General Introduction to Marxism

MARXISM IS COMPLICATED by the fact that Marx is by no means the only influence on this critical school; indeed, given the various sorts of political movements that have been inspired by this thinker (socialism, Trotskyism, communism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, radical democracy, etc.), one despairs at trying to provide a fair and lucid introduction. Add to that the fact that Marx himself changed his mind on various issues or sometims expressed opinions that appear mutually exclusive, and one is faced with a rather high hurdle. Nonetheless, there are a number of Marxist thoughts and thinkers that have been especially influential on recent scholarly developments (particularly in literary, cultural, and political studies). In short, the goal of this section of the Guide to Theory, as with any of the sections, is not to give an exhaustive account of this critical school but, rather, to give a sense for the major concepts influencing this approach while attempting to stay conscious of the various ways that individual terms have been contested over the last number of decades. The major distinction in Marxist thought that influences literary and cultural theory is that between traditional Marxists (sometimes, unfairly, called vulgar Marxists) and what are sometimes referred to as post-Marxists or neo-Marxists. The major distinction between these two versions of Marxist thought lies in the concept of ideology: traditional Marxists tend to believe that it is possible to get past ideology in an effort to reach some essential truth (eg. the stages of economic development). Post-Marxists, especially after Louis Althusser, tend to think of ideology in a way more akin to Jacques Lacan, as something that is so much a part of our culture and mental make-up that it actively determines what we commonly refer to as "reality." According to these post-Marxist critics, there may well be some hard kernel behind our obfuscating perceptions of reality but that kernel is by definition resistant to articulation. As soon as one attempts to articulate it, one is at risk of falling back into ideology. This understanding of ideology is what Fredric Jameson famously terms the "prison-house of language." The links on the left will lead you to specific ideas discussed by Marx and those "post-Marxists" who have proven to be most influential on literary and cultural studies; however, you might like to begin with a quick overview:


KARL MARX is, along with Freud, one of a handful of thinkers from the last two centuries who has had a truly transformative effect on society, on culture, and on our very understanding of ourselves. Although there were a few critics claiming an end to Marxist thought (and even an end to ideology) after the fall of the communist system in the former Soviet Union, Marxist thought has continued to have an important influence on critical thought, all the more so recently after the rise of globalization studies. As protests at recent G7 and IMF meetings make clear, the school can also still have important political effects.

LOUIS ALTHUSSER represents an important break in Marxist thought, particularly when it comes to the notion of ideology. His Lacan-inspired version of Marxism significantly changed the way many Marxists approached both capitalism and hegemony after the second world war.

FREDRIC JAMESON is surely the most influential contemporary Marxist thinker in the United States. His own alterations of and dialogue with Althusserian and Lacanian thought have established him as an important influence on the rise of globalization studies, an important critical school of the last few years. In particular, he has attempted to make sense of the continuing staying power of capitalism and the ways that capitalism has transformed since Marx wrote his critiques in the nineteenth century, addressing such issues as multi-national (or "late") capitalism, the power of the media, and the influence of postmodernity on Marxist debate. The lattermost issue is explored in the Jameson modules under Postmodernism.



Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "General Introduction to Marxism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.







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