All sociologies of thought agree that social life influences literary creation. This is also a fundamental assumption of dialectical materialism; which in addition, however, gives particular emphasis to the importance of economic factors and the relations between social classes. Many writers and philosophers dispute such an influence: they claim that to relate spiritual values to social and economic circumstances is to debase them. Such prejudices are strengthened among some of them by a desire to combat Marxism, an ideology which appears to them essentially political and primarily concerned with fulfilling the material needs of masses who have no culture and are indifferent to spiritual values. We have shown elsewhere that true spiritual values are not, in fact, separable from social and economic reality, but bear on this reality precisely by their attempt to introduce into it a maximum of human solidarity and community. We are concerned here, however, with a more limited problem: to identify certain principles for a dialectical history of literature and thereby, implicitly, to pose the problem of the relationships between literary creation and social life.
For the sociologist—whether or not he is a Marxist—this problem can be resolved only by scientific and positive study. Like any other theory, the assertion of the influence of economic and social factors on literary creation is not a dogma, but a hypothesis, which is only valid in so far as it is confirmed by facts. Yet the debate over this problem has produced many misunderstandings, mostly initiated by the opponents of dialectical materialism, but equally often shared and accepted by its supporters, more concerned with defending themselves than with keeping contact with the facts and reality. An essay whose purpose is to clarify the meaning of dialectical materialist theses in literary history may therefore be of some use, provided the reader bears in mind the preliminary nature of such a study, which in itself will not be a proof for or against dialectical materialism; for its sole aim is to help formulate basic points of view and clear the ground for further discussion.
The crudest yet most widespread misunderstanding which needs to be signalled is the persistent confusion of dialectical materialism with the theories of Hyppolite Taine, who explained a literary work by its author’s biography and the social milieu in which he lived. In fact, it would be hard to imagine an idea more foreign to dialectical materialism. There is no need to imagine that philosophical thought and literary creation are metaphysical entities, entirely divorced from the rest of economic and social life, for it to be obvious that the writer and the thinker have far greater freedom, far more mediated and complex links with social life, and far more autonomy in the internal logic of their works, than any abstract and mechanistic sociology has ever wanted to allow them. For historical materialism, the main axiom for the study of literary creation is the fact that literature and philosophy are, on different planes, the expressions of a vision of the world, and that visions of the world are not individual but social facts.
A vision of the world is a coherent and unitary view of the whole of reality. The thoughts of an individual, on the other hand, are—with few exceptions—rarely coherent or unified. Subjected to an infinite number of different pressures, influenced not only by the most diverse environments but also by physiological constitution in its widest sense, an individual’s thought and feeling always more or less approximate a certain degree of coherence, but only exceptionally attain it. That is why it is very easy to encounter Christian Marxists, Romantics who like Racine’s tragedies, racially prejudiced democrats, and so on. There is, however, no true philosophy or real art that is simultaneously Christian and immanent, classical and romantic, humanist and racist.
But then, it may be objected, a world-view becomes an abstract and metaphysical entity. But this is not so. It is system of thought which, in certain circumstances, imposes itself on groups of men, in similar social and economic circumstances—that is to say, certain social classes. Few individuals embody it totally, but each does so sufficiently for them to constitute a community of feelings, thoughts and actions which unite these particular men and oppose them to other social classes. Philosophers and writers take this view to its ultimate consequences in
For this to happen, such a vision of the world must exist, or at least be emergent; but the social milieu in which it develops, the social class which it expresses, are not necessarily those in which the writer or the philosopher have spent their youth or even a significant part of their lives. It is, of course, very likely that the thought of a writer will be influenced by the environment with which he has been in immediate contact. However, this influence may take very diverse forms: adaptation, but also a reaction of refusal and revolt, or a synthesis of the ideas encountered in this environment with others found elsewhere and so on. The influence of an immediate milieu can also be counteracted and even overcome by that of ideologies which are distant from it both in time and in space. It is in any event clear that we are dealing with an extremely complex phenomenon, which cannot be reduced to any mechanical schema.
Biography can be of considerable relevance, and the literary historian must always study it carefully in each particular case to see what information and explanation it may provide. But he must never forget that, when he is concerned with a deeper analysis, biography is only a partial and secondary level of explanation: the fundamental level is the relationship between works and world-views which correspond to social classes. It should be added that, like any complex factor, the action of the milieu on the work has a statistical aspect for scientific study; its impact is all the more obvious where it affects not only a single case, but a plurality of individuals who form a literary or philosophical current. Thus the large number of writers from the Third Estate in French realist literature, from Villon and Rabelais to Molière, Diderot and Voltaire; or the large number of lower gentry in romantic literature (de Chateaubriand, de Vigny, de Musset, de Lamartine) is doubtless significant. Similarly, the presence of many individuals whose background was in the legal profession around Port-Royal (the two theoreticians Arnauld and Pascal, and the poet Racine) is also revealing. For general ways of thinking and of feeling are naturally found mainly among the members of the social groups to which they correspond, but the individual is a being far too complex, his functions in the whole of social life too diverse, the mediations between his thought and economic reality too numerous and varied, for it to be possible to reduce him to the impoverished scheme of any mechanical and simplistic sociology.