Marxism Essay, Research Paper
How convincing was the Marxist critique of the capitalist state?
This next unit of theory is entitled “Ideology and Discourse.” The theorists we’re examining–Althusser, Bakhtin, and Foucault–are discussing how ideology works, and how ideologies construct subjects. All of these theorists are coming from a Marxist perspective, using ideas and terms developed in Marxist theory, though only Althusser actually claims to be a Marxist. So to start off, I want to talk a bit about some basic ideas of Marxist theory.
Marxism is a set of theories, or a system of thought and analysis, developed by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century in response to the Western industrial revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism as the predominant economic mode. Like feminist theory, Marxist theory is directed at social change; Marxists want to analyze social relations in order to change them, in order to alter what they see are the gross injustices and inequalities created by capitalist economic relations. My capsule summary of the main ideas of Marxism, however, will focus on the theoretical aspects more than on how that theory has been and is applicable to projects for social change.
As a theory, Marxism is pretty complicated. You can think of Marxism as being three types of theory in one: philosophy, history, and economics. First, Marxism is a philosophical movement; Marx’s ideas about human nature, and about how we know and function in the world come from traditions articulated by Hegel, Feuerbach, Kant, and other German philosophers. All of these guys, including Marx, are interested in the relation between materialist and idealist philosophy. As a philosopher, Marx helps create and define a branch of philosophy called DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM.
Materialism in general is the branch of Western philosophy from which science (Aristotelian or Newtonian) comes. Materialist philosophy is based on empiricism, on the direct observation of measurable or observable phenomena; materialist philosophy is interested in studying how the human mind, via the senses, perceives external reality, and particularly with the idea of how we know things “objectively,” without the interference of emotions or preconceived ideas about things. Materialist philosophy often wants to ask how we know something is real, or, more specifically, how we know that what is real IS real, and not the product of our mental processes (which are subjective).
The “dialectical” part of “dialectical materialism” comes from the Greek idea of “dialogue,” which means to argue. Marx’s view of the idea of “dialectic” comes from Hegel, who thought that no ideas, social formations, or practices were ever eternal or fixed, but were always in motion or flux (something like Derrida’s “play”). Hegel said that this motion or flux or change happens in a certain pattern, which he called a “dialectic.” Hegel says, change occurs as the result of a struggle between two opposed forces, which then get resolved into a third entity. Hegel’s model of change looks like this: you start with a proposition or a position, which he calls a “thesis;” the thesis then stands in opposition to another position, which he calls the “antithesis” (and thus far it does work like our old friend the binary opposition). But then the struggle between thesis and antithesis is resolved into a third position, or set of ideas or practices, which Hegel calls the “synthesis.” Then, of course, the synthesis eventually becomes a thesis, with an antithesis, and the whole process starts over. But that, says Hegel, is how change happens–by the continual struggle between thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
In addition to being a kind of philosophy, Marxism is also a way to understand history. In this sense, Marxism belongs to a kind of historicism called HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, which shows that history, or social change, occurs via human forces, and not because of God, destiny, or some unknown non-human force that shapes events. Historical materialism is “materialist” because it is interested in how humans have created material culture, i.e. tools, objects, the material things that we use to live our lives every day, and in how this material culture has formed the basis for historical change.
The historical materialist view of history thus holds that the moving forces of social organizations–the forces that make change, that make “history”–are people and their tools, and the work that people do with these tools; the tools are often referred to as “instruments of production,” or as “forces of production.” Historical materialism also says that human labor (people and how they use their tools) always has a social character. People live in social groups, not in isolation, and they always organize their social groups in some way (having some form of “government,” e.g.). What every social group organizes, according to the historical materialist perspective, is how people work with their tools, or, in other words, how human labor, and forces of production, operate. The organizations that shape how people use their tools (the forces of production) are called the “relations of production.” The relations of production (how people relate to each other, and to their society as a whole, through their productive activity) and the forces of production (the tools, and methods for using tools, and the workers available to use these tools) together form what historical materialism calls a MODE OF PRODUCTION.
As a historian, Marx identifies five basic historical developments or changes in the mode of production: the primitive community, the slave state, the feudal state, capitalism, and socialism. I won’t go into detail about this history, but let me point out a couple of examples. In a slave state, some people are owned and some are the owners; the owned people are the ones that labor, and the owners reap the benefit of that labor. Within the slave “mode of production,” the organization of labor and productivity governs virtually all facets of social organization, even those not directly related to labor, such as religion or even aesthetics. The Southern United States in the first half of the nineteenth century stand as a good example of Marx’s idea of a slave state: it’s easy to see how all aspects of southern culture, including religious beliefs and art, upheld and justified the slave system that was at the heart of the southern economy.
Marx sees capitalism as a mode of production emerging from feudalism (which is how labor and life were organized during the medieval period in Europe). He focuses on capitalism as an unequal mode of production, one which exploits workers, just as the slave state exploited slaves. According to Marx, this inequality is a fundamental aspect of capitalism, and needs to be changed (through dialectical struggle). Eventually, Marx says, the internal tensions and contradictions of capitalism (which will create an endless series of theses and antitheses and syntheses) will eventually destroy capitalism, and capitalism will evolve into socialism. Socialism, for Marx, is the end result of all this economic evolution/history: socialism would be a utopian mode of production, and would then just remain forever (without evolving into something else). This would pretty much be the end of history, or change, as we have known it.
Which leads us to a third dimension of Marxism. Marxism is an economic theory or doctrine, an analysis of how capitalism as an economic system operates. It’s based on an analysis of how the forces and relations of production work. In a factory, for instance, a worker performs labor on raw materials, and thus transforms those raw materials into an object; in the process, the laborer adds something to the raw materials so that the object (raw material + labor) is worth more than the original raw material. What the laborer adds is called “surplus value,” in Marxist theory. While the laborer is paid for the work he or she does, that payment is figured in terms of “reproduction”, of what the laborer will need in order to come back the next day (i.e. food, rest, shelter, clothes, etc.), and not in terms of what value the laborer added to the raw material. The goal of capitalist production is to sell the object made, with its surplus value, for more than the cost of the raw materials and the reproduction of the laborer. This excess in value (in price) comes from the surplus value added by the laborer, but it is “owned” by the capitalist; the factory owner gets the profit from selling the object, and the laborer gets only the cost of his/her “reproduction” in the wages s/he earns.
These relations of production, where the laborer does the work and the owner gets the profit from the surplus value created by the laborer, create two social classes, according to Marx: the proletariat, which consists of the workers who have to sell their labor power in order to survive, and the owners of the means of production, or capitalists. There is also a third class in the capitalist mode of production, a middle class, called the bourgeoisie, who do not sell their labor power directly, but who provide services (for the laborers and the capitalists)–merchants, doctors, teachers, etc. –and who identify themselves with the capitalists, and uphold their interests, rather than with the proletariat.
For Marxists, history–or social change–thus occurs through the struggle (the dialectical struggle) between the two classes, the proletariat and the capitalists. (The bourgeoisie mostly get counted with the capitalists in terms of identification, even though the bourgeoisie don’t own the means of production and don’t get the profits created by surplus value).
From these economic relations comes a crucially important concept in Marxist thought: the idea of ALIENATION. There are two aspects to the Marxist idea of alienation. The first is that labor which produces surplus value is alienated labor. The labor put into an object becomes part of the capitalist’s profit, and thus no longer belongs to the laborer. In addition to alienating the laborer from his or her labor power, capitalism also forces the worker to become alienated from him or herself. When a worker has to sell her/his labor power, s/he becomes a COMMODITY, something to be sold in the marketplace like a thing; the worker who is a commodity is thus not fully human, in the philosophical sense, since s/he cannot exercise free will to determine her/his actions. (Yes, this part is coming from a humanist model, where people still have free will to govern their actions). The worker who is forced to exist as a commodity in the labor market is ALIENATED from her/his humanness; in selling one’s labor, that labor becomes alienated, something separate from or other than the laborer, something divided from the person that produces it.
The double alienation of the proletariat, and their exploitation by the capitalists, form the basic contradictions of capitalism which produce the dialectic (the struggle between workers and owners, labor and capital) which produces social change, or history, and which will eventually synthesize into socialism.
From Marx’s economic doctrines comes an analysis of how the capitalist system specifically functions; from historical materialism comes a model of how social organizations are structured, which is relevant to all cultures, whether capitalist or not. According to the Marxist view of culture, the economic relations–forces and relations of production, or modes of production–are the primary determining factor in all social relations: everything that happens in a society is in some way related to, and determined by, the mode of production, also called the ECONOMIC BASE (or just “base”). This idea, that the economic organization of a social group is primary and determinant, is a fundamental premise of Marxist thought.
The economic base (the relations and forces of production) in any society generates other social formations, called the SUPERSTRUCTURE. The superstructure consists of all other kinds of social activities or systems, including politics, religion, philosophy, morality, art, and science (etc.). All of these aspects of a society are, in Marxist theory, determined by (i.e. shaped, formed, or created by) the economic base. Thus a central question for a lot of Marxist theory is how does the economic base determine superstructure? How, for instance, does the feudal mode of production produce or determine the religious beliefs and practices current during the medieval period?
Another way of asking this question is to look at the relations between economic base and a particular aspect of superstructure, which Marxists name IDEOLOGY. Ideology, or ideologies, are the ideas that exist in a culture; there will typically be one or several kinds of religious ideologies, for example, and political ideologies, and aesthetic ideologies, which will articulate what, and how, people can think about religion, politics, and art, respectively. Ideology is how a society thinks about itself, the forms of social consciousness that exist at any particular moment; ideologies supply all the terms and assumptions and frameworks that individuals use to understand their culture, and ideologies supply all the things that people believe in, and then act on.
For Marx, ideology, as part of the superstructure generated by an economic base, works to justify that base; the ideologies present in a capitalist society will explain, justify, and support the capitalist mode of production. Again, the example of slavery in nineteenth-century US culture is useful: the economic base of that society was slavery, and all productive labor and economic relations were structured by the master/slave relation; all of the superstructures, such as organized religion, local and national politics, and art (especially literature), worked to uphold slavery as a good economic system.
Literature, then, is part of any culture’s superstructure, from this perspective, and is determined (in both form and content) by the economic base. Literature also participates in the articulation of forms of cultural ideology–novels and poems (et al.) might justify or attack religious beliefs, political beliefs, or aesthetic ideas (to use just these three examples of ideological formations). Marxist literary critics and theorists are interested in asking a range of questions about how literature functions as a site for ideology, as part of the superstructure. First, they want to examine how the economic base of any culture (and particularly of capitalist cultures) influences or determines the form and/or content of literature, both in general terms and in specific works of literature. They also want to look at how literature functions in relation to other aspects of the superstructure, particularly other articulations of ideology. Does literature reflect the economic base? If so, how? Does literature reflect other ideologies? If so, how? Do literary works create their own ideologies? If so, how are these ideologies related back to the economic base? And, finally, marxist critics, like feminist critics, want to investigate how literature can work as a force for social change, or as a reaffirmation (or “reification,” to use Marxist terminology) of existing conditions. Is literature part of the dialectical struggle that will end capitalism and bring about socialism, or is literature part of the bourgeois justification of capitalism?
Let me run through some of the ways Marxist critics have approached these questions about the social function of literature. We’ll start by looking a little more closely at how ideology works, since literature is considered a subset of ideology.
According to Frederich Engels (Marx’s pal), ideology functions as an illusion; ideologies give people ideas about how to understand themselves and their lives, and these ideas disguise or mask what’s really going on. In Engels’ explanation, ideologies signify the way people live out their lives in class society, giving people the terms for the values, ideas, and images that tie them to their social functions, and thus prevent them from a true understanding of the real forces and relations of production. Ideology is thus an illusion which masks the real/objective situation; an example of this would be an ideology that tells you, as a worker, that the capitalists are really working in your interest, which disguises or hides the “objective” reality that the capitalists’ interests are opposed to the workers’ interests. (Another example might be a politician, whose rhetoric in speeches–whose ideology–tries to persuade you that he’s concerned with your tax situation, and this ideology keeps you from seeing how he’s really only interested in protecting corporate tax shelters). Anyway, Engels says that the illusions created by ideology create FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS in people, who believe the ideological representations of how the world works and thus misperceive, or don’t see at all, how the world really/objectively works (i.e. in terms of the mode of production and the class divisions that mode of production creates). Workers, for Engels, are deluded by various kinds of ideology into thinking they’re not exploited by the capitalist system, instead of seeing how they are.
In this view, literature is also a kind of illusion, a kind of ideology that prevents people from seeing the real relations of production at work. From the viewpoint of what’s now known as “vulgar” Marxism, all literature produces false consciousness, because all literature produced in a capitalist society could only reflect the capitalist ideologies. This view can’t account for how or why literature might be able to challenge the ideological assumptions of a society because it can’t acknowledge that literature (or other ideologies, for that matter) might be in opposition to the dominant formation of the economic base. In vulgar Marxism, you couldn’t speak or think in ways that weren’t entirely determined by the economic base.
For more recent Marxist critics, however, such “vulgar”` insistence that literature is absolutely determined by the economic base is abandoned in favor of a more complicated idea of how literature relates to economic formations. Rather than simply “reflecting” the values that support capitalism, Marxist critics argue, literature does something more complicated. According to Pierre Macheray, literature doesn’t reflect either the economic base or other ideology, but rather it works on existing ideologies and transforms them, giving these ideologies new shape and structure; literature in Macheray’s view is thus distinct from, distant from, other forms of ideology (like religious ideology), and thus can provide insights into how ideologies are structured, and what their limits are. This view is also followed by Georg Lukacs, who argues that Marxist literary criticism should look at a work of literature in terms of the ideological structure(s) of which it is a part, but which it transforms in its art.
For other Marxists, including Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Althusser, literature works the way any ideology does, by signifying the imaginary ways in which people perceive the real world; literature uses language to signify what it feels like to live in particular conditions, rather than using language to give a rational analysis of those conditions. Thus literature helps to create experience, not just reflect it. As a kind of ideology, literature for these critics is relatively autonomous, both of other ideological forms and of the economic base. You can’t trace one-to-one direct ties between literature and any particular ideology, or between literature and the economic base. (When you can, we call it bad literature; literature directly linked to an ideology we call “propaganda,” for instance).