Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review of and Ruminations on "Why Marx was Right" by Terry Eagleton Part I

It’s about time somebody wrote a popularly accessible book, "Why Marx Was Right" refuting all the bullshit straw man slander against Marx and the school of thought that he founded.  My first inclination is to wish it wasn't Terry Eagleton, the dean of Marxist literary criticism.  Why? Mainly because I don’t read much fictional literature, I don’t know much about literary criticism, Marxist or otherwise.  Perhaps this was a task for a Marxist social scientist or economist?  Of the many things that Marx got right, what needs to be emphasized and exposed is the nature of capitalist economic production; who does it, and who walks off with the surplus value like it was they who allegedly “earned” it.   Thus, the contemporary grand explainer of Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, David Harvey, or radical economist Michael Perelman, if they had written this book, might have approached the defense of Marx primarily from that angle.  But Eagleton does do a good job in defending Marx by showing not only why Marx was right, but why so many slanderers of Marx really don’t know what they are talking about.  Yet, Eagleton also makes clear that there is plenty to be found in Marx’s work that is open to criticism, revision, and qualification.

Eagleton takes aim at the most common misunderstandings, misrepresentations, ignorance and lies about Marx’s thought.  Each chapter begins with an extensive quote that characterizes these misrepresentations:  “Marxism is finished….” (it has lost its relevancy in the modern world), “Marxism may be all very well in theory…” (but when put in practice leads to tyranny and terror), “Marxism is a form of determinism.., Marxism is a dream of utopia…, Marxism reduces everything to economics…, Marx was a materialist, he believed nothing exists but matter.., Nothing is more outdated about Marxism’s tedious obsession with class…,  Marxist are advocates of violent political action…, Marxism believes in an all-powerful state...”  Many of these are cliches and oversimplifications commonly repeated without substantiation in the actual writings of Marx; or they are willful ignorance of the conditions of modern capitalism.   Unfortunately, Eagleton doesn’t cite the source of these quotes, potentially opening himself up the charge of constructing straw men to knock down.   I myself have heard much of the same boilerplate platitudes, and can bear witness that these quotes indeed represent common slanders of Marx.

From the outset of chapter 1, in response to the claim that Marx(ism) is irrelevant, Eagleton clarifies that Marxism is a critique of capitalism, “the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive, critique of its kind ever to be launched,” therefore as long as there is capitalism there is something to be found in the thought of Marx.  Of course apologist for capitalism, wishing that Marx(ism) would go away make the counter claim that capitalism has changed from “the dark satanic mills” of the mid 1800s, and reformed itself into something much more humane and tolerable.  In the case of the developed world of the United States and Western Europe, Marxists would concede that conditions for the working class have much improved from the mid-1800s.  Eagleton neglects to mention the necessary fact that in part these improved conditions were due to working class struggles.  Eagleton does argue that the capitalist system since the 1970s has gone through dramatic changes which has included deregulated markets and a renewed assault on the working class’ wages, conditions, and abilities to organize and defend itself.  There has been an increased globalization of the capitalist system resulting in the moving of manufacturing industries to countries where capital can employ labor at a lower wages and weaker environmental and safety regulation.  Eagleton argues that Marxism might seem discredited because so many of these changes served to disillusion leftist radicals, but not because everything is peachy for the working class under capitalism, but because the capitalist system seems un-defeatable.    It is truly ironic that just at a time when the capitalist system launches into an era of increased globalization, a process analyzed and predicted by Marx, and an era of increased inequality and greater insecurity and immiseration for working people, also predicted by Marx, that Marx’s thought would be considered “irrelevant.”  Au contraire, Eagleton 1, anti-Marxist critics’ 0.

Of course another factor that would seem to discredit Marx(ism) is the tyrannical history of so-called “Marxist regimes” like the Soviet Union and Maoist China.  In my reading of chapter 2, Eagleton makes no attempt to be an apologist for this history of tyranny.
“Taken overall, Maoism and Stalinism were botched, bloody experiments which made the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in the world who had the most to benefit from it.”
However, he does make note of the hypocrisy of those who ideologically denounce this history of tyranny while ignoring the fact that:
“Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence, and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears; it is just that it has survived long enough to forget about much of this horror, which is not the case with Stalinism and Maoism.”
This should be self-evident for those who are fair minded and have the relevant historical knowledge.  However, it’s hard to find apologists for capitalism that acknowledge these ugly facts.  On the other hand, those familiar with the history of socialist and communist movements, and the Marxist tradition know that there have always been internal critics of socialism's errors, from Rosa Luxembourg’s criticism of Lenin’s heavy handed state policies, to the critics of Stalinism by Trotskyists and others.   Furthermore, anybody actually familiar with Marx’s writings will know that it is impossible to connect the dots from Marx’s actual thought to the actual deeds of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  Marx was a staunch anti-authoritarian and advocate of freedom.  But apologists for capitalism and slanderers of Marx are not interested in the truth of these matters.

In countering the charges that Marxism and attempts to build socialism are inevitably tied to tyrannical dictatorships and massacres, there are other facts I wished Eagleton had mentioned.  That is that the repression and overthrow of leftist and socialist movements and governments has also resulted in dictatorships and massacres.  The historical examples are ubiquitous; in 1973 the Chilean military, supported by the U.S., overthrew socialist president Allende’s Popular Unity government which lead to thousands being murdered and a fifteen year dictatorship; U.S. supported Indonesian dictator Suharto murdered millions of members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party; the  U.S. has supported the domestic bourgeoisies, dictatorships, and military and paramilitary forces in countries too numerous to name in an effort to repress popular efforts at reforms of capitalism's worst abuses.
Eagleton fair mindedly calls attention to the fact that both the history of capitalism and the efforts to build socialism have common histories of benefits and costs.  Capitalism in its association with the European Enlightenment and bourgeois revolution was progressive in establishing a heritage of individual liberty, liberal democracy, civil rights, and scientific progress.  But also savage economic depressions, child labor in sweatshops, fascism, and imperial wars and environmental degradation.  So to, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions embarked on a path of breaking out of economic backwardness and industrial development; also at a tremendous human and environmental cost.  He claims the Soviet Union and it's eastern bloc did many things to advance the social welfare of its citizens, advanced and supported the arts and sciences, but doesn’t run away from the fact that individual liberty was significantly repressed.  The coming of capitalism to Eastern Europe also did not result in some capitalist utopia either, with dramatic increases in poverty, unemployment and general social despair, while legalized robbery occurred in the form of privatization, with many of the beneficiaries being the former state elite of the so-called socialist bloc.

Those who claim that the failure of so-called socialism in the former Soviet Union and other places is the failure of Marx(ist) theory are willfully ignorant of Marx’s theory of socialist revolution.  Eagleton does a fair but incomplete job of explaining that Marx hypothesized that a socialist revolution would have the greatest chance of success in a well-developed capitalist country with a self-aware and assertive working class.  Early twentieth century Russia was a comparatively under-developed, mostly peasant country, with a relatively small working class.  The same could be said of China and the many other Third World countries that have had revolutions lead by socialists and Marxists.  Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were well aware that they were not operating under good conditions for building socialism, and they hoped that other parallel socialist revolutions would occur in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the wake of devastation of World War I.  Instead, these revolutions never occurred and the Soviet Union was isolated and attacked by domestic counter-revolutionaries and hostile western powers.  Eagleton argues that this set the stage for Stalinism, and rather than discrediting Marx, validates his ideas on what conditions are necessary to establish and sustain a socialist society.

In the latter part of Chapter 2 Eagleton address the claim that socialism is unworkable based on the idea that a complex modern economy requires markets.  From there he launches into a discussion of “market socialism” in refuting the idea that socialism and markets are necessarily incompatible; then he discusses alternative visions of socialism such as “Parecon” from non-market socialists.  This latter part of the chapter is all a valuable discussion but would have been better treated in a chapter of its own.  It does fit in with the overall theme of the chapter in arguing that just because the Soviet style state-socialism is a historical failure, it is not necessarily true that socialism must always fail.  But it is discontinuous from the primary emphasis of the first part of the chapter that focuses on refuting the alleged intrinsic connection between Marxism, socialism, and tyranny.

Overall, the first two chapters Eagleton’s book does a fine job in tackling two primary misconceptions and slanders of Marx.  In subsequent posts I will review and discuss other chapters of Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right.   

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