Book Review from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why Marx Was Right. By Terry Eagleton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) £16.99
Was Marx right? As Terry Eagleton points out in the preface to this book, of course he wasn’t. No thinker gets everything right, nor can any reasonable person expect them to. But was Marx “right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description”? In this sense, Eagleton says the answer is yes. And Eagleton is right.
As Eagleton puts it, you can tell capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism – people become aware of capitalism in crisis, just as an illness or injury makes you newly aware of the body you always took for granted. Thanks to the crisis, people all around the world are talking about capitalism again. How can this discussion become deeper and better-informed? Well, in all kinds of ways, but we can hardly ignore Marx’s body of work, which has “for long [been] the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of that system”, as Eagleton puts it. Marx was the first person to “identify the historical object known as capitalism – to show how it arose, by what laws it worked, and how it might be brought to an end”. That must surely be of interest to those who are wondering whether capitalism has a future.
What, then, could be more welcome and timely than a book that demonstrates why Marx was right, in what ways he was right, and the relevance of his ideas for political action? And who could be more relied upon to write a witty, engaging and accessible account of this than Terry Eagleton, the author of many justly popular books on subjects related to Marxism, and of regular witty essays and polemics pricking the pomposity of many of our culture’s most unjustly respected liberal thinkers? It would seem to be the perfect book for our time, written by the person perfectly placed to do the subject justice. Sadly, Eagleton lets us down.
Marxists reading this book may think twice about just what it is they’ve signed up for. Virulent anti-Marxists will wonder where all (what they consider to be) the most devastating arguments against Marxism are to be found. But most importantly, non-Marxists, politically interested, anti-capitalist or disillusioned working-class readers, are highly unlikely to be convinced by it either. Eagleton makes no effort to carefully define what Marx’s thought was, nor to compare it with the reality of everyday life under capitalism. Marx’s supreme achievement, as Eagleton says at the start of his book, was to identify an historical object known as capitalism, and show how it worked. But in the book’s 258 pages, we do not hear a word about Marx’s thought on that subject. We do not hear once just what capitalism is, or how it works. Instead, we are just exhorted to believe, from various vague pronouncements and polemical swipes, that capitalism is mostly a very bad and unjust thing. Quite why it is bad, or quite why it leads to such results, we are none the wiser.
As for what socialism is, we hear much more about that. But anyone who is familiar with Marx’s arguments about what capitalism is will wonder just what the difference between capitalism and the various forms of “socialism” Eagleton champions is supposed to be. Even if you’re not familiar with Marx’s arguments on this, anyone who reads Eagleton’s apologias for the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia and Mao’s China would be quite justified in snapping the book shut and concluding that their prejudices were quite correct after all: that Marx and socialism were things to be avoided at all costs. For Eagleton, these “socialisms” were “botched experiments”, a disgustingly coy way to describe the blood-soaked, anti-working-class tyrannies that imposed state-led, capitalist industrial development on economically backward countries. Whenever Eagleton does bump up against the occasional sensible argument, he quickly dismisses it as “ultra-left”, and veers off to the right – to the rightwing deviation, the senile disorder, of Leninism. Perhaps that’s why Eagleton can find room to mention approvingly or critically just about everything that has ever been dignified with the name of socialism apart from the idea, put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, of the “communistic abolition of buying and selling”. Genuine socialism is just too ultra-left for him.
This book is, then, a bitter disappointment and a wasted opportunity. The capitalist West is just emerging from a long period of illusion. As Eagleton points out, the illusion was not so much a deep belief in capitalism, but a disillusion about the possibility of changing it. “What helped to discredit Marxism above all, then,” says Eagleton, “was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda…” Change is back on the agenda. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains as astute and relevant as ever. But if you want to know why, you’ll have to go to better sources than this book.