Marxism and political economy

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Thu Jun 1 18:28:11 MDT 1995

On Thu, 1 Jun 1995, Doug Henwood wrote:

> Of course one should avoid viewing all subjects from a narrow economic
> perspective. But I think that an analysis can't be "Marxist" or even
> "Marxish" if it doesn't relate cultural and psychological phenonmena to
> material reality and social relations, just as something can't be Freudian
> if it doesn't relate to psychic drives, defense mechanisms, etc.

Sure. But "relate" is pretty loose and "material reality and social
conditions" pretty vague. I surely do hope you don't mean to tighten these
terms up by saying that Marxism has to show how any cultural phenomenon or
psychological event, e.g., the temporary abeyance of the sonnet form in
English poetry between 1670 and 1795 (say--your example, below), has to be
shown to be functional for the mode of production or serve the material
interests of some class in the class struggle.

> As the old man said at the end of the intro to the Grundrisse: "What chance
> has Vulcan against Roberts & Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and
> Hermes against the Credit Mobilier?" And a bit later, "But the difficulty
> lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with
> certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still
> afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a
> norm and as an unattainable model."

This suggestive remark is not self-explanatory.
> A Marxian lit crit would know how to parse a couplet, but would want to
> investigate why the couplet was the characteristic form of 18C British
> poetry; would know how to parse a sonnet, but might also wonder why almost
> no sonnets were written in English between the death of Milton and the
> advent of Wordsworth.

Right, but you won't find the answer in the operations of the law of
value. Pace Marx, poetry, literature, even philosophy do have a history
and development of their own, if one constrained by material factors. Nor
is it obvious to me that the only legitimately Marxist interest in poetry,
say concerns its material constraints. Look at Christopher Hill's books on
Milton, Bunyan, or the Bible--due attention is given to material factors,
rise of the bourgeoisie, etc. But due attention is also given to
psychological peculiarities of the authors (or translators and users), as
well as to questions of literary form and value. Likewise with Raymond
Williams on the English novel or on drama.

Jerry Levy's right--Marxism is an outlook, not just a critique of
political economy. The CPE is just all that Marx was able to complete, to
the extent that he did, in his own lifetime. Even he planned more--e.g., a
study of Balzac.

--Justin Schwartz

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