Terry Eagleton, famed Marxist scholar & all-around academic bad-ass, published an editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week titled, “In Praise of Marx.” The lengthy article discusses the observations Marx made in his lifetime of work in contrast with the hyperbolic & highly defensive attacks hurled upon anything and everything dubbed “Marxist” from the world of capitalism. He slays the simplistic arguments used by so many who refer to Stalin, Mao, and Castro as the prime examples of why Marxist socialism should be eradicated from the face of the earth.
The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. For one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and China. …Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a program by which nations bereft of material resources, a flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions, and a skilled, educated work force might catapult themselves into the modern age.
I try on a regular basis to say this in an easy to digest way, but my understanding of Marx and command of political philosophy is no where near that of Eagleton. He takes on the fallacious ideas promoted by modern capitalist power structures with an elegant and scathing command of history, theory, and political economics.
Modern capitalist nations are for the most part the fruit of a history of genocide, violence, and extermination every bit as abhorrent as the crimes of Communism. Capitalism, too, was forged in blood and tears, and Marx was around to witness it.
Eagleton reminds us that, for Marx, socialism is a progression FROM capitalism. A society cannot leap-frog itself from being non-industrial and unenlightened directly to a free, equitable socialist society. In the article Eagleton is clear when he says that Marx did not believe in a Utopian Socialist society, and in fact built his career by heavily criticizing the Utopian ideas of The New Hegelians. Eagleton tells us that Marx, “believed that the world could feasibly be made a considerably better place. In this [Marx] was a realist, not an idealist.”
This editorial could not have come at a better time. Around the country the working class is being attacked through restrictions (even elimination) of collective bargaining laws, being forced into carrying the tax load of the über-wealthy, and not getting anything in return for it but longer working hours and less pay.
The question still remains though: What is Marxist thinking really after?
Eagleton gives an answer to that. (Again something I’ve tried to explain, but never could get it quite right.)
Marx’s goal is leisure, not labor. The best reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you happen to dislike, is that you detest having to work. Marx thought that capitalism had developed the forces of production to the point at which, under different social relations, they could be used to emancipate the majority of men and women from the most degrading forms of labor. What did he think we would do then? Whatever we wanted. If, like the great Irish socialist Oscar Wilde, we chose simply to lie around all day in loose crimson garments, sipping absinthe and reading the odd page of Homer to each other, then so be it. The point, however, was that this kind of free activity had to be available to all. We would no longer tolerate a situation in which the minority had leisure because the majority had labor.
Labor should not be the sole factor in the life of a lower class person. Workers are not just workers, they are people with lives, families, and desires. To place the burden of work — physical, intellectual, and even social labor — in the hands of the lower class of people, is to deny that them the ability to enjoy a leisurely life the way an owner of capital would. Every mother should be able to spend time with her child when he or she is sick without being threatened with the loss of her job. Every father should be able to take his son to the baseball park without having to explain to his boss why he needs to leave early only to wonder if it may cost him (and his son) a meal later in the week. The structural inequality built into the capitalist system forces people into choices that lessen their quality of life. This is the problem that needs to be addressed, and as Eagleton describes, it is what Marx spent his life doing.