Friday, November 5, 2010
The Vulgar Marxist
In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton describes vulgar Marxism as a reduction of the complexities of Marxist analysis to that oversimplified notion that material condition either makes the man, or makes the resistant man. Eagleton calls for a more sophisticated Marxism that looks at how art (literature) is expressed in many aspects of the superstructure, and is not solely shaped by "means if production," or by an author's poverty or wealth, but by a host of economic influences coming from several contexts (author, the whole of literature, the real world, the implied reader...). In other words, Marxist readings should not merely attempt to show how a work supports its historical conditions, or assume that the work directly challenges those conditions. It's never that simple.
In the first chapter Eagleton clearly puts forth how art is a part of the superstructure that can either reinforce or undermine it, possibly effecting some change at the base. I won't go into it all here, but this was really helpful for me. I'd known all along that Marx, influenced as he was by an aesthetically vocal G. W. F. Hegel, and a cultured (if impoverished) chap himself, would have liked to pull art into his mix, but hadn't the time considering those thousand or so pages of capital-criticism he had to get out. I just couldn't put my finger on how art was such an important part of superstructure, having fallen into the vulgar Marxist mentality sometimes myself.
This was the first time I'd seen the "vulgar Marxist" called out this way. I've seen the term before and I think it's useful, but Eagleton was the first place I'd seen it described so well how when it comes to criticism of art, vulgar Marxism misses the point. But while Eagleton privileges his sophisticated Marxist critic, he does not call for an eradication or a re-education of vulgar Marxists. The word "vulgar" is key here, and I don't think it's pejorative. Vulgar is of the people. Vulgar is what the people understand. If a vulgar Marxism is as far as any proletariat group could be expected to get in their understanding of how economy shapes their consciousness (or, more simply, their "lot in life"), this is far enough to effect some kind of reaction. What good is Marxism if its first application, its praxis as Marx would call it, isn't to help the people see the way to doing something? Eagleton's sophisticated Marxism is the critic's window into the power structures of society as illuminated by art, a window he looks through so that he can critique those structures. Vulgar Marxism might serve the vulgar man just as well. Only he may choose to break the window, and bust some heads.
Workers of the world unite,
Critics of the world . . . untie.