Was Marx Right?

Terry Eagleton thinks so. Inhis article in the current issue of Commonweal, he makes the case for a reconsideration of Marxist theory in the aftermath of the economic crisis that began three years ago.

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 costnot least in the near destitution of billionshas 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.

Eagleton considers the argument that Marxism has been forever discredited by Stalin, Mao, et al. -- the argument that, in practice, socialism will always mean totalitarianism. Heinsists there were always good Marxist reasons to doubt that socialism could succeed in early-twentieth-century Russia and mid-century China:

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 tsars, 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.

And since Marx thought he was offering a theory of history, rather than an ahistorical prescription, it would not have embarrassed him-- it didn't embarrass him -- that socialism may require capitalism to establish the material conditions that make socialism possible.As for the record of horrible crimes committed in the name of socialism,Eagleton asks why we don't apply the same kind of historical accounting to other political traditions:

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 todays liberal societies. Yet the critics of Marxism are rarely willing to concede that show trials and mass terror are no refutation of it.

In the new book from which his essay is adapted, Eagleton considers several other common objections to Marxism -- as that it strips people of their freedom and individuality, or springs from a naive understanding of human nature, or reduces everything to economics. (As a good student of Aquinas, Eagleton has organized the book as a series of shortvideturs followed by chapter-length sed contras.) The Commonweal essay alone won't convince the unconvinced, but it might get you to read the whole book, and that might get you to read, or reread, some Marx.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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