Tom Phillips explores Terry Eagleton's recent IaI lecture and talks Marx, capitalism and caricatures.
In an attempt to counter our habitual tendency to caricature Marxism, Terry Eagleton unveils a number of largely unknown, or indeed ignored, truths about Marx's position in his talk 'Why Marx Was Right'.
He begins by noting that Marx in fact had a deep respect for capitalism. Early capitalism enabled the rising middle classes to sweep away many of the ancien régimes of Western Europe, thus leading Marx himself to believe that a further, more comprehensive socialist revolution could be possible. Marx celebrated the transformative capacity of capitalism - he heralded it as a transitional platform. He had, in Eagleton's words, 'undying praise for' the capitalist middle class.
It is therefore clearly wrong to caricature Marx, as is so often the case, as the fuming opponent of all things capitalist. But why do we do it so often? Is it through sheer ignorance and naivety? Or, do we do so because we want to, because we feel we need to? I would suggest that many people in the 21st century caricature Marx because it serves them to. The answer lies in the major dichotomy between the capitalism Marx knew, and the capitalism we live under today.
In the post-industrial societies of the west, capitalism increasingly flatters to deceive as a force for progress. We are becoming evermore sceptical of its capacity to transfrom our lives for the good. Unable to appreciate capitalism as an agent of transition as Marx himself could, and left to lament increasing inequality in capitalist socieities, those on the left find solace in casting Marx as capitalism's antipode.
The right also has good reason to caricature Marx in this vain. The failed socialist regimes of the 20th Century added fuel and fire to the right's unerring belief in capitalism and staunch rejection of collectivism. It suits the right perfectly to cast Marx as capitalism-hater-in-chief.
Eagleton is right in arguing that our propensity to caricature Marx flows from mostly from 'banal received wisdom'. But that is not the whole story. We also actively seek to caricature Marx, because it serves us to. Upholding the myth that Marx detested capitalism offers people on the left and the right solace, hope and clarity.