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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 34, August 13, 2011 - INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL

Correcting Popular Misconceptions of Marx

Saturday 20 August 2011, by Devdatt P. Dubhashi


Why Marx was Right by Terry Eagleton; Yale University Press; 2011.

The financial crisis and the Great Recession seemed to present, for many of us, a good opportunity to reconsider the current economic, political and social system and alternatives to it. However, mention the “M” word, and it’s a non-starter. No matter how apolitical a person otherwise is, they seem to have a firm opinion on Marx—he’s authoritarian, he advocates violence.... he’s passe. Professional economists dismiss him with nothing more than “He got it all wrong”. A friend of mine said he is “poorly argued”, another that he’s as deluded as Freud. The one thing all these people have in common is that they have never actually bothered to read a word of Marx (or a secondary good account of his life and thought). It is quite a stunning achievement of propaganda that people nevertheless feel utterly confident in holding forth with these opinions. Terry Eagleton considers ten such claims from the street: each chapter begins with a short para summarising a claim and then compares it with the evidence and what Marx (and Marxists) actually said:

1. Marxism is passé. How can the rantings of a man 150 years ago be relevant to the modern world is the question. Strange that we don’t ask the same question of Darwin and why modern biologists today swear by him. Eagleton argues that while the details have changed radically, the fundamental ideas are far more relevant than ever before.

2. Marxism in practice leads to tyranny and horrors. This claim blames all the horrors of Stalin and Mao on Marx. Never mind that Marx was foremost an analyst of the capitalist system and said hardly anything about the post-capitalist future, let alone how it should be implemented. A bit like placing the blame for the horrors of the atom bomb on Einstein for his analysis of mass-energy equivalence.

3. Marxism is pure determinism and strips people of their freedom and individuality. Of all the invectives hurled at him, this should be one of the most perverse and unfair ones. After all, Marx’s whole project was the liberation of the individual from the prison of wage slavery so they would be able to realise their full creative potential. The cause was dearer to Marx than the liberty of the individual. Equality for Marx was more about opportunity than absolutely not about creating nameless clones.

4. Marxism is a Utopian dream that ignores human nature. Marx hated abstract utopian thinking and certainly had no illusions about a conflict-free harmonious communist future. Strange that he’s accused of both believing in peaceful humans and class conflicts (see below) at the same time.

5. Marxism reduces everything to economics. In fact Marx was a multi-faceted thinker and not primarily an economist, as Eagleton observes. But it is true he believed economic relations were nonetheless very fundamental and Eagleton explains why.

6. Marxism is purely materialist and dismisses morality, religion and spirituality. Marx was a very modern thinker and his attitude to these issues was exactly that of a rational enlighten-ment thinker, then or today.

7. Marxism is obsessed with outdated notions of class. We are all middle class, and so the Marxist obsession with class and conflict is outdated, says this claim. Some statistics on this in today’s financialised world are revealing. Americans now deriving their wealth principally from finance and real estate (FIRE). In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one per cent of households have 38.3 per cent of all privately held stock, 60.6 per cent of financial securities, and 62.4 per cent of business equity. The top 10 per cent have 80 per cent to 90 per cent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75 per cent of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10 per cent of the people own the United States of America.1

8. Marxism advocates violence. Marxism is always associated with violent revolution but Eagleton argues that Marx was just being a hard-headed realist. While not opposed to reforms as such, he was skeptical about elites voluntarily and peacefully relinquishing their power. While Marxism is inseparable from violence in some people’s mind, the routine functioning of the capitalist state and society is built on daily exercise of violence, as Slavoj Zizek observes.2

9. Marxism advocates an authoritarian all-powerful state. The phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” has been hijacked to mean that Marx endorsed something like Stalin, Mao or Saddam Hussein. In fact, as Eagleton shows, there could have been no more implacable opponent of a powerful state or of such despots. The phrase itself was coined by Marx’s political sparring partner, August Blanqui, to mean rule on behalf of the common people.

10. Marxism is one of several alternate approaches today and is overridden by them. Feminism, post-modernism, post-positivism, eco-green movements, gay and ethnic politics, animal rights, anti-globalisation, peace movements … all these are said to be the new thing. In some cases (as with post-positivism) this is a bit like saying “intelligent design” is an alternative to Darwinism. With others (anti-globalisation and peace) Eagleton argues that the movements have a strong basis and inspiration in Marxism.

To these we can no doubt add other claims we’ve heard, for example,

11. Marxism failed in its predictions.

The claim is that Marx predicted the demise of capitalism and failed utterly. This is a bit thick when you consider who is complaining. In November 2008, the Queen on a visit to the Mecca of mainstream economists, the London School of Economics, asked: “How come nobody could foresee it?’” referring to the recession. In reply, she received a pathetic three-page missive, which blamed “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people”. With all their modern techniques and resources, these mainstream gurus had no clue about something happening right under their noses, yet they expect Marx to predict with pinpoint accuracy, global societal disruptions way into the future. Besides, Marx made this sort of claim in a political propa-ganda tract (the Manifesto) not in his deeper analysis (Capital) and at various places he clearly indicates that the system will not change by itself without strong political organisation pushing it. True, he may have been guilty of wishful thinking: “Workers of the world unite!” is easier said than done. True, he may have underestimated the ability of capitalism to wriggle out by pushing the can down the road and devise ever more ingenious ways to get the populace to bail it out as it lurches from one crisis to another as we’re seeing again today.

As Eagleton says in conclusion:

Marx had a passionate faith in the individual and deep suspicion of abstract dogma... he was wary of the notion of equality... [he] was even more hostile to the state than Right-wing conservatives are and saw socialism as the deepening of democracy... [he was] a staunch champion of women’s emancipation, world peace, the fight against fascism or the struggle for colonial freedom... Was ever a thinker so travestied?

Indeed, reading a good biography of Marx3 is revealing. Was ever a journalist as much a champion of liberty and freedom for the individual as the young Marx editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung? Was there ever a greater lifelong fighter against authority and for the downtrodden? In his long exile in London, he was a dedicated scholar who spent all his time engrossed in a mountain of books at the Reading Room of the British Museum, digesting the work of the leading economists of his day and locking horns with them despite no formal training in the subject, and at great personal cost and suffering to himself and his family. Could any contemporary academic even contemplate such audacious ambition or show greater personal and intellectual courage and be so vilified for it?

Talking of economics, how could one leave that out of a discussion of whether Marx was right, especially in the wake of the Great Recession? The smug world of “perfect, self-regulating free market” economics was torn to shreds. Mainstream economists like Paul Krugman wrote detailed mea culpas4 while Wilhem Buiter complained about “the unfortunate uselessness of most ’state of the art’ academic monetary economics”. Contrast a Marxist analysis such as that of the Monthly Review5 with the utter bewilderment and incoherence of mainstream economists even today. Eagleton is a literary critic, not an economist, and perhaps this is why he doesn’t get into the details of the economics. Today we need not argue abstractly about “surplus value”—the banksters have made it all too vivid, and “exploitation” is as alive and well in the manufacture of shiny Apple iPads in Foxconn’s hellholes in China6 today as in the cotton mills in Manchester in Marx’s time. Kieran Allen has tried to give a simple Marx 101 exposition relating it to contemporary events in his new book.7

Whether Marx was right or wrong, at least we should start the discussion by getting him right first. Eagleton has done yeoman service to correct a number of vulgar misconceptions about Marx. He has done it in his inimitable style with ironies, jokes and provocative similes. While great fun, they may be confusing to people unfamiliar with his style. Perhaps we also need a distilled version of the book shorn of its clever ironies and jokes and presented in a more direct (if less entertaining) fashion.


1. G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income and Power”, http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

2. S. Zizek, Violence, Profile Books (2008).

3. Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, W.W. Norton, London (1999) is eminently readable.

4. Paul Krugman, “How did Economists Get it So Wrong?” New York Times, September 2, (2009).

5. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis, Monthly Review Press (2009).

6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3YFGixp9Jw

7. K. Allen, Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism, Pluto Press (2011).

The reviewer is a Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Chalmers University, Sweden.

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