Marx more relevant than ever, Eagleton says

February 14, 2012

Why Marx Was Right
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 2011
272 pp., $32.95

In August, the Wall Street Journal website ran a video of an interview with Nouriel Roubini as its top story under the headline, "Roubini: Marx was Right."

Roubini is a mainstream economist who achieved fame by predicting the 2008 financial collapse, earning himself the nickname "Dr. Doom" among the Wall Street speculators.

That is an example of something that author Terry Eagleton describes in this breezy, easy to read book: "You can tell the capitalist system is in trouble when people start taking about capitalism. It indicates that the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon that it is."

Before the global financial crisis, capitalist media simply disregarded Marxism, now they damn it with faint praise.

But they never tire of dragging out the same tiresome accusations that Marxism is crudely deterministic in reducing everything to simplistic economic criteria, that it goes against human nature and that it invariably leads to Stalinism.

Eagleton, a Dublin-based professor of English literature and cultural theory, has taken on 10 of the most common of these arguments, wielding wit and a cultural breadth that is refreshing and inspiring.

He is in no way an apologist for Stalinism, but has no truck with those who would wave Stalin’s crimes around as a justification for capitalism.

"Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union,” he writes.

He points out that under neoliberal "free market dogma", from the 1980s on, the number of people living on less than US$2 a day increased by 100 million.

The objective conditions for socialism, based on the fact that the working class around the world is far larger than it was in Marx's day, are brimming with possibility, Eagleton says.

But in no way does he set out a doctrinaire recipe for success, a colour-by-numbers blueprint for getting to socialism.

In that, he will disappoint many sectarians, who preach that their particular grouplets, with their own slightly different thoughts about socialism, are the true and only leadership of the oppressed.

Why Marx Was Right will provide good grounds for debate among socialists.

For example, while taking his distance from the Chinese and Soviet examples of socialism, Eagleton pays scant attention to the progress made in those countries.

This is striking because he points to the many socialists whose activism was crucial to the advance of women, anti-colonialism and human rights in general. The Soviet Union and China played contradictory roles in these fields, the progress associated with building post-capitalist economies undermined by the bureaucratic dictatorships that held political power.

Also, while titled Why Marx Was Right, the book only deals with a selection of Marxist ideas. Economics is largely passed over, when economics was the bedrock of Marx’s explanation of how and why capitalism came into being and operates in the manner that it does.

However, whatever slight criticisms might be made of this book, Eagleton’s achievement is to clearly explain a selection of basic Marxist ideas and aspects of the Marxist heritage using humour and great intelligence.

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