A review of Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton and How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm

Karl Marx virtually invented what it was to be an intellectual: it was to combine journalism with philosophy. Intellectuality demands a grand theory, along with opinions on every subject under the sun. Learning his philosophy from Kant and Hegel, Marx thought that philosophy was essentially critical. Criticism meant hostility to the society around. It meant unmasking truths that were being concealed by sinister interests. More than that, Marx was a prophet who detested modern societies and predicted the coming of an immense event: the uprising of the working class against their bourgeois oppressors. He died in 1883 and thus did not live to see the event he prophesied—the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia 34 years later—though whether the Bolsheviks were real Marxists or a set of damaging imposters has been the basic anxiety of the master's followers ever since.

Marx drew on Hegel's argument that history went through different cultural stages on its way to our own time, which happened to be the marvelously dramatic moment when mankind would transcend past ignorance and superstition and create, at last, the rational community in which true human beings could flourish. This penultimate stage was the "bourgeois mode of production" in which energetic capitalists were revolutionizing technology and commerce, which, in turn, would allow the proletariat to introduce the true community of the future. To be a Marxist was thus to pass one's time detecting signs—"crises of capitalism" as they were known—which indicated that the coming change was imminent.

The power of Marxism resulted from the fact that it construed a modern economy (which came to be called "capitalism") as a system whose real point was concealed by the sinister interests which benefitted from it. Unlock the system, and the hidden structure of oppression from which we suffered would be revealed. "Bourgeois morality" taught that people largely got what they deserved, but actually the system worked to produce selfishness and inequality. Economists taught that freedom was the operation of markets, but modern commerce and advertising turned human beings into helpless consumers. And if the free society didn't always work perfectly, the afterlife would guarantee that people got their true deserts. Religion, Marx explained, was a drug to keep them under control.

The thing called "Marxism" thus had two elements. One was the critical unmasking of the supposedly real causes of the miseries of the modern world; the other was a vision of a possibly inevitable future. Put them together and they constitute the secret of modernity. Secrets appeal to the vanity of many people, especially intellectuals. Generations of Marxists have enjoyed the excitement of believing themselves to have cracked the secret of a world in which everyone else was lost in "false consciousness." Marxism is thus a specific form of politico-philosophical thinking, often called ideology. Just as nationalism reveals the hidden scope of imperialism, and Nazism the concealed power of the Jews, as feminism exposes unrealized dimensions of patriarchy, so Marxism reveals the truth of the capitalist world we live in.

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The problem with explaining everything as a system is that it reduces human beings to robots, whereas they are, in fact, rational though fallible moral agents. Our present debt crisis results in part from governments borrowing too much and spending unwisely. The system did not force them to do this, and some governments didn't. Again, private debt often resulted from individuals picking up the idea that the price of housing assets never went down. But many people of course did not fall into this illusion. No doubt some problems result from realities that might be described as "systematic," but others result from human folly. It is simpleminded to think that one type of explanation fits all cases.

The problem for Marxists has long been that capitalism seemed to be remarkably resilient. As the sociologist Ernest Gellner used mockingly to say as he quoted a famous Marxist: "Some of Marx's predictions are so far-sighted they haven't happened—even yet!" This was a crucial piece of mockery, for in the early 20th century many an ambitious Marxist revolutionary was losing patience with the proletariat, too sunk in "economism" to get on with their destined business of toppling the bourgeoisie. Instead, Marxists like Mussolini and Lenin were deciding that only a revolutionary vanguard of active radicals could take over the serious work of seizing power. And that is how the world got the Soviet Union, fascist Italy, Mao's China, and various other adventures in the delights of a true community.

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Did these events confirm Marx, as Marxists in the last century often thought, or were they a terrible betrayal of the master? Most people, contemplating the horrendous death rate and every other kind of failure resulting from these revolutions, soon concluded that Marx demonstrably belonged in Trotsky's dustbin of history, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed the game was up. But that would be to mistake the way some people respond to the failure of prophecy. As cognitive psychologists have observed with fascination, some followers of a failed prophecy become even more entrenched in the system they have embraced. This is now the case of some Marxists. These devout followers have dismissed any idea that the revolutions of the 20th century reveal any problems in the prophecy. They were misunderstandings of the master's true message. Marx still speaks to us, they believe, with the vision of a new future. He was right, and his time is yet to come.

Two recent books demonstrate this remarkable mutation of old thoughts. Eric Hobsbawm, a noted Marxist historian and professor emeritus at the New School for Social Research, has written a set of historical pieces under the curious title of How to Change the World. Hobsbawm is not talking here about the small changes people make all round us, but about a very big, revolutionary change. He employs what we might call the euphemistic generic, in which "change" is a twee way of taking the nasty Bolshevik sting out of "revolution." And the same interesting evasion is central to Why Marx Was Rightby Terry Eagleton, currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. Indeed Eagleton attacks the idea that human nature is flawed as a cunning device for discouraging us from trying to "change" the world. "Change…is not the opposite of human nature; it is possible because of the creative, open-ended, unfinished beings we are."

Revolutionaries are of course great exponents of "change," but they face a problem that surfaced dramatically the moment the first real revolution came to power. The Jacobins in the 1790s made the dramatic discovery that the only people who can live in a perfect society (at that point characterized as a "reign of virtue") were perfect people. Without virtue, or the spirit of community, or total obedience to the revolution, the thing wouldn't work. What then do you do with the rest? The only answer the Jacobins found was: kill them. And the same solution to the same problem notably afflicted all the later revolutions for communal perfection that achieved so much "change" in the last century.

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This is the famous omelette problem. You just have to smash the eggs! We may well ask whether the world that might delight latter-day Marxists such as Hobsbawm and Eagleton would be one you and I could live in. No revolution has yet solved its problem without a mountain of corpses, so that it might well seem better to tolerate our present horrible capitalism, in which we somehow manage to rub along with all the riffraff around us. Given Voltaire's vision of history as a story of crimes and follies, the achievement of what these two writers regard as our vile liberal democratic capitalism ought not to be taken for granted. After all, it even tolerates such passionate enemies as Hobsbawm and Eagleton without too much fuss. And indeed it is striking that, for all their complaints about the horrors of capitalism, these critics are absolutely determined to cling to it. They never think of going anywhere else. And occasionally Eagleton does recognize, even if with a sneer, that "[i]t is in the nature of capitalism to confound distinctions, collapse hierarchies and mix the most diverse forms of life promiscuously together." Marx himself wondered on occasion whether he would be suitable material to live in the coming Communism. This pair would almost certainly be rapidly gulagged.

Hobsbawm has stayed faithful to one or other version of "change" for a long lifetime, and his book is saved from much absurdity by a professional respect for the discipline of history. He can tell us things worth following such as the many editions and translations of the Communist Manifesto, or the later stages of Marxist opinion. Every so often, however, one is brought up short by explosions of partisan absurdity. "The systematic attempt of Western Cold Warriors to counter the Soviets' ‘battle of ideas' by Congresses of Cultural Freedom," he tells us, "did not effectively survive the revelation of CIA financing in 1967." There is a whole volume of falsity packed into this sentence, but perhaps all we need say is that it is a snide dismissal of the careers of Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, and many others. The idea that dubious financing refutes an argument comes ill from an admirer of much that was long sustained by "Moscow gold."

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Eagleton's book is a much more eccentric production. It consists of ten untitled chapters, each dealing with some terrible misunderstanding of Marx. Foolish people have believed that Marx was utopian, reduced everything to economics, was a materialist, was responsible for revolutionary bloodshed, etc., etc. We discover instead that he is a remarkable prodigy of rational openness, and that his thought was "extraordinarily rich [and] fertile." He produced "the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive critique" of capitalism ever "launched." He is a visionary—but also a realist, not to mention a critic of rigid dogmatism. What's more, "Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx's work, bears witness to its validity." Sinking even further into the demotic, Eagleton remarks that "a good few of his critics are reluctant to louse up their arguments with the facts." We are in Lives of the Saints territory here:

Rather as Newton discovered the invisible forces known as the laws of gravity, and Freud laid bare the workings of an invisible phenomenon known as the unconscious, so Marx unmasked our everyday life to reveal an imperceptible entity known as the capitalist mode of production.


Since "the capitalist mode of production" is an abstraction, it is hardly remarkable that we cannot "perceive" it. The remark is, however, suggestive. Much of science is indeed about invisibles, but not everything about invisibles is science. It can be mere occultist superstition, and much in Marx is just that.

Eagleton has heard of moral equivalence, and is sensitive to the charge that Marxist societies, as part of "changing" society, have killed quite a lot. In what he imagines to be the grand clash of world-historical events, he is ready to take on any absurdity to arrive at a satisfactory equivalence. "Modern capitalist nations are the fruit," he explains, "of a history of slavery, genocide, violence, and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union." Well, nice to be instructed on levels of abhorrence! Those "imperceptibles" are clearly getting out of hand! The simple point, however, is that we know what Stalin and Mao did. They are human agents. "Capitalism" is not a human agent, merely the puff of smoke by which Marx purports to explain everything—and explains, of course, nothing.

The problem is that Eagleton has the slimmest grasp of history. Wherever the hint of anything empirical occurs, he gets it wrong. That the Soviet Union brought backward people into the modern world is of course one of the standard legends. In fact, Tzarist Russia, in many of the years before 1917, was the China of its day, economically leaping ahead. And not a bad culture either, until Soviet conformity arrived.

The best one can say of these productions is that they are intellectual history conducted as a form of grave-robbing. The great danger is that this recycling of past human folly may spread. Consider the danger we face of—"the wit and wisdom of Mussolini." And perhaps even now being completed, "Hitler wasn't always wrong." We know that reading Marx turns some people into monsters. Here is evidence that it can turn even engaging and intelligent professors of English literature and history into witless exponents of agit-prop.