Tony McKenna praises Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Press, £19.99) for its clarity, coherence, and insightfulness
For the last few decades the world of ‘Marxist’ literary criticism has been dominated by a tiny coterie of elite thinkers, figures like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, ‘top-flight intellectuals’ whose tortuous, indecipherable language and pretentious linguistic philosophies often say a great deal about themselves but next to nothing about the literature they purport to analyse. For this reason I didn’t have high hopes for Barbara Foley’s new book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today, because I felt it might well be more of the same.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foley is what someone like Jameson will never be. She is an authentic teacher – genuinely concerned with the type of clear and patient explanation which is designed to uplift the student and allow them to delight in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subject matter.
For this reason, part one of the book does not explicitly address the field of literary criticism at all. What it does do, is to give a clear and coherent account of some of the central concepts in Marxist philosophy and economics – concepts which one has to get a handle on, as they provide the optics through which great works of literature can be read. Foley outlines clearly some of the fundamental ideas in the Marxist lexicon: Class, Commodities, Capital, Surplus Value, Alienation, Reification, Totality, Base and Superstructure, dialectics and so on. These are often the subjects of fascinating discussions which are gradually integrated into literary concerns throughout the course of the book.
In the discussion on class, for example, Foley mobilises a classically Marxist understanding of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ and emphasises that because of its structural position – as a social relation of production – it is the ‘“primary” analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary and social change’. (17) Historically speaking, patriarchal relations and relations of racist oppression have grown out of the structural dimensions of class exploitation, and therefore resistance to and destruction of the latter is, ultimately, bound up with the dissolution of the former and the mission of the proletariat in the modern age.
This might seem a little removed from the subject of literary theory. But when you understand that texts by ‘Shakespeare, Shelley and Brecht’ create their characters and describe their relationships in the context of ‘social forces constraining freedom in class-based inequality’ (106) and awaken in the reader ‘a universal need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (106) thereby – you also come to understand that the universality which great literature projects is the aesthetic echo of the universality which is crystallised in and through the struggle for freedom that is part and parcel of the broader historical unfolding of the class struggle. (106)
Understanding and accepting this approach provides a significant tonic to the more fashionable ‘intersectionalist’ approach which often ends up ‘segregating’ different groups into the boxes which accord with their oppression; i.e. the notion that only people from particularly groups, ethnicities and genders are qualified to write about those same groups, or that ‘a dead white male’ like William Shakespeare can have nothing to say to a young black man growing up in a Harlem project.
At the same time, however, Foley never falls into ‘economism’ – that is, the belief that every aspect of social life is determined directly and mechanically by a set of class forces, without mediation or qualification. In fact, Foley argues, racist and sexist forms of oppression can often gain a near ‘autonomous’ life which throws up a myriad of complex and contradictory set of behaviours – behaviours which don’t always correspond neatly to the class interests which are at work underneath the surface of society, and which are responsible for directly producing and reproducing the means of social existence.
That tension between the fundaments of class universality at the level of social being, and the richness and complexity of the myriad forms of cultural and political life, is one Foley brings out in a masterful analysis of the Ann Petry 1946 short story ‘Like a Winding Sheet’. This is the story of a black man (Johnson) living in same period, who is both economically exploited as a worker and racially oppressed as a person of colour. The story chronicles how he is racially abused at work by his boss, a white woman, and that the sense of such commonplace cruelty, along with the withering, debilitating physical conditions of his working existence, leaves him both smouldering and downtrodden. On arriving home one evening, an innocent remark from his wife (Mae) ‘causes’ him to beat her savagely. In one way, the action is baffling and nonsensical – he attacks his wife, another working-class person, another black person, and someone who has only shown to him affection and love. But Foley moves through the layers of society-wide oppression and exploitation in order to mine a deeper explanation:
As proximate causes, sexism and racism constitute the principal psychological motivators of the physical violence that Johnson enacts upon the body of Mae. Petry complicates her portrayal of causality, however, by supplying a further level of motivation to Johnson’s actions….Johnson’s lack of control over his hands, coupled with his lack of control over his conditions of work, signals a root cause of his anger in his alienation, construed in a classically Marxist sense, as the severing of mental from manual labor…his living labor is controlled by the dead labor embodied in the cart he pushes around, rendering him half-dead, indeed zombie-like all day long. The home, the site of the daily reproduction of labor power, is invaded by alienation; rather than functioning as a haven in a heartless world, it becomes the place where he can exercise the only freedom he has – the freedom to beat and kill, the freedom to reproduce in this own actions, in the seemingly private sphere of marriage and home, the dynamic of the intrinsically violent social relations of capitalism. (203-4)
Foley is able to show how the forces of sexism and racism interweave within the context of the broader class structures of capitalism. In other words she derives the ‘soul’ of the story from the forms and structures of social existence, but does so in a way which is neither mechanical or didactic, but clear and profound. Foley’s book is full of examples like this, meticulous fragments of analysis which capture the historical contradictions which abound in a given work of literature.
Thus Foley contrasts the medieval legends of King Arthur with the ‘rags to riches’ stories of young-adult author Horatio Alger as a means to elucidate ‘the supersession of feudal-era notions of obligations and dependency…by capitalist-era notions of individual freedom and autonomy’. (20) She employs a quirky and brilliant analysis in order so show how the English fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk hints at the specific and temporary nature of capitalism itself as a historical form: ‘Jack’s trading of the family’s sole cow for a handful of magic beans is a blatantly foolish act of exchange given the desperate poverty in which he lives with his mother. But the ability of the seeds to generate wealth far beyond the market value of the cow – through Jack’s ascending the giant bean stalk…testifies…also to the historical existence of markets where value and exchange value were not automatically seen as equivalent.’ From this one can derive the sense that our ‘present-day habit of quantifying exchange based upon the socially necessary labour time embodied in commodities is neither natural nor trans historical.’ (37)
Her analysis of the horrifically awful Fifty Shades of Grey is also rooted in the concept of Capital, only whereas Jack and The Beanstalk can be considered an expression of longing for pre-capitalist forms, Fifty Shades provide a paean to Capital. It is in many ways the idealised form in which Capital perceives itself – in as much as Capital is presented as a glittering, pristine creation entirely abstracted from the misery and suffering of the social exploitation which sets the basis for it:
There is no exploitation of labor in the world of Christian Grey, only capital willing to place itself on the market and, through creative application, expand itself indefinitely…The helicopter, the sheets, the glass-encased high-rise apartment: these commodities are so far removed from the labor processes generating them that capital cannot be thought of as a vampire sucking the blood out of living labor. (200)
And in the figure of dynamic billionaire Christian Grey, Capital as a charismatic force of progress abstracted from any social cost is personified:
Christian is himself Capital as pure money in seductive human form. And although…we are told he “works” so hard that he has little time for sleep – he is shown to be more concerned about the activities of his Gates-style philanthropic foundation, which is busy saving countless lives in Africa, than with overseeing the business empire which magically generates his wealth.’ (201)
Foley is also attuned to the silences between words, the invisible subtext, the things which are hinted at but not explicitly referenced in the gaps on the page. In an illuminating analysis of The Preamble to the US Constitution, Foley, in her rather Socratic manner, asks a series of pertinent questions. The document makes reference to ‘the People of the United States’ who are to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’, but ‘the people’ is a remarkably nebulous concept. Who are these people? Do they include the enslaved blacks? The women who didn’t have the vote? The poor white men, equally disenfranchised? ‘The people’ becomes a rather slippery stand-in for the real social group whose liberty and power the constitution enshrines, i.e. ‘white men possessing enough property to qualify them’. (171)
The mirage being generated is that created by every ruling class which, ‘while promoting and articulating its own interests, proclaims its outlook to be a universal one.’ (172) At the same time, the cracks in the surface begin to poke through – the Constitution makes reference to the need to form ‘a more perfect Union’ (172) and thus implies the imperfections of the current arrangement while the exhortation to ‘insure domestic Tranquillity’ (172) obliquely hints at the political unrest of the vast majority of people who have been excluded from the remit of the Constitution – ‘there persists revolts of the less privileged like the recent Shays’s rebellion’. (172)
Foley’s analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution is paired with an account of a 1987 poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘We Call Them Greasers’ which offers the first-person perspective of an unnamed settler as he subjugates an indigenous group by means of rape and murder, ultimately driving them from the land:
I found them here when I came.
They were growing corn on their small ranchos…
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat…
Weren’t interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn’t even own the land but shared it
Wasn’t hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone…
And the women – well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering…
Afterward I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing,
didn’t want to waste a bullet on her….
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat his face.
Lynch him, I told the boys. (172-3)
It is a stark and harrowing poem which ‘encapsulates a genocidal narrative in which sexism, racism and contempt for indigenous peoples are shored up by the nationalist dogmas proclaiming the supremacy of individualism and private property…In this phase of primitive accumulation called pioneering, the state is defined by the naked power of wealth; violence is the principal historical and geographical presupposition of the expansion of capital.’ (174)
What is particularly intriguing and provocative in the pairing of the Preamble to the Constitution and the poem, is that Foley is able to show how ‘a historically materialist understanding of the role of the state in capital accumulation invites us to link the eminently civilized and rational prose of the Founding Fathers with the crude brutality evinced by the speaker in Anzaldúa’s poem. The realities of slavery, class struggle, rape, and genocide are masked in the enlightened language of the Preamble: yet one “we” leads to the next “we”.’ (174)
There is the odd occasion when the reader is tempted to take issue with some of the analysis. For example, Foley’s analysis of the great William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ is intriguing and well-argued, but flawed in my view. Foley detects a certain aristocratic longing to the poem – ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ – which alludes, in her words, to ‘the hierarchical order associated with feudalism’ (168) of the past, an order which has been overwhelmed by the chaos of the present. ‘The “best’ (presumably those responsible for maintaining order) have not risen to the occasion, while the “worst” (presumably those responsible for the “anarchy” have taken command, “loos[ing] the blood-dimmed tide” and drowning the innocent’. (168)
According to Foley, the use of phrases such as ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in conjunction with social ‘anarchy’ ‘links the purposiveness of destructive human agents with the uncontrollability of natural forces’. (168) For Foley, the poem provides a ‘naturalisation’ of the human essence which essentially ‘bypasses the necessity for historical analysis’ (168) and thus the poem presents us with an ahistorical depiction of a generic humanity which inevitably tilts toward barbarism.
Of course the aristocratic tenor of Yeats's own politics – a certain anti-democratic and even fascist inflection – has a bearing on some of the themes in the poem. And the way in which social and historical relations are naturalised; the way in which the specific character of the capitalist social order is transmuted into an eternal fetish of human nature impervious to historical change – is important not only to help comprehend the ideological mechanics of political philosophies which aim to defend the status-quo, but in the literary arena it can give you a sense of why a certain work is aesthetically poor.
Rather than living flesh-and-blood characters who have grown out of the social relations of a particular phase of history and are, therefore, in some way imbued with the contradictions of the age, literary characters in which some kind of generic, eternal human nature is posited (be it a good or evil one) are inevitably aesthetically poorer, because they remain unchanging archetypes which cannot develop in a realist fashion in response to the pressures and demands of the social world they inhabit. They cannot fundamentally change in historical time – or in the case of the novel, they cannot fundamentally change in the course of the plot. If Anna Karenina had been born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, the mainspring of her personality would not flow from the social contradictions of the society she inhabited; her tragedy would not flow from being a woman whose burgeoning self-determination in the context of a rapidly changing social world was nevertheless thrown into contradiction with an ossified and feudal hierarchy specific to 19th century Russia.
The ‘naturalisation’ critique can’t be so easily applied to a poem because a poem does not describe events in historical time in any coherent or linear detail (epic poetry being one possible exception). The poem is rather more fleeting and fragmented. This is something poetry shares with painting. If, for example, you consider Picasso’s Guernica – the bombs dropping on the small Spanish town during the civil war and the cataclysmic fragmentation and destruction of civilian life which ensues – there is no progressive historical development. We don’t see the citizens of Guernica as they are in the aftermath of the event, rebuilding their lives. But even though we are not made witness to a living historical development which is in some way embodied in the painting’s aesthetic – even though all the painting does show us is fragmentation and implosion – would it be fair to conclude that Picasso’s freeze-frame of civil war destruction represents an eternalisation of human nature according to the principles of savagery and destruction? I would say not; the painting offers up a snapshot of reality which evokes the ‘mood’ of a specific epoch rather than elaborating several moments in the historical trajectory of a given character or period in the way a novel might.
The Picasso painting gives some sense of what it means to be an individual walking through the remnants of a twentieth-century world which has been smashed by global and civil wars, the disorienting feeling of moving through the ruins in the aftermath. In the same way, ‘The Second Coming’ uses archaic, apocalyptic language and imagery – ‘beast…slouches toward Bethlehem’ – as a way of capturing the almost apocalyptic power and inevitability of modernity – in the words of Marx, all that is solid melts into air. But rather than ‘bypass’ the necessity of history in favour of a principle of naturalisation, Yeats’s poem, with its grotesque and funereal grandeur, captures the moment of modernity in all its sweeping, disorientating violence.
So the question of abstraction – i.e. to what level of clarity and concreteness can different forms of literature address social and historical contradictions – is one that Foley fails to address, and it is important here. But even if one were to accept that ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the last analysis, a poem which offers up an ahistorical view of human nature which privileges aristocratic hierarchy and power, then one is at a loss to explain just why it has such a moving and dramatic charge.
Likewise, the poem which Foley contrasts the Yeats poem to – Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ – is a worthy and affecting piece which deals in a far more coherent, politically conscious and revolutionary way with the concrete forms of oppression which human beings face in the twentieth century. However, it does not have anything like the level of aesthetic truth and power of Yates’s poem.
Perhaps because the subject matter is so broad, the range of works and concepts that Foley covers so diverse, there is the odd occasion when she spreads herself a little thin. For example, her discussion of the great Hegelian-Marxist Georg Lukács is weak at certain points, especially her explanation (74) of the ‘identical subject-object of history’ concept which Lukács puts forward, and which is so integral to an understanding of the proletariat in Marxist terms as the ‘universal class’.
As for her categorisation of one ‘Tony McKenna’ as somebody who believes that the essence of art lies in the ‘transcendence of its class origins’ (144) – well…ahem…as bizarre as the thinking of that particular individual sometimes is, I can quite categorically confirm this is not his perspective.
Needless to say, these are but minor points. The major one is simply this: Foley has produced a work of great erudition which spans a colourful and vast selection of examples from literature past and present. In addition, her analysis is informed by a strong understanding of Marxist philosophy and economics which shows how the works she explores are shaped by the necessity and the contradictions of their historical origins. Finally, all this is brought across in the lively and incisive style of a teacher who genuinely enjoys the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. I think it is fair to say ‘Marxist Literary Criticism Today’ is an excellent work of literature in its own right.
Tony McKenna is a writer, his latest book is 'Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives' (Zero Books).