Karl Marx and World Literature
By. S. S. Prawer
Prawer makes clear he is not attempting to discuss Marx’s theories of literary criticism, but to illuminate the role literature played in Marx’s life and development of his thinking. It is an absorbing and accessible investigation. He reveals a sensitive and highly perceptive approach to Marx’s relationship with world literature and the way it helped shape his world view. He has a deep understanding and sympathy for Marx’s political thinking and an exceptional knowledge of Marx’s work, and is thus able to make the relevant and appropriate connections.
As recipients of a solid German secondary school education, both Marx and Engels gained a thorough grounding in the classical literature of Greece and Rome as well as Biblical Hebrew, alongside the greats of the European enlightenment - Voltaire, Shakespeare, Goethe etc. While the future political ideas of both men would challenge some of the most determinedly held assumptions of western establishments, they found much of their inspiration in the literary works of the past.
As a young student Marx was more interested in literature than history or philosophy and one of his earliest dreams was to become a writer and he toyed with the idea of publishing his poetry. Even in his earliest literary efforts as a teenager one can find the germs of his later thinking. He identified closely with literary figures who were men of action, ‘world changers’, like Prometheus and Odysseus. In his own poems he expresses an overpowering drive to action, for ‘praxis’, rejecting romantic contemplation. A whole number of Marx’s mature ideas appear to have found their nascence in key images from literature. Certainly the evocative and fiery language used in the Communist Manifesto testifies to Marx’s eloquent command of language.
Much of his early writings are littered with preconfigurations of his later mature thinking. In the poem ‘Human pride, written as a 19 year-old, he evokes the ‘alienation’ and oppressiveness of a modern city, but emphasises that the city’s buildings did not create themselves, but were made by human ingenuity i.e. human labour. Even though strongly influenced by European romantic writers, he very early on rejects romanticism as a road to understanding society. He sees writers, poets and painters as ‘producers’ of works, in the same way that craftsmen and women are; not in the first instance as a different species of humanity - ‘creative beings’.
Marx recognised the dialectical connection between aesthetics and content. It was often the case, as with Balzac and Dickens, that the authors themselves were not political militants, but captured essential truths about the societies they wrote about. He and Engels were among the first to recognise that literature and indeed all the arts were dialectically related and connected to the societies in which they were produced. Marx considered literature a means of establishing complex connections between humanity’s economic and cultural activities. He made clear that not only economic and social struggle matter, but demonstrated how artistic works can and do enrich our world. He never fell into the trap of praising writers who held progressive ideas, but were poor writers.
Many crude Marxists have attempted to establish direct causal links between works of art and the economic system. Marx always emphasised, though, that the base-superstructure relationship between the arts and the economic system was not a mechanical one; works of art don’t simply reflect the societies in which they were given birth, but are refracted and may have only a tenuous link with the economic base. Only in a communist society, he argued, will everyone be in a position to express themselves creatively; as long as class society exists, the ruling classes will maintain their hegemony over creative labour.