future. Crusoe’s father wants him to stay at home and pursue a safe “middle way” whereas Crusoe wants something more, even though he can’t put his finger on exactly what that is. In any event, he continues to engage in risky ventures, with the final result that he creates a new world that far surpasses anything that his father could envision. The story so engaged readers that Robinson Crusoe became the 18th and 19th centuries’ most popular novel.
It’s true that the Robinson Crusoe story is interwoven with a historical power shift from the land-owning gentry to the mercantile and industrial middle class. The economic base was determining the ideological superstructure in that sense. But by giving entrepreneurs an identity, putting steel in their spines and confidence in their decision making, the novel helped propel historical forces forward. And not only Robinson Crusoe. In his seminal work The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt talks about how early novels in general reinforced new notions of individualism that were part of the new economic order. Each time readers immersed themselves in the story of Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, Goethe’s Young Werther, Sarah Fielding’s David Simple, Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, William Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, or a host of other novelistic protagonists, they were invited to prioritize the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals over age-old traditions. Watt points out how the break is particularly striking in Crusoe:
Crusoe’s island gives him the complete laissez-faire which economic man needs to realize his aims. At home market conditions, taxation and problems of the labor supply make it impossible for the individual to control every aspect of production, distribution and exchange. The conclusion is obvious. Follow the call of the wide open places, discover an island that is desert only because it is barren of owners or competitors, and there build your personal Empire with the help of a Man Friday who needs no wages and makes it much easier to support the white man’s burden.
What’s for a middle class businessman not to like?
Marx was not entirely opposed to the middle class embracing this vision. In his dialectical view of history, the heroes of one era are the villains of the next. Although the capitalists who replaced the gentry would become oppressors in their turn, they represented a new prosperity where, theoretically, the needs of all could be met—although for that to become a reality, the proletariat would need to force capitalists to (a) stop exploiting them and (b) share the wealth.
So what are authors to do if their work is used in the service of progress at one moment in history and oppression in the next? Marx and Engels have a simple answer: don’t worry about it. The artist’s job is to tell the truth, not engage in politics. Authors are not to be activists but reality describers.
In this, Marx and Engels share with Aristotle, Samuel Johnson and Shelley the belief that looking closely at literature gives us access to certain larger human truths. Johnson, as we have seen, believes that “much instruction” is to be gleaned from Shakespeare’s deep understanding of human nature while Shelley finds evidence of humanity’s yearning for freedom in literature’s masterworks. For their part, Marx and Engels believe that novelists give us a deeper understanding of the workings of society than economists, sociologists, and political scientists. “Scientific socialism”—which is to say, socialism based on empirical reality, not on utopian dreaming—benefits from literature’s insights.
Even as Robinson Crusoe inspired capitalists, for instance, it also revealed the dark side of capitalism, especially its self-absorption and its readiness to use other people as instruments of profit. Crusoe thinks that God is using earthquakes to send him special messages, and he doesn’t hesitate to sell a Muslim friend into slavery when it suits his purposes. (His shipwreck, meanwhile, occurs when he is traveling to Africa to acquire slaves.) To reflect upon Robinson Crusoe, then, is to recognize both the energies of emergent bourgeois capitalism and the way it sacrifices human beings. Because these energies remain a powerful element of capitalism, socialist activists underestimate them at their peril. In other words, they can use literature to better understand the enemy.
To cite another literary example, Marx and Engels praised the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, even though he had royalist sympathies. Engels claimed to have learned more about French society and its history from the French novelist “than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.” Marx too admired Balzac and once planned to write a critical study of the author after his studies of economics were complete. Engels explains why Balzac’s grand project, his Comédie Humaine, is so revealing:
Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favorite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.
If literary masterpieces like Robinson Crusoe and the novels that make up Balzac’s Comédie Humain function as objective mirrors of social relations, allowing political and economic theorists to penetrate to their core, then works that sacrifice truth to politic expediency will not serve us, even if we agree with their politics. Engels makes this clear in his criticism of the draft of an 1885 novel about salt miners sent to him by a hopeful author. In his letter to the author, Engels begins by pointing out that she appears chiefly interested in proclaiming her socialist convictions:
You obviously felt a desire to take a public stand in your book, to testify to your convictions before the entire world. This has now been done; it is a stage you have passed through and need not repeat in this form.
He goes on to note that he is not against partisanship per se. Some of the great authors have been partisan, a qualification that Shelley too should have made:
I am by no means opposed to partisan poetry as such. Both Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose.
The danger comes when partisanship clouds one’s vision, however. At that point, one has surrendered literature’s greatest strength, which is the ability to provide “a faithful portrayal of real conditions.”
Engels would undoubtedly endorse novelist Iris Murdoch when she makes a similar point, distinguishing between the writer as citizen and the writer as artist:
A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.
With a “faithful portrayal of the real conditions,” Engels says, the socialist problem novel will have done its job. Once one sees the truth about the world, the optimism of the bourgeoisie will have been shaken and its aura of invincibility shaken. Literary truth, in other words, will make us free, which means that novelists don’t need to offer direct solutions to the problems presented or even to take sides. They don’t have to write newspaper articles or pamphlets advocating for proletarian revolution—or if they do, they will be engaging in a different activity.
As we have seen, however, Engels himself is less interested in authors as activists than as truth tellers. Leave it to others, Engels might have said in his letter, to turn literary insight into active resistance. With his view that the arc of history bends towards equality for all, Engels shares with Shelley the belief that the greatest (and therefore most truthful) literature will, by definition, be consistent with history’s progressive march, expanding the vision of freedom for all.
One other issue is worth taking up given Engels’s preference for a truthful author over a politically correct author. Stalin’s Soviet Union chose political correctness over truth, with the result that authors whose works didn’t toe the party line could be imprisoned or even killed. Marxist literary scholars like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson have labeled this “vulgar Marxism” and, citing Marx and Engels’s admiration for the monarchist Balzac, come to the defense of conservative writers. For instance, Eagleton praises reactionary author Joseph Conrad for accurately depicting the crisis of late 19th century capitalism in works like The Heart of Darkness.
Since we will be seeing figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Chinua Achebe, and Frantz Fanon attacking a work that depicts Africans as a howling mass, it’s worth looking deeper into Eagleton’s defense. As Eagleton sees it, Conrad’s pessimism reflects how capitalism has reached a dead-end. Because Conrad focuses on the individual when the world (so Eagleton believes) requires a collective solution, he finds himself in a dead end:
The pessimism of Conrad’s world view is rather a unique transformation into art of an ideological pessimism rife in his period— a sense of history as futile and cyclical, of individuals as impenetrable and solitary, of human values as relativistic and irrational, which marks a drastic crisis in the ideology of the Western bourgeois class to which Conrad allied himself. There were good reasons for that ideological crisis, in the history of imperialist capitalism throughout this period.
Consider, for instance, the contrast that Conrad draws between Kurtz and Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz represents Europe’s failure to reconcile enlightened Christianity with unregulated capitalism. He goes into the jungle to civilize the natives (also to make his fortune) but, in the process, descends into barbarism, displaying the heads of his enemies on spikes while coupling up with a native queen. Greed and lust expose civilization’s values. Narrator Marlow, however, is at a loss when it comes to alternatives. He finds himself admiring Kurtz because at least he at least strives for big things, unlike Marlow, who doesn’t believe in anything. Marlow downplays the fact that Kurtz has become absolutely corrupt..
Eagleton also has a Marxist explanation for why Conrad would see the bourgeois crisis so clearly:
[E]very writer is individually placed in society, responding to a general history from his own particular standpoint, making sense of it in his own concrete terms. But it is not difficult to see how Conrad’s personal standing, as an “aristocratic” Polish exile deeply committed to English conservatism, intensified for him the crisis of English bourgeois ideology…
Conrad wasn’t alone and Eagleton mentions other conservative writers of the time who provide similar critiques of capitalism. Marxist criticism, he believes, should use these insights in the service of building a better world rather than castigating the authors for their politics:
Whether those insights are in political terms “progressive” or “reactionary” (Conrad’s are certainly the latter) is not the point—any more than it is to the point that most of the agreed major writers of the twentieth century—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence—are political conservatives who each had truck with fascism. Marxist criticism, rather than apologizing for the fact, explains it—sees that, in the absence of genuinely revolutionary art, only a radical conservatism, hostile like Marxism to the withered values of liberal bourgeois society, could produce the most significant literature.
Since we’ve seen, in his critique of the salt miners novel, Engels’s own preference for truthful literature over doctrinally correct literature, we can imagine him and Marx criticizing socialist realism, the party line art that arose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. They would also have been appalled at the persecution of authors whose work didn’t conform to orthodox dogma. By executing writers or sending them to the Gulag, Stalin shut himself off from the truths that artists could have taught the Soviet Union about itself. Listen to literature or you will become stagnant, one could say.
In summation, literature provides revolutionaries with a powerful tool: if they reflect upon the master works, they will better understand the energies and tendencies of history. Just as (according to Johnson) “a system of social duty may be selected” from Shakespeare’s plays, so scientific socialism can build upon literature’s truth telling. Marx and Engels, of course, would then add that simply knowing the truth isn’t enough: literature can help expose the way oppression works, revealing the physical and mental chains that constrain humanity, but it is up to the working class to usher in a new world. As Marx lyrically asserts in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”
That being said, we will be looking at theorists who think that literature should not only reveal the chain but also assist in throwing it off. Just as Sidney sees poetry as a powerful way to inculcate virtue, so Bertolt Brecht will see drama as a way to inspire and direct revolutionary action.