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October 01st 2011 print

Daryl McCann

The Opium of Terry Eagleton

One of the more disturbing moments in Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right—no small thing in a treatise teeming with disturbing moments—is this: 

Was capitalist modernity really necessary? How does one weigh the value of modern science and human liberty against the spiritual goods of tribal societies? What happens when we place democracy in the scales along with the Holocaust?  

It might take a second for the full implication of Eagleton’s last question to sink in, but when it does the reader finds himself confronted with an allegation both absurd and without any moral seriousness. Like some kind of malignant Quincy McGoo, Eagleton actually believes that democracy and the Holocaust are two sides of the same modern capitalist coin. How could a fellow who is the current Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster entertain such a notion? How can a man who entertains such a notion be the current Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster? If nothing else, Why Marx Was Right more than adequately explains Terry Eagleton.     

The entrance to heaven, according to Matthew 7:13, can be found “through the narrow gate”. The gateway to Marx’s truth is no less narrow, since it consists of a single abstraction: mode of production. From the moment an acolyte, such as Terry Eagleton, chooses this doctrine as the way, the truth and the life, then all else follows, because mode of production is Marx’s term for the totality of everything in society. There is a catch, however, and to give Eagleton his due he does not recoil from acknowledging it: 

What is unique about [Marx’s] thought is that he locks these two ideas—class struggle and mode of production—together, to provide a historical scenario which is genuinely new … In essence, Marxism is a theory and practice of long-term historical change. The trouble, as we shall see, is that what is most peculiar to Marxism is also what is most problematic.  

Right up front Eagleton knows that in order to support his contention that Marx “was right” he needs to convince the reader that class struggle and mode of production are not only inseparable concepts but also intrinsic to any account of our world—no easy task.

In the capitalist mode of production the capitalist class becomes wealthy and powerful via owning and controlling the means for producing society’s goods and services, but only as a result of obtaining surplus value by oppressing another class of people. From a Marxist point of view this exploitative process is not only unfair but satisfyingly karmic, because while the capitalists are pursuing their interests they are simultaneously creating a revolutionary class that will—when the moment is propitious—destroy the ruling class. Many facets of capitalist society, obviously, cannot be directly linked to the production of goods and services: religious, political, artistic and certain legal matters to mention just a few.

How exactly might these tangential entities be tied to the class struggle in what is an essentially materialist critique of society? Most of Marx’s apologists believe that his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) not merely answers this question, but also goes a long way to explaining one of the secrets behind the durability of the capitalist mode of production: 

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.         

In other words, “aristocrats, judges, senior lawyers and clerics, top military brass and media commentators, high-ranking politicians, police officers and civil servants, professors … heads of public schools and so on” might like to think themselves disinterested parties in the capitalist mode of production but they are, contends Eagleton, “agents of capital”. As he insists in Why Marx Was Right, “the West” is but a “coy pseudonym” for capitalism. All of us play our part in this capitalist mode of production and even the so-called middle class are invested in class struggle one way or another.  

This is an extraordinary concept, miraculously (or at least ambitiously) comprehensive. No wonder so many undergraduates over the years have found themselves in the thrall of Karl Marx. Here, at one fell swoop, is the possibility of understanding everything, a very fine outcome for a bright but inexperienced adolescent. And yet the misgivings remain. For instance, looking around at the world with our mind’s eye what we observe is someone driving a car, catching an elevator, huddling under an umbrella, buying dinner, or talking on a mobile; each act performed by an individual on his own or interacting with other individuals. Classes do not come into it. Only “vulgar Marxism”, counters Eagleton, would demand this minutiae of daily life be included under the category of class struggle: “There are times when the influence is very partial, and other times when it scarcely makes sense to speak in these terms at all.” Furthermore, nought but the canard of “vulgar Marxism” could insist upon a strong relationship between the capitalist mode of production and, say, various forms of esoteric art. Even if we allow Eagleton this point, the class struggle contrivance is not without its shortcomings when we turn our attention to issues of historical importance.  

The Nazis are a case in point. Marxists frequently interpret Hitler’s ascendancy along the lines of a demagogue articulating the class interests of an impoverished petty bourgeoisie and ruined landed gentry before ultimately answering to the demands of Big Capital and the military. Eagleton offers his own version of the formula: “Rather similarly, the Nazis ruled in the interests of high capitalism, but did so through an ideology which was distinctively lower-middle-class in outlook.” A far more plausible, albeit non-Marxist, account of Hitler’s dominance is that his power was in a very real sense autonomous, and high capitalists were no less co-opted and compromised by his authority than were the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the Wehrmacht, the church, the media, the education system and the common man. Marxists, including Eagleton, cannot seriously argue that the SS served anybody’s interests other than those of the Führer and its own sovereign self, in the form of a state-within-a-state. As the historian Paul Johnson once wryly commented, Hitler did not need to nationalise the means of production because he socialised the whole nation. 

Not only is Marx of no assistance in understanding the self-directed power exercised by the Nazi state, his materialist conception of history proves singularly inept for identifying the sometimes dominant role of ideology, religion and anti-Semitism in social transformation. Trying to make sense of anti-Semitism with Marxian analytical devices is a bit like testing for radioactivity with a water diviner. Marx’s defenders have shielded him from the charge of anti-Semitism by explaining away those odious passages in On the Jewish Question (1843). Eagleton even notes that Marx once recommended his wife should satisfy her “metaphysical needs” by studying the Jewish prophets. All of this is mostly beside the point. The bottom line is that Marx’s class-based analysis of society addresses human maladies like anti-Semitism by the most circuitous route, if it addresses them at all. Are we surprised that the Marxists who ruled the GDR believed they had vanquished anti-Semitism by nationalising the economy and erecting their Anti-Fascist Defence Barrier?   

The inadequacy of Marx’s class-based critique of society is no mere debating point. Though he defined the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in terms of a fatal contradiction, an even more deadly contradiction arises between his self-appointed post as draftsman of a radical emancipatory project and the horror unleashed by those who have wielded power in his name. Proceeding on the flawed assumption that state power only exists in a co-dependent relationship with private ownership, Marx-inspired revolutionaries expunged the bourgeoisie, the landed gentry, and the not-so-grand kulaks from their midst. Their delusion—or dark lie—was that after liquidating “the class enemy” the interests of the proletariat and the vanguard of the proletariat would miraculously merge into one. The result? Marxist-ruled countries have all descended into various versions of hell. Notwithstanding Mao’s self-serving sermon on the contradictions between a socialist state and the working class, the one-time guerrilla duly mutated into a Red Emperor, just as Stalin had earlier acquired the attributes of a Red Tsar. In every instalment of Really Existing Socialism the people’s tanks have developed a predilection for crushing the people.

Eagleton, then, wants us to accept the theories of Karl Marx as the blueprint for humanity’s liberation, even though the trials and tribulations of the twentieth century warn us against doing so. Our celebrity Marxist “literary theorist” wishes to defend the seemingly indefensible. Eagleton at least has the decency to admit that the original Marxist regime “suppressed political dissent and oppositional parties, manipulated elections and militarized labour”. At the same time, he rationalises Lenin’s state-sponsored terror in terms of “a background of civil war, widespread starvation and foreign invasion”. This particular apologia, however, is no longer tenable. Revisionist historians and educators in the West pursued such a ruse in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (and a few, embarrassingly, persist with it even today), but since the opening of the Soviet archives a dodge of this kind loses all plausibility. In order to protect Lenin and Trotsky from history’s judgment, Eagleton has to rearrange the chronology of events. This marks yet another low point in Why Marx Was Right.  

State terror incontrovertibly accompanied the founding of Sovnarkom, Lenin’s government. It preceded the civil war (1918–21), the Russian famine (1920–21), and the unlawful closure of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. Felix Dzerzhinsky, first boss of the Bolsheviks’ homicidal secret police, had an interesting turn of phrase: “We represent in ourselves organised terror—this must be said very clearly.” The Cheka officially came into existence on December 20, 1917, less than six weeks after Lenin seized power in the name of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, before immediately dismissing that political body. The genesis of the Bolsheviks’ secret police can be traced back even further, because in the very week of the October putsch Dzerzhinsky was co-ordinating a prototype Cheka, and before that he performed “security duties” as a key member of the Military-Revolutionary Committee. Despotism had Lenin’s name on it from the start.     

Eagleton’s Marxist political faith prohibits him from even beginning to comprehend what went wrong in Lenin’s Russia. Not only does he argue that Marx’s doctrines are blameless, he also has the temerity to assert that the Marxist followers of Leon Trotsky, the hero of Kronstadt, have produced critiques of Stalinism that are “far more deep-seated” than those of “Western liberals”. A liberal or traditionalist historian such as Richard Pipes invariably finds himself sneered at by Marxists, of whatever denomination, for characterising the Bolshevik party as a gang of bandits who stole political power at gunpoint in Petrograd and Moscow and then, after becoming the state, terrorised the remainder of Russia into submission. Seventy years later Mikhail Gorbachev turned up as Politburo leader. The moment this civilised man decided the Soviet people should no longer fear his government, the authority of the Communist Party vanished like dew on mid-morning grass. This epigrammatic account of the rise and fall of Soviet communism addresses the alarming nature of uncontested state power in a way that Trotsky’s convoluted, class-based explanation of Bolshevik absolutism—the absence of a sizeable Russian working class, the pre-eminence of a bureaucratic “class” and so forth—does not.

There are moments in Why Marx Was Right when Eagleton recognises that Marx has a “blind spot” on the subject of power. For instance, Eagleton refers to the relationship between Prospero and Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Ariel is the obedient agent of Prospero’s power, but he is restless to escape this sovereignty and simply do his own thing. In puckish, sportive spirit, he wants simply to relish his magical powers as ends in themselves, not have them tied down to his master’s strategic purposes.  

In a spirit we might describe with adjectives other than “puckish” and “sportive”, Lenin, Stalin, Tito, Ulbricht, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Khrushchev, Castro, Hoxha, Honecker, Ceausescu and Pol Pot very much relished their “magic powers as ends in themselves”. Eagleton concedes, as Marx does not, that there is an aspect of power that “luxuriates in dominion simply for its own sake” and “delights in flexing its muscles with no particular end in view”. Nevertheless, as a traditional Marxist—one who agrees that class struggle and mode of production are not only indivisible concepts but are also fundamental to any explanation of our world—Eagleton must in the end identify state power as a function, however indirectly, of class interests, since to do otherwise would be to stand on the wrong side of the narrow gate that leads to Marx’s system of beliefs and the dictatorship of the proletariat. 

Significantly, Marx had little to say about what his dictatorship of the proletariat actually entailed. Eagleton, nevertheless, breathlessly reassures us that Marx wanted humanity “to live in the freest, fullest, most self-fulfilling way”. The premise of work in our communist future, as Eagleton tells it, will be “self-realisation”, a quality akin to the spirit in which most of us pursue hobbies: relaxed and carefree, following our own lights, and not worried about pleasing the boss or the customer.

Eagleton argues that the dictatorship of the proletariat can be different in an advanced economy than it was in the Soviet Union because “scarcity” will not be an issue, but the same problem remains for, say, a brewery in both Really Existing Socialism and Terry-in-Wonderland’s Socialism. A brewer produces beer in the expectation that other human beings will find his product appealing enough to buy, but he is hardly going to keep manufacturing something for which nobody has to pay. Moreover, who is going to physically make the beer in utopia if the need for “self-realisation” happens not to correspond with an eight-hour shift? To put it bluntly, if property rights and market forces do not drive an enterprise, then the only power remaining to ensure it functions in any meaningful sense is—the state. Why can’t Eagleton see this? Perhaps it is because his irrational faith in a heaven on Earth has its origins as a nineteenth-century Christian heresy, a new-fangled belief for those who held no truck with the old-fashioned heaven. Marxism, as Michael Burleigh persuasively argues in Earthly Powers (2005), is a secular religion.

Marxists, naturally, bristle at the suggestion that their credo is any such thing. Slavoj Zizek, the self-styled Leninist jokester, might be an exception to this rule; Terry Eagleton emphatically is not. According to Why Marx Was Right, Marx was anything but a millenarian seer who made wild and unverifiable predictions about the future. Thus, Eagleton contends that even if The Communist Manifesto (1848) declares the defeat of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the revolutionary working class to be “equally inevitable”, a more sympathetic reading of Marx suggests he was not a “full-blown determinist” who regarded human beings as the passive instrument of historical laws. It is not unreasonable of Eagleton to argue for a more nuanced account of Marx’s position, especially when Marx himself never used terms like “historical materialism” and “dialectical materialism”. Then again, even Eagleton admits that in Capital (1867) Marx speaks of the “natural laws of capitalism” that drive matters to “inevitable results”.

In any case, the attainment of the dictatorship of the proletariat was always going to involve something more than the working class quietly assembling at the end of a pier in expectation of being beamed aboard the Starship Anti-Enterprise. Eagleton himself alludes to the suicidal policy of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in treating the SPD (Socialist Party of Germany) as an adversary during the years 1930–33 instead of forging an anti-Nazi alliance with them, foolishly believing that the emergence of the Nazi Party as a genuine political player heralded the death of capitalism and the proximity of the dictatorship of the proletariat: 

Historical determinism is a recipe for political quietism. In the twentieth century, it played a key role in the failure of the communist movement to combat fascism, assured as it was for a time that fascism was no more than the death rattle of a capitalist system on the point of extinction.  

There are no guarantees in this world, Eagleton informs us, and the ruling capitalist class could always be “hit by an asteroid” rather than struck down by the proletariat.

None of this, though, absolves Marx from the accusation that he was a millenarian fantasist. He might have expected his chosen revolutionary agent, the proletariat, to actively bring about his apocalyptic vision, and yet this does not mean the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is any less a flight of Marx’s imagination. While the “inevitability of socialism”—as Eagleton phrases it—does not allow for the revolutionaries to “stay in bed”, there is the heavy implication that sooner or later the proletariat will sweep away capitalism “of their own free will” and so bring to an end the “sufferings of class history”. Marx’s grand narrative ends with the dawn of a golden era, a state of affairs so magnificent that he divined it as the true beginning of human history. Soon after the conclusion of the First World War, Albert Porta divined a golden era of a very different kind. This meteorologist believed that the conjunction of six planets on Wednesday, December 17, 1919, was going to generate a magnetic current of such force it would cause the sun to explode and the Earth to be engulfed in fire. Maybe Porta’s biggest mistake was to be overly specific about the date.       

Eagleton rationalises the dictatorship of the proletariat’s no-show with Marx’s base-superstructure metaphor. This is the notion that political and ideological entities within the capitalist mode of production (the superstructure) can “secure the consent” of citizens even when its economy (the base) is experiencing a crisis. The defenders of the capitalist system, for example, have learned to “fend off political insurrection” by introducing reforms into the mix: 

Social democracy is one bulwark between [the capitalist mode of production] and disaster. In this way, the surplus reaped from the developed productive forces can be used to buy off revolution, which does not at all neatly fit into Marx’s historical scheme. 

The working class, according to Eagleton, continues to disavow the grand historical role Marx so generously bequeathed them, mostly because they have been bought or brainwashed by a right-wing conspiracy working against their true interests: “Marx did not have Fox News and the Daily Mail to reckon with.” Eagleton admits that his explanation might not “neatly fit into Marx’s historical scheme”, and yet it does contain enough of Marx’s jargon to make it plausibly Marx-like. And so the reputation of a prophet endures even if his prophecy has never come to pass.   

A more pragmatic explanation for the non-appearance of the dictatorship of proletariat might be that, ironically, Marx was entirely clueless about the Really Existing Proletariat. Perhaps the same can be said about multiple house-owning celebrity academic Terry Eagleton. In my experience a working-class man is not a mindless automaton who forms his worldview by opening the pages of a Murdoch-owned newspaper. Conceivably, some part of his worldview is formulated where Marx originally said it would be—the workplace. If we are to make any sense out of Marx’s base-superstructure model it has to be employed in a totally non-Marxist manner. Thus, a worker’s so-called “ideology” (superstructure) is, to some extent at least, informed by his job (the base). In that case, therefore, the experience of work does not transform the proletarian into a revolutionary but “a regular person”, as David Mamet puts it in The Secret Knowledge (2011). This regular person is a mature and responsible citizen who has internalised the rules and customs of “bourgeois” society, and values freedom no less than his capacity to earn a living. In short, Marx could not have got the proletariat more wrong.    

Although the West will never have to endure Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, a very different form of radical political change threatens to overwhelm the citadels of our civilisation, a strain of Leftism that turns out to be no less ambitious than Marxism. We know it by the term political correctness, and yet this moniker only begins to explain the character of the beast. In Culture Cult (2001), Roger Sandall usefully identifies the phenomenon as anti-bourgeois bohemianism; a socialist belief that is antithetical to liberal-democracy’s endorsement of individual rights and freedom of thought but is, at the same time, at odds with traditional Marxism. For instance, Identity Politics shuns the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the kind of “co-ordination” (Gleichschaltung) favoured by fascists, appreciating—as Marx never did—that state power and ownership of the means of production are less closely related than distant cousins. Apart from a withering contempt for the Really Existing Proletariat and a readiness to rationalise aggravated burglary and arson, there is not always a lot of common ground between an antiquated Marxist like Terry Eagleton and the now ascendant bohemian communist.          

Eagleton would have us believe that Marxists are like “medics” whose ultimate objective is selflessly “curing” us of capitalism so we “no longer need them”. At that point altruistic revolutionaries will “pack in their marching and picketing, return to their grieving families and enjoy an evening at home instead of yet another tedious committee meeting”. Marxism really is the opium of Terry Eagleton. Our philosopher and literary theorist is none other than the Strawberry Fields Man, narcotised to the eyeballs and yet insistent that it is not him but us who misunderstands everything, even as we are watching acts of villainy unfold on CCTV. During the recent English riots, Eagleton and his ilk acceded, as might have been expected, to the moral void that is class struggle theory. An organisation called Defend the Right to Protest, to which Eagleton has lent his name, reprimanded the bourgeois media for their “talk of ‘mindless’ and ‘criminal’ violence” since this version of events missed “the larger context”. On the other hand, maybe all those looters were not “protestors” as the BBC so supportively described them; perhaps they were a malicious horde taking delight “in flexing its muscles with no particular end in view”.   

An idea has a consequence and the consequence of Really Existing Marxism currently stands at 100-plus million innocent deaths, an inestimable number of lives ruined, and environmental damage on a breathtaking scale and gathering apace in the People’s Republic of China. That should be reason enough to tackle the deception and self-deception of one of the West’s most celebrated Marxists.

But there is more. In the preface to Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton decries the “growing nihilism” in our contemporary world, and argues that it would be hard to find “an intelligent discussion” of it “that is not seriously indebted to the Marxist tradition”. Here is Eagleton, an educator who continues to peddle to the young a view of modernity that is as toxic as it is fantastical, bemoaning the rejection of traditional social conventions and beliefs. Karl Marx, false prophet to surpass almost all other false prophets, spent his entire adult life condemning the West and wishing upon it a man-made Armageddon. Perhaps the most disturbing and exasperating achievement of Marx’s work has been to convince solicitous dupes such as Terry Eagleton that the road to heaven is paved with malevolent intentions. 

Daryl McCann reviewed Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow in the July-August issue.