To give credit where credit is due, Terry Eagleton certainly does a good job of “steel manning” his opponents in his highly enjoyable 2001 book of Marxist apologetics, Why Marx was Right. Each chapter begins with a short critique of Marxism, which he then proceeds to “debunk”. He does an excellent job of articulating the critiques, but in my view, a rather flimsy job of debunking them.
Eagleton insists that the real Marx is actually more interesting and more nuanced than his caricature. This didn’t exactly hit me with the force of revelation, but ironically the more nuanced, sensible and sane Marx is portrayed, the less interesting he seems. At least Eagleton seems to be having fun philosophizing though. He riffs off the themes introduced at the start of each chapter, taking us on a varied and never boring tour of the Marxist intellectual landscape, but without ultimately arguing his way to any definitive or satisfying conclusions. We may end up more knowledgeable and more thougtful, but the critiques stand. An image that kept coming up for me was of a witty, intelligent and slightly mischievous professor flinging straw at a steel man, just for the craic of it.
So for what it’s worth, here are ten reasons why I am not a Marxist, shamelessly lifted from Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right:
“ONE : Marxism is finished. It might conceivably have had some relevance to a world of factories and food riots, coal miners and chimney sweeps, widespread misery and massed working classes. But it certainly has no bearing on the increasingly classless, socially mobile, postindustrial Western societies of the present. It is the creed of those who are too stubborn, fearful or deluded to accept that the world has changed for good, in both senses of the term.”
“TWO : Marxism may be all very well in theory. Whenever it has been put into practice, however, the result has been terror, tyranny and mass murder on an inconceivable scale. Marxism might look like a good idea to well-heeled Western academics who can take freedom and democracy for granted. For millions of ordinary men and women, it has meant famine, hardship, torture, forced labour, a broken economy and a monstrously oppressive state. Those who continue to support the theory despite all this are either obtuse, self-deceived or morally contemptible. Socialism means lack of freedom; it also means a lack of material goods, since this is bound to be the result of abolishing markets.”
“THREE : Marxism is a form of determinism. It sees men and women simply as the tools of history, and thus strips them of their freedom and individuality. Marx believed in certain iron laws of history, which work themselves out with inexorable force and which no human action can resist. Feudalism was fated to give way to capitalism, and capitalism will inevitably give way to socialism. As such, Marx’s theory of history is just a secular version of Providence or Destiny. It is offensive to human freedom and dignity, just as Marxist states are.”
“FOUR : Marxism is a dream of utopia. It believes in the possibility of a perfect society, without hardship, suffering, violence or conflict. Under communism there will be no rivalry, selfishness, possessiveness, competition or inequality. Nobody will be superior or inferior to anyone else. Nobody will work, human beings will live in complete harmony with one another, and the flow of material goods will be endless. This astonishingly naïve vision springs from a credulous faith in human nature. Human viciousness is simply set aside. The fact that we are naturally selfish, acquisitive, aggressive and competitive creatures, and that no amount of social engineering can alter this fact, is simply overlooked. Marx’s dewy-eyed vision of the future reflects the absurd unreality of his polemic as a whole.”
“FIVE : Marxism reduces everything to economics. It is a form of economic determinism. Art, religion, politics, law, war, morality, historical change: all these are seen in the crudest terms as nothing more than the reflections of the economy or class struggle. The true complexity of human affairs is passed over for a monochrome vision of history. In his obsession with economics, Marx was simply an inverted image of the capitalist system he opposed. His thought is at odds with the pluralist outlook of modern societies, conscious as they are that the varied range of historical experience cannot be crammed into a single rigid framework.”
“SIX : Marx was a materialist. He believed that nothing exists but matter. He had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity, and saw human consciousness as just a reflex of the material world. He was brutally dismissive of religion, and regarded morality simply as a question of the end justifying the means. Marxism drains humanity of all that is most precious about it, reducing us to inert lumps of material stuff determined by our environment. There is an obvious route from this dreary, soulless vision of humanity to the atrocities of Stalin and other disciples of Marx.”
“SEVEN : Nothing is more outdated about Marxism than its tedious obsession with class. Marxists seem not to have noticed that the landscape of social class has changed almost out of recognition since the days when Marx himself was writing. In particular, the working class which they fondly imagine will usher in socialism has disappeared almost without trace. We live in a social world where class matters less and less, where there is more and more social mobility, and where talk of class struggle is as archaic as talk of burning heretics at the stake. The revolutionary worker, like the wicked top-hatted capitalist, is a figment of the Marxist imagination.”
“EIGHT : Marxists are advocates of violent political action. They reject a sensible course of moderate, piecemeal reform and opt instead for the bloodstained chaos of revolution. A small band of insurrectionists will rise up, overthrow the state and impose its will on the majority. This is one of several senses in which Marxism and democracy are at daggers drawn. Because they despise morality as mere ideology, Marxists are not especially troubled by the mayhem their politics would unleash on the population. The end justifies the means, however many lives may be lost in the process.”
“NINE : Marxism believes in an all-powerful state. Having abandoned private property, socialist revolutionaries will rule by means of a despotic power, and that power will put an end to individual freedom. This has happened wherever Marxism has been put into practice; there is no reason to expect that things would be different in the future. It is part of the logic of Marxism that the people give way to the party, the party gives way to the state, and the state to a monstrous dictator. Liberal democracy may not be perfect, but it is infinitely preferable to being locked in a psychiatric hospital for daring to criticise a savagely authoritarian government.”
“TEN : All the most interesting radical movements of the past four decades have sprung up from outside Marxism. Feminism, environmentalism, gay and ethnic politics, animal rights, antiglobalisation, the peace movement: these have now taken over from an antiquated commitment to class struggle, and represent new forms of political activism which have left Marxism well behind. Its contributions to them have been marginal and uninspiring. There is indeed still a political left, but it is one appropriate to a postclass, postindustrial world.”
I was curious to see how Terry Eagleton would go about addressing and even perhaps refuting these claims. I was open to the possibility that the scales might fall from my eyes and that finally I would get it. Surely I had missed something? And what better hands to be coaxed back into the fold than those of my charming and erudite undergraduate hero (I read English Lit)?
But all I found were a jumble of half-baked arguments and assertions. Whatever the ins and outs of Marx’s thought and his intellectual relations to other nineteenth century thinkers, it seems painfully obvious that there is a wide gulf between Marx the man and Marxism, and that Marxism is closer to the ten vignettes copied and pasted above, than to the supposed subtleties of Marx’s personal intellectual genius. If only academics of Terry Eagleton’s caliber can distill the profound truths from the apparent nonsense, what hope for the rest of us? If we are attracted by Marxism, won’t it most likely be the bastardised version? The anti-capitalist “eat the rich” variety?
Don’t take my word for it though. Read the book and make up your own mind.