In the Chronicle of Higher Education literary critic Terry Eagleton writes an interesting if confused article in praise (and defense) of Marx (once again for the umpteenth time). It comes across as a précis of his new book outlining Why Marx Was Right , which he says is a timely endeavor in light of the recent financial crashes. He says that capitalists are talking about capitalism again, and not free enterprise. And this is a good thing for Marxism.

It is an amusing article filled with historical and cultural references high, low and middle brow—both serious and silly—from Charlie Sheen, The Family Guy, and Clint Eastwood to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to Ludwig von Mises and Aristotle amongst others.

In the piece he gives a gloss on the society where the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all with the image of Oscar Wilde draped in crimson velvet, sipping absinthe and randomly paging through Homer. However, if socialism would mean too many damned meetings, and if one therefore wished from time to time to shirk one’s overt contribution to society, then a Wildean lifestyle could perhaps be considered a kind of free riding. It would constitute a retreat into the enclosed circle of one’s own family and friends. But if such free riding individualism were available to all, then it would be good for all. In a way, this is how Eagleton views socialism. He likens the “withering away of the state” to a less “redneck” version of Tea Party anti-statism, and while he calls socialism a kind of politics, it is strikingly apolitical, if not anti-political.

If Eagleton were a less interesting person, he could have just as easily described such a life in terms of John Rawls’ insipid image of an individual who counts blades of grass day by day. No doubt, for Eagleton such grass blade counting would need to be supplemented with a greater diversity of activity to be of any appeal. Perhaps one could also rear cattle in the afternoon and criticize after dinner. Of course, one still wishes to be Wilde too. If this way of life seems problematic and schizophrenic, then as Eagleton says, “so be it.” At least each and all would be free from the most degrading forms of labor. Eagleton promises socialism would be just, but in emancipating such willful idiosyncrasy and variety, one wonders if it would not unleash the most outlandish ambitions of a multitude of towering geniuses.

As Eagleton notes, “The best reason for being a socialist . . . is that you detest having to work.” With this statement, Eagleton belies a residual taste for the virtues and vices of the outstanding aristocratic individual. Nonetheless, in keeping with current democratic mores, he reminds us that Marx was a great believer in each person’s unique and special attributes, i.e., a belief in the distinctiveness of the person in terms of the full and free expression of species being. However, unlike bourgeois personhood, under socialism each would be able to contribute according to his abilities in reciprocal development with everyone else. He says this socialism would be simply the idea of personal love translated to the political realm. It would be a life of leisured and pleasurable self-fulfillment open and available to all. It would be an aristocracy for everyone.

For Marx socialism need not be the deadened, flattened life of the last man who has invented his own happiness and then blinked. Marx may be an atheist, but he prophesied an emancipated life at the end of history that would be, as Eagleton says, “spiritual not religious.” Here he describes socialism in the terms of the religious affiliations found on a facebook page or in a personals ad. The soul of man under socialism would still be looking for love, but all the wrong places would be transformed into the free flowering of a rich and enjoyable life. He claims that Marx and Aristotle are at one in this regard, as if Aristotle never spoke of the role of prudence in deliberating amongst means to achieve certain good ends, but instead sang an ode to the joy of endless self-fashioning.

In a way similar to Christianity, Eagleton claims that the modern socialist movement was supported by a mankind consisting of—he quotes von Mises here— “people of all races, nations, religions and civilizations.” Eagleton is not averse to a kind of Christian Marxism , and he has little admiration for the new atheists. But his recrudescent Christianity retains its Feuerbachean origins. “The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself.” When personal love, whereby the other becomes the ground of one’s own self-realization, becomes political in the life of socialism, Eagleton makes it difficult to make a distinction between man and God. Always a tendency in certain strains of Christian socialism, instead of God becoming man, man becomes God. What, if anything, limits and guides the free development of each and all in and of themselves?

We are told that socialist morality would not be a liberal and modern rule bound morality—whether Hobbesian or Kantian. Yet, Eagleton also says this way of life is simply an “ideal” to guide us (a Kantian regulative ideal?), and not a condition we could actually achieve. Yet is this not an a priori rule of the future that is binding and obligatory on the present? Wouldn’t this ideal get in the way of one’s freedom to drink absinthe? While we are reminded that Marx’s materialism indicated a kind of passionate and Romantic humanism, Eagleton also tells us that he had a marked aversion to abstract ideas. But if it remains unachievable, how is the regulative ideal of socialism not an abstraction? What ever happened to the rational becoming real and vice versa? What happened to socialism as the riddle of history solved?

Making the case in this way perhaps exhibits a degree of maturity, in that there is recognition of the fantastic aspects of Marxism—even if they are defended as ideals. Perhaps Eagleton advocates the Gramscian “long march through the institutions” that Francis Fukuyama says demonstrated the left’s increasing seriousness during the course of the 20th century. However, with his emphasis on the role that pleasure plays in Marx’s thought, as well as in the life of socialism, Eagleton shows the continuing influence of the epicurean philosophy on his thought. While epicureanism certainly seeks after a noble tranquility of mind freed from fear of death and the gods that such fears spawn, this version of Marxist epicureanism remains a fantasyland that does not provide anything to distinguish it from the tranquilized eroticism of animal humping found at Plato’s Retreat , or the idle theorizing found at professional conferences held a luxury hotels. It is Marxism for aesthetes and voluptaries. Yet, even though it may be trivial, it is surely preferable to the dour face of committed call Marxist revolution., and when combined with Eagleton’s wit and erudition, it can even be charming.

Whether mature or frivolous, it still seems fantastic. For instance, we are told that in order to establish socialism, there would be no need to resort to violence (or massive violence). Eagleton returns to the image of velvet for his descriptive purposes. If it is still “crimson” velvet, it is doubtless a non-sanguinary Red. He claims that the Bolshevik revolution involved little bloodshed and few tears, at least when compared to the 9/11 Chilean coup that ousted Salvador Allende in ‘71. Indeed, this is perhaps true if one wishes to be pedantic about the specific actions of the immediate Bolshevik revolution. However, its implementation over years and decades surely involved countless acts of blood spilling that led to oceans of shed tears. Solzhenitsyn called this way of life a great lie, but unfortunately Eagleton—for all his spiritual but not religious longings—has no time for such a critique. He does not think through the legacy of the crimes made in the name of such a lie.

Instead, Eagleton turns the tables and condemns the crimes of capitalism. Touché! No doubt, he would reply that Russia was not developed enough in the things he notes would be necessary to support a true socialism, i.e., a robust civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, an enlightened liberal tradition, a skilled and well-educated work force, etc. If so, then why does he use the example of the Bolsheviks as an example of a Marxist revolution that was remarkably bloodless? Evidently it wasn’t a Marxist revolution in the first place.

It is stated, “Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their peoples.” Eagleton portrays a Marx that is more relevant for advanced OECD countries than for the developing world. Apparently there is no need for the union of the workers of the world. With socialism in one country, then perhaps the wealth could be spread to all. Perhaps this indicates a growing maturity. Perhaps it indicates on an international level a Lockean concern for the preservation of mankind after one’s own national self-preservation is no longer in competition. To quote Al Gore, “out of one, many.”

Eagleton reminds us that Marx had much praise for the increased productivity and freedom of the bourgeois epoch. As the constant revolutionizing of the means of production eventually leads to the statues of Daedalus doing all the heavy work, the possibility of socialism becomes ever greater. However, because the bourgeois epoch has not done away with class antagonisms, the joyless quest for joy found in the incessant necessity for labor prevents millions or even billions from the free development of their own labor. They sell their labor power to others in the hope of spending their last few arthritic years on the links. Under socialism, everyone could be Tiger Woods here and now, and in more than one way!

Marx “bequeathed us the language in which the system under which we live could be grasped as a whole.” However, one must wonder if Marx adequately grasped that system in his materialist conception of history. Is the singular emphasis he placed on capitalism as the name of that system the best place to look for answers to his dogged questions? When the “real relations” of man to man are revealed in terms of the “cash nexus,” what will happen to the delicate taste of Oscar Wilde? In the end, does the Marxist language of “real foundation” and “actual material life” conceal more than reveal what is?

Furthermore, is such systematic critique in the absence of analyses of literature, law, philosophy and theology (or when analyzed, understood as superstructural reflections in a camera obscura), too single minded in its vision as it engages in critique at the expense of understanding? Does it exclude the possibility of prudence and the role of judgment in navigating the difference of theory and practice? Does it not close off the mind to any thought or way of life outside of critical theory itself, making one way of life—the motley Marxist critic/revolutionary—the only one that each all must live?

Eagleton says that Marx was not some “dreamy utopianist.” If not, then there remains much in Marx to be skeptical of.

Articles by John Presnall


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