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Ian H. Birchall

Literature and Dialectics

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Marx, Engels and the Poets
Peter Demetz
Chicago UP, 59s 6d.

This book is a serious attempt by a non-Marxist to evaluate the contribution of Marxism to literary criticism. As such it is to be welcomed – above all if it sends more readers back to the sources, and inspires a translation into English of the whole compendium from Marx and Engels’ writings On Art and Literature.

The most valuable part of the work is the account of how Marxism developed out of the intellectual context of the early nineteenth century – dealing especially with the close interrelation of politics and literature in early nineteenth-century Germany. Marxism was not the creation of individuals; Marx’s debt to Heine and Engels’ to Carlyle are worthy of study. Interesting morsels include Marx’s early verse epigrams on Hegel.

Demetz’s critique of Marxist literary theory is less satisfactory. He identifies Marxism with economic determinism; sees close parallels between Marx and the positivist determinism of Taine; and claims to discover a contradiction between Marx’s overall theory and his literary judgments. Two points must be made in reply.

First, Marxism is a method, not a system. We are concerned with the validity of this method, not with the particular inconsistencies and invalid judgments that occur in the writings of Marx and Engels.

Secondly, while Marxism is of course sociological, it is also dialectical. The great writer does not reflect an age; he embodies its contradictions. This is in fact implicit in Demetz’s account of Marx’s views on Shakespeare, Goethe and Balzac.

The final section, on twentieth century Marxism, should have been expanded or omitted. To deal with the work of Lucien Goldmann in one page can produce only parody. The chapter on Lukacs is interesting, but incomplete without a consideration of the nationalism and class collaboration of the Stalin period; and this in turn would have meant more than the two sentences allocated to Trotsky – much more.

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Last updated: 31.12.2007