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Why Marx Was Right

Terry Eagleton

(Yale University Press; US: Apr 2011)

Marx may be dead, but class warfare is alive and well. In Wisconsin and Ohio, conservative politicians have taken steps to crush labor unions by limiting or eliminating workers’ rights to collective bargaining, abrogating a civil right that has protected average Americans from exploitation at the hands of their employers and improved working conditions for everyone, not just union members. Other states, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Indiana are gearing up to follow suit in an effort to tip the balance of power toward corporate interests at the expense of their citizens.


Corporations like Bank of America and General Electric reap billion-dollar profits while paying absolutely nothing in federal taxes. In the UK and Ireland, austerity measures have shifted the burden of the financial meltdown away from the bankers and brokers who caused it and onto students, pensioners, and the working class. Though socialism is claimed to be anathema, redistribution of wealth is standard practice in our modern capitalist society; the only distinction is that it’s all going upward. The promise that capitalism will lead to prosperity for all people seems more remote, and more ludicrous, than ever.


For Terry Eagleton, a preeminent literary theorist and academic, this is the perfect time to revisit a critical perspective born during another era of industrial rapacity and economic inequality: Marxism. Unfortunately, before one can enter a coherent, competent dialogue about the subject, we must dispel the myths, distortions, and outright falsehoods that have grown up around the ideology and transformed Karl Marx from a thoughtful, insightful critic of society to a shady, Boris Badenov-style villain.


Why Marx Was Right confronts what Eagleton believes are the ten greatest misconceptions about Marxism and seeks to clear the air about its strengths and its weaknesses. Despite the provocative title, he disclaims that the book is not an argument for Marx’s infallibility. “I am not a leftist of that breed,” he writes, “that piously proclaims that everything is open to criticism, and then… when asked to produce… criticisms of Marx, lapses into truculent silence.” Eagleton treats Marxism not as a purist ideology, but rather as a critical perspective, a useful tool with which to analyze and deconstruct our world in search of answers.


So Marx wasn’t 100 percent right, but, says Eagleton, “he was right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description.”


Eagleton is a compelling writer and raconteur, and he strives to make Why Marx Was Right more than just a staid examination of theory and history. He’s a witty, insightful thinker with a penchant for glib asides and wry dashes of humor. It’s probably the only book that makes references to Tiger Woods and Mel Gibson along with Charles Fourier and Michel Foucault. Though such tangents can help break up the prose and polemic, they can, at times, be needlessly distracting or feel forced. As an avowed Marxist, Eagleton is not presenting a dispassionate case, but to his credit, it’s also not a hard sell. He wants to erase the caricature of Marx that impedes an honest appreciation of his views, and make it acceptable to invoke his name and ideas without being unfairly dismissed as a dangerous malcontent.


Eagleton explains that Marxism grew out of genuine concern for the plight of industrial workers in Victorian England, who toiled in fetid mills and factories for long hours and little money. It saw inequality and exploitation and looked for a way to break the cycle that had haves becoming rich at the expense of have nots. Perhaps most surprisingly, Eagleton reveals that Marx never thought of Marxism or socialism as requiring the destruction of capitalism. Capitalism isn’t inherently evil for Marx, merely inefficient and unequal; socialism was meant to improve the system, to weed out the inefficiencies that doomed untold millions to poverty and provide a higher standard of living for more than just an elite few.


Tell that to those left behind by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, though, or the Russians missing in Stalin’s purges and gulags. “In its brief, but bloody career,” Eagleton admits, “Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence… But very few Marxists today would seek to defend these horrific crimes, whereas many non-Marxists would defend, say, the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima.” Irrespective of ideology, humanity’s hands are bloody, whether they’re the hands of 20th century FARC guerillas ostensibly serving Marxism or 19th century US cavalrymen driving Native Americans to extinction to make way for gold mines and oil derricks.


“The history of capitalism,” he writes, “is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide, and avoidable famines.” And in the case of the United States, it’s even founded on a much-celebrated, violent revolution! There’s nothing intrinsic to Marxism that requires totalitarianism or mass-murder, and the same goes for capitalism—but each has been stained by the failings of men. To say barbarism is the exclusive domain of Marxism is sadly incorrect.


To those who would claim Marxism is a utopian pipe-dream, Eagleton asks what you would call a system that believes it can consume finite natural resources in large quantities and continue growing and expanding into infinity. “The Faustian dream of progress without limits…” he writes, “Today, it is known not as the Faustian dream, but as the American one.”


Whether or not you’re comfortable embracing Marxism in Eagleton’s manner, the simple, fundamental conceit proposed by Marx is (or should be, by now) undeniable: that class struggle is the animating force of history, and continues to drive today’s political debates. It’s not a battle being fought in Latin American jungles or snowy, Russian streets. It’s not a violent battle, nor does it have to be. It’s a battle being waged in state houses, parliaments, and other legislative bodies in every city and town; its weapons are bills, not bombs. And it’s happening whether you choose to believe it or not.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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