Why Marx Was Right
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 272 pages

The word “capitalism,” invented by Karl Marx as a term of ignominy, has become a term of celebration; in much the same way that gangsta rappers have made the traditional term of abuse directed at black people their own property, economic liberals have laid claim to Marx’s term of disparagement. Just as Ice Cube famously proclaimed himself “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” Steve Forbes christened his private jet “Capitalist Tool.” We have all learned to speak Marxism, even when we are condemning it.

It takes a special sort of intellectual to title a book Why Marx Was Right, and the British academic Terry Eagleton is that sort. His book comes in the shape of 10 chapters, each addressing a particular criticism of Marxism—that it is utopian, that it reduces the human experience to economics, that it has been superseded by feminism and postcolonialism. It ends with the words, “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” Eagleton’s intellectual reputation is formidable, but he has done it no favors with this strange little book.

He argues that the financial crisis of 2008 refreshed the relevance of Marxism, but he does not examine the fact that “rational” economic central planning, of the sort contemplated by scientific materialists like Marx, contributed to the crisis—for example, through the socialization of mortgage risk by the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the cartelization of the credit-rating agencies, the subordination of lending standards to political mandates, and the like.

As for the human devilry that did arise from the real-world application of Marx’s ideas, Eagleton offers bizarre exculpations, as when he avers that the brutal East German police state had excellent child-care facilities. I nearly stopped reading on page 17 when he noted that the internationalist orientation of Marxism is necessary because no country acting alone could “abolish scarcity.” Such a statement indicates either that Eagleton does not know what “scarcity” means or that he does not know what “abolish” means. The former, I suspect.

It is perplexing to find such glaring weaknesses of argument issue from the pen of an august figure  like Terry Eagleton. But then Marx himself was the author of both incomprehensible paragraphs and ingeniously economical slogans. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte may be a slog, but “Workers of the world, unite!” is a sensational bumper sticker. Marx wrote far more of the former, however: an edition of the complete works of Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels is being prepared and is expected to run 120 volumes in German.

I suspect that a great deal of bloodshed would have been forgone, and many millions of men spared needless agony, if they had been written in English instead. For modern political liberalism is an invention of, and in no small part the property of, the English-speaking peoples, and had Das Kapital been drafted in the Queen’s tongue, it might have been consigned to the ash heap of history rather than making much of recent European and Asian history itself into an ash heap.

Marxism is a European language, not an economics, which is why it survives mainly among literary men such as Eagleton, who is over-fond of low-pH literary constructions and serial-comma indictments, like this one:

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. Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears; it is just that it has survived long enough to forget about much of this horror, which is not the case with Stalinism and Maoism.

As a piece of rhetoric, this is workmanlike, largely because the Americans and Britons to whom it is directed are instantly filled with liberal guilt when confronted with such accusations. But Eagleton has it backwards. Such horrors that precede and attend capitalism derive not from the evils of the regime but from the sort of conduct to which humanity sinks all too often. The ideological commitment to individual liberties, constitutionally limited government, property rights, freedom of enterprise and trade, and the like has proved to be the greatest restraint on human evildoing the world has yet seen.

Consider the items on Eagleton’s list of grievances. “Slavery” is lexically incompatible with what we call capitalism, by which we mean modern Anglo-American liberalism, which was born, in part, in revulsion against slavery. And “genocide” is a term coined by the Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to describe the policy of the “socialist” government then headquartered in Berlin. The horrors of capitalism are the horrors of mankind unredeemed. But the horrors of socialism are the lineal descendants of Marx’s ideology. The problem with socialism is not implementation. The problem with socialism is socialism.

True, Marx never called for genocides, or for turning the Aral Sea into a poisonous desert, or for reducing Koreans to cannibalism. But that is what Marxism has done. Why? Eagleton is remarkably resistant to such inquiry, resorting instead to the old socialist practice of blaming Marxism’s excesses on Josef Stalin. Eagleton never asks why Marxism breeds monsters—not just Stalin, but the blessed Lenin, too, and Mao, Castro, Guevara, Pol Pot, Tito, the Kims, Ceausescu, Honecker (in spite of those wonderful day-care centers), et al. If that’s just bad luck, then Marxism is the unluckiest philosophy in the history of ideas. Perhaps there is some deeper flaw.

The weight of the evidence reduces Eagleton to sleight of pen: “Those who scoff at socialist ideals should remember that the free market can never be perfectly realized either.” That statement makes no sense, inasmuch as the “free market” is not a utopia toward which capitalists march. It is, rather, a descriptive term.

The premises of economic and political liberalism do not require that anything be “perfectly realized.” Perfection is a project for totalitarians, absolutists, and cranks, of which the fossilized remains of Marxism provide many splendid examples. Eagleton is too generous with these exercises in equivocation, which quickly grow tiresome: “Some of those who claim that socialism is unworkable are confident that they can eradicate poverty, solve the global warming crisis, spread liberal democracy to Afghanistan, and resolve world conflicts by UN resolutions. It is only socialism which for some mysterious reason is out of reach.”

But the reason socialism is out of reach is not mysterious. The main limitation on socialism is neither moral nor political nor conventionally economic. It is epistemic: socialism requires central planning; central planning requires central planners; and for central planners to succeed at their work, they require vast amounts of information they cannot conceivably acquire. The social knowledge embedded in market transactions and communicated through prices allows for the distributed coordination of unfathomably complex tasks.

Think of the famous example of the No. 2 pencil described by the economist Leonard Read. Without markets, the task of coordinating the components necessary to produce a simple  pencil—timber, rubber, lacquer, graphite, paint, chemicals, engineering, machinery, the vast agricultural and industrial infrastructure necessary to support those industries, the still vaster transportation, educational, and financial infrastructures behind them—would all fall to a planning agency.

Those planners do not have even 1 percent of the knowledge necessary to make rational economic decisions, but they do have the same profit-maximizing motives associated with money-grubbing capitalists. Only in their case, profits are paid not in dividends but in power, perks, and prestige. Which is to say that socialism is, by nature, ignorance compounded by greed.

Marx and Lenin imagined a scientific system oriented toward the common good but created a system in which less knowledge is available to economic decision-makers and the narrow self-interest of the ruling class is elevated to commanding heights. And so, the “scientific system” will always lose. Nonetheless, it appears that there will always be those true believers, like Terry Eagleton, who will argue that socialism will work if  given one more chance. But the continuing, willful ignorance of Eagleton and his fellow socialists argues that they have not earned a second chance. Giving them a first chance was a grave error, one that inflicted upon the world murder and misery unprecedented in scale and unequalled since.

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