Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

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 FoleyBarbara 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.

In the book, you emphasise how Marxist literary criticism is a way of getting beyond ‘mid-level analytics’, to explore different levels of causality. You also say that, ‘Marxism draws upon and completes the insights made available through other lenses; but it proposes itself as a “meta”-theory, that is, one possessing overarching explanatory power.’ Could you briefly explain what you mean by this, and how it works without viewing Marxism as a privileged or superior mode of analysis?

BF: Let me disagree with the premise of your question: I do consider Marxist to be a ‘privileged or superior mode of analysis’! Of course, these terms are loaded, inviting the charge of elitism. My preferred formulation – that Marxism is a ‘meta’-theory … possessing overarching explanatory power’ – means that Marxism can provide access to an analytical framework that anchors literary texts and traditions in the material contexts that render them fully legible.

Although it has been at times construed in insufficiently dialectical terms, the base-superstructure paradigm is crucial to analysing the ways in which literature is linked to what Marx called the ‘real foundation’ supplied by the mode of production and its attendant sets of social and ideological practices and institutions. ‘Mid-level analytics’ tend to strand texts somewhere in the superstructure.

What is the relationship between the Marxist focus on class struggle and forms of oppression based on categories such as gender and race? How does Marxist analysis avoid reducing distinct antagonisms to class issues, especially when they have a long history that precedes capitalism?

BF: A couple of issues need to be disentangled here. Marxism is, to be sure, largely a theory of capitalism: how it functions, how it legitimates itself, and so on. But Marxism is also a methodology: historical materialism. This means that Marxist literary analysis is as relevant to Homer’s Odyssey as to James Joyce’s Ulysses. For Marx and Engels alike, as well as their successors, ‘the long history that precedes capitalism’ was of great interest, and in fact indispensable to an understanding of capitalism itself. Engels’s On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State bears out this principle in relation to gender. Similarly, works in the Marxist tradition that deal with the origins of race and racism – from W E B Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction to Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race and Barbara Fields’s Racecraft – display the complex linkages between economics and psychology, law and violence, politics and culture.

These narratives of origin and continuing oppression do not ‘reduce distinct antagonisms [based on categories such as gender and race] to class issues.’ To provide an explanatory framework is not to ‘reduce.’ Nor does the ‘Marxist focus on class struggle’ side-line other modes of oppression or domination, by implication assigning second-class status to their victims. What Marxism does enable, however, is an understanding of the relationship of oppression – largely derived from the demographic categories created by the historical division of labour – and exploitation, that is, the way in which surpluses have always been, as Marx put it, ‘pumped out of’ the labour of the dispossessed producers in different modes of production.

In the book you return to the concept of analysing the ‘political unconscious’ of a text through literary criticism, that is, the idea of considering a text not only as an ideological expression of the social relations in which it was created, but also within a dialectically changing human history which has led to that point and indicates potentials beyond it. Could you explain a little about how the political unconscious is identified, in terms of the relationship between content and form, and appearance and essence?

BF: The concept of the political unconscious is indeed, I have found, very useful as a way of reading a text as ‘an ideological expression of the social relations in which it was created’ – though I’d want to stipulate the usual contradictoriness of this ‘expression’. But while many a text, however inadvertently, points to the ‘dialectically changing human history that has led to that point [of its creation],’ it does not necessarily gesture toward ‘potentials beyond it.’ Such a gesture requires that the writer have at least a realistic grasp of dialectical processes, and – in the fullest ‘indication’ of future possibilities for negation and sublation – a revolutionary outlook. Not too many texts produced in class societies contain such a seed of the future in the present.

As for ‘the relationship between content and form, appearance and essence,’ it is hard to generalise: these matters work themselves out quite differently in different genres and different periods.

Marxist Literary Criticism Today

The Marxist project is of course not merely to interpret the world but to change it. What role can Marxist literary criticism play in social change?

BF: As someone who has studied and taught literature during the many decades when I have been a political activist – and a communist – this question has, needless to say, occurred to me many times; so thanks for asking it. First, many readers think that literature – and the humanities generally – inhabit a realm beyond politics and history. If Marxist criticism can demonstrate that the imagination does not supply an escape hatch, and that the realm of the aesthetic is inevitably political, students – and readers generally – can learn the importance of bringing ideological critique to bear upon their experiences with texts of all kinds that appear to be, at first glance, entirely apolitical.

Second, though, literary critics – many of whom are teachers – have the opportunity to introduce their students to the substantial body of proletarian or revolutionary literature, in many languages, that penetrates through the obfuscating justifications of class societies and raises the real possibility of radical social transformation. I find Ernst Bloch’s distinction between compensatory and anticipatory utopias very helpful here: the former supply melancholy consolation for the impossibility of a better world, while the latter indicate the material potentiality for creating something far superior to the way we live now.

You also discuss the meaning of the term ‘literature’ itself, and many of the common conceptions about what constitutes literature and its value. To what extent are concepts such as universality, individuality, beauty and greatness an ideological battleground in literary pedagogy?

BF: You said it: these concepts supply the terrain of the ideological battleground on which all Marxist pedagogues fight: in their scholarship, in their conference papers, in their classrooms. Recognising the importance of critically surveying this terrain, rather than taking it as a given, is the reason I have included a long chapter on literature and literariness in my book. Any pedagogy that aspires to be Marxist needs to interrogate the premises of its field. At the same time, it is important not to see all these categories simply as ideological smokescreens.

The category of universality, for instance, can function to paper over very real social antagonisms by asserting the fundamental continuity between all types of human experiences: ‘we are all the same under the skin’. At the same time, the universality prohibited in class society is – at least aspirationally – a feature of classless future societies in which divisions based upon gender, race, sexuality, nation, religion, etc. have been superseded. In works gesturing toward anticipatory utopias, universality is the product of possible dialectical activity that will put real foundations under castles built in the air.

At the same time, is there something ideological about the concept of literary criticism, as opposed to, say, a more general notion of cultural criticism, in the sense that it denotes a kind of exclusivity? Why is it important to focus on literature, however we define it? What are the techniques and insights that literary criticism specifically offers?

BF: Although the terms clearly have different referents and different histories, I have no commitment to drawing any kind of hard and fast distinction between literature and culture. In many senses the former is a subset of the latter, in various ways conjoined by semiotics. In my book I freely refer now and then to movies, posters, photographs, and songs. As Raymond Williams points out in his brilliant discussion of ‘Literature’ as a historical practice, moreover, it’s important to be aware that what we label by this term has continually metamorphosed.

Without fetishising the terrain of the literary (see above), however, or viewing it as the site of privileged access to Truth or Beauty, I think that there is a particularity to ‘literary’ modes of expression that warrants the development and deployment of specialised tools of analysis and interpretation. Besides – here is where my pedagogical interests come in – we are currently stuck with a curriculum that views ‘literature’ as the province of English (and other national language) departments. We can advance new ideas and perspectives, but we cannot fight our battles on grounds of our own choosing, but on terrains inherited from the past. Get the echo?

Alongside the ideological critique of texts there is the question of a proletarian literature, or texts that consciously represent class struggle and potentials for radical social change. How does a proletarian literature function in a society that is almost entirely commodified? In the past, theorists such as Herbert Marcuse emphasised the value or ‘autonomous’ art or spontaneous cultural expression that emerged from outside the commodified sphere. Is autonomy still an important category in this sense, or is oppositional culture forced to work within the logic of the commodity?

BF: These are important questions; but I am not sure that the counterposition of commodification with autonomy, a troubling inheritance from the Frankfurt School, is the best way to contend with the ‘logic of the commodity.’ That this logic currently reigns supreme in many zones of life is evident, as I explore in my commentary on Fifty Shades of Grey in my book. That ‘oppositional culture’ is to a degree ‘forced to work within the logic of the commodity’ is exhibited in recent works by the leftist filmmaker and spoken word poet Boots Riley.

I remain confident, however, that, at such a time as a genuinely revolutionary movement gains traction in various parts of the world, a new proletarian literature will emerge. The need for the world to rise on new foundations is patent; at some point a Marxist praxis founded in this need will supply the material basis of a body of literature – and art and music and film – articulating a transformational consciousness. The fetishisation of ‘autonomy’ as the core of resistance is a rearguard move founded in political pessimism.

Following from that, what form might a proletarian literature take today if it is to have a political impact? Are social media posts, videos and memes the proletarian literature of the present?

BF: Perhaps. Rising generations always come up with something new. But tradition persists as well: I think it will be a long time before poetry, plays, and novels disappear.