My old mentor Gregory Bateson once mentioned that, in general, he enjoyed teaching Roman Catholics and Marxists more than most other students. “At least,” he explained, “they believe something.”
The implication was clear. People who had a coherent worldview could be approached at a fairly high intellectual level. Their beliefs might well be false, but at least they were not sloppy and inconsistent in their reasoning. Thus, confronted with proper evidence and argument, they might change their minds. They were unlike the bulk of people whose ideas are so scattered, contradictory and ill-formed that their opinions, as Wolfgang Pauli once quipped, were so bad that “they weren’t even wrong.” It’s hard to debate with someone whose default position is to shrug and say: “Whatever.”
Another aspect of this rough gem is provided by G. K. Chesterton, himself a Catholic convert. It was Chesterton’s view that the great tragedy to befall people who lost their faith was not that they would believe nothing, but that they would believe anything.
The implication was also clear. People who no longer believed in Christian doctrine often lost their capacity to make any rational judgements at all.
Neither Bateson nor Chesterton need have worried about Terry Eagleton. As a lapsed Catholic who retains an affection for its sensibilities and culture and an unorthodox Marxist who prizes its humane sensibilities and politics, Eagleton shines a firm moral light not only on literature, but on human studies at large. What’s more, he is a very funny fellow. His writing is jargon-free and his wit is sharp—no doubt too sharp for those whom he (usually rightly) skewers. For most, regardless of their literary and political outlook, he is a joy to read.
As a declaration of personal interest, I must say that I owe a sizable debt of gratitude to Terry Eagleton. It had once been my ambition to study English and History in university, with a mind to becoming a journalist. Neither path opened up properly, so I ventured elsewhere, ignoring both literature and history for a considerable time. Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class brought me back to History by about 1970, but it was not until 1983, when I read a fresh copy of Eagleton’s most famous work of criticism, Literary Theory, that I took literature seriously again. I followed it in 1995 with a close examination of his monumental Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture and I was further educated. I carried on to his reflections on literary criticism, After Theory,in 2005 and was additionally enlightened. These fine works brought me back in touch with traditions I had forsaken, and I was glad to be returned more or less unscathed for my travels.
In keeping with my once-a-decade Eagletonian explorations, I was pleased to get hold of Why Marx Was Right. It is Terry Eagleton’s delightful defence of Marxism in a time when all who claim even an inconsistent allegiance to “the Moor” risk ridicule. To endure supercilious dismissal, especially by certifiable dolts is sometimes a more painful fate than the experience of actual repression—though it would be folly to dismiss the effects of the ideological hysteria that has gripped North American educational institutions on more than one occasion.
Eagleton’s volume could hardly have come at a better time, for it is both a defence of Marxism and a critique of neoliberalism, the ideology that has dominated North American and European thinking for over thirty years. At this historical moment, neoliberalism is undeservedly triumphant and the time for a robust Marxist response is plainly upon us.
As its name suggests, neoliberalism is a new and revitalized version of ideas that applied to psychology, economics and politics in the past. Those ideas were initially articulated by men such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other precursors to and exponents of “classical liberalism.” They were initiators and adherents of the European Enlightenment that came to define modernity for the bulk of informed citizens in, at the very least, the English-speaking proto-democracies until the Victorian Era. Classical liberalism was never hegemonic. It had its conservative and socialist, reactionary and romantic detractors. Nonetheless, its advocacy of individualism over collectivism, reason over religion, competition over cooperation, progress over stability, democracy over aristocracy, free markets over mercantilism and other enablers of what became known as modernity were generally enshrined in the common definition of progress.
Liberalism, however, evolved. Looking back from the neoliberal perspective, it became weak and disoriented. Neoliberals held that thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes had driven classical liberalism off the track. Despite a certain enthusiasm for Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism,” liberalism had gone soft. It was further shaken by the Great Depression, unnerved by twentieth-century totalitarianism and unsettled by the apparent failure of Enlightenment values to bring seamless victories of prosperity over poverty, freedom over tyranny, education over ignorance, and health over disease. Neoliberals subsequently decided that if the blame was properly to be placed, not on the old virtues of individualism, self-interest and market rationality, but the people who had subverted them. In the wake of the tumultuous 1960s, the process of restoring classical liberalism in a new, robust form was begun.
No linear connection can be established, but a few dots can be connected. The restoration of liberalism in its current guise owes much to the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Freidman, the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the proselytizing of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and the Fox News Network, and the intellectual guidance of well-financed “think tanks” which provide “expert opinion” (often passing as news itself) to the mass media. However the movement is described, its success is unquestioned. Governments and educational institutions have reinvented themselves on the business model. Despite recent evidence of disunity on the right, there can be no doubt that neoliberalism—once a cranky group of hysterical outsiders—now define public debate. So, even welfare recipients and students are now called “clients” and “customers.” Leftish political parties such as American Democrats, Canadian New Democrats and British Labourites now embrace the logic of the market. As Canadian milquetoast socialist politician Bob Rae put it: the question is not whether we are to have capitalism, but rather what kind of capitalism we are to have. Their purpose is to concede victory to neoliberal ideologues and hope for some compassion from the top.
One result of this massive cultural shift in the last quarter of the twentieth century was that Marxism was driven into intellectual pockets of irrelevance. A display of post-colonialism here, a demonstration of feminism there and the odd course on critical theory someplace else were allowed—all examples in leftist politics of what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” The implosion of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a bizarre celebration of capitalism were offered up as the final proof that Marx was wrong.
Terry Eagleton is here to say: “Wait a minute! Not quite!”
In a tidy sequence of arguments, Eagleton addresses ten basic points that are regularly made by people who believe or who would like to believe that Marxism as theory and practice is finished:
- Marxism has been rendered obsolete and is no longer relevant in theory;
- Marxism in practice is totalitarian and leads to tyranny and terror;
- Marxism denies people individuality and free will;
- Marxism is utopian and built upon an unrealistic idea of human nature;
- Marxism reduces everything to economic determinism;
- Marxism is out-and-out materialism and destroys human dignity and the soul;
- Marxism is rooted in obsolete notions of social class;
- Marxism’s ethic of violence says the end justifies the means;
- Marxism surrenders civil rights to an all-powerful and monstrous state;
- Marxism has been superseded by other more relevant and more successful radical movements from environmentalism to feminism and the LGTB community.
In each case, Eagleton presents persuasive evidence-based arguments that Marxism not only remains relevant, but is necessary to recognize, analyze and lead to genuinely transformative change. I will not rehearse his arguments. They are so elegantly fashioned and deftly advanced that I’d hate to give anyone an excuse not to read the entire book merely because I highlighted its most powerful points. I will say that he dissects, deconstructs and demolishes each neoliberal position, showing both how neoliberal mythology is merely a poor philosophical defence of relentless personal greed and organized corporate exploitation, and how Marxism offers not merely a critique, but also a much more humane alternative.
As for the common complaint that hitherto existing “communist” societies have been disastrous, none of this is to offer an apologia for the hideous regimes that were built on blood and slaughter in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and in the quantitatively lesser but qualitatively greater evil in Pol Pot’s “Kampuchea.” They were, according to Eagleton, “botched, bloody experiments which made the very idea of socialism stink” (p. 15).
What matters, to me at least, is that these monsters were neither the necessary nor even the logical outcome of Marx’s humanism. It would, I believe, be just as ludicrous and probably self-serving to blame Jesus Christ for the Spanish Inquisition or the burning of witches in Salem, Massachusetts than it is to blame Marx for the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields. And, of course, from the Great Plains of the United States to Leopoldville, and from Dresden, Germany to Hiroshima, Japan, Western Civilization is not exempt from criticism.
In fact, I would even give Nietzsche a “pass” for inspiring Nazi Germany. After all, unlike his unpleasant sister, who was an unfortunate choice for his literary executor, Nietzsche was a harsh critic of anti-Semitism. I digress.
Eagleton does an admirable job of explaining and disposing of this and other common claims about Marx’s alleged enthusiasm for authoritarian governance. His almost philological explanation of such chilling phrases as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is quite convincing. The phrase, incidentally, was coined by one of Marx’s chief rivals, Auguste Blanqui and used by Marx simply to mean government by the common people (p. 205).
All in all, Eagleton has presented a combative, clever and sometimes comedic rejoinder to attacks on Marxism by pompous, patronizing and most often historically and theoretically uninformed people of the sort that populate the editorial departments of the mainstream media, the inmates of places such as the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, and far too many institutions of higher learning.
Eagleton reminds some of us and, no doubt, tells others for the first time that “socialism requires a skilled, educated, politically sophisticated populace, thriving civic institutions, a well evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions and the habit of democracy” (p, 18). To me, the notion of transforming a feudal or peasant society into a full-blown socialist (never mind communist) society was a crack-pipe dream. It would be as sensible to fantasize a history of evolution in which the comparatively tiny equus,which was about the size of a large dog and flourished at the time of the dinosaurs, morphed into a modern Clydesdale without intervening stages of speciation. Likewise, it would be as daft to imagine modern humans born of the loins of “Lucy” (Australopithicus Afarensis) some 4.3 million years ago. We needed some intervening steps—Homo erectus, Homo habilis and their more distant ancestors. As Aristotle opined and Gregory Bateson was fond of quoting: Natura non facit saltus (“nature does not make leaps”); neither does human society. We may make sudden and abrupt transformations, but we can’t skip necessary steps without producing monsters.
Neither Darwin nor Marx were the kind of determinists some of their followers have made them out to be. Darwin, for example, did not see evolution as preordained and progressive. Although he was doubtless more optimistic, Marx also understood that revolutionary conditions could lead either to progress or regress for, otherwise, there was no need for politics as the “scientific laws” of socialism would work their inexorable way with or without conscious human agency.
So, Eagleton’s central theme remains pertinent. Capitalism will come to an end. Everything does. We must therefore ask whether capitalism will be destroyed by catastrophic environmental disasters for which it, itself, may be largely responsible, or will fall victim to the massive arms build-up it has created but not controlled, or whether it will produce yet another economic calamity from which it cannot be salvaged by enforcing taxpayers’ largesse. If not these, will it roughly or gently be transformed into a democratic, equitable, ecologically mindful and ultimately global society?Eagleton’s question, of course, is this: “What if it were not Marxism that is outdated but capitalism itself?”
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.