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Why Marx Was Right Kindle Edition
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Commonly, when an author comes to Marx's defense he or she is met with strident cries that when Marxism has been tried it has met with murderously disastrous results. Moreover, esteemed scholars such as Leszek Kolakowski and Eugene Genovese , Marxists in their youth, later concluded, no less polemically than Eagleton, that efforts to establish socialist societies were doomed not only to fail, but to almost certainly result in the tyranny and mass murder that befell Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's mainland China. However, author's with these mid-career changes in mindset are typically loathe to acknowledge that Marx would have emphatically judged that Russia and its underdeveloped neighbors in the first decades of the 20th Century, and China in the late 1940's were among the poorest choices for a revolution that would have led to establishment of effective socialist societies.
Marx's view of the conditions necessary for creation of socialism was that it be established in developed societies, not poor peasant domains ruled by a parasitic royalty or collections of barbaric war lords. In other words, in so far as Marx had a rudimentary prescription for development of a socialist society, it followed a requisite period of growth, industrialization, innovation, and diversification that typifies a mature capitalist social system. For better or worse, following Eagleton, the profit motive and its developmental outcomes necessarily laid the groundwork for emergence, gradual or with revolutionary suddenness, of a socialist society. Otherwise, there was too little to build on and too little to foster the development of human potential.
Notice that in addition to admiration for the innovative and economically productive nature of capitalism, according to Marx the transition to socialism need not involve bloodshed. It may or may not, but the decisive factor was recognition on the part of the population -- not a revolutionary elite, but citizens in general -- that capitalism had reached a point where the unending pursuit of capital accumulation was more destructive than beneficial. For example, Anthony Giddens reports in his recent book Turbulent and Mighty Continent that fully half of the world's available capital is not invested in productive activity, the kind that would create jobs and promote social and economic development. Has capitalism backed off from what it has always done best? Is this evidence of its obsolescence?
Given the foregoing observations, it's difficult to avoid thinking in terms of class, a concept once dismissed in the West as obsolete and reckoned in strictly cultural terms. It is clearly the case, however, that the capitalist mode of production is based on two fundamental classes, the one that owns and controls the means of production and finance, with members of the other, much larger class, working in whatever occupational positions capital makes available. Eagleton finds it useful, moreover, to recognize an intermediate middle class which, for the most part, is made up of members of the working class who are doing particularly well, at least for the short term. But the basic formulation is capital and proletariat.
The questions that usually follow an account such as this unmistakably imply that Marx was a leveler who wanted to create a world where any differences among people, especially with regard to material resources, were summarily eliminated. However, Marx never wrote anything to suggest that he was a leveler or that he wanted to establish person-to-person homogeneity with regard to much of anything. In fact, you'll find just the opposite if you read his essay on "Primitive Communism" in the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844."
Marx construed people, at birth, as possessing enormous potential for developing a broad range of talents. No two people were the same, and given that we have different interests and capabilities, the resources used by one would inevitably be more or less and different from the resources used by another. What Marx wanted was a society wherein self-actualization was more than just a quaint psychological concept from the 1940's that was kept alive by the authors of textbooks for undergraduates. Of course Marx wanted to eliminate the class-based society intrinsic to capitalism, but elimination of all material and other differences was sharply at odds with his perspective.
As one who assumed that we are all capable of producing ourselves in a variety of satisfying ways through the expenditure of intelligence, talent, and effort according to our natural capabilities, one might surmise that we have the key to Marx's understanding of human nature, something Marx termed "species being." This is the position Eagleton takes, and he develops it beautifully. I think, however, that Eagleton goes too far when he denies that Marx thought that human beings at birth were cognitively blank slates or tabula rasa.
As a materialist, meaning one who gives priority to experiential determination of the kind of people we find in any society, I think it makes a good deal of sense to invoke the blank slate metaphor. The potential for growth and development that Marx saw in each of us was promoted or thwarted, enhanced or diminished, realized or undercut by the social circumstances in which we lived. Capitalism created people whose life experiences made them combative, greedy, adversarial, demoralized, unnaturally limited ... simply by functioning according to its intrinsic, observable characteristics. A socialist society that did not provide a context within which human development was relatively unfettered by economic constraints was socialist in name only. Still, in spite the unflattering outcomes attributed to capitalism, it remained a necessary prerequisite to socialism. Capitalism provided socialism with its material foundation. It was only when the ethos of capitalism was overcome by a socialist point of view and socialist values that socialist society became possible.
But how does one imbue men and women with a socialist perspective? The very term "socialist," much as with "communist," has become in the U.S. a laughably profane political epithet. Only when everyday experience with the material world persuades the citizenry that capitalism has run its course, constrains productivity, and makes a good life ever harder to achieve will socialism become a tenable alternative to things as they are.
Given the current contradiction between prevailing anti-socialist mindsets in spite of deteriorating material circumstances, one can see why a transition from capitalism to socialism is so often dismissed as utopian nonsense. This, too, however, is something that Marx came to understand very well, and may help to explain why he never wavered in his commitment to the view that the nature of a genuinely socialist or communist society could not be precisely foreseen but had to emerge as a consequence of concrete historical development. In this and an impressive variety of additional ways, Eagleton gives compelling substance to the question "Was ever a thinker so travestied?"