Who? Karl Marx, Louis Althusser and many others
When? 1850’s onwards
This page follows from the Reading Practices and Resistant Readings pages where the idea of a Reading is discussed. Read those first before you read this one.
Elsewhere we have discussed terms such as Discourse,
Before Marx the general idea was that human beings were essentially free. Our physical conditions may be sometimes limited – by our wealth, our jobs, the places where we live – but despite this we are at least always free in our minds and can see the world in a clear, true and logically sensible way. This view is called Liberal Humanism – because it gives power and freedom to human beings. It is important because it is essentially the basis for our morality: we are free – so we can choose not to commit crimes and so therefore we can be punished if we do. It also justifies the capitalist ideas of free markets and competition: we all had an equal chance of success – I just happened to be the winner so it’s not something I should feel bad about if I am richer than you.
Against this view Marx argued that every aspect of the world that we live in – including our minds and the way that we look at the world – is determined by the socio-economic conditions in which we live. He called those socio-economic conditions (e.g. whether we happen to live in feudal, capitalist or communist society) the Base of a society and he believed that the Base determined every other aspect of a society – education, law, religion, politics, philosophy, art, literature and our consciousness. He called all these other aspects of our society the Superstructure and his point can be summed up by the phrase that the Base determines the Superstructure. Naturally the schools we go to and the books we read then go on to support and reinforce the base on which they rest.
Marx was concerned with the poor workers of his time and wondered why they did not revolt against the factory owners and share all the money equally. A Marxist answer to this is that we are fooled into accepting inequalities and unfairness by our way of looking at the world, our ideology. For example the ‘illusion’ that we are all free makes the rich not feel bad about having so much money and the poor believe that working hard, not revolution, is way to get a better life. It’s important to realise that Marxists don’t believe that the rich people in power are somehow trying to fool all of the rest of the workers into doing what they want. The rich are just fooled as the rest of us, except this time the fooling works in their favour.
So, how does this affect the way we read? Marxists are always on the look out for ways in which texts are trying to keep us fooled into accepting the way the world is. By exposing them Marxists hope that we can begin to see that world as it really is and do something about all the inequalities. Elements of texts that they often pick out are:
Marxists believe that families are the first place where we learn to obey rules, follow orders and respect power figures. The family is where ordinary working people learn to ignore what they want and instead to do what powerful figures, e.g. fathers or factory owners, want
Marxists attack religion on two fronts. The first is similar to the above: in a church we learn to obey power figures (priests, bishops, God) and do what they want instead of what we want. The second is that religion fools the workers into putting up with an awful life now by promising them a much better life in heaven afterwards … but only if they are good! This is where the famous phrase that ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’ comes from.
The myth that working hard will lead to success
Essentially this is another form of opium for the masses. The idea that by working very hard the poor can make a better life for themselves is an illusion that makes the poor put up the bad life that they have in the hope of a better life to come. Poor characters in texts who eventually succeed and attain wealth and social status support this illusion. Needless to say, in real life this almost never happens.
The illusion of ownership
Capitalism is based on the idea that people can privately own land, objects and factories and that this idea even makes sense. This is an assumption that does not necessarily have to be true; the aborigines for example do not traditionally have a system of land ownership. A Marxist might point out how a text supports this illusion of ownership by perhaps punishing those who steal or by presenting those who defend their land against a threat as heroic.