Thirty-five years ago many people in the United States and Europe were willing to give Marxism a hearing. Just a decade later nearly everyone agreed it had been discredited. Why this sudden change? Had some new discovery disproved Marxist theory? Were people no longer interested in the problems Marxism addressed? Or had the problems themselves disappeared?

Something had indeed happened in the period in question. From the mid-1970s onwards, the Western system underwent some vital changes. There was a shift from traditional industrial manufacture to a “postindustrial” culture of consumerism, communications, information technology, and the service industry. Small-scale, decentralized, versatile, nonhierarchical enterprises were the order of the day. Markets were deregulated, and the working-class movement was subjected to savage legal and political assault. Traditional class allegiances were weakened, while local, gender, and ethnic identities grew more insistent.

The new information technologies played a key role in the increasing globalization of the system, as a handful of transnational corporations distributed production and investment across the planet in pursuit of the readiest profits. A good deal of manufacturing was outsourced to cheap-wage locations in the “underdeveloped” world, leading some parochially minded Westerners to conclude that heavy industry had disappeared from the planet altogether. Massive international migrations of labor followed in the wake of this global mobility, and with them a resurgence of racism and fascism as impoverished immigrants poured into the more advanced economies. While “peripheral” countries were subject to sweated labor, privatized facilities, slashed welfare, and surreally inequitable terms of trade, the bestubbled executives of the metropolitan nations tore off their ties, threw open their shirt necks, and fretted about their employees’ spiritual well-being.

None of this happened because the capitalist system was in a blithe, buoyant mood. On the contrary, its newly pugnacious posture, like most forms of aggression, sprang from deep anxiety. If the system became manic, it was because it was latently depressed. What drove this reorganization above all was the sudden fade-out of the postwar boom. Intensified international competition was forcing down rates of profits, drying up sources of investment, and slowing the rate of growth. Even social democracy was now too radical and expensive a political option. The stage was thus set for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who would help dismantle traditional manufacturing, shackle the labor movement, let the market rip, strengthen the repressive arm of the state, and champion a new social philosophy known as barefaced greed. The displacement of investment from manufacturing to the service, financial, and communications industries was a reaction to a protracted economic crisis, not a leap out of a bad old world into a brave new one.

Even so, it is doubtful that most of the radicals who changed their minds about the system between the ’70s and ’80s did so simply because there were fewer cotton mills around. It was not this that led them to ditch Marxism along with their sideburns and headbands, but the growing conviction that the regime they confronted was simply too hard to crack. It was not illusions about the new capitalism, but disillusion about the possibility of changing it, which proved decisive. There were, to be sure, plenty of former socialists who rationalized their gloom by claiming that if the system could not be changed, neither did it need to be. But it was lack of faith in an alternative that proved conclusive. Because the working-class movement had been so battered and bloodied, and the political Left so robustly rolled back, the future seemed to have vanished without trace. For some on the left, the fall of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s served to deepen the disenchantment. It did not help that the most successful radical current of the modern age—revolutionary nationalism—was by this time pretty well exhausted. What bred the culture of postmodernism, with its dismissal of so-called grand narratives and triumphal announcement of the End of History, was above all the conviction that the future would now be simply more of the present.

What helped discredit Marxism above all, then, was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda, even if that is when you need to sustain it most of all. After all, if you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was. If the fainthearted had managed to cling to their former views for another two decades, they would have witnessed a capitalism so exultant and impregnable that in 2008 it only just managed to keep the cash machines open. They would also have seen a whole continent south of the Panama Canal shift decisively to the political left. The End of History was now at an end. In any case, Marxists ought to be well accustomed to defeat. They had known greater catastrophes than this. The political odds will always be on the system in power, if only because it has more tanks than you do. But the heady visions and effervescent hopes of the late 1960s made this downturn an especially bitter pill for the survivors of that era to swallow.

What made Marxism seem implausible, then, was not that capitalism had changed its spots. The case was exactly the opposite. It was the fact that as far as the system went, it was business as usual but even more so. Ironically, then, what helped beat back Marxism also lent a kind of credence to its claims. It was thrust to the margins because the social order it confronted, far from growing more moderate and benign, waxed more ruthless and extreme than it had been before. And this made the Marxist critique of it all the more pertinent. On a global scale, capital was more concentrated and predatory than ever, and the working class had actually increased in size. It was becoming possible to imagine a future in which the megarich took shelter in their armed and gated communities, while a billion or so slum dwellers were encircled in their fetid hovels by watchtowers and barbed wire.

In our own time, as Marx predicted, inequalities of wealth have dramatically deepened. The income of a single Mexican billionaire today is equivalent to the earnings of the poorest 17 million of his compatriots. Capitalism has created more prosperity than history has ever witnessed, but the cost—not least in the near destitution of billions—has been astronomical. According to the World Bank, 2.74 billion people in 2001 lived on less than two dollars a day. We face a probable future of nuclear-armed states warring over a scarcity of resources; and that scarcity is largely the consequence of capitalism itself. Capitalism will behave antisocially if it is profitable for it to do so, and that can now mean human devastation on an unimaginable scale. What used to be apocalyptic fantasy is today no more than sober realism. The traditional leftist slogan ‘‘Socialism or barbarism’’ was never more grimly apposite, never less of a mere rhetorical flourish.

Apart from the apparent triumph of capitalism, though, hasn’t Marxism been discredited from within? How could Marxists ever live down the history of Communist totalitarianism, which has been pitting self-described Marxists against one another ever since the Russian Revolution? Surely anyone who calls himself a Marxist today must answer for Stalin’s show trials and Mao’s labor camps, as well as the brutal crackdowns in Prague and Tiananmen Square. 

Avid self-interest is likely to pile up wealth with remarkable speed, though it is likely to amass spectacular poverty at the same time.

Taken overall, both Stalinism and Maoism were botched, bloody experiments that made the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in the world who had most to benefit from it. Marx never imagined that socialism could be achieved in the impoverished conditions Stalin and Mao faced. Such a project requires almost as bizarre a loop in time as inventing the Internet in the Middle Ages. You cannot reorganize wealth for the benefit of all if there is precious little wealth to reorganize. You cannot abolish social classes in conditions of scarcity, since conflicts over a material surplus too meager to meet everyone’s needs will simply revive them again. As Marx comments in The German Ideology, the result of a revolution in such conditions is that “the old filthy business” will simply reappear. All you will get is socialized scarcity. If you need to accumulate capital more or less from scratch, then the most effective way of doing so, however brutal, is through the profit motive. Avid self-interest is likely to pile up wealth with remarkable speed, though it is likely to amass spectacular poverty at the same time.

Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves. So unless this project is executed gradually, under democratic control, and in accordance with socialist values, an authoritarian state may step in and force its citizens to do what they are reluctant to undertake voluntarily. The militarization of labor in Bolshevik Russia is a case in point. The result, in a grisly irony, will be to undermine the political superstructure of socialism (popular democracy, genuine self-government) in the very attempt to build up its economic base.

It is not that the building of socialism cannot be begun in deprived conditions. It is rather that without material resources it will tend to twist into the monstrous caricature of socialism known as Stalinism. The Bolshevik revolution soon found itself besieged by imperial Western armies, as well as threatened by counterrevolution, urban famine, and a bloody civil war. With a narrow capitalist base, disastrously low levels of material production, scant traces of civil institutions, a decimated, exhausted working class, peasant revolts, and a swollen bureaucracy to rival the tsar’s, the revolution was in deep trouble almost from the outset. In the end, the Bolsheviks were to march their starving, despondent, war-weary people into modernity at the point of a gun.

Marx himself was a critic of rigid dogma, military terror, political suppression, and arbitrary state power. He believed that political representatives should be accountable to their electors, and castigated the German Social Democrats of his day for their statist politics. He insisted on free speech and civil liberties, was horrified by the forced creation of an urban proletariat (in his case in England rather than Russia), and held that common ownership in the countryside should be a voluntary rather than coercive process. Yet as one who recognized that socialism cannot thrive in poverty-stricken conditions, he would have understood perfectly how the Russian revolution came to be lost.

Imagine a slightly crazed capitalist outfit that tried to turn a premodern tribe into a set of ruthlessly acquisitive, technologically sophisticated entrepreneurs speaking the jargon of public relations and free-market economics, all in a surreally short period of time. Does the fact that the experiment would almost certainly prove less than dramatically successful constitute a fair condemnation of capitalism? Surely not. To think so would be as absurd as claiming that the Girl Scouts should be disbanded because they cannot solve certain tricky problems in quantum physics. Marxists do not believe that the mighty liberal lineage from Thomas Jefferson to John Stuart Mill is annulled by the existence of secret CIA-run prisons for torturing Muslims, even though such prisons are part of the politics of today’s liberal societies. Yet the critics of Marxism are rarely willing to concede that show trials and mass terror are no refutation of it.

There is, however, another sense in which socialism is thought by some to be unworkable. Even if you were to build it under affluent conditions, how could you possibly run a complex modern economy without markets? The answer for a growing number of Marxists is that you do not need to. Markets in their view would remain an integral part of a socialist economy. So-called market socialism envisages a future in which the means of production would be socially owned, but where self-governing cooperatives would compete with one another in the marketplace. In this way, some of the virtues of the market could be retained, while some of its vices could be shed. At the level of individual enterprises, cooperation would ensure increased efficiency, since the evidence suggests that it is almost always as efficient as capitalist enterprise and often much more so. At the level of the economy as a whole, competition ensures that the informational, allocation, and incentive problems associated with the traditional Stalinist model of central planning do not arise.

Market socialism places economic power in the hands of the actual producers; it does away with social classes and exploitation. It is therefore a welcome advance on a capitalist economy. For some Marxists, however, it retains too many features of that economy to be palatable. Under market socialism there would still be commodity production, inequality, unemployment, and the sway of market forces beyond human control. How would workers not simply be transformed into collective capitalists, maximizing their profits, cutting quality, ignoring social needs, and pandering to consumerism in the drive for constant accumulation? How would one avoid the chronic short-termism of markets, their habit of ignoring the overall social picture and the long-term antisocial effects of their own fragmented decisions? Education and state monitoring might diminish these dangers, but some Marxists look instead to an economy that would be neither centrally planned nor market-governed. On this model, resources would be allocated by negotiations between producers, consumers, environmentalists, and other relevant parties, in networks of workplace, neighborhood, and consumer councils. The broad parameters of the economy, including decisions on the overall allocation of resources, rates of growth and investment, energy, transport, and ecological policies would be set by representative assemblies at local, regional, and national levels. These general decisions about, say, allocation would then devolve downward to regional and local levels, where more detailed planning would be progressively worked out. At every stage, public debate over alternative economic plans and policies would be essential. In this way, what and how we produce could be determined by social need rather than private profit. Under capitalism, we are deprived of the power to decide whether we want to produce more hospitals or more breakfast cereals. Under socialism, this freedom would be regularly exercised.

Some champions of such so-called participatory economics accept a kind of mixed socialist economy: goods that are of vital concern to the community (food, health, pharmaceuticals, education, transport, energy, subsistence products, financial institutions, the media, and the like) need to be brought under democratic public control, since those who run them tend to behave antisocially if they sniff the chance of enlarged profits in doing so. Less socially indispensable goods, however (consumer items, luxury products), could be left to the operations of the market. Some market socialists find this whole scheme too complex to be workable. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. Yet one needs at least to take account of the role of modern information technology in oiling the wheels of such a system. Even the former vice president of Procter & Gamble has acknowledged that it makes workers’ self-management a real possibility. In Democracy and Economic Planning, Pat Devine reminds us of just how much time is currently consumed by capitalist administration and organization. There is no obvious reason why the amount of time taken up by a socialist alternative should be greater.

Socialists will no doubt continue to argue about the details of a postcapitalist economy. There is no flawless model currently on offer. One can contrast this imperfection with the capitalist economy, which is in impeccable working order and which has never been responsible for the mildest touch of poverty, waste, or slump. It has admittedly been responsible for some extravagant levels of unemployment, but the world’s leading capitalist nation has hit on an ingenious solution to this defect. In the United States today, over a million more people would be seeking work if they were not in prison.

Spectacular inequalities of wealth and power, imperial warfare, intensified exploitation, an increasingly repressive state: if all these characterize today’s world, they are also the issues on which Marxism has acted and reflected for almost two centuries. One would expect, then, that it might have a few lessons to teach the present. Marx himself was particularly struck by the extraordinarily violent process by which an urban working class had been forged out of an uprooted peasantry in his own adopted country of England—a process Brazil, China, Russia, and India are living through today. Writing in the Guardian, Tristram Hunt points out that Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums, which documents the “stinking mountains of shit” known as slums to be found in the Lagos or Dhaka of today, can be seen as an updated version of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class. As China becomes the workshop of the world, Hunt comments, “the special economic zones of Guangdong and Shanghai appear eerily reminiscent of 1840s Manchester and Glasgow.”

What if it were not Marxism that is outdated but capitalism itself? Back in Victorian England, Marx saw the system as having already run out of steam. Having promoted social development in its heyday, it was now acting as a drag on it. He viewed capitalist society as awash with fantasy and fetishism, myth and idolatry, however much it prided itself on its modernity. Its very enlightenment—its smug belief in its own superior rationality—was a kind of superstition. If it was capable of some astonishing progress, there was another sense in which it had to run very hard just to stay on the spot. The final limit on capitalism, Marx once commented, is capital itself, the constant reproduction of which is a frontier beyond which it cannot stray. There is thus something curiously static and repetitive about this most dynamic of all historical regimes.

Capitalism has brought about great material advances. But though this way of organizing our affairs has had a long time to demonstrate that it is capable of satisfying human demands all round, it seems no closer to doing so than ever. How long are we prepared to wait for it to come up with the goods? Why do we continue to indulge the myth that the fabulous wealth generated by this mode of production will in the fullness of time become available to all? Would the world treat similar claims by the far Left with such genial, let’s-wait-and-see forbearance? Right-wingers who concede that there will always be colossal injustices in the system, but that that’s just tough and the alternatives are even worse, are at least more honest in their hard-faced way than those who preach that it will all finally come right.

Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists. In this respect, being a Marxist is nothing like being a Buddhist or a billionaire. It is more like being a medic. Medics are perverse, self-thwarting creatures who do themselves out of a job by curing patients who then no longer need them. The task of political radicals, similarly, is to get to the point where they would no longer be necessary because their goals would have been accomplished. They would then be free to bow out, burn their Guevara posters, take up that long-neglected cello again, and talk about something more intriguing than the Asiatic mode of production. Marxism is meant to be a strictly provisional affair, which is why anyone who invests his whole identity in it has missed the point. That there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism.

There is only one problem with this otherwise alluring vision. Marxism is a critique of capitalism—the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive critique of its kind ever to be launched. It follows, then, that as long as capitalism is still in business, Marxism must be as well. Only by superannuating its opponent can it superannuate itself. And on the last sighting, capitalism appeared as feisty as ever.

Most critics of Marxism today do not dispute the point. Their claim, rather, is that the system has altered almost unrecognizably since the days of Marx, and that this is why his ideas are no longer relevant. It is worth noting that Marx himself was perfectly aware of the ever-changing nature of the system he challenged. It is to Marxism itself that we owe the concept of different historical forms of capital: mercantile, agrarian, industrial, monopoly, financial, imperial, and so on. So why should the fact that capitalism has changed its shape in recent decades discredit a theory that sees change as being of its very essence? Besides, Marx himself predicted a decline of the working class and a steep increase in white-collar work. He also foresaw so-called globalization—odd for a man whose thought is supposed to be archaic. Though perhaps Marx’s “archaic” quality is what makes him still relevant today. He is accused of being outdated by the champions of a capitalism rapidly reverting to Victorian levels of inequality.


This essay is adapted from Why Marx Was Right, published this month by Yale University Press. Copyright © by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission.

Related: Radical, OP: Herbert McCabe's Revolutionary Faith, by Eugene McCarraher

Terry Eagleton is distinguished visiting professor of English literature, University of Lancaster, and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.