Marxism, the Opium of the Professoriate?

Usually, a book about ideas is pretty straightforward. The author is saying this stuff because he believes it. With Terry Eagleton, the British Marxist literary theorist, it’s less so. In his previous book, Reason, Faith and Revelation: Reflections on the God Debate, he was coming close to advocating Christianity in the face of the new atheism—though he is not a Christian. In his latest book, Why Marx was Right, he is advocating the creed he has always signed up to, Marxism. But he fails to convince that he really believes it.

The book is structured around ten conventional objections to Marxism: that it has lost its relevance, that it is violent, that it overvalues economics, that it is impossibly perfectionist, that it neglects identity politics, and so on. With impressive verve, and some bracing jocularity redolent of G.K. Chesterton, Eagleton asks us to think again.

He protests from the outset that he is not an uncritical devotee:

That I have my own doubts about some of his ideas should be clear enough from this book. But he was right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description.

But really there is just one big issue: Marxism hinges on an either/or. Either Communism can replace capitalism, with good results, or it cannot. The issue is most directly faced in the second chapter, which addresses the objection that Marxist revolution will always end in tears.

Predictably enough we hear that twentieth-century Communism failed because the conditions were completely wrong. Marx said that Communism could only succeed in a highly advanced capitalist society, and also warned that revolution within a single nation would be precarious. History has vindicated these judgements, he says. Okay, but he still has to convince us that it could work in the ‘right’ conditions, that some sort of revolution (not necessarily particularly bloody, he insists) could end capitalism, and launch a substantially better political order.

Would it really be worth chucking aside our liberal institutions, gambling that the revolution will improve on them? He is terribly vague about all this. He might be right that Marx himself was vague about it, but that is hardly an excuse. Since Marx, we have seen why such vagueness is indefensible. It seems to me that he fudges his central task—of convincing us that it could really happen—because he does not quite believe it himself.

Rejecting the Fatalism of Conventional Wisdom

So why, if I am right that he doesn’t quite believe in the practical possibility of Marxist revolution, does he advocate it? Because he sincerely believes in Marxism as a critical tool, as the authentic critical viewpoint. But in a sense ‘critical’ is too weak, too cold: Marxism offers a passionately critical stance. Anything less than Marxism is complacent about the injustice of inequality. The conventional wisdom is not free-market fundamentalism, but a belief that the market can be tamed, made to serve the common good. It wants wealth to spread, but it lacks urgency, passion; it trusts that the status quo is gradually delivering progress. (What would be the alternative to such trust but guilt and despair?)

The conventional wisdom therefore entails a strong dose of fatalism. It accepts as more or less inevitable that there is a lucky class, which gets a good education and nice jobs, and a less lucky majority, condemned to insecurity, unemployment, and bad culture. For all its anti-racism, it accepts the economic perpetuation of racial segregation with a shrug.

Only Marxism can reject fatalism and see inequality as an injustice that cries out for full and immediate rectification. This is what keeps Eagleton a Marxist, I think: he has great respect for this rejection of complacent fatalism, this demand for a radically different order. He is attached to this way of seeing the world—even though it entails a leap of faith (revolution is possible) that he cannot convincingly make. Maybe he can be called a negative Marxist: he believes in its attack on capitalism, but seems less sure that it provides a practical alternative. (If he does believe the latter, he is very bad at communicating it.) What he does positively believe in is propagating the idea of a radically different order, and the pathos of opposition to the status quo.

So Marxism, in Eagleton’s hands, is neither exactly a science, nor a practical political agenda. It emerges as essentially a vision, a gaze, a discourse—of political life transformed, of human dignity at last universalized.

As Eagleton is well aware (his intellectual roots lie in Roman Catholic liberation theology) there is a strong affinity with religion, but he is wary of dwelling on this. At one point he tentatively suggests that there is a spiritual, or ‘otherworldly’ side to Marxism:

But it is not the otherworldly as the parsons conceive of it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the future, in place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date.

The old-fashioned word ‘parsons’ conceals an awkwardness: Eagleton is more aware than he lets on that Marxism and religion are not so easily separated. One hopes that he will reflect on this more openly in a future book.

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