Review of ‘Why Marx Was Right’ by Terry Eagleton

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Posted Jul 18 2013 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Review of Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton, 2011, Yale University Press

Review of Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton. Yes, we’re all looking for alternatives to capitalism – it destroys democracy, it eats nature and it’s vacuous – but you don’t have to have read any philosophy or economics to be able to refute Marxist solutions relatively easily. No amount of academic achievement can compete with the simple human understanding that after a (violent) revolution, the people who take power don’t give it up. It’s as simple as that. We have to keep thinking – to come up with a better idea.

I have to admit to always having had a soft spot for Marx. He said that the point of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change it, which is dead right; and his critique of capitalism is just as relevant now as it was at the end of the 19th century – more so, in fact. But his solution – no, no, no. I had to read Terry Eagleton’s book to see if there was something I’d missed. Having read it, I’m even more convinced that there isn’t.

Each of the book’s ten chapters starts with a specific criticism of Marxism, followed by Eagleton’s response and rebuttal of that criticism. He does a good job in that respect, but there is one enormous omission. I would like to send him an eleventh criticism for a subsequent edition, and it’s this – in a revolution, military men take power, promising to re-distribute it to the people after a period of stabilisation and consolidation; but they never do. Ever. Power is passed from a capitalist elite to a communist elite, and ‘the people’ don’t get a sniff of it.

Here are some examples of the arguments against Marxism at the beginning of each chapter, with brief summaries of Eagleton’s (and my) responses.

1. Marxism isn’t relevant any more – the working class just aren’t interested. It’s true, I think, that left-wing, middle-class intellectuals have a romantic idea of the working class. The fact is that my life is immeasurably better than my working-class father’s, and as for my grandfather, he spent almost all daylight hours down a mine, paid just enough to house and feed his family. There’s not going to be any rising up and throwing off of chains any time soon in the West. But in developing countries it’s a different story. There are chains to be thrown off there, and there may well be potential for unionisation and organisation in the corporate factories and plantations.

2. Communism is brutal. Eagleton rightly points out that so is capitalism. We forget that the vast majority of the world have no sickness, unemployment or child benefits, no pensions or any safety net of any kind, and work long, hard hours for very little pay.

3. Communism doesn’t take into account human nature. Humans are naturally selfish, and therefore capitalism is the ideal system for us. But that’s a bit self-fulfilling, isn’t it? If we have a system where to ‘get on’ you need to be ruthless, self-serving and greedy, and those qualities are constantly rewarded (think ‘the Apprentice’), then that’s what people are going to be like. Having visited and lived in lots of intentional communities, and knowing of the existence of millions of co-ops around the world, I know that human interaction just doesn’t have to be like that. If we change the system, there will still be greedy, selfish people, but (if it’s a good system) those qualities won’t be rewarded and they won’t rise to the top.

4. Marxism reduces everything to economics, and ignores art, religion, philosophy, culture etc. This is an easy one. Marx focuses on the economy because that’s where the power is. Power does not lie with religious leaders, artists or philosophers – it’s with money.

5. Marxism is obsessed with class, and that’s an outdated notion in the 21st century. There is social mobility now, and both the snobbery of the class system, and talk of ‘class struggle’ are outdated. This completely misses the point about class. It’s not about accent, culture or education levels – it’s about ownership. The tiny percentage of humanity that represents the major shareholders and boards of directors of the world’s biggest banks and corporations run the global economy and global politics and own virtually everything.

6. Revolutions are violent, and violence is bad. Eagleton points out that capitalism has made use of violence regularly in gaining and maintaining its financial empire – both overtly and covertly. He also believes that most people would understand the need for violence by the early Americans trying to throw off British imperialism, or Spartacus trying to throw off Roman imperialism, or in fact anyone fighting against any kind of imperialism – so why not against the financial empire?

But I don’t believe that violence is a viable route any more. The capitalists have the media and PR machine to recruit a sizeable portion of the world, and modern weaponry would mean that we might completely destroy civilisation rather than change it.

The main point though, is that power taken by force is always kept by force. When communist elites take power, they keep it by force until it is bought from them by capitalists. This has recently happened in Russia (and now Russian politicians can be seen wearing watches worth many times their annual salaries), and will undoubtedly happen soon in China and Cuba.

Change (or at least beneficial change) is not going to come via revolution, and it’s not going to come via the conservative route of tinkering with the current system either. We need new ideas.

So yes Terry, Marx was right about a lot of things, but taking power by force never works. We’re at a stage of our development when we have to learn that lesson for good. We need to discuss ways to transition to a new system where money can’t buy you power. We don’t need to come up with utopian blueprints for how society may look – but we do need to come up with a system that keeps money out of politics, so that we can make decisions based on what’s best for all of us, rather than what maximises profits for the few.