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Marx and the Chimney-sweeps

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One of the core tenants of Marxist theory is that history is a never ending struggle between antagonistic economic classes, and that contemporary reality is the latest instance of that struggle. It is an anti-humanist philosophy that states, in the words of Marx:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”

Nowhere is this more apparent than the plight of Blake’s chimney sweeps.

From the very beginning it is obvious that the chimney sweep’s existence is entirely driven by his socio-economic circumstances since, as the footnotes of the poem indicate, the lack of a means of subsistence was his reason for becoming a chimney sweeper in the first place. But what is more interesting is the role of ideology, and the interplay of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies between the two versions of the poem.

Ideology in the Marxist sense is “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. According to Marxist theory, ideology springs from the institutions through which individuals are socialized. In the case of the chimney sweeps, the main institution at work is the church. The ideology that is being sold to the boys here is that one should accept their earthly hardships as a trial, and an insignificant prelude to the rewards of an eternal afterlife. This in effect blinds the boys to the reality of their situation and makes them feel fulfilled by placing them in the social role of humble christian servant.

Hegemony is defined as “The domination of a set of beliefs and values through consent rather than through coercive power”. The differences between the two versions of this poem reflect an issue that received much debate between Marxist scholars: to what extent individuals can resist ideology, and how hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies work within literature and within society. The “innocence” version of the poem casts chimney sweeps who have completely internalized christian ideology. On the other hand, the “experience” version of the poem casts a completely counter-hegemonic chimney sweep who bitterly criticizes his situation and brilliantly elucidates the hypocrisy of those who use their Christianity to speak of a situation that they cannot understand.

Given the vastness of Marxist criticism and the applicability of these two poems to its ideals, this subject would be a good topic for a paper but is difficult to completely explain in a blog post.

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