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Why Marx was right

why marx was rightI’m currently reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right, a little book that came out in 2011. And, I have to say, it is possibly the best short introductory work to Marx and Marxism I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.

Taking a set of common charges made against Marx (Marx was a determinist, Marx hated individualism, Marx is outdated, Marx foreshadowed Stalin, etc.) Eagleton patiently but clearly explains why those objections are mistaken and in so doing sets out Marx’s stall for him.

The Marx that springs from the page is a profoundly positive thinker and comrade sceptical of grand theoretical claims, and who hated oppression and tyranny wherever it raised its ugly head. Althusser fans will be disappointed it’s the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts who gets bandied about here but it doesn’t matter. Getting across the view that Marx is exciting and relevant is more important, and Eagleton does that in spades.

As I’m in a lazy mood tonight, here are a few bits and bobs from the book.

On revolutionary identity:

Marxism is meant to be a strictly provisional affair, which is why anyone who invests the whole of their identity in it has missed the point. That there is life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism. (p.2)

On the USSR

The Soviet Union played a heroic role in combating the evil of fascism, as well as in helping to topple the colonialist powers. It also featured the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing the natives of other lands. All this, to be sure, is no substitute for freedom, democracy and vegetables in the shop, but neither is it to be ignored. (p.14)

On socialism building on preceding modes of production

The Marxist narrative is not tragic in the sense of ending badly. But a narrative does not have to end badly for it to be tragic. Even if men and women find some fulfillment in the end, it is tragic that their ancestors had to be hauled through hell in order for them to do so. And there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and unremembered. Short of some literal resurrection, we can never make recompense to these vanquished millions (p.61)

On Marxism and equality

Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs. (p.104)

On economic determinism

The most compelling confirmation of Marx’s theory of history is late capitalist society. There is a sense in which his case is becoming truer as time passes. It is capitalism, not Marxism, which is economically reductionist. (pp.115-6)


  1. David Pavett says:

    I haven’t read Eagleton’s book. I have read other stuff by him but decided after reading his recent Culture and the Death of God, which is truly awful, never to read anything by him again.

    Phil says that “The Marx that springs from the page is a profoundly positive thinker and comrade sceptical of grand theoretical claims …”. Can this really be about the man who produced a theory of the mechanisms of human development on which he based his notion of the essence of human nature?

    It is perhaps a feature of our culture that “grand theoretical claims” are all viewed with suspicion (even though we all depend on them) and that therefore it is an act of generosity to claim that Marx didn’t make such claims. It is difficult to see, though, how a serious reading of him could come up with the idea that he did not.

    “…it’s the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts who gets bandied about here but it doesn’t matter”.

    Well, on the contrary, I think that it matters a lot. If there is a core of Marx’s work it is his theory of historical materialism. That theory had not yet been fully articulated at the time of the Paris Manuscripts (1844).

    I have no idea what the quote from page 2 is supposed to mean or how it would be justified. What does it mean to be “strictly provisional”. Was Archimedes theory of the lever strictly provisional or is it a permanent part of human culture?

    I agree with the comment on the USSR.

    The stuff about the Marxist narrative and tragedy strikes me as empty waffle.

    According to the quote from page 104 Marx had not got beyond Aristotle on the question of equality. In fact he had quite a lot or challenging things to say about it.

    I don’t know what is mean by the claim that late capitalism is “economically reductionist”. Eagleton has that nasty habit of resorting to jargon when it should be possible to express things in plain language.

    I am still thinking that I will never read anything by Eagleton again.

  2. swatantra says:

    Groucho was right; I wouldn’t join a Club which went out of its way to exclude ethnic minorities as members. Its all about Equality and Diversity.

  3. David Ellis says:

    Marx was of course right and is getting righter all the time as late capitalism implodes under its own contradictions but there is more than a hint in Eagleton’s book of damning with feint praise which it could have done without.

    Scientific socialism is as true as the theory of evolution by mutation and selection. It is only contentious because the capitalist ruling elites don’t want to believe that they are historically contingent.

  4. David Pavett says:

    @David Ellis
    My view is that Marx was more right than he was wrong and that is a pretty impressive thing to be able to say of anyone, let alone someone who died 140 years ago. But that leaves us with the problem of determining which bits are right and which are wrong. Simply declaring that “Marx was right” is a slogan which it is hard to interpret. What was Marx right about and how, today, do we take forward those aspects of his analysis in today’s conditions? I am convinced that Marx was a mighty thinker from whom we still have a great deal to learn. But, even so, I think that there is a desperate need to get beyond slogans and to articulate the substance of his ideas. I have strong doubts as to the value of people like Terry Eagleton in making such an effort.

  5. David Ellis says:

    David: the thing about Marx was he was a Marxist in the way that Darwin was an evolutionary biologist. If he was wrong on anything we need to show where he was not correctly applying either historical materialist analysis or his specific analysis of capitalism to events or where he had even broken from it. I cannot think of many examples or anything that he wrote that did not further the sum of human knowledge and understanding. But I agree, it is a method and not a set of fixed dogmas that have to be applied to a developing reality. However I think my criticism of Eagleton is almost the opposite of yours in that his claims that Marx was right are not wholly genuine.

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