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Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

Roger Caldwell is unconvinced by Terry Eagleton’s loyal support for Marx.

When British literary theorist Professor Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology appeared in 1976, the intellectual scene in Europe was dominated by the New Left, and Marx was seen as the indisputable reference-point. In France the likes of Sartre and Lévi-Strauss had declared themselves Marxists, and Althusser had developed his own brand of structural Marxism. Figures like Benjamin and Brecht, Lukács and Adorno, with their varying and sometimes esoteric takes on Marxism, were required reading in continental philosophy. The memories and hopes of 1968 had not yet been extinguished, and the New (or by now Newish) Left was triumphant, confident that it had, as Eagleton puts it, ‘History in its pocket’.

In fact this intellectual hubris was to be short-lived. If Marx had declared that religion was the opium of the masses, others declared that Marxism was the opium of the intellectuals. The unanticipated triumph of the New Right in England and America made the promises of Scientific Socialism seem like so much posturing. There were still states officially adhering to the Marxist line, including China and a sclerotic Soviet Union, but they could not offer political hope to any except the most hardened fundamentalists. The Left retreated into what has since become known as postmodernism: Lyotard declared that the era of grand narratives (such as Marxism) was over, and a macropolitics was fractured into micropolitics – that is, instead of aiming to change the world as a whole, the Left fought on small particular patches for small particular causes. The glory days of revolution were over.

Upon the demise of the Soviet Union, finding no option but to come to an accommodation with capitalism while trying to temper its excesses, some of the former Left mutated into what looked suspiciously like liberals (still a hate-term for Eagleton). Thus the advent of the Third Way, poised precariously beyond the old divisions of Left and Right, and supposedly smoothing out a harmonious path to general happiness. However, in practice, right-wing governments, led by Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s United States, gave capitalism the green light in the name of the free market, and all controls were off, leading to what has been called ‘casino capitalism’. It is in the havoc caused by casino capitalism that we are currently living.

At the start of his career Eagleton was in with the Marxist swim, trying to map out the parameters for Marxist criticism, hoping to establish literary theory on a supposedly ‘scientific’ basis. However, as the Marxist tide receded with unparalleled rapidity, within a few years he was left in an exposed, rather lonely, position. While he stuck stubbornly to his Marxist guns, his former comrades handed them in and moved elsewhere. A book defiantly entitled Why Marx Was Right (2011) might therefore seem a brave but quixotic attempt to raise Marx from the dead – especially as Eagleton acknowledged in The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) that Marxism “is no longer a living political reality and that prospects for socialism are currently remote.” However, in The Gatekeeper (2001), he argues that socialism has been defeated rather than invalidated, and that its very powerlessness shows that “the system it opposes is dangerously out of control.”

Why Marx Was Right is strangely lacking in contemporeity: why, one wonders, is there no reference to the financial crisis and its continuing aftermath? Speculations by finance-capitalists have threatened to bring the system to the point of collapse, as if capitalism were on its (long-deferred) death-throes at last. This situation is ripe for a Marxist critique. Certainly, in a world where resources are more unequally distributed than ever, where the gap between rich and poor – and the poor and the starving – continues to widen, and when the ecology of the planet is under threat, capitalism surely has a lot to answer for. However, as Eagleton is well aware, the sit-ins, protests and demonstrations against its evils in Wall Street, the City of London, and elsewhere, did not take place in the name of Marx – the protesters do want capitalism to be replaced, but are unsure by what: only, as one of the slogans has it, by something nicer.

occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street protesters, 2010

Marxist Critiques

With most philosophers the backdrop of world events is something of an irrelevance to their theorising, but Marx proved to be a special case. Unlike Hume or Kant, he is a thinker over whom not only has much ink been spilled, but in whose name much blood has been spilled also. As a philosopher he is also an anti-philosopher, declaring in the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Certainly he has succeeded in changing the world – if in ways that he could not have anticipated, or would not have wished, by those who claimed to be acting under his aegis. But the question remains: Did Marx understand the world correctly to begin with?

In answering this question, one has to separate Marx from those who have claimed to follow him – even from his fellow-revolutionist Engels, who sometimes generalized the results of Marx’s historical studies into universal laws, and of course, added some ideas of his own, including the notorious ‘dialectics of nature’. (For Marx himself, the dialectic applied only to human history.) Dismayed by some of the teachings of his supposed followers even in his lifetime, Marx famously declared that he was not a Marxist.

However, the central tenets of Marx’s thinking are clear. Marx’s vision of history is one of class-struggle and exploitation – whether of slaves in ancient society, serfs under feudalism, or workers under capitalism. Throughout history essential needs have been denied to the majority because of the economic systems they have been forced to endure. Moreover, in the age of capitalism the worker lives in a state of alienation, having become a mere commodity in the labour market. With the ever-inventive technological advances which capitalism stimulates, the age of scarcity could potentially come to an end, but although the system produces goods that could bring prosperity to all, the wealth is amassed in the hands of the few. And since the profit-motive reigns supreme, the result of ever more aggressive competition and tighter profit margins can only be the increasing misery of the workers. Only when the workers, their heads no longer clouded by the propaganda of their masters’ ideology, take the means of production into their own hands, can a classless society come about, where mankind is delivered from the distortions caused by the division of labour. This just new society will operate on the maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (from Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875.)

Yet if we look a little more closely at humankind’s final act (so far), significant gaps appear. Firstly, there is Marx’s assertion of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism due to its supposed internal contradictions. As with the End of the World, we have had many advance notices, but the World, and capitalism, are still with us. In fact, although Marx is confident that the inner contradictions of capitalism are such that it will eventually implode of its own accord, he is notoriously unspecific as to the processes that will bring about its death-throes. Then there is the revolution that is to follow capitalism’s demise: what guarantees do we have that power will end up in the hands of the proletariat, as opposed to, say, a militarised elite who will enforce a new authoritarian form of feudalism on the population? If so, the transition to Marx’s goal of a truly classless society might be indefinitely deferred.

Marxist Histories

In this context a major contention arises: to what degree was Marx a historical determinist, holding that the large-scale course of history is already determined to yield the global revolution into communism? For if determinism prevails, revolutionaries can do no more than ease the birth-pangs of communism – that is, they can do no more than bring into being earlier what will anyway come to pass eventually.

The prophetic aspect of Marx’s theory was attacked by Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Popper argued that there can be no historical predictability: amongst other things, history is influenced by knowledge – for example, by scientific discoveries and subsequent technological innovations – but we cannot know what these discoveries will be in advance of discovering them, so we can never be in the position to predict the path that history will take. We may well be able to detect trends; but these trends may be negated by unanticipated events.

For Eagleton this is not to the point. For him Marx (at least in his better moments) was not a determinist. Eagleton concedes that Marx “occasionally writes as though the political is simply a reflex of the economic” but he argues that, if this were the case, it would be “a recipe for political quietism” – that is, rather than easing the birth-pangs of communism, a revolutionary could sit back with a (more or less) good conscience and wait for the revolution to happen. This for Eagleton is simply unrealistic: the economic base creates the conditions under which revolutionary change comes about, but the revolution will not take place by itself. Men have the freedom to take matters into their own hands. Ultimately, it is human beings who make history.

Marx saw Das Kapital (1867) as a scientific work, and as Eagleton admits, speaks there of historical laws working towards inevitable results. Yet in other writings Marx does not deny that a measure of contingency is built into history. In fact, there is room in Marx for both determinism and contingency: I know that I will eventually die because of my material (ie biological) conditions; but I can certainly shorten my life by my own actions, such as by stepping out in front of a bus. But Eagleton is so eager to get Marx off the deterministic hook that he goes in for some special pleading: “To claim that the triumph of justice is inevitable,” he writes, “may not mean that it is bound to happen. It may be more of a moral or political imperative, meaning that the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.” The problem with this interpretation is that if the claim Marx is making about economic justice is not a matter of fact, then it is not a claim about inevitability. The clarion-call to seek justice is obviously a worthy one, but is irrelevant to the question of historical determinism.

Marx’s philosophy of history has often been taken as inherently progressive, as was that of his philosophical forebear Hegel’s – except that for the idealist Hegel it is seen as the progressive unfolding of the Geist [the Spirit or Idea expressed through human culture], whereas for the materialist Marx it is seen in economic terms, as the progressive evolution of the forces and relations of production of goods and services. Both thinkers are optimists: the path of history is towards human freedom.

In fact, Marx is often seen as a utopian promising heaven on earth, and Marxism as a secularised messianism; but utopianism is not the more convincing for being secularised. Marx says almost nothing of the economics of the system that is to replace capitalism, and Eagleton admits that “there is no flawless model currently on view.” Marx said that he was reluctant to write “recipes for the kitchens of the future,” but nonetheless it remains a major lacuna. And whereas in Christianity all can potentially be saved, for Marx the state of blessedness is reserved only for those who are lucky enough to come at the end of history (or for Marx, the end of pre-history, since all human life up to then will have been a bloody prelude to an era of true flourishing).

Eagleton is eager to point out that, whatever the Marxists may have promised, Marx himself is not a utopian in a very strong sense: even in the classless communist state there will be conflicts, problems of personal life, and the inevitability of death. However, what will have ended is the exploitation of man by man, of oppression, of class-struggle. What is on offer is the opportunity for human beings to at last realise their potential as human beings.

Yet even this vision can be seen as utopian. For Marx assumes natural resources sufficient to ensure plenty for all, whereas in fact the earth’s resources are arguably insufficient to provide plenty for all as its human population keeps rising beyond the seven billion mark. Although in the relatively privileged West there is prosperity for the majority, and despite the economic successes of India and China, globally, and in absolute terms, more people are in want, or starving, and more die of disease and malnutrition, than when Marx was alive. In this new age of austerity many of us will have to tighten our belts; others have no belts to tighten. It is no doubt true that, as Eagleton writes, “inequality is as natural to capitalism as narcissism and megalomania are to Hollywood” and that “leisure is something you have to work for,” but in the global context, as he is well aware, it is not inequality or leisure that is the issue, but life or death.

Why Marxism Is Wrong

Concerning historical Marxist regimes, so often marked by tyranny and terror, Eagleton refers us to Communist East Germany, which “could boast of one of the finest child-care systems in the world.” This is rather like praising Enver Hoxha’s Albania for raising the literacy rate, even if the only books you were allowed to read were those by Enver Hoxha. The truth is that the German Democratic Republic was a nightmare of surveillance, spies and informers. And when Eagleton tells us that “one of the first decrees of the Bolsheviks when they came to power in Russia was the abolition of the death penalty,” one can only gasp in disbelief: weren’t many fewer executed under the Tsarist regime which did have the death penalty than under the Bolshevik regime which supposedly didn’t? In the end, Eagleton has the grace to admit that in practice “the gains of Communism scarcely outweigh the losses.”

What, then, is still alive and kicking in Marx? Marxist economics in general as much needs special pleading as does his philosophy of history. Concepts like that of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the withering away of the state are now only met with cynicism. Marx’s concept of the good life – owing much to Aristotle – has much to recommend it, but it is the way of achieving this life that is in contention. The Marxist concept of ideology surely has some mileage. In an earlier book, On Evil (2010) (dedicated to Henry Kissinger), Eagleton gives a simple illustration of this concept. He instances the “high-flown rhetoric” of American politics and religion, which coexists “with that meaningless flow of matter known as consumer capitalism.” “The role of the former,” he goes on to tell us, “is to provide some legitimation for the latter.”

Well, maybe so. But if Marx was in many ways an excellent diagnostician – the account he gives of the capitalism of his day is unrivalled in its acuity and breadth – he was a poor prophet. Few – not even Eagleton – still believe that the Revolution is just around the corner, and least of all that it is inevitable. We may agree with Eagleton that “the demise of the working class… has been much exaggerated,” but its revolutionary potential now seems much in doubt. At the book’s conclusion Eagleton tells us that “if we do not act now, it seems that capitalism will be the death of us.” What he fails to tell us is quite what we should do, and who this ‘we’ comprises. Perhaps the slogan should be: Literary Critics of the world unite!

Despite its wit and panache, there is a certain valedictory quality about this book. In the final analysis, the name of Marx is invoked only to keep alive the memory of a future that once could have been radically different from how it turned out.

© Roger Caldwell 2013

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry This Being Eden (2001) is published by Peterloo Poets.

Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton, Yale U.P., 2011, 258 pp, £16.99, ISBN 978-0300169430

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