The following entry discusses Marxist criticism, which is based on the socialist theories of Karl Marx and examines literature as a reflection of the social institutions from which it arises.
Based on the socialist and dialectical theories of Karl Marx, Marxist criticism views literary works as reflections of the social institutions out of which they are born. According to Marxists, even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function, based on the background and ideology of the author. In essence, Marxists believe that a work of literature is not a result of divine inspiration or pure artistic endeavor, but that it arises out of the economic and ideological circumstances surrounding its creation. For Marxist critics, works of literature often mirror the creator's own place in society, and they interpret most texts in relation to their relevance regarding issues of class struggle as depicted in a work of fiction. Although Marx did not write extensively on literature and its place in society, he did detail the relationship between economic determinism and the social superstructure in various texts, including Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (1859), where he stated: “The mode of production of material life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being, that determines their consciousness.” Thus, although he did not expound in detail on the connections between literature and society, it is agreed among most scholars that Marx did view the relationship between literary activity and the economic center of society as an interactive process.
Although Marx and Friedrich Engels detailed theories of Socialism early in the twentieth century, it was not until the 1920s that Marxist literary theory was systematized. The greatest impetus for this standardization came after the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. The resulting socialist form of government and society, although uncertain about the length of time it would take for the new economic standards to create a new culture, believed that such a change was imminent. In the meantime, Socialist Realism was accepted as the highest form of literature, guiding both literary creation and official literary criticism in Russia. In the years since then, Russian literary theory has modified its extreme socialist stance to acknowledge that literary creation is a result of both subjective inspiration and the objective influence of the writer's surroundings. Outside of the Soviet Union, one of the most influential Marxist critics was Georg Lukács. Born in Hungary, Lukács joined the Communist Party in 1918 and later migrated to Russia. He has defined his Marxist theories of literature and criticism in such works as Die Eigenart des Asthetischen (1963), and remains central to the study of Marxist criticism today.
In addition to being the guiding principle behind most literary works in communist and socialist Russia, Marxism also greatly influenced Western writers. Many writers, including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Joyce, were deeply influenced with Marxist and socialist theories of the day, and much of this reflection is evident in their writings of the time. In stories such as “Long Black Song” and “Down by the Riverside,” Wright explores fundamental Marxist ideas. In the case of Claude McKay, Marxist theory provided a framework for issues of racial inequality and justice that were often addressed in his works. Following the failure of the Communist revolution, Marxist critics and writers were faced with the realization that Socialism had failed as a practical ideology. This sense of failure is reflected in such works as Mavis Gallant's What Is to Be Done? (1983) and Earle Birney's Down the Long Table (1955). Both texts explore the failure of Marxist philosophy in the modern world, and in his essay discussing these writers, Christian Bök notes that while both stories are about people yearning for a socially responsible society, the writing is permeated with a sense of failure regarding the effectiveness of this vision.
In recent years, literary criticism has expanded in scope to address issues of social and political significance. Marxist critics such as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson have expanded their realm of study to include cultural and political studies in their interpretations of literature. In this regard, Marxist critics, along with feminists, have begun studying literary criticism as an aspect of cultural sciences, notes Michael Ryan in his essay on the state of contemporary cultural and literary studies.
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A writing assignment is designed to make an argument of some sort. In order to do that, it must be well organized and make a clear point. The framework and structure of the paper must be clear so as to direct the reader along the path of your argument. To accomplish this task, you need to develop a clear thesis. A thesis is the central argument. It is essential that it be concise and well written. It should be provided early on in your paper, so as to give the reader a road map and a sense of direction. Don't bury it, state it clearly and visibly. Developing a well-written thesis, and then revising and revisiting it, will help you develop a clearer understanding of your paper and your argument.
Thesis statements must make a claim. Thesis statements are not statements of fact, and they should be more than a simple point of view. For example:
Statement of fact: "Karl Marx was a political thinker who believed that capitalism exploits working people." This is a point that is essentially undisputeable.
Similarly, the claim "The United Nations is an organization comprised of different nation-states around the world" is not likely to inspire much debate.
Opinion statements: On the other hand, the sentence "Marx was wrong about capitalism because capitalism is good for people" is closer to a thesis statement because it makes a claim - it takes a stand or a perspective on a particular topic. But in this format it is too much of an opinion and not enough of an argument.
Similarly, "The United Nations is an ineffective organization" is closer to a thesis statement than the factual statement about the United Nations because it raises a point that is debateable. But again, in this format it doesn't offer the reader much information and, thus, it sounds like the author is simply stating their viewpoint which may or may not be substantiated by evidence.
The key difference between an opinion statement and thesis statement is that the latter conveys to the reader that the claim being offered has been thoroughly explored and is defendable by evidence.
Thesis statements: Thus, in the first example, you need to indicate that you have a clear sense of which of Marx's views were wrong and why they were wrong (by "wrong" do you mean incorrect, inaccurate, silly, ridiculous, unsupported...?). Furthermore, you would need to specify what you mean by capitalism being "good" for people. Good in what sense? It makes them happy? successful? productive? Being specific in your claims means that you will have to think through your evidence to be sure it supports your conclusions. By doing this, you will make it clear to your reader that your thesis is something that you have considered and are able to support through the knowledge you have acquired in the course.
Thus, you may end up with:
Marx's views about capitalism were rooted in a specific time and place, neither of which are true today; his arguments that capitalism exploits working people, when re-examined in contemporary society, do not account for the high standard of living enjoyed by a great many workers around the world.
Note: You should always think about what another argument (perhaps the opposite one) would look like if you were to try to counter your own. This will ultimately strengthen your argument because it requires you to justify to yourself and others why you think what you think. For example, one could counter the above thesis statement with:
Marx's critique of capitalism, though written over 100 years ago, is still devastating today; with the gap between rich and poor increasing even in the world's richest countries such as the U.S., it has become clear that a capitalist economic system can only result in massive exploitation of the working class.
Of course, one can re-work a thesis statement indefinitely and one can almost always find something at fault with it. But the point is that you must be sure that your thesis statement is indicating to your reader that you have an argument to make.
In addition, your thesis should also help you organize your paper. As you present your argument in your thesis, it should lay out how you will organize your paper. For example if your thesis is, "The organization of the UN makes it incapable of preventing war between major powers," this then gives the central structure to your paper. First you will explore the UN's organizational structure. Then you will examine why that structure hampers the UN's ability to keep peace. After laying the foundations of your central argument, you can elaborate on the specific logical steps within your thesis. You can add to the argument above, by describing the organizational structures you wish to explore, such as the Security Council, funding of the UN, and other assorted points that you are going to explore more fully in your paper. Always be sure to present them in order as they will appear in order as they will appear in your paper. In the end, your thesis should lay out your argument and provide the reader with a map to the paper.
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