Marxism and Literature in the 21st Century: Renzo Llorente

Do you find it ironic that you teach Marxism in Spain, a country that was ruled by the dictator, Franco for over thirty years?

There is actually a fairly important Marxist tradition in Spain, just as anarchism has been very important and influential in this country. One reason that Marxism has been important is that the opposition to Franco was led by the Spanish Communist Party, which was, and is, an officially Marxist political party. Still, to the extent that Marxism has been important and influential, it has been mainly in a practical, political sense; Spain has not produced many important Marxist thinkers, the philosopher Manuel Sacristán being one of the few, notable exceptions. But if we bear in mind that the Spanish left’s main goal for nearly four decades was to oust Franco, who of course did not exactly encourage the study of Marx in Spanish universities, it’s hardly surprising that Spain has not produced a significant amount of original Marxist theory.

From a Marxist perspective, what is the role of literature in an ideal communist world? Can it be said that Marx viewed Western literature as “contaminated” by its feudal and ultimately capitalist history?

Marx did not really address this topic in his writings, despite his great interest in literature. He did appear to believe, however, that more people would produce literature in a communist society, since communism would enable everyone to become more multifaceted, and so more people with literary talent would be inclined to develop this talent. He also presumably believed that the literature produced would be freer, so to speak, because people would be freer (from certain limitations, frustrations, constraints, anxieties, etc.) under communism than they had been under previous social orders.

I don’t think it would be accurate to say that Marx thought of Western literature as being contaminated or tainted by feudalism and capitalism, except, perhaps, in the sense that some of this literature is unconsciously apologetic. Some writers end up justifying the present socio-economic order without realizing it. On the other hand, Marx certainly thought we could learn much from works that accurately depicted the social reality of a given time, whatever the author’s intentions might be — denunciation, celebration or merely descriptive precision in a narrative. For example, Marx spoke very highly of Balzac’s work.

Your thoughts about the “apolitical”? Has this type of person ever existed, à la Gandhi or Samuel Beckett, or is apoliticism as much a myth as political reality itself?

I do think the “apolitical” is a valid category, and that there have no doubt been plenty of apolitical writers… perhaps the majority? Those who deny the existence of apolitical writers, or for that matter apolitical people in general, tend to overpoliticize our experience, or else so dilute the meaning of the term “political” that it ends up meaning almost nothing.

At the same time, I also think it’s true that we sometimes artificially limit the scope of “the political” to such an extent that even writers who deal with topics that are bound up with power relations and the organization of society are wrongly classified as “apolitical.” (Maybe we should make a distinction between a “non-political” outlook and an “apolitical” one, although I myself am not sure exactly how to draw this distinction.) We should also remember that there may be writers whose works are apolitical, even though the writers themselves are politically active in their own lives.

In any case, it seems to me that the unambiguously “apolitical” writers are those who focus on the aspects of our lives or experience that are both universal and “pre-political,” such as certain enduring, existential issues that we all face, in more or less the same form, whatever society we happen to live in.

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