One virtue of this book is how believable, and in a sense how serious, these opening denunciations are. These are not the arguments of straw men, but substantial intellectual and political objections: Marxism imposes limits on human freedom; it is violent and undemocratic; it is obsessed with an obsolete notion of class; it is "totalising" and conceited in its sense of historical inevitability; and, when tested politically, it resulted in one of the greatest tyrannies in history. Eagleton deflects these through excursions into philosophy, political practice and literary analogy.
He owns up to the accusation of Marx's belief in historical inevitability, but points out that few Marxists now subscribe to it. With reference to theEconomic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the idea of Marx as an opponent of liberty is easily dismantled; and an account of his political practice and advocacy of the ultra-democratic Paris Commune makes nonsense of the common misreading of the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat". In the most polemically charged and enjoyable sections of the book, Eagleton points out that the "working class" – both in the sense of those without property, who are forced to sell their labour, and in the sense of those working in factories mass-producing goods – is far larger than it was in Marx's time, and is growing worldwide; he also soundly ridicules the contemporary cliché of class as a sort of ethnicity (as in the pernicious phrase "white working class").
Yet economics is largely absent. Most posers of the question "Was Marx right?" have focused on his claim that capitalism is inherently prone to crisis, and guiltily replied: "Yes." Yet Eagleton largely avoids the critique of political economy, assuming that he already has the reader's agreement.