The English Marxist and cultural critic has a piece up at The Chronicle Review dubbed “In Praise of Marx.”

He begins by disavowing the connection between Marx and RES (“Real Existing Socialism,” not Eagleton’s term) by claiming that Marx is “no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.” Perhaps, but I wonder if the immense difference in the passage of time between the theorist and the execution of their ideas strains this analogy. But putting that aside, he absolves Marx because he never intended for Communism to be put in to practice in backward countries like Russia, et al., nor would he defend the obviously anti-democratic nature of RES. This is all well and good, but he then goes on to spend more time criticizing Capitalism and defending western communists than he does interrogating RES for what it in fact was, if not the ideas of Marx in practice (mediated by professional revolutionaries).

Interestingly, Eagleton does not in fact say that the Soviet Union and the CCCP were not Socialism, something I’ve heard from many a leftist. It’s implied in his refusal to link Marx to those regimes, but his focus on the failings/crimes of Capitalism leads me to think he’s willing to admit they were, but that, well, their “opposite” is worse. Indeed, like a card carrying member of the Communist Party of mid-century, he appears to consider Fascism Communism’s opposite. Genocide and “extermination” are thrown in for good measure to bulk up the general category anti-Marxism (read “Capitalism”) and render it on the whole worse than Communism. (As if extermination and ethnic cleansing weren’t features of Communism too?) I find this quote telling:

Some critics of Marx point with proper outrage to the mass murders in Communist Russia and China. They do not usually recall with equal indignation the genocidal crimes of capitalism: the late-19th-century famines in Asia and Africa in which untold millions perished; the carnage of the First World War, in which imperialist nations massacred one another’s working men in the struggle for global resources; and the horrors of fascism, a regime to which capitalism tends to resort when its back is to the wall.

Is this a fair juxtaposition? Which “genocidal crimes of capitalism” is he thinking of here? Were late 19th century famines carried out in the name of Adam Smith, Carl Menger or Frederic Bastiat, with statues of their likeness adorning public spaces under the jurisdiction of colonial regimes? In the case of Fascism, that regime (or “those regimes” if you want to get loose with it) specifically denounced capitalism (and its rhetorical sibling, “plutocracy”), a fact worth mentioning. Unlike RES, they didn’t even pay their supposed economic system lip service. In this effort at forced symmetry, Eagleton overlooks the obviously highly ideological nature of the Communist regimes in question, while attributing an explicitly “Capitalist” character to a diverse collection of phenomena little inspired by the theoretical nature of the battle between liberal economics and Marxism. Nationalism, mercantilism, colonialism – none of these were the anti-Marx per se, much less self-conscious embodiments of free enterprise. The false dichotomies continue:

Almost all followers of Marx today reject the villainies of Stalin and Mao, while many non-Marxists would still vigorously defend the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima.

He contrasts two dictators responsible for millions of deaths across many decades to two acts of destruction carried out during wartime – in a war against Fascism no less!

Modern capitalist nations are for the most part the fruit of a history of genocide, violence, and extermination every bit as abhorrent as the crimes of Communism.

This is unfair. This is like saying that everything in Russia that came before the Bolsheviks is the fault of the Bolsheviks. What we’re comparing are the crimes of Communism vs. the crimes of Capitalism, as expressed by those who declare themselves to be one or the other. Or maybe we’re not? I’m not sure. The author makes it difficult to know.

Eagleton unfortunately takes what could be a discussion about the relative responsibility for creative synthesizers such as Marx for political action taken in their name and puts it in the service of contemporary partisanship, including an obligatory swipe at Fox News for neglecting the “other” 9/11, namely that of Chilean president Allende’s 1971 overthrow with US help. As if Fox or CNN or any other domestic news source would ever find it sensible to give equal time to both events.

And of course there’s this blockbuster quote:

How does this moral goal differ from liberal individualism? The difference is that to achieve true self-fulfillment, human beings for Marx must find it in and through one another. It is not just a question of each doing his or her own thing in grand isolation from others. That would not even be possible. The other must become the ground of one’s own self-realization, at the same time as he or she provides the condition for one’s own. At the interpersonal level, this is known as love. At the political level, it is known as socialism.


None of this is to say that Marx was responsible for Communism, just that relatively speaking his ideas would appear to have more to do with RES than the idea generators of what we call  “free enterprise,” “capitalism” (and I suppose “neo-liberal economics”) have to do with, well, all those things Eagleton really dislikes.

*I should add that if it’s in fact true that Marx himself coined the term “capitalism,” then Eagleton’s argument probably holds, but at the expense of critical analysis itself. If Marx gets to define what Capitalism is no matter how much the “bourgeois economists” might protest, then no sincere debate can take place.