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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.

Marxism and Form Terry Eagleton

IN The Novel and the People, a classic of Thirties vulgar Marxist criticism, Ralph Fox writes that 'Form is produced by content, is identical and one with it, and, though the primacy is on the side of content, form reacts on content and never remains passive'. You can't hedge your bets more adroitly than that. Are form and content absolutely indistinguishable ('identical'), distinct but fused, or unequally though dialetically related? How can form be identical and one with a content at once historically and theoretically prior to it? Fox's ambiguities spring clearly enough from a need to accommodate bourgeois criticism's sense of significant form while simultaneously preserving the traditional Marxist view (one sharpened by the conflict with Formalism) that content has the final determining edge over literary form. To argue otherwise would be for Fox to sell the pass to the aesthetes and literary technocrats, to those who refuse to acknowledge form's historical genesis and determination. Marx, after all, had argued in the Critique of Political Economy that productive relations constitute 'the real basis upon which a political and juridical superstructure arises, and to which particular social forms of consciousness correspond'; and this, for Marxist criticism, is the obvious starting-point for a consideration of the dialectics of form and content within an actual text. History is the 'content' to which specific literary forms (themselves embodying wider structures of social consciousness) correspond, in subordinate but dialectical relationship.

Fox's ambiguities result at least in part from his failure to see that form and content are existentially inseparable but methodologically distinct. They certainly are 'identical and one' in literary practice - writing and reading - but distinguishable in critical and historical theory; and such a recognition must precede debate as to whether their theoretical relationship is harmoniously reciprocal, interactive but asymmetrical, or whatever. But Fox's real failure of insight, one shared with most Marxist criticism of his decade, is his unconscious endorsement of an empiricist notion of 'content'- of the historical raw material which is somehow the genesis of form. This is evident throughout his book, but can be seen at its starkest in Christopher Caudwell's Studies in a Dying Culture. In that work, Caudwell dualistically distinguishes between what he calls 'social being' - the turbulent, amorphously unformulated stuff of experience - and the hardened carapace of forms of consciousness through which social being will make its revolutionary rupture. Social being is a vast reservoir of the unknown, unconscious and irrational, repressed and resisted by rigid, highly conscious ideological forms; men are 'mountains of unconscious being . . . with a kind of occasional phosphorescence of consciousness at the summit'. It's an interesting formulation for a critic who in the same book rejects Lawrence s world-view as reactionary. But this banalised mixture of Lawrence, Freud and evolutionary vitalism is easily manipulable into Marxist categories: 'social being', at one level the chaotically instinctual, is translatable at another level as society's 'material and techniques and real detailed being' - which amounts to an empiricist formulation of the concept of the productive forces. Marx's base/superstructure model is converted into a conflict between the unorganised instinctual-material life and repressive social and ideological forms; and the dynamic generated by this tension produces 'artists, poets, neurotics, madmen'.

As with much of his work, this particular position of Caudwell's is an amalgam of Romanticism and empiricism; he thinks of form, for example, as inherently static and falsifying. To this extent, the disparity between an English empiricist view of the form-content relation (one with clear affinities to vulgar Marxism), and the view of Marx and Engels themselves, ought to be evident enough. What Fox and Caudwell stress too little is that for Marx history is itself a structure. Forms of consciousness correspond neither to empirical facts nor to instinctual dynamics but to the organised totality of productive relations into which men enter on the basis of a particular stage of development in a mode of production. Contrary to the still confident assumptions of liberal ideology, literary form doesn't organise the chaos of reality; what are the historical determinants of that form of consciousness which reads history as chaos? The problem, rather, is to uncover the dialectics by which a 'first-order' significative structure - history itself - is transmuted into the 'second-order' structure of precise literary form. It isn't the function of form to process the 'raw materials' of historical content, because content is always already informed. Literary change is indeed, as Fredric Jameson comments in his superb Marxism and Form, 'essentially a function of content seeking its adequate expression in form'; but Jameson goes on to speak of the 'inner logic of content', of which adequate literary form is the final articulation. For a Marxist, that inner logic is the latent historical dynamics which shape those forms of social consciousness to which literary forms themselves stand in complex relationship. And to this degree, as Hegel argues in the Aesthetik, the question of the adequation of form to content is itself a question of historical conditions: 'defectiveness of form arises from defectiveness of content'. The aesthetic resolution of form and content can't in general be achieved in a situation where the available forms enact modes of false consciousness which distort, inflate, narrow or disembody the true 'content' of our history. (As a young literary critic on the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx himself was especially fascinated by the discrepancy between poetic form and prosaic content, liberal exterior and reactionary core, in that contemporary liberal romanticism which he saw as drawing a sacred veil over profane desires.)

Jameson's combined insistence on the historicity of form and the 'formality' of that historicity is in clear continuity with an authentic tradition of Marxist criticism. It's a position close to that of Trotsky ('this sinisterly intelligent Marxist', F. R. Leavis called him), who in a few brief, suggestive sentences in Literature and Revolution hints that poetic rhythms embody the parameters of forms of historical consciousness, too delicate, supple and deep-seated to be explicitly articulated. (Raymond Williams's concept of 'structure of feeling' is a later working of the same hypothesis.) Lukács too, despite the crudities of his reflectionist model, argues that the primary bearer of ideology in a text is form rather than content; and the most productive extension of that case has been the genetic structuralism of Lucien Goldmann. Goldmann's enterprise is to construct a method by which it is possible to analyse the complex microstructures of a text (semantic, semiological, phonological and so on) as expressive of the global structure of the text's universe; and that aesthetic structure is itself for Goldmann expressive of the 'categorial structure' of some transindividual, socially determinate 'world-view'. The dialectical relationship of text to history can then be constructed, via the essential mediations of world-view, social class, dominant ideological forms and productive relations. (Although one would want to add, with Sartre, the mediation of the 'world-view' in terms of authorial biography, and with Walter Benjamin the significance of the means of aesthetic production, distribution and exchange as a further mediation between text and social totality.)

How such a method might concretely illuminate problems of the politics of form in modern poetry is beyond the province of this essay. But I'd suggest that we might do worse than looking at one of the lamentably few fragments of English Marxist criticism which are even relevant to such a task: Alick West's discussion of The Waste Land in his Crisis and Criticism (1937). In so far as West is able to move without violence or appropriation from an analysis of Eliot's use of the personal pronoun to reflections on the social crisis of the 1920s, from comments on the poem's tones and form to questions of cultural ideology, his critique transcends (while in other ways sharing in) an empiricist epistemology. That seems the first prerequisite of any valid discussion of literary form; and since European Marxist criticism on the whole took the point for granted from the outset, it seems rational to attend seriously to what it has to say.

This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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