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Why Marx was most certainly wrong
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...