[OPE] Terry Eagleton, "In Praise of Marx"

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Tue Apr 12 2011 - 08:07:10 EDT


April 10, 2011
In Praise of Marx
[image: In Praise of Marx 3]

Illustration by Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

By Terry Eagleton

Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the
Boston Strangler. Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass
murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for
millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid
Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese
dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on
his hands?

The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression
of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. For
one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root
in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and
China. If it did, then the result would simply be what he called
"generalized scarcity," by which he means that everyone would now be
deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a recycling of "the old filthy
business"—or, in less tasteful translation, "the same old crap." Marxism is
a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense
resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a
program by which nations bereft of material resources, a flourishing civic
culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened
liberal traditions, and a skilled, educated work force might catapult
themselves into the modern age.

Marx certainly wanted to see justice and prosperity thrive in such forsaken
spots. He wrote angrily and eloquently about several of Britain's
downtrodden colonies, not least Ireland and India. And the political
movement which his work set in motion has done more to help small nations
throw off their imperialist masters than any other political current. Yet
Marx was not foolish enough to imagine that socialism could be built in such
countries without more-advanced nations flying to their aid. And that meant
that the common people of those advanced nations had to wrest the means of
production from their rulers and place them at the service of the wretched
of the earth. If this had happened in 19th-century Ireland, there would have
been no famine to send a million men and women to their graves and another
two or three million to the far corners of the earth.

There is a sense in which the whole of Marx's writing boils down to several
embarrassing questions: Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated
more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless
to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the
mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and
indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with
public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that
we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery,
but shall do so in the fullness of time? Or is it more plausible to maintain
that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates
deprivation and inequality, as surely as Charlie Sheen generates gossip?

Marx was the first thinker to talk in those terms. This down-at-heel émigré
Jew, a man who once remarked that nobody else had written so much about
money and had so little, bequeathed us the language in which the system
under which we live could be grasped as a whole. Its contradictions were
analyzed, its inner dynamics laid bare, its historical origins examined, and
its potential demise foreshadowed. This is not to suggest for a moment that
Marx considered capitalism as simply a Bad Thing, like admiring Sarah Palin
or blowing tobacco smoke in your children's faces. On the contrary, he was
extravagant in his praise for the class that created it, a fact that both
his critics and his disciples have conveniently suppressed. No other social
system in history, he wrote, had proved so revolutionary. In a mere handful
of centuries, the capitalist middle classes had erased almost every trace of
their feudal foes from the face of the earth. They had piled up cultural and
material treasures, invented human rights, emancipated slaves, toppled
autocrats, dismantled empires, fought and died for human freedom, and laid
the basis for a truly global civilization. No document lavishes such florid
compliments on this mighty historical achievement as *The Communist
Manifesto*, not even *The Wall Street Journal*.

That, however, was only part of the story. There are those who see modern
history as an enthralling tale of progress, and those who view it as one
long nightmare. Marx, with his usual perversity, thought it was both. Every
advance in civilization had brought with it new possibilities of barbarism.
The great slogans of the middle-class revolution—"Liberty, Equality,
Fraternity"—were his watchwords, too. He simply inquired why those ideas
could never be put into practice without violence, poverty, and
exploitation. Capitalism had developed human powers and capacities beyond
all previous measure. Yet it had not used those capacities to set men and
women free of fruitless toil. On the contrary, it had forced them to labor
harder than ever. The richest civilizations on earth sweated every bit as
hard as their Neolithic ancestors.

This, Marx considered, was not because of natural scarcity. It was because
of the peculiarly contradictory way in which the capitalist system generated
its fabulous wealth. Equality for some meant inequality for others, and
freedom for some brought oppression and unhappiness for many. The system's
voracious pursuit of power and profit had turned foreign nations into
enslaved colonies, and human beings into the playthings of economic forces
beyond their control. It had blighted the planet with pollution and mass
starvation, and scarred it with atrocious wars. Some critics of Marx point
with proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China. They
do not usually recall with equal indignation the genocidal crimes of
capitalism: the late-19th-century famines in Asia and Africa in which untold
millions perished; the carnage of the First World War, in which imperialist
nations massacred one another's working men in the struggle for global
resources; and the horrors of fascism, a regime to which capitalism tends to
resort when its back is to the wall. Without the self-sacrifice of the
Soviet Union, among other nations, the Nazi regime might still be in place.

Marxists were warning of the perils of fascism while the politicians of the
so-called free world were still wondering aloud whether Hitler was quite
such a nasty guy as he was painted. Almost all followers of Marx today
reject the villainies of Stalin and Mao, while many non-Marxists would still
vigorously defend the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima. Modern capitalist
nations are for the most part the fruit of a history of genocide, violence,
and extermination every bit as abhorrent as the crimes of Communism.
Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears, and Marx was around to
witness it. It is just that the system has been in business long enough for
most of us to be oblivious of that fact.

The selectiveness of political memory takes some curious forms. Take, for
example, 9/11. I mean the first 9/11, not the second. I am referring to the
9/11 that took place exactly 30 years before the fall of the World Trade
Center, when the United States helped to violently overthrow the
democratically elected government of Salvador Allende of Chile, and
installed in its place an odious dictator who went on to murder far more
people than died on that dreadful day in New York and Washington. How many
Americans are aware of that? How many times has it been mentioned on Fox

Marx was not some dreamy utopianist. On the contrary, he began his political
career in fierce contention with the dreamy utopianists who surrounded him.
He has about as much interest in a perfect human society as a Clint Eastwood
character would, and never once speaks in such absurd terms. He did not
believe that men and women could surpass the Archangel Gabriel in sanctity.
Rather, he believed that the world could feasibly be made a considerably
better place. In this he was a realist, not an idealist. Those truly with
their heads stuck in the sand—the moral ostriches of this world—are those
who deny that there can be any radical change. They behave as though *Family
Guy* and multicolored toothpaste will still be around in the year 4000. The
whole of human history disproves this viewpoint.

Radical change, to be sure, may not be for the better. Perhaps the only
socialism we shall ever witness is one forced upon the handful of human
beings who might crawl out the other side of some nuclear holocaust or
ecological disaster. Marx even speaks dourly of the possible "mutual ruin of
all parties." A man who witnessed the horrors of industrial-capitalist
England was unlikely to be starry-eyed about his fellow humans. All he meant
was that there are more than enough resources on the planet to resolve most
of our material problems, just as there was more than enough food in Britain
in the 1840s to feed the famished Irish population several times over. It is
the way we organize our production that is crucial. Notoriously, Marx did
not provide us with blueprints for how we should do things differently. He
has famously little to say about the future. The only image of the future is
the failure of the present. He is not a prophet in the sense of peering into
a crystal ball. He is a prophet in the authentic biblical sense of one who
warns us that unless we change our unjust ways, the future is likely to be
deeply unpleasant. Or that there will be no future at all.

Socialism, then, does not depend on some miraculous change in human nature.
Some of those who defended feudalism against capitalist values in the late
Middle Ages preached that capitalism would never work because it was
contrary to human nature. Some capitalists now say the same about socialism.
No doubt there is a tribe somewhere in the Amazon Basin that believes no
social order can survive in which a man is allowed to marry his deceased
brother's wife. We all tend to absolutize our own conditions. Socialism
would not banish rivalry, envy, aggression, possessiveness, domination, and
competition. The world would still have its share of bullies, cheats,
freeloaders, free riders, and occasional psychopaths. It is just that
rivalry, aggression, and competition would no longer take the form of some
bankers complaining that their bonuses had been reduced to a miserly
$5-million, while millions of others in the world struggled to survive on
less than $2 a day.

Marx was a profoundly moral thinker. He speaks in *The Communist
Manifesto*of a world in which "the free self-development of each would
be the
condition of the free self-development of all." This is an ideal to guide
us, not a condition we could ever entirely achieve. But its language is
nonetheless significant. As a good Romantic humanist, Marx believed in the
uniqueness of the individual. The idea permeates his writings from end to
end. He had a passion for the sensuously specific and a marked aversion to
abstract ideas, however occasionally necessary he thought they might be. His
so-called materialism is at root about the human body. Again and again, he
speaks of the just society as one in which men and women will be able to
realize their distinctive powers and capacities in their own distinctive
ways. His moral goal is pleasurable self-fulfillment. In this he is at one
with his great mentor Aristotle, who understood that morality is about how
to flourish most richly and enjoyably, not in the first place (as the modern
age disastrously imagines) about laws, duties, obligations, and

How does this moral goal differ from liberal individualism? The difference
is that to achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings for Marx must find it
in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or
her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be
possible. The other must become the ground of one's own self-realization, at
the same time as he or she provides the condition for one's own. At the
interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is
known as socialism. Socialism for Marx would be simply whatever set of
institutions would allow this reciprocity to happen to the greatest possible
extent. Think of the difference between a capitalist company, in which the
majority work for the benefit of the few, and a socialist cooperative, in
which my own participation in the project augments the welfare of all the
others, and vice versa. This is not a question of some saintly
self-sacrifice. The process is built into the structure of the institution.

Marx's goal is leisure, not labor. The best reason for being a socialist,
apart from annoying people you happen to dislike, is that you detest having
to work. Marx thought that capitalism had developed the forces of production
to the point at which, under different social relations, they could be used
to emancipate the majority of men and women from the most degrading forms of
labor. What did he think we would do then? Whatever we wanted. If, like the
great Irish socialist Oscar Wilde, we chose simply to lie around all day in
loose crimson garments, sipping absinthe and reading the odd page of Homer
to each other, then so be it. The point, however, was that this kind of free
activity had to be available to all. We would no longer tolerate a situation
in which the minority had leisure because the majority had labor.

What interested Marx, in other words, was what one might somewhat
misleadingly call the spiritual, not the material. If material conditions
had to be changed, it was to set us free from the tyranny of the economic.
He himself was staggeringly well read in world literature, delighted in art,
culture, and civilized conversation, reveled in wit, humor, and high
spirits, and was once chased by a policeman for breaking a street lamp in
the course of a pub crawl. He was, of course, an atheist, but you do not
have to be religious to be spiritual. He was one of the many great Jewish
heretics, and his work is saturated with the great themes of
Judaism—justice, emancipation, the Day of Reckoning, the reign of peace and
plenty, the redemption of the poor.

What, though, of the fearful Day of Reckoning? Would not Marx's vision for
humanity require a bloody revolution? Not necessarily. He himself thought
that some nations, like Britain, Holland, and the United States, might
achieve socialism peacefully. If he was a revolutionary, he was also a
robust champion of reform. In any case, people who claim that they are
opposed to revolution usually mean that they dislike certain revolutions and
not others. Are antirevolutionary Americans hostile to the American
Revolution as well as the Cuban one? Are they wringing their hands over the
recent insurrections in Egypt and Libya, or the ones that toppled colonial
powers in Asia and Africa? We ourselves are products of revolutionary
upheavals in the past. Some processes of reform have been far more
bloodstained than some acts of revolution. There are velvet revolutions as
well as violent ones. The Bolshevik Revolution itself took place with
remarkably little loss of life. The Soviet Union to which it gave birth fell
some 70 years later, with scarcely any bloodshed.

Some critics of Marx reject a state-dominated society. But so did he. He
detested the political state quite as much as the Tea Party does, if for
rather less redneck reasons. Was he, feminists might ask, a Victorian
patriarch? To be sure. But as some (non-Marxist) modern commentators have
pointed out, it was men from the socialist and communist camps who, up to
the resurgence of the women's movement, in the 1960s, regarded the issue of
women's equality as vital to other forms of political liberation. The word
"proletarian" means those who in ancient society were too poor to serve the
state with anything but the fruit of their wombs. "Proles" means
"offspring." Today, in the sweatshops and on the small farms of the third
world, the typical proletarian is still a woman.

Much the same goes for ethnic matters. In the 1920s and 30s, practically the
only men and women to be found preaching racial equality were communists.
Most anticolonial movements were inspired by Marxism. The antisocialist
thinker Ludwig von Mises described socialism as "the most powerful reform
movement that history has ever known, the first ideological trend not
limited to a section of mankind but supported by people of all races,
nations, religions, and civilizations." Marx, who knew his history rather
better, might have reminded von Mises of Christianity, but the point remains
forceful. As for the environment, Marx astonishingly prefigured our own
Green politics. Nature, and the need to regard it as an ally rather than an
antagonist, was one of his constant preoccupations.

Why might Marx be back on the agenda? The answer, ironically, is because of
capitalism. Whenever you hear capitalists talking about capitalism, you know
the system is in trouble. Usually they prefer a more anodyne term, like
"free enterprise." The recent financial crashes have forced us once again to
think of the setup under which we live as a whole, and it was Marx who first
made it possible to do so. It was *The Communist Manifesto* which predicted
that capitalism would become global, and that its inequalities would
severely sharpen. Has his work any defects? Hundreds of them. But he is too
creative and original a thinker to be surrendered to the vulgar stereotypes
of his enemies.

*Terry Eagleton is a visiting professor at Lancaster University, in England;
the National University of Ireland; and the University of Notre Dame. His
latest book, Why Marx Was Right, was just published by Yale University

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