Posted in: Books & Arts

Why Marx Is Relevant

By | May 21, 2011

Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press, 2011. $25.00, 272 pp.

“You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism,” writes Terry Eagleton in the preface to his new book, Why Marx Was Right. Eagleton is a literary theorist and an English professor at the University of Lancaster, as well as a longtime activist in socialist organizations. Yet Eagleton’s contentions revolve around the after-effects of worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression—a crisis causing scholars to call for a reevaluation of capitalism—through which he makes a renewed and blistering case for the relevance of Marxism in the 21st century.

Eagleton’s objectives in his work are twofold: to educate lay readers about Karl Marx’s thought and to refute common criticisms of Marxism. Both efforts serve the work’s ultimate purpose, which is to present Marxism as a plausible political alternative to capitalism. On the first front, Eagleton provides a lucid, and often witty, survey, drawing on a wealth of sources, and employing the analytical rigor of an English professor cum social theorist. The defense of Marxism, however, is far from conclusive. While he deftly deals with the more theoretical critiques, Eagleton’s case for Marxism rests almost entirely on what he perceives, at times erroneously, as capitalism’s shortcomings. By Eagleton’s account, though, such practical concerns just get in the way of Marx’s more visceral truths. Though his assessment of the contemporary political economy does not hold much factual water, the book uncovers Marx’s emotional appeal, informing a more social critique as powerful as it is relevant.

Eagleton’s Little Red Book

If readers are looking for an introduction to Marxism, Eagleton’s book is an accessible, succinct, and exceedingly entertaining place to start. Perhaps unsurprising, given the author’s day job as an English professor, the book focuses intensely on close readings of the Marxist cannon. In one section, for example, Eagleton takes on an explanation of one of Marx’s socio-economic goals, the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” “Few of his well-known phrases have sent more of a chill through the veins of his critics,” Eagleton notes, perceiving the implication of political repression in the words. Nonetheless, Eagleton points out, the slogan’s contemporary associations did not exist in its historical-linguistic roots, for, “the word ‘dictatorship’ in Marx’s time did not necessarily suggest what it does today. It meant an extralegal breach of political constitution.” Writing in an age of monarchs, Marx meant the slogan to imply government by the people, and to oppose, rather than support, arbitrary rule.

Omissions and Exaggerations

While Why Marx Was Right spans topics ranging from Marx’s support of civil liberties to lessons in material determinism, one subject remains conspicuous by its absence: the theory’s economic critiques. Nowhere does the author even attempt to address criticisms by theorists from Fredrick von Hayek to Milton Friedman, whose analyses have shaped perceptions of Marxism over the past century. Nor does Eagleton mention the fact that Alfred Marshall’s marginal theory of utility has discredited the labor theory of value, upon which Marxist economics heavily relies. If Eagleton is trying to make what he characterizes as a “plausible” case for Marx’s ideas, the work suffers from the failure to reckon with capitalism’s formidable proponents.

In many ways, such omissions represent a larger, undermining trend in Eagleton’s book, namely its failure to engage with the entire history of Marxism in practice. Faced with the bloody record of self-proclaimed communists like Stalin, Eagleton only offers that the Soviet Union “fostered the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing the natives of other lands.” Leave aside the fact that “solidarity” is today best associated with Lech Walesa movement against communism. Eagleton’s contentions revolve around the book’s sole rationale for considering communism as a serious political alternative: Marxism may have been terrible in practice, “[but] what about capitalism?” What about it? Quoting Labour MP Tristram Hunt, Eagleton writes that “the special economic zones of Guangdong and Shanghai appear eerily reminiscent of 1840s Manchester and Glasgow.” Yet the analysis conveniently ignores the fact that, under capitalist regimes, these two British cities eventually evolved into modern, more humane metropolises. Meanwhile, life expectancy in “capitalist” Shanghai stands at a record peak—over 82 years—while workers’ wages remain significantly higher than those of interior, “communist” China.

What Marx and Eagleton Got Right

Yet something about this book’s urgent case for Marxism, even in its dearth of empirical rigor and bouts of absurdity, deeply resonates. “The bankers and financiers who have brought the world financial system to the brink of the abyss are no doubt queuing up for cosmetic surgery,” writes Eagleton in an amusing aside, “lest they are spotted and torn limb from limb by enraged citizens.” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein hasn’t yet undergone plastic surgery, yet it is true that he and his institution stand uniquely unpopular. Even if the passion for Marxism last seen during the 1960s has evaporated, the seething rage against perceivably corrupt “crony capitalism” persists. In this sense, Marx is as pertinent to present-day America as he was to the 19th century underclasses of Manchester.

Eagleton’s defense of Marxism and its implicit critique of capitalism are not solely confined to stock exchanges and capital allocation; rather, there is a cultural, and less tangible, undercurrent. Perhaps it is not cerebral facts, but rather gut feelings, that lend credence to Eagleton’s case. Marxist criticisms of capitalism still enjoy a level of truth—albeit emotional more so than economic—but resonant all the same. While the communist system Marx and Eagleton propose is prone to collapse in practice, their rhetorical structures appear far sturdier than today’s financial markets. In this sense, Eagleton attacks what he sees as the depraved ethos of capitalism, as opposed to its more technical underpinnings. Such a lopsidedly social angle flounders in the practical realm (or, in Eagleton’s case, mostly ignores it) but grips psychologically. The author’s rampant empirical lacunae seem to imply, though, that it is this latter criterion with which he is chiefly concerned.

In this latest Marxist manifesto, powerful sentiments trump realistic considerations and make a compelling social, not economic, stand against the political status quo. Of course, to simply say “Marx was right” would fall utterly short, ignoring capitalism’s observable merits and influential advocates. But Marx, despite the glaring historical record, was certainly not off a more visceral mark; he was not entirely wrong. Though Eagleton’s book is unable to make a functional case for Marxism as a political alternative, the author resurrects its instinctive truths as a social critique, ones as relevant today as ever.

Eli Kozminsky ‘14 is a Staff Writer.

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