Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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


  share     tweet  

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


Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.

Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu

Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke