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Why Eagleton Is Half-Right

In the end, Eagleton does not do much work to convince the reader why she should follow Marx. And we receive no robust vision for the rightly-ordered life here. Instead of resurrection, we are offered tragedy and death and the hope of some undescribed egalitarian future.
BOOK REVIEW: Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press, 2011. 272 pp.
Eagleton, Why Marx was Right

Poor Karl Marx. He's had a rough go of it recently. People (usually evil capitalist types) continue to dig him up, slap makeup on him, then drop him in a chair and blame him for all sorts of bad things, like some undead defendant. He's unfairly blamed for the death of millions in the former USSR, for the starvation of millions in Ukraine and North Korea, and for the imprisonment of trade unionists in Cuba and Christians in China. Poor Marx is a dead litigant with no serious defender.

Until now.

With his latest book, Why Marx is Right, Terry Eagleton brings his considerable rhetorical skill to defend Marx against detractors. In fact, Eagleton aims at something much more ambitious than mere defence. The cheeky title and the opening of the first chapter make it clear that Eagleton will not settle for a mere settling of scores on behalf of a dead man and his ideas. Rather, he aims to brush off the decades of dirt and bad makeup imposed by capitalist caricaturists and resurrect Karl Marx.

At this point I should disclose that I'm not an unbiased observer. I have worked with people who have actually lived in and experienced the system of justice in communist regimes. Working with people who have experienced communism first-hand has shaped my perspective of Marx and his ideas. And, frankly, I'm firmly on the plaintiff's side.

But before you begin to use what I've said above as a reason simply to ignore this book, pause for a moment to reconsider what type of book this is.

Why Marx is Right is proselytization by a true believer. It's not mainly a polemic (though he does throw in more than enough jabs at "right wing newspapers" to make one cringe)—it's an apologetic.

That said, Terry Eagleton is no Fidel Castro. And the last time I checked, Eagleton has not imprisoned anyone for trying to start a trade union or a newspaper (though I wonder what he would do if that person were to start, say, a right-wing newspaper). It is only charitable to give him a fair reading, and to give Karl Marx another chance at refurbishing his shoddy reputation in the post-Soviet age.

Eagleton has established himself as a thoughtful critic, with careful responses that defend the religious against the New Atheists' shoddy work. It behooves us to be charitable to his defence of Marx and to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says those regimes that claimed to take their inspiration from Marx were really just bad apples.

So: what does Eagleton have to say in Marx's defence? If what we thought we knew about Marx was wrong, what is this new perspective?

Here's the summary:

Marx had a passionate faith in the individual and a deep suspicion of abstract dogma. He had no time for the concept of a perfect society, [and] was wary of the notion of equality . . . It was diversity, not uniformity, that he hoped to see. Nor did he teach that men and women were the helpless playthings of history. He was even more hostile to the state than right-wing conservatives are, and saw socialism as a deepening of democracy, not the enemy of it. His model of the good life was based on the idea of artistic self-expression. He believed that some revolutions might be peacefully accomplished and was in no sense opposed to social reforms. He did not focus narrowly on the manual working class . . . He did not make a fetish of material production; on the contrary, he thought it should be done away with as far as possible. If he paid such unflagging attention to the economic, it was in order to diminish its power over humanity. His materialism was fully compatible with deeply held moral and spiritual convictions . . . and saw socialism as the great inheritor of . . . liberty, civil rights and material prosperity.

The thing is, after Eagleton changes out Marx's worn jacket, removes the gaudy makeup, and gives the ever-so-necessary beard-and-hair trim, Karl Marx looks a hell of a lot like Terry Eagleton. For most people, this will make the book more interesting.

The pithy paragraph above, which comes as a summary at the end of the book, belies some quite serious and thoughtful interpreting that Eagleton performs in the bowels of the book. There are a few areas in particular which I think are worth highlighting.

Take, for example, his definition of Marxism as an essentially tragic conception of history. Rather than describing history as a march forward into ever-greater spheres of progress, Eagleton suggests that the Marxist conception of history is defined by the struggle of individuals working together against inequality and oppression, not by some undefined progressive force. It is capitalism, he says, that suffers from an unreasonable belief in progress. And his interpretation—of both Marx and capitalism—is right (see, for instance, the excellent book Capitalism and Progress by the neocalvinist economist Bob Goudzwaard).

"Marxism," Eagleton says,

. . . is not generally seen as a tragic vision of the world. Its final Act—communism—appears too upbeat for that. But not to appreciate its tragic strain is to miss much of its complex depth . . . Even if men and women find some fulfillment in the end, it is tragic that their ancestors had to be hauled through hell in order for them to do so. And there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and unremembered. Short of some literal resurrection, we can never make recompense to these vanquished millions. Marx's theory of history is tragic in just this respect.

Another intriguing development—which shows the depth of Eagleton's thinking and reading—is his movement from a materialist anthropology to ethics. This too, is worth citing:

If human beings are self-realising creatures, they need to be at liberty to fulfill their needs and express their powers. But if they are social animals, living alongside other self-expressive beings, they need to prevent an endless, destructive clash of these powers . . . Communism . . . organises social life so that individuals are able to realise themselves in and through the self-realization of others . . . Only through others can we finally come into our own. This means an enrichment of individual freedom, not a diminishing of it. It is hard to think of a finer ethics. On a personal level, it is known as love.

There is a host of further religious language in this book. At points, Marx is described as a prophet (with some accuracy, actually) and there are serious conversations about death, oppression, and injustice. Having read through the text and noted all of this religious language, I found myself asking of Eagleton, "What must we do to be saved?"

And it is here that Eagleton lets us all down. After all the deep thinking, after you search the book for what you must do, how you must change your life to overcome oppression and injustice, what disciplines you must practice, you are given this:

. . . The mechanisms which would allow Marx's goal to be approached would actually be built into social institutions. They would not rely on the first place on the goodwill of the individual. Take for example the idea of a self-governing cooperative which Marx seems to have regarded as the key productive unit of the socialist future . . . It contributes to the well-being of the others, and this is simply by virtue of the way it is set up . . . My own self-realization helps to enhance theirs simply because of the cooperative, profit-sharing, egalitarian, commonly governed nature of the unit. It is a structural affair, not a question of personal virtue.

When pressed on what such institutions would look like, he offers only a half-baked answer: "If the new social order is to be genuinely transformative, it follows that there is a strict limit on how much you can say about it right now."

That is the extent of the positive vision of justice Eagleton provides. And Communists accuse Christians of expecting pie-in-the-sky when they die.

In the end, Eagleton does not do much work to convince the reader why she should follow Marx. And in truth, even if we allow Marx off the hook for the travesties of the twentieth century, we had better leave Marx dead in the grave. He presents no robust vision for the rightly-ordered life. Instead of resurrection, we are offered tragedy and death and the hope of some undescribed egalitarian future. We have institutions aimed at self-realization, but no need for virtue and no disciplines to acquire them and no end other than ourselves to strive for.

In the book's vision, justice is the necessary condition of love. But it fails to engage how one cultivates the habits of love—in other words, it gives no structural link between virtue and institutions. It does not recognize the limits of justice or the demands of love. No, the work on those fronts is being done by those following the Christian faith which Eagleton left to follow a false prophet. One can't help but wonder if it might not be best for Eagleton—with all of his distaste for injustice—to join us.

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Brian Dijkema Brian Dijkema
Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics with Cardus, and an editor of Comment. ... read more »
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