Book Reviews: ‘Why Marx Was Right’, ‘Speak for Britain!’, ‘The Political Economy of Development’

Marx was righter than this

Why Marx Was Right. By Terry Eagleton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) £16.99

Was Marx right? As Terry Eagleton points out in the preface to this book, of course he wasn’t. No thinker gets everything right, nor can any reasonable person expect them to. But was Marx “right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description”? In this sense, Eagleton says the answer is yes. And Eagleton is right.

As Eagleton puts it, you can tell capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism – people become aware of capitalism in crisis, just as an illness or injury makes you newly aware of the body you always took for granted. Thanks to the crisis, people all around the world are talking about capitalism again. How can this discussion become deeper and better-informed? Well, in all kinds of ways, but we can hardly ignore Marx’s body of work, which has “for long [been] the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of that system”, as Eagleton puts it. Marx was the first person to “identify the historical object known as capitalism – to show how it arose, by what laws it worked, and how it might be brought to an end”. That must surely be of interest to those who are wondering whether capitalism has a future.

What, then, could be more welcome and timely than a book that demonstrates why Marx was right, in what ways he was right, and the relevance of his ideas for political action? And who could be more relied upon to write a witty, engaging and accessible account of this than Terry Eagleton, the author of many justly popular books on subjects related to Marxism, and of regular witty essays and polemics pricking the pomposity of many of our culture’s most unjustly respected liberal thinkers? It would seem to be the perfect book for our time, written by the person perfectly placed to do the subject justice. Sadly, Eagleton lets us down.

Marxists reading this book may think twice about just what it is they’ve signed up for. Virulent anti-Marxists will wonder where all (what they consider to be) the most devastating arguments against Marxism are to be found. But most importantly, non-Marxists, politically interested, anti-capitalist or disillusioned working-class readers, are highly unlikely to be convinced by it either. Eagleton makes no effort to carefully define what Marx’s thought was, nor to compare it with the reality of everyday life under capitalism. Marx’s supreme achievement, as Eagleton says at the start of his book, was to identify an historical object known as capitalism, and show how it worked. But in the book’s 258 pages, we do not hear a word about Marx’s thought on that subject. We do not hear once just what capitalism is, or how it works. Instead, we are just exhorted to believe, from various vague pronouncements and polemical swipes, that capitalism is mostly a very bad and unjust thing. Quite why it is bad, or quite why it leads to such results, we are none the wiser.

As for what socialism is, we hear much more about that. But anyone who is familiar with Marx’s arguments about what capitalism is will wonder just what the difference between capitalism and the various forms of “socialism” Eagleton champions is supposed to be. Even if you’re not familiar with Marx’s arguments on this, anyone who reads Eagleton’s apologias for the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia and Mao’s China would be quite justified in snapping the book shut and concluding that their prejudices were quite correct after all: that Marx and socialism were things to be avoided at all costs. For Eagleton, these “socialisms” were “botched experiments”, a disgustingly coy way to describe the blood-soaked, anti-working-class tyrannies that imposed state-led, capitalist industrial development on economically backward countries. Whenever Eagleton does bump up against the occasional sensible argument, he quickly dismisses it as “ultra-left”, and veers off to the right – to the rightwing deviation, the senile disorder, of Leninism. Perhaps that’s why Eagleton can find room to mention approvingly or critically just about everything that has ever been dignified with the name of socialism apart from the idea, put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, of the “communistic abolition of buying and selling”. Genuine socialism is just too ultra-left for him.

This book is, then, a bitter disappointment and a wasted opportunity. The capitalist West is just emerging from a long period of illusion. As Eagleton points out, the illusion was not so much a deep belief in capitalism, but a disillusion about the possibility of changing it. “What helped to discredit Marxism above all, then,” says Eagleton, “was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda…” Change is back on the agenda. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains as astute and relevant as ever. But if you want to know why, you’ll have to go to better sources than this book.

Reformism Failed

Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party. By Martin Pugh (Vintage) £9.99.

It’s not often that an entry in a book’s index gives rise to a chuckle, but that’s the case here. Under ‘Thatcher, Margaret’, the index lists a few page references and then states, ‘see also Blair, Tony’.

In fact Pugh clearly has it in for Blair, regarding him as an essentially Conservative figure. ‘When he announced his intention of becoming an MP friends laughed and asked: “Really, which party?”’. He was easily impressed by strong personalities, not just Thatcher but also George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch. Blair was also keen to ingratiate himself with others, and in 1982 he wrote to the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, saying, ‘I came to Socialism through Marxism’ (not that he has a clue about either).

Pugh has a point when he says that it is not really so odd for Labour to have been led by a Conservative, for ex-Tories had previously played a prominent role in the Party (such as Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps). Tories and Labour agreed originally on issues such as protectionism, empire and alcohol, where Liberals took a different view. An internal Labour report of 1955 accepted ‘the absence of clearly defined differences between the parties’.

Unfortunately, Pugh gives too much emphasis to questions of leadership, claiming that the Labour Party has tended to choose the wrong leaders and then retain them for far too long. He uses the word ‘socialism’ a lot but never defines it, though he is no doubt correct in saying that Clause IV of the Labour constitution, with its commitment to nationalisation, was of largely symbolic value. Even Harold Wilson opposed its removal when Hugh Gaitskell tried to do away with it in 1959, though of course Blair achieved this in 1995.

Overall, Pugh gives a good factual picture of the Labour Party’s history, including its backing for wars and the British Empire, and its preparedness to undermine strikes. It  is odd, however, that he says virtually nothing about the actual formation of the Labour Party out of the Labour Representation Committee in 1906.

All Keynesians now?

The Political Economy of Development. Edited by Bayliss, Fine and Van Waeyenberge (Pluto Press) 2011

The subject of this book is the World Bank. Along with the International Monetary Fund, it was created by a UN conference at Bretton Woods USA in 1944. The original purpose of the Bank was to encourage post-war investment for reconstruction and development by making loans to governments. The Bank, based in Washington, went on to develop financial aid packages for the less developed countries around the world. Critics complained that this aid was conditional on accepting the ‘Washington Consensus’ on the need for implementing neo-liberal ideology – deregulation of markets, privatisation and a reduced role for the state. Since 1998 this has been replaced by the ‘Post-Washington Consensus’ in which the Bank promotes the market through state intervention. As the authors explain, ‘neo-liberalism has never been short of state intervention’. What is new, they argue, is the state-sponsored expansion of private financial institutions and services over the last three decades.

This book challenges the neo-liberal assumptions which still guide the Bank, and they provide detailed evidence of its failures. But what is the alternative? The authors pose the rhetorical question ‘Are we all Keynesians once more?’ with the clear implication that it is the only alternative. However, this conclusion lacks historical perspective. Keynesian economics (after the economist JM Keynes) is basically the belief that governments should intervene in the economy to spend their way out of trouble, and its failure to solve the problems of capitalism led to its replacement by faith in the market in the 1980s. (In practice, governments – even those who have formally repudiated Keynesianism – have intervened to prop-up their markets when necessary; especially in the current recession.) Neo-liberal faith in the market was bound to end in disillusion, but that does not vindicate an equally misplaced faith in Keynesian economics. Keynesianism and neo-liberalism are merely two policies for running capitalism.

Leave a Reply