In a recent review, I criticized Ernesto Laclau for failing to decide who his intended audience was and writing consistently for that audience. The good news about Terry Eagleton’s new book Why Marx Was Right is that Eagleton is very clear on who he is writing for. His audience consists of hopeless illiterates who have fallen off a pumpkin cart fifteen seconds ago and have hit their heads against the ground really hard in the process. Nobody else would buy into the author’s truly egregious prevarications. I use the word “prevarication” with full understanding of what it implies. Eagleton is a highly erudite person, and it is simply not possible that in this book he speaks out of ignorance. To give an example, at the very beginning of Why Marx Was Right, Eagleton mentions that Marx drew his conclusions on basis of observing the
extraordinarily violent process by which an urban working class had been forged out of an uprooted peasantry in his own adopted country of England—a process which Brazil, China, Russia and India are living through today
The idea of uprooted peasants in today’s Russia is completely bizarre. All of Russia’s peasants were uprooted with the goal of creating an urban working class out of them during Stalin’s industrialization. I know that Marxists are given to wild leaps of imagination but, surely, not to the extent of imagining crowds of uprooted peasants marching through a country that has been heavily industrialized for decades?
Another equally ridiculous statement comes when Eagleton begins to enumerate the so-called achievements of the Soviet Union, a task he engages in with the earnestness of a brainless male cheer-leader:
Soviet Union played a heroic role in combating the evil of fascism, as well as in helping to topple colonialist powers. It also fostered the kind of solidarity among its citizens that Western nations seem able to muster only when they are killing the natives of other lands.
Given that the Soviet Union brought Hitler to power and promoted the imperialist goals of the Russian Empire, this statement sounds, at the very least, disingenuous. Eagleton’s suggestion that it “fostered solidarity among its citizens” is equally confusing since it is common knowledge that the Soviet Union exploded in a mass of ethnic conflicts beginning in 1989. These ethnic conflicts and their attendant genocides are still going on in many of the former Republics of the Soviet Union. I wonder if Eagleton ever heard the word “Chechnya” or asked himself which historical events promoted the feelings of solidarity that are still making the Russians and the Chechens slaughter each other. (In case you don’t know, in 1944 Stalin deported the entire Chechen and Ingush population, consisting approximately of 400,000 people to Siberia. About 30% of Chechens died during the deportation.) One has to be either completely cynical or in the throes of a massive attack of Alzheimer’s to use the word “solidarity” to describe the horrible relations between the different ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.
Eagleton is equally annoying when he pontificates about “the loss of women’s rights” that the collapse of the Soviet Union supposedly brought about. He gives no examples, of course, which is a shame because, as a woman who has lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, I would surely love to hear which of my rights were lost as the Soviet Union fell apart.
Does Eagleton refer to the right to abortion as the only form of contraception available in the Soviet Union, which led many women to undergo dozens of abortions within their lifetime? Abortion is still free and legal in the non-Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Now, however, people have easy access to condoms, oral contraceptives, IUDs, patches, etc. Absolutely none of this was available to the citizens of the USSR.
Maybe Eagleton is talking about the horrifying sexual harassment that existed everywhere in the USSR and for which there was no legal remedy? It is still present everywhere in the FSU (former Soviet Union), but at least now there are people who have discovered the word “feminism” and are speaking out against it.
Is it possible that Eagleton is talking about the absolute lack of any hygienic aides to menstruation? Now, women of the FSU have the same choice of tampons and sanitary pads as women in all developed countries. And if you think that this is not a big deal, I strongly suggest you go through a single menstruation with no methods of hygiene available to you. (And please don’t ask me why we didn’t just use cotton wool and gauze. It was easier to encounter diamonds growing on fir-trees than buy cotton wool and gauze in the Soviet Union).
(To be continued. . .)
19 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right: A Review, Part I”
Not his best, right? I only read half way through it, which is very uncommon in my case.
When I first read what he said about solidarity, all I thought was “wasn’t it the Solidarity movement that brought Poland out of the Soviet Union?” The Soviet government was against it, not supporting it.
And imperialism by nature is a type of ethnic conflict. I fail to see how Eagleton could forget about that.
The 1st and 3rd points you make about “position of women”, i.e. the lack of contraceptive and menstruation aids, might have something to do with economic progress. The Soviet Union was insular and the average person was not materially prosperous. I’m sure women in all developing countries face these problems. And material progress helps both men and women improve the quality of their lifestyles.
I am wondering, if there has been any real progress as far as the relative status or empowerment of women is concerned, in Russian society post-Communism? As far as I can tell modern Russia is controlled by a few oligarchs (who are all rich and powerful alpha males) and that I think does not bode very well for the status of women in a society. I brought this up as I am curious what your views about this are, and also because I think these factors should be considered when considering whether the fall of the Soviet union was relatively better for women (I am sure it benefited a lot of people, but did it benefit women more than men, for example?)
Nothing in the Soviet Union happened by chance. The absence of contraceptives and hygienic aides, as well as Nazi-style gynecology (anybody who tried it knows that I’m not exaggerating) were aimed at alienating women from their bodies. It’s a well-tested patriarchal strategy that represses the entire society by making women hate their own bodies.
In Russia I’m not seeing much progress in terms of women’s rights. In Ukraine, there definitely is. Look at all the female politicians. But Ukraine is historically much more progressive in that respect.
I don’t think one could say who benefited more from the collapse of the Soviet Union in terms of gender. The collapse hit men harder, I’d say. In the 90ies, in most regular families, women were the ones who kept working and trying to get the family to survive while men were just depressed and passive. It got better since then, I think. I left in 1998, so it’s difficult for me to say with any degree of certainty how exactly things are now.
I’ve always been an Eagleton skeptic, I have to say. He can write engaging sentences, but I’ve always find him impossibly glib. I see this too in a book that you like a lot better than this one, his attempted refutation of the “new atheists.”
His greatest “sin”, in my eyes, is that he abandoned literary criticism for the sake of this. I will write about that in the second part of my review.
I agree with this comment.
I meant Mayhew’s – although I don’t disagree with your reply. But then I’ve always found TE mechanistic, unsubtle, not a deep reader, etc. Actually he sort of reminds me of Jean Franco, encyclopedic and with some valuable insights, but rather cookie-cutterish in the end.
Oh, how can you? 🙂 Eagleton has his faults but Jean Franco he is not. That’s a very mean thing to say about a person. 🙂
I agree with myself too. I never found Eagleton to be good even in the days when he was mainly a literary critic and theorist, so I can’t be disappointed at his supposed falling off. MIchael Berube called his introduction to literary theory “a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student.” He was also a “vulgar Marxist,” as we used to say.
The Jean Franco remark made me crack up, because I came to know Jean and Eagleton’s work at exactly the same time. Hence my antipathy toward Marxist literary criticism.
Eagleton meant his Intro to Literary Theory not for serious students but for the general public. I think it is a very noble goal that requires very unique skills to be able to make theory exciting for people who don’t specialize in it.
Pretty much the book has been used as a textbook. I know I’ve seen it used like that numerous times. I’m sure members of the “general public” have read it too, but do they deserve something so unreliable?
It’s only unreliable in the sense that he had to skip much of the theoretical debate surrounding each issue and simplify it a lot. This is a completely different genre from the genre of academic writing and it can’t be judged according to the same criteria.
That’s not why I think it’s unreliable. He has a Marxist agenda in this book and is reading all other theories through that prism. It is book with a tendentious argument disguised as an introduction to the subject matter. I have a hard time seeing it as a non-academic book that should be judged by a lesser standard.
The kind of thing I object to in this book is this: “It became less
and less clear how responding to Marvell around the seminar table
was to transform the mechanized labour of factory workers.” I would think you would object to it as well, since you had to endure a Marxist-Leninist pedagogy yourself, as you note in your post.
Yes, this quote is just sad. Do people really think this way or is it just a pose?
A minor historical disagreement…what do you mean by “the Soviet Union brought Hitler to power?” It was my understanding at least until the 1937-38 purges, the USSR was supporting the German Communist Party (KPD), which was one of the biggest opposition forces to the Nazis until Hitler consolidated his power?
Stalin prevented Germany’s Communists and Socialists from presenting a united front during the elections, assuring Hitler’s rise to power. German Communists practically begged him to let them show solidarity with the Socialists to defeat Hitler but Stalin’s position in the Komintern was adamant. It was Stalin’s most cherished project to bring Hitler to power and see him start a war in Europe. Then, Stalin could ride in as a savior and take European countries into the Communist fold. As we know, he succeeded halfway.
“This same leader who did so much to defeat Hitler, pushed a political line on the communist movement, especially the German Communist Party, the largest Communist Party in the world at that time outside the Soviet Union, that directly led to the Nazi conquest of power. There is no plausible excuse that can exonerate Stalin from the utterly disastrous line he ruthlessly enforced on the Communist International that the Social Democrats were as dangerous or even more dangerous than the fascists. On page 174 of the CPUSA’s platform for the 1932 election, William Z. Foster explained Stalin’s basic idea that was so disastrous to the workers movement in Germany, “One of the basic features of this trend of world capitalism towards Fascism is the gradual fasciszation of the conservative trade unions and Socialist parties” (Toward Soviet America, Foster pp. 174) .This sectarian concept made it impossible for the German CP to lead the working class of Germany to a United Front against Hitler.
The Social Democratic Party and the German Communists together outnumbered the Nazi’s for a long time. In the last election free of mass Nazi terror, the July 1932 election, their votes combined almost directly equaled the Nazi vote. The combined “Working Class Left” polled 36.2 percent of the vote and the Nazi vote was 37.4 percent. “Virtually all serious analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of Nazi electoral support came from Protestant lower middle class people who previously had voted for the bourgeois parties, or had not voted at all… the bourgeois parties net loss was 31.2 percentage points … the Marxist parties picked up voters” (German Social Democracy 1918-1933, Richard Hunt pp. 117-119). United, the German working class would have had a real fighting chance to beat the Nazis with strikes, mass protest, and armed struggle if necessary. Divided, there was no chance at all. ”
Thanks for the clarification!