In 21st century capitalism, Marxist theory remains a crucial means to interpret the socioeconomic present and potentials for political change. But Marxism as a method is also important culturally, in understanding the ideas, attitudes and beliefs that exist today, and how they have developed historically through various social forces. In her recent book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto, 2019), Barbara Foley aims to emphasise the continuing value of a Marxist analysis of literature and culture, and introduce core concepts – historical materialism, political economy, ideology critique – to a new generation seeking to comprehend the ongoing class struggle. In this interview, I discuss with her some of the ideas she raises in the book.
Barbara Foley is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research and teaching focuses on US literary radicalism, African American literature and Marxist criticism. Throughout her career, her work has emphasised the centrality of antiracism and Marxist class analysis to both literary study and social movements. She has written six books and over seventy scholarly articles, review essays, and book chapters. Her previous books include: Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (University of Illinois, 2003); Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Duke University, 2010); Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution (University of Illinois, 2014).
Why did you feel a new book about Marxist literary criticism, and specifically an introductory text, was important at this time?
Barbara Foley: For two reasons. First, because there haven’t been any introductions to Marxist literary criticism in many years – since Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976 ) and Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977). (I consider Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) to be seminal; but it is a difficult book, hardly an ‘introduction’.) Second, because there’s clearly a revived interest these days – especially among young people – in left ideas, as these pertain not only to culture but also to economics, politics, and history.
Since even the very useful works noted above largely take for granted the reader’s prior acquaintance with fundamental principles of Marxist analysis, though, I decided that my book should outline key features of historical materialism, political economy, and ideology critique before addressing Marxist approaches to literary criticism and interpretation. Besides, since there’s a good deal of confusion these days about what constitutes a ‘left’ political position – or a ‘left’ act of cultural analysis – I wanted to clarify where Marxism overlaps with but is also distinct from a more broadly leftist critical orientation. READ MORE