Posted on Sunday, September 11th, 2011 at 12:38 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Graham Lyons
With riots and revolutions—wrought, some have argued, by the inequities of capitalism—dominating the headlines, Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right enters into the fray at the right time. In his introduction, Eagleton claims, “You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism” (xi). In this context, Karl Marx, and the political theory that bears his name, have been subject to renewed scrutiny. It may be fair to ask: does our current global economic crisis mark the beginning of the end of capitalism, an outcome prophesied by Marx more than 150 years ago? As the world’s biggest economies bust (in the Eurozone and in the United States) and boom (in China and India), with major consequences for workers and bosses alike, perhaps Eagleton is on to something in pursuing this argument now. Whether by design or by coincidence, Why Marx Was Right reminds us that Marx’s ideas address the economics and politics of 2011 with an uncanny familiarity.
Beyond the specifics of our present political moment, however, Eagleton’s focus is squarely on Marx’s intellectual legacy; by way of conclusion, he asks, “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” (239). His basic premise is that Marxism has gotten a bad rep, both as political program and as social theory–primarily because we have not attended to the nuances and subtleties of Marx’s thinking and writing. Instead, Eagleton tells us, we have relied on oversimplified–and broadly disseminated–interpretations, or on the political terror perpetrated in Marx’s name.
As in most of his texts, Eagleton’s voice in Why Marx Was Right is effervescent and confident, as comfortable generalizing about South Asian economies as it is poking fun at the Kardashians. It becomes clear early on that this book is aimed at a general readership, and not at the academy. Yet Eagleton’s is a simultaneously high-brow and pandering tone that, while enticing and enjoyable to read, tends to undercut the very real theoretical and political polemic that underlies the work as a whole. Eagleton’s critique cuts both ways: academics and the general public have interpreted Marx incorrectly, he tells us—though it is debatable whether he manages to convince either party of this notion. As ever, but especially so here, Eagleton’s readability is both his greatest charm and his most indictable weakness.
Why Marx Was Right is structured around ten “standard criticisms of Marx” (x): that Marxism is outdated; that it leads to totalitarianism; that it is deterministic; that it is unrealistically utopian; that it focuses too much on economics; that it is anti-spiritual; that it is class-based in a classless world; that it encourages violent political action; that it relies too heavily on the power of the state; and that it is unable to account for recent radical movements (feminism, animal rights, environmentalism). The critique/response format is rhetorically effective, though it causes Eagleton to ignore complexities and interrelationships between aspects of Marx’s thought–which, indeed, is Eagleton’s underlying argument throughout: Marxism is robust and versatile, able to present nuanced, thoughtful and sensible solutions to social ills, economic or otherwise. And for Eagleton none of these “criticisms”—as he presents them here, simplified and unreferenced—stand up to scrutiny when Marx’s own writing is brought to bear on them.
Eagleton is at his most engaging and frustrating, and at his most and least Marxist, in his responses to Marx’s supposed determinism and to his seemingly unchecked utopianism–both of which boil down to this: by Eagleton’s reading, Marx was a humanist who had an unerring hope in people’s desire to fight for their own freedom. To make this claim, Eagleton circles around an unresolved tension between individual agency and systemic control, pointing to Marxism as the most savvy theoretical apparatus by which we might understand how this relationship plays out in the world. It carries with it a necessary evil, Eagleton tells us:
…the process of accumulation itself involves excluding the great majority of men and women from enjoying its fruits. So it is, Marx comments, that history ‘progresses by its bad side.’ It looks as though injustice now is unavoidable for justice later (40).
But that still assumes that justice will be the inevitable result of “injustice now” under global capitalism. Or so it seems. Eagleton later tells us that Marx’s claim that “the working class will inevitably rise up” against capitalism “passes over the many ways (much more sophisticated in our own day than in Marx’s) in which even a capitalism in crisis can continue to secure the consent of its citizens. Marx did not have Fox News and the Daily Mail to reckon with” (48). So in actuality capitalism–specifically its hegemonic processes–has changed, and thus a person ability to act against and to change the system is hamstrung from the start: one must be able to identify the “injustice now” in order to seize control and to ensure “justice later.”
So much for determinism. As for utopia, Eagleton avers,
Capitalist society generates enormous wealth, but in a way that it cannot help putting it beyond the reach of most of its citizens. Even so, that wealth can always be brought within reach. It can be disentangled from the acquisitive, individualist forms which bred it, invested in the community as a whole, and used to restrict disagreeable work to the minimum. (59)
Sounds ideal, if a bit light on the specifics. What we have in Why Marx Was Right, then, is an argument for a democratic socialism within capitalism, a non-revolutionary rereading of Marx’s political stance, which hewed hard towards revolution as the well-nigh inevitable outcome of the imbalances of the capitalist system. Eagleton, on the other hand, puts his faith in capitalism’s productivity combined with an assumption that the wealth produced can be, somehow, “brought within reach.”
In Why Marx Was Right, Eagleton does not expend energy on the details, the hows and the whens of this quantum shift in western (and global) society. But he does reveal, through the frustrating equivocations as much as through the compelling arguments, that Marx gives us a method and a language with which to grapple with broad, system-wide issues–to move away from individual explanations that tend to boil down to anecdote and assumption and to hone in on the specific tensions of social relations (class warfare, writ large) that impede, justify and/or cover over injustice, exploitation, and evil acts in the world. In a word, then, Marx’s legacy is a legacy of praxis, though Eagleton never uses this word, best conceived as a marriage of theory and practice. From this perspective, the ‘travesty’ Eagleton sees perpetrated upon Marx as thinker becomes a far less damnable, because far less relevant, offense. More relevant is the ways that the Marx of the 19th century can help us to understand the crises of the 21st.
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