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Marxism is not the hot topic it once was. With the collapse of Communist U.S.S.R., mainstream North America had thought it had seen the last of Marxism and the communist party. However, with the People's Republic of China becoming a reality, those early beliefs may have proven to be premature.
Defining Marxism is not difficult. Marxism is the belief that the common workingman (the proletariat) is under a rule of tyranny by the upper class owners (the bourgeois.) Someday (according to Marx) the proletariats will rise up, overthrow the bourgeois and create a society of communism. Communism is the political idea in where a society would be controlled mostly by the government. Personal property would not be allowed and therefore eliminate the bourgeois; a utopian society in which every man works for the common good.
Marxists believe that (based on the works of Karl H. Marx) everything we do or think is influenced by the bourgeois. This is simple. Marxism becomes difficult when defining it as a literary theory. The original intentions of Marx were those of social and political revolution. Many of Marx's followers however, were and are scholars. Therefore the transition from a social economic theory to a school of literary criticism was inevitable. Charles Bressler is faced with this seeming difficult task of defining Marxism as a literary school of thought.
Bressler attempts to define and explain Marxism as a school of literary thought by examining past Marxists, the assumptions which one must adopt and the methodology (as he does with every chapter.) He succeeds in some places and fails in others. Bressler's definition of Marxism is as follows, "[the belief] that reality itself can be can be defined and understood, society shapes our consciousness, social and economic conditions directly influence how and what we believe and value, and Marxism details a plan for changing the world from a place of bigotry, hatred and conflict due to class struggle to a classless society where wealth, opportunity, and education are accessible for all people". Bressler does a decent job here. He defines Marxism as it was originally intended: an economic and social view of culture and its influences. He provides a clear, simple definition of Marxism which is easily understandable.
After this however, Bressler's chapter begins to fall apart. He succeeds in giving a brief description of Marxist events and theorists, but fails in his assumptions and methodology.
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In the "Methodology", Bressler becomes confusing. In the "Assumptions" he says, "most Marxists adhere to a similar understanding of the world". This is true, yet in the "Methodology" he states, "there can be no single Marxist approach to literary analysis". He bases this statement on his brief history of significant Marxists of the past (and present.) Yet, when defining each critic's approach, he fails to articulate the distinctions. The difference between Georg Lukacs' "job to show how the characters within the text are typical of their historical, socioeconomic setting and the author's worldview" (215) and Walter Benjamin's idea that "a text reveals a culture's fragmentation and not a wholeness is… a useful notion for promoting socialist ideas" is minimal. Both are slightly different approaches; one is looking within the text at the internal characters and the other looks at the external forces, yet they both revolve around the same general belief. Obviously every mode of thought and analysis is going to differ slightly from one person to another, but as long as they cling to the same ideals, it is not fair to claim that, "there can be no single approach" to any theory. This is a given.
When writing about Russian Marxism, Bressler fails to show the hypocrisy and irony in Stalin and Lenin's rule. He states, "Lenin amended his literary theory and argued that the Communist Party could not accept or support literary works that blatantly defied established party policies". Also that Stalin's "union decreed that all literature must glorify party actions and decisions". Bressler claims that Russia became the first country to promote Marxism, and though this is true in most respects, Lenin and Stalin both took the role of the bourgeois by trying to limit and shape what was being written. The irony of this is not shown. Stalin and Lenin may have been communists, but not true Marxists. Bressler states that Leon Trotsky is the founding father of Marxist literary critisism, yet all he mentions is that Trotsky would not be confined under the standards set by the government. Bressler does not show a distinct approach to Marxism here.
Next Bressler examines Georg Lukacs. Here Lukacs' reflectionism is defined. According to Bressler, reflectionism "declares that texts directly reflect a society's consciousness". However good the definition set by Bressler, and the importance of reflectionism, this is not a different approach to Marxism, but merely a sub-theory.
The Frankfurt school is next. Here Bressler states that this school is "closely allied to Lukacs and reflection theory". The main, although subtle difference is that Benjamin suggests the reader "can resist the bourgeois ideology embedded in the text," (216) according to Bressler. This is not the radically different way of using Marxism that Bressler implies, but is again a sub-approach. This mode of thinking still includes all the core Marxist beliefs.
Bressler almost succeeds in differentiating Antonio Gramsci from Lukacs. He states that Gramsci "takes Marxism in a different direction " (216). This statement goes too far. The only difference between the two is the relationship between the base and the superstructure. Bressler says that Gramsci believes that "literature becomes a tool of the privileged class". This however, is a common belief shared by all Marxists. It is in fact almost a clear definition of Marxism as a literary theory. Every Marxist literary critic adheres to this belief one way or another. Again Bressler fails to define a separate school of Marxist thought.
Bressler then tells of Louis Althusser's theories. It is clear Althusser does differentiate somewhat, however, many points remain the same. Saying "the people's worldview is thus craftily shaped by a complex network of messages sent to them through the elements contained in the superstructure," is not much different than Lukacs idea that "texts directly reflect a society's consciousness". Since the consciousness is developed by society, which is developed by the bourgeois, these two theories are generally the same.
Bressler says, "there is no absolute voice of authority who expounds 'pure' Marxist principles" Here Bressler is wrong. By definition if one wants "pure" Marxist principles, go to the source: Karl Marx. It is true that Marxism is a socially constructed term based on Marx's ides, yet if a "pure" definition cannot be found from the source, it deserves a different title. Marxism boils down to the proletariat and the bourgeois, the ides that thoughts and actions are socially and culturally implanted in the working class by the upper-class. If the mode of thought does not adhere to these principles, it is not Marxist. Therefore these ideals are "pure."
Bressler unnecessarily makes Marxism (as a literary theory) difficult to comprehend. The task may seem difficult, since Marxism was not intended as a literary critisism, yet the approach to literature is clear. Bressler focused on all the slight discrepancies between individual critics and declares that there cannot be one single approach to Marxism. The same can be said for all modes of literary analysis. This is where Bressler fails.
List of Books Cited
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criicism. An Introduction to Theory and Practice. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1999, 1994.