Marxist Literary Criticism

Marxist Criticism #

Karl Marx who lived and died in the 19^(th) century had a profound lasting impact on political, economic and social thinking of his and our time. Together with Fredrich Engels he developed an ideology known as Communism. Later other groups evolved these theories into movements known as Socialism.

Influenced by the dialectical theories of Hegel, Marx claimed that the force which lay behind conflict in history was not spiritual or religious, not nationalistic, but materialistic, causing a clash of classes. He believed that social justice could be achieved by economic equality.

Early primitive “hunter and gatherer” societies were communal and egalitarian. People belonged to tribes or clans that were mutually supportive with fair and equitable distribution of material resources. Simply belonging to the tribe meant you would be treated with dignity and contribute to the welfare of the group and in return share equitably in the bounty whenever it occurred.

“Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.”

This is a paraphrase of the verse in the Bible - Book of Acts describing the practice of the early Church, more succinctly and famously paraphrased by Karl Marx as:

“from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”

The First Epistle of John:

“He who hath this world’s goods and sees his brother to need and shuts up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him,” which comes punctually to this conclusion: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt, what thou shouldst doe; if thou lovest God thou must help him.”

The First Epistle of John:

“He whoe hath this world’s goodes and seeth his brother to neede and shutts upp his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him,” which comes punctually to this conclusion: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt, what thou shouldst doe; if thou lovest God thou must help him.”

The Gospel of Luke Winthrop begins with an argument for a familiar kind of charity, provision for the needy, though here urging a liberality that utterly exceeds customary practice. He ends in a vision of love of and within the community that takes its imagery from the Song of Songs. He says,

“Nothing yieldes more pleasure and content to the soule then when it findes that which it may loue fervently; for to love and live beloved is the soule’s paradise both here and in heaven.”

This does not sound to me like capitalism.

Despite obvious roots in Christianity, Capitalists have managed to disparage Communism by calling it godless.

Perhaps it echoes Shakespeare’s language in King Lear:

“shake [down] the superflux”—or simply reflects a shared tradition.

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist. Dom Helder Camara

Marx felt that Feudalism had replaced this fundamental economic structure which then was superseded by Capitalism based on individual greed¹ and the disparity of wealth where society became divided into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, the rich and the poor.

According to Stedman Jones, Marx was the first to chart the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry. He also delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasized its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.

Capitalism is premised on the idea that the enrichment of the few will solve the poverty of the masses; in fact the few can only be rich if the masses are poor – all wealth is theft. Both Reaganites and Thatcherites operated on the principle that cutting taxes to the rich would stimulate economic activity and ultimately benefit everybody. Reality did not bear this out. The rich simply got richer; the poor, poorer.

The trickle down effect only occurs in urinals.

Eventually the klepto-capitalists would become so monopolistic, the rich so rich, but few in numbers and the poor so numerous and desperate that they would rise up an overthrow the rulers and introduce a fairer economic system; a Communistic phase where all people would equally share all the wealth of the world and eliminate global conflict between the rich and poor.

¹The economist John Maynard Keynes once explained that the free market rested on:

“the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”.

To which J.K. Galbraithcontributed:

conservatives are engaged in one of mankind’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: a search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

Paul Keating quotes his early mentor, Jack Lang:

‘in the race of life, always back self-interest – at least you know > it’s trying’.

This may be why, as treasurer, Keating so readily embraced economic rationalism. the economists’ working model assumes the self-interest of the individual is the sole force that makes the world turn. fortunately, the latest research tells us it’s not that simple." ROSS GITTINS, THE AGE

The NYT’s Thomas Friedman coined the splendidly incoherent metaphor of the Golden Straitjacket to describe the neo-liberal orthodoxy he and everyone else saw as both desirable and inevitable:

The Market gives. The Market takes away. Blessed be the name of the Market”

Capitalism espouses the philosophy of the rule of the free market, yet in practice rigs the rules to suit itself.

Early in the GFC, George W Bush presided over “the biggest socialization of private assets in U.S. history”. The Iraq War was privatised to Halliburton and the GFC bailed out by public funds.

Here is Mungo MacCallum’s epitaph:

CAPITALISM. Descended from the line of feudalism, conceived by the propertied aristocracy and born of colonial exploitation and robber barons. Won many wars against the interests of workers and flourished especially in an atmosphere of legislative anarchy, known to its proponents as “choice.” Eventually murdered and devoured by its twin children, Fear and Greed. Greatly missed by gamblers, speculators, stockbrokers, lawyers, chief executives and many other parasites on society.

Tempting, but probably premature. With a little help from its friends and a great deal from unwilling taxpayers, capitalism has survived many crises in the past and will almost certainly weather this one too, in the fullness of time. But even its most zealous adherents have been forced to admit that the system has suffered a setback.

Tony Abbott proclaimed: “Capitalism is just another word for freedom,” and he would be unlikely to repeat the sentence this week unless qualified by Kris Kristofferson’s great line: “And freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free.”

Much of the unrest today is caused by attempts by governments to shore up the financial sector through recapitalising the banks by, in Krugman’s words, ‘having taxpayers pay premium prices for lousy assets’. There has been a huge transfer of the liabilities from some of the world’s richest people to ordinary workers, who will be handed something like a $20,000 debt each.

“All wealth/property is theft”

Prosperity of the few is endured/achieved/guaranteed by the austerity of the many.

Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a book that lays bare the extent to which the profits of so many well-known brands depended on the exploitation of people, often children, in Third World countries.

The global justice or anti-globalisation movement was founded long before the global financial crisis of 2008; long before Wall Street cowboys rode the wild bull of risk to oblivion and Greece became a basket case. It forewarned of the consequences of excessive, self-interested, out of control capitalism.

In several publications such as DAS KAPITAL (1867) and in his COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (1848) Marx outlined his basic ideologies:

  1. Economic laws govern how wealth is created and distributed.
  2. In class struggle, the inevitable conflict between exploited workers and the exploiting rulers, the former eventually overthrow the exploiters.
  3. The bourgeoisie (middle class) will be overthrown by the proletariat.
  4. Socialism will inevitably follow and wealth will be distributed equally.

The recent financial meltdown in the world economy may yet prove Marx right as most of the largest corporations have been rescued by their governments indicating that Capitalism has devoured itself and in order to survive needs to socialise its losses and capitalise its gains.

Capitalism’s sins - Phillip Adams - The Australian

While the fall of the wall between East and West Berlin signalled the collapse of communism, the fall of Wall Street suggested that, as predicted by Karl Marx, capitalism was being destroyed by its internal contradictions.

Which are still in play. Despite the triumphalism of the West, rapturous at seeing the hated “isms” of socialism and communism being wrecked by Whelan and dealing, the free-marketeers turned a blind eye to their matching crisis in their own ism. Capitalism.

Wall Street’s GFC, which pushed the US and the world to the brink, is now being glossed over and forgotten - like the Iraq war. The economic terrorists in the merchant banks, with their derivatives and other “financial instruments” as WMDs, were bailed out with the taxes paid by the people and the communities they’d destroyed. Billions robbed from the poor to give to the rich - as the domino effect sent economies crashing around the world.

Wall Street heavies were fiscal war criminals, but they never faced a Nuremberg or a Hague.

Instead, their friends in high places in both the Bush and Obama administrations colleagues from the companies that detonated the disaster - wrote out the largest cheques in history. And the band plays on.

We’d seen capitalism at its worst in the obscene response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The poor left to drown - and the money, belatedly sent to help, siphoned off by corruption in much the same way and by much the same companies as in “Mission Accomplished” Iraq.

The same insatiable greed and cronyism were displayed again - aided by free market forces and token regulation - in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. One of the most monstrous attacks on the environment in history, and still playing out. Involving the same notorious corporations - once again let off the hook. And we see it in the brutalities of the oil industry across Africa.

Everywhere, big business wins. Look at the vain attempts by farmers to fight coal mining in Australia, and at the leaked news that “coal seam gas” is to be removed from the governmental vocabulary in an Orwellian conjuring trick. “Natural gas” sound so much nicer.

The developer (itself an interesting abuse of language) will trump the community. The corporation will ride roughshod over nations. Climate change will not be effectively tackled. The broken economies of Europe attest to the failures of capitalism - at best kicking the can down the road while millions remain unemployed. We’re having the Great Depression in slow-mo, while the salaries and bonuses for the corporate ruling classes soar beyond the solar system. There’s less and less money for the human rights of health, food, shelter, water. But don’t worry, capitalism dulls anxieties with the new opium of the masses - shopping.

As much as communism, capitalism is a failed “ism”. We need new answers. Perhaps hybrid forms of economics are being discussed by our best and brightest - but don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile the anger builds, not only in the Middle East but in battered Britain, poverty-stricken Spain and Greece, and in a bewildered US. When the future doesn’t offer much of a future, things get dangerous. Think the 1930s.

Reactions to Marxism #

The second half of the 19th century was filled with competing ideologies.

‘Ideology’ comes from the French idéologie, and was first used during the French Revolution, but didn’t become popularised until the publication of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The German Ideology (written in 1846) and later Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929). People may form “ideological predispositions”

All strongly held ideologies were effectively faith-based, as no human being could survive long without some ultimate loyalty. If that loyalty didn’t derive from traditional religion, it would find expression through secular commitments, such as nationalism, socialism, or liberalism.

Bismarck’s strategic outflanking of the socialists in the 1880s by guaranteeing national health insurance, a pension, a minimum wage and workplace regulation, vacation, and unemployment insurance. The Bismarckean prototype of the welfare state did not become widespread until after WWII.

Herbert Hoover’s most bastardly act was his response to the WWI’s Veterans demand for their entitled money for time served. When the Veterans staged a five week camp out, Hoover declared them a communist front and mobilized tanks and infantry to attack them. 54 were injured, and 134 were arrested.

This prepared the seed bed for Americans demonizing Communism, while many supporters of Hitler’s Nazis, like Charles Lindbergh, were openly condoned. McCarthism was its lowest form.

Charles Beard (Mary Ritter’s husband) spoke out against the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, when he smeared scholars and teachers as Communists.

American Youth turn to Socialism #

Bernie Sanders’ rise and rise looks set to continue, but no-one could have expected a socialist to come this far – after all, with the United States’ history of McCarthyism and Red Scares, he was always going to be painted as a radical.

His continued success indicates a widespread realisation among the populace that establishment politics have failed them economically, have suppressed their individual freedoms, and have caused chaos on the international stage.

With many having watched their parents’ middle-class status disintegrate over the last decade or two, they’re as determined as ever to put a stop to the prolific inequality which is preventing them from attending university, owning homes, and accessing healthcare services when they need them. Martin Andersen

Robert Manne’s review of Duncan White’s, Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War claims principal subjects — Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness at Noon, and George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — did engage in literary warfare, hoping to convince their contemporaries, especially those on the left, that the equation of Soviet Communism with democratic socialism or, even more grotesquely, with humanitarian values, was a category error of the most dangerous kind. “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards”, Orwell wrote, “is that they wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” The militant left can be just as dangerous as a right wing nut.

FS Maitland predicted:

“What is now in the past was once in the future.”

At the beginning of the Cold War both Orwell and Koestler genuinely feared that the future might belong to totalitarianism.

White argues

”If the stakes were as high as the destiny of humankind, co-operation with the intelligence service of a liberal democracy does not seem to me problematic.

A more significant issue of this kind concerns the Congress for Cultural Freedom, launched in Berlin in 1950. The Congress was secretly funded by the CIA and guided from Paris by a CIA agent in a covert operation to win what insiders called “the mind of Picasso” than seems just.

While the Congress was being outed, at least 500,000 Indonesian left-leaning villagers were being slaughtered by General Suharto’s Army with the assistance of the CIA. The silence of the Western anti-Communist camp here is to my mind a far more troubling matter than the CIA’s payment of Encounter’s printing bill.

Other White subjects on the Western side of what was once called “the iron curtain” - Graham Greene and John Le Carr - were not Cold Warriors but incomparable Cold War observers. Greene’s instinct led him to Vietnam before the Americans arrived and to Cuba before Castro. Somehow, through the power of uncanny political imagination, Greene foretold in The Quiet American the coming catastrophe of the Vietnam War, and in Our Man in Havana the fiasco of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion and the near-apocalypse of the Cuban missile crisis. For his part, Le Carre, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, robbed the world of espionage —with its shabby moral compromises and professional betrayals — of all James Bond-style romance.

Aaron Bastani writes:

“If labour is the source of all value, what happens when mechanisation and automation force us to step aside and let robots do all the work”?

Bastani coins the acronym FALC, fully automated luxury communism.

Instead of Marx’s feudalism, capitalism and socialism, Bastani identifies Neo-lithic, Industrialism and FALC. The cyber revolution means information is now the basis of all value.

All responsible governments now need to do is distribute the fruits of value equitably. People need to force authoritarians to give up the disparity of wealth. History demonstrates repeatedly that will only happen with blood and iron. The top 1% are worried about the re-emergence of the guillotine.

Flaws or weaknesses in Marxist Views

  1. Marx overlooked the shrewdness of the Capitalist rulers. When confronted by loss of power they adapted, compromised and made concessions. Far sighted Statesmen in the 19th century (Bismarck, Talleyrand) introduced socialistic programs to alleviate class discontent such unemployment benefits, old age pensions, accident insurance. Bismarck’s imperative was “to starve socialism of any chance to grow beyond a small heartland, and flourish in the centre”.

With the rise of unions and negotiated contracts, the proletariat’s conditions improved and the need for revolution disappeared. Today most proletariat (working class) people have middle class lifestyles and been appeased. However in Global conflict Marx is correct; war is generally the result of material inequity.

  1. Marx failed to foresee the rise of the limited corporation and how it would eventually dominate world government. It took a wholesale concerted assault to finally demonise Communism by the 1990’s. But the excesses of Capitalism may be its undoing.

  2. Oscar Wilde’s saying:

“A man who has not been a socialist by the time he is eighteen, has no heart. - A man who is still a socialist at thirty, has no mind” .

expresses the idea that young people embrace socialism because it is the normal state of the family; money is doled out to them in their formative years in equitable redistribution of family wealth. However as they begin to earn their own money, and acquire wealth, they become more self serving and less redistributive.

  1. John Steinbeck famously wrote:

“socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.

It is in the interests of capitalists to disparage socialism and perpetuate the myth of the American Dream.

  1. The Establishment caviled remorselessly and relentlessly against the “threat” of communism, demonising it as godless and anti-democratic, despite the fact that one of the main tenets of democracy is based on equality or equity.

  2. Orwellwarned us that totalitarianism can come from the apostasy of Socialist governments.

Socialist governments espouse high ideals, yet when they get to power they are often quick to abandon those ideals to maintain control. In Orwell’s time, the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the apostasy of Russia’s Communist Government. During the Second World War, he saw further evidence that the British Labour Party was prone to abandon its principles to gain power. In many ways, the novel, 1984 is a warning about the dangers of the erosion of ideals, since the governing party, called INGSOC, represents English Socialism in a corrupted , perverted and debauched form. It has succumbed to the seduction of power and is determined to hang on to power by whatever means it can - expediency - pragmatism - realpolitiks.

George Orwell also observed:

“only a socialist could have such contempt for ordinary people”.

When the Tories screw workers, they get angry; when the socialists do it, they just get sad.

Apostasy: - When founding principles give way to pragmatic compromises.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” George Orwell - Animal Farm

If the world changes and we don’t, then we become of no use to the world. Our principles cease being principles and just ossify into dogma. Tony Blair, article by Stephen Goodwin, “The Labour Party in Blackpool: Blair urges politics of courage and trust,” Independent , October 4, 1994

After the inglorious demise of the Whitlam government in 1975, the Australian Labour Party fell into the hands of the ultra pragmatists with the dominant philosophy of “whatever it takes”. If you can’t beat them; join them or play by their rules. The extreme right of the party came to so closely resemble their opposites in most regards.

Bob Carr could easily out bid John Howard in his zeal to posture as being tough on issues as law and order, use of terror as fear mongering or tightening laws to restrict our freedoms - “liberty should not be lightly exchanged for coercive security”

As the parody of the Internationale goes:

“The working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got a politician’s job at last.”

However, as Annie Ernaux wrote after recording a French election result:

“Far better to live without expectations under the Left than in constant fury under the Right.”