An Introduction to Marxist Criticism

Like to shop? According to Marxist Critical Theory your impulse is not an act of your own free will, but rather a reaction to the ideologies and economic hierarchies of your era that compel you to want to spend money.

Want to get married? In Marx's day marriage was not a decision based on love, but rather an economic-based institution that perpetuated the oppression of women.

Do you find yourself admiring beautiful people? Marxists would say you are engaging in an ideology that rewards certain attributes of some at the expense of others in order to create competition, a necessary ingredient in a capitalist-based system. Steady competition feeds a cyclical system that is set up by those in power to provide immense wealth for those in power—the wealthy.

Karl Marx was a social psychologist whose later work shifted toward the economic systems that control human behavior. Marx believed that if a critical theory did not take into consideration the economic realities of the era under consideration, then the theory was fatally flawed. He believed economic systems are the foundation of all human behavior. He also believed that those with wealth and power are controlling the system in such a way that insures they stay on top and that there are always plenty at the bottom.

In her book Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson writes, “In Marxist terminology, economic conditions are referred to as material circumstances, and the social/political/ideological atmosphere generated by material conditions is called the historical situation” (54). Tyson explains that each historical situation produces it own unique set of constraints and circumstances that need to be taken into consideration when one is studying any aspect of human nature, and especially when taking a Marxist perspective on literature.

Tyson points out that authors may select particular societal ideologies to focus on in their work and indeed this may be a purposeful act, an attempt to make others aware of situations in society, but other ideologies are so inherent to the particular era that the author may not even be aware of them. He or she may be inadvertently perpetuating an ideology without any awareness of doing so. Think about how your awareness of some tradition or ritual or aspect of your life or life in general has evolved over time. When you looked on this tradition as a child, wasn’t it different than how you view it now? It isn’t until well after publication that some authors may become aware of how their work was affected by the historical situation—some will be long dead by the time this particular ideology becomes recognizable.
Sociological theorists, like Reader Response critics, recognize that they themselves may be affected by their own ideologies because they themselves are embedded in a system that is constantly in flux, but it is the job of the sociological critic to think critically about social systems and to point out the historical situations and economic-based "situations" that control, or at least shape, human behavior. Often, even the most mundane actions—like shopping—are examples that a Marxist would point out as representations of how our actions are controlled by economic-based power structures. Marriage is another social custom that sociologists love to explore.

The main concept of Marxism that you need to keep in mind for purposes of this introductory course is: historical situations produce concrete conditions wherein powerful economic systems control human behavior. Read more about this dialectic here.

It is also important to note that Marx developed a particular dislike for capitalist systems because of their ability to keep the wealthy, wealthy and the poor, poor. He dreamed of equality-based systems where people worked, powered by their own free will, and the spoils that this collective of individuals produced would be equally divided among the members.

There has never been a true Marxist society although researchers have recently pointed to a few tribal populations who have come very close to this ideal.

Creative Commons
Below, I have listed a few questions that are designed to deepen your analysis of the text from the sociological perspective, although it is important to note that sociology is an enormous field, both historically and in the scope and position of theoretical arguments. For our purposes in this introductory literature course, I have distilled only a portion of some fundamental questions for you to ponder.

Questions a Sociological Theorist might ask:
1. How is the need and/or desire for money and economic stability motivating the actions of the characters? How do oppressive socio-economic forces (including repressive ideologies like racism) affect the characters?

If you are choosing to write about the The Flowers Click here for a link to an article on the structural racism that occurred in S. Central LA leading up to the Watt's Riots and think about how racism worked to support those in power.

2. What is the historical situation in this novel and how are these characters influenced and/or participating in this invisible yet powerful system? How does the literary work reflect (intentionally or not) the social conditions of the historical situation and what do those conditions reveal about the history of class struggle?

3. What does this narrative say about family? How are the families connected and/or disconnected by the historical situation? How do culture and ethnicity shape the characters' behaviors?


Here is some great fodder for a Marxist Critic from today's New York Times on the topic of extending Bush's tax break to the rich that is about expire:

"[Republican] Conservatives say that to do anything other than extending tax cuts to everyone would amount to “class warfare.”

The best response to that notion comes from Warren E. Buffett: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two academic economists, provide data to back up Mr. Buffett’s view. They show that the proportion of income earned by the top 1 percent of American families was about 10 percent of the national total from 1945 to 1979. Since 1980, that share has doubled, reaching about 20 percent in 2008 — or more, if capital gains are included.

The growth rate has been even faster for the ultrarich [my emphasis added]— those in the top one-hundredth of 1 percent in income."

The Rich Are Getting MUCH Richer Now

According to the New York Times article above, research by economists Saez and Picketty reveal that "From 2000 to 2007, incomes for the bottom 90 percent of earners rose only about 4 percent, once adjusted for inflation. For the top 0.1 percent, incomes climbed about 94 percent."

The tax rates for the ultra rich fell dramatically during this time

The New York Times
April 13, 2012    

Bill Marsh/The New York Time

Sources: Emmanuel Saez, University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty, Paris School of Economics;

 Census Bureau (median income change from 1960 to 2004)

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company

What is Plutocracy?

Who are the 1%
You can read Bedford St. Martin's definition of Marxist Literary theory here.

If you are interested in learning more about Karl Marx's theories, Check Out this link to Hal Draper's 1970's research on Marx and Engel's views on marriage, love and family. Keep in mind that, while this research was authored by Draper at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, the article analyzes sociological writings penned by Marx and Friedrich Engel during the 19th century. Draper, who died in 1990, also wrote Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, which is still considered a seminal work on Marxist theory. Here is an excerpt of Marx's The Communist Manifesto.


A Marxist Perspective...

In News from Nowhere, William Morris, 19th century poet and artist, warned  "that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other..."


John Steinbeck 

John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle received mostly praise and rose to the best-sellers list when it was published in 1936, but this mostly positive reaction was in stark contrast to the controversy garnered by his epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was published three years later. The Grapes of Wrath was the center of much controversy perhaps because his point of view in the second novel shifted from In Dubious Battle's mostly objective account, that painted both sides of the "battle" in dark tones, to a clear condemnation of the powerful over the weak in California's farming industry. In Kern County (Bakersfield) the book was banned from the public library and copies were burned in the public square. This protest stirred national attention during a time when labor rights movements were very much a part of the daily news. In fact, Steinbeck started writing In Dubious Battle only months after one of the west coast's most violent strikes, Bloody Thursday,  which he references several times in the novel.

For both novels, Steinbeck, who had worked as a reporter, gathered first had accounts from migrant workers and strikers and spent extensive time living and traveling to regions in Central California where the growing industrial agricultural industry was the primary employer. Although strikers, organizers and migrant workers are the main characters in In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck himself claimed that this novel was not simply a historical recounting of  Big Business v. Worker. His protagonist, Jim Nolan, was the primary interest for Steinbeck as was his exploration of human behavior and how this behavior was affected by group behavior and/or group or societal norms.

Despite winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize, scholars have pointed out that Steinbeck was very much a product of his historical situation. His portraits of women, for example, exemplify the traditional patriarchal mindset of the 1930s. Feminist critics have pointed out that even though Steinbeck met Caroline Decker, A Communist Party Organizer, during is travels to the Central Valley and knew that she was working actively to help organize strikes, he chose to leave out these contributions and, instead, portray Lisa as little more than a powerless, objectified victim in a male dominated world. His decision to focus on only "okie" migrant workers, during a time when immigrants already had a long history and made up the majority of workers on California farms, reflects an era before 'diversity, 'pluralism' and 'muticulturalism' had taken hold of the American socio-political system.

Link to Farmworker's Rights and Labor Rights

National Steinbeck Center in Salinas California

Setting: The Great Depression
Steinbeck chronology

Information gathered on the website for the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University provides an interesting perspective on Steinbeck's life and interests.

According to the Center for Steinbeck Studies, "In response to both the positive and negative criticism of the novel's realism, Steinbeck admitted he was more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the work than the action and did not intend for In Dubious Battle to be a propagandist piece for Communists."  In a letter to friend George Albee Steinbeck explains:

I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.  I'm not interested in strike as a means of raising men's wages, and I'm not interested in ranting about justice or oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition.  But man hates something in himself. [. . .] And this self-hate which goes so closely with self-love is what I wrote about.  (qtd. in Benson 304)
David Brooks and Morality of Youth

David Brooks and Morality and Groups

Many scholars consider In Dubious Battle to be one of Steinbeck's best novels, though it has been overshadowed by The Grapes of Wrath.  Although In Dubious Battle tackles similar themes and situations as The Grapes of Wrath, it received notably less critical acclaimeven though they both center on the plight of migrant workers.

Steinbeck Glog

Key Terms in Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle

You Tube on Pixley/Latino Farmworkers

Overview of Communism

Occupy Oakland

Occupy Wall Street


Poet-Bashing Police/Published in Sunday's New York Times 11/19/11

Berkeley, Calif.
Robert Hass, a Pulitzer Prize winner and UC Berkeley professor.
"LIFE, I found myself thinking as a line of Alameda County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vader riot gear formed a cordon in front of me on a recent night on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, is full of strange contingencies.  The deputy sheriffs, all white men, except for one young woman, perhaps Filipino, who was trying to look severe but looked terrified, had black truncheons in their gloved hands that reporters later called batons and that were known, in the movies of my childhood, as billy clubs.

The first contingency that came to mind was the quick spread of the Occupy movement. The idea of occupying public space was so appealing that people in almost every large city in the country had begun to stake them out, including students at Berkeley, who, on that November night, occupied the public space in front of Sproul Hall, a gray granite Beaux-Arts edifice that houses the registrar’s offices and, in the basement, the campus police department.

It is also the place where students almost 50 years ago touched off the Free Speech Movement, which transformed the life of American universities by guaranteeing students freedom of speech and self-governance. The steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent undergraduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time ... when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy tents and that students had been “beaten viciously.” I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved. If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what we could to protect the students.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

Another of the contingencies that came to my mind was a moment 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan’s administration made it a priority to see to it that people like themselves, the talented, hardworking people who ran the country, got to keep the money they earned. Roosevelt’s New Deal had to be undealt once and for all. A few years earlier, California voters had passed an amendment freezing the property taxes that finance public education and installing a rule that required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to raise tax revenues. My father-in-law said to me at the time, “It’s going to take them 50 years to really see the damage they’ve done.” But it took far fewer than 50 years.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

I won’t recite the statistics, but the entire university system in California is under great stress and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of legislators whose only idea is that they don’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real estate industry started inventing loans for people who couldn’t pay them back.

“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.

The next night the students put the tents back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the English Department contingent read “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”) A week later, at 3:30 a.m., the police officers returned in force, a hundred of them, and told the campers to leave or they would be arrested. All but two moved. The two who stayed were arrested, and the tents were removed. On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.

Robert Hass is a professor of poetry and poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, and former poet laureate of the United States.


Mike Rose's The Mind At Work documents the cognitive and social complexities of American workers.

Journal Prompt #1:
In chapter one, Rose writes about his mother and how "her story serves as a reminder that work is both grounded on and shapes personal history, and thus reveals motives, desires, values and one's sense of who one is" (Intro xxxi) In a well-developed essay, reflect on your own family history and how the careers of your parents or other elders have influenced who you are today. What do you value about the work those who raised you?

In his book "The Mind at Work," Mike Rose examines the working lives of a variety of American workers. In the first chapter he interviews his mother about her work as a waitress and explains the cognitive demands and social complexities of that job. I have also worked as a waitress and I could relate to the description of the challenges of waitressing depicted in this chapter. Like Rose's family, my family also placed a high value on hard work.

My father was a high school teacher and my mother worked hard in our home. Both of my parents took pride in their occupations. Whenever we ran into one of my father's former students, they greeted him warmly and I could tell he was a good teacher based on these frequent exchanges. My mother worked tirelessly in the home. She ironed sheets, hand towels and my dresses with such rigid perfection that an observer might have wondered what important guest was coming to dinner. My mother was also a nutrition major, so meals were designed around the four food groups. Strange vegetables would often appear on my plate and I was given no choice but to finish everything. I did hide the remains of a mysterious casserole in the plant on my way to the bathroom one time, but usually I was obedient and ate what I was given without complaint. There was already a strong understanding between food and work that gained clarity at the dinner table. Throwing away food would have been looked on as a major offense given the very real connection I had between the food on the table and my dad's hard work. Work was nothing to scoff at and certainly not anything I would consider disrespecting.

As a child, I was allowed to read, dream, and imagine all day while my parents worked on various tasks both at home and away. My dad often tended to grading on the weekends and evenings and my mother never stopped cleaning the kitchen until the counter and stove gleamed. When he went to work, my mother would go to the grocery store, the drug store, occasionally, the department stores. Everything she purchased was carefully considered, reconsidered, examined, re-examined and some times, even after all of this deliberation, she would more likely than not return the item to the shelf and walk away. The process exhausted me even though I was merely the happy traveler in the cart.

Occasionally all of this work would cease and we would take a trip somewhere and go for a hike or a picnic, but those days seemed so brief in comparison to their working days. My family didn't have much money, especially after they made some poor real estate decisions. I only remember going out to eat a couple of times as a child. I received new toys and books, but only on Christmas and birthdays. They made comfortable use of their earnings, however, and I saw the benefit of labor at an early age. I saw how happy my mother was when she shopped. I observed my father's pleasure when a large meal was spread before him. I felt the sense of security that work brought to our family in a very tangible way.

This is probably why I wanted to work as a teenager. I had already learned the direct connection between work and "having things" and this attraction to things is what made me don a scratchy polyester suit on my first day at Jack-in-the Box at the age of 14. At first, I was assigned to the fryer, which proved to be an incredibly difficult job. In fact, I failed so miserably at this position, the manager soon moved me to drive thru. Although I no longer smelled like french fries and came home with clothes saturated with foul smelling grease, I soon discovered that working the busy drive-thru window wasn't much easier. Operating the cash register, making shakes and filling bags with the right food order while conversing with indecisive customers through the headset proved to be a mind boggling experience. Then there was the humiliation when the voice of a boy I had a crush on came across my headset. I suddenly became aware of the ill-fitting polyester suit and lopsided hat and wanted to leave the seven orders lined up on the counter and flee to the bathroom rather than to face him at the window.

After Jack-in-the-Box, I worked as a waitress in a burger joint. In college, I worked at a night club, then a series of five star restaurants. And that's when the true value of work really kicked in. At first the work to value ratio was great. When I went to school, I came home with a stack of marked up papers. When I came home from work, I came home with thick stack of dollar bills. Those dollar bills quickly become more important than papers. Homework and studying became drudgery compared to socializing and shopping at the local mall. It took about six years of waitressing before I realized how very wrong these conclusions had been. Waitressing was hard work—a tiring, thankless, dirty, mentally and physically exhausting job. At one restaurant I polished all of the brass handrails after working an eight hour shift. Sometimes I moved furniture, cleaned shelves, floors, bathrooms, windows, seats and table legs after my waitressing shift. One job required me to carry a 30 pound tray out to the end of a 50-foot long pier for eight hours straight. Another required me to dance in heels, hold a tray full of pints and long stemmed drinks, and complete complicated mathematical equations while enduring the loud blare and thump of music for, often, up to 10 hours straight. While living at home as a high school student, shopping consumed all of my earnings. However,  when I moved out of my parents' house at 18, I quickly realized that, despite working hard five days a week, it was the cost of my rent, food, insurance and gas, not shopping, that exceeded my monthly earnings. My bank account and my credit card soon developed a startlingly off balance relationship.

In this way, the value that I attached to work changed. As a young person, I saw it as a simple cause and effect relationship. My parents taught me that if you worked, you earned, and that was a good thing. What I learned as a young adult struggling to make ends meet was that how you worked, where you worked and what you were capable of doing in the workforce mattered. Work was such an important value in my family that I struggled for many years to release myself from the intrinsic ethic of the physically hard work of waitressing; to allow myself less work in order to go back to school, set up an uncomfortable dichotomy for me. I had to reconsider my education as hard work, as labor, as profit. Essentially, I had to mentally switch gears and re-acquaint myself with value of mentally hard work over the tangible and immediate rewards of physically challenging work. I had to rethink of school as work, as a source of value, as a first step toward a more fulfilling life.
Journal Prompt #2
Please summarize a passage from any chapter in Mike Rose's The Mind at Work and explain why you found this passage interesting. Please also utilize paraphrase and incorporate quotations in your response.

In "Rethinking Hand and Brain," Mike Rose explores how the world of a surgeon blends the demands of physical, or manual labor, as demonstrated by the actual surgery, with the knowledge based, or cognitive skill of understanding anatomy, disease and textbook discourse required by the medical field. His interviews reveal that doctors learn not only through research and textbooks, but equally important is learning through "immersion." As one resident explains, surgeons "'develop an eye for what looks good and what doesn't...You get to the point where you feel comfortable looking at something and evaluating it'"(151). In this chapter, Rose further breaks down the binary of physical and mental labor by exploring a discipline that clearly walks the line between both. The practiced hand of the surgeon certainly claims the title of 'craftsman' while at the same time it is the mental acuity that stems from both knowledge and experience that enables the surgeon to perform. "The surgeon's judgement is simultaneously technical and deliberative," Rose argues, "and that mix is the source of its power" (157). Although Rose acknowledges the distinction between surgeons and hair stylists, his larger argument centers on the complexity inherent in all modern labor. "Reimagining the mental life of the laborer," Rose writes, "...helps us to complicate generalizations, both historical and contemporary, about categories of work, the people who do the work and what the work requires" (157). In these challenging economic years, this type of argument becomes urgently important as the forces of capital and labor confront each other and our economic future hangs in the balance of this battle. 


  1. I loved this one. It has given me courage to try scarier things. I tend to steer clear of them but not anymore.
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