I just read Terry Eagleton’s newest book, Why Marx Was Right. It’s a fascinating book and the best one that Eagleton has written in a while. It is organized in ten chapters that start with a common argument against Marx. Then he goes on to show that pretty much everything everyone thinks they know about Marx is wrong. The last line of the book is, “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” And after reading the book, it is hard not to answer in the negative, although I can think of a few thinkers who are certainly in contention—most notably Thomas Paine, although in his case the misrepresentation has been done by carefully ignoring almost everything he ever wrote.
Fundamentally, Eagleton argues that Marxism isn’t a thing as in an economic system. It is not communism or socialism. It is quite simply a critique of capitalism—a system that Eagleton rightly notes Marx had glowing things to say about. But the fundamental question is, “Since feudalism gave rise to capitalism, where is capitalism going?” This does not mean that Marx thought that history had a great pathway that it was following. Marx was a very learned man and knew that history goes in all kinds of different and unpredictable directions. But there are natural tendencies that different social systems have.
For much of the 20th century, it was easy enough to dismiss Marx’s contention that capitalism led to more and more inequality. Keynesian economics, the rise of labor unions, and social changes brought on by the sacrifices of World War II all worked to turn the direction of capitalism back. Of course, it wasn’t capitalism itself. The high levels of income inequality of the Gilded Age caused revolution in various places. It was high unemployment and not high inflation that brought the Nazis to power. But the countries that managed to avoid revolution, did it largely by liberalizing their societies—injecting socialist reforms without destroying the capitalist base.
This is an argument I often find myself in with conservatives—libertarians most especially. All modern societies are some mixture of capitalism and socialism. Even libertarians agree that there are certain shared needs like a police force and a legal system to protect people from various forms of harm. So while such people may think they are promoting a kind of pure system, it is anything but. Most conservatives, for example, believe in corporations—the most artificial construct of human partnership ever devised. Thus we are left in liberal democracies to decide what the proper role of the government is.
The libertarian idea is that it is wrong to take money from one group and give it to another. Let’s assume that’s true. Let’s assume that it is wrong to take one penny of the Koch brothers’ inherited wealth to feed a hungry child. In such a libertarian utopia, the poor would rise up. They would not only take the wealth of the Koch brothers; if history is any judge, they would also kill them. So in my mind, libertarians are just people who don’t believe in insurance and that is why it will always be a marginal belief system.
But it is wrong to claim that Marx was in favor of violent revolution. And in fact, although he actually had nothing directly to do with the Bolshevik revolution, it was a fairly peaceful revolution because the vast majority of the people were behind it. As Eagleton notes, Marx also had no problem with marginal improvements. He was a practical man. If he were alive today, he would be like me in supporting Obamacare even though it is suboptimal.
The biggest surprise in the book is that it shows how Marx’s interests have been turned upside down. He wasn’t in favor of uniformity and increased production and everything we associate with Stalin and 1984. What he wanted was a more equitable distribution of resources so that people could do less of the unpleasant work and spend more time doing what they wanted to do. I discussed this to some extent a couple of days ago, Why Americans Don’t Work Less. The truth is that most people hate their jobs. As productivity has gone up, we could use that benefit to work less. Indeed, in countries like Germany and France, this is exactly what people have done. Of course, in the United States, our productivity gains have not been used to allow America workers more leisure. In fact, the gains haven’t even been used to make workers richer. Almost all of it has simply gone to make the already rich even richer. There is nothing natural about this. It is just a matter of public policy.
I didn’t consider myself a Marxist before reading Eagleton’s fascinating book and I don’t consider myself one now. What I now think is that there is no such thing as Marxism. But Karl Marx had a lot of really interesting insights about the failures of the capitalist system. And they are more relevant to modern America than they they were to 19th century England. It’s funny though. Marx was not a utopian. But the one most utopian philosophical movement in the world is libertarianism. Followers think they are the opposite of Marx, and they’re right—just not in the way that they think.
Above all, I think conservatives should read Why Marx Was Right. I don’t say that because they will agree with him about everything. In a fundamental sense, Marx was really just a modern liberal who read a lot more book than any sane man would. But for conservatives, Marx isn’t a man. He is just a symbol of the failure of Stalinism, which really had nothing to do with Marx. (Marx died 34 years before the Russian Revolution; 41 years before Stalinism.) Marx’s name has become a dirty word and nothing more. If you want to understand politics—especially libertarianism—you need to understand what Marx actually said.
“Was ever a thinker so travestied?”