As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) attempts to bail out the crisis-ridden Portuguese, Irish and Greek economies from the profligacy of consumer capitalism and the limitations of neo-liberalism become increasingly apparent, there is a growing appreciation for Marx’s predictions of globalisation, rampant capitalism and the instability of international finance. Students of economics and political science had never lost faith in their master but Stalinism and Soviet Gulags that finally climaxed with the collapse of command economies smothered further debates on Marxism in the nineties. The philosophical beliefs of Marxism came to be associated with the terrible atrocities of the 20th century because many believed that theory and practice were merely two sides of the same coin, though the two often diverged because of the demands of the time. So, Terry Eagleton, one of the leading Marxist critics of our times has taken upon himself the task of explaining Why Marx was Right (Yale University Press, $25) because his prognosis is the only way to explain the crisis of late capitalism that we see today.
Mr Eagleton begins by asking, “What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s works are mistaken?” So, he takes on “10 of the most standard criticisms of Marx to refute them one by one”. This approach, simple and direct, is necessary because capitalism is uniquely in crisis: “The system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon it is.” Mr Eagleton supplements the thrust of his argument by quoting Friedrich Engels: “This time there’ll be a dies irae [Latin hymn describing the Last Judgment used in the Mass for the dead] … such as never seen before … all the propertied classes in the soup, the complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree.”
The book, which has been written for the common reader and not for the Marxist scholar, is a work of intellectual rebuttal as chapter by chapter Mr Eagleton takes on a misreading of Marx for over a century. Spread over ten chapters, he takes the most common objections to Marxism — that it leads to political tyranny, that it reduces everything to the economic factor, that it is a form of historical determinism, and so on.
These arguments against Marxism have been heard time and again but Mr Eagleton opens each chapter with a summary of each concept and the case made against it, and then goes on to rebut it with sources drawn from a number of disciplines. What he shows in effect is that there has been a misreading of Marx’s writings which has led to misunderstandings all round. Basically, Mr Eagleton is keen to emphasise that “Marxism was a critique of capitalism … the most comprehensive critique of its kind ever to be launched ... and that as long as capitalism is still in business, Marxism must be as well”.
The book opens with the prediction made so often after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Marxism “is finished”. It may have had some relevance “to a world of factories and food riots … but it certainly has no bearing on the increasingly classless, socially mobile, post-industrial societies of the present”. Mr Eagleton accepts that the world has changed with the Industrial Revolution and new information technologies have played a key role in the increasing globalisation of the system. But the question is: Changed for whom? It is still an unequal world, both within states and among states and as long as this inequality exists because of the capitalist system, Marxism will always be relevant.
Mr Eagleton then moves on to the central criticism of Marxism, that it may be all very well in theory but whenever it has been put into practice, the results have been terror and mass murder on an inconceivable scale. Marxism may look like a good idea to western academics who can take freedom and democracy for granted. “For millions of ordinary men and women it has meant famine, hardship, torture and forced labour, a broken economy and a monstrously oppressive regime… Socialism means lack of freedom, it also means a lack of material goods, since this is bound to be the result of abolishing markets.”
This is the argument that has cut the most ice largely because of the Soviet experience, which made many would-be socialists shy away from socialism.
Mr Eagleton takes them on to stress the centrality of democracy to Marxian communism, and to explain successfully the nature of free will within Marx and Engel’s account of history. This is the humanist side of Marxism, the Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Mr Eagleton also stresses the modernity of Marx’s thinking and how, for example, he saw the nature of social class shifting with the progress of capitalism.
This is a stout defence of Marxism but when it comes to the human condition under communism, Mr Eagleton has little to offer except to say that “Marxism holds out no promise of human perfection … and envy, aggression, domination, possessiveness and competition would still exist”. There’s not much you can do with the crooked timber of humanity and it is just as well that Eagleton recognises it.