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From The Socialist newspaper, 31 August 2011

Book review

Why Marx was right

Niall Mullholland

"Marxism may be all right in theory ...but in practice the result is terror" ... "determinism" ... "a Utopia" ... "a theory obsessed with class ... advocates violent political action ... and believes in an all powerful state..."

Terry Eagleton rebuts these arguments and other prejudices and myths against Marxism in his new book, Why Marx was right.

Starting with today's global economic crisis, Eagleton comments: "You can tell the capitalist system is in trouble when people start taking about capitalism. It indicates that the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon that it is."

Socialists everywhere will be familiar with the accusations that Marxism is a crude form of "historical determinism", reducing everything to the economic, that it goes against human nature etc.

Eagleton, a professor of English literature and cultural theory, answers these arguments with vigour and wit, often alluding to philosophy and literature. His book is sure to reach a readership well beyond academia.

While condemning Stalinism and its legacy, Eagleton also indicts the record of capitalist rule: "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..."

Under today's rule of "free market dogma", during the last two decades of the 20th century, the number living on less than two dollars a day increased by one hundred million.

For seasoned Marxist readers, Eagleton's book can act as a 'refresher course' and for those new to the subject it is a useful introduction. It is not without its faults and limits, however. For example, his analysis of the state - under capitalism and the different phenomena of a 'workers' state' - is somewhat unclear.

In his discussions on a future socialist society and its possibilities, Eagleton correctly rejects Stalinist-style 'blueprints' but is also at pains to avoid appearing utopian himself. He misleadingly asserts that Trotsky, among other Marxists, advocated a "utopian extreme, foreseeing ... a future stocked by heroes and geniuses".

While Eagleton says that "over long periods of time, changes of institution do indeed have profound effects on human attitudes," he weakens and confuses his argument by using the Northern Ireland 'peace process' as a positive example.

He asserts that "changes in sectarian consciousness are likely to be geologically slow..." but "in one sense this is not all that important. What was important was securing a political agreement which could be carefully policed and skilfully evolved, in the context of a general public weariness with thirty years of violence."

The Northern Ireland Assembly does not represent a genuine "political agreement" between working people, let alone a solution. It is a top-down arrangement that institutionalises sectarianism, yet which can agree £40 billion worth of social cuts, exacerbating poverty and sectarian divisions.

A real peace process would see the working class, Catholic and Protestant, coming together in a mass struggle against cuts, sectarianism and the capitalist system, and in the process of overthrowing capitalism, democratically deciding their future in a socialist society.

Eagleton's scope is largely limited to Marx's basic ideas, vitally important as that is. He does not give enough space to discussing Marx's analysis of capitalism and the reasons for capitalist booms and slumps, which is especially apt today.

He describes the objective conditions for socialism - including how the global working class is far larger than it was in Marx's day - but does not set out ideas about how to get there.

The role of Karl Marx, the tireless revolutionary, who along with Frederick Engels laboured to build a mighty workers' International, is not given thorough treatment.

While sympathetic to the historical record of the Bolsheviks and Lenin and Trotsky, Eagleton does not comment on the validity or otherwise of a revolutionary socialist party today and how to go about changing society.

For a discussion on what policies and programme of action are needed to bring about the overthrow of capitalism and for socialist change - on the basis of the international workers' movement's experiences of over the last 150 years - readers need to look elsewhere.

Not least, in the pages of the Socialist (eg. 'What Alternative?' Peter Taaffe, The Socialist 26 June 2011) and to Socialist Party publications (eg 'Socialism in the 21st Century' by Hannah Sell).

Why Marx was right by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, £16.99

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