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Why Marx Was Right. Terry Eagleton. A Review.

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Spiritual Comfort.

Why Marx Was Right. Terry Eagleton.  Yale 2011.

A Review.

“On n’aime point à louer, on ne  loue jamais sans intérêt.” (Nobody likes to praise, we only  praise out of self-interest).

Maxims.   La Rochefoucauld.

Terry Eagleton considers that the  “most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken”. He draws up ten, clusters of criticisms and rejections of Marx, to consider.  Eagleton concludes, that  Marx “was right enough of the time”. That there is enough rightness there to  “make calling oneself a  Marxist a reasonable self-description.” He aims not  only to show why, the reasons he can make these claims, but in  what Marx was correct.

The present book is animated by the wish to rescue  Marxism from a premature burial. Its theory and politics are  not outdated. Marx was the  first to show the existence of the “imperceptible entity” of the  capitalist mode of production. At present this darkness is  increasingly visible.  Inequalities and exploitation are greater; “on  a global scale” capital is “more concentrated and predatory than  ever.” The working class has, in the world as a whole, grown. We  can imagine a planet in which the rich retreat behind iron gates, and  the rest of the population is left to fend for itself.  These  tangible conditions have made Marxism “more pertinent.” Marx  showed the way this capitalism arose, “by what laws it worked”  and, ambitiously, “how it might be brought to an end.” (Page xi)

Why Marx Was Right is, then  not just concerned with defending Marx’s “understanding of human  history.” The “distinguished professor” of the private  Catholic University of Notre Dame states that today the economic system is in trouble. It has “ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe.”  That people are “talking about capitalism” is a sign of a serious  illness. The globalised free-market is plague-ridden. It has begun to  “break down”. Why Marx Was Right later concludes with the  prospect that we face the choice between “Socialism or barbarism”.  Nuclear warfare and environmental catastrophe” loom. “If we do  not act now, it seems that capitalism will be the death of us.”  (Page 237)

The Left’s Impasse.

Why Marx is Right begins by  asserting that what “helped to discredit Marxism” was “a  creeping sense of political impotence.” Left disillusionment after  the Fall of Communism fed off the “conviction that the future would  now be simply more of the present.” (Page 6) It was “thrust to the  margins because the social order it confronted” “waxed more  ruthless and extreme than it had been before.” (Pages 6 – 7) The  confident left of the 1970s was equally discouraged by the exhaustion of “revolutionary nationalism”, more normally called  anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. But the  “gloom” on the  left, in the era of Thatcher and Regan, followed the failures of the  decade. The terrorist adventurism of the  German ultra-left, the downward spiral of 1970s Italian ‘armed  struggle’, could only have helped underline the radical left’s  powerlessness. The left, above all in Europe, lost its position as a serious  political player. Its mass influence ebbed away, first with the  stemming of the Portuguese Revolution (1974-5), amd (for Western European Communism)  the end of the French  Common Programme (September 1977). Tthe longer drawn out marginalisation of  the ‘Bennite’ left in the UK concluded the process. Mitterrand’s first government in 1981 was unable, or  unwilling, to institute democratic socialism. It was this experience  which led some former leftists to declare themselves  “liberal-libertarians” and shout, “Vive la Crise!” to  celebrate the market.

The left was at an impasse, well  before free-market politicians came to office, the markets were  liberalised, anti-colonial revolutions degenerated into tyrannies or  kleptocracies, or the Berlin Wall came down. One would consider that  it was not only the strength of the social order that contributed to  these defeats. A major cause, was, and remains, a crisis of political  Marxism that was unable to offer a way out of these difficulties.

Yet Marx was “right”. In  exploring what this means Eagleton offers no clear answer, so  wide-ranging is his approach.  Many of his suggestions are valuable –  he tackles the way class is a complex mater, how Marx did not  secularise Providence or destiny. But when we get into the details  the defence becomes less than clear. Eagleton travels helter-skelter  over theories of the primacy of economics, class conflict, and the  debate about the causal role of the productive forces, human agency,  consciousness, freedom of the will, and the foundations laid down by  capitalism for socialism. Eagleton has a range that rivals any  multi-volume Dictionary of Marxism, offering insights. Sometimes  these gracefully stick in the mind (his use of Mike Davis’s work on  Planet Slums). On other occasions they stand out for their sheer  clumsiness, “..Marx is a giant of a thinker with a heartfelt  distrust of exalted ideas.” (Page 147)

The Birth of Tragedy.

In these dense thickets we can,  nevertheless, detect some large, not particularly welcoming,  theoretical trunks. Marx’s vision contains, Eagleton observes,  echoing his own writings on Theodicy, a “tragic strain”. That,  “there will be many who fall by the wayside, unfulfilled and  unremembered” before this goal is reached. Marx never promised to  abolish Evil immediately. Or, we would assume, could communism ever  do this. “Marx’s claim in the Communist Manifesto about  the free self-development of all can never be fully realised”. Like  all the finest ideals it is a goal to aim at, not a state to be  literally achieved.”(Page 87)

Some might feel that this picture is  close to the sublime, evoking ideas of terror, or greatness  beyond our immediate grasp, and dramatic Romantic landscapes run  through with light and shadows. Marx would amongst the Dionysians,  with an Apollonian gift of Reason. Indeed Eagleton evokes the kind of  imagery that one would call “exalted” and for which Marx had a  “heartfelt distrust”.

Is this just the raw material of  feeling?  That is, the structure of hope and emotions that Eagleton’s  ‘Marxists’ carry with them in their political and social  existence? It is not. Marx apparently recognised “that spiritual  fulfilment requires a material foundation.” (Page 41) But how does  this come about? Not only do death and disease stalk us, but “human  nature” is fallen. Any “socialist institution” would have  “chancers, toadies, bullies, cheats, loafers, scroungers,  freeloaders, free riders and occasional psychopaths.” “Envy,  aggression, domination, possessiveness an competition would still  exist”. But a better social system, and the abolition of scarcity,  would create good material conditions for all and also encourage  “fuller spiritual flourishing.” (Page 91)

The root of tragedy is deep.  Eagleton affirms that Marx transcended the “typical Enlightenment”  belief in inevitable Progress towards this universal bounty by  recognising  “violence, disruption, conflict and discontinuity”  – typically without reference to any actual Enlightenment thinker.  These clashes, calamities, and historical breaks, or steps forward  and revolutions  – he flings out willy-nilly anything he can seize  on, the Paris Commune, Factory Acts, with Stalinism and the Shoah to  boot – are part of the human tragedy. They are, he observes, “not  necessarily without hope.” Melded with “fear and trembling, with  a horror-stricken countenance.” (Page 62) Until death, we will  never be certain than that there are more than “forces in the  present which point beyond it.” (Page 69) This  leaves the  Marxist claim to have discovered something about the nature of social  causation, the determination of the productive forces, which does  point to a better existence, on the evidence of their growth  over historical time, or “progress”, unresolved. The progressive  rock on which the Second Internationaland mass popular Marxism were built may have been unsteady but Eagleton’s alternative is so inflected by tragedy – that it risks becoming pure theatre.

To liven the tone between such grim  observations, Eagleton shares his sense of levity with us.  “Socialist media…would not ban everything but Schoenberg, Racine  and endless dramatised versions of Marx’s Capital.”(Page  28) He tries his hand at irony, that capitalism “is as  anti-hierarchical as the most pious postmodernist, as generously  inclusivist as the most earnest Anglican vicar.”(Page 162) Not to  mention straw-people, “Marx set his face resolutely against  mock-heroic uprisings by grim-faced militants brandishing pitchforks  against tanks.”(P 186) Adopting a homely tone, to prove the  Americans are “unwitting Marxists” he cites this tale, “I was  driving with the Dean of Arts of a state university in the American  Midwest past thickly blooming cornfields (maize – AC). Casting a  glance at this rich crop, he remarked, “The harvest should be good  this year, Might just get a couple of assistant professorships out of  that” (Page 156) How Eagleton must have inwardly smiled!


Eagleton’s exercises in the common  touch can be judged on their merits. More troubling are the  assertions that form the backdrop to his tragic vision strewn across  the book. Many appear to be drawn from the ‘prêt-à-porter’  school of intellectual history. Many are simply contradictory. They  blend over-confident claims with bluntly curtailed after-thoughts. We learn that “the Marxist view of materialism  is a democratic one, in contrast to the intellectual elitism of the  Enlightenment” (Page 130) The Enlightenment (a somewhat broad  collective noun) did not encourage “active self-determining beings  who were capable of making their own history” (ibid) Were these the  materialist philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment,  “some of whom saw human beings as mere mechanical functions of the  material world”? (Page 129) Marx rejected the “the passive human  subject of middle-class materialism.” (Page 130) It would be  interesting to know of an Enlightenment thinker who fitted this  well-worn description. But clearly Eagleton has not considered it  deeply. Later we hear that “the Enlightenment …insisted that the  only form of sovereignty worth submitting to is one we have fashioned  ourselves.”(Page 208)

Kant, the most striking author of  the concept of self-determination, described the French revolution,  as a sign that the human race will “henceforth progressively  improve without any more total reversals. For a phenomenon of this  kind which has taken place in human history can never be forgotten,  since it has revealed in human nature an aptitude and power of  improvement of a kind which no politician could have thought up by  examining the course of events in the past.” (The Contest of  Faculties. 1798). Having referred to Kant’s entirely speculative notion of radical evil – made it a central issue – in recent Eagleton’s writing, it would not perhaps be too much to see him  discussed here. This might shed light on this alternative to the notion of  ‘passive materialism’.  We wait for a rigorous critique of the  Subject, of Kant’s ‘noumenal’ realm of freedom. To discuss  modern debates on Kantian norms, or politics, as picked apart by  communitarian thinkers, such as Michael Sandel, or republican  defenders of ‘agonistic democracy’, like Chantal Mouffe. But only  tragic silence reigns.

Eagleton eschews modern debates on  the nature of the political. In this domain he merely repeats the  received idea that, “Marx was an implacable opponent of the state”  (Page 196). But, “For Marx there is still a state under socialism;  only beyond socialism, under communism, will the coercive state give  way to an administrative body.”(Page 208) Eagleton portrays this  arrangement as a  “decentralised network of self-governing  communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central  administration.” It is, apparently, something quite different to  Westminster. To him it’s an effective answer to anarchism. Thus a  few well-chosen sentences have cleared up problems that have weighed  on the minds of the left for more than a century and a half…..

And yet……. immediately after this all to brief reference to Marx and the state  Eagleton launches into a discussion of Nietzsche and Freud. There is  an “element” in power which “delights in flexing its muscles  with no particular end in view, and which is always in excess of the  practical goals to which it is harnessed.” We are lucky to escape  without Foucault (referred to earlier as close to believing in the  fundamental incoherence of history – Page 110), Guattari and  Deleuze. So, thrown out by the democratic, autonomous, decentralised  constitution of self-managed people, power’s  – debilitating? –  role returns in their midst. In other words, the problem of how to  create stateless communism remains. And the character of politics and  power is left hanging in the air.

Invisible Spirits.

These are just illustrations of the  difficulties Why Marx Was Right throws up. But perhaps there  is a deeper, unifying, flaw. One would have expected a book that  began with the claim that capitalism was “invisible” until Marx  discovered it, would explore what this claim meant. That is, some  introduction to the concepts of ‘fetishism’, of how this mode of  production concealed its ‘secrets’ behind the ‘hieroglyphics’  of the exchange of commodities. One hopes that Eagleton does not  imply that capitalism itself was ‘hidden’ – news to Marx who  built his ‘critique of political economy’ on the explorations of  capitalism by Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mathus, and other early economists  – not to mention the famous government Blue Books.

Marx’s originality was not to be  able to “see” capitalism for the first time. Althusser put it  that he did not operate with a “single logic of sighting and  oversight” (Reading Capital 1968). Marx produced from  classical political economy radically new concepts. These revealed  the inner workings of capital – the production of value from labour  power. Only, Althusser asserted, with an “informed gaze”, based on these novel concepts,  can go  beyond appearances. Yet, for Eagleton, a different method operates.  Capitalism can, apparently, now become visible, as a symptomatic  crisis does the ‘reading’ of its nature for us. This suggests  that it is a curious kind of diaphanous creature, now you see it, now  you don’t. Sometimes you  see right through it.  Not theory, but time and place determine these  possibilities.

The Notre Dame Professor is better  known these days for his defence of religion against the vulgarity of  New Atheism than for his claims to be a Marxist and critique of  capitalism. He has declared that Christian faith is not primarily  about whether “there exists a Supreme Being” but “the kind of  commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether  foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless  remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”(Reason,  Faith and Revolution. Reflections on the God Debate. Terry Eagleton.  2009) God, then, or Christ, is not a material object in our sense, and  ‘mechanical materialists’ who deny its ‘existence’ are beside  the point. Perhaps, like William James, Eagleton is maintaining the  right to believe: that “certain kinds of truth” may be  accessible only of we are prepared to take the jump and take this  “momentous option”. *

But is this not compatible with  Marxism? Not only believers in Marx but in Jesus can approach  Communism. They may mingle. In the present work, Eagleton recoils at  the ‘Enlightenment’ picture of “dead meaningless matter”  because of their denial of human active consciousness, not their  atheism. (Page 133). By contrast, he offers, in the middle of  tragedy, a Marx, a materialist with a soul, “one doesn’t need to  be religious to be spiritual.”(Page 157) Marx, inspired by the  Jewish feeling for “history as a narrative of liberation” (Ibid)  stretched out to the Aristotelian ‘virtue ethics’. Joining in this are, “Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian  Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are  materialists in Marx’s sense of the word.” (Page 157) Whether  ‘mechanical’ atheists are materialists is far less certain.

Marx was, in short, was on the road to higher  things, a helpmate and a guide to help us cross the slough of despond  in search of better things, “The spiritual is indeed about the  otherworldly. But it is not the otherworldly as the persons conceive  it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the  future, I place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date. Anyone  who isn’t otherworldly in this ensue has obviously not akin a good  hard look a round them.”(Page 159) Perhaps we too may see invisible  entities and might confront, as James put it, the Riddles of the  Sphinx.


Much of Why Marx is Right does what it  says: it defends Marx from the critics who have “travestied” him.  The portrait of a generous, activist, humanist democratic socialism  is appealing, and Eagleton is deft at tackling the differing claims  of class and oppressions, gender and race. He is a democrat, if a  little unclear about what this means in practice. Perhaps someone  more generously disposed would find other good arguments amongst its  dialectic. As a blanket claim, the book cannot, nevertheless, be said  to indicate ‘why’ Marx was ‘right’. It is uncertain about  “why” Marx produced an critique of capitalism, relying on an  account of the basic categories of Capital that contains assertions  about Marx – from his method to his politics  – that leave us  waiting for further explanation.  It uncovers more difficulties than  it solves, and only rarely comes up with simple enough statements  that could be said to be right or wrong.

At least one of Eagleton’s textual  effects is to share in some reflected glory, or, more kindly put, to  adopt Marx for his cause. I have suggested that this leads to a  travesty of Enlightenment thinking, a large area of non-thought  in his writing.  Does this demonstrate La Rochefoucauld’s point  that casts doubt on the motives of those who praise others?  At least  some of the admiration Eagleton displays for Marx is designed to  muster support for his revivalist campaign against the decidedly  anti-spiritual atheists. This does not strengthen his arguments –  far from it. Though perhaps there are those who will clarify what  exactly ‘spiritual materialism’ is, before we pass over to the  other-world.

In the meantime there is always barbarism to worry about.

* William James. The Will to Believe. 1915.


Other reviews:

Morgan Alexander  Brown tackles the economists’ criticisms of Marxism that Eagleton misses.  here.

Tristram Hunt pokes gentle fun at Eagleton – here.

Matt Richards loves the book – here.

Jack Farmer of the SWP thinks this book will “arm” people with Marxism – here.

Andrew Murray hails Eagleton’s religious campaigning but finds fault in this work – here.


Written by Andrew Coates

September 24, 2011 at 10:49 am

One Response

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  1. […] pero es que he estado leyendo a Terry Eagleton y más en concreto su último librito (Por qué Marx tenía razón) y me he vuelto a empapar de aquella terminología marxiana tan clarificadora que tenía un poco […]

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