Why Marx Was Right

Ever need a handy compendium to use when you were in discussions with tiresome right-wingers about how Marx and Marxism was a “Fatal Conceit” or “The Road to Serfdom”? (The quoted references are, of course, to anti-socialist tracts by F. A. Hayek.) Well, if you live in the United States, there would be plenty of individuals who would so debate you. But then again, probably not so many of you would want to. But, for those who would, Terry Eagleton has provided such a compendium. His new book, Why Marx was right, provides thoughtful and often amusing responses to ten common objections to Marx and Marxism. Each chapter addresses one of these claims:

1)      Marxism’s time has passed. We are in a post-industrial, classless world now.

2)      Marxism may be well in theory, but whenever it has been put into practice, the result has been terror, tyranny, and mass murder.

3)      Marxism is a form of determinism. It doesn’t allow for human freedom.

4)      Marxism is a dream of utopia. It believes in the possibility of a perfect society. In reality, humans are naturally selfish, aggressive, and competitive.

5)      Marxism reduces everything to economics. Marx was simply an inverted image of the capitalist system he opposed.

6)      Marx was a materialist. He had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity.

7)      Marx was tediously obsessed with class. Nothing could be more outdated.

8)      Marxists are advocates of violent political action. They reject a sensible course of moderate reform. The end justifies the means. This is why so many lives were ground out by the communist revolutions of the twentieth century.

9)      Marxism believes in an all-powerful state. Liberal democracy may have its faults, but it is much better than being locked up in a psychiatric hospital for daring to criticize an authoritarian government.

10)   The most interesting radical movements of the last four decades have grown up outside Marxism. Feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, ethnic politics, the peace movement; all of these have left Marxism behind.

For each of these objections, Eagleton rehearses replies, often with great humor, always with great sympathy for the man, Karl Marx. His method usually includes one or more of the following: 1) Pointing out that the claim is irrelevant to what Marx actually said, 2) Recognizing the truth in the claim and demonstrating how this truth is compatible with what Marx actually said, 3) Pointing out that the negative consequences highlighted in the claim apply often more strongly to capitalism than to socialism, or 4) Pointing out that the claim is untrue.

I won’t try to rehearse his replies to all of these claims but will focus in on two: Claim Number 8 and Claim Number 2.

Claim Number 8 – Marxists are advocates of violence

Eagleton’s full statement of this objection is as follows:

Marxists are advocates of violent political action. They reject a sensible course of moderate, piecemeal reform and opt instead for the bloodstained chaos of revolution. A small band of insurrectionists will rise up, overthrow the state and impose its will on the majority. This is one of several senses in which Marxism and democracy are at daggers drawn. Because they despise morality as much as mere ideology, Marxists are not especially troubled by the mayhem their politics would unleash on the population. The end justifies the means, however many lives may be lost in the process.

Eagleton’s approach here is first to point out that many reform movements that did not lead to revolution, including the US civil rights movement and liberal reform movements in Latin America during the nineteenth century, in fact involved brutal violence initiated by the government to which the reform movement was opposed. In addition, many actual revolutions, including the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the subsequent fall of the communist state in the Soviet Union 70 years later, were accomplished with little blood being spilled. Of course a bloody civil war followed the Bolshevik revolution, as the new social order came under attack by conservative forces in Russian society, with support from the Western powers.  While Eagleton recognizes that Stalin and Mao Zedong were “mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale” he points out that the severest critics of Stalinism have been Marxists (he is thinking of Trotsky).

A general line of response that Eagleton doesn’t make much of is to consider the death and destruction resulting from NOT having a revolution. This is the tack taken by Barrington Moore in his study of revolutions, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship. Moore in this book evaluates revolutions: capitalist revolutions in Britain, France, and the United States; fascist revolutions in Germany and Japan; and communist revolutions in China and Russia. Moore compares the death and suffering resulting from the violent modernization instrumented by Mao to the equally destructive suffering that is still going on in India, where a socialist revolution has not (yet) taken place.

Eagleton does mention the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima (he doesn’t mention the bombing of Tokyo), bloody suppression of colonial uprisings in African and South Asia, and the million deaths in the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, which he attributes in large measure to the fact that “. . . the British government of the day insisted on observing the laws of the free market in its lamentable relief policy.” He writes that “Marx writes with scarcely suppressed outrage in Capital of the bloody, protracted process by which the English peasantry was driven from the land (during the enclosures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century). It is this history of violent expropriation which lies beneath the tranquility of the English rural landscape. Compared to this horrendous episode, one which stretched over a lengthy period of time, an event like the Cuban revolution was a tea party.”

A last line of discussion in this chapter is to the effect that Marx himself and many followers were not opposed to peaceful reform in countries like England, Holland, and the United States. Believing, as they did, that the best interests of the majority of the populations of these capitalist societies were not served by the ongoing march of capitalism to mechanization, unemployment, and regular crisis, Marx and Engels supported reform movements and at times allowed that these could lead to a non-violent revolution in the ownership of social production. The owners of these enterprises, however, protected by the state, have had no such intention.

Claim Number 2 – Theory and practice of Marxism

An important element of the argument in favor of capitalism is the claim that it has “delivered the goods”; that it is the most efficient system for generation of the surplus that can make mankind’s life on this planet less harsh. These goods include not just pop tarts and video games, but a heritage of “liberty, democracy, civil rights, feminism, republicanism, scientific progress, and a good deal more.”

Marx, of course, agreed. He “never imagined that socialism could be achieved in impoverished conditions” nor that it could be achieved in isolated, backward countries in the face of imperialist capitalist opposition. And while the communist governments of Eastern Europe managed to provide “cheap housing, fuel, transport  and culture, full employments and impressive social services for half the citizens of Europe, as well as an incomparably greater degree of equality and (in the end) material well-being than those nations had previously enjoyed” the “gains of Communism scarcely outweighed the losses. It may be that some kind of dictatorial government was well-nigh inevitable in the atrocious conditions of the early Soviet Union; but this did not have to mean Stalinism, or anything like it. Taken overall, Maoism and Stalinism were botched, bloody experiments which made the very of idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in the world who had most to benefit from it.”

Capitalism has worked to deliver the goods. But to whom, how, and at what cost? It has produced fabulous affluence very unequally divided. While multibillionaires purchase islands in the Caribbean or (to their taste) mount widespread charitable campaigns, a staggering 2/3 of the world’s population today subsist on less than $2 dollars per day and, even in the richest capitalist country, the United States, immense wealth exists side by side with crushing poverty, made worse by periodic crises and an overarching tendency to unemployment for more and more members of the society. The question is rarely asked why a society that requires charity to feed its poor is justified in calling itself a successful one. Capitalism faces the greatest contradiction today that it, more and more, both does and does not need human beings. While it has delivered the goods outlined above, it has also brought us “a history of slumps, sweatshops, fascism, imperial wars, and Mel Gibson.”(!)

What is worse, the unchecked greed for resources that capitalism celebrates is threatening today to consume the entire planet. Eagleton quotes economist Slavoj Zizek to the effect that climate change may be seen as “the greatest market failure in history.”

Eagleton’s closing consideration in this chapter is to try to visualize how the incentive qualities of the market could be combined with democratic control of socialized production. He considers a mixed socialist market economy in which “goods which are of vital concern to the community (food, health, pharmaceuticals, education, transport, energy, subsistence products, financial institutions, the media and the like) need to be brought under democratic public control, since those who run them tend to behave antisocially if they sniff the chance of enlarged profits in doing so. Less socially indispensable goods, however (consumer items, luxury products), could be left to the operations of the market.”

In the end, Eagleton recognizes that this is a work in progress. “Socialists will no doubt continue to argue about the detail of a post-capitalist economy. There is no flawless model currently on offer.”

Conclusion

In his brief concluding remarks he summarizes his arguments. “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, was wary of the notion of equality, and did not dream of a future in which we would all wear boiler suits with our National Insurance numbers stamped on our backs. 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 as an 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 reform. He did not focus narrowly on the manual working class. Nor did he see society in terms of two starkly polarized classes.”

He ends his book with the question, “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” There are many possible alternate candidates here (Jesus of Nazareth, anyone?) but Eagleton has provided a brisk and convincing argument to for his case that “Marx was right”.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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4 Responses to Why Marx Was Right

  1. “The question is rarely asked why a society that requires charity to feed its poor is justified in calling itself a successful one.”

    So voluntarily feeding those unable to work through charity is bad, but involuntarily doing so through government is good?

    • I think perhaps this would be better worded as “The question is rarely asked why a society that has more poor than can be fed by charity is justified in calling itself a successful one.”

    • First, thanks for reading the post. The passage you quoted is quite far down in it, so it is good to think that you got most of the way through. As for your comment, it seems to me that it does not follow from the proposition that a society that requires charity to feed its poor is an unsuccessful one that “voluntarily feeding those unable to work through charity is bad.” In an unsuccessful society, charity IS necessary and good. Best regards.

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