decorative initial 'M' arx was one of the great thinkers of modern times. Born in Prussia, he led an itinerant existence and had various interests; in his youth he wrote lyric poetry, later he became a newspaper man, and eventually a theorist advocating social reform. From his student days Marx was interested in philosophy (his doctoral dissertation concerned itself with aspects of Greek philosophical systems) and, after reading extensively in anthropology and economics, he arrived at a formulation of his own "philosophical anthropology" — the science of human beings in society.

Despite what has been proclaimed and enacted in his name (later in life he would protest that he was not a "Marxist" as the term had come to be understood), Marx was concerned ultimately with human freedom, reviving the ancient concept of communism, wherein human beings could fulfill their cooperative roles within society without fear of exploitation. He saw the historical stage of capitalism as the "insidious" antagonist of such freedom; insidious because unlike serfdom (capitalism's predecessor in the evolution of social relations) capitalism was (is?) able to perpetuate the illusion of freedom even though its raison d'etre relies on those who have nothing to sell but their labor and those, who through the power of capital and property, exploit such labor for profit. It is important to point out that Marx did not view capitalism as an aberration in society's evolution toward true freedom, but as a necessary historical stage in that evolution.

Evolution is a key term in Marxist theory and like Darwinism and Utopianism it partakes in the legacy of scientific and social thought of the nineteenth century. Some critics observe that, given the nature of the human species, Marx's thought is essentially Utopian. He believed, for example, that human beings (as opposed to other species) should not be burdened by one monotonous form of work, which (as automobile assembly-line workers will tell you) produces not a pride or satisfaction in their work, but rather a sense of alienation. Marx believed (many would say "idealistically") that a person could and should be something of a philosopher in the morning, a gardener in the afternoon, and perhaps a poet in the evenings. Whatever his utopian traits, Marx thought of himself as a social scientist, and his writings illuminate important aspects in the history of human societies, from pre-Christian times to the nature of capitalist society in nineteenth-century England, where his friend and collaborator Frederick Engels managed a factory and recorded documentary evidence on working class life. (Some of Engel's findings make the social ethos in Dickens's novels seem somewhat benign.)

Marx's "materialist conception of history" is based on the following premises: that human beings, in all historical eras, enter into certain productive relations (hunting and gathering food, the relation of lord and serf, the contract between labor and capital�that is, certain economic foundations) and that these relations give rise to a certain form of social consciousness. He maintained that: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. . . ." Perhaps Marx's greatest contribution to modern thought (as opposed to his economic theories which have been subject to various revisions) is his comprehensive investigation into the role of Ideology, or how social being determines consciousness, which results in certain (for the most part unconscious) belief and value systems depending on the particular economic infrastructure pertaining at the time. From a Marxian point of view all cultural artifacts�religious systems, philosophical positions, ethical values�are, naturally enough, products of consciousness and as such are subject to these ideological pressures.

As far as literature is concerned, a Marxian analysis would attempt to look at the work as a highly mediated "reflection" of the social conditions (which are in turn subject to the particular economic structure) of its particular epoch. Good Marxist criticism addresses not only the content of a given text, but also its form. For example, one might argue that Pope's poetry "reflects" (betrays, illustrates, refracts) in its content the stable union of "a bourgeois class in alliance with a bourgeoisified aristocracy," and that its form, the circumscribed, balanced heroic couplet, underlines the equilibrium of such a social structure. To take an extreme contrary example, Eliot's The Waste Land: here the content relates to the spiritual bankruptcy and ennui brought about by the failures of Imperialist capitalism, the end result of which was the catastrophe of the First World War. The form of the poem is also historically determined as a consequence of its content: the fragmented vision of the poem demands new forms to give it expression. The important thing to remember is that neither Pope nor Eliot were consciously trying to mirror the economically determined social structure of their era, but each, a Marxist would argue, are trapped within the ideological confines of their time.

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Content created 1988; last modified 14 February 2014