Terry Eagleton's "Why Marx Was Right":

John L Murphy with a review of a book by Terry Eagleton on Karl Marx. It originally featured on the reviewer's own blog  on 5th November 2012. Blogtrotter is a source for many ourstanding reviews. 

'I am out to present Marx's ideas as not perfect but plausible': this caution opens ten chapters which refute standard criticisms. Eagleton reminds us how Marx celebrated as well as condemned what capitalism had achieved to unleash its energies on the modern world:

the system breeds freedom as well as barbarism, emancipation along with enslavement. Capitalist society generates enormous wealth, but in a way that cannot help putting it beyond the reach of most citizens. Even so, that wealth can always be brought within reach. It can be disentangled from the acquisitive, individualist forms which bred it, invested in the community as a whole, and used to keep disagreeable work to the minimum. It can thus release men and women from the chains of economic necessity into a life where they are free to realize their creative potential. This is Marx's vision of communism. (59)

As this excerpt demonstrates, it will not convert the skeptics and it will not overturn the empire. It posits a humanist Marx devotedly, and how this vision would be realized may be as much a question for seminars as Christianity is in seminaries. How this lofty aspiration relates to our everyday world needs explanation, and Eagleton for an open-minded reader may provoke more than soothe, as he sets out I suspect to do. My review comes from neutral territory if any still exists for a reader approaching Marx. I am not a political insider, a trained economist, or a tenured radical, so my interest in this comes from a layman's need for an accessible, cogent interpretation. Eagleton's coming to Marx from lit-crit and not poli-sci: this needs emphasis, given some hasty generalizations, logical weaknesses, and underdeveloped sections of what attempts to be a précis. Still, after exposure to Eagleton in grad school (his "Literary Theory" must bring in plenty of royalties as the standard text), I figured I'd give this little book a try, given current events.

I will review its ten chapters briefly. It elaborates what the extreme compression of his 1999 Routledge booklet in the Great Philosophies series, "Marx," could not. Eagleton conveys his material with characteristic wit, odd images and tangents against such surprising targets as Keith Richards, Mel Gibson, and (repeatedly) Prince Andrew. These enliven what can admittedly be slow going, even in a version of Marx for the distracted masses. Eagleton starts this 2011 account with a typical nod: 'You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism.' (xi)

Here's my summary: I am paraphrasing Eagleton. Eagleton asserts Marx's valid critique against this system attests to its relevance, even when its rival replaced it. We need a democratic, socialist, non-coercive alternative to it, for without a more humane, self-governing and cooperative market or economic model, we face only barbarism. Chapter Two extends the "underlying logic" of Marxist thought. It offers us a counterforce to the material advances capitalism affords us so unevenly, rewarding a few, tempting the rest, and denying many billions their more than fair share of the profits which the proletariat--however broadly defined despite stereotypes; the word comes from the Roman women producing their only contribution to the workforce, raw labor as offspring--contributes to our globalized and relentlessly competitive demand.

The Soviet revolution was a "tragic irony," for 'socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary.' (20) Instead of cruel party control, Eagleton searches in Marx to articulate a more humane, localized balance to top-down imposition, although he wanders around to try to explain how centralized direction is also necessary for the decentralized, competing markets to function with enough resources. This was the fate of the communist regime in Russia: it lacked the resources that the capitalists held and would not surrender; it forced the USSR into an arms race that crippled its own nation's development and without all the world on an internationalist, leveled playing field, no socialist reform could ever occur as long as resources were not available to new systems fairly. This may sound like special pleading to opponents, but Eagleton tries to argue his case patiently. He loses  track now and then, as he shifts away from markets to directed control as another, if vague, solution.

He's on surer ground back in his version of how Marx used capitalism, as cited in my opening paragraph from Chapter Three. This refutes the deterministic element in Marx, with mixed success. Same with the next chapter, the longest, as it tries to express a philosophical anthropology of an ethics of love grounded in individual freedom as a realizable ideal, not an impossible utopia. Eagleton cites the Manifesto: 'The free development of each becomes the condition for the free development of all.' (86) He seems to accept this only to claim on the next page it's a goal that never can be fully attained. It's a direction to aim at, not a "tangible" entity any more than the total triumph of a free market. This may dishearten radicals but please those less fanatical: Eagleton settles in this account refreshingly for compromise, rather than force theories down the throats of imperfect humans like us.

Profits shared, egalitarian governance, cooperatives in common: this structure does not demand 'a race of Cordelias,' only the best way to further the most people's well-being, and as with capitalism, shirkers, thieves, and slackers will remain, as with road accidents and I suppose the common cold. This part of the book felt to me weaker, and the practicality of this proposal receded despite Eagleton's fervor. I suspect that economics challenges him more than the philosophical side of Marx. Eagleton seeks fewer vices, not a perfect vacuum where human emotions and tensions evaporate. Marx for him's a "visionary" and a "sober realist," a rare combination of humanist and theorist.

In the fifth chapter, "praxis" as "production" giving liberated people a chance to connect with their livelihood and share its rewards would bestow more possibility than capitalism, where the 'meaning of my work is determined by the institution' (89) despite our delusions that we advance the common good rather than the gains going far more than us to feral stockholders of rapacious multinationals. 'The most compelling confirmation of Marx's theory of history is late capitalism.' (115) It shows us how corporate commodification of all we see, do, and dream is far more reductionist than Marxism.

Materialism is the 'theory of how historical animals function,' rooted in our bodies and not our thoughts. This may sound crude, but Eagleton shows next how what we think and dream emerges from our state as agents, acting on our motivations as beings and not as spirits. I left this curious about how religion and spirituality fit or did not fit, as Eagleton's recent work has addressed the state of Christianity as well as Marxism as to flaws and strengths. For Christianity, to my disappointment, as well as any cultural phenomenon addressing the less tangible, he does not do so sufficiently here.

Chapter Seven follows with a definition of class as a 'capacity to deploy one's power over others to one's own advantage, (171). Eagleton shows how few of us possess much status in the knowledge or post-industrial economies as these undergo managerial control and technological efficiency, linked to increasing surveillance over activities on and off the job. Like the industrial models already shifting into service and clerical work a century ago, the new systems extend power of the few over the many.

Chapter Eight notes how few rebel against this. When "scraps and leavings" are tossed by those in control down to the rest, the rest unless very desperate will tend to wait and keep low, rather than revolting. Violence is part of the capitalist system, which has had centuries to inflict what Mao, Stalin, and despots have in decades as to death tolls and live suffering. Without a humane socialist alternative, barbarism may be the only option if capitalism, as we see lately, totters. Eagleton assumes no other choice awaits us. His own critics may differ, arguing for social welfare as many nations did.

'The liberal state is neutral between capitalism and its critics until the critics look like they're winning.' (197) Certainly events around the time this book appeared in late 2011 prove that correct. Eagleton dispels "dictatorship" as a bad word, tracing it to an 'extralegal breach of a political constitution,' (204) which may or may not clarify this as used in Marx's time. He needed to explain this better. Eagleton translates the feared term as "popular democracy" with "rule by the majority."

The majority today may be more diverse in terms of inclusions since Marx: the closing chapter examines him in light of his detractors from feminism, post-colonial, and environmental movements. Marx cannot be blamed for all those coming after him have accused him of, Eagleton avers, and he cleverly here manages to deflect many attacks by later theorists and global activists, even if these ripostes may not convince all his critics. He makes a valiant attempt to link materialism to stewardship of nature and not its exploitation as grounded in Marx's writings, no small feat.

The book closes with two eloquent paragraphs continuing this revision of the thoughts and theories of a man who was a "firm apologist" for--and a "ferocious antagonist" of--liberalism and the Enlightenment's campaign to free men and women from their self-imposed and socially constrained shackles. While a more thorough index and greater consistency in linking parts of his doggedly pursued argument would have strengthened this introduction, for readers like me needing a succinct, popular interpretation, this fills enough of my need for now to listen to Marx (if as with Christ one can separate the founder's message from the machinations of his followers) with fresh ears and to confront his work (apart from the distortions of "state socialism" and police states) with open eyes.


  1. Dont really know what to make of this post it is really interesting and definitely fufils the function of a review ie leaving the reader to want more,in that respect it is a great post well worth reading again,it just seems to finish when it starts to get interesting..

  2. John,

    a thorough review here as you so often produce. It is timely too for this blog given that James has started a discussion on socialism in another thread. Eagleton is a very witty writer. He would not be a fan of the cults and sects that have flourished aorund Marxism.

  3. Great review. I found reading Marx painstaking to say the least. However, I read a great wee book last week and for me being a child of the 80's simply hit the spot into any working class thinking and barriers against it from thatcher to present. I would recommend it, very factual, entertaining and you will not want to put it down. I didnt. The book is CHAVS "The Demonization of the working class" Owen Jones.

  4. The other Marx, Groucho once said...

    "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

    He could, of course have been inspired by Gerry Adams had he been around in those days.

  5. Thanks, all. Marty, I tend to go on in my reviews too much, and I admit this one was shorter as a lot of folks on Amazon had already slagged it out over it before I got on. AM, I agree about Eagleton's wit, displayed well in his odd novella 'Saints + Scholars,' memoir 'The Gatekeeper' and his piss-take 'The Truth About the Irish.' I also posted a quick summation of Eagleton's little booklet Marx and a long review of a long, new, biography about to appear, Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life.

    While Eagleton rallies around KM as a social democrat, and softens his hard edges, Sperber places KM as an heir to a post-1789 Enlightenment mindset rather than as a harbinger of ours. James, as I share your reaction to reading much of Marx himself, I rely on interpreters more, too. Dixie, Sperber agrees with your Grouchy take: he finds Karl often an opportunist, eager to castigate and condemn his foes for positions he once advocated!

  6. Fionnchú,

    he finds Karl often an opportunist, eager to castigate and condemn his foes for positions he once advocated!

    A true revolutionary then!

  7. James,

    I too found it a great review. John Murphy is a reviewer of immense ability. I intend reading Francis Wheen’s biography on Marx sometime soon. That Demonisation of the Working Class sounds a good read and I hope to acquire it at some point along with that other one you recommended about snakes in suits.