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Reconstructing Marx

Michael Calderbank reviews Why Marx was Right by Terry Eagleton

July 17, 2011
2 min read

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

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Why Marx was Right
Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press

To have written a book entitled ‘Why Marx was Right’ 20 years ago, after the collapse of the communist bloc, would have been seen as tantamount to defending Ptolemaic astronomy after the Copernican revelation that the Earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe after all. As Tony Blair and his co-thinkers internationally pursued their reconciliation with neoliberalism, Marx was routinely disparaged as having been both dangerous and wrong.

But such a summary rejection of Marx, Eagleton argues, was achieved on the cheap. So much so, in fact, that many of the arguments taken as characteristically Marxist are in fact the very opposite of what he argued. No one would have been more surprised than Marx himself to hear that he was advancing a worldview that was deterministic, reductive, incipiently tyrannical, contemptuous of individual difference, naively utopian and so on. Each of these claims is systematically taken apart. If you’re ever cornered at a party by a tedious right-winger, then Eagleton has provided a valuable service in predicting their arguments and demolishing them in advance.

This is more than a basic primer, though. The sympathetic reconstruction of Marx offered here draws on claims developed at greater length elsewhere in Eagleton’s work. These include a philosophically thoughtful interpretation of the notion of ‘species-being’ for an understanding of Marx’s materialism; a qualified defence of economic factors as important determinants of cultural production, alongside a corresponding dialectical understanding of the economy as culturally over-determined; a reading of Marx’s ethical stance as fundamentally Aristotelian in character; and much else besides.

Marx’s own writings aren’t treated as holy writ. But the desire to defend him from his critics sometimes risks glossing over contradictions actively at work in the original. A ‘proto-ecological’ defence of nature from industrial exploitation is certainly evident in Marx, but then so too is an Enlightenment vision of mastery over the natural world. Eagleton would surely accept that a general vindication of Marx is all the stronger if made on the basis of a rigorously critical assessment. As the late Daniel Bensaïd remarked, a contemporary reader of Marx must sometimes ‘take up a position in his contradictions, and take them seriously’.

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank