A Marxist Analysis of “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

Marxist Analysis is a way of analyzing literature through the scope of Karl Marx’s ideas about the alienation of labor, the flaws of a base economy, and ideologies that help the bourgeoisie maintain societal control over the proletariat. This analysis is useful to examine pieces of literature that make social commentary about problems with the division of classes and the alienation of labor. This is relevant in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” because of the many questions asked in order to describe how a “deferred” dream can be compared to several decaying objects. These questions prove a point about how dreams which are deferred can weigh down the psyche and worsen a person’s ability to dream further or function at all. The death of the speaker’s dreams come from the effects of rugged individualism and classism that existed in post-war Harlem. These ideologies, put in place by the American upper class (bourgeoisie) in order to downplay the suffering of the American working class (proletariat), forced the proletariat to blame themselves for their lack of success and their dying dream, and ultimately succumb to their station as a laborer instead of blaming the bourgeoisie and issues in the American economy. This, in turn, creates an internal “explosion” of the psyche—an inability to function as a human bound by class status and economic difficulties.
The title, “Harlem,” provides important context into understanding the societal and social circumstances behind the poem. This poem was written in 1951, right after the second World War. Harlem had a period of prosperity in the Harlem Renaissance, but this prosperity dwindled when the stock market crashed and Great Depression occurred in the 1920s. Years later, the violence of WWII had created a sense of meaninglessness throughout America, but it was particularly prevalent in places like Harlem, where hardship from the years before had lingered. During this time, Classism and rugged individualism, ideologies that keep in place the capitalistic hierarchy of classes, forced the proletariat to blame themselves for their station in life instead of the broken economy and a country still rattled by the war. This prevented the proletariat from following their dreams, and instead, forced them to defer their dreams and to attempt to pull them out of their status as a laborer. We can see this in the poem: the imagery of the dried up raisin, the festering sore, the spoiled meat, the crusted over sweet, and even the heavy load all are images of “deferred” objects, or objects that once had a use or once were prosperous, but are now painful and lifeless. This becomes the dreamer: they must resign themselves to a life of work, because the ideologies in place force them to believe that it is their fault they have failed to be successful, and so they are unable to function as a human and unable to find meaning.
The proletariat, while oppressed, is unable to retaliate against these societal issues because of the forced false consciousness—their inherent belief in ideologies that manipulate them into continuing the cycle of unfair labor—and must resign themselves to the cycle while becoming alienated from themselves and their own aspirations. The speaker of the poem suggests that the outcome of this is an explosion, perhaps external in the form of a riot or violence, but the more Marxist answer is that it is an internal explosion—the death of a dream slowly kills you, because you are tied to labor instead of practicing more human behaviors, such as working on something that empowers you and fills you with passion.