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Marxist literary criticism

Theory of the Novel, The Historical Novel, Studies in European Realism, Illusion and Reality

benjamin critics realism towards

begins with Marx, who was interested in the way the contradictions of capitalism are revealed in a writer like Balzac, of prodigious gifts and rightist sympathies. With the success of the Russian Revolution, and above all with the ascent to power of Joseph Stalin, a regimented and highly prescriptive Marxist literary criticism developed, devoted to so-called Socialist Realism; but there were always other currents, notably represented by Georg Lukács, whose Theory of the Novel (1971) predates his conversion to communism but nevertheless anticipates his later work (The Historical Novel, 1962; Studies in European Realism, 1950), where formal and moral questions are intricately related, and where realism is celebrated as a fidelity to underlying historical and economic truths rather than a mere reflection of surfaces. The Frankfurt School, led by T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, elaborated a powerful, non-Stalinist mode of cultural criticism on the basis of Marx's insights into the relation of language and ideology to the material bases of production. Closely associated with this school, although not always an assiduous pupil, was Walter Benjamin, perhaps the most brilliant of all Marxist critics. In a series of essays written in the 1920s and 1930s, Benjamin explored the work of Proust, Kafka, and the Surrealists, and the potentially drastic aesthetic implications of the inventions of photography and the cinema. Shortly before he died, in 1940, Benjamin wrote a remarkable brief study in the philosophy of history, proposing a history that would remember the vanquished as well as, or more than, the victors; unless we can learn to do this, he memorably said, not even the dead will be safe. It is a perspective which looks towards the ‘archaeology’ of Michel Foucault, the study of unspoken or suppressed communities, and also towards the New Historicism, with its attention to neglected detail. Meanwhile in Britain Christopher Caudwell, in Illusion and Reality (1937), sought to domesticate and rethink Marxist assumptions about the social bases of art; and much criticism in the 1930s, whether openly Marxist or not, accepted the materialist presuppositions of Marx's agenda. Later critics like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton have complicated but not abandoned these Marxist premisses, and the debt to Marxism of critics as different as Lionel Trilling and Raymond Williams is perfectly clear. Marxism remains, for literary and social criticism, an optic rather than a doctrine, a way of connecting, beyond all narrow determinisms, the aesthetic and the political; and is present, at least in vestige, in all the many current criticisms of ideology, whatever their particular impulse or angle. It is very much alive in Cultural Materialism, a British movement in criticism associated with the work of Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, and Peter Stallybrass, and which takes the material context of culture as both unavoidable and often thoroughly disguised by an idealizing conservative consensus.

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