Top critical review
Incoherent defence of a moribund ideology
on 2 December 2017
This book comes highly recommended by other Marxists, and it’s certainly far more readable than the man’s own works. It’s arranged conveniently in ten sections each defining and then countering a common criticism of Marxism. I’ll address them in turn, beginning with the criticism and then discussing TE (Terry Eagleton’s) arguments against it.
1. Marxism is outdated and irrelevant because Western societies are increasingly classless, post-industrial, and socially mobile. TE argues that the world is not post-industrial, it’s just that manufacturing has moved to lower-wage, non-unionised economies like China. He could have added that social mobility in the UK has actually decreased since the 1960s, and that class divisions and privileges persist even though class boundaries have been redrawn.
2. Marxism is intrinsically violent, repressive, and cruel. Trotskyites get around this by arguing that no truly Communist state has yet existed (as if Trotsky himself had no power in Russia prior to Stalin’s takeover). But TE prefers to defend the USSR and Maoist China by arguing that they were backward countries that needed to be “dragged into the Twentieth Century.” This ignores the fact that Russia was developing rapidly before the Revolution, and lost years of progress after it. So too China experienced terrible famines under Mao’s regime, only achieving its present prosperity after Communism had been pretty much abandoned. TE also argues that the Communist states had to use huge resources to defend themselves against the USA. But the USA spent even more- they could do guns and butter, while the Communists could only do guns!
He then points out at length the violence and repression of colonialism. This is what the Irish call “what-abouting.” Two wrongs don’t make a right, and criticising one ideology is not to defend its equally repulsive rival.
He actually misses several good arguments to excuse Soviet backwardness compared to the USA. The USSR had to contend with a much harsher climate, and a much more backward society. Russian serfs and Black American slaves were both emancipated in the 1860s, but the Russian serfs were over half the population. Russia ought therefore to be compared not with the whole USA, but with Alabama. And the USA has never been half-occupied by a foreign power, whereas the USSR endured that twice. But here I go making his arguments for him!
The second half of this chapter (page 23 onwards) should be a separate chapter as it addresses a completely different criticism, namely that free markets are far more efficient than central planning. TE seems at first to acknowledge this criticism by arguing for “market socialism” i.e. competition between independent cooperative enterprises, even claiming that “market socialism does away with private property, social classes and exploitation.” None of the above follows- a co-op could exploit third-world suppliers and maintain massive pay and power differentials, also the members of a prosperous co-op would be collectively wealthier than those of a failing co-op. Acknowledging this, TE goes on to argue for a planned economy guided by negotiations between different interest groups, i.e. workers, consumers, environmentalists, and “other relevant parties” at national, regional, local and workplace levels. Well good luck with that one, Terry. His off-hand mention of “environmentalists” betrays a massive blind-spot. The “environment” doesn’t mean the view from some nimby’s second home, nor does protecting “the environment” equate to appeasing the tender sensibilities of middleclass environmentalists (as I bet TE would call them!). It’s actually about ensuring the survival of the human species by not making our planet uninhabitable. But TE’s ignorance is typically Marxist- when I visited St Petersburg in 2003 the water still wasn’t fit to drink, due to heavy metal contamination.
On page 26 onwards TE goes off on another two tangents. He uses the media as an example of how production ought to be restructured, by having the physical means of production (printing, internet servers, TV transmission etc.) collectively owned and managed by elected public bodies “which would be independent of the Government.” Like the BBC presumably, which is run by the same sort of “political class” as make up the majority of MPs.
He then exposes another typical Marxist blind spot, when he compares “the doctor working in a plush setting with comfortable and fulfilling circumstances” with “the assembly line worker working in a horrible din, risking life and limb, and enduring boredom and denigration.” Sounds like he’s never met a real doctor. He’s never had to make an on-the-spot decision of how to treat a possible brain haemorrhage (can’t be deferred till the next monthly meeting, Terry!) He’s never had to tell a parent that their child could not be resuscitated, or treated anybody’s 30th self-inflicted injury (Croydon A&E department doesn’t look that plush at 03.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Terry!). But more to the point, the answer to unhealthy factory conditions is strong trades unions empowering and educating health-and-safety reps! I guess health and safety’s not a big issue for those who’ve only ever worked in offices and lecture halls, but a little imagination wouldn’t go amiss.
He could have made much more of the arguement that modern information technology could enable far more efficient economic planning that was achievable in Stalin’s Russia. Whether Communist societies could ever have developed IT is a different matter- the residually “Communist” societies of China, Cuba and North Korea all seem pretty frightened of it. TE fails to analyse the reasons for Soviet-style economies being so inefficient- I’ve read elsewhere that this was largely about middle managers faking their production figures to fulfil the plan while doing much of their real business on the black market.
3. Marxism is deterministic, denying freedom and individuality. This chapter needs more historical examples to illustrate the Marxist view of history. It claims to explain how Feudalism evolved into Capitalism which will then evolve into Communism, but fails to explain how Roman society evolved into feudalism, nor how China mostly by-passed Capitalism altogether. It mentions the parallel between Marxism (Capitalism as a necessary stage along the road to Communism) and Christianity (the Fall as necessary to Redemption) but doesn’t enlarge upon this- surprising given that TE himself is apparently a Catholic. He also mentions, but does not enlarge upon, the contradiction of Marxists thinking Communism is inevitable, but nonetheless risking their lives to achieve it- just as many Calvinist Christians have been energetic missionaries despite believing in Predestination.
4. Marxism has a credulous faith in the perfectibility of human nature. In fact TE denies that Marx was idealistic at all. Along the way he talks a lot of nonsense. E.g. “Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future.” Tell that to the Old Testament prophets! “The future does not exist, so to forge images of it is a kind of lie.” Taken to its logical conclusion this suggests we shouldn’t even bother getting out of bed. All present actions are predicated on some expectation of the future. We put our weight on one foot in the expectation that the other foot will shortly follow, preventing us from falling sideways. Mind you, TE does warn us that Marxists are “hard-headed… sceptical of moralism and wary of idealism… naturally suspicious minds…” He’s right of course, but that’s why they’re best avoided. He does later make a valid point that better institutions would make decent behaviour easier and vile behaviour more difficult and less rewarding. This is certainly do-able. However he admits that any socialist institution “would have its fair share of chancers, toadies, bullies, cheats, loafers, scroungers… and occasional psychopaths.” Indeed, but by all accounts the USSR had a great deal more than its fair share of such people, and precisely because the system was so conducive to them. TE states that people behave best in conditions of material abundance. Well life in the gulags certainly brought out the worst in many people, but on the other hand, the super-rich aren’t paragons of virtue either.
5. Marxism reduces everything to economics. TE admits that this idea does indeed seem too simple. “If it is satisfying to Marx, it is because he considers that history has been by no means as varied and colourful as it may appear. It has been a much more monotonous story than meets the eye.” But then, wanting to have his cake and eat it, TE tells us that Marx himself appreciated literature and art and even wrote lyric poetry and part of a comic novel! Wow. If only Marx had sold his poems, and Hitler his paintings, what an ocean of misery the world would have been spared!
6. Marxism denies spirituality and morality. This is the most incoherent chapter in the book. TE could have just argued, as to most academic psychologists, that the mind is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain, which is a biochemical-electrical machine adapted to meet physical needs. This notion is at least clear even though it’s nonsense. But he doesn’t focus on that argument, preferring to follow a very unclear line of reasoning that consciousness depends on social relations and that social relations are necessitated by material needs. Mostly though, he just asserts that spirituality is the product of an elite class of priests and philosophers whose existence depends on a base of workers producing physical goods, and that humans can only consider their spiritual needs when their material needs have first been satisfied. All of this is nonsense. Eagleton seems to be unaware of any kind of spirituality that isn’t created by ruling-class lackeys and imposed to uphold the status quo. In fact most spirituality comes from the bottom up, and even top-down spiritual traditions like Roman Catholicism are generally reworked by the proletarian consumers into quite a different religion. TE’s image of religion seems derived from the works of Anthony Trollope! As for spirituality being a luxury for those whose material needs have been amply satisfied, the precise opposite is true. Religious belief is generally in inverse proportion to material prosperity.
7. Marxism is irrelevant to today’s “classless” society. TE argues correctly that this is a comforting modern myth. Prince Harry may talk Estuary English but wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of an elite who might as well inhabit a different planet (and may well end up actually doing so!) The Western proletariat now works in call centres, care homes, and fast food, and are far more disempowered than their parents and grandparents in the mines and steel works. So of course class still exists- but that doesn’t mean Marxists have the right solution to this issue.
8. Marxism is inevitably violent. After a good deal more “what-abouting” TE does admit that “Stalin and Mao were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale” but “very few Marxists… today would defend these crimes.” But that’s not the point. Pope Francis wouldn’t defend the Inquisition or the conquistadores, but he’s the head of the same organisation that inspired them. I don’t doubt that many early Bolsheviks were idealistic humanitarians. But TE himself asserts that history is about institutions not individuals. The institution tended inevitably towards violence. And yes, Terry, there have been some very non-violent revolutions- like those that overthrew the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989!
9. Marxism advocates the dominance of the State. TE doesn’t try to defend the monolithic state in actual Communist countries, focusing instead on Marx’s advocacy of the Paris Commune as the ideal model of society. Fair enough, but the Commune was defeated. We are entitled to judge Marxism by those societies that remained Marxist longest.
10. Marxism is irrelevant to more recent areas of struggle e.g. for racial equality, gender equality, gay equality, animal rights, and defence of the environment. He admits that Marx himself was a racist who thought that Asians and Africans needed to be colonised and claimed that India “had no history.” He’s correct to point out that later Marxists have been in the forefront of anticolonial and antiracist struggles, and that even the USSR gave these more support than the Capitalist democracies. He also claims that Communism always favoured gender equality, but I can’t think of a single prominent woman leader of a Communist regime other than the notorious Jiang Qing who only gained power by being Mao’s wife! Again he quotes some fine sentiments of Marx and Engels about the Earth, but ignores the utter disregard for the environment that prevailed in actually communist countries. Unsurprisingly he ignores sexuality- the USSR initially supposed that homosexuality would not exist in a Communist society, but later treated it as a disease.
In conclusion, the book is overlong, and the occasional attempts at humour are cheap digs at easy targets. Arguments are often unclear, and several contradictory arguments are often deployed in a scatter-gun effect as if consistency didn’t matter. For a man who’s spent his working life in Universities, Eagleton appears surprisingly ignorant of history, science, and spirituality.