Terry Eagleton on Marx

I recently posted a public debate between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton at the Royal Institution in London last year. It seemed to me Eagleton had changed. Scruton himself hinted at this in the debate. He appeared to be much less of an Althusserian than I remembered him, and much more of a humanist, as it were.

This was also confirmed when I read his recent, short book Why Marx Was Right (2011). It is the first book I have read about Marxism – including Marx’s own – which did not immediately strike me as presenting a system of thought and historical analysis that, while containing important partial truths, is almost absurd in its onesidedness and reductionism. It seems to me this is not Eagleton’s own Marxism as I first encountered it long ago.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Eagleton sets out to refute what he claims are the misunderstandings of the critics of Marxism. What he overlooks is that these misunderstandings are quite as much those of the Marxists themselves, of Marx’s own followers. But it is clear that what we have to do with here is a Marxist who has actually understood and absorbed criticism of Marxism from positions that used to be ignored and dismissed a priori. And this seems to be the result of a process of development of personal maturity, including deepened historical reflection. The nature of Eagleton’s defence of Marx strongly suggests that this could not have been achieved without his primary scholarly orientation, namely literature and the history of literature. As he says in the debate with Scruton, he has taught Shakespeare all of his life – and he has also of course written about him. Living with the classics during a long career does have its effects, even, in many cases, when that career is devoted to ideological reinterpretation.

It is highly significant that, in the book, Eagleton uses Scruton’s own formulation – several times repeated in his works – about the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s philosophy of history as there expressed. Eagleton does in fact also criticize Marx on a few points.

But it could, it seems to me, be argued that although he often does succeed in defending Marx against both critics and Marxists, what he primarily does is to present his own, more tenable version of Marxism, rather than defend Marx as he is. And he does it at least partly because he has finally realized the weight of and the need to assimilate kinds of criticism which were previously for the most part simply not understood at all among Marxists. One after another, most of the main points are taken up, in the way one always thought Marxists ought to have had the intelligence to do it long ago.

All of them are not taken up, and the defence is in many cases far from sufficient with regard to the ones that are. And quite apart from philosophical considerations, it seems far too late to save Marxism in a new and more reasonable form. Moreover, although he has clearly moved away from Althusser, he still does not seem to have fully absorbed the Hegelian and phenomenological versions of Marxism, culminating perhaps in the work of Karel Kosík, which I always found to be philosophically the most important and tenable, although it was important and tenable not because of its specifically Marxist content but because of its retention, partly inspired by the early, “pre-Marxist” Marx (Kosík emphatically denied that this Marx was pre-Marxist), of central elements of idealism. As I said, all presentations of Marxism struck me as absurd, and although post-Marxism and postmodernism had already for a long time been overshadowing and even replacing it, at the time I started my academic studies one still, at least in the historically oriented humanities, had to go through and thorougly familiarize oneself with most of its main currents.

Eagleton’s book is not a good introduction to Marx. He is still far too deeply absorbed in the erroneous positions of Marx and the general radical main current of modernity to be able to see clearly the nature of Marx’s thought and the currents in which he too was caught up. Most of the vast and fundamental issues here involved are still simply ignored, or, more precisely, simply not perceived by Eagleton.

But in some respects it is a better introduction to Marx than any other I have read (I should emphasize that it is not an extensive, scholarly work but only a brief essay presenting the outline of a defence). I remember how, when I was a young student, Marxists used to praise certain introductions to Marxism as brilliant, and how they seemed to think they must almost of necessity convince the reader. I found this totally incomprehensible. The effect they had on me was the opposite: they immediately made me see the monumental untruth of Marxism, and this impression was not changed by deeper familiarity with Marxism. They said all the things Eagleton now says Marx does not say, and often in a studiedly provocative manner which revealed everything about the true nature and motivation of their authors.

Many decades after the heyday of Marxism, Eagleton seems in these respects different indeed. With him, it is clearly possible to have an intelligent and meaningful discussion – which is what Scruton does, albeit somewhat awkwardly, having in the past had reason to sharply criticize his interlocutor.

If time allows, I will develop my argument here into a series of posts, in which I go through Eagleton’s main arguments in defence of Marx and emphasize what is new and important in them. Defending Marx or almost the entirety of his work or his positions is an impossible task, and Eagleton of course does not succeed in this. But what could be regarded as the in reality most important contribution Eagleton makes in Why Marx Was Right is that he facilitates the rescue, as it were, of Marx’s important partial truths. These are, it seems to me, far more easily assimilable by non-Marxists in the form in which they are here presented than in most other Marxists, and indeed Marx himself.

This rescue is not least important in the face of post-Marxism. For the partial truths of Marx, truths to some extent dissociable from his system as a whole, are the ones often found in his many-layered criticism of capitalism, and what characterizes post-Marxism is not least their loss. Even a (paleo)conservative critic of post-Marxism like Paul Gottfried, who does not focus on Marx’s criticism of capitalism, clearly perceives that post-Marxism is in important respects more problematic than Marxism and far less intellectually rigorous.

We find here a general tendency of convergence between paleoconservative and more or less paleomarxist analyses of post-Marxism. Like Fredric Jameson, Eagleton has, it seems, long criticized the development of post-Marxism (Why Marx Was Right prompted me to read also The Illusions of Postmodernism from 1996), whereby the relative theoretical strength of Marxism is clearly demonstrated and several overlappings with certain kinds of conservative analyses become visible, although at the same time the weaknesses in comparison with such analyses become obvious. Eagleton is always, like Jameson, for many reasons compelled to accept much in post-Marxism in a way a Gottfried is not. Eagleton and Jameson are simply part of the general, broader and deeper dynamic of modernity, the nature of which cannot be properly grasped from inside of it.

Of course, some branches of Marxism were always supported by capitalists, since the effects of the general cultural radicalism promoted by such branches and indeed in many cases socialism itself are in the interests of capitalists. But in post-Marxism, we tend to see a wholesale adoption on the part of the left of the long-standing schemes of global capitalism. With only few remaining exceptions, the left has become its faithful supporters and promoters, and not least much more openly funded by it. With Obama, the transformation described by Gottfried of the the anti-Americanism of the European Left into “extreme affection” during the Clinton years has only been intensified.

Unfortunately, Eagleton does not sufficiently distance himself from the current post-Marxist left, the global capitalist left, the American imperialist left, the war left. It remains unclear to me where exactly he stands with regard to the issues I have here briefly indicated. He cannot see things as clearly as Gottfried, a representative of the only real alternative America. But he also cannot see them as clearly as his fellow leftist Jean Bricmont – who wrote Impostures intellectuelles with Alan Sokal and who collaborates with the Chomsky who is now of course increasingly rejected by the left – in this recent mise au point.

Scruton too, being more attached to the old cold-war controversies between left and right (as he understood them) than Gottfried, unfortunately fails to perceive these things. He is, as it were, right in the Royal Institution debate that the left still dominates the universities, while at the same time Eagleton is right that they have been taken over by capitalism. None of them sees, or wants to see, the whole picture.

2 Responses to “Terry Eagleton on Marx”

  1. 1 Staffan A. January 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Intressant. Ola Sigurdson har f.ö. kommit ut med en bok om bl.a. Eagleton. “Theology and Marxism in Eagleton and Zizek”.

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson March 14, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Tack. Jag bör kanske titta på den när jag får tid att skriva mer om Eagleton.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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