Marxism and Literature in the 21st Century: Renzo Llorente

Renzo Llorente

RENZO LLORENTE was born and raised in Brunswick, Maine; his father was Cuban, and his mother is American. He spent most of his college years in New York. After finishing a Ph.D. in philosophy, he began teaching on Saint Louis University’s Madrid Campus, where he is currently a professor.

Llorente’s interests in philosophy fall mainly in four areas: ethics — as it is approached in ethical theories (what philosophers call “normative ethics”) and as it is developed in “applied ethics,” Marxism, Latin American philosophy (including Latin American Marxist thought), and certain themes or concerns associated with existentialist thought such as the nature of the absurd, nihilism, and the problem of death. He is the author of numerous essays, as well as a book-length collection of aphorisms. Selections from this manuscript have appeared in Left Curve, VOX, Political Affairs, Secular Nation, and Orphan Leaf Review.

A longer version of this interview first appeared in Complete with Missing Parts: Interviews with the Avant-garde (VOX Press, 2008) in a limited edition of seventy-five copies.

Let’s begin with a rather blatant question: how relevant is a study of Marx in a post-cold war 21st century world? Did the collapse of communist Russia create a greater (or less) need for Marxist studies in the post-cold war era?

I think Marx and Marxism are still very relevant today — and so very much still worth studying — for the simple reason that capitalism is still with us, and this is the economic system and social arrangement that Marxists have analyzed, and criticized, so insightfully. There is a remark by Paul Baran, a brilliant Marxist economist who was very influential in the 1960s, that captures this idea very nicely: “For Marxism is nothing if not a powerful magnifying glass under which the irrationality of the capitalist system protrudes in all of its monstrous forms.” When I think of problems like alienation, exploitation, class conflict, the ways in which the state invariably defends capitalists’ interests, the oppression of the working class, or the pervasiveness of domination based on economic hierarchies, it seems quite clear to me that the magnifying glass of Marxism remains as indispensable as ever.


Karl Marx, 1875
FROM THE Marx Engels Image Library

But unlike some who are sympathetic to Marx, I don’t believe that the value of Marxism today is merely negative; that is, I don’t think it’s valuable merely as a critique of capitalism. There are also many positive elements of Marxism that are still valuable and relevant. The ideal and goal of a classless society, free of economic exploitation and social domination, seems to me to have lost none of its appeal. Likewise, I think Marxists are right to stress the strategic importance of the working class for any radical social transformation. Much of Marx’s method of social analysis, which links political, social and cultural phenomena to economic and technological developments, remains very useful.

None of what I’ve said should be taken to mean that we can find solutions to all of our contemporary problems in Marx’s writings. Marx got many things wrong, and in any event, it would be silly to think that someone who died 125 years ago could have answers for all of today’s problems. Yet those who are fighting against the scourge of neo-liberalism and capitalist “globalization,” and certainly everyone committed to the defense of workers’ interests, can gain from reading Marxist literature. If anything, the collapse of Soviet communism, and the eclipse of the “Marxism-Leninism” that it proclaimed as its official doctrine, makes it easier to appreciate Marx’s real value and enduring significance, as well as the lessons we might learn from reading him today.

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.

From a strictly Marxist perspective, how does one define communism? Has such communism ever been truly realized, however briefly, at any point in world history?

Marx-Engels Statues in Marx-Engels
Forum, East Berlin

BY Adam Carr
IMAGE LICENSED UNDER Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 License

Marx and Engels never developed a specific, detailed conception of communism. They thought it would be a huge mistake to do so, since it is wrong to think that we can simply impose an abstract blueprint on society and expect historical development to accommodate itself to an abstract model. This was in fact one of their major disagreements with the so-called Utopian Socialists: Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Robert Owen.

What’s more, they did not think that they could anticipate the desires and choices of human beings who would — for the first time — be truly emancipated. (Marx and Engels claimed that all history prior to the advent of socialism, the early stage of communism, should be regarded as the “pre-history of human society,” given that human beings have thus far been unable to fully take control of their own destiny.)

Instead of a well-articulated plan for a communist society, what we find in Marx and Engels’ works are some very general ideas, along with several incidental comments. It’s safe to say that for them, and Marxists in general, communism refers to an egalitarian, classless society in which there is a common, or collective, ownership of the major means of production. It also involves a planned economy, in which the aim of production is to satisfy human needs rather than generating profits.

… it’s safe to say that for Marx and Engels, and Marxists generally, communism refers to an egalitarian, classless society in which there is common, or collective, ownership of the major means of production.

Marx and Engels assumed that this form of social organization would eliminate the various forms of exploitation, domination, and alienation produced by capitalism. In positive terms, they thought that communism would make freedom and self-realization a real possibility for all members of society.

Needless to say, this kind of communism (as opposed to pre-industrial forms of communism, or the quasi-communism of certain religious communities) has not yet been brought into being anywhere. Can it ever exist? It might turn out that “communism” is an ideal that we can merely try to approximate. Yet even if this were true, communism would be no different, in this respect, from “democracy” or “liberty.”

Did Marx ever mention the role of the poet in the authentic communist state?

Despite his own love of literature, and thorough knowledge of the great works of the Western literary tradition, Marx said virtually nothing about the fate of art in communist society.

One point he did insist on, however, was that communism would entail a profound human liberation, and this would include, among other things, liberation of our aesthetic capacities and potential. For example, Marx believed that mechanization and automation would make it possible for us to radically shorten the work day, and that reducing work time was in fact a necessary condition for human emancipation and creating a truly liberated society. One of the purposes of shortening the work day is to free up time for creative activity, like writing, painting, building things, composing and playing music, etc.

Marx seemed to assume that there would be more poets in communist society, since all sorts of talents, including a gift for poetry, would emerge once people had the time and encouragement necessary to develop these talents.

Marx seemed to assume that there would be more poets in communist society, since all sorts of talents, including a gift for poetry, would emerge once people had the time and encouragement necessary to develop these talents. At the same time, he also seemed to assume that there would be fewer full-time artists, so to speak, in communist society, for he believed that one of the great defects of capitalism is that it leads to excessive specialization: one is a painter, a lawyer, a plumber, a teacher, a farmer, a poet, an electrician, etc. That is, we are forced to assume one role, and therefore end up developing only a fraction of our various talents and abilities, hence crippling, and even de-humanizing ourselves.

As an alternative, Marx defended the ideal of an all-round or universal development of the individual. He believed that this would be possible in part, as I said, because people would have so much more free time at their disposal. These are the themes that we can find throughout Marx’s work, from The German Ideology to The Grundrisse and Capital.

How do you think Marx would react to the onslaught of modern poetry as it was experienced in the 20th century, with all its existentialism, fragmentation, absurdism, surrealism…?

I suppose that Marx, in keeping with his method of social analysis, would view the developments as being in part an expression, and symptom, of deeper socio-economic changes. He would likely regard them the way that many Marxist critics have viewed them, namely as reflections of the crises of capitalism and capitalist society, with the economic dislocation, alienation, and social atomization. that these crises inevitably generate. While this approach or perspective has its limitations, it seems useful in explaining some aspects and manifestations of literary trends or movements that appeared in the 20th century.

Are “Communism,” “Marxism,” and “Capitalism” merely intellectual and political phantoms afterall? For the world does seem to me as trans-historically divided into opposing camps…

For all the confusion, I think these terms do refer to very different visions or models of how society should be organized, which commitments ought to govern social institutions, which values and goals governments should prioritize, and so on. Naturally, the concepts themselves are abstractions, representing more or less what Max Weber called “ideal types.” Even so, they can be useful in understanding, evaluating and comparing different societies.

I already sketched the Marxist conception of communism in answering a previous question. As for “capitalism,” I take this term to mean a socio-economic arrangement based on private ownership of the major means of production — in which production decisions are shaped more or less exclusively by the pursuit of profit — coupled with a market economy. It’s probably the case that most people who criticize capitalism focus on the contrast between production-for-profit and production-to-satisfy-needs, but it’s important to remember that this follows from the distinction between public and private ownership.

In your studies of Marx, have you delved very far into the political philosophy of Sartre? If so, could you comment on Sartre’s interpretation of Marx and how he thought Marx’s writings should be translated into political action?

Although I am familiar with Sartre’s early phenomenological and existentialist writings, I have not read much of his political philosophy, which attempts, among other things, something of a synthesis of Marxism and existentialism.

Sartre was in fact a major influence on many philosophers who subsequently tried to develop a kind of “existential Marxism,” and in general on writers who were of the opinion that classical Marxist theory tended to resemble a mechanistic determinism, ignoring important questions connected with subjectivity and individual human experience.

As a scholar and writer on Marx, what predictions can you make about the oncoming economic reality of the 21st century, and the shape literature will take? Do you think the world economy will exhibit more Marxist attributes, or less — will literature, as it’s been traditionally viewed in the West, play a more vital role in culture? Or will it be extinguished in its own antiquity, and turn into a mere trace of its former glory by the onslaught of more technology in a rising corporate global “community”?

There seem to be two questions here. As for the global economic realities of the 21st century, my sense is that the current world order — that is, the political, economic and ecological status quo — is simply unsustainable. I certainly don’t know exactly where we’re heading, but I do believe that the economy and society will exhibit many of the features that Marx foresaw. These include, on the one hand, the social ills caused by capitalism that Marx and Marxists have diagnosed and analyzed, e.g. alienation and the devastation to our sense of community.

… my sense is that the current world order — that is, the political, economic and ecological status quo — is simply unsustainable. I certainly don’t know exactly where we’re heading, but I do believe that the economy and society will exhibit many of the features that Marx foresaw.

On the other hand, there will probably be heightened, or at any rate continuing, concentrations of wealth and power, much production of waste, and the kind of economic competition that leads to imperialism and war. For these reasons, among others, I’m quite certain that people will continue to find much that is useful and inspiring in the work of Marx, Engels and the other classical Marxists (Antonio Gramsci, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, José Carlos Mariátegui, etc.).

As for literature, I tend to be slightly pessimistic. While I’m sure that different forms of art and literature will continue to play a vital role in our experience, I worry that literature “as it’s been traditionally viewed in the West,” as you put it, will be somewhat more marginal.

I tend to think that technological changes have benefited literature to the extent that they have led us to have new relationships to the world and to one another. This, in turn, has obviously given writers new sources of inspiration, new experiences to reflect upon, and new realities to explore. At the same time, there’s no question that certain new technologies “compete” with literature (as conventionally understood), and with other forms of artistic expression.


A Short History of Decay
BY E.M. Cioran
(Arcade Publishing, 1998)

The Trouble with Being Born

The Trouble with Being Born
BY E.M. Cioran
(Arcade Publishing, 1998)

Let’s take a look now at aphorisms, since both of us have written in this form. What does this literary form offer a contemporary writer?

I suppose the aphorism offers writers what it always has: a wonderful vehicle for expressing reflections, insights, opinions, and so on. The directness and economy of aphorisms often gives them a force that is practically unattainable in other genres. I don’t know whether the aphorism is particularly suited to the early 21st century, but it certainly lends itself to any time, like the present, in which disenchantment is pervasive.

It is interesting to note that few philosophers write aphorisms today, even though aphorisms can be very effective in conveying philosophical insights, and despite the fact that a number of great philosophers are accomplished aphorists. One reason why contemporary philosophers distrust the aphorism has to do with their insistence that everything be spelt out in detail, and that ideas be presented as plainly and unambiguously as possible.

The other main reason, I think, is that aphoristic thoughts resist neat systematization. This is most obvious in texts that try to impose a kind of order on the thoughts of an aphoristic writer or thinker, and inevitably end up distorting these thoughts. In any case, the fact that aphorisms are in this sense somewhat intractable also seems to account for the lack of interest in the genre among contemporary philosophers.

I’ve been jotting down random ideas and reflections in notebooks since I was in college. Even some of the earliest jottings were, as I recall, attempts at something like aphorisms. One of the earliest inspirations for writing aphorisms, and fragments in general, was Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, which I came across by chance as a freshman in college. Slightly later in college I read Nietzsche for the first time, and it was through his writing that I really began to appreciate the force, and what you might call efficacy, of a well-wrought aphorism.

I first learned about Cioran more than twenty years ago after reading a review of one of his works in a collection of essays and reviews by a leading book critic. (It was probably a review of A Short History of Decay.) I found the review’s description of Cioran’s book intriguing, partly, as I recall, because the reviewer tried to situate Cioran within the tradition of French existentialist thought. Anyway, I then sought out Cioran’s works at the university library and what I found was for me a major intellectual discovery. In fact, I was “hooked” the moment I opened The Trouble With Being Born, which was the first of his books that I read (and is one of his works that contains nothing but aphorisms and short fragments).

I find it difficult to describe exactly what kind of impact Cioran’s work has had on my own attempts at writing aphorisms. His work has, without question, set a standard for my own efforts, and I know that his tone has clearly influenced my writing. But beyond these rather obvious points I don’t really know how to go about characterizing his influence, which in some ways has surely been immense.

Should we be disturbed at all that the young Cioran exhibited pro-fascist tendencies in his homeland of Romania? Or should we consider this differently and write off that part of his life as youthful folly?

We should certainly condemn the fascistic political outlook that Cioran championed briefly in his youth and which he expressed in a text written in Romanian, The Transfiguration of Romania. (A recent book by a Romanian writer, An Infamous Past, discusses Cioran’s political orientation at that time.) At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Cioran subsequently repudiated and deplored the views expressed in this book. Incidentally, I’ve always thought it odd, to say the least, that we are so much more troubled by the fact that a writer like Cioran flirted with ultra-right wing positions in the 1930s than by the fact that there are still writers and intellectuals in the United States today who, say, defend the Vietnam War, an utterly indefensible enterprise.

At any rate, I think the more important question is a different one, namely: are the works for which we admire Cioran and for which he’s rightly famous — or even the œuvre as a whole, leaving aside The Transfiguration of Romania — colored or tainted by fascist sentiments?

It’s quite clear to my mind that they are not. In fact, I think most of his writings address non-political, or “pre-political” questions, and are compatible, so to speak, with both left-wing and right-wing political positions. Indeed, from a political perspective, I think Nietzsche’s work —to take an example of a thinker who bears some obvious affinities with Cioran — is much more problematic.

One of the oldest literary forms, and yet seldomly used by contemporary writers… isn’t this quite ironic? In that the television commercial is itself a kind of aphorism too…

It’s certainly true that as a “genre” the aphorism seems to be as marginal and neglected as ever. This is surprising for a couple of reasons. There seems to be an audience both for books that offer worldly wisdom and for those that promise spiritual enlightenment. Just think of the apparently inexhaustible interest in self-help books and the enormous market for “New Age” literature. What’s more, we live in a time in which all sorts of marginal or peripheral genres and “discourses” have been rediscovered and celebrated. The aphorism would seem to be an especially appropriate genre for an era in which people appear to have a shorter attention span and are accustomed to a certain amount of compression and fragmentation in literature and the media.

… perhaps there are times in which aphorisms flourish, and times in which they don’t, and that our age happens to belong, unfortunately, to the latter.

One reason why few contemporary writers produce aphorisms is perhaps that this form of writing is poorly understood, and for this reason alone tends to be avoided. I once submitted a series of political aphorisms to a fairly well-known, somewhat alternative political journal, which rejected them. What surprised me was not the fact that they were rejected — maybe the journal was right to reject them — but the reviewer’s comments. It was clear from these comments that the reviewer had no grasp whatsoever of the aphorism as a literary form. He/she thought that the aphorisms were deficient because they did not include sufficiently elaborate arguments and theoretical justification. Long arguments and theoretical justification in an aphorism! Anyone who demands this from an aphorism plainly has no sense of what this genre of writing intends to achieve.

Another reason is that aphorists are almost invariably moralists, in one sense or another, and there is a good deal of skepticism or distrust today toward writers who present themselves as moralists.

Lastly, it might be the case that our age is actually less congenial to the aphorism, for whatever reason. Aphorisms have certainly flourished more in some literatures than in others. There is a much richer tradition in French literature (e.g. Chamfort, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, and Vauvenargues), and German literature (e.g. Lichtenberg, Goethe, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) than in English literature. By the same token, perhaps there are times in which aphorisms flourish, and times in which they don’t, and that our age happens to belong, unfortunately, to the latter.

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