Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton – 50 Years in 50 Books

Why Marx was Right was first published in 2011. Terry Eagleton makes the argument against Marx’s irrelevancy; asking the question, “What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken?”. In each case, Eagleton’s book demonstrates the gap between these assumptions and Marx’s own thought. In a world in which capitalism has been shaken to its roots by some major crises, Why Marx Was Right remains as urgent and timely as it is brave and candid.

In this blogpost, part of our 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Terry Eagleton recounts the unlikely readership his book, Why Marx Was Right, found in the wake of the financial crash.

Article by Terry Eagleton

Why Marx Was Right was published in 2011, three years after a massive economic crisis gripped the West. In the wake of that near-collapse of the capitalist system, as companies crashed, cash machines threatened to shut down and bankers moved swiftly and successfully to avoid being banged up for years, there was a resurgence of interest in Marx, not least on Wall Street. It wasn’t, needless to say, that Marx’s ideas were eagerly embraced as a solution to the ills of capitalism. It was rather that some financiers were avid to know more about the inner workings of their own economy, and were aware that Marx had something to say on this score. No doubt this accounts for why the book, incongruously, did rather well in some Wall Street circles, as bemused American stockbrokers leafed through the work of an English left-wing academic in the hope of discovering something about themselves.

For stockbrokers to start talking about capitalism, as some of them did at that frenetic time, isn’t really in their interests. ‘Capitalism’ suggests a particular way of producing, circulating and consuming goods; and if there is one such way of doing this, then there might always be alternative ways as well. The word signifies a way of organising one’s affairs which emerged at a certain point in time, and what was born can always die. This is why it’s better for the apologists for this way of life to talk of liberal democracy or market society or the Free World. These concepts also have a history, of course, but they don’t proclaim it quite so blatantly. When a social system is pitched into crisis, it is often forced into a new, sometimes rather uncomfortable consciousness of itself, and that self-consciousness can be as disabling for whole societies as it is for particular individuals. It is preferable to think of how you manage your life together not as a historically relative arrangement but simply as the way things are. This, to be sure, may seem a touch implausible, given that feudal estates didn’t work primarily by the profit motive, and tribes in the Amazon basin are unlikely to think of themselves as a bunch of competing individualists driven by material self-interest. Even so, if you don’t inspect these matters too closely, you can behave as though capitalism is the natural way of keeping people alive, and that if it didn’t flourish in the Garden of Eden this was merely a regrettable oversight on the part of its two inhabitants.

The First Edition of The Communist Manifesto, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Marx’s enduring achievements was to de-naturalise the mode of production under which he lived, and to do so by historicising it.  There was no necessity about living like this, and there were a number of pressing reasons — not least the existence of obscene inequalities between rich and poor —  why we shouldn’t do so. Those inequalities have deepened over time, as The Communist Manifesto predicted that they would.  As the most influential document of 19th century Europe, the Manifesto heaps lavish praise on the middle classes, who in Marx’s view were the most revolutionary force in human history. But their progressive days are now over, and a new dispensation, that of international socialism, is waiting impatiently in the wings. In 1848, the year of the work’s appearance, this was by no means an idle utopian dream, as one European state after another struggled to put down the forces of insurrection. In our own day, it is still reasonable to believe that a system which leaves enormous swathes of the world population in dire poverty and is bent on destroying the planet has had its day; but there is no new dispensation on the horizon, even though there are plenty of battles for justice and emancipation.

Fallacies appear natural to the human mind. The Bible doesn’t claim that money is the root of all evil; Shakespeare didn’t write that all that glitters is not gold; there is no Victorian study entitled Origin of the Species, and Sigmund Freud didn’t write about the concept of the subconscious. Great thinkers tend over time to be wrapped around with myths, and rarely has this been more evident than in the case of Marx, a man whose ideas some people have a vested interest in distorting. I wrote Why Marx Was Right not to provide information for worried stockbrokers but to dispel as many of these myths as I could. The point was not to convert all of my readers to Marxism, but to let them know as accurately as possible what it was they were either accepting or rejecting. There is no point in buying your opposition to Marxism on the cheap by dismissing a man who ( so you think) believed that everything comes down to economics, that the state should be all-powerful, that the individual should be subordinate to it and that there is nothing in the world but matter.     

Inconveniently for some of his critics, Marx held none of these views. Nor did he consider that all revolutions are inevitably bloody, that utopia is within our grasp or that there should be arithmetical equality among human beings. He espoused the cause of the working class, but was perfectly aware that in the Victorian England of his day, most working-class individuals were not industrial labourers but domestic servants, which is to say that the working class was predominantly female and wasn’t to be found in factories. He was indeed a materialist, but this didn’t mean that he dismissed ideas or consciousness as mere reflexes of matter. It means rather that ideas were to be understood not in the abstract but in the context of our practical, material existence.

In fact, Marx was rather suspicious of abstract ideas, and as such joins a distinguished lineage of philosophers (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud, Adorno, Derrida) who might more properly be described as anti-philosophers. Like the good Romantic humanist that he was, he was devoted to the sensuous and particular, not the abstract and generic. He didn’t write Capital because he was attracted to economics; on the contrary, he complained that working in the British Museum on what he called ‘this economic crap’ was keeping him from writing his big book on Balzac. He sacrificed himself to this arid labour, plagued all the while by both creditors and carbuncles, because he believed that it would serve the cause of human emancipation. Nor did the irony of it all escape his innately satirical mind. Nobody, he remarked, had written so much about money and had so little of it.

About the author:

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion.

About the book:

Why Marx Was Right
Terry Eagleton

One of the foremost Marxist critics of his generation forcefully argues against Marx’s irrelevancy.

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Also by Terry Eagleton:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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