Review: Terry Eagleton. Why Marx was Right. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. (A Giddiyap Society Book Selection.) Available from Powell's, a unionized bookstore.

When we were young and sexist there's a game we used to play in the cafés of Paris: you sit and watch the passersby and rate them. One means "that one's for my landlord." Two means "that's for my kid brother (or sister. Hey.)" Three means "That's the one for me." Eagleton's little book is not something you'd want to pass on to your landlord. It's something you should seriously consider passing on to your brother or your sister, especially the one who lives in Idaho. And of course, you should buy a bunch of copies for the Giddiyap Society: a thoughtful gift for the next occupant of your lonely hotel room; but if you're serious and knowledgeable about Marxism it's a quick slog.

Anyhow, the book isn't about Marxism; it's about the ideas of Karl Marx. Eagleton comes across like a Christian trying to talk about Jesus without bringing in Organized Religion, which is what you'd expect from someone who calls himself a Marxist while acknowledging the importance of his Irish Catholic upbringing.

Eagleton sets out to justify Marx's ways to Americans and others in the reasonable, chatty, chastely hip tones of the British clerical class, with dry witticisms strewn here and there, though some are good enough to be sound-bites or maybe even bumper stickers. The book divides into ten chapters, each dealing with a standard liberal accusation about Marxism—not the kind of wack-job nonsense you get from pimple-faces and talking heads, mind you, the kind of reasonably misinformed chatter you'd hear from your colleagues in the Faculty dining room, or the type of understated red-baiting you might hear on Charlie Rose. Naturally the issue of Marxist messianism is one of his strongest points, and it hands him some of his best one-liners, for instance:

"It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures."

Any one taking an advanced degree in Marxism should be required to pass a crash course in Dealing with Red-Baiting. Eagleton has had his share, but here he's non-confrontational to the point of casuistry. His Introduction offers a reasoned explanation for the fact that "between 1976 and 1986 the case for Marxism collapsed," without pointing out the obvious: that the "case" collapsed in part because of unrelenting attacks in the academy and out. As David Harvey put it to Charlie Rose, "McCarthy won." Nor does Eagleton take up those questions that Marxists themselves find most vexing, morally—the ethics of violence, for instance. And when Eagleton demurs that Marxism is not a "Theory of Everything" one is tempted to shout back at the page that of course it's not: Marxism isn't a theory to begin with, it's a dialectical practice, hence it has the potential to apprehend everything—hasn't the man read Hegel and Sartre?

There's an expression current in America: "Cafeteria Catholic." A CC is a person brought up as a Catholic (as Eagleton was), and who feels he or she can pick or choose, say, to practice birth control and oppose the death penalty, or vice-versa. Is there such a thing as a "Cafeteria Marxist" or a "Cafeteria Jew" or a "Cafeteria Capitalist?" The answer would depend on whether one wanted to believe in Marx (or Jesus, or John D. Rockefeller), or whether one found Marx, for instance, or the Bible, or the Collected Works of Ludwig von Mises, to be a useful analytical tool. Eagleton falls into the category of believers. I don't. Why Marx was Right is a cafeteria book, a sampler for the uninitiated, the book you pick up in a moment of boredom, a Gideon's Bible for the Comrade Hilton.

[8/15/2012; last revised 2/12/2012]

- Hoipolloi Cassidy.

Executive Director,
The Giddiyap Society.