Marxism and Literature

In On Greek Art in its Time (from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), Karl Marx examines the ways in which ideological forms (such as art and literature) arise out of a particular social landscape, are shaped by social history, and then are discarded once new progressions and productions can take their place. Marx argues that highly developed art and literature often come about in societies that may not be highly developed technologically or socially. He cites Greek mythology as an example of this, but poses the question of how these well-respected traditions and stories can still exist alongside the progressions of modern society. He asks, “Is the view of nature and of social relations which shaped Greek imagination and Greek art still possible in the age of automatic machinery, and railways, and locomotives, and electric telegraphs? Where does Vulcan come in as against Roberts & Co.; Jupiter, as against the lightning rod; and Hermes, as against the Credit Mobiler?” (Marx, 411). Ultimately, he comes to the conclusion that mythology exists as a pinnacle of art and literature that — though it may lose its relevance — can never again be duplicated or attained in modern society. However, he maintains: “A man can not become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child and must he not strive to reproduce its truth on a higher plane?” (Marx, 411). In saying this, Marx declares that we can still attempt to hold our modern literature and art to the standards of “childish” Greece while utilizing the progresses of our “adult” society to strengthen our efforts. To Marx, ultimately literature (and the role of literature) is shaped and bound by the society in which it arises, but can remain a timeless ideal for all literature going forward.