Sunday, 12 June 2011

Marx Was Right
By Terry Eagleton
Pubs. Yale University Press
Hdbck £16.99

This is no abstract argumentation, but an eloquent, fact-based rebuttal of the usual criticisms of Marxism; Eagleton buttresses his own arguments using Marx’s own texts. He takes aim at ten of the most standard criticisms and systematically shoots them down like an accomplished clay pigeon marksman. Leavened with Brechtian wit, his argumentation is succinct and to the point.

‘Rather as a bout of dengue fever makes you newly aware of your body,’ he writes, ‘so a form of social life [capitalism] can be perceived for what it is when it begins to break down. Capitalism is uniquely in crisis, the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon it is.’

Eagleton stresses Marx’s dictum that the collapse of capitalism will not automatically take us to socialism, but could just as easily lead to barbarism if we are unable to build strong political, socialist movements. In confronting reformism, he quotes R.H. Tawny - very apposite given the shambles social democracy now finds itself in – ‘you can peel an onion layer by layer but you cannot defeat a tiger claw by claw!’

Referring to Lenin, Eagleton points out that unfortunately revolutions are most likely to break out in places where they are hardest to sustain, as in Tsarist Russia or feudal China. He underlines that people will only be prepared to undertake revolution when they indeed have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. As long as capitalism can offer a measure of satisfaction and fulfil many of our needs, there will be no clamour for changing the system.

He knocks down the well-worn argument that ‘Marxists believe in an all-powerful state’. Marx’s ideal model of government, he points out, was the Paris Commune. Workers cannot, in any case, simply take over the state, as its structure has been refined for the purposes of the ruling bourgeois class. Marx writes that ‘instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.’ The Commune, Marx concludes, was essentially a working-class government.

Eagleton knows the writings of Marx inside out and also doesn’t ignore Engels or Lenin, in his argumentation. Unfortunately he does, though, continue to peddle the myth of Engels as a ‘philanderer’. He needs to remember that it was Marx who made his housekeeper pregnant, not Engels! But that is a minor quibble about a volume that is thought-provoking, optimistic and which you can chuckle over. He is a writer who believes passionately in what he writes. His words often slash like razor blades, and with dialectical panache he can suddenly illuminate dark corners with unexpected bolts of lightening.

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