Or, irritatingly on the front cover of the book (published by Yale University Press in 2011) “why marx was right” – as if this was some e.e.cummings poem! Anyway, overcoming that minor grievance, I was pre-disposed to like this book. That the ideas of Karl Marx have been too easily dismissed or overlooked since the end of Soviet communism in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s is undeniable. A well written demolition of the more prevalent myths about Marx was long overdue. But this isn’t it. In fact, I struggled so much with this that it joins the very short list of books I have tried to finish but failed.
The principal reason for this is Eagleton’s style. I am sure that what he was attempting to do was engage his audience and make the subject matter accessible, but his use of humour to do this is so wooden, at (most) times so inappropriate, so misjudged, as to make this almost unreadable. I started underlining some examples when I was still perserving with this book, but the pages soon were covered in lines. Here’s some random examples:
“Inequality is as natural to capitalism as narcissim and megolomania are to Hollywood” (pg 78)
“Change …is not the opposite of human nature; it is possible because of the creative, open-ended, unfinished beings we are. This, as far as we can tell, is not true of stoats.” (pg 81)
“If babies could get up and walk away at birth, a good deal of adult misery would be avoided, and not only in the sense that there would be no bawling brats to disturb our sleep” (pg 85) (Unpleasant turn of phrase there).
And so on and on relentlessly, “joke” after “joke” without any genuine humour at all. These may go down well as practiced asides in the lecture hall, but on the page they didn’t work at all. Neither do the constant popular culture, man of the people references to football or going down the pub – we all know Eagleton prefers cricket and white wine. We can spot a phoney a mile off.
Eagleton has clearly read every word of Marx, and huge numbers of other thinkers, critics and commentators, who are endlessly name-checked. Take this for example:
“As the philosopher John MacMurray comments,”Our knowledge of the workd is primarily an aspect of our action in the world.” “Men”, Marx writes in Heideggerian vein in his Comments of Wagner “do not in any way begin by finding themselves in a theoretical relationship to the things of the external world” (pg 142)
Hope you got that, because there will be a quiz?
Marx wrote a huge body of work, and in the course of his life obviously refined his position on many issues. If you have the time and energy therefore you can find support for most arguments somewhere in his writing. Eagleton’s job here wasn’t to manipulate that work to support a narrow view of Marxism, but to preserve the key ideas which needed repeating. But there’s the rub – if Marx’s ideas really needed translating, saving or defending by Eagleton, aren’t they in deep trouble already? Perhaps “why marx was right” is wrong?
Incidentally, when I first started reading this book one thing struck me, and that was the confidence of the title. Typically academics write in a far less direct way – Why it could be argued that in most respects Marx was correct”. No such hesitation here, Marx was right, others are wrong, and I’ll punch anyone who disagrees. I liked that – such a shame that the book goes so far off course.