Marxist Literary Criticism Today
by Barbara Foley
Published February, 2019
Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club
by Anna Kornbluh
Published May, 2019
There is a spectre haunting the contemporary Western imagination: it is the spectre of the Cold War. We should not be surprised by this haunting. The supposedly sinister rise of something called populism – with the unremittingly villainous Russians somehow associated with it – is surely one of the forces behind a spate of recent high-profile, highly acclaimed movies revisiting the Cold War.
In the unambiguously titled 2018 movie Cold War (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski) a musically gifted Polish couple escape from the oppressive climate of the communist-era Eastern Bloc to enjoy the liberating jouissance of the capitalist West. In Never Look Away (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) another creative couple, a painter and a fashion designer, bravely forgo the austere diktats of Socialist Realism in the German Democratic Republic for the bohemian avant-gardism of West Germany. And in White Crow (dir. Ralph Fiennes) we are given a meticulously detailed fictionalised account of the dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union.
These movies – and similar novels, TV shows, and other cultural products – argue, on the one hand, that, whatever our misgivings about the hegemonically neoliberal, ultra-capitalist world in which we live, with its inequalities, unfulfilled promises, and accumulating miseries, we should resist the siren songs of capitalism’s historical revolutionary nemesis, communism. Those of us who are scandalised by our industrialist ruling class’s unwillingness and/or inability to halt the environmental crises that seem to be engulfing us, for example, are told by the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (dir. Johan Renck) that things were no better (or were, perhaps, even worse) under Soviet socialism.
But there’s another, much more interesting dimension to these stories, particularly where they deal with the lives of artists and their creations. Here we find a contrary, contradictory account of the value and nature of art – and, by extension, the humanity and dignity of the artist – which can’t be subsumed into a homily to the (supposed) wonders of capitalism. Here we find something very close – perhaps dangerously close – to an anti-capitalist critique of alienation and commodification.
In Cold War, for example, our newly liberated Polish duo of singer and song producer do not find happiness in decadent, sleazy jazz clubs and recording studios in Western democracies. They are exploited, humiliated, and reduced to objects of amusement by the Parisian bourgeoisie. Indeed, it can be said that the film depicts the couple’s musical work in the Soviet-dominated Poland as more heartfelt, more sincere than their blatantly derivative rendition of the same work as a hit song in the West. In Never Look Away, the young painter can’t abide by the openly ridiculous, egoistic individualism of West German postmodernists – the film satirises, wonderfully, the facile pretentions of would-be artists desperate to appear original and rebellious through public nudity and covering their bodies in paint – and the artist, finally, invents an artistic style (inspired by the painter Gerhard Richter’s actual works) which revives a commitment to depicting real people and their struggles, in an obvious nod to the much-maligned Socialist Realists.
I would not go so far as to say that these films, in their ambivalent attitudes towards the cultural and socio-economic values of the capitalist world, offer anything like a robust critique, let alone a denunciation, of capitalism. Never Look Away ends with the epiphanic crowning of the painter as a highly bankable, investment-boosting darling of lucrative auction-houses (very much like the real-life Richter) and Cold War concludes with disillusionment and self-destruction.
Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that filmmakers like von Donnersmarck, whose breakthrough film, The Lives of Others (2006), was nothing less than a damning condemnation of the GDR and a euphoric celebration of the West, is now desisting from demonising socialism. It seems the worst thing that his new film has to say about the art scene of the GDR is that it compelled, but did not force, its young artists to participate in drab public art projects, whilst mocking, with obvious relish, the fetishism and falsehood, the mediocrity and pointlessness, of the bulk of artistic production in capitalist societies.
What has changed since The Lives of Others? Why is it that filmmakers, even those supposedly committed to continually reminding us of the meanness of past communists and socialists, can no longer offer wholehearted endorsements of the post-Cold War condition? One can answer this question in many ways, but the simplest, most direct response may be: the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
I am not suggesting that all was good with the global capitalist world order until the GFC when, suddenly, unexpectedly, the zeitgeist was ravaged by the excesses of neoliberalism. For the overwhelming majority of humanity, for us who have nothing to sell but the labour-power of our bodies, things have never been all that good; and whatever precipitated the GFC was inherent to capitalism itself. What I aim to argue, with my admittedly debatable designation of the GFC as a world-historical event, is that the Crisis can be seen as one of the factors contributing to the (historically inevitable) turning point in the collective consciousness in Western liberal democracies and in the belief in the ultimate goodness of capitalism.
And if I am correct – and hopefully not merely wishful – in making this observation, then I already find it less puzzling that these critically acclaimed (indeed, Oscar-nominated) movies of our conjuncture cannot but correspond with our growing awareness that the triumph of capitalism over communism over twenty years ago may not have been an entirely good thing. As such, one should not be bewildered by the return of the figure and ideas of modern communism’s most important, most influential thinker, Karl Marx.
It is true that Marx never really left us, despite the hopeful prognoses of many a capitalist Cold War warrior or centrist liberal. The end of the Cold War may have augured the End of History for some of capitalism’s more deluded sycophants; but, for the rest of us, history continued, with its tribulations and struggles. And Marx remained to inspire many an attempt to make sense of why it was that, amidst the hysterical propaganda of the panegyrists of globalisation, more and more of the world’s people were being reduced to poverty and falling victim to horrific civil wars.
The critiques of globalisation that emerged in the late 1990s and into the twenty-first century owed as much to Marx as they did to the activists of the New Left. The esteemed, staunchly liberal host of BBC Radio’s In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg, may have been genuinely baffled to find that in 2000, after all that had been stated and overstated about the gory failures of modern communism, the British public – and the rather bourgeois listeners of his radio show, at that – would choose Marx as the most important philosopher in history. But for those of us who have always known that the connection between Marx’s revolutionary ideas and the reactionary, falsely labelled communist despots of the twentieth century is, at best, tenuous, the tenacity of Marx in the public imaginary came as less of a shock. One is reminded of ‘an old story about Marx’, as the late great sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein noted in an interview: ‘you throw him out the front door and he sneaks back in through the rear window’.
And then came the GFC. As is often repeated – in essays and opinion pieces very much like the one you’re reading now – since 2008 The Communist Manifesto has become a bestseller, a new statue of Marx has been erected in his native city in Rhineland, Germany, and the recent British Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, openly praised Marx and his magnum opus, Capital. The recent commemorations of the anniversaries of Marx’s birth and the publication of Capital have seen to, among other things, an acclaimed biographical movie, The Young Karl Marx (dir. Raoul Peck). It seems that, as the title of the philosopher and filmmaker Jason Barker’s fascinatingly imaginative 2018 novel about the troubled life of the great Rhinelander would have it, Marx has most definitely returned. And, this time, he doesn’t need to sneak in through the back window but is, rather, knocking on the front door of the cultural zeitgeist.
The new books under review in this essay are, in different ways and to varying degrees, occasioned by this revival in Marx’s fortunes in the West. Barbara Foley’s Marxist Literary Criticism Today may be the most comprehensive English-language introduction to its titular field since Francis Mulhern’s Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism, published close to twenty years ago. Very early in the book’s Prologue, Foley confirms the view that since the 2008 GFC ‘Marx’s reputation has made a startling comeback’. In the first chapter of her Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club – a book that offers materialist elaborations on David Fincher’s infamous 1999 film Fight Club – theorist Anna Kornbluh too cites the ‘resurgent interest in Marx after the global financial crisis of 2008’.
Based on these statements, it would be tempting to say that had the Crisis been somehow mollified, had our ruling classes been able to convincingly reinstate the neoliberal status quo, then we may not be seeing the publication of such books. It seems clear that Marxism is now entering areas of mainstream US culture – as seen in, for example, the phenomenal popularity of the openly Marxist journal and website, Jacobin – in a way that would not have been imaginable prior to the 2008 GFC.
A Marxist should perhaps be unconditionally ebullient about any revival of our figurehead’s figure and/or his very large head, so full of universally revolutionary dicta and ideas; and one should not be so cynical as to suggest that there could be something unreliable, even faddish, in Americans’ enthusiasm for the very ideas that they fought hard to (nearly) obliterate during the Cold War. Was it not a progressive, Leftist publisher and politician from the United States, after all, who provided a youngish Marx with a publishing outlet and something like a regular income by inviting the depressed and utterly broke Rhinelander refugee to write for the New York Tribune from Queen Victoria’s London?
Indeed. Yet I can’t but find it bizarre that the youth-culture version of one of the US’s bibles of capitalist ideology and rabid consumerism, Teen Vogue, has recently featured an appreciative profile of Marx alongside a promotion of $850 Crocs slippers. Is today’s Marxism yet another vogue – perhaps in tandem with the current popularity of self-proclaimed democratic socialist politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – destined to be supplanted, in due course, by another, more trendy woke ideology? Or is the Marx of our time a potent, powerful continuation or resurrection of the vision and thought of history’s most dogged revolutionary?
Foley’s and Kornbluh’s books put forward versions of Marxism that are as vigorous, erudite, and committed as one would wish any kind of Marxist theorising to be. One could say that both books also convey a certain instrumentalism – or a kind of professional appropriation – in their taking up of the Marxist cause. In both, Marxism is presented, first and foremost, as a framework or a tool for analysing and studying books and films, and exactly one half of each title is taken up by an openly pedagogic introduction to the basics of Marxist theory. It is also, at least for this reader, a little tiresome to read so many pages devoted to introducing and defining, in rather teacherly tones, the well-known tropes of Marxist theory.
Thankfully, there are several contentious points made in the somewhat formulaic introductory halves of both of these books, which kept me engaged. In her definition of class, for example, Foley claims that ‘the definition of social class is not contingent upon the subjective standpoints of particular individuals or groups’, and yet, a couple of pages later, she suggests that ‘the proletariat is to be defined not just by its empirical make-up at any given moment in time – that is, as a “stand-alone” term – but what it is, actually or potentially, in the process of becoming’.
On the face of it, there is no contradiction between these two formulations: class is not premised on a static empirical position or standpoint, and it is instead a matter of a mobile process of becoming. Sure. But if what is static, according to Foley, is also subjective – that is to say, a matter of the relationship between the (individual or group) self and the world – and if this subjectivity is to be rejected in favour of some sort of subjectivity-defying fluidity or becoming, then what shape could this becoming take other than an object, i.e. an empirically experienceable and stand-alone thing? Foley may indeed critique human subjectivity in the spirit of one of her key influences, Louis Althusser; but one may argue – as many Marxists have pace Althusser – that a wholesale rejection of subjectivity would result in nothing other than a passive surrender to an objectivity or a mechanical objectification which would preclude, among other thing, the capacity for active participation in ‘the process of becoming’. I suggest, in short, that by throwing the baby of subjectivity out with the bathwater of particularity, Foley may have made it difficult to envisage the becoming of class as something to be grasped and enacted – beyond, precisely as she has noted, the false binary of actuality/potentiality – at the level of an immersive social process.
Where I entirely agree with Foley is her uncompromising view that particularist or identitarian fixations do not amount to revolutionary class consciousness. Whilst she is more than capable of offering Marxian explications of racism, sexism, colonialism, and homophobia, she does not mask her Marxism as an anodyne supplement to the dominant trends in ideological progressivism.
In the context of analysing a poem that deals with colonialism and sexual violence, for example, she writes:
The challenge confronting Marxist critics of US literature and history – indeed, of any nationally defined literature and history – is not only to expose the role played by overtly conservative nationalist doctrines in reinforcing the hegemony of capital, past and present, but also to examine the hold that presumably progressive versions of nationalism continue to have upon individuals and social movements seeking to counter social inequality without challenging its basis in capitalism. The need for solidarity in opposition to ruling-class ideologies can delve into a mere politics of inclusion.
It amuses and sometimes, frankly, frustrates me that self-proclaimed Leftists can be shocked to hear that Marxists are not enamoured of the mere politics of inclusion. Is it not obvious that the inclusion of the excluded (whoever these may be) into a capitalist socio-economic system of exploitation, pauperisation, and alienation is not the sort of thing one would get excited about?
Marx himself was quick to identify and dismiss, in The Communist Manifesto, the members of the bourgeoisie obsessed with ‘redressing social grievances’, such as the rather noisy cultural progressives of his own era, ‘organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind’. The revival of Marxism in our own time is taking place against the backdrop of a dramatic shift in mainstream Western cultures towards identity politics – by which I mean both the putatively progressive version of this, with its focus on marginality, as well as its outwardly conservative version, with its nationalist and majoritarian orientations – and both authors under review, whilst clearly aware of the beliefs and sensitivities of many of their potential readers, are quite adapt at pointing out the shortcomings of the moralism of those preoccupied solely with social grievances without also holding capitalism to account.
This assessment is particularly lucid when the authors directly discuss literary and cinematic works. Foley writes:
many literary works aiming at critiques of oppression and inequality, and of the doctrines and structures of feeling by which these are sustained, do not themselves escape the snares of dominant ideology. In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, for instance, the character system assigning personal integrity to the rebels against the rapacious Capitol, and craven selfishness to its supporters, is undermined by rhetorical appeals that simultaneously reinforce values familiar to the contemporary inhabitant of the world of Capitol. The protagonist Katniss Everdeen […] may eschew high-heeled shoes and gem-encrusted gowns; but she wows her audience with a graceful twirl that would have won her a perfect score on American Idol. She detests competition but overwhelms the judges with her archery skills. […] Collin’s young adult readers of the trilogy can thus comfortably admire this rebel against the status quo even as her tale affirms meritocracy and competition as intrinsic to success.
This account of the obscenely popular dystopian novels is premised on Foley’s view of literature as mediation. Mediation, for Marxist literary and cultural critics, designates the position of a phenomena which, whilst relatively distanced from ruling-class ideology – by the virtue of being, for example, an artistic representation of a reality and not that reality itself – is still sufficiently close to ideology to be able to expose and in some cases even interfere with it. And this is, more or less, the approach taken by Anna Kornbluh in her terrific analysis of Fight Club.
For Kornbluh, this cult movie of exactly twenty years ago depicts clearly discernible anti-capitalist motifs. She writes that, to approach this film as a Marxist critic requires an awareness that
many Marxist ideas are articulated in the film or provide fodder for the film’s plot, which portrays two alienated white-collar professionals’ engagement in alternative social relations that mushroom into more ambitious political projects, and a climactic revelation that the two are actually one person.
Kornbluh is quick to point out, however, that this film should not be misrepresented as a trenchantly Marxist undoing of capitalist ideology. She details the elements of the film’s production which position it firmly within the milieu of the capitalist culture industry, such as the unashamedly class-driven inequality in the payment made to the film’s stars: ‘the superstar Brad Pitt’ received a salary of $17.5 million, whilst ‘the lesser star Edward Norton’, despite being on screen much longer than Pitt, received $2.5 million. This dialectic – the tension between the film’s material production and its counter-ideological message – is not something that Kornbluh is prepared to synthesise away either by championing the film’s artistic triumph over its material base or by lambasting the movie for being hypocritical and insincere. She instead allows for this tension to form the basis of her elaborations on the film, to highlight that ‘to commercialize anti-commercialism and to market anti-capitalism are contradictory endeavours’.
Fight Club, then, far from providing Kornbluh with an untarnished example of cinematic anti-capitalism – or, conversely, with an argument for dismissing its artistic radicalism tout court – provides her with a strikingly revealing ‘opportunity for studying contradictions, the ultimate Marxist analytic project.’ I was initially tempted to contend, after reading this claim in the book’s Conclusion, that studying contradictions cannot be the ultimate aim of Marxism. Surely, seeing to the end of capitalism and ushering in true communism would be the final destination of our movement, no? Kornbluh’s claim is more subtle and, in the best sense of the word, more humble than the espousal of a world-historical project: according to her, detecting and stressing the contradictions in the production, aesthetics, and reception of the famous film would contribute to the analytic dimension of Marxism, and not – or at least not immediately – to promoting a revolutionary cinematic praxis.
What would such an approach give us in terms of understanding and analysing films, then, if it won’t give us a blueprint for cinematic radicalism, at least not for the time being? A great deal, as it turns out. In the spirit of Marx’s own potently anti-moralist readings of the popular culture of his own time, Kornbluh uses her contradictory methodology to undermine the existing, narrowly ideological assessments of Fight Club.
One such view is that the film’s central motif – the fight club, the clandestine association of bare-knuckle fighting men who go on to plot the destruction of the institutions of finance and corporatism in an American city – is ‘worryingly undemocratic, cultish, or even, as some have argued, fascist’. Such an evaluation could be plausible if the film were a straightforward representation of the ideology of a group of disaffected violentmen. As Kornbluh shows, however, Fight Club is nothing of the sort.
In one of the film’s key scenes, for example, Jack (the narrator and protagonist, played by Norton) blackmails his boss into giving in to his demands by threatening to use violence. Kornbluh narrates the scene as follows:
The boss shouts invective and calls for security, and the narrator’s fist quivers in a shallow focus shot; he punches himself repeatedly, keeping up a running commentary for the overhearers as if the boss is at fault. “Oh my god! Why would you do that? No! Please stop!” The camera shows the boss’s riveted, bewildered face in successive medium shots, suggesting the break in his fabric of normalcy. […] The blurring, the freezing, and the voiceover, as well as the reflexive memory, all highlight the relation between the film’s formal construction and the political act of self-destruction taking place. The prominence of images and appearances becomes crucial: a bloodied Jack kneels before the boss, detritus of office furniture everywhere, reiterating his deal: “Give me the paychecks, like I asked, and you won’t ever see me again”.
What makes Jack’s act political is that he is punching himself, with the aim of making it seem as though he has been assaulted by his boss, in order to extract money from his boss and finance the fight club. The contradictions apparent in this part of the film – in Jack’s having to resort to hitting himself without being able to lay a finger on his boss; his plan to have his boss pay for a rebellion against the very system that the boss represents – mean that whilst Jack’s and the fight club’s conspiracy is likely to amount to little more than self-satisfying self-harm (alongside causing a bit of economic annoyance to the ruling class by extracting a meagre salary without relinquishing his labour-power in return) it has neither the intention nor the capacity to impose itself as a political or social authority, fascistic or otherwise. Jack is left bloodied and abject, more than ever dependent on his boss for his material survival. That the scene of Jack’s apparently radical act of self-harm is juxtaposed with images of his boss’s facial expression indicates that Jack’s action, whatever its intentions and pretentions, is an aesthetic spectacle staged for an audience. As such, it stands little chance of empowering its actor and its efficacy is determined by the viewer’s response. Should the boss have responded with ridicule instead of alarm, Jack’s stratagem would have entirely backfired.
Seen from Kornbluh’s perspective, Fight Club is as much about a sincere desire to violently confront a system of exploitation and alienation as it is about the impotence and vanity of those who see violent confrontation as their objective. One of the key insights that Fight Club offers the Marxist, then, could be that if we are to begin combining our forces against the might of capital, we must first resist the urge to resort to ostentatious acts of rebellion.
What Anna Kornbluh’s excellent study of this film and Barbara Foley’s compelling reckoning with the politics of literature prove is that the once-fashionable tropes of postmodernist theory such as irony, indeterminacy and the like have well and truly run their course and Marxism has returned to the humanities. This may not be a Marxism of revolution – yet – but one of mediation, and also of meditation. By reflecting on books and films we may be able to better understand the ideology of those for whom we must punch ourselves in the face regularly for a pittance of an income, so to speak. And by understanding them, we may begin (again) the task of ending their power over our lives.