Why Marx was right

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Why Marx was right

Dc Tue 8 Nov 11 at The Blue Mugge

Notes based on book of same title by Terry Eagleton (TE) - Yale, 2011. TE takes ten of the most standard criticisms of Marx and tries to refute them one by one, in 240 pages… The arguments are summarized below. Everything in italics and within inverted commas below is from Eagleton (unless otherwise stated).

Huge, contentious issues which could take more than one session!

1. Going round, anyone who wishes, can respond to the question:

What do you understand by ‘Marxism’?

2. Marxism is finished. It might have had some relevance to a world of factories and coal miners but it certainly has no bearing on the classless, socially mobile, post industrial Western societies of the present.

On the contrary, the global economic crisis, with anti-capitalist protesters gaining support from unlikely quarters, puts Marx firmly back on the agenda… John Gray, a non-Marxist philosopher, speaking on Radio 4 ‘Points of View’ a week ago said: ‘More now think Marx was right: capitalism is inherently unstable and we are currently experiencing a process of creative destruction. The middle class (the bourgeoisie) also now with little effective control over their lives…younger people likely to have a lifetime of insecurity. “Everything solid melts into air”, as Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto 150 year ago.’

3. Marxism may be all very well in theory. Whenever it has been put in practice, however, the result has been terror, tyranny and mass murder on an inconceivable scale.

No-one in the Mugge – and few anywhere now - will seek to defend Stalinism or Maoism. Was that form of Communism inevitable given that the revolutions occurred in countries which were not capitalist bourgeois democracies? Were there not, in any case, some positive features within C20 communism - for a time East Germany (GDR) had the best, most generously funded, child-care facilities; Cuba with exceptionally good health services?

4. Marx was a materialist and an economic determinist, seeing men and women simply as the tools of history. He had no interest in the spiritual, draining humanity of all that is most precious about it.

A materialist, yes; and his locking together of ‘class struggle’ with ‘mode of production’ provides an approach to history which is ‘Marxist’. ‘A mode of production for Marx means the combination of certain forces of production with certain relations of production’. Clear? If not, someone will attempt to explain. This will be linked to consideration of the ‘economic base’ – the real foundation - of the ‘legal/political/cultural superstructure’. Is this too deterministic?

Engels denied that ‘he and Marx ever meant to suggest that economic forces were the sole determinant of history’. Human labour and production are vital but ‘the word ‘production’ in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, engaging in politics, organizing a birthday party for one’s children’.
5. Marxism is a dream of utopia. The fact that we are naturally selfish, acquisitive, aggressive and competitive creatures is simply overlooked. The true complexity of human affairs is passed over for a monochrome version of history.
‘Just as the Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future, so Marx the secular Jew is mostly silent on what might lie ahead. He had little to say on the detail about what a socialist or communist society would look like.’

However, ‘For Marx, we are equipped by our material natures with certain powers and capacities. And we are at our most human when we are free to realize these powers as an end in itself…’ Sure, he knew that humans had demonstrated in abundance the above negative qualities but our ‘nature’ is malleable - we can also be kind, considerate, loving, empathetic, cooperative: ‘Communism organizes social life so that individuals are able to realize themselves through the self-realisation of others… Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same but attending equally to everyone’s different needs’.

6. For Marx the end justifies the means, however many lives may be lost, through violent revolution and the state imposing its will on the majority. In any case, all the most interesting radical movements of the past four decades have sprung up from outside Marxism: feminism, environmentalism, gay and ethnic politics, animal rights, the peace movement…

‘Marx believed that some revolutions might be peacefully accomplished, and was in no sense opposed to social reform. He was even more hostile to the state that right-wing conservatives are, and saw socialism as a deepening of democracy, not as an enemy of it. He lavished praise on the middle class and saw socialism as the inheritor of its great legacies of liberty, civil rights and material prosperity. Was ever a thinker so travestied?’ Asks TE in conclusion.

Are the real contemporary problems with Marx (and Eagleton) those of markets and agency.

Everyone is aware that rampant unregulated market forces can lead to the chaos we are experiencing, but markets - of some kind – are essential in any complex society? Could a variety of cooperatives, mutuels and self-governing companies operate effectively, with a check on the adequacy and rationality of democratic planning since - in Trotsky’s words “economic accounting is unthinkable without market relations”?

Given the weaknesses of the traditional left - trade unions and political parties – where are the social and political agencies to make the global ‘anti-capitalist movement’ effective?

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