Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why Marx Was Right - A Book Review

Terry Eagleton’s book looks at ten accusations against the political orientation of Karl Marx and shows why Marx’s ideas give us concrete answers to the problems we face today.

How many times have we heard the argument that the idea of communism is dead?  As far as the commercial media is concerned, the idea of communism died with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the infiltration of corporations into communist China.  Therefore, according to these commentators the ideas of Karl Marx, who is seen as the originator of communist politics must have been profoundly wrong.

In Terry Eagleton’s book Why Marx Was Right he explains that the only way anyone can reach this conclusion is if they have not read Marx, as well as his co-thinker Frederick Engels.  Much of Marx’s writings were an analysis of the capitalist system.  Marx argued that the normal functioning of capitalism undermines the interests of workers and farmers, who are the vast majority of the population. 

He also argued that the capitalist system needs to move towards complete economic collapse.  This is not because of mistakes made by people who have power, but because this is the only way that capitalism can function.

In 1929 there was an economic depression.  Banks closed, tens of millions of people lost their savings, and up to 30% of the working population was unemployed.

A rational person might think that if this did happen, the government, the media, as well as corporations would have made it their top priority to ensure this would never happen again.  After all, we work to have a better future along with health care, education, housing, and retirement.  How can we have any of these things if the banks close their doors?

Well, after working diligently to make sure that we would never have another depression, in the year 2008 the government informed us that we were on the verge of another depression.  In other words, while corporations pay about $160 billion in advertising to advise us as to how to spend our money, they have been working to advance a system that continues to move towards complete economic collapse.  Yet, the media pundits continue to argue that Marxism is dead.

Pro-capitalist economists argue that the way to fix the depression is with more or less government debt, or more or less government regulation.  These recipes ignore the fact that corporations and the government have had eighty-three years to come up with a plan to avoid depression and this did not happen.

Karl Marx had a different method of dealing with this crisis.  He called it “class struggle.”  Marx argued that the interests of working people and capitalists are antagonistic.  Working people have forced capitalists to grant certain reforms with respect to the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the movement against the war in Vietnam.  However, capitalists have been driven to continue to advance their agenda calling for more discrimination, a deteriorating standard of living for working people, and more wars.

Terry Eagleton argues that when we look at any day during thousands of years of history, we will see a time when the masses of people worked so a tiny minority might benefit.  Marx argued that this state of affairs has meant that human history is in reality a period of pre-history.  Only when we begin to live in a world where a government advances the human needs of the majority of the population will we begin to experience history.

While a workers or socialist government will advance the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population, Karl Marx called this kind of government a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Marx felt the need to use this language because he wanted to make it clear that a workers government would in no way represent the interests of capitalists.  Marx felt that only by advancing this perspective would there ever be a genuine democracy.

The naysayers of Marxism argue that the Soviet Union collapsed and today the Chinese government embraces capitalist enterprises.  Why would anyone support a system that has been largely abandoned?  In this area I disagree with Eagleton’s answer to the question.  Eagleton argues that the underdevelopment of Russia and China doomed these revolutions.  He argues that the way to build a socialist society is in a developed nation that has all the means to transform reality.

Clearly Eagleton is right in arguing that an underdeveloped nation like China had many obstacles we would not see in an advanced capitalist nation.  At the time of the Chinese revolution most of the population were peasants who lived in dire poverty, not knowing how to read, with no access to medical care.  Clearly, it will be easier to transition to socialism in a nation where most people have cars, computers, as well as washing machines.

However, Eagleton’s argument ignores the Cuban reality.  Cuba was an underdeveloped nation at the time of the revolution.  Today, Cuba has three times the number of doctors per-capita as the United States.  Infant mortality in Cuba is about three times lower than in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  While the standard of living has dramatically deteriorated in Russia and China, this has not happened in Cuba. 

Clearly Cuba continues to suffer from a lack of resources.  This is largely because of the trade embargo of the United States.  However, the Cuban example demonstrates that a socialist government can be advanced in any nation in the world today.

Most of Eagleton’s book is an argument against capitalist politics and economics.  The commercial media completely ignores these arguments and is dedicated to the idea that capitalism can be reformed.  As theses ideas continue to be crushed by the reality we face, more and more people will discover that Karl Marx had realistic answers to our problems.                        

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