Sunday, July 31, 2011

Answering the objections

Why Eagleton Is Right: reviewing reviewers

Written by Dominic Alexander

Eagleton's book is no mere introduction to Marx’s thought, but is ideal for the reader new to the discussion, or wishing to revisit and rethink matters, dealing with a whole range of objections with lucidity and skill.

Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (Yale University Press), xii, 258pp.

There are many reasons for Marx and Marxism to be misrepresented, misquoted and otherwise misunderstood, and most of them come straight from the threat that Marx’s great system of thought poses to the existing powers in our society. For all of those who are not actively trying to discredit a dangerous thinker, there are many who misunderstand for reasons bound up with Marx’s own observation; the thoughts of the ruling class are ruling thoughts.

Again and again, it is easier to slip back into the commonplaces of standard bourgeois thinking than to grasp the much richer texture of Marx’s analysis of society and nature. As a preface to every chapter, Eagleton has composed ten short paragraphs each neatly, and fairly, encapsulating a typical objection to Marx. Dispatching each objection with verve, in so doing Eagleton reveals, with a lightness of touch, the depth of Marx’s arguments. Nonetheless, as reactions to Eagleton’s book demonstrate, it can be difficult to shake someone out of a premise to which they are habituated. We are all accustomed to certain starting points (like the philosophical ‘man on a desert island’), which presuppose notions supportive of the capitalist order of things. Understanding Marx properly involves recognising his very different premises (‘Robinson Crusoe man’ is an illusion; analysis begins from the vantage point of society, not the individual). All of this Eagleton does very well, without really belabouring the reader with painstaking explanations of what he is doing, as if it is all a matter of the plainest common sense. Depending on a given definition of common sense, this is exactly what it is.

If Marx is supremely liable to be misunderstood, then for the very same reasons Eagleton was never likely to receive a fair ride from the most part of reviewers. We may automatically discount all those who cannot read the book for the beams stuck in their own eyes. The worst of such prior agendas are painfully obvious. When the spittle-flecked term ‘fiat currency’ appears in the first few lines of a piece, the reader will know that an open-minded evaluation of the book in question has been ruled out of court from the start. Yet it is not only those from the margins who review their own preconceived ideological ruminations rather than Eagleton’s arguments. The views of those writing within the mainstream are more insidious, as they come with the imprimatur of the always fair-minded liberal press. The misrepresentations and misunderstandings of such writers appear as the sober judgements of common sense, if only because they are so commonplace.

This is not to say that things cannot get nasty also. Francis Wheen has a fine line in possibly unconscious but nevertheless unpleasant put downs. He ascribes to Eagleton a ‘frisky intellect’ and calls him an ‘intellectual gadfly’. These phrases are apparently offered as if complimentary, but are really ways of attempting to belittle the author, and perhaps therefore to trivialise the threat such a book poses to a complacent world view. This is important because Wheen’s is one of only a few reviews in the mainstream press, the other that is to be considered here being Tristram Hunt in the Observer.

Tristram Hunt takes a stylistically more formal approach than Wheen, but the cheap shot is therefore all the more obvious. Hunt takes a brief and unremarkable comment on East German childcare out of context to imply that it constitutes a significant part of the argument in one chapter. Hunt then loses all credibility when he claims that ‘this book reads like a rapidly crammed set of notes for an American Midwest college course’. If Hunt can say this about Why Marx Was Right, then he could claim with equal plausibility that the Harry Potter books represent the same level of modernist sophistication as Ulysses.

Wheen might claim that he sees space for a ‘Marx for our times’, but the overwhelming impression is that he is very glad to be able to conclude that Eagleton’s book ‘is not it’. This is evident in a review full of snide put-downs and strange ex cathedra rulings. He begins by stating his enthusiasm for Eagleton on the grounds that his previous work had upset ‘his comrades’. So Wheen was hoping for some more intra-lefty bashing? Not the most honest way to approach a book which rather clearly advertises itself as a defence of the key well-spring of leftist thought. He follows this by opining absurdly that the standard criticisms Eagleton attacks are not really all that standard, but are just ‘dead ducks’. This is the jealous denial gambit: even if this book might be right, I knew it all already, and it isn’t important in any case, so there.

Hunt is equally dismissive of the ten criticisms that Eagleton is addressing, calling them ‘dreary objections’. Dreary they might well be, but the point is that they are widespread and accepted as routine wisdom, and therefore need to be shown to be as wrongheaded as they are. Hunt has tied himself in knots here, because he starts with observing that the book is a disappointment in comparison to the ‘winning prose or intellectual ambition’ of previous books. The reason for this, our reviewer sadly notes, is due to the structure, which necessarily revolves around the usual criticisms of Marx. In other words, Hunt is not actually criticising the book on writerly grounds, as he pretends, but is objecting to the purpose itself of the book.

He then goes onto opine that Marx and Engels would not themselves ‘have bothered with’ a defence of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution (are you really quite sure of this Dr Hunt?) and the ‘Leninist aftermath’. Quite what Hunt means by the later phrase is not clear, which is of course the point. The ambiguity can be filled with any imaginative bugbears that may haunt the public mind, without Eagleton’s actually existing book being allowed to get a hearing. Hunt’s bad faith is on display here; if he really thought the objections to Marxism were merely dreary and irrelevant, his politics would look rather different. The real problem is obviously that he cannot bear the thought that Marxism is a living and breathing body of thought, and that Eagleton has done such a fine job of the demonstration.

After the breathtaking put-downs in the first half of the review Hunt does allow that the book has some merit, but the bad faith is on display again in a complaint that Eagleton does not portray Marx as a utopian thinker prophesying heaven on earth. Hunt comes very close to saying that it would have been a good book if only Eagleton had called it Why Marx Was Wrong. It is a tribute to the strength of the book that the likes of Hunt and Wheen are driven to preposterous calumnies to avoid engaging with it.

Nonetheless, perhaps the vibrancy or dreariness of the book is a somewhat subjective matter. Even so, a number of reviewers demonstrate a remarkable failure to understand even the most straightforward of Eagleton’s arguments. At one stage Wheen takes him to task for failing to decide whether Marx was a determinist or not. Here Eagleton was indeed explaining the delicate theoretical balance involved in the question with no small skill and clarity, but all that our reviewer can see is a failure to answer yes or no. This is merely petulant. It is as if Wheen is asking for the teacher just to give him the right answer. Either that or he thought the objection would look good on the page. It might, unless you have read the book and made the smallest effort to understand the point.

A number of readers from different points of view (including Wheen) seem puzzled by why Eagleton does not pursue issues of strictly economic theory, and some profess themselves almost scandalised that the author should avoid the topic. However it would seem perfectly obvious why. Questions about the labour theory of value, for example, are either obvious or highly technical, and tend not to be central even to many academic discussions of the rights and wrongs of Marx. I would suspect that very few people are really put off from Marxism because they have been persuaded of the superior explanatory power of marginal utility theory.

In contrast, most have come across arguments that Marx was a dogmatic economic determinist who denied human individuality. It is precisely this sort of more general argument that Eagleton is confronting in this book. And he does so very well; the chapters relevant to this question in particular are recommended to anyone interested in the debate. If I would not necessarily agree with everything Eagleton argues, and would take some different approaches here and there, that is not really the point. One of the subtle points Eagleton seems to be making between the lines here, is to demonstrate the sheer potential inherent in Marx’s thought. A natural consequence of this is that there will be a good deal of room for heated debate between Marxists, but settling any of those debates is not the book’s purpose. Moreover, if you want to read something more in depth on the harder issues of economic theory, David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso 2010) is a recent and outstanding example. Otherwise, when reviewers bewail the lack of attention to economic theory, they are bringing in a straw man to knock down, not engaging with the real purpose and contents of Eagleton’s book.

I am genuinely baffled by reviewers’ failure to find any ‘logical precision, winning prose or intellectual ambition’ (Hunt, for example) in Why Marx Was Right. As far as I can tell Hunt could only hope to get away with that phrase by assuming his review would stop anyone from reading the book. It would be fruitless to defend Eagleton by running through some of the real content of the book, but let me quote one observation just to allow the unprejudiced reader some flavour of the winning intellect actually on display. Where he discusses capitalism’s ‘Faustian dream of progress without limits’ and Marx’s own observation that this fails to recognise ‘the priority of external nature’, Eagleton is sharp indeed:

‘Today, this is known not as the Faustian dream but the American one. It is a vision which secretly detests the material because it blocks our path to the infinite. This is why the material world has either to be vanquished by force or dissolved into culture. Postmodernism and the pioneer spirit are sides of the same coin. Neither can accept that it is our limits that make us what we are, quite as much as that perpetual transgression of them we know as human history’ (p.233).

Eagleton makes a brilliant move here from the particular issue of Marx and ecology, to reconnect with the general issues of Marx’s materialist dialectic, illustrating that it never is just a ‘yes or no’ with Marx. This is one reason why his thinking is so superior to the liberal standard issue: reality is contradictory, and only a system built around that perception is going to be really useful in changing the world. Other ideological traditions typically fail to grasp the importance of contradiction, and seek black and white, absolutist dogmas for answers. It is Marx’s opponents who throw their own one-sided failings back onto Marx himself. It was not he who was the determinist, but his critics, as indeed Eagleton explains.

Good books have, amongst other things, a very clear focus on what their purpose is, and how they are to achieve it and communicate it. Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right does this superlatively well. It is no mere introduction to Marx’s thought, but is ideal for the reader new to the discussion, or wishing to revisit and rethink matters. No doubt on some issues here and there, other writers and points of view could be recommended, but the value of this book is its compact and lucid treatment of the whole range. Even those convinced and secure in their positions on Marxist theory should surely find some gems of insight to please them. Tendentious reviews have, amongst other things, a lack of focus on the real purpose of a book and a desire to review irrelevant preconceptions instead. To these, in the end the only suitable response would appear to be to quote Gore Vidal[1], exasperated once upon a time by perverse misreading: Read it again.


[1] Gore Vidal, Armageddon? Essays 1983-1987 (Grafton Books 1989), p.189.

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