A. V. Lunacharsky 1928

Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism

Written: 1928;
Translator: Y. Ganuskin;
Source: A. Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art Progress Publishers, 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.


Our literature is passing through one of the decisive moments in its development. A new life is being built in our country, and literature is learning more and more to reflect this life in its as yet undefined and unstable forms; evidently, too, it will be able to pass to a problem of a still higher order – to the political and, in particular, the moral influence on the very process of construction.

Although our country has much less of a contrast between individual classes than any other, it is still, nonetheless, impossible to consider it entirely classless. Apart from the inevitability of the difference in tendencies between peasant and proletarian literature, there are elements in the country which have retained their old attitudes; elements which have either not reconciled themselves with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which are unable to adapt themselves even to the most basic tendencies in the building of socialism by the proletariat.

The conflict between the old and the new continues. The influence of Europe, of the past, of the remnants of the old ruling classes, of the new bourgeoisie which is to a certain extent flourishing under the New Economic Policy – all these are making themselves felt. They are revealed not only in the prevailing moods of individual groups and people, but also in admixtures of every kind. It should be remembered that apart from the direct and deliberately hostile bourgeois currents, there is yet another element which is perhaps more dangerous and which is at any rate harder to defeat – the petty-bourgeois attitude to everyday life. This has wormed its way deeply into the everyday attitudes of the proletariat itself, of many Communists even. This explains why the class struggle, in the shape of a struggle for building a new way of life which bears the imprint of the socialist aspirations of the proletariat, is not only not abating, but, while retaining its former strength, is assuming ever more subtle and profound forms. It is these circumstances which make the weapons of art – particularly literature – extremely important at the present time. They also cause hostile literary emanations to appear side by side with proletarian and kindred literature, however, and by this I mean the only consciously and specifically hostile elements, but also unconsciously hostile elements – hostile in their passivity, pessimism, individualism, prejudices, distortions, etc.


With the significant role that literature has to play under such conditions, Marxist criticism, too, bears a very considerable responsibility. Together with literature, it is now called upon, without a doubt, to partake with intensity and energy in the process of forming the new man and the new way of life.


Marxist criticism is distinguished from all other types of literary criticism primarily by the fact that it cannot but be of a sociological nature – in the spirit, of course, of the scientific sociology of Marx and Lenin.

Sometimes a distinction is made between the tasks of a literary critic and those of a literary historian; this distinction is based not so much on an analysis of the past and present, as, for the literary historian, on an objective analysis of the origins of the work, its place in the social fabric and its influence on social life; whereas for the literary critic, it is based on an evaluation of the work from the point of view of its purely formal or social merits and faults.

For the Marxist critic such a distinction loses nearly all its validity. Although criticism in the strict sense of the word must of necessity be a part of a Marxist’s critical work, sociological analysis must be an even more essential fundamental element.


How does the Marxist critic carry out his sociological analysis? Marxism regards social life as an organic whole in which the separate parts depend one upon the other; and here the decisive role is played by the most natural and material economic relationships, above all, the forms of labour. In a general analysis of an epoch, for example, the Marxist critic must strive to give a complete picture of the entire social development of that epoch. When one single writer or work is being discussed, there is no essential need for an analysis of the basic economic conditions, for here the ever – valid principle, which may be called Plekhanov’s principle, comes into its own with particular force. It states that only to an extremely insignificant extent do artistic works depend directly upon the forms of production in a given society. They depend on them through such intermediate links as the class structure of society and the class psychology which has formed as a result of class interests. A work of literature always reflects, whether consciously or unconsciously, the psychology of the class which the writer represents, or else, as often happens, it reflects a mixture of elements in which the influence of various classes on the writer is revealed, and this must be subjected to a close analysis.


In every work of art the connection with the psychology of this or that class or of large groups of a broad social nature is determined chiefly by the content. Literature – the art of the word, the art which is closest to thought – is distinguished from other forms of art by the greater significance of content as compared with form. It is especially evident in literature that the artistic content – the flow of thoughts and emotions in the form of images or connected with images – is the decisive element of the work as a whole. The content strives of itself towards a definite form. It can be said that there is only one optimal form which corresponds to a given content. A writer is able to greater or lesser extent to find for the thoughts, events and feelings of concern to him those modes of expression which reveal them with the greatest clarity and which make the strongest impression on the readers for whom the work is intended.

Thus the Marxist critic takes first of all as the object of his analysis the content of the work, the social essence which it embodies. He determines its connection with this or that social group and the influence which the impact of the work can have on social life; and then he turns to the form, primarily from the point of view of explaining how this form fulfils its aims, that is, serves to make the work as expressive and convincing as possible.


It is impossible, however, to ignore the specialised task of the analysis of literary forms, and the Marxist critic must not turn a blind eye to this. The form of a given work is in fact determined not merely by its content but also by other elements. The psychological thought process and conversations, what one might call the “style” of living of a given class (or class groups which have influenced the work), the general level of the material culture of a given society, the influence of its neighbours, the inertia of the past or the striving for renovation, which can manifest itself in all of life’s aspects – all this can affect the form, can act as a subsidiary factor defining it. Often form is linked not just not just with a single work, but with a whole “school,” a whole epoch. It can even be a force which harms or contradicts the content. Sometimes it can become divorced from the content and acquire an isolated, elusive nature. This happens when works of literature express the tendencies of classes which are devoid of content, which fear real life and which try to hide from pompous or, on the contrary, facetious and frivolous nature. All such elements must of necessity be a part of a Marxist’s analysis. As the reader can see, these formal elements, which contradict a direct formula – in every masterpiece the form is determined wholly by the content, and every literary work aspires to become a masterpiece – are by no means divorced from social life. They, in turn, should be socially interpreted.


We have hitherto confined our attention mainly to the sphere of Marxist criticism as a function of literary scholarship. The Marxist critic appears here as a scientific sociologist, who is specifically applying the methods of Marxist analysis to a special field – literature. The founder of Marxist criticism, Plekhanov, strongly underlined that this is the real role a Marxist is called upon to play. He maintained that the Marxist is distinguished from the “enlightener” assigns to literature specific aims and specific demands; whereas the “enlightener” judges it from the point of view of specific ideals, the Marxist elucidates the natural causes of the appearance of this or that work.

In opposing the objective and scientific Marxist method of criticism to the old subjectivism, to the capricious approach of the aesthete and the gourmet, Plekhanov was, of course not only right but also did a great deal to find the true paths for future Marxist criticism to follow.

It must not in any way be thought, however, that it is a characteristic of the proletariat merely to determine and analyse external data. Marxism is not simply a sociological doctrine, but an active programme of building. Such a building is unthinkable without an objective evaluation of the facts. If a Marxist cannot objectively sense the ties between the phenomena which surround him, then he is finished as a Marxist. But from a genuine, all-round Marxist we demand still more – a definite influence on this environment. The Marxist critic is not some literary astronomer explaining the inevitable laws of motion of literary bodies, from the large to the very small. He is more than this: he is a fighter and a builder. In this sense the evaluation factor must be regarded as extremely important in contemporary Marxist criticism.


What must be the criteria on which the evaluation of a work of literature should be based? Let us first of all approach this from the point of view of content. Here, generally speaking, everything is clear. Here the basic criterion is the same as that of the nascent proletarian ethics: everything that aids the development and victory of the proletariat is good: everything that harms it is evil.

The Marxist critic must try to find the fundamental social trend in a given work; he must find out where it is heading, whether this process is arbitrary or not. And he must base his evaluation on this fundamental, social and dynamic idea.

Even in the field of evaluating the social content of a work, however, everything is far from simple. The Marxist critic needs to be very skillful and extremely sensitive. By this is meant not only specific Marxist training but also specific talent, without which there can be no criticism. In the case of a really great literary work, there are too many aspects to be weighed, and it is too difficult in this instance to use any kind of thermometer or scales. What is needed here is what we call social sensitivity, otherwise mistakes are inevitable. The Marxist critic must not prize only works which are devoted to the problems of the moment. Without denying the special importance of current problems it is completely impossible to ignore the tremendous significance of issues which at first sight appear too general and remote but which, in fact, on closer inspection, do exert an influence on social life.

Here we have the same phenomenon as in science. To demand that science give itself up entirely to practical tasks is a profound error. It is a well-known fact that the most abstract of scientific problems can, when solved, sometimes turn out to be the most fruitful.

And yet, it is precisely when a writer or a poet turns to the solution of general tasks, striving towards – if he is a proletarian writer – a proletarian re-evaluation of the fundamentals of culture, that a critic can easily become confused. Firstly, in such cases we do not as yet have any true criteria; secondly, hypotheses may be of value here – the most daring hypotheses – for we are concerned not with a final solution to the problems, but with posing the problems and analysing them. To a certain extent, however, all this refers likewise to literary works of purely topical interest. The writer who illustrates in his works points of our programme which have already been fully developed is a bad artist. A writer is valuable when he cultivates virgin soil, when he intuitively breaks into a sphere which logic and statistics would find hard to penetrate. To judge whether a writer is right, whether he has correctly combined the truth and the basic aspirations of communism, is by no means easy; here, too, perhaps, the correct judgment can be worked out only in the clash of opinions between critics and readers. All this does not make the critic’s work any less important or necessary.

An extremely important factor in the evaluation of the social content of literary works is a second judgment on a work, which, at first analysis, seemed to belong to a range of phenomena alien, sometimes hostile to us. It is indeed very important to know the attitude of one’s foes, to make use of eyewitness accounts coming from a background different from ours. They can often lead us to profound conclusions, and, in any case, greatly enrich the treasure-store of our knowledge of life’s phenomena. The Marxist critic, who states that such and such a writer or work is, for example, a purely petty bourgeois phenomenon, must never dismiss this work or writer with a wave of his hand. A great deal of benefit can often be extracted from it. For this reason, a second evaluation from the point of view not of the origin and tendentiousness of a given work, but of its potential use in our constructive effort, is the direct task of a Marxist critic.

I should like to qualify this. Alien and hostile phenomena in the sphere of literature, even if they are of some benefit in the above-mentioned sense, can of course be extremely harmful and poisonous and be dangerous manifestations of counter-revolutionary propaganda. It goes without saying that this is the cue for the appearance not of Marxist criticism but of Marxist censorship.


The task of the Marxist critic becomes, perhaps, even more complicated, when he turns from evaluation of content to evaluation of form.

This is an extremely important task, and Plekhanov emphasized its importance. What, then, is the general criterion for evaluation here? The form must correspond to the content as closely as possible, giving it maximum expressiveness and assuring the strongest possible impact on the readers for whom the work is intended.

Above all, the most important formal criterion, which Plekhanov also advocated, should be mentioned here: that is, that literature is the art of images and every invasion of naked ideas or propaganda is always detrimental to the given work. It is self-evident that this criterion of Plekhanov’s is not an absolute. There are excellent works by, for instance, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Uspensky and Furmanov, which clearly sin against this criterion, and this means that hybrid literary works combining belles-lettres with publicist thought can exist in their own right. By and large, one should avoid these, however. Of course, publicistic literature which is brilliant in form is an excellent type of propaganda and literature in the broadest sense of the word, but on the contrary, artistic belles-lettres loaded with purely publicistic elements will leave the reader cold, no matter how brilliant the argument. In this sense, the critic has every right to speak about the inadequacy of the literary digestion of the content by the author if this content, instead of flowing freely in the work of art in images of brilliant molten metal, sticks out of this stream in large, cold lumps.

The second particular criterion, which proceeds from the general one as defined above, concerns the originality of the form. In what should this originality consist? Precisely in this: the formal body of a given work should merge into one indivisible whole with its idea, with its content. A genuine work of art should, of course, be new in content. If the content is not new, the work has little value. This is obvious. An artist should express something that has not been expressed before. Reproduction is not an art (some painters find this difficult to understand) but only a craft, albeit sometimes very fine. From this point of view, new content in every new work demands new form.

With what can we contrast this genuine originality of form? In the first place, there is the stereotyped form which prevents a new idea being really incorporated into the work. A writer can be enthralled by previously used forms, and although his content is new, it is poured into old wine-skins. Inadequacies of this kind cannot fail to be noticed. In the second place, the form may simply be weak, i.e., with a new, interesting intention, the writer may not possess the vocabulary, construction of the phrase, of the entire story, chapter, novel, play, etc.; and in the sense of rhythm and other forms of poetry. All this must be pointed out by the Marxist critic. A genuine Marxist critic – an integral type, so to say, of such a critic – must be a teacher, especially of the young writer or beginner.

Finally, the third major sin against the above-mentioned particular rule for the originality of form, is the “over-originality” of form, where the emptiness of content is camouflaged by formal inventions and ornamentation. Writhers infected by the formalists, those typical representatives of bourgeois decadence, have been known to try to adorn and embellish their honest and weighty content with various tricks, thereby ruining their work.

One must also approach the third criterion of a formal nature – the universality of the work – with caution. Tolstoi spoke out strongly for this. We who are extremely interested in the creation of a literature which would be addressed to the masses, and would appeal to them as to the principal creators of life, are also interested in this universality. All forms of reticence, of isolation, all forms intended for a small circle of specialised aesthetes, every artistic convention and refinement should be rejected by Marxist criticism. Marxist criticism not only can, but must indicate the inner merits of such works in the past and present, at the same time condemning the frame of mind of the artist who seeks to cut himself off from reality by such formal methods.

But, as mentioned above, the criterion of universality must be treated with great care. In our press, in our propagandist literature we are going from the very complicated books, journals and papers, which demand considerable intelligence from the reader, to the most elementary popular level; similarly, we cannot bring all our literature down to the level of the as yet uncultured peasant masses or even of the workers. This would be a very serious mistake.

Glorious is the writer who can express a complex and valuable social idea with such powerful artistic simplicity that he reaches the hearts of millions. Glorious is also the writer who can reach the hearts of these millions with a comparatively simple, elementary content; and the Marxist critic should highly value such a writer. The Marxist critic’s special attention and wise assistance are needed here. But of course on should not deny the value of the works which are not sufficiently intelligible for every literate person, which are addressed to the upper stratum of the proletariat, to the sophisticated Party members, to the reader who has attained a considerable level of culture. Life presents many burning problems to this party of the population which plays an immensely important role in the construction of socialism; and of course these problems should not be left without an artistic answer simply because they have not yet faced the vast masses or because they cannot yet be worked out in universal form. It should, however, be noted that we have gone too far the other way, our writers concentrating their attention on an easier task – writing, for a cultured circle of readers at a time when, I repeat, literature for the good of the workers and peasants, provided it is talented and successful literature, must be especially valued.


As has already been said, the Marxist critic is also to a significant degree a teacher. It is pointless to criticise unless the criticism produces some good, some kind of progress. And what must this progress be? Firstly, the Marxist critic must be a teacher in relation to the writer. It is quite possible that angry voices will be raised at this, saying that no one gave the critic the right to consider himself superior to the writer, and so on. When the question is properly phrased, such objections become completely invalid. Firstly, given that the Marxist critic must be the writers’ teacher, it follows that he must be an extremely resolute Marxist, an erudite person of irreproachable taste. It will be said that we have no such critics or only a very few. In the first case our opponents will be wrong; in the second they will be closer to the truth. But there is only one conclusion to be drawn from this: it is necessary to learn. There will be no lack of goodwill and talent in our great country, but there is a lot of hard learning to be done. Secondly, of course, the critic not only teaches the writer without in any way considering himself superior, but he also learns a great deal from the writer. The best critic is one who can look on the writer with admiration and enthusiasm, and who, at any rate, is well disposed towards him. The Marxist critic can and must be a teacher to the writer in two ways: firstly, he must point out to young writers – and generally to writers capable of making a large number of formal mistakes – the faults in their work. It used to be widely held that we need no Belinskys, for our writers no longer need guidance. This may have been true before the revolution, but it becomes simply laughable after the revolution, when the masses are giving birth to hundreds and thousands of new writers. A firm, guiding criticism, Belinskys of every caliber, including the conscientious workman with a good knowledge of his literary trade – all these are absolutely essential.

The Marxist critic must, on the other hand, be a teacher to the writer in the social sense. Not only is the non-proletarian writer they often merely a child in his social attitudes, committing the crudest of errors as a result of his primitive ideas about the laws of social life and his failure to understand the fundamentals of the epoch, etc., but this also happens only too often with a Marxist, proletarian writer. This is said not as an insult to the writer, but partly almost in his praise. Writers are sensitive beings, immediately receptive to all the influences of reality. In most cases writers possess neither a special talent for nor a special interest in abstract and scientific thinking: it is for this reason, of course, that they sometimes impatiently refuse any offer of help from the publicist-critic. But this can often be explained by the pedantic way in which such help is offered. Yet it is, in fact, precisely as a result of co-operation between important writers and gifted literary critics that truly great literature has always arisen and will continue to arise.


In trying to teach the writer usefully, the Marxist critic must also teach the reader. Yes, the reader must be taught to read. The critic as a commentator, as the person who warns of poison which may taste sweet, as the person who cracks a hard shell to reveal the pearl inside, as the person who discovers the treasure buried in the shadows, as the person who dots all the i’s, who makes generalisation on the basis of artistic material – this is the guide who is essential now, at a time when so many valuable but as yet inexperienced readers have appeared. This is his relation to the past of Russian and world literature, and this is how he must be related to contemporary literature. We once again emphasise, therefore, the exceptional demands which the epoch is making on the Marxist critic. We have no desire to intimidate anyone with our theses. The Marxist critic can begin modestly, he can even start off by making mistakes, but he mist remember that he will have to climb a long, steep staircase before he reaches the first landing, and even then he must look upon himself only as an apprentice. It is impossible, however, not to count on the gigantic rising wave of our broad culture, on the fountain of talented literature which is springing up everywhere; it is impossible not to believe that the present – not entirely satisfactory – state of Marxist criticism will very soon improve.


I should like, as a corollary, to touch on two more questions. Firstly, Marxist critics are often accused of what almost amounts to informing. It is indeed quite dangerous now to say about a writer that he entertains “unconscious” or even “semi-conscious,” counter-revolutionary ideas. And in these cases when a writer is considered an alien element, way to the right, or when one of our writers is accused of some deviation or other, then the whole affair seems somewhat dubious. Is it really, people ask, a critic’s business to say whether this or that writer is politically suspect, is politically unsound or has political failing? We must vehemently reject such protests. The critic who uses such a method to settle his personal accounts or deliberately to slander someone, is a villain; and such villainy, sooner or later, always comes to light. It is a heedless and shallow critic who, without thinking or weighing the matter, hurls such accusations. But the man who distorts the very essence of Marxist criticism because he is afraid to declare aloud the results of his objective social analysis, must be labeled as careless and politically passive.

Not that the Marxist critic must shout: “Be watchful!” This is not an appeal to government bodies; it is an objective assessment of the value for our construction of some work or other. It is for the writer himself to draw conclusions, to correct his line. We are in the sphere of a struggle of ideas. Not a single conscientious and honest Communist can deny the nature of the struggle in the question of present-day literature and its evaluation.


And finally, this question: Are sharp and bitter polemics to be allowed?

Generally speaking, sharp polemics are useful in that they keep the reader interested. Polemical articles, especially where both sides are wrong, all other things being equal, have more influence on the public and are better understood. In addition, the martial spirit of the Marxist critic as a revolutionary leads him to express his thoughts sharply, but at the same time it should be mentioned that to camouflage the weakness of his arguments with polemical brilliance is one of the critic’s greatest sins. Generally, when there are not many arguments but a multitude of various scathing remarks, comparison, mocking exclamations, and sly questions, then the impression may be gay but not at all serious. Criticism must be applicable to criticism itself, for Marxist criticism is at the same time scientific, and, in a way, artistic work. Anger is not the best guide in criticism and often means that the critic is wrong.

Admittedly, sometimes biting sarcasm and tirades are torn out of the critic’s heart. The more or less discerning ear of another critic, reader, and particularly writer can always distinguish between natural anger and mere malice. In our constructive effort there must be as little malice as possible. It must not be mixed with class hatred. Class hatred strikes with intent, but like a cloud over the earth it is above personal malice. By and large, the Marxist critic, without falling into cheerful indulgence, which would be very wrong on his part, must be a priori benevolent. His supreme joy must be in finding the positive and revealing it to the reader in all its splendour. Assistance must be another of his aims – to channel and to warn – and only rarely should it be necessary to attempt to undo the villain with the piercing arrow of laughter or contempt or with overwhelming criticism, which can easily annihilate any puffed-up nonentity.