Why Marx Was Right

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Review by Don Milligan

Why Marx Was Right
Terry Eagleton

New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-300-18153-1 Pbk

“Was ever a thinker so travestied?”

T

erry Eagleton ends Why Marx Was Right with this
rhetorical question: “Was ever a thinker so travestied?” This is a fitting end to a book which is a lament for the wicked ways of a world that has done so
much damage to the thought and legacy of Karl Marx, piling
misconception upon misconception, so that the emancipatory promise of the great man’s books and pamphlets has sunk under the weight of lies and half truths.
Over the course of ten chapters Eagleton discusses the
falsification of Marx’s approach to human nature, economic life, materialism, class, the state, and violent revolution. He challenges the notion that Marx’s ideas are outmoded and
that the ‘new social movements’ gathered around the banners of anti-capitalism and alter-globalization represent, in any essential sense, a departure from Marx’s struggle for a better future.
Marx’s utopianism was derived from the real world of the
present, from the way in which the antagonistic social relations characteristic of capitalism, contain the seeds of a communist future, which is always gleaned from the present.
Capitalism has produced untold wealth, the capacity to feed, house, clothe, and educate, everybody on the planet, from
this we can see that Marx’s belief that the future could be “a vast improvement on the present” (100) becomes an entirely plausible, even modest, aspiration, if only we could find a
way to overcome the barriers to achieving a fairer distribution of wealth.

© 2012 Don Milligan, Review of Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, posted at www.donmilligan.net, April 23, 2012.

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“Would everything be perfect in this communist paradise
of yours?”
“No, of course not”, replies Eagleton,
“[. . .] there would be plenty of problems, a host of
conflicts and a number of irreparable tragedies. There
would be child murders, road accidents, wretchedly bad
novels, lethal jealousies, overweening ambitions, tasteless
trousers and inconsolable grief. There might also be some
cleaning of the latrines.” (101)
Eagleton ends the litany of woes that might beset the
communist future with the “cleaning of latrines”, no doubt, as a way of emphasizing, “Marxists are hardheaded types
who are sceptical of high-minded moralism and wary of
idealism.” (77) But still, “latrines” is an odd choice of words with an audience more familiar with cleaning toilets, bathrooms, or even lavatories. “Latrines” has a military or temporary ring about it, something one might find in a refugee camp; I can almost see comrade Eagleton, shovel in hand,

digging the ditch for us all to shit in.
Despite these lapses of taste, Eagleton has done a good
job in correcting a mass of misconceptions concerning
Marx’s thought. He is at his best in Chapter Three when
discussing determinism and Marx’s conception of history
and social change, and at his worst in Chapter Six when
attempting to place Marx’s materialism within the tradition of European philosophical thought. Eagleton’s presentation of the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ is shoddy to say the least, and his asides about Locke and Hume (137) are lazy

and one-sided. Doubtless he has been lead into these
infelicities and slips by his resolutely jaunty and upbeat tone; it is a tone maintained throughout the book, which I imagine is calculated to help readers unfamiliar with Marxist theory to grasp the scale of the distortions that have taken place. On the whole this book successfully defends Marx from

what E. P. Thompson might have called the “enormous
condescension of history”. Marx was a vivid and complicated thinker. A man committed to finding a way forward so

© 2012 Don Milligan, Review of Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, posted at www.donmilligan.net, April 23, 2012.

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that most people might be freed from the...
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