Marx Redux: Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right

DSCN0783Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven, Yale UP, 2011.

Was ever a thinker so travestied? (239). So concludes Why Marx Was Right. Obviously, Eagleton hopes we will answer with a resounding “Yes.” And perhaps he is right, for he assures us that “Marxist theory itself is not just a commentary on the world, but an instrument for changing it” (142).

DSCN0783 - Version 2For many of us, I suspect, the whole idea of Marxism as a way of thinking or as a tool to critique the world has been overshadowed by its associations with Soviet era Russia and the Cold War. This is not the place to enter the debates over just what brand of Marxism was practiced by Stalin or by the East German Stasi, or to evaluate modern day China’s version of communism. But one does suspect that some of the deeds done in the name of Marx would leave the nineteenth century thinker aghast at the way his ideas have been misinterpreted.

Eagleton takes on those who claim that Marxism is no longer relevant. In each of ten chapters, he rebuts assertions that Marxism

is no longer relevant

has in practice resulted in oppression and povertyDSCN0783

is overly deterministic and denies free will

is naively utopian

is overly focussed on economics and is anti-pluralist

denies the spiritual

focuses on class struggle so is outdated in today’s classless society

espouses violent revolution

leads to totalitarian despotism,

contributed little to current movements for change.

DSCN0783 - Version 2For Eagleton, Marxism is intensely relevant today, and what he writes is compelling. If we are thoughtful, moral people, we can’t ignore that we know that “capital remains concentrated in fewer hands than ever before, and the ranks of the destitute and dispossessed swell by the hour” (163). I would certainly agree with Eagleton that the working class has not disappeared; rather, it has changed and grown to include “all those who are forced to sell their labour power to capital, who languish under its oppressive disciplines and who have little or no control over their conditions of labour” (170). This category includes anyone who dares not criticise his or her working conditions for fear of losing work: the contract IT worker as much as the underpaid barista, the untenured university lecturer as much as the immigrant cleaner, or the third world garment worker.

DSCN0783 - Version 2Perhaps because Eagleton is so invested in his subject, I found his usual humour a little more barbed than in some of his other books. Why Marx Was Right contains his usual gibes at the British royal family. But does Keith Richards deserve the observation “It is true, as we have seen, that spiritual and material development by no means always march side by side. One has only to look at Keith Richards to recognize that (91-92)?

DSCN0783 - Version 2As one would expect, he calls his own profession of academia to account pointing out that the ruling class includes among the “aristocrats, judges, senior lawyers and clerics,” and so forth “professors (a few of them political renegades) . . .  [as well as] heads of public schools and so on (175). He reiterates his dislike of Postmodernism asserting its kinship with “the pioneer spirit. . . . Neither can accept that it is our limits that make us what we are, quite as much as that perpetual transgression of them we know as human history” (233). And he has little patience with “Postcolonialism . . . an academic language largely unspoken outside a few hundred universities, and one sometimes as unintelligible to the average Westerner as Swahili (222).

DSCN0783 - Version 2One does not expect Eagleton to mince his words, and he doesn’t. He reminds us, “When it comes to who exactly should be exploited, the [capitalist] system is admirably egalitarian” (162) and suggests, “many of those who would scornfully reject Marx’s theory of history behave for all the world as though it were true. These people are known as bankers, financial advisors, Treasury officials, corporate executives and the like. Everything they do testifies to their faith in the priority of the economic. They are spontaneous Marxists to a man” (119). He believes Marx to be “a giant of a thinker with a heartfelt distrust of exalted ideas. Conventional politicians, by contrast, tend to speak publicly in earnestly idealist terms and talk privately in cynically materialist ones (147).

DSCN0783 - Version 2Eagleton’s willingness to express himself robustly and forthrightly is for me one of his major attractions as a writer and thinker. One knows when reading him that one is in dialogue with an dynamic, thoughtful person, someone who demands the digging implement be called a spade or even a @**# shovel.

DSCN0783 - Version 2So I would recommend this book whatever your preconceptions about Marxism as a discipline. A few hours spent in the company of the man who can write, “One day in the magic garden would probably be enough for Marvell to wish he was back in London” (234) are hours well spent.

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