For Marxists in general, the literary work is part of the Superstructure. If the spoken word are an obvious medium through which ideology is expressed and perpetuated, the written word is another very important medium. To understand a literary work basically involves comprehending its socio-economic determinants, that is, those economic factors such as the means and forces of production and those social factors (the social relations of production [the class structure]) in the Base which determines everything in the Superstructure. There are two emphases within Marxist critical theory: the expressive (the dominant focus is on the relationship between the work and its author) and the mimetic (the dominant focus is on the reality which the work represents). Those interested in the former tend to stress the socio-economic determinants which shape a given writer’s work, while those in the latter tend to emphasise and, thus, evaluate what a literary work reflects or represents, raising questions such as: does a novel written in the twentieth century but about the Middle Ages accurately capture the historical period it is attempting to depict? Of course, these two emphases are not mutually exclusive but rather interdependent in that the determinants upon a work will shape the accuracy of its representations.

Expressive Marxist Criticism

Many Marxist theorists emphasise the expressive pole of criticism. They encourage critics to scrutinise a work for an understanding of the way in which the author’s class and the degree, accordingly, to which (s)he is immersed in the dominant ideology play a decisive role in shaping the ideological nature of his/her work. The literary work is superstructural insofar as it is a form of ideology. It is, as such, an interpretation of the world that is largely not somehow peculiar to the author in question but which regurgitates, to a greater or less extent as the case may be, the dominant ideology of the socio-historical context in question and, thus, the values of the ruling class. The nature of the author’s relationship to the dominant ideology consequently determines whether the literary work in question contributes to the obfuscation and mystification of the relations of production specific to a particular place and time and, in so doing, legitimates and, thus, perpetuates the dominance of the ruling class, or whether it is an accurate reflection of their true nature. From this point of view, some writers and their works are reactionary or conservative while others are subversive.

The earliest and crudest form of Marxist criticism was that practised by the so-called Vulgar Marxists (the term ‘vulgar’ means not obscene but crude or simplistic). The most frequent and important accusation made against Vulgar Marxism is that of economic reductionism. That is, they tend to exhibit a naive tendency to reduce the work before them (and everything else in the superstructure) in too rigid a way to a simplistic reflection of the Base. For example, they read particular fictional characters as the representatives of actual social classes (i.e character X is your ‘wicked capitalist,’ character Y is your ‘deluded victim of false consciousness,’ character Z is your ‘idealistic revolutionary,’ etc.). In so doing, they frequently fail to do justice to the complexity of the characters themselves as well as the literary work and the socio-historical context in question. Perhaps most importantly, they often ended up dismissing valuable literary works simply because they were written by writers they considered to be reactionary.

While writers drawn from the upper echelons of society are, predictably, particularly subject to false consciousness, within the traditional Marxist account, people from all classes (and not just the ruling class) are immersed in the dominant ideology (the outlook of the ruling class) and, thus, for the most part equally deluded as to the true nature of social reality. However, it would be wrong to think that few, if any at all, authors from a given era and region (particularly if they are members of the ruling class) can write outside of the dominant ideology in question and provide what Marxists like to claim is a scientific knowledge of their historical epoch. While some writers are certainly ideological conservatives (often, but not always, by virtue of being part of the ruling class), other writers (sometimes of the ruling class) may interrogate or seek to subvert the status quo. Others still are ideologically ambivalent (e.g. many recent Marxist critics think that Shakespeare falls into this category). As Georg Lukács tries to show in The Historical Novel, some literary works are capable of transcending the class origins of their producers and, thus, of providing an accurate reflection of the social totality in question. He claims that nineteenth century bourgeois writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Sir Walter Scott were among the best practitioners of what was, for Lukács, the best kind (prose fiction), genre (the historical novel), and mode (Realism) of literature.

Christopher Caudwell Illusion and Reality

One of the most important Marxist theorists and critics who tend to focus on the impact of socio-economic factors on the production of a literary work is Christopher Caudwell who is best remembered for his Illusion and Reality published in 1937. His emphasis is less on the object of representation (i.e on what the literary works are about) than the economic, social and ideological determinants exerted on the literature in question. His interpretation of the history of English poetry is wide-ranging, not fully thought through, cursory (he paints boldly and in the broadest of strokes), and is not immune from the reductionism to which the Vulgar Marxists were so prone. However, it is filled with wonderful, albeit not fully fleshed out, insights. For Caudwell, the changing themes and forms of English poetry (part of the ideological superstructure) which constitute the history of English literature is a function of (or is determined by) changes in the economic base (that is, the means, forces and accompanying social relations of production) of England as the middle class (bourgeoisie) made their slow climb to economic, political and social dominance. The different periods of literary history (e.g. the Romantic period) correspond to different stages in the development of capitalism (e.g High Capitalism).

Renaissance English poetry, for example, emerged during what he describes as the period of "primitive accumulation" (95) in the historical development of capitalism. At this time, the growing population of England resulted in an increased demand for both wool and mutton. This was something upon which the bourgeoisie were unable to capitalise because they had not yet "created the conditions for its own expansion" (95) by taking control of the reigns of political power. In fact, the monarchy still held sway because at this stage, the bourgeoisie was not strong enough to stand on its own and depended upon the monarchy’s leadership as much as the monarchy depended upon their support. The Tudor family, in their struggle for political supremacy with the other members of the feudal nobility from which they themselves had emerged and for autonomy from the Roman Catholic church, leaned on and rewarded the emergent bourgeoisie with lands and treasure confiscated from the Church and with the enclosure of lands that were formerly owned in common. At this time, in short, to "break the moulds of feudalism and wrench from them capital requires the strength and remorselessness of an absolute monarch" (96), as Caudwell puts it.

This socio-historical context determined both the dominant ideology and the nature of the literature produced during this era. At this stage, the dominant ethos is that of freedom. That is, ideologically speaking, to every bourgeois, "it seems as if his instincts--his ‘freedom’--are intolerably restricted by laws, rights and restraints, and that beauty and life can only be obtained by the violent expansion of his desires" (95-6). Such frustration was the product of the state of political and economic dependency in which the bourgeoisie existed. Accordingly, "[i]ntemperate will, ‘bloody, bold and resolute’" (96) is the "spirit" (96) of this era, the "absolute-individual will overriding all other wills" (96), a viewpoint epitomised in the figure of the Renaissance prince. If individualism is the dominant ethos of the time, Caudwell argues, Elizabethan poetry is the "voice of this princely will, the absolute bourgeois will whose very virtue consists in breaking all current conventions" (96). This is why, he argues, "all Shakespeare’s heroes are princely; why kingliness is the ideal type of human behaviour at this time" (96). Shakespeare’s heroes "each in his different way knows no other obligation than to be the thing he is" (96), a desire that often ends in tragic frustration: the "unfettered realization of human individualities involves" (97), for Shakespeare, the "equally unfettered play of Necessity. The contradiction which is the driving force of capitalism finds its expression again and again in Shakespeare’s tragedies" (97), Caudwell writes.

In short, Caudwell’s approach to writing literary history may be characterised as empirical and inductive. That is, he deals with the literary texts which he finds before him, seeking to explain the conditions of their existence in terms of the economic and social determinants operative in the socio-historical context in which the writer of the works in question lived and wrote. His is not a prescriptive or evaluative approach in that he does not set out to apply a set of pre-existing criteria to the works at hand and his goal is not to establish a canon of writers deemed worthy of study because they meet those criteria. Indeed, he assumes that such a canon of writers already exists which have historically been studied and which he does not question. Rather, he merely attempts to explain their works by reference to the economic and social conditions in which they wrote.

In summary, for the expressive Marxist critic, any literary work is the product of its socio-historical context as a result of which to understand the former, one must understand it in relation to the latter. More precisely, any literary work forms part of the institutional and ideological superstructure of the society in which its author lived. This superstructure is, of course, determined by the economic base in general and, more particularly, the nature of the social relations of production peculiar thereto--i.e., the class-structure. The literary work is often viewed as the written expression of various aspects of the dominant ideology of the society in question (in other words, the ideologies drawn from the various spheres, religious, political, etc.) and, as such, a reflection of the class-structure thereof (whether or not the author’s society is the object of description). Some works may be written in opposition to the dominant ideology and may thus be described as subversive. Apart from the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods of English literature (when Feudalism held sway), the bulk of the literature studied by Marxist critics is drawn from historical periods subsequent to Feudalism and is thus studied usually in relation to the rise and consolidation of Capitalism and the class division (bourgeoisie v. proletariat) synonymous therewith.

READING METHODOLOGY: the Expressive Approach

For Marxist theorists / critics such as Christopher Caudwell, it is imperative to understand a literary work in relation to its socio-historical context, that is, in terms of those factors which produced it. To this end, the following steps are usually observed:

Read a given literary work with an eye mainly for its content, i.e. what the work is about, more so than form. Form is largely viewed by Marxists as a vehicle for content. In narrative poetry and prose as well as drama, the plot-structure is largely the means by which characterisation is explored, often through a conflict between characters. It is through the characters and their respective points of view that one gathers a sense of the author’s perspective on a variety of issues (i.e one senses the points of view with which s/he is sympathetic). In lyric poetry, the author’s viewpoint is thought to be more directly expressed, to which end imagery and other devices are merely instruments.

(E.g. William Wordsworth’s The Prelude is an immensely long autobiographical lyric poem in which Wordsworth directly expounds at some length his views).


Identify the various ideological aspects that can be glimpsed in the work: e.g. the religious, political, legal, philosophical, and/or aesthetic points of view confidently expressed or anxiously debated, as the case may be. This involves recognising that the author’s perspective is an interpretation of reality largely not peculiar to its writer and, as such, a species of ideology.

(E.g. in The Prelude, Wordsworth expresses important views especially of a political, religious and philosophical nature.)


Relate the various views expressed above to what is known of the dominant ideology of the period. To do this, consult histories of the period for the thought thereof. What stage of history is one dealing with? What are the main features of the predominant world view thereof? What is the consensus of the place and time in which the author lived and wrote concerning religion, politics, the law, philosophy, the arts, etc.?

(E.g. The Prelude is very much the product of a particular constellation of ideas often grouped under the rubric Romanticism. The Romantics were social reformists deeply disturbed by the social inequities visible around them; they were concerned to reconcile traditional religion [Christianity] with recent developments in secular philosophy [the Locke / Kant debate and Hegel’s solution]; they were also desirous of breaking with what they perceived as outmoded and artificial artistic practices [see Wordsworth’s revolutionary Preface to The Lyrical Ballads]. Most Marxists agree that, although seemingly radical, Romanticism constituted the human face of the dominant ideology of the bourgeoisie, serving the latter’s interests first and foremost [they identified the monarchy as the source of society’s problems and from whom they were eager to wrest political power in order to give it to the middle classes] and obfuscating the true nature of the social relations of production in a veil of philosophical idealism [their doctrine of the transcendental self and the Imagination].)


Link the dominant ideology identified above to the class-structure and the economic organisation of the society in which the author lived and wrote. Again, consult histories of the period. What are the main economic and social characteristics of that place and time? Identify the means, forces, and social relations of production that constitute the Base.

The Prelude was written during the first half of the nineteenth century at the height of industrial Capitalism, to which there were both good and bad consequences: while there was a greater availability of cheap commodities to the general populace, there was also an ever widening schism between the middle and working classes.


View the author and his / her work as the necessary product of the place and time described above. What do you know of the circumstances of the author’s life? To what class does s/he belong? What is his / her worldview? To what degree is s/he immersed in the dominant ideology? Does his/her literary work support or challenge it?

(Read Wordsworth’s biography, especially one written from a Marxist perspective. Wordsworth was of middle class extraction as a result of which he had the time and the leisure to pursue the vocation of poet--those working in the fields and factories did not have the time nor the education to do so. Wordsworth’s outlook was very Romantic in the sense described above to the point where his very name is synonymous with the movement.