Proletarian Literature Reconsidered
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Proletarian literature is best understood as strongly anticapitalist literature by or about working-class people. As a cultural form, proletarian literature is an expression of the experiences of working-class people under capitalism, an index to the social relationships created in and against capitalism. As a genre, proletarian literature was formalized in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the cultural arm of the Bolshevik Revolution, amid intense debate about the nature and function of workers’ culture under socialism. Yet its roots run much deeper, coinciding with the development of capitalism, industrialization, and the making of class society itself. In the 19th century, for example, both the slave narrative and nonfiction writing by factory workers can be counted as expressions of working-class life and subjectivity. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, may be taken as one of the first full-length, self-conscious examples of proletarian writing. That Davis’s book was written by a woman is also significant: proletarian literature reflects the disproportionate experiences of women, immigrants, migrants, African Americans, colonial subjects, and other people of color as members of the working class globally. Indeed, because the genre has historically been tied to the development of communist and socialist movements worldwide, proletarian literature is necessarily a global phenomenon, and an insightful indicator of the relationships between workers in different nations and colonies yoked together by global capitalism. Thus, proletarian literature should be studied as corollary to the development of capitalism across time and space; as an index to the lived experience of race, gender, sexuality, and class; and as one of the most important expressive forms and historical records left by members of the working class as a whole.