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Baby Boomers Make Their Marx

Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 272 pages

Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 272 pages 

In February 2009, near the low point of the financial crisis, Karl Marx made the cover of Time—or at least its European edition—for the first time since 1948. The images provide a vivid illustration of the revival of Marx’s reputation in the mainstream press since the early years of the Cold War. In the 1948 cover, an enormous, glowing-eyed Marx looms over a boiling cauldron of hellfire, whose steam forms a hammer and sickle. The 2009 version renders Marx as a computer graphic. Rather than marinating in the vapors of hell, his disembodied head floats beatifically over a cable news-style crawl text: “What Would Marx Think?”

In Why Marx Was Right, the British literary critic Terry Eagleton encourages this shift from Marx the satanic revolutionary to Marx the digital sage. As its title suggests, the book sets out to tell us not only what Marx would think, but also why he should be believed. Eagleton, who has also written recent essays on evil and atheism, is not very successful on either score. On a more subterranean level of argument, however, Why Marx Was Right is an acute, if partial, diagnosis of the bankruptcy of the European and British left.

On the surface, Eagleton structures the book as a response to ten familiar objections to Marxism. Some are theoretical, such as the claim that Marx has little to say about the postindustrial economies that characterize the contemporary West. Others are historical, and mostly revolve around the extent of Marx’s responsibility for Communist despotism. To Eagleton’s credit, he generally avoids straw-man formulations.  His aim is to rebut the “curious notion” Marx can safely be ignored—not to show that Marx was right about everything.

Although his arguments are often elementary and sometimes glib, Eagleton deals better with theoretical than historical criticisms of Marx. It’s probably right, for example, that Marx’s philosophy of history is compatibilist rather than rigidly determinist where the question of free will is concerned.

Eagleton’s economic history, on the other hand, would be laughable if it were not morally repugnant. Eagleton imagines that even if Stalin and Mao deprived their subjects of liberty and frequently life, Communist governments deserve credit for feats of modernization from which the population as a whole benefited.

This is a myth. The Soviet economy was consistently and pervasively sclerotic—and not merely because it was “forced” into a ruinous arms race. And China began to develop only after its ruling elite abandoned Marx. Eagleton asks us to admire the “cheap housing, fuel, transport and culture, full employment and impressive social services” that Marxist societies ostensibly enjoyed, even as we deplore the murderous tyranny of their ruling classes. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to balance these goods against each other. In the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and to a lesser extent the European satellites, comfort, freedom, and security were in about equally short supply.

Eagleton also idealizes his political history, especially when it comes to Russia. On his account, the Bolsheviks were an essentially democratic party compelled by the hostility of the West to take repressive measures, and then hijacked by Stalin. Eagleton’s main source for this analysis seems to be the Trotksyite historian Isaac Deutscher. One might have to be a Trotskyite to believe it.

Why Marx Was Right is pitched toward readers sympathetic to the left but trapped in what Eagleton regards as its contemporary deformations: postmodernism and the “third way” associated with ex-socialists like Tony Blair. Only by returning to a certain understanding of Marx, he suggests, can these deviations be corrected.

This concealed argument is embedded in the story of rise and fall of the British and European left. In the first decades after World War II, the left in what was then known as the free world was led by avowedly Marxist parties and organized in and through trade unions. Not all leftist politicians—and very few leftist intellectuals—were of working-class origin. But the movement was based in principle, as orthodox readings of Marx demanded, on the industrial proletariat.

The old left began to break down in the 1960s, partly because the standard of living had improved so much that fewer workers were attracted to militant politics. At the same time, members of the generation born during and immediately after World War II began searching for a distinctive form of political expression. As beneficiaries of the economic boom and social leveling that followed the war, these young people had little to complain about on the level of material interests. Even when they came from proletarian backgrounds, they were more often university students than workers. Stylized though it is, this story fits Eagleton’s biography rather neatly. Born in 1943 to a poor Irish family near the decaying industrial city of Manchester, Eagleton was radicalized while studying literature at Cambridge.

Despite their peculiar situation, Eagleton and his contemporaries did not renounce the Marxist orientation of their predecessors. Instead, they discovered a new Marx in non-canonical texts such as the so-called “economic and philosophical manuscripts” that Marx composed while living in Paris in 1844, when he was only 25 years old. This was not the Marx of Capital, with its mind-numbing charts and dogmatic insistence on the centrality of industrial production. Like his bohemian readers more than a century later, the new Marx was primarily concerned with the spiritual alienation that ostensibly characterized modern society—which he articulated in a powerful style that owes as much to literary Romanticism as to Hegelian dialectics.

The new Marx provided a philosophical basis for a politics that emphasized personal liberation rather than class-based organization. Here was a theory that could be put into practice at a Rolling Stones concert rather than in some dismal factory. Moreover, the humanist values espoused by the 1844 manuscripts and other early texts supported a critique of the Soviet Union and Moscow-controlled Communist parties, which were by the 1960s indefensible.

The high-water mark of the New Left was 1968, when student-led riots brought Europe to a standstill. At least in Britain, it was all over just ten years later. In 1978, Margaret Thatcher stood on the cusp of her first electoral victory. The real question of Why Marx Was Right is how this collapse was possible—and why it proved so enduring. Why did so many of members Eagleton’s generation “ditch Marxism along with their sideburns and headbands”?

Eagleton blames what he regards as two misplaced criticisms of Marx. The first is the claim that the alternatives to capitalism are either so implausible or so unpleasant that they have to be renounced by reasonable people. What cannot be overcome must be accommodated. For many in Eagleton’s generation, this meant orienting capitalism toward personal liberation. Although Eagleton never mentions Tony Blair, Why Marx Is Right is suffused by loathing of the fusion of social libertarianism with debt-fueled consumerism that defined New Labour.

Yet Eagleton fails to show that the bourgeois bohemians of London, Paris, or New York misjudged what old-style leftists would have called the “objective situation.” Marxists have been waiting for more than a century for the suicide of capitalism. The recent crisis notwithstanding, they continue to wait. Eagleton argues that Marxism offers a plausible explanation of how capitalism has been able to survive—for example, by offshoring nastier aspects of production. But he provides no reason to think that this process of adaptation can’t continue for quite a while longer. The most powerful argument that there are permanent limits to growth is based on finitude of natural resources, particularly energy. Yet this argument is hard to integrate with Marx, who stresses man’s almost unlimited control of the physical environment.

The other objection highlights this Promethean strand by claiming that Marx unjustifiably emphasizes Western history, industrial production, and a technological conception of reason at the expense of race, gender, and ecological concerns. After the failure of 1968, the bourgeois bohemians abandoned radical change in the face of what they saw as immutable reality. The postmodernists, on the other hand, abandoned reality in order to save the promise of radical change.

Eagleton recognizes that this is a dead end. The denial of fixed standards of truth or justice can be intellectually thrilling, but it is also politically paralyzing. At least since the mid-1990s, Eagleton has argued that relativism removes the ground from any demand for revolution. If nothing is right or wrong in itself, it’s hard to argue that the present order of things is unacceptable and must be changed.

October 2011 IssueEagleton claims that the humanist Marx offers a more promising alternative. Stressing Marx’s view that corporeality is central to humanity, he defends the idea of human nature against theorists like Michel Foucault, for whom the body is a polymorphous vector of control. According to Eagleton, the fact of our bodies gives us both certain needs and the capacities for fulfilling them.

The right society, the one that must replace capitalism, is therefore one in which these needs and capacities are brought as closely as possible into balance. In the pre-industrial past, this balance was difficult or impossible to achieve because the satisfaction of needs was based on the enforced labor of most men and women. The continuing industrial revolution changed that calculation. As machines do more of the most time-consuming, unpleasant, and physically demanding work, more and more human beings can be liberated to cultivate themselves rather than the soil.

This is a powerful vision. As Eagleton acknowledges, it’s also not distinctively Marxist. The classic theorist of human flourishing in a natural community is Aristotle. The main difference between Aristotle and Marx, at least on Eagleton’s interpretation, is that Aristotle thought that slavery and the subordination of women were necessary to such community, while Marx recognized that technology could replace these repressive practices. Eagleton hints that the Old Left went wrong when it imagined the members of a Marxist society living in and among their machines, as if utopia would resemble a giant factory. It is more helpful, he suggests, to think of an egalitarian Greek polis.

Although it may surprise some readers, Eagleton is not the first writer to identify Marx’s engagement with classical political thought. In this respect, he follows the celebrated moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, with whom he shares a background in the New Left. As early as the late ’60s, however, MacIntyre had begun to follow the breadcrumbs from Marx’s critique of capitalism to its sources in the Western philosophical tradition.

But MacIntyre noticed an additional distinction between Aristotle and Marx: the corollary of the Aristotelian concept of nature is virtue. For Aristotle, human nature is not just a matter of needs and capacities. It also involves a normative account of how human beings should deploy those capacities.

To use an example that Eagleton mentions, Aristotle argues that it is contrary to human nature to seek profit for its own sake. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person uses money only to the extent that it is necessary to provide the leisure he needs to pursue higher things. Although he acknowledges the principle in Aristotle, however, Eagleton denies that virtue plays any role in Marxism. Rather than calling upon moral ideals, he contends, Marx hoped to reorganize society on the basis of a shared interest in establishing less burdensome economic and social arrangements.

This point is crucial because it allows Eagleton to deny that Marxism makes unrealistic demands on human behavior. In doing so, he aims to counter the “third way” objection that Marxism is utopian. By appealing to interest over virtue or justice, however, Eagleton embraces a model of rational calculation developed to justify 19th century capitalism. The result is only superficially Aristotelian, and a very weak alternative to postmodernism.

The problem with Eagleton’s Marx, then, is not that he was altogether wrong. It is that he was not right enough to make good his latent humanism. A study of Marx’s classical inheritance pitched, like this book, to a general audience would be welcome indeed. I wonder, however, if it would find much favor on the post-’68 Left, at least in the incarnations that Eagleton skewers here.

Samuel Goldman is a Tikvah Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University.

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