Marx redux

Why Marx Was Right

SINCE THE New Left Church appeared in 1966, Terry Eagleton has been unflagging in his efforts to demonstrate the relevance of Marx’s thought to a critique of modern culture—from politics to religion, philosophy to literature. In Why Marx Was Right, his thirty-ninth book, Eagleton expands upon his brief Marx and Freedom (1997) to provide “a clear, accessible introduction” to Marxism by refuting “ten of the most standard criticisms of Marx.” Those criticisms, treated one to a chapter, are as follows: 

  1. Marxism is no longer relevant to the “socially mobile, postindustrial Western societies of the present”;
  2. Marxism, “put into practice,” leads to “terror, tyranny, and mass murder”;
  3. Marxism is deterministic, denying people free will and individuality;
  4. Marxism is based on a “dewy-eyed” utopianism that idealizes human nature;
  5. Marxism “reduces everything to economics”;
  6. Marxism is sheer materialism, a “dreary, soulless vision of humanity”;
  7. Marxism holds to outdated notions of class “in a social world where class matters less and less”;
  8. Marxism “advocates…violent political action,” however bloody, because it holds that morality is merely ideology and that “the end justifies the means”;
  9. Marxism “believes in an all-powerful state,” despotic and “monstrous”;
  10. Marxism has been irrelevant to “all the most interesting radical movements of the past four decades . . .”. 

Treating criticism #1, for example, Eagleton begins by noting that “Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists,” but cannot as long as the ills of capitalism remain unredressed. That capitalism has changed since Marx wrote is in fact something Marx anticipated, so these changes—the altered composition of the proletariat, transmogrified social circumstances that mask the myriad ills of postmodern capitalism—do nothing to invalidate Marx. Nor is Marxism discredited, Eagleton argues, by the fall (or the heinous misdeeds) of the Soviet Union. Rather, if Marxism seems passé to many thinkers today, this is because we suffer from a “creeping sense of political impotence” as capitalism “wax[es] more ruthless and extreme.” Indeed, Eagleton concludes, it is precisely because of recent events fueled by capitalism—from global warming and the financial debacle of 2008 to “spectacular inequalities of wealth and power, imperial warfare, intensified exploitation, [and] an increasingly repressive state”—that Marx remains indispensable today.

Throughout, Eagleton’s arguments are clearly articulated, informed, and persuasive. They are also wide-ranging, moving from what is unique about Marx’s thought to environmentalism, from socialism’s responsiveness to people’s spiritual needs to the necessity of capitalism as a precondition of socialism, from the limits of pacifism to Marx’s “deep respect for democracy,” from why socialist revolution will never be the action “of a small bunch of rebels” to what Marx meant when he appropriated Auguste Blanqui’s unfortunate phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Eagleton likewise offers solid, useful explanations of key Marxist terminology—with the exception of “Marxism” itself. For the most part, he uses “Marxism,” “socialism,” and “communism” interchangeably, yet occasionally one comes upon assertions such as “only beyond socialism, under communism, will the coercive state give way to an administrative body.” Because his book is intended “for those unfamiliar with [Marx’s] work,” Eagleton might have spelled out the differences he sees among these terms. 

Although proselytizing for the correctness and usefulness of Marxism, Eagleton is not adverse to discussing Marx’s shortcomings as a thinker—his blindness to the exercise of power for the sheer delight of it, the ways in which Marx was “an old-fashioned Victorian patriarch,” his ambivalence regarding anticolonialist politics—nor is Eagleton an apologist for everything marching under the socialist banner.  Along with liberals, postmodernists, and postcolonialists (“the foreign affairs department of postmodernism”), “so-called vulgar Marxists” get theirs. Further, and perhaps to the surprise of some readers, Eagleton is clear, as was Marx, about both the virtues of the middle class and the accomplishments of capitalism.

Given Eagleton’s intended audience, it is worth noting that Why Marx Was Right is a lot of fun, whether Eagleton is commenting on Madonna’s fascination with Kabbala or using Keith Richards to explain that there is no necessary connection between “spiritual and material development.” More than readily comprehensible, Eagleton’s prose is always lively: “The working class…is not always male, brawny and handy with a sledgehammer”; to refute Marxism by pointing to Stalin’s show trials is like “claiming the Girl Guides should be disbanded because they cannot solve certain tricky problems in quantum physics”; “my valet may be a great deal more dexterous at blowing my nose than I am myself, but it befits my dignity to do it myself, or (if I am Prince Charles) at least every now and then.”

If Eagleton is ready to give credit to capitalism when he must, he is at his most ardent when detailing its horrors: “Capital remains concentrated in fewer hands than ever before, and the ranks of the destitute and dispossessed swell by the hour. While the chief executive smoothes his jeans over his sneakers, over one billion on the planet go hungry every day. Most of the megacities in the south of the globe are stinking slums rife with disease and overcrowding” at the same time that “the world’s destiny is being determined by a handful of Western-based corporations answerable to nobody but their shareholders.” Indeed, as this passage suggests, Why Marx Was Right is more than a primer, more than the defense of an often “travestied” thinker. As we watch the continuing corporate takeover of politics, as the planet warms and the poor get poorer, Eagleton offers us as well both jeremiad and an impassioned plea to remember what Marx has to teach us. “If we do not act now,” he writes, “it seems that capitalism will be the death of us.”


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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