on 11 June 2011
"Why Marx was right" is a provocatively titled book by Terry Eagleton, a British Christian socialist and distinguished literary critic. The book is erudite, as behoves a professor of literature, and it does score some points. Overall, however, Eagleton's defence of Marx is unconvincing. The author often ends up "saving" Marxism by amputating some of its more distinctive ideas.
To Eagleton, Marxism correctly interpreted (or perhaps correctly applied) is neither determinist, teleological nor metaphysically materialist. This is unconvincing, since one of the central points of Marxism - and one of the main reasons for both its success and its eventual failure as a movement - is exactly the notion that proletarian revolution and communism are inevitable goals of History. Eagleton believes that Marxism is somehow right, simply because crisis-ridden, immoral capitalism is still around. However, Marxism isn't simply a critique of capitalism. It also makes specific predictions about capitalism's eventual fate. These predictions (about a working-class revolution creating a workers' state to build socialism and communism) were rooted in Marx' analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism. The predictions aren't simply tacked on as morally desirable goals. In the Marxist understanding, capitalism's laws of motion *leads to* working-class revolution. The fact that capitalism is still around and still goes into crises, is irrelevant as long as the Marxist predictions haven't come true. Which, of course, they haven't. For all we know, capitalism could be a system similar to ancient slavery or medieval feudalism: a long-lasting form of society which will eventually collapse *without* a workers' revolution. Note also that Marx' analysis of the contradictions of capitalism are rooted in his "Hegelian" philosophy, dialectical materialism. Thus, the failure of Marx' predictions also calls into question his most basic philosophical presuppositions!
Naturally, Eagleton has a huge problem with really existing socialism: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, etc. He is ambivalent towards it, sometimes spinning "Stalinist" yarns about its brutality being inevitable or even necessary, sometimes sounding "Brezhnevite" (there was full employment and free health care in East Germany, hooray!), and sometimes sounding more critical, "Trotskyist" or even "libertarian socialist". Apparently, Eagleton is a friend of Alex Callinicos, the leader of the British SWP, a Trotskyist group claiming to stand for "socialism from below" (they don't). In the end, Eagleton simply gives up, declaring that Marx may have been a market socialist! Ahem, not true, Terry. What about those labour armies mentioned in the Manifesto? He also takes Parecon seriously, as a supposedly "libertarian" alternative to centralized planning. In reality, the intricate network of "workers' councils" proposed by Parecon would make the planned economy even more bureaucratic and convoluted. When the author is in really bad mood, he simply attacks capitalism on a "tu quoque" basis: since capitalism is brutal, it's hypocritical to attack Soviet or Chinese socialism for *its* brutality. But the brutality of capitalism is irrelevant when discussing whether or not the Marxist alternative to it makes sense. Besides, since when is socialist brutality an alternative to capitalist ditto? Isn't the purported goal of Marxism to abolish brutality altogether?
Eagleton is right that Marx was a radical democrat of sorts, calling for cheap government and supporting the Paris Commune. The problem, however, is that the centralized planned economy called for by Marx doesn't seem to be compatible with radical democracy. It's difficult to envisage even in principle how a centralized, completely statified economy with "labour armies" can be run in a radically democratic fashion. (Ask those libertarian socialists a.k.a. anarchists about it.) Thus, the lack of democracy and abundance of bureaucracy, not to mention sheer terror, in the really existing socialist states doesn't seem to be a contingent historical aberration, but rather an inevitable outcome of the Marxist program, which is surely contradictory on this point. Eagleton argues that the October revolution in Russia went off the rails because of the civil war and the foreign intervention (circa 1918-21). But war can't fully explain the bureaucratic degeneration. Britain had more democracy during the blitz than the Soviet Union had during détante! More to the point, leftist Nicaragua (with its mixed economy) had more democracy during its war with the contras than equally leftist Cuba (with a planned economy) had in peace time. It's hard to believe that the lack of democracy in *all* nations with centralized planning doesn't mean *something*. Another popular "explanation" for ostensibly Marxist regimes turning authoritarian is that socialist revolutions only succeeded in backward, semi-feudal nations with little or no preconditions for democracy. This begs the question why this would be the case at all, since according to Marx the revolution would inevitably triumph in the advanced Western nations - where it has always failed, or not being attempted at all. The long march (or detour) of the socialist project through the Third World is distinctly un-Marxist.
The most curious chapter in Eagleton's book denies that Marx was a metaphysical materialist. This is presumably connected to Eagleton's Christian beliefs. True, Marx wasn't an Enlightenment materialist, let alone a vulgar materialist. However, his "dialectical materialism" surely is an all-encompassing philosophy about the ultimate nature and meaning of reality. I would argue that it's exactly Marxism's curious combination of "scientific" materialism and Hegelian (quasi-spiritual) teleology that makes it so enchanting to many atheists and agnostics, being in effect a kind of substitute religion. The author wants to turn Marx into some kind of "agnostic materialist", with interesting ideas about our corporeality, but nothing to say about what (if anything) lays outside the material domain. Here, religion can presumably roam free. In reality, Marx argued that human practice shows that only matter in motion is real, making the militant atheism of many Marxist movements and regimes a logical conclusion.
As already pointed out, "Why Marx was right" also makes some points which are largely correct. Eagleton, in contrast to many other literature professors, is a staunch opponent of postmodernism, making him less sensitive to the criticism that Marx was Euro-centric, colonialist, Orientalist, etc. As Eagleton points out, even colonialism had *some* positive traits (the abolition of slavery comes to mind), so Marx was surely right to point this out, even when he eventually came out in favour of anti-colonial liberation struggles (who were often inspired by Western ideas of equality, nationhood and the like). Eagleton further emphasizes that the working class, while becoming smaller in the Western nations, has become *more* important in the Third World and hence globally. Thus, the argument that the "disappareance" of the working class disproves Marxism is bogus. (What really disproves Marxism is that the non-disappearing working class hasn't carried out a succesful socialist revolution á la the Paris Commune, not even in the global south.) The author is correct when pointing out that Marx supported women's emancipation and wrote pieces on environmental destruction. Of course, the cornucopian streak in Marxism is still problematic. Peak oil, anyone? Nor did Marx crave violence for its own sake. Indeed, he seems to have believed that socialism might be established peacefully in some really advanced democracies, including the United States!
Despite scoring on these points, overall I must say that Terry Eagleton hasn't been able to save much of Marx for posterity. His main defence strategies are blatant revisions of what Marxism actually entails, coupled with "tu quoque" arguments against capitalism when discussing really existing socialism. Somehow, the fact that he is forced into apologetics of this sort proves in itself that his case is weak, and that Marx was most certainly wrong...
on 22 February 2013
The most readable, well-informed and thought-provoking text on politics I have read for many years. Guaranteed to stimulate your brain, whether you start off as a sympathiser or not. Demonstrates Eagleton's lucid and engaging style to its best advantage. Highly recommended.
on 15 January 2013
This book was much needed. The well-read Marxist will probably gain little additional knowledge from it. However, it is a fantastic and enjoyable read, funny, ironic and launching a devastating attack against many of Marx's critics. The book answers to ten of the most common critiques of Marxism. Those who unleash these critiques I am sure will be challenged if they read this book with an open mind. Ultimately, this could be a book for the general reader, the one who would be first helped by an introduction to Marxism and anybody who desires to read to further their limited knowledge of Marxism. I would still recommend reading The Communist Manifesto beforehand. Overall, pick it up.
I was sympathetic to the ideas of Marxism as a student , but following the demise of the Soviet Union ,the subsequent discrediting of the socialist worldview and my own entry into the capitalist workplace,my opinions turned more right wing.However in middle age I have grown to dislike capitalism once again and the way it turns people into money grabbing,acquisitive, selfish clones."Why Marx Was Right" is a courageous attempt to make the writings of Marx fashionable again in a world which treats them mostly with scorn.Each chapter starts off with a little summary of common criticisms of Marx which the writer then goes on to debunk in a stylishly written ,often witty manner, although a lot of it was waffly. I must admit that I would have tended to agree with much of these criticisms prior to reading this book. Eagleton didnt really convince me of his arguments most of which seem to indicate that Marx was misunderstood,but I appreciated the attempt to create an alternative world view to the pro capitalist one that is hegemonic throughout the world today. We desperately need an alternative to capitalism,but all we get are ones that want more of it or ones that want to reform it slightly to make it more acceptable to poorer people (the majority). However I can understand why this is the case as capitalism is so entrenched on a global basis ,so well organised and so willing to use a wide panoply of forms of repression that it seems impossible to fight it regionally,nationally or globally.Defeatism is the order of the day. Eagleton's book gives back Marxism some of its credibility as a critique of capitalism,but doesnt really suggest how it can be applied to the world today. Surely only a global socialist revolution could succeed in todays world-any national revolutions would only lead to isolation of the country involved and more Communist dictatorships surrounded by a sea of hostility. Also I fail to be convinced that the "working class" are going to lead us into the future. This stratum of society are the least educated (most of them dont even know what Marxism is about),the poorest and they are happier following rather than leading, plus capitalism doesnt allow them to fight the system anyway with its repressive labour laws, mind controlling media ,threat of unemployment and blacklisting and culture of conformance. Also capitalism keeps the working class in a standard of living not quite bad enough to make them hostile to it and want to destroy it. So there are a lot of things in this book that I didnt agree with , but I think its important for Marxist ideas to be circulated more widely and its critique of capitalism made more broadly known -for the sake of democracy and pluralism if nothing else- as rapacious capitalist organisations and corporations seem to have no check on their operations any more and just leave ordinary people feeling helpless,powerless and leave them to succumb to their basest desires.
on 15 May 2011
In his latest book, Eric Hobsbawm suggested that perhaps '[o]nce again, the time has come to take Marx seriously'. In this book, Eagleton does precisely that and, in doing so, demonstrates the continuing relevance and importance of Marx.
Each chapter of the book starts with a common criticism of Marxist thought. So, for example, Chapter 1 begins with:
"Marxism is finished. It might conceivably have had some relevance to a world of factories and food riots... But it certainly has no bearing on the increasingly classless, socially mobile, postindustrial Western societies of the present." (P1)
From here, Eagleton goes on to demonstrate that the 'underlying logic' of capitalism remains the same and thus a Marxist critique is still most certainly relevant. As he points out, to simply accept that:
"some people are destitute while others are prosperous is rather like claiming that the world contains both detectives and criminals. So it does, but this obscures the truth that there are detectives because there are criminals..."(P11)
Other criticisms that Eagleton considers include (Chapter 2) the murderous and tyrannical nature of actually existant socialist societies such as Stalin's Russia and Mao Zedong's China; (Chapter 3) the idea that Marxism is a form of historical determinism and that 'Marx's theory of history is just a secular version of Providence or Destiny' (P30); (Chapter 4) Marxism is utopian and thus unrealistic; (Chapter 5) Marxism reduces everything to the economic and is a form of 'economic determinism'. The final chapter considers whether Marxism has been superseded by later radical movements such as feminism and environmentalism - movements more relevant to our 'postclass, postindustrial world'.
He draws upon a variety of sources besides Marx and Engels themselves - including Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, Etienne Balibar et al - but puts them all together in a readily accessible way.
This is not a book using Marx's ideas to criticise the current travails of global capitalism - there are plenty of those around already, such as Chris Harman's excellent Zombie Capitalism. This book is about returning to Marx's basic ideas and trying to draw out the power, subtlety and immediate relevance of his philosophy - taking on post-modernist relativism, free market neoliberalism and even human nature along the way - and it does this really well, not afraid to recognise shortcomings in Marx's ideas but overall amply demonstrating their continuing power. Take Marx seriously again.
on 11 October 2011
This is a fascinating book, clearly written and highly accessible. The author - Terry Eagleton - is the Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster and Notre Dame Universities, and lives in Dublin, Ireland. He has written previously upon the subjects of 'God' and 'Evil', and his previous books have received good reviews. This book is essentially written as a counter-argument to what may be viewed as rightwing misconceptions, misapprehensions, deliberate disinformation and misrepresentations of the copious written work of the social philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883).
The hardback (2011) edition contains 258 numbered pages and consists of a Preface, ten chapters and a Notes section. Although the chapters are not named, each chapter deals with a specific misconceptions regarding Marxist theory, and Eagleton uses the chapter itself to deconstruct the misrepresenting 'myth'. Chapter One, for instance, deals with the idea that Marxist thinking is somehow 'out of date', and 'irrelevant' for today's postmodern, internet fuelled modern world. Eagleton shows clearly that Karl Marx not only predicted the contemporary situation, but wrote extensively about it, expressing how things were most likely to economically develop through time. Other chapters deal with determinism, materialism, ethnic rights, gay rights, feminism, oppressive states, political violence, class, economics, and utopia, etc.
Eagleton presents a lucid corrective narrative based upon sound research. The works of Karl Marx are extensive, deeply intellectual, valid and often difficult to understand from a single reading. Ineffect, Marxism is an intellectual tradition that requires time and good guidance if its true essence is to be correctly understood. It is an academic subject that requires a structured approach. Its complexity has opened it to extensive misrepresentation and deliberate distortion by those who find the clarity of Marxian assessment to be 'threatening' in someway, and yet Marx writes with a careful consideration that appears based upon a profound compassion for humankind. Everyone should read this book - simply because Eagleton has produced such a fine piece of work. Superb.
on 13 August 2011
I bought this for an old mate's 65th birthday thinking it would be a bit of a laugh for ex student Fabians such as us. It's a surprisingly entertaining wander through Marx's writings which makes you wonder whether there's ever been such a noble spirit so traduced by his "followers" Maybe because of Eagleton's Catholic roots, he places more emphasis on the spiritual meaning of Marx's critique of society, but the breadth of scholarship is impressive, even if the question of applied Marxism in history are given a fairly light touch ( the author would argue Karl was misunderstood). Eagleton is fond of multiple simile and has a kind of tabloid approach at times that is quite diverting. I was left thinking of the tantalising possibility that Marx's prophetic view of capitalist society might still be right, and that if the world does not find some better way of organising itself, it may not be that long before the contradictions overwhelm us into self-extinction.
on 15 August 2011
Perhaps Terry Eagleton was not the right person to write a book arguing why Marx was right in the midst of arguably capitalism's biggest crisis since the 1930s. Instead of focusing on Marx's pioneering insights into financial instability, combined and uneven development, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the accumulation of debt as the accumulation of capital, and so on, Eagleton takes a series of well-worn accusations about Marx and Marxism and offers his own defence. Nothing much wrong there, really, and much of Eagleton's analysis, as far as it goes, I agree with, though I think he is too soft on the question of "actually existing socialism" in Eastern Europe and the USSR.
The main problem is that Eagleton takes a broadly "cultural studies" approach to the whole issue and, as other reviewers have commented, he sidelines the "political economy" approach. Thus he offers nothing, for example, to answer the accusation of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk that Marx's economic theory is internally inconsistent. That is to say, Bohm-Bawerk believed Marx's labour theory of value and his theory of market price formation contradicted each other. Nor is there any discussion of why Marx was right, contra the neo-Ricardians, to assert that the rate of profit falls as the organic composition of capital rises. After all, if a theory were internally inconsistent then one would have to reject it. If Marx was right, as Eagleton asserts, these issues need to be dealt with. Luckily, we have the work of Marxist economists such as Andrew Kliman and Guglielmo Carchedi to provide what seem to me to be plausible answers, based on evidence from Marx's texts, to these more serious accusations.
In any case, it's not a question simply of Marx being correct, but rather a case of how useful the theoretical tools and concepts he developed are to us today. Still, to give Eagleton his due, he does make an amusing aside that those Marxists who would submit everything to "ruthless criticism" struggle to come up with more than a few things to criticize about Marx himself!
Anyone looking for an easy to read and largely jargon-free account of the current crisis of capitalism, but still using Marx's theoretical approach, would do better reading Paul Mattick Jnr's Business as Usual.
on 13 June 2015
In his Preface to Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton states that the book 'had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx's work are mistaken?' (ix). But there was still the question of how to proceed, because such a topic could easily expand into a monstrous project of explication and rebuttal. So, with this mind, Eagleton decided to take 'ten of the most standard criticisms of Marx...and...refute them one by one' (x). What follows, then, is an insightful and idiosyncratic account of Marx's work and Eagleton's own interpretation of Marxism as a whole. It also doubles as the 'clear, [and] accessible introduction' (ibid) Eagleton wanted it to be, for it's the perfect gateway for 'those unfamiliar with...[Marx's] work' (ibid). But, most importantly of all, it adds a little common sense and humour to a subject that's been pilfered by the arcane world of academia, a world completely detached from the proletariat it (theoretically) yearns to emancipate. And this approach, contrary to the methods of his tenured colleagues, illuminates Eagleton's finest gift - explaining Marx to the inquisitive layman.
So what are, in Eagleton's view, the top ten criticisms aimed at Marx? In order, we have the idea that Marxism is: 1) irrelevant in the post-industrial societies of the West; 2) given to bloodshed and grey tyranny; 3) a shackling form of historical determinism; 4) based on a credulous and naive dream of utopia; 5) built on a monochromatic and rigid idea of economic determinism; 6) mired in insentient materialism; 7) based on an outdated conception of class; 8) carried out by violent advocates of revolution and armed insurrection; 9) geared to state-driven dictatorships; 10) being sidelined by new political movements and discourses, such as environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, etc, etc. So these, in short, are the various myths and inaccuracies Eagleton casually dismantles in the next two-hundred-and-fifty pages. But, as the book's title makes clear, the numerous outcomes have been decided well in advance.
There can be no doubt that, as Eagleton mentions, 'Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists' (p.1). In fact, that 'there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism' (p.2), because only by 'superannuating its opponent can it superannuate itself' (ibid). Unfortunately, though, the capitalist mode of production doesn't work like that. But why is this? Well, because capitalism will always 'behave antisocially if it is profitable for it to do so' (p.8). And then there's the dialectical aspect of capitalism to contend with. How do we begin to explain something that is both good and bad at the same time? The contradiction present in this once oppositional relationship was not lost on Marx. And it's certainly not lost on Eagleton, who echoes Marx's words in The Communist Manifesto and Capital when he says that although capitalism 'brings in its wake new possibilities of emancipation' (p.45) it 'also arrives coated in blood' (ibid). So what, or where, are the alternatives? Eagleton discusses the various proposals that have been put forward to counteract this perennially immovable system but they all carry the pong of fantasy. And this reiterates the point recently made by Benjamin Kunkel in Utopia or Bust: 'Marxism seems better prepared to interpret the world than to change it'. And Eagleton is guilty of this pernicious drift in Marxist thought, as he has no original blueprint for change in a post-emancipated world. This is a major failing. As a diagnostician, he is wonderful at detailing the crimes of capital, but he falters at putting forward his own alternative. He advocates socialism, certainly, but just how would he go about it? That is the great unanswered question.
Moving on, and without sounding like a stroppy teenager, Eagleton begins to explore the ways in which capitalism is propped up by ideology. As Eagleton remarks, 'Human beings...are political animals by their very nature' (p.82), and it's this political jockeying for supremacy which has caused no end of trouble, because the way humans 'produce their material existence has so far involved exploitation and inequality' (ibid). Here, then, we see the birth of those political systems which look to quell the tumultuous array of opposing forces and their 'resulting conflicts' (ibid). Marx, however, clearly understood how such frameworks could be abused by the rich and powerful for their own benefit. Yes, massive inroads were made by the multifarious working-class movements fighting for universal suffrage, but this ability to vote was merely an illusion of freedom, and one which only served to mask the 'real inequalities of wealth and class' (p.103). And this, with a few modifications, is the rut Eagleton thinks we're still in. Does the realisation of this democratic impotence explain the political apathy prevailing today? There can be no doubt that many people feel any trip to the ballot box is a vote for mediocrity. Furthermore, they distrust a process that provides a mandate for the ruling elites to carve up parliament and play politics with people's futures. Yet Marx, in one of his more dialectical moods, still supported 'reformist measures such as the extension of the franchise' (p.192), because the realistic alternatives were bleak. As he saw it, the working-class vote, for all its failings, was the easiest way of destroying the oligopolistic stranglehold of the ruling classes - to misuse it, or discard its power, was an utter waste.
Yet, as Eagleton says, 'There seems to be something in humanity which will not bow meekly to the insolence of power' (p.100), whether it's been elected or not. And it's this idea, this ever-lasting optimism, which underpins everything in Eagleton's book. History may've been a tale of 'scarcity, hard labour, violence and exploitation' (p.111-2), but it doesn't have to continue in that way. Eagleton is right when he says that 'Marx's work is all about human enjoyment' (p.126). To some, this may seem like a bizarre thought; to others, it will strike a note of truth. By detailing the pitfalls of the capitalist mode of production, and by making an exhaustive inventory of its exploitative methods, Marx showed how wealth was (is) created in such abundance. But once these means of production passed into the hands of the associated producers, they would no longer be making wealth and leisure for the few but for the many - and here the greedy urge to accumulate capital ends. This may seem a bit utopian, but Eagleton is quick to note that the Marxist alternative will never eradicate 'road accidents, wretchedly bad novels, lethal jealousies, [and] overweening ambitions' (p.101). Nevertheless, it can, by excising the structural scarcity built into capital's self-propagation, remove the root cause of all the 'violence, fear, greed, anxiety, possessiveness, domination and deadly antagonism' (p.92) that blights the modern world. Only then will the key issues begin to be addressed. Whether the reader finds Eagleton's argument persuasive is up to them, but it's hard not to drawn in by its simplistic and hopeful message.
Eagleton makes some very pertinent points and some very pointed quips. For instance, he is entirely correct when he notes how Marx's works were 'penned (unlike most of his disciples) with a meticulous attention to style' (p.123). He's also correct when he mentions that 'In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence' (p.184). But Eagleton's at his sharpest when he's exposing the contradictions of capital. So, yes, the rule of capital may have provided 'a resolute opposition to political tyranny, a massive accumulation of wealth which brought with it the prospect of universal prosperity, respect for the individual, civil liberties, democratic rights, a truly international community and so on' (p.164), but still its continued to sully its potential as an 'emancipatory force' (ibid) by being a frequently 'catastrophic one' (ibid). Such passages are a frequent pleasure in this book. Anyhow, for those that worry about imbibing the words of a doctrinaire Marxist firebrand, Eagleton is nothing of the sort anymore. If anything, he comes across as a wise and frank raconteur, and one whose chatter is thankfully devoid of the Marxist fundamentalism that hampers the tomes of his Marxist chums. No, Eagleton is happy to the let the reader think for themselves and to 'select whatever ideas in...[Marx's] work seem most plausible' (p.52) and adapt them to their own ends. This approach is similar to that of David Harvey, who encourages this freedom of interpretation for two reasons: 1) to move away from a narrow and doctrinal Marxism and 2) to help Marxism adapt to the twenty-first century. Whether that project is a success remains to be seen, but Eagleton's book is a welcome base from which to start rebuilding.
on 3 October 2011
You get the impression Eaglton rattled this off without pausing for breath. This kind of makes you want to hang on and keep reading. There is no denying the lifetime of scholarship that lies behind this achievement though, nor the incisiveness with which he shoots down common (usually ignorant) criticisms of Marx's work and ideas. It is all very, very convincing when it relates to Marx's analysis of (and great admiration for) Capitalism, particularly its instability and its ultimate incompatiblity with a true democacy. Its biggest weakness - which it shares with Marx - is that it offers no alternative that is remotely either plausible or appealing. I wish it did, and and no doubt it is out there, but it is not in this otherwise excellent book.