Novel insights

Issue: 107

Esther Leslie

A review of Julian Markels, The Marxian Imagination: Representing Class in Literature (Monthly Review Press, 2003), £15

Julian Markels’ book participates in a long-standing debate about the relationship between Marxism, class and literature. It sets itself apart, however, from many contributions, by junking virtually all Marxist cultural theory to date, in order to focus instead on an undervalued issue: imagination.

Markels restarts Marxist literary theory by going backwards, aligning himself with an unfashionable figure from the liberal humanist tradition of literary criticism, Lionel Trilling, whose book title The Liberal Imagination (1950) is echoed here. Trilling insisted on the importance of private and individual human sensibility. Markels, a Marxist humanist, agrees with Trilling that the novelist’s task is to imagine a particular consciousness as it responds to the circumstances of life, drawing cultural energies from the realm of sentiment and emotion, rather than ideas. Consigned to the dump are unimaginative novels, devoid of emotions, inadequate novels of ideas or ‘political-tendency’ novels. Such books. according to Markels, can never contribute to Marxism’s cause, for Marxism is so closely connected to questions of the imagination.

For Markels, Marxism imagines the enlargement of life via the extension of human possibility. The crucial terms of Marxism are also imaginative categories, in the sense that they have to be concocted. Class is not written on the body. It is not a visible, tangible quality of a human being, in the way that gender or race may be visible, physical or ‘geographical’, as Markels terms it. Class’s defining aspect, according to Markels, is its processual nature, variously described as exploitation, expropriation and the extraction of surplus value. Class denotes a transient process of producing, appropriating and distributing surplus labour. As a transient process, class cannot be assumed to be especially significant in the formation of identity. Many contemporary Marxists have forgotten this, insists Markels. Fredric Jameson for one, in his assertion that the working class is defined by its ressentiment, a psychic structure characterised by feelings of envy and hatred. In such a reading, class becomes an identity; an all-consuming stance vis-à-vis the world.

The book’s motto is ‘class is an adjective, not a noun’, a statement taken from Markels’ ‘mentors’, Stephen A Resnick and Richard D Wolff. This indicates that class is something acted out, experienced, lived, suffered and resisted in a variety of ways, none of which are determined or predictable in advance. For Markels, much Marxist cultural theory has been deterministic. For example, Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson assume a deterministic sense of class, and correspondingly exclude imagination from their purview.

For Williams, a writer is unable to reach beyond an ascribed ‘structure of feeling’. Writers and characters, and by extension workers, are condemned to experience the world only in relation to a series of stages, identified as emergent, dominant and residual. Fredric Jameson is labelled equally determinist: Markels quotes Jameson on Flaubert. Hopelessly incarcerated in his historical moment, Flaubert is ‘no longer Balzac, not yet Zola’. The novelist (as much as the weaver or baker) is trapped at a certain point in time and cannot see beyond his immediate environment. In contrast, Jameson elevates the theorist’s perspective, who is somehow assumed able to step outside his time and its prevailing ideologies.

EP Thompson’s historical writings are key for Markels’ Marxism. Thompson rejects the determinist idea of a tight fit between economic forces and the ideas that humans hold in their heads. Workers live their lives and develop their ideas within a ‘fluent social process’. To capture this dynamic, Thompson sets his imaginative powers to work, conjuring up contradictory and complex lived realities. Like characters in a novel, his historical subjects respond to experience in ‘class ways’, but these are not predictable or determined in advance. There is nothing inevitable about modes of experience.

For Markels, literature can go even further than history in imagining and portraying the complexity of classed lives in all their variety. He selects a diverse range of writers to examine in greater detail: Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Meridel Le Sueur, Alexander Saxton, Grace Lumpkin and Barbara Kingsolver. Few of these are Marxists or even socialists, and yet Markels’ contention is that their writing can generate a cogent sense of working class existence, the inequities and consequences of expropriation and the possibilities of collective human action. They do this not by bypassing imaginative creativity and reflecting the world as it is or seems, but rather by producing or constituting the world imaginatively.

Only from this perspective is it possible to understand how Shakespeare, in King Lear, might imagine modes of experience and types of emotion theoretically more relevant to a later age. Class conflict and capitalist entrepreneurship interweave with kingship, nature and gender to produce the rich web of the play’s meanings. Though Shakespeare cannot conceive directly the material process of feudal and capitalist expropriation, he is still able, through his extraordinary imaginative powers, to depict a range of responses in opposition to the hegemonic culture of the time, and these prefigure what is later theorised in Marx.

The focus on imagination might appear anti-theoretical, an assertion of something intuitive, spontaneous and analysable. However, Markels does have his own theoretical armoury, notably two concepts from Resnick and Wolff. The first is ‘overdetermination’. People are classed, but they are also gendered, are parents or sports fans, animal lovers or poets. All these factors impact upon the way they experience class. Marxism cannot claim a monopoly on interpretation of life experiences. The literary form of this is echoed in George Eliot’s sense of her novels as tracing the ravelled web of human lots. The second concept from Resnick and Wolff is ‘point of entry’. The tight webs of overdetermination among social processes can never be comprehensively analysed. Any mode of explaining the world must choose a point of entry to organise the data. Darwinism has the narrative of ‘survival of the fittest’, while Freud has the libido. Marxism has class as expropriation, and so literary works can be interpreted along Marxist lines by sensitivity to the question of expropriation.

This book is concise but challenging. Its criticisms of deterministic Marxism are cogent, but its insistence on open-endedness, points of entry and overdetermination seem too much of a compensation for any past bad Marxist cultural theory. Subtle and original interpretations of diverse works are made here, but the overarching schema sets writing confusingly adrift in a sea of historical relativism, and the emphasis on imagination derives writers’ powers solely from their own personal awareness. In the process, the Marxist emphases on the importance of history and the way in which, at particular historic moments, individuals (including writers) are shaped, dialectically, by economic, social and historical forces are largely lost.