Why Marx Is Still (Mostly) Wrong

By Paul Hollander

A Review of Why Marx Was Right. Terry Eagleton. Yale, 2011.

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THIS IS ONE OF THOSE deeply flawed books which are nonetheless worth reading. Such books deserve to be read for a variety of reasons. Alongside their flaws they may contain informative or interesting details incidental to the main theme; they may be well written, readable, even entertaining; they may shed new light on specific mindsets, as well as on widespread and influential dispositions, however wrongheaded they may be. Last but not least, flawed books deserve be read when they address important and controversial subjects. On all these grounds Eagleton’s spirited defense of Marxism is not a waste of time though occasionally it may try the patience of the reader due to its repetitiousness, unsupported assertions, and surprising number of platitudes. Nor are the arguments put forward particularly original, although they are presented in a lively manner largely free of jargon, and they constitute a fairly comprehensive defense of Marxism. The book gives the impression that it was written in a hurry — tossed off, as it were — and the writer felt little obligation to provide rigorous support for his strongly felt beliefs and arguments.

Broadly speaking there are two major reasons for being critical of Marxism. The first is that it entails numerous questionable, implausible or erroneous propositions concerning the social-political world and the nature of human beings. For example, the idea that abolishing the private ownership of the means of production will have immensely beneficial consequences — economic, political, social and cultural. Or the belief that the proletariat has a privileged insight into the workings of society (due to its victimized status) and is more capable than any other group or stratum of remaking society by eradicating its injustices and contradictions.1

Secondly Marxism may be criticized because of the consequences, intended or unintended, of its attempted application by various political systems or movements which led to a great deal of suffering, repression and slaughter; for lending itself to misuse, misapplication or perversion.

The criticisms Eagleton addresses and seeks to rebut are different — sometimes more specific, sometimes rather general and not quite accurate. He carefully avoids raising the fundamental question why — if indeed that was the case — did Marxism lend itself to distortion, misuse and perversion, or why numerous authoritarian (or totalitarian) movements and systems were attracted to it and made use of it to legitimate themselves? Or it may be asked, giving these movements retrospectively the benefit of the doubt, why did they shed their Marxist idealism (if indeed they possessed such in the first place) and become authoritarian and intolerant following the seizure of power?

Eagleton’s defense of Marxism rests on several grounds. The major theme is that generally speaking critics and enemies of Marxism seek to discredit it willfully by misinterpreting these ideas, blinded as they are by their interests. Secondly he vigorously argues that the “actually existing” Communist systems2 which used Marxism to legitimate themselves and claimed to be guided by its propositions had perverted it; if so, the theory cannot be blamed for their misdeeds. Eagleton believes that Marx would have been horrified by the policies and historical record of existing Communist states. Nevertheless he defends these systems (and by implication their Marxist inspiration) as being no more repressive and unjust (and in some ways better) than capitalist systems. Repeatedly he proffers such moral equivalence (further discussed below) as the major defence of Communist systems — the book is sprinkled throughout with purported examples. He further defends Marx by modifying and reinterpreting his more problematic propositions to make them more gentle, and less radical. He often tells the reader what he thinks “Marx really meant ...” He is particularly anxious to make Marx palatable for contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations, as for example when he claims that “few Victorian thinkers so strikingly prefigured modern environmentalism” as did Marx (227-8). At last he believes that the recent economic crises of Western societies fully vindicate Marx’s views and critiques of capitalism, making Marxism more relevant and truthful than ever.

Underlying this defense of Marxism is an unquenchable thirst for a vastly improved world and human beings that, in his view, may be attained by relying on the ideas of Marx. As will be shown below, there is a distinct and unmistakable utopian streak in Eagleton’s thinking, likely to be nurtured by the residues of his Catholic religious upbringing and beliefs.

The book is organized in ten chapters each ostensibly devoted to addressing and rebutting a particular critique of Marx or Marxism. But the chapters often stray from their ostensible topic and their thrusts become indistinct and overlapping. Thus the topic of chapter three is the proposition (to be demolished) that “Marxism is a form of determinism,” while chapter five takes up the “economic determinism” of Marxism. It’s not easy to see the difference either in the summaries of the chapter topics or in the actual discussions which follow. Neither is the topic of chapter six (Marx’s materialism) far removed from economic determinism. Chapters two and four also overlap: the former is devoted to rebutting the allegation that Marxism is an impressive theory but lamentable in practice while chapter four seeks to fend off the attribution of utopianism to Marxism. As will be seen below, chapters one and ten. also cover similar ground both criticizing the position that Marxism has become dated.

Chapter one is a critique of the idea that Marxism is no longer relevant to the modern world, of the belief that “the system has altered almost unrecognizably since the days of Marx.” But the major reasons for questioning Marxism (sketched above) have less to do with the changing world and far more with the dismaying results of the attempted applications of Marxist theories and ideals to actual societies. It is of course true that all these attempts have taken place well after “the days of Marx.” We don’t know how well efforts to implement Marxism might have worked in the nineteenth-century since there were no such attempts to put it into practice, except perhaps the short-lived Paris Commune.

The more convincing critiques of Marxism focus on the inherent weaknesses of some of its key propositions or theories, rather than on the notion that the passage of time had undermined them. As already noted, central to Marxism is the belief that removing the means of production from private ownership will have wondrous results, ending exploitation and alienation, improving productivity, and creating a new sense of community. These and other flaws of Marxism have been independent of the social-historical changes (such as the shrinking, and increasingly non-revolutionary attitudes of the industrial working classes) which also diminished the relevance of Marxism to our times. 

This chapter offers other questionable propositions as for example the unqualified assertion — reminiscent of the dreams of the Sixties radicals — that “scarcity is largely the consequence of capitalism itself” and can be readily be eliminated (8). Even more puzzling is the statement that “many [unnamed — P.H.] thinkers ... would judge abolishing material scarcity to be perfectly reasonable in principle, however hard to achieve in practice. It is politics that stands in our way” (100, emphasis added). That is to say, it is the unjust or irrational political systems (which presumably have nothing to do with human nature or human impulses and attitudes) that prevent us from abolishing material scarcity. This belief is perhaps the purest expression of a deep-seated utopian disposition.

The utopian strain makes further appearance in the argument that Marx’s critiques of capitalism remain valid because the latter is unable to “break beyond its own bounds, inaugurating something unimaginably new” and is “incapable of inventing a future which does not ritually reproduce the present” (10). One wonders which social-political system has been capable of offering something “unimaginably new” and if it had, would it be wise to embrace such an “unimaginably new” social order without learning more about matters which are imaginable? On the same page Eagleton chastises capitalism for not making “available to all” its “fabulous wealth” implying perhaps that other social systems have done so, or could do so in the future. He also remarks in passing that since the 1970s, “the working—class movement [was] subjected to savage legal and political assault”(4) in the Western world, without letting the reader know when and where this “savage” assault took place.

Chapter two attacks the proposition that Marxism is appealing in theory but unworkable in practice. The rebuttal is weakened by the simultaneous insistence that Marxism had little to do with the Communist tyrannies of Stalin and Mao and therefore cannot be blamed for their outrages. If so, it is not clear why he bothers to defend these systems, arguing that “modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union” (12). 

Evidently he cannot quite make up his mind whether or not to disassociate Communist systems from the Marxist heritage or give them some credit due to making use of this heritage. He writes: “... the so-called socialist system had its achievements too. China and the Soviet Union dragged their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world at however a human cost; and the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West” (13-14). As he proceeds to praise these systems for providing “cheap housing, fuel, transport and culture, full employment and impressive social services,” it becomes clear that he knows little about them. “Cheap housing” was drab, greatly overcrowded and often unavailable, with people spending years on waiting lists; full employment meant no freedom to choose one’s place of work, low wages and poor working conditions, and the absence of trade unions, as well as forced labour for large chunks of the population; social services were far from “impressive.” An even more bizarre assertion is that the Soviet system “fostered the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing natives of other lands.” It is hard to guess what the source of this peculiar proposition might have been: Soviet socialist realist novels or movies? Pictures of the flag waving crowds in May Day parades? The reports of the Western political pilgrims based on their conducted tours?

It is not easy to imagine how solidarity could have blossomed when citizens lived in chronic suspicion and fear of being spied upon by their neighbours, when any spontaneous or non-governmental association or gathering was prohibited, censorship and self-censorship deeply entrenched and political criteria regulated much of the life of the citizens.

Contrary to the spirit of much of his discussion Eagleton admits that “the gains of Communism scarcely outweigh the losses.” But he hastens to add: “But what about capitalism?” — as he dishes out more examples of dubious moral equivalence: “It is true that capitalism works some of the time ... But it has done so, as did Stalin and Mao, at a staggering human cost” (15). Eagleton, like other authors of a similar mindset, seems incapable of condemning unconditionally and unequivocally the moral outrages of Communist systems without reminding the reader of allegedly identical (or greater) outrages perpetrated by capitalism. He also falls back on the well worn and dubious defense of Communist atrocities — and in particular those committed by the Soviet Union — that they took place “in one desperately isolated country.” He doesn’t explain how exactly this isolation led inexorably to the Great Purges, the show trials, the cult of Stalin, and other unappealing phenomena of the period.

Also to be noted here is that Eagleton is apparently unfamiliar with (and probably uninterested in) the views of such native critics of the Soviet system as Alexander Yakovlev, who spent his life in high political positions working for the system and reached the conclusion that Marxism did play an important part in the formation and degeneration of the system.3

Chapter two also has its share of utopian ideas, as the author sketches aspects of the ideal socialist society that would replace the capitalist ones: “resources would be allocated by negotiations between producers, consumers, environmentalists and other relevant parties, in networks of workplace, neighbourhood and consumer councils. ... Under capitalism we are deprived of the power to decide whether we want to produce more hospitals or breakfast cereals. Under socialism this freedom would be regularly exercised” (25). We are also assured that under socialism, “corrupting the mind of the public” will not be permitted: “We will know that socialism has established itself when we are able to look back with utter incredulity on the idea that a handful of commercial thugs were given free rein to corrupt the minds of the public with Neanderthal political views.” He does not tell us by whom, and on the basis of what criteria, such corrupting of minds will be prevented.

Chapter three is a critique of the generally uncontested assessment that Marx had a deterministic view of history. Eagleton writes: “Marx himself protested against the charge that he was seeking to bring the whole history under a single law. He was deeply averse to such abstractions. ... If there were certain tendencies at work in history, there were also countertendencies” (51). The remark is similar to Marx’s often quoted statement about man making history but only within certain limits. Here as in other instances both Marx and Eagleton wish to have things both ways (e.g., determined and undetermined). 

On second thought Eagleton concedes that Marx “may not be a determinist in general but there are a good many formulations in his work which convey a sense of historical determinism,” such as the statement in Das Kapital (he quotes) about the “‘natural laws of capitalism ... working with iron necessity toward inevitable results’” (53-4). Apparently Eagleton cannot, or does not wish to make up his mind about the determinism of Marx. To be sure, interpreting Marx (like the Bible) is not a simple matter since he wrote a great deal and quotes may be found to support different and sometimes contradictory positions and interpretations. Eagleton seems to recognize this when he writes that “Students of Marx ... are free to select whatever ideas in his work seem most plausible.” He certainly takes his own advice.

Another startling suggestion in this chapter is that “history for Marx is not moving in any particular direction” (60).

In Chapter four Eagleton questions the conclusion (not easy to avoid when reading Marx) that he harboured a utopian disposition which found expression in his musings about the nature of communist society (that would follow socialism) and represents the highest development of human societies. While it is true that Marx offered few details or specifics of communist society his writing on the subject reflected high and unrealistic expectations. They included virtually limitless abundance of both goods and free time, the “withering away of the state” (that is to say, the disappearance of its coercive functions given the prevailing social harmony) and the vanishing of the division of labour and specialization. These truly utopian expectations turned out to be the least applicable to “actually existing” Communist states (Soviet Union, China, Cuba etc) distinguished by the rapid growth of bureaucracy, huge amounts of political violence, the creation of highly specialized institutions of coercion (political police), widespread scarcities of food and consumer goods, as well as new, politically determined forms of inequality. 

In this chapter too, Marx’s ideas are presented as unlikely combinations of the best of all possible worlds: his “idea of emancipation rejects both smooth continuities and total ruptures. ... he is the rarest of creatures, a visionary who is also a sober realist” (76). Elsewhere Eagleton argues that “genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs.” He assures us that “this is the kind of society which Marx looked forward to” (104). Whether or not everyone has different needs is debatable, but if it were true it would make it exceedingly difficult to create social, economic and political institutions able to reconcile and service these unique needs.  

Chapter four also confirms Eagleton’s perception of capitalism as being responsible for every social, economic and political ill and injustice. For example he remarks that “inequality is as natural to capitalism as narcissism and megalomania to Hollywood” (78). He resists acknowledging that inequality has been omnipresent (while its magnitude and manifestations vary) in every known social system — tribal, feudal, capitalist, or state socialist.

The compatibility of all good things in a society inspired by Marxism is further illustrated by Eagleton’s belief that “Communism by contrast [to capitalism] organises social life so that individuals are able to realise themselves in and through the self realization of others” (86). He adds “my own self-realisation helps to enhance theirs because of the cooperative, profit-sharing, egalitarian, commonly governed nature of the unit.” The reader may wonder when and where have such idyllic conditions existed, or when and where they could and would? It would have also been instructive if the author had revealed something about his own conception of the anticipated “self-realization.” Unexpectedly on the next page he cautions that “there is good reason to suspect that there can never be any complete reconciliation between individual and society.” He further admits that “envy, aggression, domination, possessiveness and competition would still exist” but “could not take the forms they assume under capitalism” because “these vices” would no longer associated with “exploitation of child labor, colonial violence, grotesque social inequalities and cutthroat economic competition” (89).

Eagleton would probably not seriously dispute that the socialist societies of Marxist inspiration that have so far existed showed few if any signs of fulfilling his expectations — as every kind of human misbehavior continued to flourish, exacerbated by the enormous concentration and inequalities of political power and intimidation by the authorities. The hopeful anticipations of the author rest on the belief that if and when social structure and institutions change in a beneficial way people will behave better because they will have fewer opportunities to misbehave: 


There are villains everywhere you look but only some of these villains are so placed as to be able to steal pension funds or pump the media full of lying political propaganda. ... In a socialist society, nobody would be in a position to do so. This is not because they would be too saintly but because there would be no private pension funds or privately owned media. ... You cannot be a bullying industrial magnate if there isnt any industry around” (90).


Are we to believe that if private pension funds, or the private ownership of the mass media were to be eliminated, people would find no opportunity to cheat, embezzle, bully, or tell lies? Could Eagleton really be unaware that the state-controlled media of Communist systems disseminated incomparably larger volumes of “lying political propaganda” than their counterparts in capitalist societies? We also know that in the actually existing socialist societies people found ample opportunities to steal — if not private pension funds then whatever else they could lay their hands on. Khrushchev himself said that if only people stopped stealing public property, the communist society would be much easier to attain. Ordinary people stole on a small scale at their place of work, those highly placed helped themselves in more ambitious ways. Eagleton further elaborates: 


You do not need to make people physically incapable of violence in order to end a war. You just need negotiations, disarmament, peace treaties, monitoring the like... Marxism holds out no promise of human perfection. It does not even promise to abolish hard labor. ... The promise Marxism does hold out is to resolve the contradictions which stop history proper from happening in all its freedom and diversity (91).


This argument implausibly separates human beings and their nature from the systems, institutions and polices they create. It is after all human beings who negotiate, disarm (or fail to disarm), sign peace treaties, etc. And what are the “contradictions” the miraculous resolution of which would create “freedom and diversity”? Or for that matter, what is “history proper”? Either the structural changes Eagleton expected to limit or eliminate human misbehaviour did not take place in existing socialist societies, or if they did they failed to curb human misbehaviour and the wide variety of mistreatment human beings devise for one another.

Eagleton correctly points out that “human beings are not at their best in conditions of scarcity” and that “scarcity breeds violence, fear, greed, anxiety, possessiveness, domination and deadly antagonism.” He further argues that in conditions of material abundance people would behave better (92). But we are in a position evaluate the behaviour of people who ceased living in conditions of scarcity, such as the rich and the political ruling elites, and their behaviour is not necessarily encouraging or more ethical. The greed of wealthy capitalists is not assuaged by their abundant possessions (as Eagleton would readily agree), while powerful and privileged dictators are not notably inclined to compassion and empathy. Power-hunger, and the urge for self-validation by wealth, conspicuous compassion or power, are not easily gratified; human contentment is elusive as needs constantly expand.


Eagleton shares Marx’s blind spot regarding the sources of human corruption or corruptibility that rests on the arbitrary separation of the character of human beings and the social-political systems and institutions they create. ... [I]t is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world.” He nonetheless acknowledges that “Nazism was not just a noxious political system; it also drew on the sadism, paranoia and pathological hatred of individuals.” So did other repressive systems everywhere, including the Communist ones. It is difficult if not altogether impossible to separate unjust or repressive systems from the human beings who create and support them. Power hunger in particular is an important source of corruption and intolerance, no less than the hunger for material possessions and elevated social status. At the same time it is also undeniable that a handful of countries (mainly in Western Europe) possess social systems which are far more decent, peaceful, equitable and far less repressive than most. Their successes however are not easy to replicate and historically speaking these systems have been relatively short-lived.

Notwithstanding the burden of his arguments Eagleton occasionally admits that there may be something like “human nature,” but he only does so when recourse to the concept supports his optimistic beliefs: “If our nature is purely cultural” then repressive political systems could mould us into accepting their authority without question” (100). But they often find this difficult to accomplish, he correctly observes. Unfortunately repressive systems from time to time also find popular support and have no trouble recruiting sufficient number of enforcers. 

Chapter five questions the widely and justifiably held view that Marx was an economic determinist. Eagleton writes: “the traffic between the economic ‘base’ and social ‘superstructure’ ... is not just one way ... we are not speaking here of some mechanistic determinism.” But his reformulation one page later does not alter the deterministic disposition of Marx here discussed: “Broadly speaking, the culture, law and politics of class — society are bound up with the interests of the dominant social classes. As Marx himself puts it in The German Ideology, ‘The class that is the ruling material force of society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force.’” This assertion has been manifestly untrue in most modern, pluralistic societies in which what used to be called the “adversary (or counter) culture” has attained great influence over a variety of social institutions including education, the media of mass communications, mass culture and some of the churches. 

Eagleton seeks to further dilute the economic determinism of Marxist thought by claiming that Marx had an implausibly broad definition of production: “Production for Marx ... means realizing one’s essential powers in the act of transforming reality. ... The word ‘production’ in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savoring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for children” (125). This poetic and rather dubious reinterpretation reflects the sensibilities of the counterculture of the Sixties more than the views of Marx. In the same spirit Eagleton further claims that “Marx’s work is about human enjoyment. The good life for him is not one of labor but leisure. Free self-realization is a form of ‘production.’” These propositions further illustrate the pervasive and ineradicable utopian strain in the thinking of Eagleton.


As the book proceeds it becomes increasingly repetitive. Chapter six seeks to refute (once more) the belief that Marx was a materialist insensitive to matters spiritual and that his “soulless vision” led to “the atrocities of Stalin and other disciples of Marx.” What Eagleton fails to discuss is the connection between Marx’s doctrine of the class struggle (and his support of revolutionary violence) that had certainly paved the way to Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist violence and ruthlessness. This chapter offers and especially generous selection of platitudes and sociological truisms. For example:


We can fulfill our natural needs only by social means — by collectively producing our means of production ... this then gives rise to other needs. ... But at the root of all this, which we know as culture, history or civilization, lies the needy human body and its material conditions. This is just another way of saying that the economic is the foundation of our life together ... the vital link between the biological and social (139). I can be said to have a mind only because I am born into a shared heritage of meaning ... Thought and language, far from existing in a sphere of their own, are manifestations of actual life. ... Human consciousness ... requires a great deal of material stage-setting ... Before we can think, we have to eat... Our thought is bound-up with the world (141-2)


Eagleton nonetheless admits that “Marx ... occasionally talks as though thought were a mere ‘reflex’ of material situations.” He hastens to add: “but this fails to do justice to his own more subtle insights.”  

Further platitudes follow: “the more we can understand, the more we can do,” and “our social being sets limits to our thought” — a widely held notion that is not always true. Further, we learn that “thinking for humans is a material necessity. ... We need to think because of the kind of material animals we are ... it is our bodily needs which shape our way of thinking” (146) — except when our thinking shapes our bodily needs, one might add.  

This chapter repeats the earlier assertion (quoting Marx) that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Eagleton adds: “Marx thought that those who controlled material production tended to control mental production as well. The claim has even more force in an age of press magnates and media barons.”

Arguably the claim has even less force at a time and in societies in which “press magnates and media barons” cannot or do not wish to prevent the routine, widespread denigration of capitalism and the status quo and have little or no control over a wide range of publications and institutions which specialize in such critiques. Eagleton also asserts — in apparent ignorance of the politically correct educational trends of the last decades — that “there is no capitalist civilization in which ... children are regularly instructed in the evils of economic competition.”[153] He ignores, or is unaware of the educational reforms enacted since the 1960s which sought to minimize or eliminate competition by abolishing grades and other programs seeking to blunt the evils of competition, as well as the number of courses in the humanities and social sciences which explicitly seek to acquaint students with the evils of capitalism. These evils have been a major and much publicized concern of the counter or adversary culture that has achieved a dominant position in institutions of higher education.4


Equally questionable is his claim that religion, education, and culture in “class societies ... lend support to the prevailing social order.” Since he suggests that these conditions exist only in class societies it would be interesting to know which are the non-class societies Eagleton may be alluding to where the “prevailing social order” and its relationship to education, culture, etc. is different? Cuba? North Korea? The former Soviet Union? 

Chapter seven, overlapping with chapter one, seeks to dispel the belief that Marx’s ideas about social class are dated, including his attribution of the unique virtues and liberating capability of the proletariat. Surprisingly enough Eagleton disputes that Marx postulated a link between the high level of political consciousness of the working class and its victimized, downtrodden status. Nonetheless he writes: “If Marx assigns the working class such importance [hard to know why Eagleton says “if” — P.H.] it is ... because he sees them as bearers of a universal emancipation” (165). But Marx perceived the working class as the bearer of such emancipation precisely because of its victimized, exploited, outsider status. To be sure, this was a misplaced judgement without empirical foundation, and colored by the quasi-religious perception of the proletariat purified by its sufferings and enabled to play the role of universal redeemer. Subsequently Eagleton manages to contradict his earlier proposition about the political insignificance of the downtrodden status of the workers when he writes:


The working class for Marx is in one sense a specific social group. Yet because it signifies for him the wrong which keeps so many other kinds of wrong in business... it has a significance beyond its own sphere. In this sense it resembles a scapegoat in ancient societies, which is cast out of the city because it represents universal crime, but which for just the same reason has the power to become the cornerstone of a new social order.


Surely if the working class becomes the “cornerstone” of a new social order due to its scapegoated (i.e., victimized) status then being downtrodden has considerable political significance. The proposed connection between being scapegoated (and victimized), and becoming a redeemer by creating a new social order (the vanquished becoming victors) has strong Christian religious undertones, as does the reference to “universal crime” reminiscent of original sin. He also writes that the working class “can prefigure an alternative future ... because it has no real stake in the status quo” — another statement that has an unmistakable religious flavor as does the idea of moving from alienation to emancipation.


In chapter eight Eagleton (once more) disputes the notion that “Marxists are advocates of violent political action” (179) committed as they are to the belief that ends justify the means. Given the well-known record of political systems which were inspired by Marxism (and legitimated themselves by it) this is perhaps the most difficult position to sustain. It can only be done if one insists that these systems and movements had nothing to do with Marxism, and Eagleton seems unwilling to go that far. As we have seen he cannot quite make up his mind on this matter. Rather than take a well-defined position he falls back, again, on attributions of moral equivalence, reminding the reader that most states came about “through revolution, invasion, occupation,” and other violent processes. He also argues that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not especially violent compared with many others but seems to overlook the huge amount of violence that soon followed when the new systems was already well-established and its violence could not be blamed on foreign intervention or the excesses of the civil war. But subsequently he acknowledges that “in its brief but bloody career Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale” (184). Further on he asserts (without offering evidence) that “Marxists have offered far more persuasive explanations of how the atrocities of men like Stalin came about and thus how they can be prevented from happening again, than any other school of thought.” He cannot resist adding: “But what about the crimes of capitalism?” Among the latter he inexplicably includes the first world war. Even more questionably he argues (regurgitating the venerable communist proposition) that “an extreme mutation of capitalism produced fasci[sm]” while concurrently admitting that “a distorted version of Marxism gave birth to the Stalinist state.” Thus after all Marxism had something to do with the Soviet system. A further dubious moral equation is put forward between English peasants driven from the land and the Cuban revolution, the latter “a tea party” compared to the former. 


There are also factual problems in this chapter. Incorrect assertions include the statement that “the Bolshevik revolution was made not by a secret coterie of conspirators but individuals openly elected in the popular, representative institutions known as soviets.” He also claims that the Bolsheviks were gradualists, that “markets and private property survived for a considerable time after the Bolshevik seizure of power” and that “there was no question of driving them [the peasants] into collective farms by force ... the process was to be gradual and consensual.” He may be alluding here to the NEP period (1921-28) which was a short-lived tactical retreat from the earlier revolutionary policies, which threatened economic disaster. It was largely limited to agriculture and some small businesses. The subsequent collectivization of agriculture, needless to say, was neither gradual nor consensual but rapid, brutal and highly coercive.

To support his belief in the non-violent persuasion of Marxists he claims that “working class movements have resorted to violence only when provoked or at times of compelling need” (187). He does not say what constituted “provocation” or under what circumstances were those needs “compelling.” Nor does he mention the numerous violent guerilla movements in the Third Word which claimed Marxist credentials. His argumentation further deteriorates as he proposes that “it is capitalism which is out of control, driven as it is by the anarchy of market forces, and socialism which attempts to reassert some collective mastery over this rampaging beats.” Again, it would be instructive to know what kind of “socialism” is he referring to? The “Soviet experiment”? Mao’s China? Castro’s Cuba? Scandinavian social democracies or the ideals of socialism entertained by Western intellectuals such as himself?


As to the violence of “socialist revolutions” he explains that it was due to the resistance “of the propertied classes [who] will rarely surrender their privileges without a struggle.” Did the kulaks liquidated in Russia belong to the propertied classes? Strange, illogical statements follow one another in this chapter, as for example that (by Eagleton’s definition) “socialist revolutions can only be democratic ones. It is the ruling class which is the undemocratic minority” (188-9). He approvingly notes that the Bolsheviks abolished the death penalty when they came to power but does not seem to be aware that this was a meaningless gesture as the Cheka continued to shoot the perceived enemies of the revolution and the state. He suggests that Marxists have reservations about parliamentary democracy “not because it is democratic but because it is not democratic enough”! Did Marxists anywhere create a sufficiently democratic parliament anywhere? He does not say.

Chapter nine questions the alleged proposition that “Marxism believes in an all powerful state. Having abolished private property, socialist revolutionaries will rule by means of despotic power.” But the critics of Marxism, as a rule, do not claim that Marx believed in a powerful state, rather, they point out that the revolutionaries (and their successors), inspired by his ideals, had created such states. The issue Eagleton is reluctant to confront is why Marxist revolutionaries proved incapable of uniting theory and practice, why even Lenin had fantasies about the gradual disappearance of bureaucracy and the withering away of the state (expressed in State and Revolution), why these idealists ended up creating monstrous coercive states everywhere, and why their idealism turned into murderous intolerance? 

This chapter too has its share of dubious interpretations of Marxism, as for instance that for Marx “the dictatorship of the proletariat meant simply the rule of the majority” (204) and that ”there are times [!] when Marx writes as though the state is simply a direct instrument of the ruling class.” Are there times when he thought otherwise? Eagleton claims that Marx has a more “nuanced” view (of the role of the state) in his historical writings but offers no example. 


In this chapter we are told that “socialism does not involve replacing one set of rulers with another” (207) but Eagleton again does not say what kind of socialism he has in mind and if this actually occurred anywhere or remains one of the numerous utopian ideals he nurtures. The same question may be raised about the following assertion: “It is capitalism that sees production as potentially infinite, and socialism that sets it in the context of moral and aesthetic values” (235). Is this a purely wishful thought or is there any empirical foundation to support it?

Chapter ten disputes the widely held view that the contributions of Marxism to the radical movements of the past four decades “have been marginal and uninspiring.” While it is possible to find connections between Marxism and feminism, or Marxism and the struggle against racism these movements did not depend on Marxism for ideological inspiration. It is even more of a strain to connect environmental movements with Marxism (as Eagleton does), all the more since the state socialist systems obsessed with rapid industrialization were singularly unconcerned with the environment and inflicted huge damage on it everywhere they were in power. Likewise it is implausible to attribute to Marx the belief that “even our physical senses have become ‘commodified’ under capitalism, as the body, converted into a mere abstract instrument of production, is unable to savor its own sensuous life. Only through communism could we come to feel own bodies again” (230-1). Here again the Eagleton seems to project the countercultural sensibilities of the Sixties upon Marx.

This chapter’s most notable contribution to cliches is the proposition that “social cooperation is necessary for our material survival, but it is also part of our self-fulfillment as a species” (232-3).

The chapter concludes with another memorably questionable assertion, namely that “over the years communists have been among the most ardent advocates of peace.” But once more we do not learn whom he has in mind — actually existing Communist states and movements or the imaginary variety? If it is the first, then he obviously forgot or overlooked the many occasions when these states and movements used raw force to expand their power, quell dissent, or exterminate their potential or imaginary enemies. To be sure, overlooking Communist aggression complements the belief that capitalism is the root cause of global aggression and “the greatest threat to world peace,” according to another author Eagleton approvingly quotes (236). The chapter ends with the warning: “If we do not act now, it seems that capitalism will be the death of us.”

A brief conclusion repeats, sometimes literally, points made earlier. In this final flourish we are once more reminded that all good things (or at any rate all those dear to present day progressives) can be found in the ideas of Marx:


 ... [his] ideal was leisure not labor...His materialism was fully compatible with deeply held moral and spiritual convictions. He lavished praise on the middle class and saw socialism as the inheritor of its great legacies of liberty, civil rights and material prosperity. His views on Nature and the environment were...startlingly in advance of his time. There has been no more staunch champion of women’s emancipation, world peace, the fight against fascism or the struggle for colonial freedom than the political movement to which his work gave birth (239).


Eagleton’s view’s are significant because they reflect and reenforce prevailing views and predispositions among Western leftists and social critics. It is especially appropriate to make reference on these pages to the Canadian author, Ian McKay, clearly a kindred spirit of Eagleton. In his book, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History, published in 2005,5 he doubtless would have quoted Eagleton but for the fact that his paean to Marx appeared after McKay’s book. 

McKay too is motivated and animated by the sincere conviction that capitalism is the source of all evil in the world and that these evils can be banished forever if and when leftists movements come to prevail. He too is attached to a utopian “vison of the future” (10) and believes that “to be a leftist is to use the possibility ... of living otherwise” (19) and that “the ‘realm of freedom’  ... the left alone, can act upon is one open to the vast majority of humankind” (20). He further believes that “the primary commitments of the left are to freedom and solidarity” (31) and that leftists are distinguished by the conviction that individual problems are connected, and these connections make them social problems — not exactly a singular insight. 


McKay also seeks to assimilate Marxist ideas to Sixties sensibilities. He can “imagine [Marx] celebrating both the necessity to struggle against HIV/AIDS and the project of free sexual expression” (13). He prefers to see Marx “as a dynamic and changing cultural code ... more as a process than as a simple set of texts.” He too is convinced the scarcities are artificial and can be overcome with goodwill: “Why should people starve in the Third World when there is enough food in the world to feed everyone?” He is also ready to conjure up images of moral equivalence as on the occasion of commenting on “the growth of the US penitentiary population to gulag levels” that is among the ominous developments “remind[ing] democratic dissenters that stepping out of line can mean descending into hell” (62-3). 

He correctly observes that “Free market societies report ever-declining rates of personal happiness” and that “links between people become ever more tenuous and calculating in an ever-colder neo-liberal world,” but fails to point to existing (as distinct from imaginary) social systems where rates personal happiness are higher or increasing. In solving the environmental crisis he dreams of “radically different premises than those available to liberalism” (78). Like Eagleton he seems unaware of the shocking record of environmental destruction non-liberal, state socialist systems perpetrated and does not seem to appreciate that only in liberal, Western societies did environmentalist movements emerge and make a difference.

I am with Eagleton (and his kindred spirits) as regards the sorry state of the world, including Western societies, although the latter are still doing a lot better better than most, both politically and economically. I do not believe that the free market solves all economic and social problems, or that consumerism can make life meaningful. I am well aware that in Western, pluralistic societies large numbers of people long for community, suffer from social isolation and experience a sense of meaninglessness. However, Eagleton, following Marx, misdiagnoses our difficulties attributing them single-mindedly to capitalism instead of modernity (granted, these two overlap) and pays little attention to the darker sides of human nature and the contradictory desires human beings harbour which interfere with the creation and maintenance of harmonious and equitable social arrangements. Marx was right about certain things — for example the corrosive impact of capitalism on tradition, the unwholesome influence of competition on personal relationships, and the growth of alienation in urban-industrial and mobile societies. But he was wrong about many other things as was noted above. 

It would be refreshing and encouraging if idealists like Eagleton could find ideas and ideals removed from the dubious legacy of Marxism, which would enrich and channel their well-meaning impulses in directions compatible with the limitations of human nature, the persistence of scarcities, and restrained hopes for dramatically improving the human condition. •   


Originally published in the print edition, Volume 1, Number 2, Autumn/Winter 2011, pp. 3-15.

The late Paul Hollander was professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and author or editor of 15 books, the most recent of which is Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America (2011).



  1. Leszek Kolakowski wrote: “Marx seems to have imagined that once capitalists were done away with the whole world would become a kind of Athenian agora: one only has to forbid private ownership of machines or land and, as if by magic, human beings would cease to be selfish and their interests would coincide in perfect harmony. Marxism affords no explanation of ... what reason there is to think that human interests will cease to conflict as soon as the means of production are nationalized. Marx, moreover combined his romantic dreams with the socialist expectation that all needs would be fully satisfied in the earthly paradise.” Cf. Main Currents of Marxism (2005), p. 1209.
  2. By Communist systems I mean those which have also be called “state-socialist.” They were one-party states (these parties usually called themselves “Communist”), brought the economy and the mass media under state control, and at least initially modeled themselves on the Soviet Union that was the first such system. Each claimed to be inspired and guided by some version of Marxism-Leninism, their leaders claiming to be the authoritative interpreters and guardians of these ideas. “Communist” of course was also used by Marx (and his followers) to designate the highest level of development of societies, a veritable utopia.
  3. See Alexander Yakovlev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia (1993) and A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (2002).
  4. I traced the entrenchment and survival of these and other adversarial beliefs and attitudes in The Survival of the Adversary Culture (1988); Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist (2002) and The Only Super Power: Reflections on Strength, Weakness and Anti-Americanism (2009). 
  5. Ian McKay, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005).

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