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DAVID CRAIG MICHAEL EGAN CAN LITERATURE BE EVIDENCE? Marxism is itself a force in the class struggle which it describes. Marx and Engels understood this; it is at the heart of Lenin's polemics with Kautsky and ofhis complaint that revisionism was helping change Marx into a harmless icon; and it was the nub of Trotsky's disputes with the Soviet rulers in the 1930s. The question is bound up with the fact that the materialist conception of history became an historical force as soon as it was formulated. This problem is still living, particularly at those growing points of Marxist thought where Marx, and even more Engels, left only hints at a possible solution. Among these is the problem of a materialist literary aesthetic. Mentioning Lenin and Trotsky in this context suggests the scope of our argument. Non-Marxists have been able to dominate recent developments in this field, because for at least a generation Marxists were hobbled or even gagged by the impossibility, as they felt it to be, of making a candid appraisal of the literary work being done in socialist countries with Stalinist governments. An important result has been the disarming of a potentially revolutionary approach to one ofthe key areas of ideological struggle. Many cultural theorists and historians of ideas, even those least inclined to call themselves Marxists, now agree that Marx's chief contribution to aesthetics was the insight that it is not consciousness which determines social being but social being which determines consciousness . All the arts are now recognized as being in some way the product of a determining milieu. Raymond Williams is only the most recent non-Marxist to observe that "Any modern approach to a Marxist theory of culture must begin by considering the proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure." (New Left Review , Nov.-Dec. 1973, 3) The reference is to Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). In a few prefatory sentences he summarises his conclusions that both the institutional and the ideological forms of societies express the production relations between people: The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which 85 rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. (Selected Works, I, Moscow 1962, 363) This well-known declaration is not specifically or even uniquely Marxist. The origins of a sociology of literature have been traced back to at least the 18th century,1 and additional pre- or non-Marxian statements on similar lines aren't hard to find. Apart from the obvious case of Hegel, there is in German Heine's Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland (1834), which we know Marx read, and there are slighter efforts in the work of Lessing and Herder. There is also the contextualist tradition in French literary theory. This culminates in a Marxist work, Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (1947), but the earlier nonMarxist 'social' critics number writers as important as Taine (especially the Introduction to his Histoire de la littérature anglais (1863), Hugo, and Madame de Staël. It follows that if Marxism has something unique to contribute to aesthetics, it must in some way add to "the proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure." Again, part of the answer was formulated by Marx himself, and again many non-Marxists have been willing to absorb his ideas—provided the revolutionary implications aren't drawn. Marx argues that if the superstructure is conditioned by the economic base, and this base is controlled by the ruling class, it follows that the superstructure serves the interests of that class. The decisive class in the economy becomes the decisive class culturally. Literature and other arts both embody and are the means of spreading and imprinting the political and cultural values—the standards, tastes, and desires—of the dominant class. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1853) Marx commented on the 'petty-bourgeois mentality' of all parliamentarians, regardless of their class origins or education, and added: What...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 85-105
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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