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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right

If my Blog was called "Why Marx was Right" it would have many more visitors. And many more comments, since there is a large world-wide community of postgraduates who want to engage in exegetical dispute. As People of the Book, we could fight like fraternal ferrets in a sack. It could be great fun, if you are into that sort of fun.

How much fun was indicated by my previous post: Google returns over a million results for the phrase "Why Marx Was Right" and only a measly sixteen thousand for "Why Jesus Was Right".

Terry Eagleton is onto a winner.

The book itself is all right and good in parts, especially once you get past the first three chapters and into the philosophical anthropology which takes its inspiration from Marx's 1844 Manuscripts. It is the work of someone who has been a stout trouper for a humanist and fairly ecumenical Marxism over fifty years.

This fact does make the opening sentence look like rhetorical false naivety:

"This book had its origin in a single striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx's work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?" (p. ix)

That made me imagine the Pope starting a sermon, "I woke up this morning with a single striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Roman Catholicism are mistaken? Or at least ..."

I find it difficult to engage with People of the Book. It's an odd kind of intellectual life to poke around in the textual remains of a dead man, pulling out bits which you can flourish with a "See, he was right!"

In the case of Marx, there is an awful lot of text and it would be remarkable if you could find nothing to flourish. As a literary theorist, Eagleton knows that, just as he knows that the secret of a good interpretation is to keep it pretty general: "The End of the World is Nigh" not "The World will end on 20 January 2012".

I can understand the attraction of a Book which has an Answer to all Questions, especially when it allows you to skip class. That attracted me when I was eighteen. Then I realised that if you want to know anything you just have to study history, economics and all the rest and that it's never-ending. Of course, it's not theory-free but the object of science is not to preserve the theory ( to "save the appearances") but to advance understanding.

Terry Eagleton is a very, very well-read man but there are occasionally points where it's clear he has skipped a class - thus at page 180: "Surprisingly little blood was spilt in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. In fact, the actual takeover of key points in Moscow was accomplished without a shot being fired".

Er, Petrograd?*


* The Bolsheviks seized power in the capital, Petrograd, on the night of 24 - 25 October (Old Style) 1917. This was bloodless. The subsequent seizure of power in Moscow was not bloodless. Moscow became the capital of Russia in 1918.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

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