Lunacharsky was the first People’s Commisar of Enlightenment after the Russian October Revolution and commented frequently on matters of art and literature. Here are some choice quotations from his “Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism,” published in 1928.
1. On the distinction between literary history and criticism:
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.
2. On the interaction of literature and art with class:
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.
3. On Marxist criticism as a constructive, active force:
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.
4. On the fundamental criterion of Marxist criticism of content:
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.
5. On the positives and negatives of polemics in criticism (probably what I find most useful in the whole article):
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.
There is some excellent material in this essay, which I would recommend to anyone who is looking to develop their Marxist “senses” in order to criticize arts and literature. Marxist critical theory is, of course, a vast and well-populated field, with towering figures like Lukács, Adorno, and Bloch to contend with, but I think Lunacharsky is something of an overlooked figure, and much of his writing remains obscure, at least in English.
Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Theses on the Problems of Marxist Criticism,” trans. Y. Ganuskin. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1928/criticism.htm