*Why Marx was Right*

That’s the new Terry Eagleton book, which apparently needs no subtitle.  Most of the claims in the book are correct, and they debunk superficial or incorrect readings of Marx.  In that regard it is useful and it is also clearly written.  Still, I have to judge it as a bad book, for instance:

But the so-called socialist system had its achievements, too.  China and the Soviet Union dragged their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world, at however horrific a human cost; and the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West.


Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task.  It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves.


…there is a paradoxical sense in which Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx’s work, bears witness to its validity.

Try this one:

Revolution is generally thought to be the opposite of democracy, as the work of sinister underground minorities out to subvert the will of the majority.  In fact, as a process by which men and women assume power over their own existence through popular councils and assemblies, it is a great deal more democratic than anything on offer at the moment.  The Bolsheviks had an impressive record of open controversy within their ranks, and the idea that they should rule the country as the only political party was no part of their original programme.

Ahem.  Terry Eagleton…telephone!



Guess which book occupies spots 1 AND 2 on the Marxism-category bestseller list? No peeking!

There are layers of implications here.

Its hard to disagree with the first point. Its well documented that growth under communism in Russia was higher than when it liberalised markets.

"growth" in the abstract is a patently stupid concept.

I think it's the glib "gotta break eggs to break an omelet" aside that you should be looking at, Z.

As for the hostility of the West, an footnote by A.J.P. Taylor points towards the correction to Eagleton:

"Lenin wrote: 'We will support Henderson as a rope supports a man who is hanged.' It is curious how Communists used outrageous phrases publicly and were indignant when these phrases were turned against them." (English History 1914-1945, 143 n.)

Curious indeed. Given what the Communists were saying about inciting revolution in the West, it would have been odd if the West had *not* been hostile to them.

You're surely not saying that the same applies to China, are you? Or Vietnam? What about North Korea versus South Korea? The Soviet Union screwed up its 'liberalization' of markets and is now experimenting with corrupt anarchy, not well-regulated free markets. Their ineptitude doesn't change the general trend, particularly when you look at how far the Soviet Union was falling behind developed countries every year under communism.

The lesson of the Soviet Union's transition is that there's more than one bad system in existence, but to say that communism might actually be slightly better than the worst system imaginable isn't saying much. Communism doesn't work, and neither does a corrupt free-for-all. If Russia ever tries to build a modern economy and government, they'll finally start to see results. China still has a long way to go but is at least headed in the right direction.

"The Soviet Union screwed up its ‘liberalization’ of markets and is now experimenting with corrupt anarchy, not well-regulated free markets". This is the same defense I hear from communists "the soviet union wasn't real communism as we envisage".

Yes, but the communists don't mention China, South Korea, Vietnam, Zimbabwe. Cuba or the many other counter-examples which go against the point that they're trying to make. Communism has been tried over and over and over again, and it has never once worked well.

On the other hand, I said that Russia wasn't a good example and gave many cases that went the opposite way. If Russia is the only case that has worked this way, while all others went in the opposite direction, then it makes sense to argue that Russia is unusual; whereas the communists say over and over again that virtually of the cases are unusual examples, yet they can't point to even one case that was truly 'usual' by their definition. All they can say is that, yes, the Soviet Union vastly underperformed, but maybe there's a chance that they might have underperformed even worse under even worse management, as hard as it would have been to be even worse than communism.

The point about China is completely and utterly wrong. 60million dead in the great leap forward and china was still poorer than Africa in the late 70s. They didn't begin to industrialize until they abandoned communism.

This lazy "review" tells me nothing.

It sounds like she's talking about management rather than economy. If so, sure.

If Marx had added "...but don't shoot people." He might have been onto something.

He. Terry Eagleton is a guy.

By some definitions of "guy", at least.

You should do a blogging heads with him on this topic. If he is remotely as honest as Singer was, it could be sublime.

PS: Don't forget to check out his smoking LRB review of Dawkins' anti-religion screed.

The last quote is half true and half false, and (as quoted without context) gives a false impression. The first two sentences are true about the February revolution. The October revolution wasn't a popular revolution but a coup-d'-etat, masterfully executed by Trotsky and Antonov-Ovsienko, and as such it was 'the work of sinister underground minorities out to subvert the will of the majority' (Bolsheviks were not in the majority even in Petrograd at that time, although their agitators and activists might have been the most active). The idea that Bolsheviks were to rule the country as the only political party might not have been part of their early programme for some values of 'their', but it was very much part of Lenin's programme (cf. Lenin, "What to do", 1902).
There being no preview at Google books I cannot say what Mr. Eagleton meant by the Stalinism quote, but Voslensky ("Nomenklatura") makes a good case that this statement is actually correct.

"masterfully executed by Trotsky and Antonov-Ovsienko"

Please don't forget Charles R. Crane.

What is a good book on Marx? I read Francis weens, is the next step actually trading Marx?

Read Kolakowski's three volume work "Main Currents of Marxism":


It's an intelligent and brutal take down of Marx (albeit more from a philosophical perspective).

One thing that's undoubtedly true is that Marx was an awful philosopher.

Thanks thehova. I find it slightly ironic that 'reading Marx' autocorrects to 'trading marx'. Apologies for the spilling mistake.

Sowell on Marx, highly recommended:


(Apparently he is not a she. Darn that name gender creep.)

As a general rule, Terry with a "y" is a guy. Terri with an "i" is a woman...

As a general rule, you can't say anything about Terry with a "y." Terry Farrell (actress on ST:DS9). Terry Moore (film actress of the 40s and 50s). Terry Castle (literary critic).

It hardly seems fair to quote Eagleton on the "achievements" of Mao and Stalin, with no context, and without noting that he immediately afterwards writes:

"Even so, the gains of Communism scarcely outweigh the losses. It may be that some kind of dictatorial government was well-nigh inevitable in the atrocious conditions of the early Soviet Union; but this did not have to mean Stalinism, or anything like it. Taken overall, Maoism and Stalinism were botched, bloody experiments"

I think this is largely right. To me there would be an ideal system for an agricultural country trying to develop where inefficient farmers are forcibly relocated to factories and cities. At that point after a cxertain period of training and acclimation begin to liberalize quickly. Of course this is a fairy tale of unbelievable proportions to think that one could switch from command to liberal economies at any rapid speed.

The Internet: Infinite space for everything except context


I'm stealing this line.

None of those sentiments that you quote are true. Most certainly it was not "hostility of the West" that was the problem--this stands history on its head. The Soviets pulled themselves completely out of the financial system of the West. Thy cut off all ties with the internal fnincail system. It was their "hostility toward the West" that aggravated matters hampered recovery from WW1. This is the standard chestnut of Marxist: The historical catastrophes of Socialist governments are not due to anything instrinsic to Socialism but due to "outside villains".

This is, of course, yet another "Big Lie".

This is all just revisionist nonsense. The historical case against Marxism is as clear as any in history. Pampered left-wing ideologues in the West who sit in thier studies and have superficial and ill-inform(ed and out right dishonest) "musings" about Marxism are morally and intellectual compromised and should be ignored. There is nothing new about such folks publishing their claptrap. What is new is that any serious person would not see through the game at this point in history.

Pure propaganda, and of the most puerile sort.

Did you mean to swing sticks at ghosts? Or are you a troll?

Hattip: Well put, I tip my hat to you.

The industrialization of Russia, BTW, did not start with the Soviets.

Turning agricultural serf into "industrial Serfs" is hardly "raising people into "the modern age".

Some commenters are terming these quotes as "half truths" when in fact they are mostly just clever lies.

"The industrialization of Russia, BTW, did not start with the Soviets."
True. In fact, one of the underlying tensions that led to WWI was Russia’s rapid industrial growth. The Germans were terrified of being squeezed between powerful, industrialized nations to the West (France) and to the East (Russia).

Russia had tripled its coal, iron and steel production between 1890 and 1900, and railroad construction doubled – leaving Russia with more railroad mileage than any country other than the USA.

Of course I haven’t read Eagleton’s book, and these quotes may be out of context – but I’ve heard it said many times by Soviet apologists that pre-1917 Russia was a medieval agrarian economy, and it is just not true.

As a non-"Soviet apologist" maybe you'll understand when I say that pre-1917 Russia was a _mostly_ medieval agrarian economy. Also, maybe stop pretending "Soviet apologists" are topical people, even in this context? Just so much poor thinking in this thread.

You know what, you have a point, I over-stretched. It is fair to say that Russia had a mostly medieval-style agrarian economy, with a small but rapidly growing industrial base. But you know what? That would have been a fair description of almost all of Continental Europe pre-WWI; other than the low countries and Germany, the other countries of Europe all fitted into that mold (Spain was basically pre-modern agrarian except for pockets in Catalonia and the Basque region; as was France with the basic exception of an industrialized pocket in the northeast adjacent to the low countries) or were even less developed (e.g. southern Europe: Greece was astonishingly backward pre-WWII, as was most of Italy). Yet they all managed to industrialize and modernize their economies (in fact, on a per capita basis, far more than the USSR did) without instituting totalitatarian command economies.

Maybe there's a lot of poor thinking on this thread, but I don't think it's as poor as the thinking that suggests that since Stalinist oppression accompanied rapid industrialization, that therefore it was a necessary component for it. That is what I see certain people on the left doing -- they don't (at least explicitly) say that the end justified the means, rather, that the means were necessary for getting to the end. And I don't think this is empirically justified.

Thy cut off all ties with the internal fnincail system=They cut off all ties with the international financial system.

dang small keyboards.

It's worth noting that Eaglton is a literature scholar and has no special claim to talk about these subjects. Those with an actual interest in the economic history of the Soviet Union should read Alec Nove's excellent account. (Anyone wanting a short book on Marx that's good should look at Jonathan Wolff's very good _Why Read Marx Today?_)

I think it's worth noting that one reason that literary scholars (and art historians and cultural critics) like Marx so much is that Marx either introduced or at least popularized the idea that art and science and many other aspects of culture are economically determined. This was a corrective to the various Romantic-era "great man" and "genius" theories of history and culture (which still linger here and there, especially in popular histories.) I am not a believer in economic determinism, but I believe--and I think most economists believe--that economic forces have great effects on history, society and culture.

So Tyler, what IS a good book on Marx? I feel one of your lists coming on...

Hah, I want to see a Marxist list as well. I predict John Roemer is going to be somewhere in there.

Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves.

I don't think there's any amount of context you could include around a quote like that which would make it valid, unless the context was an immediate repudiation of the author's own statement.

TC presented a list of Eagleton saying "here's what's good about Marxism." Even if he left out the following "...and here's what's bad about it" Eagleton is still wrong about the good bits.

If I understood the post, the book is good on Marx and bad on Soviet History, is that right? I'll buy that. And read about Soviet History elsewhere.

Didn't Marx argue that capitalists would eventually drive the wages of workers down to subsistence levels? And then they would find that there was no one left to buy the goods they produced?

Nope! This was a position Marx criticised when it was espoused by his contemporary, Lassalle. Find out this, and more interesting facts, by reading Marx.

"But the so-called socialist system had its achievements, too. China and the Soviet Union dragged their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world, at however horrific a human cost; and the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West."

I wish I could be a professional troll, too. Jesus.

Why does anybody considers Marx an economist? Samuelson devastatingly critiqued the (absence of) mathematics in the "transformation problem". The only Marxist writers I see are English professors arguing over what Marx meant, because he was so inconsistent and contentless. You don't see physicists with such a Newton or Einstein fetish.

I saw no theory in the Communist Manifesto, merely a call for redistribution. He completely pales beside Ricardo. And what predictive or policy insights do we gain from Marx? I am quite serious - why does anybody waste ink on Marx?

The Communist Manifesto wasn't meant to be an economic text--it was a call to action. Read Capital, and you'll see that it's pretty clearly a work of economics, however flawed.

I read Capital after reading Wealth of Nations. The most interesting revelation I got from that combined experience is this: I broadly agreed with WoN, but I broadly disagreed with Capital. But to my surprise, my reasons for dismissing Capital applied equally to WoN. Namely, Marx is wrong because of the labor theory of value, but then I realized that Adam Smith also relies on the labor theory of value. I guess this shouldn't be surprising in retrospect, since Marx got the labor theory from Smith, but it was still an illuminating experience.

actually, Marx got the LToV from Ricardo, but that doesn't change your point. As an economist, Marx was a quite decent 19th century economist, with all it's flaws. In addition to that, he was also a very good 19th century macro-sociologist and a major philosopher (not so much unlike Adam Smith, whom he respected quite a lot, btw.) - so I find it hardly surprising that a lot of people are still paying attention to Marx.
And the comparison with Einstein and Newton: a) scientists actually revere them quite a bit - I doubt there is a physicist who doesn't consider Newton an genius and founder of modern science, but b) because natural science works very differently than social science, they find it easier to distinguish between the parts of Newton and Einstein that are wrong and those that still apply today.
In the social sciences that's a lot more difficult - if at all possible.

Newton's Alchemical writing and religious fundamentalism is almost never discussed and was basically suppressed after his death.

And Anwahr Shaikh (sp?) showed pretty convincingly that Samuelson was barking up the wrong tree. The transformation problem is not what Samuelson said it was.

Two points.

First, a political economist (among several other academic eptihets) like Marx is not necessarily pegged to math in order to be credible. That's just a biased and anachronic statement. The young Marx is anything but an economist. Also, "wasting ink" on Marx is hardly the way to set up a dialogue on the reasons for reading Marx today.

The Manifesto, as was said, is a call to action, not a theory of capital.

Second, I am always awed at the incredibly gifted theorists roaming the Internet, spirited creatures who are able to discredit thousands upon thousands of pages in a few fallacious sentences and funny namecalling like inconsistent and contentless (!!!). Funny. I find myself reading Hayek, Mises, Friedman, among others, and wouldn't suppose that anybody is wasting ink writing about them. They have certain valid insights, even if I disagree with most of what they say.

If you have no interest in dialogue, just refrain from writing and talk to yourself. While at it, just give yourself a pat on the back for being so damn brilliant.

It's astonishing to me how ignorant of economic history these remarks seem to be. Russia was well on the road to industrialization prior to WWI and the Stolypin reforms produced gains in agricultural productivity that were not easily matched by the Sovs till much, much later -- without any collectivization. I always wonder why the Left is so intolerant of capitalist abuses (assume the worst about strike breaking, anti-unions, cozy cartels, insider business deals, inner city corruption, and bosses abusing workers) while being so forgiving of mass murder. Many of the same people who were quick to excuse Mao get ultra picky about working conditions in industrial factories in China today.

" I always wonder why the Left is so intolerant of capitalist abuses (assume the worst about strike breaking, anti-unions, cozy cartels, insider business deals, inner city corruption, and bosses abusing workers) while being so forgiving of mass murder. Many of the same people who were quick to excuse Mao get ultra picky about working conditions in industrial factories in China today."

Concrete examples please!


"Concrete examples please!"

You're joking, right?

My non-professional understanding of history had been that the name 'Bolsheviks' referred to a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party led by Vladimir Lenin. The other faction, the 'Mensheviks', was led by Julius Martov. According to the wikipedia, "Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters, whereas Martov believed it was better to have a large party of activists with broad representation."

Either this is incorrect, or detecting the irony of Eagleton's error is trivial.

Worker's weren't in control after the Bolsheviks took power. Therefore, citing the forced industrialization of the USSR as a "socialist" phenomenon is definitively false.

If Eagleton thinks the Russian example is one of Marxism, he's dead wrong. Rather, what the USSR was engaged in was a power structure very similar, in terms of the industries in political power and a lot of the fledgling mechanisms, to the 1896-1929 power structure in the US. What existed was a hyper-centralized system which enjoyed power due to its monopolization of emergent industries. A system that the 1929 crash in the US harshly brought down was in Russia instead gradually weakened by the overbearing and increasingly unresponsive Russian state.

When I was young and foolish and actually cared about such texts, I always thought Marx's early writings prior to the German Ideology were interesting and worth reading. It's a shame these are generally ignored and most people only know Marx via Capital or the Manifesto. Had Marx remained a pure philosopher, I've always thought he would have ranked among the greats as indicated by how efficiently he critiques Hegel and his gang. As for the Capital, for all its failings, it's actually not bad for a 19th century economics tract. It's sort of a shame that most people bring so many preconceptions when they sit down to read it and can't enjoy it simply for its place in economic and social history.

Why no love for The German Ideology? Good stuff in there.

Yeah yeah! Society is entirely determined by an economic base! There is no heterogeneity in beliefs within people who occupy identical positions in the social division of labor!

heh, yep, Weber was a much better thinker.

Well I think the first of the four quotes mentioned is fairly sensible. For example, transportation and energy infrastructure from the communist era, albeit limited, were a substantial improvement on previous stuff and enormously facilitated the growth that led to move to markets.

I agree, though, that the other ones are a little odd.

Tyler: I did graduate work (A.B.T.) in English literature, and I know far more about literary criticism than Eagleton knows about either politics or economics. (I'm reminded of John McCain's appearance on Saturday Night Live, where he said he was a lousy singer, but was better at singing than Barbra Streisand was at politics.) Let's do lunch when I'm back in town.

Lock this guy in a cell with The Road to Serfdom until he realizes that all centralized planning, at any time, under any circumstances, implemented by anyone, inevitably leads to oppressive government.

Hayek did a great job of explaining why planning is internally inconsistent and ultimately self-defeating. He makes a great case that inequality resulting from dispassionate market forces is far more tolerable than inequality imposed by central authority.

It isn't remarkable that planned systems achieved strong economic growth. The question is whether that economic growth approached a welfare maximizing condition. A central planner CAN be as efficient as a market-based system, but they lack the essential properties to do so. The planner must necessarily be all knowing, all powerful, and benevolent. The first condition becomes the foundation for intrusions on privacy (secret police, expanding Census questionnaires, smart meters), the second for the infringement of liberty and private property (redistribution, progressive taxation, subsidies and taxes, rent seeking, interest group politics), and the third is scarcely to be found among self-serving bureaucrats.

What about the centralized planning done by preeminent corporations, money trusts and cartels? Oh, wait, they to accrue profit off of their subjects, so they are "ok."

There is no CENTRAL planning per se in this economy and the planning done by corporations at least addresses a longer time span than the two year cycle that our politician class obsesses over. So much for the evils of "short term" profits when successive short term political profits over the last 38 years has brought this economy to the brink of financial destruction.

It absolutely is central planning when a central owner or manager, rather than the workers involved in production, are in control of a workplace or process of production. You can argue all day to the contrary, but I don't think there can be any honest argument that they are somehow "less centralized" than worker-managed factories would be.

Capitalism is a system of centralized planning. Socialism is not - by definition. That the narrative in the west has completely obfuscated the terminology has no bearing on the facts.

"China and the Soviet Union dragged their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world, at however horrific a human cost; and the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West"

Well the Sovjet Union wasn't hostile, could be Eagleton forgets the 3.International.
And if you look at China's (second ?) industrialization since the early 90', then the first industrialization period wasn't really anything.

"Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves."

I gather this is wrong because we know the American Indians freely accepted their lands being taken, their culture destroyed, their freedom taken, in furtherance of a much more developed American economy?

Or the immigrants to the Americas wanted to be expelled from their native lands based on religion, or oppression, or poverty.

Many others came willingly after being told lies; the Mayflower compact was a contract made in violation of the one they were bound by, because by the time they arrived they realized its terms were too hard and they weren't willing to accept them.

If Tyler can provide real counter points to refute it, and the others, it might be an interesting debate. In my experience, most people can be really conservative and very resistant to changes that will greatly benefit them. Geez, getting people to save a hundred plus dollars a year by switching lighting seems to be like pulling teeth with vicegrips.

Wow, I thought all the English department Marxists had officially taken the position that Stalin and Mao were not *REAL* Marxists.

After 10 million+ bodies pile up this seems to be a more sensible way to go than "Yes, but....".

I'm genuinely astonished people don't appreciate how much force is required to suppress man's natural tendency to truck, barter and improve his own position.

But the so-called socialist system had its achievements, too. China and the Soviet Union dragged their citizens out of economic backwardness into the modern industrial world, at however horrific a human cost; and the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West.

I encourage you to google "GDP per Capita China History" to get some feel for how successful they were at "dragging their citizens out of economic backwardsness".

This particular time series shows GDP per capita of <$200 in 1980!


And, if we're talking about the "Hostility of the West", how about googling up "Russian Famine of 1921".


I always enjoy the part where the Evil West starts feeding the starving Russian people while the Benevolent Bolshevik Leaders are engaged in grain exports to gain hard currency for their industrialization schemes.

This review actually made me really want to read the book. First, Cowen claims that the book is mostly correct. Then, Cowen excerpts some sentences which he feels are either incorrect and/or morally abhorrent. Whenever a public intellectual admits that something is correct but at the same time morally abhorrent, you know you have hit paydirt.

If this comment page is a valid sample, 90% of people alive today are middle-aged Marxists. Surely the revolution is at hand. Arise, netizens! You have nothing to lose but your Social Security checks!

I agree and it's probably due to Tyler's regular columns in the NYT. I ask the 90% - where has it worked??? Doesn't history show that the strong centralization of power is always a prelude to mass murder?

Marxism is a decoy Left promulgated by the privileged to defend themselves against the social mobility engendered by a liberal social order, most crucially in the economic sphere (i.e. free markets) but not excluding the cultural.

Marx was the original trustifarian.

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