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Marx in the American Academy: When Will its High Priests Ever Learn?

For some reason, every time a modern capitalist economy faces a problem such as our current fiscal crisis here in the United States, members of the academy trout out Karl Marx as the solution. The latest example comes from The Chronicle Review, the literary supplement of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is written by the British activist and writer Terry Eagleton, and is based on his new book, Why Marx was Right.

We all are all too familiar with the fact that while the world is moving away from social democracy, not to speak of Marxism as a philosophy, it always remains alive and well in our institutions of higher learning. Eagleton is too smart to not be unaware of the serious challenges to Marxism, especially the major defeat it suffered after the fall of the Soviet Union. So he acknowledges this at the start. He writes:

"Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?"

You know what is coming next, if you are even slightly bit familiar with the Left’s fallback position: Marx was not responsible for the wrong interpretations made of his work by the totalitarians of the last century.  Sure enough, Eagleton argues that “Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.”

Eagleton asserts that Marx would have scorned the idea that anyone could ever believe that the socialist system he desired could be built in a backwards society like Russia or China that had not yet been modernized by the forces of capitalism. So why, then, did all of Eagleton’s comrades like the British historian Eric Hobsbawm support the Soviet Union through thick and thin, and bemoan its passing after it came to a crushing end?

Bypassing an answer to that query, Eagleton argues instead that Marx was right about what counted: the failure of capitalism to attain justice and prosperity for all; the failure to end colonialism and imperialism; etc. As he puts it, “Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? …is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality…?"

Capitalism, Eagleton continues, was great at ending feudalism and modernizing the economies in the age of industrialism, and that is why Marx was “extravagant in his praise for the class that created it, a fact that both his critics and his disciples have conveniently suppressed.” That class, he writes, did a lot of good things: emancipated slaves, fought for human freedom, and created a global civilization. Max appreciated and understood this, considering it a major “historical achievement.”

But to Eagleton, once having developed society, the new developments brought forth new “possibilities of barbarism.” Hence, Eagleton -- along with Marx -- sees the solution in the social revolution Marx hoped would be carried out by the oppressed proletarians or working classes of the capitalist social order.

As one reads Eagleton, it is fairly clear that all he is offering is a re-written Marx for beginners. There is virtually nothing in his Chronicle Review article that presents anything a first year student of Marx would  not have learned for himself upon a cursory reading of the Marxian classics. One thinks, therefore, that the editors of the learned weekly hoped that offering up this essay would again inspire more followers for Marx on the campus, as if there were not enough already.

The rest of Eagleton is apologia for Marx and rather unconvincing answers to the Left’s critics. If you point to “the proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China,” Eagleton has the easy answer: what about the “genocidal crimes of capitalism”?  Fascism, resulting from capitalism, he reminds readers, was fought and defeated by “the self-sacrifice of the Soviet Union.” Does he actually believe that the Nazis lost because the Russian people believed in Communism? Does he not know that Stalin assumed the mantle of Russian nationalism, and that people fought to preserve Russia from submission to Nazi slavery, and not to create the Communist world believed in by Stalin?

As for his answer to Communist mass murders, he neglects the obvious fact that its supporters argued they were going to create a humane alternative to the horrors of capitalism, not a society that slaughtered millions in the name of their theory, and perpetrated deliberate horrors that were the byproduct of the system they created.

He also brags that Marxists warned “of the perils of fascism” while the leaders of the “so-called free world” where whitewashing Hitler. Again, he conveniently forgets the phony anti-fascism of Stalin, which masked his own preparations for mass purges, as well as his years of cooperation with Hitler that allowed fascism to triumph in Germany. And he has the nerve to argue that while today’s Marxists have no love for Stalin and Mao (he ignores those who still do, of course) non-Marxists defend Hiroshima. The latter is of course a historical question as to why the a-bomb was dropped, and has nothing to do with an economic and social system’s dependence on mass murder.

Next he compares our 9/11 to the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on 9/11 thirty years earlier than 2001. Despite the similarity of the date on which both events took place, again there is no valid comparison.