Terry Eagleton: the Cheeky Marxist

The most poignant image of Karl Marx I have ever encountered is found in the finishing pages of volume 1 of Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx, the old revolutionary’s fiery chip off the block daughter. Now nearing death, Kapp portrays him looking out the terrace window, sick and sad, hoping that his grandchildren might appear at any moment to bring him some comfort. He needs it: both his beloved Jennies, wife and daughter, have died.

That image of fragility has stuck with me for many years. We can fight fierce intellectual or other battles all of our lives and still suffer from severe boils and loss of loved ones that pierces our souls. Yet our physical and emotional traumas only highlight the utterly phenomenal intellectual and political influence of that most hated and loved of intellectually giant human beings, Karl Marx. Old Karl is right up there with Darwin and Freud for mind-breaking discoveries.

So it is hardly an accident that something called “Marxism” lives in the global intellectual landscape. Only a few miraculous minds like Eric Hobsbawm (How to Change the World: reflections on Marx and Marxism [2011] or Leszek Kolakowski (Main Currents of Marxism: The founders; the golden age and the breakdown [2005] can encompass the teeming mass of texts and endless disputes and debates about what Marx really meant.

Almost comparable to the way historians crafted the “historical Jesus” in their own image, the same might be said for the quest of the “authentic Marx.” We seem to get the Marx we long for, secretly or openly. Businessmen get Jesus in a grey flannel suit and followers of Che one dressed in battle fatigues

Does Marx still speak to us today?

Does Marx still speak to us today? For many arrogant neo-cons, drippy liberals, ex-leftists and pseudo-thinkers captive to the neo-liberal religion of wealth for the few, we can kiss communism and Marx good-bye. Hold on, anti-communists and anti-Marxists. Hold on– don’t give up on old Karl quite yet. Capitalism has not finished its historical rampaging. And Jean-Paul Sartre told us years ago that Marxism will never die as long as capitalism still exists.

One contemporary intellectual who hasn’t given up on Marx is the cheeky Terry Eagleton. This feisty nomad who wanders across many landscapes and hostile terrain—from taking on Richard Dawkins to rescuing Marx from the neo-con barbarians-writes books on life’s meaning alongside works of literary criticism. This quirky-old-sort-of-Catholic Leftist is just as apt to write an introduction to the Gospels as he is to decide over a late night scotch that, “Well, what the hell! Why don’t I upset lots of liberal apple carts and write a book claiming sneakily that Marx was right about just about everything.”

This pugnacious and witty Irishman—he would be Caravaggio if he painted in the seventeenth century—has noticed in his scholarly and political journey that many folks, ordinary and sophisticated, think that Marx was wrong about everything. Even Marx’s mother, so it was said, thought her son should have spent more time making money than writing about it. For most, Marx is toast.

In search of a “plausible Marx”

Why Marx was Right (2011) doesn’t exactly defend Marxian dogma like a sectarian leftist might. It is just that Marx’s ideas are plausible if not perfect. The notion of plausibility gives Eagleton room to stick-handle around really sticky parts of Marx’s voluminous writings, lots of it unfinished and all of it locked into the industrial world and ethos of the mid-to-late 19th century England and Europe.

Eagleton’s way of proceeding is appealing. Guided by the question of whether the “most familiar objects to Marx’s work are mistaken or at least, not totally wrong headed, mostly so.” “Not totally” also gives him wiggle room, allowing him to squirm around some bad things the Bolsheviks did in miserable conditions in the early twentieth century.

So what the cagey Irishman does is to choose ten of the “standard criticisms of Marx” and then refute them one by one. This is a pretty bold strategy! Eagleton is encouraged to take this task on because capitalism has “crept out of its cover” where it had been hiding behind mushy phrases like “the modern age” or “the West.” He is right on to assert that Marx will be remembered forever for identifying “capitalism” as a historical form that is driven onward by an identifiable “set of laws” through the instrument of the class that owns and manages the mode of production.

The first objection to Marxism snarls smugly that his old-fashioned critique of a class-divided and exploitative capitalism has been surpassed as we have slithered into “increasingly classless, socially mobile, post-industrial western societies of the present.” Eagleton easily mocks the delusion that capitalism has evolved into a humane, caring form of economic and political organization that leaves the old grimy Victorian-era industrial age way back there in the dust. Eagleton points us to Guangdong and Shanghai in China, eerily reminiscent of Engels’ Manchester in the 1840s.

This really is a joke, is it not? In 2016 the neo-liberal form of capitalism strides the world like a colossus. The 1% is focused and predatory. They have, so far, escaped crises that appeared to take the capitalist system to the brink of the precipice. In the late 1980s, Eagleton says, Marxism was “ditched” as the left, beaten and disillusioned, no longer believed in the possibility of changing anything much. The ruling classes of the world just adore the idea that Marx is toast and irrelevant. O, how they wish this were so!

Identity politics was embraced and the core of our troubles, the Capitalist Mode of Production and Organization, simply accepted as the way it has to be, so it seems. Eagleton makes the witty observation (he has lots of them) that even a “beaten back Marxism” lends credence to his affirmation that Marx’s critique of capitalism has not lost credibility. Marxism is still on call.

Marx has taken a beating over the years

But, let’s face it, Marx and his ideas have taken a beating over the years. Eagleton intuits, correctly I think, that objections to Marx have congealed into a set of standard assertions and misperceptions. Eagleton rather easily takes apart objections that Marx’s ideas are hopelessly utopian, advocate violence and state-control and are incapable of making sense of contemporary new social movements. The gallant defender of Marx, however, has a less than easy time defending the accusations that Marx is a historical determinist. For me, Marx believed that history had its own “developmental logic”. It was moving inexorably and awkwardly towards the socialist future.

Eagleton asserts that once we set aside the idea that Marx was captive to general laws of history, then we gain considerable insight into historical process. Class struggle “shapes a great many events, institutions and forms of thought which seem at first glance to be innocent of it; and it plays a decisive role in the turbulent transition from one epoch to another.” Yet Eagleton’s quest for a “plausible Marx” goes off the rails as he piles up caveat upon caveat to the big idea of some form of inevitable revolution that expands human flourishing and capacities.

Eagleton hedges socialism’s bets. He raises the difficult questions surrounding the transition from capitalism to a humane socialism. The revolutionary class may not be ripe to make the revolution. There is no guarantee, as we have seen in our time, that a revolutionary agent is conveniently at hand. Crisis crunches can arrive—and things just get worse! Eagleton also hints that the ‘social relations of production” may be the driving force towards a new social formation (that, basically, is Habermas’s revision of Marx’s theory of social evolution).

Marx did not have the ability to gaze into a crystal ball. He was able to don the prophet’s garb in denouncing the manifold ways capitalism stunts human growth and perpetuates alienated forms of work and life. There is a hint in Marx that our modern species human must pass through the fires of capitalist exploitation to create the wealth necessary to “release men and women from the chains of economic necessity into a life where they are free to realize their creative potential thus is Marx’s vision of communism.”

Socialism is nice theory, lousy in practice

Like the world’s great religions—that cannot be reduced to particular historical practices—so it is with Marx and Marxism. Marx is not to be pulled down in the morass of some of “actually existing socialism’s” odious and anti-democratic practices. However, Eagleton tackles the standard objection (number 2) that socialism was a pretty damn awful experience for millions of people head-on with his gloves off.

Nice theory, maybe, but in practice “terror, tyranny and mass murder on an inconceivable scale.” O how we in the West forget! Quickly Eagleton reminds us that modern western 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 terror.” And, today, the US and its allies maintain the domination of capitalism through the massacre and murder of millions around the world.

Anti-communist propaganda works over time, day after bloody day, to tar socialism with thick black paint. But Eagleton reminds us that China and the Soviet Union dragged “their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world, at however horrific a human cost; and the cost as so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West.”

These societies achieved cheap housing, fuel, transport and culture [think only of dance, sport, music, and literature], full employment and impressive social services for half the citizens of Europe…” Eastern Communist Germany boasted of having the finest child care system in the world. These days, with the US stoking the fires of anti-Russia hostility, myth-makers are working overtime trying to wipe the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis in WW II from historical memory. The US mocks this great and powerful culture at its own (and the world’s) peril.

And when the lauded triumvirate—freedom, democracy and vegetables in the shop—“finally rode to the rescue of the Soviet Bloc, they did so in the shape of economic shock therapy, a form of daylight robbery politely known as privatization, joblessness for tens of millions, stupendous increases in poverty and inequality, the closure of free nurseries, the loss of women’s rights and the near-ruin of the social welfare networks that had served these countries so well.”

Defenders of capitalism must face the acerbic and sour reality that capitalist prosperity has been achieved by traveling down the road of genocide, famine, imperialism and the slave trade. Now, the capitalist way of life, Eagleton avers, even threatens to “destroy the planet altogether.” Did Marx want this or the “botched, bloody experiments” in China and the Soviet Union? Eagleton reminds us that Marx and Engels never imagined that socialism could flower in such impoverished conditions.

The task of building up an economy from very low levels and to do so under democratic control is an almost impossible task. It is a “grisly irony” for Eagleton that the “political superstructure of socialism” would be undermined “to build up the economic base” (through militarized labour processes under Bolshevism). Rightly, Eagleton argues that socialism requires a “skilled, educated, politically sophisticated populace, thriving civic institutions, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions and the habit of democracy.”

Socialism also requires a shortened working day. How can persons be fulfilled without leisure? How can men and women facing innumerable barriers inside their own country and fierce hostility from the US fashion slowly and carefully political and economic self-government? Radical ideas about emancipatory education and workers’ self-management (and councils) circulated in the revolutionary air of early twentieth century Russian upheavals. They died for lack of oxygen in these grim conditions.

Eagleton laments the deep troubles of the Bolshevik Revolution

Eagleton laments that the Bolshevik Revolution got “marooned in an ocean of largely hostile peasants reluctant to hand over their hard-earned surplus at gunpoint to the starving towns.” From the start, the revolution was in trouble: the revolutionaries faced disastrously low levels of material production, a narrow capital base, only scattered traces of civil institutions and a decimated, exhausted working class. “In the end, the Bolsheviks were to march their starving, despondent, war-weary people into modernity at the point of a gun.”

Ah, what an irony for those of us on the Left! With the old Soviet Union wracked by civil war, widespread starvation, foreign invasion, the economy, such as it was, in ruins, Eagleton responds by crafting one of his many bon mots: “socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary.” Marx’s hard-nosed critics might still claim that Marxism was an “authoritarian creed”, so even if conditions were better, alas, the communist system would slide inevitably towards authoritarianism.

Both scholars and Left humanists, however, must separate Marx’s actually existing ideas from show-trials and Stalinist hard-as-steel defense of the beleaguered Soviet Union. Eagleton insists that Marx was a “critic of rigid dogma, military terror, political suppression and arbitrary state power. He believed that political representatives should be accountable to their electors, and castigated German Social Democrats of his day for their statist politics. He insisted on free speech and civil liberties, was horrified by the forced creation of an urban proletariat (in his case in England rather than Russia), and held that common ownership should be a voluntary rather coercive process.”

Eagleton presents a compelling case for a Marxian-styled “market socialism.” Fierce critics of Marx and the possibility of an alternative socialist economy and society deny that socialism could be built in a “complex modern economy.” Old Karl is not a stupid, dogmatic guy. It is in line with his emancipatory intentions that one could envisage a market socialism in which “the means of production would be socially owned, but where self-governing cooperatives would compete with one another in the marketplace….At the level of individual enterprises, cooperation would ensure increased efficiency, since the evidence suggests that it is almost always as efficient as capital enterprise and often much more so.”

These brief comments on Why Marx was Right (2011) may whet the appetite for elaborate and fascinating debates about what components we need to build a viable alternative to predatory neo-liberal capitalism. Marx is an essential dialogue-partner in our on-going quest to surpass capitalism as the only available system for the social and moral evolution of the human species.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.