Why Marx was Right

Terry Eagleton’s musings on the primacy of material motives

Why Marx was Right, by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, RRP£16.99, 272 pages

No subjunctives, no ifs or buts: the author of Das Kapital was on the money, in every sense. Terry Eagleton, a Marxist professor of English literature, isn’t alone in thinking so. “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,” a banker told the New Yorker 14 years ago. “There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model. I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.”

I opened Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right with high hopes. He may not be an economist but he’s a witty and wide-ranging intellectual gadfly who is never happier than when shocking his comrades – defending Roman Catholicism, excoriating post-modernist radicals. Better still (perhaps uniquely for an academic who has spent decades wallowing in literary theory), he writes lucid and jargon-free English.

“This book,” he reveals, “had its origin in a single, striking thought: what if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken?” That led him to take “10 of the most standard criticisms of Marx” and set out to refute them, one by one. Alas for the reader – and for Eagleton’s chances of becoming a Nobel laureate – the targets at which he aims are not so much the “standard” ones as the easiest to hit. There’s no mention, for example, of the labour theory of value, perhaps because this wouldn’t allow him the rhetorical flourishes he so enjoys.

Instead we have a familiar shooting-gallery of dead ducks – and even here Eagleton’s rebuttals do not always confirm the promise of his title. Was Marx a determinist? “There is no evidence,” Eagleton insists – but only two pages later he writes of Marx’s “austere determinism”. Was Marx a utopian? The answer is “a decisive yes and no”.

There are some delicious imaginative insights, as when Eagleton observes that a truly Marxian communism would be “diffuse, diverse and unpredictable. It would be more like a modernist novel than a realist one”. This is a thought that one longs to see developed – Marx as a modernist artist avant la lettre, answering questions that hadn’t yet been asked – but it remains embryonic.

Elsewhere he writes that “irony lies at the heart of Marx’s vision of history”, an echo of Edmund Wilson’s assertion that Das Kapital was the greatest satire since Gulliver’s Travels; but we hear no more about it.

Eagleton, I suspect, is trying too hard to reach the general reader. Sometimes his images are wonderfully suggestive, as in his musings on the primacy of material motives: “How is the capitalist mode of production the cause of my taste in neckties? In what sense does it determine hang-gliding or the 12-bar blues?” Just as often, however, one feels that he is chucking in contemporary references purely to show what a thoroughly modern militant he is.

Some of his analogies are simply baffling. In a chapter on the power of class distinctions he writes: “Not all those who earn a wage or salary are working class. Think of Britney Spears.” Does he believe that Britney is a wage-earner? Equally bizarre is his statement that “spiritual and material development by no means always march side by side. One has only to look at Keith Richards to recognise that”.

Eagleton also informs us that the Marxist idea of history (an unstable compound of inevitability and human initiative) is analogous to the Christian interplay between divine providence and free will – a promising thesis, instantly wrecked by a weird embellishment. God, he explains, “did not force me to dress up as a parlour maid last Friday and call myself Milly; but being omniscient, he knew that I would, and could thus shape his cosmic schemes with the Milly business well in mind”. What’s that all about? God only knows.

“There is a sense,” Eagleton writes of Marx, “in which his case is becoming truer as time progresses.” Spot on: since Marx was declared dead at the end of the 20th century the same point has been persuasively made by non-Marxists such as George Soros and Jacques Attali.

But if Marx is to become “the next big thinker” of the new century (as the New Yorker proclaimed him) an honest assessment is necessary: acknowledgment of his insights into capitalism’s perennial instability – the boom-and-bust rhythm that Gordon Brown thought he could silence, the creative destruction described by Joseph Schumpeter – must be accompanied by an admission of his fallibility. I still believe that Eagleton’s frisky intellect could give us a version of Marx for our times. This, regrettably, is not it.

Francis Wheen is the author of ‘Karl Marx’ (Fourth Estate) and ‘Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography’ (Atlantic)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on Non-Fiction