Baby Boomers Make Their Marx

By Goldman, Samuel | The American Conservative, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Baby Boomers Make Their Marx

Goldman, Samuel, The American Conservative

Baby Boomers Make Their Marx Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagletoti, Yale University Press, 272 pages

In February 2009, near the low point of the financial crisis, Karl Marx made the cover of Time-or at least its European edition-for the first time since 1948. The images provide a vivid illustration of the revival of Marx's reputation in the mainstream press since the early years of the Cold War. In the 1948 cover, an enormous, glowing-eyed Marx looms over a boiling cauldron of hellfire, whose steam forms a hammer and sickle. The 2009 version renders Marx as a computer graphic. Rather than marinating in the vapors of hell, his disembodied head floats beatifically over a cable news-style crawl text: "What Would Marx Think?"

In Why Marx Was Right, the British literary critic Terry Eagleton encourages this shift from Marx the satanic revolutionary to Marx the digital sage. As its title suggests, the book sets out to tell us not only what Marx would think, but also why he should be believed. Eagleton, who has also written recent essays on evil and atheism, is not very successful on either score. On a more subterranean level of argument, however, Why Marx Was Right is an acute, if partial, diagnosis of the bankruptcy of the European and British left.

On the surface, Eagleton structures the book as a response to ten familiar objections to Marxism. Some are theoretical, such as the claim that Marx has little to say about the postindustrial economies that characterize the contemporary West. Others are historical, and mostly revolve around the extent of Marx's responsibility for Communist despotism. To Eagleton's credit, he generally avoids straw-man formulations. His aim is to rebut the "curious notion" Marx can safely be ignored-not to show that Marx was right about everything.

Although his arguments are often elementary and sometimes glib, Eagleton deals better with theoretical than historical criticisms of Marx. It's probably right, for example, that Marx's philosophy of history is compatibilist rather than rigidly determinist where the question of free will is concerned.

Eagleton's economic history, on the other hand, would be laughable if it were not morally repugnant. Eagleton imagines that even if Stalin and Mao deprived their subjects of liberty and frequently life, Communist governments deserve credit for feats of modernization from which the population as a whole benefited.

This is a myth. The Soviet economy was consistently and pervasively sclerotic-and not merely because it was "forced" into a ruinous arms race. And China began to develop only after its ruling elite abandoned Marx. Eagleton asks us to admire the "cheap housing, fuel, transport and culture, full employment and impressive social services" that Marxist societies ostensibly enjoyed, even as we deplore the murderous tyranny of their ruling classes. Fortunately, it's not necessary to balance these goods against each other. In the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and to a lesser extent the European satellites, comfort, freedom, and security were in about equally short supply.

Eagleton also idealizes his political history, especially when it comes to Russia. On his account, the Bolsheviks were an essentially democratic party compelled by the hostility of the West to take repressive measures, and then hijacked by Stalin. Eagleton's main source for this analysis seems to be the Trotksyite historian Isaac Deutscher. One might have to be a Trotskyite to believe it.

Why Marx Was Right is pitched toward readers sympathetic to the left but trapped in what Eagleton regards as its contemporary deformations: postmodernism and the "third way" associated with ex-socialists like Tony Blair. Only by returning to a certain understanding of Marx, he suggests, can these deviations be corrected.

This concealed argument is embedded in the story of rise and fall of the British and European left. In the first decades after World War II, the left in what was then known as the free world was led by avowedly Marxist parties and organized in and through trade unions.

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