Why Marx Was Right

Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton is a Catholic and a Marxist and a Brit. It’s difficult to say which of these identities is the most important to his writing, but whichever it is, he’s blessed with the ability to make the dark look clear and the crooked seem straight.

This skill is obvious in his new book, Why Marx Was Right, in which he takes the often obscurantist jargonizing so common in writing about Marx —  for and against — and makes it not only interesting but refreshingly readable.

Eagleton takes on ten common criticisms of Marxism, one chapter at a time, making the argument in each case that the criticism is based on a distortion or a misunderstanding of Marx’s work. His general position is that most of those who criticize Marx are attacking an inaccurate stereotype. To counter this, Eagleton quotes extensively from Marx’s writing, especially from those works little known to non-Marxists who typically have read only The Communist Manifesto or who have been educated in Marxism solely by its opponents.

This is not the first combative position for Eagleton. In a long career, he has taken on everything from postmodernism to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion to the institution of English football, about which he said during the 2010 World Cup, “nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.”

While Why Marx Was Right is  more than a bit too apologetic about Stalin’s excesses for my taste — it wasn’t so much Comrade Joe’s fault as it was that Russia wasn’t the right kind of society in which to launch true socialism — much of the book is quite effective in pointing out that Marxism, as written by Marx, is not irrelevant to the “post-capitalist” West. It may actually be more relevant than ever following what Eagleton, like many other remnant Marxists, considers the near collapse of the entire capitalist system during the recent banking crisis.

Eagleton structures his book according to the principle that Marxism lies at the heart of those issues most relevant to us today:

Alienation, the ‘‘commodification’’ of social life, a culture of greed, aggression, mindless hedonism and growing nihilism, the steady hemorrhage of meaning and value from human existence: it is hard to find an intelligent discussion of these questions that is not seriously indebted to the Marxist tradition.

He sets out to answer each “misguided” criticism in turn, devoting a chapter to each one. It’s not possible to describe all of Eagleton’s defenses in this space, but a brief look at two interesting chapters will provide a pretty good indicator of the book as a whole.

– * –

One chapter that merits attention is Chapter 5, which addresses the claim that “Marxism reduces everything to economics.”

Economics is important to Marx, Eagleton writes, because material production is central to society, which is Marx’s real topic:

The first historical act, Marx writes in The German Ideology, is the production of the means to satisfy our material needs. Only then can we learn to play the banjo, write erotic poetry or paint the front porch. The basis of culture is labour. There can be no civilisation without material production.

According to Marx, Eagleton writes, “material production is fundamental not only in the sense that there could be no civilisation without it, but that it is what ultimately determines the nature of that civilisation.”

Eagleton explains that the Marxist claim of the primacy of economics is due to the fact that  “the way men and women produce their material life sets limits to the kind of cultural, legal, political and social institutions they construct.” He points to our own consumer society as a prime example of the pervasive influence of the economic on the social.

Eagleton mocks the critics who reject Marx’s focus on economics:

Today, many of those who would scornfully reject Marx’s theory of history behave for all the world as though it were true. These people are known as bankers, financial advisors, Treasury officials, corporate executives and the like. Everything they do testifies to their faith in the priority of the economic. They are spontaneous Marxists to a man.

Eagleton devotes considerable space to his claim that Marx was not the first to recognize the key role that economics, understood as methods of production, has played in history. He reviews the economic theories of thinkers from Cicero to the Enlightenment materialists to Rousseau to make his point that Marxism is part of a larger, much older discussion of economics.

Eagleton drives home his point by painting a familiar picture of how much economic life intrudes on, how much it determines, the ways we live:

The business of material production has loomed so large in human history, absorbed such boundless resources of time and energy, provoked such internecine conflicts, engrossed so many human beings from cradle to grave and confronted so many of them as a matter of life or death, that it would be amazing if it were not to leave its mark on a good many other aspects of our existence. Other social institutions find themselves inexorably dragged into its orbit. It bends politics, law, culture and ideas out of true.

It’s in passages like this that Eagleton’s writing gift is most effective, when a sense of injustice, of injury to human dignity, rides alongside his analytical descriptions. It’s this “human side” to Marxism that he believes to be most often ignored or distorted by critics, and it’s this side of Marx that he most wants to illuminate. For Eagleton, Marxism is not economic determinism but rather a route to human liberation from economic slavery:

Production for Marx, then, means realizing one’s essential powers in the act of transforming reality. True wealth, he claims in the Grundrisse, is ‘‘the absolute working-out of human creative potentialities”  . . . i.e. the development of all human powers as an end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick.

Far from being obsessed with economic matters, Marx saw them as a travesty of true human potential. He wanted a society where the economic no longer monopolised so much time and energy.

– * –

Chapter 8 deals with the contention that “Marxists are advocates of violent political action.” Eagleton is particularly good on this point, making a strong case that Marx was much more interested in “transforming the customs, institutions and habits of feeling of a society” than merely in taking political control.

Before he hits his stride, however, Eagleton brushes past the human horrors of Stalin and Mao, making the standard — and quite irrelevant, it seems to me — “but what of the crimes of capitalism?” comparison. He soon recovers, however, and focuses on the chapter’s main topic: “For Marxists, antagonism is built into the very nature of capitalism. This is true not only of the class conflict it involves, but of the wars to which it gives rise, as capitalist nations clash over global resources or spheres of imperial influence.” Eagleton argues that capitalism is out of control, driven by “the anarchy of market forces.”

He points out that “a revolution for Marxism is not the same thing as a coup d’etat, or an outbreak of spontaneous disaffection. … In the fullest sense, revolutions come about only when one social class overthrows the rule of another and replaces it with its own power.”

There is no necessary link between violence and socialist revolution, Eagleton writes. If revolution can be achieved peacefully — which Marx believed was possible in advanced capital democracies like England and the United States — then all the better.

Eagleton notes that violence is a frequent feature of social reform in general, not of Marxist reform in particular: “Most of the reforms we now regard as precious features of liberal society—universal suffrage, free universal education, freedom of the press, trade unions and so on—were won by popular struggle in the teeth of ferocious ruling-class resistance.”

Eagleton writes that revolutionaries do not necessarily reject parliamentary democracy, but “Marxists, however, have reservations about parliamentary democracy—not because it is democratic, but because it is not democratic enough.” This is because “parliaments are part of a state which is in business, by and large, to ensure the sovereignty of capital over labour.”

– * –

By the end of the book, there’s no doubt about Eagleton’s assessment. Calling his subject the most misrepresented of philosophers, Eagleton concludes with a “true” portrait of Karl Marx:

It was diversity, not uniformity, that he hoped to see. Nor did he teach that men and women were the helpless playthings of history. He was even more hostile to the state than right-wing conservatives are, and saw socialism as a deepening of democracy, not as the enemy of it. His model of the good life was based on the idea of artistic self-expression. He believed that some revolutions might be peacefully accomplished, and was in no sense opposed to social reform. … His ideal was leisure, not labour. … There has been no more staunch champion of women’s emancipation, world peace, the fight against fascism or the struggle for colonial freedom than the political movement to which his work gave birth.

Was ever a thinker so travestied?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

There’s a lot of information — and spin — to consider in Why Marx Was Right, both despite and because of the passion of Eagleton’s defense.

One thing that most readers of this book should be able to agree on, however, is that there’s more to Karl Marx than is suggested by the caricatures of seer or demon which populate most contemporary discussions of him and his work.


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