Karl Marx and Materialism

Until a decade or so ago, there was rather little Marxist analysis in “mainstream” American literary and social thought. This is not to say there were no Marxists: rather, the Marxists were always “voices crying in the wilderness”-not very many people paid heed to these voices or took them seriously. This has been changing in recent years, and there are now increasing numbers of Marxist historians, political scientists, economists, and critics.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are different schools of Marxism, and Marxist thought seems to be changing rapidly. We discuss some of the more fundamental concepts of Marxism that can be applied to media and popular culture. Ironically, Marxism today often seems to have more interesting things to say about culture, consciousness, and related problems than it does about economics.

The discussion that follows leans heavily on the work of Erich Fromm, who has argued that Marx was a humanist whose argument was essentially a moral one. I might point out, in passing, that many Marxists do not approve of the societies created in Marx’s name that pervert his doctrine. such as those in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, China, and elsewhere. For all practical purposes, communism is dead. Many countries that were Marxist, such as Russia and many Eastern European nations, have rejected Marxist doctrines and now are firmly in the capitalist market economy camp. China is nominally a communist country, and so is Vietnam, but in reality both have market oriented capitalist economies. The only country that remains true to Marxist ideology, it seems, is Cuba, and many scholars predicts that after Fidel Castro death, Cuba, too, will abandon Marxism. It should be pointed out, however, that one can be a Marxist-and, for our purposes, a Marxist critic of the media-without being a communist and without believing in the necessity of revolution and the establishment of a classless society by violent means.

What follows is an outline of some of the most fundamental principles of Marxism-principles most useful to the media analyst. The goal here is to provide you with a basic understanding of Marxism so that you can apply Marxist concepts to the public art forms carried by the media.


When we talk about Marxist thought being materialistic, we are using the term in a special way not as it is traditionally used in the United States, where it suggests a craving for money and the things that money can buy. For Marxists, materialism refers to a conception of history and the way society organizes itself. Let me start here with some quotations of crucial importance from Marx’s “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” as published in his Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (1964). First, his discussion of the relationship between society and consciousness:

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite state of development of their material powers of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society-the real foundation, on which legal and political superstructures arise and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. (p. 51)

The mode of production (economic relationships), then, is the base or the “determinant element” in our thoughts-although the relationship between our thoughts and society is a complicated one. This passage suggests that beneath the superficial randomness of things there is a kind of inner logic at work.

Everything is shaped, ultimately, by the economic system of a society. which, in subtle ways, affects the ideas individuals have, ideas instrumental in determining the kinds of arrangements people make with one another, the institutions they establish, and so on. Marx also wrote, in “The German Ideology” (1964).

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux from their material behavior. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, and metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.-real, active men, as they are conditioned by the definite development of their produce forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence .. (pp. 74-75)

This passage is important because it brings people into the picture and suggests that although consciousness is socially produced, it is always filtered through the minds of real, live, active men and women and is not something that works automatically. There is always the possibility of individuals gaining an understanding of their situation and doing something about it. But more about this shortly.

We have, now, our first important insight-namely, that “our” ideas ‘are not entirely our own, that knowledge is social.

With all of this in mind, here are some questions we might ask now:

  1. What social, political, and economic arrangements characterize the society in which the media are being analyzed?
  2. Who owns, controls, and operates the media?
  3. What roles do the various media play in the society where the media are being analyzed? And what are the functions of the various popular art forms carried by the media?
  4. What ideas, values, notions, concepts, beliefs, and so on are spread by the media, and what ideas, values, and so on are neglected by the media? Why? Do the media “manipulate” people and shape their behavior, or do people have the capacity to use the media for their own purposes?
  1. How have the Internet and sites such as YouTube and Twitter changed things? What impact has the Internet had on traditional media such as newspapers and magazines?
  2. How are writers, artists, actors, and other creative people affected by the patterns of ownership and control of the media?