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Marxism and Postmodernism

Updated on February 27, 2013

If you are interested in communism

Although in the popular culture Marxism has economic and sociopolitical connotations, some of the concepts developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the middle of the eighteenth century find applicability in literary and cultural criticism. While developing his ideology, Marx took a materialistic approach, opposing the idealist perspective of the philosophy before him. Therefore, Marx coined the term “economic determinism” in order to illustrate the fact that the economy is responsible for everything else. This only creates the exploitation of man by man, as he exemplifies in the ruling class named “bourgeoisie” and the class of workers, the “proletariat”. And by this continuous and malicious exploitation, the common laborer becomes alienated from his work, as he no longer creates the whole object, but he is merely a part of it. Another important concept that was useful for Marxist criticism was the “class struggle”. Obviously, in Marx’s view, this exploitation cannot go on forever. The ultimate purpose of communism is the revolution in which the proletariat would rise, overthrow the corrupt bourgeoisie and arrange the society according to socialist principles.

It seems that the process of alienation is, to some extent, a search for identity. The purpose of the artistic creation is, in the orthodox Marxist view, a means to an end, more specifically, to revolution. It must portray the “true consciousness” of the working class rather than the corrupt bourgeoisie “false consciousness”, as Lukács argues in his essay on socialist realism. But since Marxist criticism has endured throughout capitalism, and since alienation is essential for nearly every Marxist critic, is there perhaps a form of art that is able to overcomealienation? The rest of this article will draw upon Fredric Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in order to provide an answer.

Fredric Jameson, a contemporary Marxist critic, claims that the artistic currents (postmodernism in his case) appear as a reaction to social, cultural and philosophical changes that occur in time. By taking this into account and by creating a correlation between art and history, it seems to me that “alienation” as a concept in criticism can be connected to history. Therefore, art that no longer is in tune with the current social mentality could be viewed as alienating. For instance, Engels thought that the purest form of literature is the socialist realism. But is that claim still valid in a postmodern and consumer society? Moreover, Jameson argues that modernism marked an enormous breakthrough with regards to the human understanding of literary art and what does it take to make a text literary. By observing the transformations within the postmodern society, by observing the blurring of lines between the "high" and pop culture through art, it is noticeable that this influences not only the postmodern, but also media and science.

As Jameson explains in his essay, the core aspects within the postmodern art are the pastiche as opposed to parody, the “depthlessness” the “death of the subject”, the “nostalgia mode”, and the continuous recycling of all other previous currents and techniques. Once more, I believe that this de-intellectualized way of making art characterizes the present day society.

Even though postmodernism marks a break from the “classical” modernist art, Jameson states that artistic currents take the form of a cycle. Modernism appeared as a reaction and a desire to break free of the constraints of a very conservatory Victorian society, and, at that time it was viewed as being extremely offensive and decadent by the "traditional" artists. This furthers my argument regarding alienation in art as being dependent on the historical social context. Because, from a Marxist point of view, art has the purpose of reassuring people, of giving something that they can identify with. That is why proletarian literature was (and still is) successful in the communists societies. Because it reaffirmed the philosophy of a certain group of people.

But referring back to the postmodern society, it seems that this constant nostalgia, as well as the lack of depth and individuality that characterizes it, overcomes alienation. It may appear paradoxical, but, as I have exemplified earlier, art has the purpose of reassuring people, of providing them with personal identification. It stands between human beings and their understanding of the world. And so, could it be that this defining trait of insecurity and fragmentation, ever present in the postmodern society, is our own reassuring through art?


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