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Marx in the American Academy: When Will its High Priests Ever Learn?

Ronald Radosh

For some reason, every time a modern capitalist economy faces a problem such as our current fiscal crisis here in the United States , members of the academy trout out Karl Marx as the solution. The latest example comes from The Chronicle Review, the literary supplement of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is written by the British activist and writer Terry Eagleton, and is based on his new book, Why Marx was Right.

We all are all too familiar with the fact that while the world is moving away from social-democracy, not to speak of Marxism as a philosophy, it always remains alive and well in our institutions of higher learning. Eagleton is too smart to not be unaware of the serious challenges to Marxism, especially the major defeat it suffered after the fall of the Soviet Union. So he acknowledges this at the start. He writes:

Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?

You know what is coming next, if you are even slightly bit familiar with the Left’s fallback position: Marx was not responsible for the wrong interpretations made of his work by the totalitarians of the last century. Sure enough, Eagleton argues that “Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.”

Eagleton asserts that Marx would have scorned the idea that anyone could ever believe that the socialist system he desired could be built in a backwards society like Russia or China that had not yet been modernized by the forces of capitalism. So why, then, did all of Eagleton’s comrades like the British historian Eric Hobsbawm support the Soviet Union through thick and thin, and bemoan its passing after it came to a crushing end?

Bypassing an answer to that query, Eagleton argues instead that Marx was right about what counted; the failure of capitalism to attain justice and prosperity for all; the failure to end colonialism and imperialism; etc. As he puts it, “Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? …is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality…?

Capitalism, Eagleton continues, was great at ending feudalism and modernizing the economies in the age of industrialism, and that is why Marx was “extravagant in his praise for the class that created it, a fact that both his critics and his disciples have conveniently suppressed.” That class, he writes, did a lot of good things, such as emancipated saves, fought for human freedom, and created a global civilization. Max appreciated and understood this, considering it major “historical achievement.”

But to Eagleton, once having developed society, the new developments brought forth new “possibilities of barbarism.” Hence, Eagleton- along with Marx-sees the solution in the social revolution Marx hoped would be carried out by the oppressed proletarians or working classes of the capitalist social order.

As one reads Eagleton, it is fairly clear that all he is offering is a re-written Marx for beginners. There is virtually nothing in his Chronicle Review article that presents anything a first year student of Marx would not have learned for himself upon a cursory reading of the Marxian classics. One thinks, therefore, that the editors of the learned weekly hoped that offering up this essay would again inspire more followers for Marx on the campus, as if there were not enough already.

The rest of Eagleton is apologia for Marx and rather unconvincing answers to the Left’s critics. If you point to “the proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China,” Eagleton has the easy answer: what about the “genocidal crimes of capitalism?” Fascism, resulting from capitalism, he reminds readers, was fought and defeated by “the self-sacrifice of the Soviet Union.” Does he actually believe that the Nazis lost because the Russian people believed in Communism? Does he not know that Stalin assumed the mantle of Russian nationalism, and that people fought to preserve Russia from submission to Nazi slavery, and not to create the Communist world believed in by Stalin?

As for his answer to Communist mass murders, he neglects the obvious fact that its supporters argued they were going to create a humane alternative to the horrors of capitalism, not a society that slaughtered millions in the name of their theory, and perpetrated deliberate horrors that were the byproduct of the system they created.

He also brags that Marxists warned “of the perils of fascism” while the leaders of the “so-called free world” where whitewashing Hitler. Again, he conveniently forgets the phony anti-fascism of Stalin, which masked his own preparations for mass purges, as well as his years of cooperation with Hitler that allowed fascism to triumph in Germany. And he has the nerve to argue that while today’s Marxists have no love for Stalin and Mao (he ignores those who still do, of course)he says non-Marxists defend Hiroshima. The latter is of course a historical question as to why the a-bomb was dropped, and has nothing to do with an economic and social system’s dependence on mass murder.

Next he compares our 9/11 to the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on 9/11 thirty years earlier than 2001. Despite the similarity of the date on which both events took place, again there is no valid comparison.

Eagleton has a brief moment of doubt; very brief. He writes that “radical change…may not be for the better.” Then he drops it, to argue that despite this, it has to be tried. And like Marx, Eagleton too has no blueprints of his own to offer on how we are to create the socialist paradise. What socialism has to offer, he tells us is “the right to lie around all day in loose crimson garments, sipping absinthe and reading the odd page of Homer to each other.” This kind of “free activity,” Eagleton says, Marx knew “had to be available to us all.”

Sure. It might work for Eagleton, a best-selling author who teaches a light load and has the time to lie around all day—-while others do the work he rejects because he believes the Marxist future promises it. As for violence, it does not have to take place. He tells us “The Bolshevik Revolution itself took place with remarkably little loss of life,” and the birth of the Soviet Union too occurred “with scarcely any bloodshed.”

That came later, after they bloodlessly took power in a military coup that overthrew the budding parliament and instituted Soviet rule. Eagleton thinks that all he has to call up is the day of the transfer of power to prove that revolution does not mean violence, as if the decades of bloodshed that followed had nothing to do with Soviet power.

So he hopes to convince readers that the Marxian future means only “pleasurable self-fulfillment.” It is the brother of liberal individualism, in which one realizes one’s own goals by guaranteeing that others at the same time realize theirs. See how simple it is? Under capitalism we work for our own benefit; but under socialism, we work for “the welfare of others.” So, comrades, let us proceed to build the socialist order. Marx is back on the agenda, he concludes, because of capitalism, whose crises of the present “have forced us once again to think of the setup under which we live,” and to return to Karl Marx for the answer.

I wish that instead of printing this drivel, the editors of The Chronicle Review would have reprinted the text of the speech the late Polish philosopher and former Marxist, Leszek Kolakowski, had given at Columbia University in the late 1980’s, which I attended, and was titled as I recall “What is Living and Dead in Marx?” Fortunately, a slightly different version of the speech was printed in First Things in 2002, under the title [3] “What is Left of Socialism?”

Now Kolakowski knew more than many others all there was to know about the history and philosophy of socialism and Marxism. His three volume Main Currents of Marxism is widely acknowledged now as a classic. No one has better explained its importance, and that of Kolakowski himself, than PJM’s contributor Roger Kimball, in this essay, Kolakowski, Kimball writes, “carried out a heroic demolition of Marxism.”

Perhaps that is why his work is so ignored today, and a charlatan like Eagleton is given so much space. Indeed, the essay now called “What is Left of Socialism?” is a great answer to the easy bromides of Eagleton. Reading it, one can immediately see the difference in the quality of the argument; the embarrassing polemic of Eagleton, which is hard to even compare to the serious analysis by Kolakowski. He gets to the essential in his first paragraph:

That Marx is worth reading is certain. The question is, however: Does his theory truly explain anything in our world and does it provide a ground for any predictions? The answer is, No. Another question is whether or not his theories were useful at one time. The answer is, obviously, Yes: they operated successfully as a set of slogans that were supposed to justify and glorify communism and the slavery that inevitably goes along with it.

As for Marx’s prophecies, Kolakowski was clear-minded: “All of Marx’s important prophecies … have turned out to be false.” Class polarization receded instead of deepened; the working class all but disappeared and dwindled; and proletarian revolution proved not to be inevitable, which Marx thought it was. One might say the 1981 Polish revolt led by Solidarity was led by the workers. But as Kolakowski notes of his countrymen, it was a revolution “directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.” Not exactly what Marx, or I think Eagleton today, had in mind.

A second error, he notes, is that Marx was wrong about market economies. Kolakowski points out that “Market economies have been shown to be extremely efficient in stimulating technological progress, whereas ‘real socialism’ turned out to be technologically stagnating.” Eagleton argues that Marx was the first ecologist, and the ecology movement today is carrying out Marx’s work. Had he read Kolakowski, Eagleton would find this:

Instead, there is hardly anything in Marxism that provides solutions to the many problems of our time, mainly because they were not urgent a century ago. As for ecological questions, we will find in Marx no more than a few romantic banalities about the unity of man with nature. Demographic problems are completely absent, apart from Marx's refusal to believe that anything like overpopulation in the absolute sense could ever occur. Neither may the dramatic problems of the Third World find help in his theory.

As for the socialist paradise his followers created, they all ended in the draconian totalitarianism of the last century, to which we have become all too familiar. Kolakowski argues that Marx’s theory, the one which Terry Eagleton wants us to adopt, “contributed strongly to the emergence of totalitarianism, and that it provided its ideological form. It anticipated the universal nationalization of everything, and thus the nationalization of human beings.”

So why, then, do so many serious and learned people in the American academy swear by Marx, and urge his theories be adopted? Again, the late philosopher has an answer: “One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy; even Sartre noticed that Marxists are lazy. Indeed, they enjoyed having one key to open all doors, one universally applicable explanation for everything, an instrument that makes it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.”

I hereby contend that is why Terry Eagleton is so popular, and in such demand. He lives well, has a beautiful home and life, and can write vacuous essays so lacking in intellectual integrity that he provides a good model for his fellow academics. They can write and polemicize, and have the university pay their salaries while they do so. They do not understand the wisdom of Kolakowski, who while acknowledging the imperfections of capitalism, points out the following:

Capitalism developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work—that is, man's greediness allowed to follow its course—whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human acts, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism.

He understands well that the equality desired by the Marxists cannot be created by institutional means. What can be created are new prison systems, in which scarcity is redistributed so that more people have little which they share , and those who rule- the apparatchiks- have what they want and what they take. Those who lived through really existing socialist societies, like Kolakowski did, came to realize that equality was not created. What developed was far worse than anything that had existed in the societies they had replaced.

The early 19th century socialists had, in fact, fought for good things: fair taxation, educational reform, women’s rights, racial equality, religious tolerance, and the like. They represented, Kolakowsi writes, “the best in European political life.” But the socialism of the last century was that of the Leninist-Stalinist tradition. The irony is, and this perhaps is Kolakowski’s greatest insight, that what the reform socialists fought for so valiantly were “in fact realized in democratic countries operating within market economies.” It is in this sense that the historian Martin J. Sklar has continually argued that the United States in its present form is in fact the realization of the socialist dream of old.

So, let us reject Terry Eagleton’s entreaties, and with Kolakowski, realize that “fraternity under compulsion is the most malignant idea devised in modern times.” Socialism, as he concludes, “is a kingdom of lies.”

When will the editors of the journals of the American academy realize this, and stop using their presses to continue to lie to us?

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