In a letter to his daughter Laura dated 11 April 1868, Marx wrote, “You’ll certainly fancy, my dear child, that I am very fond of books, because I trouble you with them at so unseasonable a time. But you would be quite mistaken. I am a machine, condemned to devour them and then throw them, in a changed form, on the dunghill of history.” [my emphasis]
In Karl Marx and World Literature, first published in 1976 and recently reissued, SS Prawer shows decisively that literature played a central role in the development of Marx’s ideas. References to plays, poetry and novels are the constant companions of his materialist arguments. This is of more than antiquarian interest. It should affect our understanding of Marx’s critical method, the better to renew it today.
Prawer chases down every reference he can find to a work of imaginative literature in Marx’s writings, sifting through many passages to reveal different layers of meaning that emerge from Marx’s allusions. He shows just how broadly Marx read and how deeply embedded imaginative literature was in his thinking. Literary references do more than simply illustrate and justify important arguments—they help to form them.
At times Marx plays on broader meanings he expects his readers to infer from quotations, at others he is content to rip them out of context, extracting an isolated point. Shakespeare looms large. Timon crouched in his cave provides evidence for the levelling effects of money: “[Gold] will make black, white; foul, fair;/Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant”. Shylock regularly appears as the archetypal miser and hoarder; as capital personified, craving laws that allow the rampant exploitation of children; and as the voice of the worker haunted by the prospect of losing his means of subsistence: “You take my life/When you do take the means whereby I live”. Shylock proves especially useful in Capital, because he can represent a world where money has replaced God and human suffering is guaranteed by laws written to protect the owners of wealth. Tellingly, when Goethe’s Mephistopheles appears, he takes a devilish pleasure in the power of money without expressing the wracking doubts of Shylock or Timon.
Marx uses specific characters as shorthand for clusters of characteristics that he attributes to historical figures and contemporary opponents. Prometheus, the ultimate rebel, crosses paths with Falstaff, who appears as a clown, but also a recruiting sergeant and knowing cynic. Marx is happy to alter the passages he refers to if it suits his purpose. Misquoting Hamlet, he claims that “everything is rotten in the state”, while in a famous passage from theCommunist Manifesto, Marx reverses the roles in Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to make it the master-sorcerer (hexenmeister), not the apprentice, who has lost control of the spells he has summoned. It is the bourgeoisie’s apprentice, we must infer, who holds the power to tame capitalism’s manic magic. Prawer convincingly argues that theCommunist Manifesto is a palimpsest of world literature, each reference peeling away to reveal further layers of meaning.
Marx never produced an extended work setting out his views on literature as such. Instances of literary criticism tend to be partial, incidental, or subordinated to other aims. Prawer does not set out to comment on what a Marxist “theory of literature” might be but in the course of surveying Marx’s literary sources, he does draw out some important points about Marx’s attitude to literature in particular and culture in general.
Marx famously used a spatial metaphor— "base" and "superstructure"—to describe the relationship between culture, philosophy, aesthetics, the legal and political systems and religion on the one hand and the economic structure of society on the other. Marx has since been charged with suggesting that the base fully determines the superstructure, rather than merely “in the last instance”, as Engels put it.
It’s true that Marx’s phrasing in some places lends itself to mechanical interpretations—that the superstructure is merely a passive reflection of social relations at the base. But if culture reflects economic relations it does so in a mirror, darkly. The image of society visible in culture is one altered, conditioned by artistic form itself. Like the legal and political systems or religion, culture grows from the economic base of society but is not reducible to it. That Marx was sensitive to the complex interaction between the “base” and “superstructure” is evident from his insertion of qualifications and his preference for organic metaphors when describing this relationship.
Marx’s understanding of culture affected the way that he wrote his economic and political theory. In 1865 he told Engels, “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the merit of my writings is that they are an artistic whole, and that can only be attained by my method of never having them printed until they lie before me a as a whole.” The alternative method, of sending parts of a manuscript to the printers before the whole work is complete, is “more suited to works not dialectically constructed”. Even as he describes the shape of history inThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx reaches for literary genres—”tragedy” and “farce”. Time and again complex ideas emerge first as literature.
In art, Marx sees an image of unalienated labour—in the Grundrisse he argues that the relation between capitalists and workers develops “in a manner all the more pure and adequate in proportion to the extent that labour loses its character of art”. Art implicitly criticises a world dominated by exchange-value.
Marx felt compelled to pepper his work with literary quotations and allusions, but in doing so he changed them, extracting and elaborating on their best insights to feed his growing understanding of capitalism. Literary quotations and allusions are deployed as more than mere ornaments, but as material from which he can begin to construct theory. An awareness of the importance of the literary sources that originally nourished Marx can help us to renew the living tradition of revolutionary Marxism today.
SS Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (Verso, 2011), £16.99