November 2011

Greg Linster

nonfiction

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

In the 19th century, the Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, dubbed economics "the dismal science." As such, I don't usually expect to talk about economics at social functions, especially at wedding receptions. However, as an economics graduate student (and one with a Hayekian bent), I've learned to be on guard at all times. Discussions about "vulgar economics" can spring up anywhere.

Recently, while mingling with a stranger at a friend's wedding reception, I was asked whom my favorite economist is. Ever the contrarian, I decided to conduct a little experiment, so I mentioned that Karl Marx was my favorite economist. A look of shock and disgust quickly appeared on this person's face; it was exactly what I had expected to see. Those who know about my Hayekian economic views may initially suspect that my answer was insincere and, furthermore, not truthful. However, it was not. Karl Marx is in fact one of my favorite economists, although, I highly disagree with many of his followers, both past and current, who espouse his ideas.

This anecdote reminded me that the utterance of Karl Marx's name alone sparks all kinds of negative connotations in many people living in Western societies. I suspect that in the mind's of these people, the world's great political atrocities can all be blamed on Marxian ideas. This, however, is strange, especially when I suspect that most of the people who criticize Marx's ideas have never read a word of what he wrote. How can one fairly criticize, especially with such vitriol, something they don't really understand?

Even some people who have read and think they understand Marx dismiss his ideas as being irrelevant in an age in which a robust information economy exists alongside a declining industrial one. However, the capitalist mode of production, the one Marx critiqued for being littered with destructive self-contradictions, still exists. In fact, its stranglehold on humanity has only tightened. In his timely and provocative book, Why Marx Was Right, Professor Terry Eagleton not only sets out to explain why Marxism is more relevant than ever in our modern world, but also as to why Marx is often misunderstood.

Those who are familiar with Professor Eagleton's work may be surprised by the title of this book. After-all, Professor Eagleton, who is largely known as one of the most prominent Marxist critics of his generation, may seem like a strange candidate to write a book defending Marxism. Professor Eagleton, however, is a fair man. Capitalism is not spared from warranted criticism because of ideological reasons.

The core of the book is divided into ten sections, each of which contains one of the major objections to Marxism. From the claim that Marxism is flat out irrelevant in postindustrial Western societies to the claim that the most interesting radical movements, e.g., feminism and environmentalism, arose outside of the Marxian focus on class struggle, Professor Eagleton covers the spectrum of critiques of Marxian ideas like only an actual critic of Marx could. As such, most of the rebuttals to these critiques are well contrived and incredibly sharp.

For example, how does Professor Eagleton refute the claim that Marxism is merely a dream of Utopia? To claim that Marx was a Utopian dreamer, according to Professor Eagleton, is simply not true; "Marx was a prophet, not a fortune-teller." Essentially, we are kindly reminded that Marx wasn't so bold to predict exactly what the future would look like, although we can infer that he did think socialism or barbarism were likely inevitable after capitalism self-destructs from its own internal inconsistencies. Furthermore, Marx never deluded himself into thinking that opponents could be won over in debate through the power of logically sound and well-reasoned argument. He understood that the battle of ideas would compete with material interests as well (Utopian?). Having read Capital Volume 1 myself, I think Professor Eagleton hits the nail on the head when he states the following: "The point for Marx is not to dream of an ideal future, but to resolve the contradictions in the present which prevent a better future from coming about." If merely recognizing problems so that the possibility of a better solution may eventually arise makes one a Utopian, then I'm afraid I too am a Utopian dreamer.

Or how about the claim that Marxism is a form of economic determinism and reduces everything to economics? In one sense this is absolutely true; however, to paraphrase Professor Eagleton, there is no reason to add the qualifier that Marxism is the only theoretical framework performing this type of reduction. The sheer fact that we have physical needs in a world with scarce resources means that anything can be reduced to economics in the end. It thus seems unfair to attack only the Marxist position on this point. Marx simply asserted that labor is the basis of culture. In other words, civilization would cease to exist without material production produced from the fruits of labor. Production, however, can be created from a form of labor (and one that is not coercive) that many people would mistake for leisure. As Professor Eagleton alludes to, the good life for Marx was one in which humans had vast amounts of leisure time to focus on self-selected pursuits that alter their material world, free of coercion.

"Capitalism has given birth to extraordinary powers and possibilities which it simultaneously stymies;" writes Professor Eagleton, "and this is why Marx can be hopeful without being a bright-eyed champion of Progress, and brutally realistic without being cynical or defeatist." One thing I think many people don't realize is that Marx recognized the power of and, strangely, the beauty contained within the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism, he recognized, was, however, self-destructive and brought misery to the working-class. And we see this happening today. The modern world has recently been rocked by a crisis in capitalism and, if something doesn't change, another one with a greater level of severity is inevitable.

I, like Professor Eagleton, think that Karl Marx might just be one of the most misunderstood political philosophers the world has ever known, although I certainly didn't always think this. In fact, until I took a course in graduate school called "Marxian Political Economy" I had never read any of Marx's work, but despised him nonetheless. I grossly misunderstood Marx and Marxism and I suspect that many other people do as well, which is why this book is delivers a timely message that needs to be heard.

In this book, Professor Eagleton ultimately reminded me that Marx was not a pessimistic thinker, but rather a realistic one. Marx recognized that unchecked capitalism creates tragedy in the end; he saw socialism as an important step to deepen the power of democracy; he recognized the value in leisure and play; he greatly valued diversity; he imagined the beauty of human potential in all of its glory. And, yet, when you mention his name out-loud at a social function it often brings about ignorant and scornful looks of disgust, which strangely saddens me.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300169430
272 Pages