Marxism

   Debates on Marxist theory and practice are carried out in academic journals such as New Left Review and in the pages of magazines such as Socialist Worker and Marxism Today, as well as in the many political organizations influenced by Marxist thinking throughout the UK. Since the 1930s, Marxism and its rumoured follower post-Marxism have undergone a number of radical theoretical and ideological changes. The seminal intellectual figures in this revolution have rarely been British: they include Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, Louis Althusser, Lucien Goldmann, Alain Touraine, Hannah Arendt, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School. However, the influence of these Continental philosophers and theorists on British intellectual life since the 1960s has been considerable, and has impacted in many areas. The Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and A.J.P.Taylor have been amongst the most influential of their generation, and their overviews of modern British history are probably more widely known than any others. Since their first interventions in the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist history, which had previously been heavy going to all but the initiated, has responded to new developments in psychology and French critical theory, combining them with the traditional base/ superstructure model to create a historiography which is both more aware of its own writing practice (in a metahistorical sense) and more attuned to everyday life.
   The literary critic Terry Eagleton has been greatly influenced by the work of the French structuralist Louis Althusser on ideology (which is reproduced in cultural works) and, more recently, by the work of Walter Benjamin and the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Eagleton took from Althusser the idea of Marxism as a scientific theory of human societies and of how to change them. Althusser in turn was greatly influenced by the theories of the Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and argued that ideology was not a consciously held set of beliefs but was the way in which individuals are defined as subjects within the social system; consequently, ideology works primarily at the level of the unconscious to recreate and maintain the existing relations of society. For his part, Eagleton uses such theories to analyse how history suffuses literary texts, which may themselves critique the ideologies of their times and in turn influence society.
   The Welsh literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams was most influenced by the work of the Italian Antonio Gramsci. Williams, who had a problematic relationship with Marxism, argued that most Marxist criticism too easily separated economics from culture (which he discussed rather than ideology), dealing in generalities and masses at the expense of individuals. He also argued that conceptions of the literary and the artistic are determined by discourse and by vested material interests, not by timeless criteria. More generally, from the late 1950s onwards Williams proposed a broadly based study of not just literature but (popular) ‘culture’ (which he defined as ‘lived experience’) alongside society and politics. Williams himself greatly influenced the agenda of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was led by the work of Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. In recent years, the attack of postmodernism on Marxism’s totalizing drive to provide a grand narrative or complete explanation for social and economic life has resulted in, on the one hand, a backlash from critics such as Eagleton, and on the other hand, a shift towards the appropriation of only certain aspects of Marxist thought by critics such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, leading to the creation of the term ‘post-Marxism’. These critics aim less at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society than at the creation of ameliorating agendas for social change in conjunction with broad but temporary political coalitions. The key aspects here are agency, wide mobilization and demonstrable material change rather than a determinate economy or violent social transformation. Post-Marxists commonly advocate radical democracy.
   Further reading
    Geras, N. (1985) ‘Post-Marxism?’ New Left Review 163 (May-June).
   PETER CHILDS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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