by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Objection: Marxism is a dream of utopia. It believes in the possibility of a perfect society, without hardship, suffering, violence or conflict. Under communism there will be no rivalry, selfishness, possessiveness, competition or inequality. Nobody will work, human beings will live in complete harmony with one another, and the flow of material goods will be endless. This astonishingly naïve vision springs from a credulous faith in human nature. Human viciousness is simply set aside. The fact that we are naturally selfish, acquisitive, aggressive and competitive creatures, and that no amount of social engineering can alter this fact, is simply overlooked. Marx’s dewy-eyed vision of the future reflects the absurd unreality of his politics as a whole.
– Terry Eagleton
Good books force you to challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions. Great books do this unexpectedly. For this reason, in many ways, Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton, is a great book.
In the fourth chapter, Eagleton takes to task the oft-held assertion that “Marxism is a dream of utopia.” In debunking this assumption, it becomes clear that the present, where we are starting from, is more important to Marx than the future. Similarly, for the purpose of addressing Eagleton’s book, I believe, it is important to note the present that the reviewer is writing from. As this book works on the reader’s assumptions, those assumptions must first be elucidated.
Early in chapter four, Eagleton recounts the joke of the hard-headed Irishman who, when asked the way to the train station, replies: “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” Of course, as Eagleton notes, “There is…nowhere else to start from.” I start from the place of Marxist sympathizer. While I would never describe myself as a Marxist, I admire much about socialism and, in the past, could often be heard reciting what has become a well-rehearsed apology for Marxism. “Marxism,” I would say to my more-than-likely-conservative interlocutor, “is an ideal that doesn’t work in the real world because it calls upon humanity to be at its best, whereas capitalism thrives on us being at our worst.”
Seems reasonable, right? And to be honest when I selected the “utopia” chapter from Why Marx Was Right to consider for this series, I did so on the ill-fated assumption that I would find confirmation of my long held beliefs about Marxism. I could not have been more wrong. Rather than exclusively answering some close-minded anti-Marxist’s assumption that Marx is calling for a perfect society, Eagleton was writing for me; even in my attempt to defend Marxism, I am guilty of grossly misunderstanding it.
So, back to the notion that the future has to begin in the present. Eagleton begins with an assertion that rings true, but challenges the conventional belief that the role of prophets is to predict the future. This, he says, has never been the case from the time of the Biblical prophets. What they do, instead, is decry the societal ills that are threatening to destroy a particular society. In this way, Eagleton says, Marx was a prophet who was not really all that interested in what a particular future might look like, except to the extent that it will be informed by the present. And to this point, Marx says, all progress and civilization has been marked by “barbarism and benightedness.”
For any future to come about, then, there would have to be a break from this history, which Marx famously refers to as “prehistory.” Elements of our present, the working class for Marx, must be both “a present reality and the agent by which it is transformed…provides the link between the present and the future.” Therefore, the future that Marx might have imagined contains elements of the present, because this is inevitably where we are starting from, but will ultimately represent a break from this present. “History has to be broken and remade,” as Eagleton puts it.
What is it then that must be remade? The institutions, of course. This emphasis is particularly important for me because it comes up against one of my personal misconceptions about Marxism: in order for Marxism to succeed, human nature would have to be somehow different, better, really. But for Marx this was not the case. Much of chapter four involves Eagleton exploring the various ways in which people’s behavior is shaped by institutions and not the other way around. He begins by suggesting, “socialism is the point where we begin collectively to determine our destinies.” The institutions, because they actually require more participation from all citizens than democratic institutions do, actually represent “democracy taken with full seriousness.”
Given the freedom Eagleton posits that socialist institutions will allow, individuals actually have more opportunity to realize their individuality in a number of ways including, for Eagleton, spiritually. Eagleton points out, “the freedom and leisure which this would grant men and women can then provide the context for their fuller spiritual flourishing.” When citizens are no longer in constant competition with one another, they can actually help each other flourish. Eagleton writes, “Only through others can we finally come into our own.”
I know what you’re thinking. This is beginning to sound like the notion of utopia that Eagleton set out to contradict. Two things are important to remember here. The first is that for Marx this change starts with the institutions and not the individuals. It is true that individuals under a competitive capitalist society are forced to privilege their own flourishing over others, but if the institutions change in such a way that removes the institutional necessity of competition, people might actually contribute to one another’s well being.
If this is still sounding utopian, turn the page and Eagleton offers his second defense: “Communism would not spell the end of human strife.” For several pages he goes to great length to explain that he acknowledges that bad things could and would still happen in a Marxist society, though he qualifies that the scale of these bad things would be smaller than they have the potential to be under capitalism. Eagleton writes that a shift from capitalism to communism would mean that, “Some of the root causes of our moral deficiencies would have been removed.” Therefore, though there is the potential that under different institutions certain behaviors would be changed, Marxism allows for the fact that human beings are still fallible.
The solution then, for Eagleton and Marx, is to change institutions and practices in order to bring about change in people. This argument is perhaps his most convincing as he sites a number of changed practices from society’s view on the equality of genders to, perhaps most effectively, penal reform. “We now take these changes so much for granted,” he says, “that we would be revolted by the idea of breaking murderers on a wheel.” The important idea here is that human behavior and opinion does change, is shaped by the institutions that rule the day. Citing such ingrained formalities as shaking hands upon meeting or driving on the left side of the road for Britons, Eagleton posits, “Institutions shape our inner experience.” There is a moment here in the reading where the kind of change he is suggesting actually does seem quite possible.
Finally, Eagleton debunks the view held by many, including myself, that the telos of communism is equality. This is not what Marx had in mind at all. He acknowledged, according to Eagleton, that “social leveling” was not only impossible, but not desirable. Further, he notes that Marx regarded the notion of equality as “the abstract equality of middle-class democracy, where our formal equality as voters and citizens serves more to obscure real inequalities of wealth and class.” The answer to this abstract equality, Eagleton says, is genuine equality, which doesn’t treat everyone the same, but acknowledges and attends equally to the different needs of people.
Though it doesn’t seem to be Eagleton’s intention to spark revolution and bring about an immediate shift to socialism, he does at times make a convincing argument for how changing certain key institutions could lead to a change in peoples’ practices. And, in many ways, this change looks ideal. But there’s that notion again, idealism or utopianism is what Eagleton set out to argue against in the first place. A certain degree of idealism, it seems, is necessary no matter what the political philosophy. Eagleton writes, “Those who scoff at socialist ideals should remember that the free market can never be perfectly realized either.”
Certainly, this chapter – and the argument it contains – has flaws. In his attempt to counteract the utopian perception of socialism, Eagleton spends an uncomfortable amount of time recounting the kinds of things that could still go wrong – there will still be “chancers, toadies, bullies, cheats, loafers, scroungers, freeloaders, free riders and occasional psychopaths” in a socialist society. Additionally, Eagleton’s writing style has become somewhat formulaic; he makes a difficult point and then chases it with a sly one-liner attack, typically on the United States or Britain. It gets to the point that the reader can predict the oncoming one-liner many sentences in advance.
These flaws aside, I found myself challenged by Eagleton’s assertions in ways that I definitely did not expect. Where I thought I would find affirmation, I found confrontation. And though I may not be any closer to believing that Marxism can or will take hold in the Western world, I will, at the very least, have to restructure my reasons for thinking this.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is an editor at Patrol, columnist at Patheos, freelance writer, and educator. He holds degrees from Gordon College and University of Massachusetts–Boston. Currently living in Jersey City, he will be moving to his native Boston soon.