Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

The only Marx I’ve ever read is The Communist Manifesto. Given capitalism’s recent problems, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about him. This book by English academic and literary critic Terry Eagleton was probably a good place to start.

Why Marx Was Right is a chapter by chapter set of responses to common objections to Marx’s thought. In each case, Marx seems to come out on top: “This book had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?” It’s a well-written, rather breezy book. Eagleton suggests that Karl Marx was a brilliant social theorist, far ahead of his time, although I’m not sure how accurate Eagleton’s portrayal of Marx is. 

The Marx described by Eagleton sounds like a democratic socialist, a 19th century progressive and proto-environmentalist who understood the world more clearly and was a better person than the Communists who achieved power in the 20th century, claiming to be “Marxists” or “Marxist-Leninists”.

The biggest question I had after reading Why Marx Was Right is how Marx’s ideas would work out in practice. At one point, Eagleton describes what would apparently be a Marxist form of government:

It is not a state we ourselves would easily recognize as such. It is as though someone were to point to a decentralised network of self-governing communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central administration, and announce “There is the state!”, when we were expecting something altogether more inspiring and monumental.

That is the clearest description of a Marxist state in the book (as best I remember). According to Eagleton, Marx “defended the great bourgeois ideals of freedom, reason and progress, but wanted to know why they tended to betray themselves whenever they were put into practice”. Likewise, once socialism takes advantage of the infrastructure created by capitalism and evolves into communism, would that infrastructure tend to wither away, since the profit motive would no longer be in full force?

Eagleton argues that Marx would not eliminate the profit motive entirely, but it’s not clear how a truly Marxist state would function. Communism as instituted in the real world has never resembled the seriously democratic system Marx apparently proposed. Nor have communist governments been established in countries with advanced capitalist infrastructure. Marxism is one of those social experiments that have never been performed.

Yet some of what Marx argued for, especially as expressed by Eagleton, would be desirable correctives to the system we’ve got now. In particular, we in America would benefit from more democracy, more socialism and more environmentalism. In Eagleton’s words: 

Capitalism is the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us. The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.

Not complete control, but certainly more control.

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