Was Marx Really Right? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 28, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:19 PM, October 28, 2017

Was Marx Really Right?

Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right,Yale University Press, ISBN: 9780300169430, 2011

Readers familiar with Terry Eagleton's work would have no doubt from the title of his Why Marx Was Right that it would offer a strong defense of all things Marx. After reading it, they will not be disappointed on this count. Eagleton's book has ten chapters; in them, the author seeks to prove beyond reservation the relevance of Marx today: he argues that the nineteenth-century political economist and philosopher can be read usefully even now for his insight and wisdom on matters of importance two centuries later. Eagleton's purpose, as he lays it down in the preface, however, is not to prove Marx “perfect” but to make him “plausible.”

Each chapter of Why Marx Was Right begins with some critical assaults on Marxism. With his habitual articulate finesse, Eagleton crafts the chapter-wise spread of the epigraphic statements well. The actual chapters, then, respond to the charges raised skillfully. The wide range of critical opinions against Marxist ideas that the chapters refute are the following: (1) In today's “postindustrial Western societies” that tend to be classless anyway, Marxism has no relevance. (2) A common behavior of a Marxist government is that it routinely engages in tyranny and oppression. (3) Marxism is “deterministic” and robs people of free will. (4) The utopian tendencies of Marxism completely overlook the inherent baseness of human nature keen on acquiring only material goods. (5) Marxism is too reductionist in that it confines all human activities to economics. (6) The materialism of Marxism leaves no room for the spirit, which accounts for some Marxist leaders' horrendous brutalities such as those perpetrated by Stalin. (7) Marxism is always obsessing with class, especially the working class, which is fast disappearing from the globe. (8) Marxists are hungry for violent political changes and are oblivious to the horrors those revolutionary upheavals can unleash on the people. (9) An inevitable product of Marxism is despotism. And lastly (10),today's “political left”—such as feminism, gay and race activism, and environmentalism—owes little to Marxism; it, in fact, it has moved forward on its own to resist globalization and capitalism.

The above list may make some people believe that Eagleton's chapters defending Marx at times deal with overlapping issues. For example, the 2nd and 9 chapters treat Marxist tyranny and Marxist despotism, respectively. The epigraphs alone, however, do not reflect the exact contents of these chapters. The chapter on tyranny, for instance, explains Marx's views on individual liberty whereas the one on despotism, though very similar to the one with discussion on tyranny, seeks to disabuse the reader of the myth that the liberal democratic state is in harmony with the people. In it Eagleton quotes Jacques Rancière effectively to remind us that Marx was indeed quite prescient in noting that a government's primary function is to serve the interest of global capital.

The opinions Eagleton seeks to invalidate in each chapter are of course customary among those who reject Marxism. Whether he will win a new convert in the process though is for the reader to ponder. Writing in his mid-seventies (he was born in 1943), Eagleton is obviously targeting an audience mostly uninitiated in Marxism, that is, “those unfamiliar with . . . [Marx's]  work.” It requires no stretch of imagination to guess—accurately enough, one hopes—that he wrote the last chapter for young western readers of the day. With copious references to Marx as well as other thinkers, Eagleton tries to establish that patriarchy and class form two interlinked histories, implying thereby that the exploitation of women amounts to none other than class exploitation. If Marx has been “gender-blind,” as has been alleged by some, so is capitalism, which is not to say that political inheritors of Marxism were of the same breed. “The Bolsheviks took the so-called women question equally seriously,” and it was not fortuitous, according to Eagleton, that “the uprising . . . to topple the Tsar was launched with mass demonstrations on International Women's Day in 1917.”

Like women's movements that had received support first from Marxist activists in the early twentieth century, anti-colonial movements in Asia, Africa, and South America obtained a strong impetus from Marxism at the same time and in the following decades. That Marx had a grim view of India and that he seemed to endorse “its subjugation by the British” Eagleton unequivocally acknowledges. However, he notes that to Marx, this was the only means for a “socialist revolution in the subcontinent.” Eagleton wryly observes next, “It is not the kind of talk that would land you an A in postcolonialism courses from Canterbury to California”. In other words, political correctness is not the way to understand Marxism.

 Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Eagleton mentions Edward Said's Orientalism in the chapter and proclaims it to be “quite strongly anti-Marxist.” Next appears typical Eagletonian praise laced with typical Eagletonian condemnation: “At its finest . . . [Orientalism] has produced work of rare insight and originality. At its least creditable, it represents little more than the foreign affairs department of postmodernism.”Admirers of Said would find this characterization of his most well-known work quite appalling. Eagleton's ostensible purpose in the chapter, one would do well to note, is to clarify that Marx's ideas on India (which Said excoriates in Orientalism) were shaped by his nineteenth-century perspectives, and hence, allowances must be made to Marx. After all, a certain measure of Eurocentricism was paradigmatic of all thinkers of his time: “He was a middle-class European intellectual.” Eagleton also refers to Aijaz Ahmad whose In Theory offers evidence from Marx's work to contradict Said.

Traditional Marxist s, like Said's admirers, may find many of Eagleton's assertions in Why Marx Was Right problematic, as when he describes Stalin and Mao Zedong as “mass murderers”. Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read. Eagleton's witty prose, combined with his humorous analogies, make a difficult subject light reading. While advocating the socialist cause that should accept all in its ranks, Eagleton, for instance, suggests wryly, “There is no ban on Rupert Murdoch and Paris Hilton . . . Even Martin Amis and Tom Cruise might be granted some sort of junior, strictly temporary membership.” On another occasion, Eagleton declares that George Bush “seems to have worked hard to make the capitalist system appear in the worst possible light . . . which makes one wonder whether he was secretly working for the North Koreans.” It is such wit and insights, offered so casually and endlessly that make Eagleton's work, here as elsewhere, such enjoyable reading!

Farhad Bani Idris is a  professor of English at Frostburg State University, USA.

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