CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

“Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory”

Aune presents a conundrum here: the repression of Marxist theory within rhetoric and, reciprocally, the repression of rhetoric in Marxist theory. If mentioned at all, he argues, rhetoric is pushed to the “margins of serious discourse” (539). And although rhetoricians have taken up ideology, the crux of Marxist discourse—class struggle—has been largely ignored. Aune warns that though a focus on ideology can open up space to talk about oppressions more broadly (including race, gender, ability), this centralizing of ideology, which is frequently substituted for class struggle, “runs the risk of making oppression largely a linguistic or cultural matter” (540).

Before addressing these tensions, Aune provides some background of Marxism, outlining some key tenants:

  1. “Labor” is a central, if not the central, characteristic of human beings.
  2. The mode of production in a given social totality—the level of development of productive forces in addition to the type of work relations that accompany those forces—is a determining factor in establishing that totality’s social “being.”
  3. All hitherto existing societies have been characterized by a class struggle over the control or allocation of the surplus from production.
  4. The level of development of the productive forces determines, in the sense of setting boundary conditions for, the sort of class structure and class struggle in a given social system.
  5. Because the productive forces tend to develop over time, “history” is generally predictable in terms of the succession of modes of production.
  6. That class which controls the mode of production in a given society tends to repress, either through the threat of violence or through promoting a particular set of beliefs in the legitimacy of the existing order, radical alterations in control of the productive forces.
  7. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness as a mode of production; that is, it helped develop the productive forces to their currently high level, but its chronic crises, and its wastefulness of natural resources and human talent, mean that it will pass away eventually.
  8. The precise mode of capitalism’s passing away will vary, depending on the political assumptions of the various schools of Marxism. 541

These are important to outline because I certainly don’t have any Marxist theoretical background, and starting with a foundation of the theoretical tenants is useful for understanding what Marxism has to offer rhetoric (and vice versa). I feel like Aune’s argument takes off when he states that Marxism has a rhetorical problem: “either the classless society is inevitable and scientifically grounded with individual choice being irrelevant, or the classless society comes about through the persuasion of individuals and thus ceases to be grounded in scientific laws of history-laws that, as Kenneth Burke ([1950] 1969b) has pointed out, are a major source of Marxism’s rhetorical power in the first place (p. 101)” (542). That is, Marx didn’t account for how the working class as an entity struggles and gains power—an issue we read a little about a couple weeks ago regarding the discourse of social change.

Aune does acknowledge, however, that other Marxists have articulated the function of rhetoric. Specifically, he offers Terry Eagleton’s definition of rhetoric as a process of analyzing the material effects of language and of traditional rhetoric as “the textual training of the ruling class in the techniques of political hegemony” (101 qtd. in Aune 544). The problem with these definitions, Auge argues, is that they are more focused on academic critique than practice or advocacy.

Ultimately, Aune offers four themes that summarize his argument and articulate a tentative Marxist rhetorical theory:

  1. The Marxist representative anecdote of human beings as producers rather than simply as symbol-users may help correct the “trained incapacity” or “occupational psychosis” of rhetorical theory. By foregrounding the role of labor in constructing our human world, a Marxist approach to communication may help revitalize the criticism of public discourse.
  2. By foregrounding class struggle rather than public consensus, a Marxist rhetorical theory may be better able to explain broad historical shifts in rhetorical practice and pedagogy than do existing theoretical alternatives.
  3. Traditional rhetoric, in privileging common sense as a starting point for the construction of enthymemes, may provide a needed corrective to Marxism’s tendency to view the common sense of a culture merely as a rationalization of that culture’s relations of domination.
  4. Uniting Marxism’s traditional concern for economic democracy with rhetoric’s traditional (if at times ambiguous) concern for political democracy may provide a narrative structure for a new politics, one that views revolution as a struggle against racial, sexual, and economic oppression and against the specialized languages of expertise, which have characterized “liberal” reform in this century. Marxism needs to correct rhetoric’s avoidance of the category of labor in the construction of the social world, while rhetoric needs to correct Marxism’s one-sided focus on labor at the expense of other forms of domination.

This article was first published in 1990, and I assume Aune was laying a framework here for other rhetorical scholars to build from, even though—to steal a move from Jason—Google Scholar tells me his article was only cited 10 times. Regardless, I feel like the field has taken up Marxism and labor issues in productive ways. A few examples from some of the fine faculty at (and alum from) SU: the labor politics of first-year writing (by Tony Scott in his book and in this podcast for This Rhetorical Life) and contingent faculty (by Eileen Schell and Patricia Stock), the dynamics of community publishing (by Steve Parks and Paula Mathieu), the rhetorical theorization of political engagement (by Seth Kahn and JongHwa Lee), etc.

I think the most useful thing about Aune’s argument, for me at least, is the acknowledgement that we can’t separate ideology from its material counterparts—the practical considerations of action and labor.



Aune, James Arnt. “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory.” 539-51.


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