Marxist Literary Criticism: An Introductory Reading Guide

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Daniel Hartley

(First published in French at:

Marxist literary criticism investigates literature’s role in the class struggle. The best general introductions in English remain Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (Routledge, 2002 [1976]) and, a more difficult but foundational book, Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (Princeton UP, 1971). The best anthology in English remains Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne’s Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader (Blackwell, 1996). The bibliographic essay that follows does not aim to be exhaustive; because it is quite long, I have indicated what I take to be the major texts of the tradition with a double asterisk and bold font: **.

From Marx to Stalinist Russia

It is well-known that Marx himself was a voracious reader across multiple languages and that, as a young man, he composed poetry as well as an unfinished novel and fragments of a play. S.S. Prawer’s Karl Marx and World Literature (Verso, 2011 [1976]) is the definitive guide to all literary aspects of Marx’s writings. Marx and Engels also expressed views on specific literary works or authors in various contexts. Three in particular are well known: in The Holy Family (1845), Marx and Engels submit Eugène Sue’s global bestseller The Mysteries of Paris to a rigorous literary and ideological critique, which became important for Louis Althusser’s theory of melodrama (see ‘The “Piccolo Teatro”: Bertolazzi and Brecht’ in For Marx (Verso, 2005 [1965])); both Marx and Engels sent letters to Ferdinand Lassalle, a German lawyer and socialist, expressing reservations about his play Franz von Sickingen (1858-9), which they felt had downplayed the historical role of plebeian and peasant elements in the 1522-3 uprising of the Swabian and Rheinland nobility, thereby diminishing the tragic scope of his drama and causing his characters to be two-dimensional mouthpieces of history; finally, Marx planned but never actually wrote a whole volume on Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, of which Engels said that he had ‘learned more [from it] than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.’ Marx and Engels’ interest in Balzac is particularly important since it suggests that literary prowess and a capacity to represent the fundamental social dynamics of a given historical period are not dependent upon an author’s self-avowed political positions (Balzac was a royalist). This point would become important for theories of realism developed by György Lukács[1] and Fredric Jameson. Various fragments of Marx and Engels’ writings on art and literature have been collected by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings (Telos Press, 1973). Marx and Engels’ ultimate influence on what became ‘Marxist literary criticism’ is less a result of these isolated fragments than the historical materialist method as such.

      A useful, if overly simplistic, periodisation of Marxist literary criticism has been proposed by Terry Eagleton in the introduction to his and Drew Milne’s Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader (Blackwell, 1996). Eagleton divides Marxist criticism into four kinds: anthropological, political, ideological, and economic (I shall focus on the first three). ‘Anthropological’ criticism, which he claims predominated during the period of the Second International (1889-1916), asks such fundamental questions as: what is the function of art within social evolution? What are the relations between art and human labour? What are the social functions of art and what is its relation to myth? This approach obtained (partially) in such works as G.V. Plekhanov’s Art and Social Life (Foreign Languages Press, 1957 [1912]) and Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality (Macmillan, 1937). ‘Political’ criticism dates to the Bolsheviks and their preparation for – and defence of – the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and, especially, 1917. Lenin’s essays on Tolstoy from 1908-11, collected in On Literature and Art (Progress Publishers, 1970), argue that the contradictions in Tolstoy’s work between advanced anti-capitalist critique and patriarchal, moralistic Christianity are a ‘mirror’ of late nineteenth-century Russian life and the weakness of residually feudal peasant elements of the 1905 revolution. (This argument was famously revisited by Pierre Macherey in his major Althusserian work of literary theory, Towards a Theory of Literary Production (Routledge Classics, 2006 [1966])). The most important text of this period, however, is almost certainly Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution** (Haymarket, 2005 [1925]). A landmark survey of the entire Russian literary terrain, it provides a unique record of the literary and stylistic upheavals brought about by social revolution. The book locates in literary forms and styles the ambiguous political tendencies of their authors, and is driven by the ultimate goal of producing a culture and collective subjectivity adequate to the construction of socialism.

This period of revolutionary ferment also gave rise to one of the most powerful and sophisticated intellectual schools in the history of Marxist literary criticism: the Bakhtin Circle. Led by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (whose own relation to the Marxist tradition is ambiguous), the Circle produced subtle philosophical analyses of the social and cultural issues posed by the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into Stalinist dictatorship. Centred around the key idea of dialogism, which holds that language and literature are formed in a dynamic, conflictual process of social interaction, the Circle distinguished between monologic forms such as epic and poetry (associated with the monologism of Stalinism itself), and the novel whose heteroglossia (a polyphonic combination of social and literary idioms) and dialogism imbue it with a critical, popular resistance. Key works include Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (University of Minnesota Press, 1984 [1929/ 2nd revised edition 1963]), his four key articles on the novel (anthologised in English as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays** (University of Texas Press, 1981 [1934-41])), and Rabelais and His World (MIT Press, 1968 [1965]). Often overshadowed by Bakhtin, but of equal importance, are P.N. Medvedev’s masterly book-length Marxist critique of Russian formalism (which is also a social theory of literature in its own right), The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship** (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978 [1928]), and V.N. Voloshinov’s Marxist theory of language: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language** (Harvard UP, 1986 [1929]). The latter was important to Raymond Williams’ later work (he discovered it by chance on a library shelf at Cambridge) and has informed Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s seminal A Marxist Philosophy of Language (Haymarket, 2004).

‘Western Marxism’ and Beyond

Eagleton dates his third category, ‘ideological criticism,’ to the period of ‘Western Marxism.’ The latter is a much-contested notion that became influential in the Anglophone world following the publication of Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso, 1976), a study of intellectuals including György Lukács, Karl Korsch, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Galvano Della Volpe, and Lucio Colletti. Anderson claims that, in contradistinction to previous generations of Marxists, Western Marxism is characterised by a period of political defeat (to fascism in the 1930s), a structural divorce of Marxist intellectuals from the masses, and – consequently – a written style that is often complex, obscure or antithetical to practical political action. Whether or not one endorses Anderson’s account, it is a useful periodising category.

            If Lenin and Trotsky were concerned with literature primarily as an extension of immediate political struggles, critics of the mid-century were far closer to the preoccupations of the Bakhtin Circle, understanding literature as indirectly political – not least through the ideology of form. If Soviet socialist realism, the definitive study of which is Régine Robin’s Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic (Stanford UP, 1992 [1986]), was largely indifferent to form and style and fixated on ‘transparent’ heroic-proletarian content, critics such as Adorno and Lukács focused far more on literary form and the manner in which it crystallises ideologies. In many works, this attention to form is coextensive with a dialectical approach to criticism, partly inspired by the Hegelianised Marxism of Lukács and Korsch. Such an approach is characterised by an emphasis on reflexivity and totality: it stresses the way in which ‘the [critic’s] mind must deal with its own thought process just as much as with the material it works on’ (Fredric Jameson); it holds that literary works internalise social forms, situations and structures, yet simultaneously refuse them (thereby generating a critical negativity that resists vulgar economic or political reductionism); and it takes the mediated (not external or abstract) social totality as its ultimate critical purview. As Adorno put it in an introductory lecture on the dialectic in 1958:


on the one hand, we should not be content, as rigid specialists, to concentrate exclusively on the given individual phenomena but strive to understand these phenomena in the totality within which they function in the first place and receive their meaning; and, on the other hand, we should not hypostatize this totality, this whole, in which we stand, should not introduce the whole dogmatically from without, but always attempt to effect this transition from the individual phenomenon to the whole with constant reference to the matter itself.


The pinnacle of such dialectical criticism is to be found in the work of Adorno himself. See especially: Prisms (MIT Press, 1955) and Notes to Literature I & II** (Columbia UP, 1991 & 1992 [1958 & 1961]), which contain a range of extraordinary essays, as well as the posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (Continuum, 1997 [1970]) – the definitive philosophical statement on art and the aesthetic in the immediate postwar period.

            Adorno was profoundly influenced by Walter Benjamin, eleven years his senior. The pair first met in Vienna in 1923 and continued a lifelong friendship of lively intellectual debate (thoroughly analysed by Susan Buck-Morss in The Origin of Negative Dialectics (Free Press, 1977)). Benjamin’s profoundly original and essayistic work, which combines historical materialism with Jewish mysticism, ranges across a multitude of topics, with highlights including: a Kantian yet Kabbalist-influenced theory of cognition, Baroque drama and allegory, Baudelaire (a pivotal figure in Benjamin’s lifelong obsession with Paris as ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’), Kafka, Proust (whose mémoire involontaire he associates with surrealist shocks), Brecht (with whom he also shared a lifelong friendship), surrealism, language, and translation. In English, readers new to Benjamin might wish to consult the relevant essays in Illuminations** (Fontana, 1970) and Reflections (Schocken, 1978) as well as the theory of Baroque drama and allegory in The Origins of German Tragic Drama (Verso, 1998 [1928]). Those with a taste for completism may also wish to take on Benjamin’s enormous study of nineteenth-century Paris, consisting solely of fragments: The Arcades Project (Harvard UP, 2002 [1982]). Harvard University Press have published 4 volumes of Benjamin’s Selected Writings (2004-6).

            Another towering figure of twentieth-century Marxist criticism is the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács. His 1923 work History and Class Consciousness (Merlin Press, 1971 [1923]) was hugely influential: it broke with the Second International emphasis on Marxism as a doctrine, stressing instead that Marxism is a dialectical method premised upon the category of totality, and made ‘reification’ a fundamental Marxist concept. Prior to his Marxist radicalisation, Lukács wrote two major works of literary criticism: the first, Soul and Form (Columbia UP, 2010 [1910]), is a (criminally) neglected set of passionate, tormented essays on the relation between art and life, the perfect abstractions of form versus the myriad imperfect minutiae of the human soul. These oppositions become connected to larger social contradictions between life and work, concrete and abstract, artistic fulfilment and bourgeois vocation; what Lukács is clearly seeking is a way of mediating or overcoming these oppositions, yet the tormented style is a sign that he has not yet located it. He continued these reflections in one of the truly great literary-critical works of the twentieth century: The Theory of the Novel** (MIT Press, 1971 [1920]). Contrasting the novel with the epic, Lukács argues that where the latter is the form that organically corresponds to an ‘integrated’ (i.e., non-alienated, non-reified) civilisation in which the social totality is immanently reconciled and sensually present, the novel is ‘the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.’ The second half of the book expounds a typology of the novel, concluding with a vaguely hopeful sign that Dostoevsky may offer a way out of the impasses of bourgeois modernity.

Through the experience of World War I and the Russian Revolution, Lukács ultimately arrived at the Marxist positions of History and Class Consciousness. Crucially, his later highly influential theory of realism should be read in the context of this book’s central essay on reification, since realism for Lukács is in many ways the narrative equivalent of the de-reified (and potentially dereifying) standpoint of the proletariat. In Studies in European Realism** (Merlin Press, 1972) and Writer and Critic (Merlin Press, 1978) (see especially the essay ‘Narrate or Describe?’), Lukács argues that the great realists (Balzac, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann) penetrate beneath the epiphenomena of daily life to reveal the hidden objective laws at work which constitute society as such. In other works, however, this attachment to realism descends into anti-modernist literary-critical dogmatism (see, e.g., The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (Merlin Press, 1963 [1958])). The other major critical work by Lukács is The Historical Novel** (Penguin, 1969 [1937/1954]), a foundational study of the genre of the historical novel from its explosion in Walter Scott to its twentieth-century inheritors such as Heinrich Mann.

In France, the work of Sartre on committed literature is well-known. Situations I (Gallimard, 1947) collects his early texts on Faulkner, Dos Passos, Nabokov and others (recently translated as Critical Essays: Situations 1 (University of Chicago Press, 2017)). Notable here is the manner in which Sartre deduces an entire personal metaphysics from the styles and forms of these works, which he then judges against his own existentialist phenomenology of freedom and what Fredric Jameson has called his ‘linguistic optimism’ (for Sartre, everything is sayable – a position the French philosopher Alain Badiou would radicalise and mathematise). Styles like Faulkner’s, which implicitly deny this freedom, are held up for censure. The masterpiece of this period and approach is What Is Literature?** (Routledge Classics 2001, [1947]), which includes not only the well-known (and much criticised) passages on the supposed transparency of prose versus the potentially apolitical opaqueness of poetry, but also a rich and subtle history of French writers’ relations to their (virtual or actual) publics: a relation which, after the failed revolution of 1848, becomes one of denial. It concludes with a rallying cry for a ‘actual literature’ [littérature en acte] that would strive for a classless society in which ‘there is no difference of any kind between [a writer’s] subject and his public.’ Sartre’s work came under criticism in Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero (Hill & Wang, 2012 [1953]); for Barthes, commitment occurs not at the level of content but at that of ‘writing’ [écriture] (or form) – though one might contest the simplistic understanding of Sartre’s argument on which this is based. More recently, these problematics have been resurrected – and challenged – by Jacques Rancière in The Politics of Literature (Polity, 2010 [2007]), which argues that the politics of literature has nothing to do with the personal political proclivities of the author; rather, literature is political because as literature it ‘intervenes into this relationship between practices and forms of visibility and modes of saying that carves up one or more common worlds.’ Readers might also consult Sartre’s major studies of individual writers, including Baudelaire (Gallimard, 1946), Saint Genet (Gallimard, 1952), and – a three-tome magnum opus – L’Idiot de la Famille (Gallimard, 1971-2).

Lucien Goldmann, a Romanian-born French critic, developed an approach that became known as ‘genetic structuralism.’ He examined the structure of literary texts to discover the degree to which it embodied the ‘world vision’ of the class to which the writer belonged. For Goldmann literary works are the product, not of individuals, but of the ‘transindividual mental structures’ of specific social groups. These ‘mental structures’ or ‘world visions’ are themselves understood as ideological constructions produced by specific historical conjunctures. In his best-known work, The Hidden God (Verso, 2016 [1955]), he connects recurring categories in the plays of Racine (God, World, Man) to the religious movement known as Jansenism, which is itself understood as the world vision of the noblesse de robe, a class fraction who find themselves dependent upon the monarchy (the ‘robe’) but, since they are recruited from the bourgeoisie, politically opposed to it. The danger of Goldmann’s work is that the ‘homologies’ he draws between work, world vision and class, are premised upon a simplistic ‘expressive causality’.

Such expressive theories of causality were, famously, one of Louis Althusser’s philosophical and political targets. Proposing a theory of the social totality as decentred, consisting of multiple discontinuous practices and temporalities (in For Marx (Verso, 2005 [1965]) and Reading Capital (Verso, 2016 [1965])), Althusser’s fragmentary writings on art and literature unsurprisingly emphasise art’s discontinuous relation to ideology and the social totality. In his 1966 ‘Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre,’ Althusser argues that art is not simply an ideology like any other but neither is it a theoretical science: it makes us see ideology, makes it perceivable, thereby performing an ‘internal distanciation’ on ideology itself. Pierre Macherey developed this insight into an entire, extremely sophisticated theory of literary production in Towards a Theory of Literary Production** (Routledge, 2006 [1966]). For Macherey, ideology is both inscribed in and ‘redoubled’ or ‘made visible’ by literary texts just as much by what they do not say as by what they overtly proclaim: they are structured by eloquent silences. As Warren Montag has written of Macherey and Étienne Balibar’s work of this time: ‘these texts are intelligible, that is, become the objects of an adequate knowledge, only on the basis of contradictions that may be understood as their immanent cause.’ Alain Badiou published an important critique and further development of Macherey’s argument in ‘The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process’ (1966) (appears in Badiou’s The Age of Poets (Verso, 2014)), and Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology (New Left Books, 1976) – a major Althusserian intervention in the British literary critical scene – was strongly influenced by Macherey’s work. For Badiou’s later writings on literature, see Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford UP, 2004 [1998]), On Beckett (Clinamen Press, 2002), and The Age of the Poets (Verso, 2014); Jean-Jacques Lecercle has traced these developments in Badiou and Deleuze Read Literature (Edinburgh UP, 2012). Macherey continued his own literary critical trajectory in À quoi pense la littérature? (PUF, 1990), Proust. Entre littérature et philosophie (Éditions Amsterdam, 2013), and Études de philosophie littéraire (De l’incidence éditeur, 2014).

British and US-American Marxist Literary Criticism: Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson

Raymond Williams was perhaps the most important British literary critic of the twentieth century. For a sense of his entire career, see the book-length interviews conducted by the editorial board of the New Left Review in Politics and Letters (Verso, 2015 [1979]). Of the vast range of his writings on literature, Marxism and Literature** (Oxford UP, 1977) is the most important from the perspective of literary criticism. It is the culmination of Williams’ increasing engagement, through the rise of the New Left from the mid-1950s, with the whole range of ‘Western Marxist’ texts discussed above, many of which were slowly being translated into English throughout the 1960s and 70s. Williams’ consistent manoeuvre in this book is to suggest the ways in which traditionally ‘Marxist’ theories of culture and literature remain residually idealist. Williams here formulates his mature positions on several of his key conceptual innovations: selective tradition, ‘dominant, residual and emergent’ (the three-fold temporality of the historical present), structure of feeling, and alignment. Yet the book must also be read in the context of the previous ground-breaking literary critical works that made it possible: The Long Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 1961), a theory of modernity as viewed from the perspective of the sociology of literature and artistic production; Modern Tragedy (Verso, 1979 [1966]), which combines a Marxist theory of tragedy with a powerful justification of revolution as our modern tragic horizon; Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (Penguin, 1973 [1952/ 1964]), a materialist theory of modern drama; The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence (Chatto & Windus, 1970), a social history of the English novel (designed, in part, to challenge the hegemony of F. R. Leavis’ The Great Tradition (Chatto & Windus, 1948)); and – most importantly – The Country and the City** (Oxford UP, 1973), a majestic literary and social history of urbanisation and the capitalist development of town and country relations. In his later work, Williams also wrote much to challenge prevailing idealist theories of modernism: see The Politics of Modernism (Verso, 1989).

Terry Eagleton was Williams’ student at Cambridge. Coming from a working-class Catholic background, Eagleton’s early writings were primarily concerned with Catholic theories of the body and language. A turning point came with the publication of Criticism and Ideology** (New Left Books, 1976), which signalled Eagleton’s conversion to Althusserianism and his intellectual break with Williams (it contains a now notorious chapter in which he accuses Williams of being a romantic, idealist, empiricist, populist!), though it had been preceded by the Goldmannian Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (Palgrave, 2005 [1975]). In the 1980s, Eagleton became increasingly interested in the revolutionary potential of criticism itself, partly by way of Walter Benjamin’s readings of Brecht (see Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (Verso, 1981)), and partly via feminism (The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Blackwell, 1982)). He has written a wide-ranging trilogy on Irish cultural history, but his most important mid-to-late works are arguably The Ideology of the Aesthetic** (Blackwell, 1990), a detailed critical history of the entire aesthetic tradition, and Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Blackwell, 2002), a major Marxist reconceptualisation of tragic theory and literature. An overview of his life and work can be found in the book-length interview The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue (Verso, 2009).

            Fredric Jameson, perhaps best-known for his theory of postmodernism (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham UP, 1991), was integral in the dissemination of ‘Western Marxist’ ideas in the Anglophone world. As mentioned at the outset, Marxism and Form** (Princeton UP, 1971) is a key introduction to many of these ideas. It includes detailed chapters on Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, and Sartre, as well as a major methodological essay on ‘dialectical criticism’. Jameson tested many of these ideas in a highly unusual work of ideological recuperation: Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (University of California Press, 1979). Perhaps Jameson’s most enduring work, however, is The Political Unconscious** (Cornell UP, 1981). Based on a modernised version of the medieval system of allegory, it develops a model of reading based on three levels: the text as symbolic act, the text as ‘ideologeme’ (‘the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes’) and the text as ‘ideology of form’. Its ultimate claim is that every literary text, via a system of (non-expressive) allegorical mediations, can be linked back to the non-transcendable horizon of History as class struggle. Jameson is also an important theorist of modernism, as witness his major work A Singular Modernity** (Verso, 2002) and the essay collection The Modernist Papers (Verso, 2007). His most important recent literary critical work is The Antinomies of Realism (Verso, 2013). Jameson also published a highly controversial article, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ (Social Text, 1986), which alone has given rise to a vast secondary literature (the best-known critique of it being Aijaz Ahmad’s in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992)). Jameson is undoubtedly the most important cultural critic of the late twentieth century.

Contemporary Criticism

It is impossible to do justice to the range and richness of contemporary Marxist criticism, so I can only hope to indicate a few important works. Franco Moretti has been an influential figure in the field. His work on the Bildungsroman foregrounded the way in which the symbolic form of ‘youth’ mediated the contradictions of modernity and effected the transition from the heroic subjectivities of the Age of Revolution to the mundane and unheroic normality of everyday bourgeois life (The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture** (Verso, 1987)). His study of the ‘modern epic,’ meanwhile, focused on such texts as Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby Dick and Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, arguing that they are ‘world texts, whose geographical frame of reference is no longer the nation-state, but a broader entity – a continent, or the world-system as a whole’ (The Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez (Verso, 1996)). In a move that would prove influential for materialist theories of ‘world literature’ (including his own), Moretti employs the categories of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis to suggest that such ‘world texts’ or ‘modern epics,’ whilst unknown to the relatively homogeneous states of the core are typical of the semi-periphery where combined development prevails.[2] Moretti has since extended this ‘geography of literary forms’ in ‘Conjectures on World Literature’** (New Left Review, 2000). Taking its cue from Goethe and Marx’s remarks on Weltliteratur, and combining these with insights drawn from the Brazilian Marxist critic Roberto Schwarz, ‘Conjectures’ holds that world literature is ‘[o]ne, and unequal: one literature … or perhaps, better, one world literary system (of inter-related literatures); but a system which is different from what Goethe and Marx had hoped for, because it’s profoundly unequal.’ Moretti’s most important work, though, is arguably his most recent publication: The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature** (Verso, 2013), a socio-literary study of the figure of the bourgeois, whose true ‘hero’ is the rise of literary prose.

            The most significant of Moretti’s inheritors is the Warwick Research Collective (WReC), whose book Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool UP, 2015) aims to ‘resituate the problem of “world literature,” considered as a revived category of theoretical enquiry, by pursuing the literary-cultural implications of the theory of combined and uneven development.’ Fusing Fredric Jameson’s ‘singular modernity’ thesis with a Moretti-inflected world-systems analysis and Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, the Warwick Research Collective defines world-literature as ‘the literature of the world-system’. World-literature (with a hyphen to show its fidelity to Wallersteinian world-systems analysis) is that literature which ‘registers’ in form and content the modern capitalist world-system. The book is also an intervention into debates on the definition of modernism. If ‘modernisation’ is understood as the ‘imposition’ of capitalist social relations on ‘cultures and societies hitherto un- or only sectorally capitalised’, and ‘modernity’ names ‘the way in which capitalist social relations are “lived”’, then ‘modernism’ is that literature which ‘encodes’ the lived experience of the ‘capitalisation of the world’ produced by modernisation.

            Individual members of the Warwick Research Collective have also made important contributions to what might (problematically) be termed ‘Marxist postcolonial theory’. Benita Parry’s Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Routledge, 2004) brings together a series of sophisticated essays which, whilst recognising the significance of much work done under the emblem of postcolonial studies, suggest that the material impulses of colonialism – its appropriation of physical resources, exploitation of human labour and institutional repression – have been omitted from mainstream postcolonial work (by Subaltern Studies, Edward Saïd, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakracorty Spivak). Neil Lazarus’ The Postcolonial Unconscious (Cambridge UP, 2011) not only extends this critique but attempts to reconstruct the entire field of postcolonial studies by developing new Marxist concepts attentive to the insights of postcolonial theory. Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee has likewise charted new terrain for Marxist postcolonial studies, but has done so with increased sensitivity to ecology (see Postcolonial Environments Nature: Culture and the Contemporary Indian Novel in English (Palgrave, 2010)). This approach has been strengthened by Sharae Deckard’s ambitious research project on ‘world-ecological literature’ (for a programmatic summary, see her forthcoming ‘Mapping Planetary Nature: Conjectures on World-Ecological Fiction’).

            In other recent work:

  • Alex Woloch has developed a theory of minor characters and protagonists in the realist novel that connects the ‘asymmetric structure of characterization – in which many are represented but attention flows to a delimited center’ to the ‘competing pull of inequality and democracy within the nineteenth-century bourgeois imagination’ (The One vs. the Many, Princeton UP, 2003).
  • Anna Kornbluh has offered a nuanced materialist account of realism’s formal mediations and ‘realisations’ of finance in Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham University Press, 2014).
  • Joshua Clover has argued that the period from the 1970s to the economic crisis of 2007-8 should be understood as the (Braudelian) ‘Autumn of the system.’ His fundamental thesis is ‘that an organizing trope of Autumnal literature is the conversion of the temporal to the spatial’. It is this conversion that non-narrative forms such as poetry are better able to grasp and figure forth’ (‘Autumn of the System: Poetry and Financial Capital.’ JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory, 2011).
  • In The Matter of Capital (Harvard UP, 2011) Christopher Nealon emphasises the ubiquity and variety of thematic, formal and intertextual poetic reflections upon capitalism across poetry of the ‘American century.’ He shows that poets as diverse as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, the Language poets, Claudia Rankine and Kevin Davies ‘have at the center of their literary projects an attempt to understand the relationship between poetry and capitalism, most often worked out as an attempt to understand the relationship of texts to historical crisis’.
  • Ruth Jennison’s The Zukofsky Era (Johns Hopkins UP, 2012), argues that ‘the Objectivists of the Zukofsky Era inherit the first [modernist] generation’s experimentalist break with prior systems of representation, and ... strive to adequate this break to a futurally pointed content of revolutionary politics.’
  • Sarah Brouillette has published a range of important work on the history of the book market and creative industries. See especially, Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford UP, 2014).
  • My own book, The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (Brill/ Haymarket, 2017), develops a materialist theory of style through an immanent critique of the work of Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson.


[1] Sometimes rendered in English as ‘Georg Lukács’.

[2] For explanations of these complex terms (world-systems analysis, core, semi-periphery), see Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Duke UP, 2004).


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