The German philosopher economist, political theorist, and socialist revolutionary, Karl Marx put forward his ideas in his Marxist view of literature. On Art and Literature is a combined work of both Karl Marx and his friend Fredrick Engels.
Here, they talk about the role of class in society and how it affects the literature of that time.
What Marx meant by his Marxist literary theory is that the text of a particular time period is related to the economic conditions of that time.
Both Karl Marx and Engels were very much impressed and admired the works of renowned writers but also of the less known or less prominent writers. The works of Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Goethe impacted the works of Marx and Engels.
According to them, Art and Literature were not independent institutions and it would not be possible to have a deep understanding of literary theory in the internal laws of development.
Only after analyzing the complete social system, the role of class, the economic factor, production, etc can one understand the art and literature of that time. Art, as defined by Marx and Engels is one of the forms of social consciousness.
Marx and Engels had a materialistic view. They believed that the artistic abilities of man are a result of the long development of human society. It can be understood in a simple way that the writers of a particular era wrote what they saw in their society and this is possibly a reason why great epics of the past can’t be repeated. One cannot write great works like that of Shakespeare or even the ancient epics in today’s time when society is completely different.
In the art and literature of that time, one can reflect on the ideologies of particular classes. However, one must also remember that as art or literature develops, its independency enhances. Literature or art though tells us about the society of that time, but that doesn’t mean that when in the future when society gets changed, the significance of art would decrease.
Both Marx and Engels in their work showed how class and society pressured some of the very great writers of the age to write their literature according to their class. Rather than showing the real-life struggle, they had to write what the ruling class of that time preferred.
They believed realism to be the best of literature and considered it supreme. Realist literature would show the truth of the society of that particular age. Probably, that is why they value the great works of Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc.
They were also impressed and influenced by the West European romanticism which according to them was a revolutionary romanticism that rejected the idea of capitalism. The works of Shelley and Byron are good examples of this concept.
Karl Marx believed that the working class should come together and revolt against the upper class as he believed in socialism where all of the properties etc, are equally divided among the classes. He talks about class struggle, base, and superstructure, by giving a detailed view of class and society.
The struggle takes place when there is a difference in the social standing of people and this class struggle takes place because different groups of society possess their own special interests.
Marxism theory talks about the two prominent classes – the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, and the class struggle is actually between these two classes.
The Bourgeoisie can be considered as rich, upper-class people who had control or hold over the capital, the production, and the means of production. They are the dominant group, the powerful ones.
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The Proletariat can be considered as poor workers, e.g. factory workers, etc, who have no control over any capital or means of production. The Bourgeoisie exploit them to work and does not even pay them what they deserve.
That is when class struggle takes place. The richer, with their power, would exploit the workers, and pay them low wages and the workers had no other option but to accept all of it. This is why Marx believed that the working class should unite and overthrow the rich.
Marx wanted the working class to unite be aware of their class consciousness. Class consciousness means the awareness of a person of their class and social standing. It means having knowledge of your class and how it is seen in society.
Base and Superstructure.
They believed that society is distinguished into two levels, Base and Superstructure.
Base or the Substructure, as they say, is the mode of production. It includes the tools, the machinery, the means, and the forces of production. The base includes producing all the necessary amenities that a person requires to live. The properties, the capital, and even the relations of production like the Proletariat, Labours, Petty-Bourgeoisie, and are all part of the Base.
The superstructure includes all those things that do not show a direct link to production. It includes ideologies and institutions like art, culture, religion, politics, science, philosophy, and most importantly, literature.
Although, Base directly influences the superstructure as the economy is the key and the economy influences other relations but somehow, the superstructure also influences the base. Superstructure reflects the ruling class and the literature of that time is written accordingly.
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Karl Marx believed that the working class has the ability to change society and thus they should revolt against the upper class to give them the rights they deserve. He appreciated the literature that promoted his view and criticized those which didn’t.