Saturday, September 7, 2013

Terry Eagleton's "Marx": Book Review

In 53 pages of actual text, this tiny booklet takes on an enormous topic. Terry Eagleton starts off and dives in without hesitation or background, for that matter. He expects the reader to be familiar with the basics of Marx's theory, and he divides these compressed chapters into philosophy, anthropology, history, and politics. Eagleton packs a hefty load of thought-provoking applications of a humanist Marx into this pocket-sized introduction, yet not that, more a small monograph, for Routledge's series "The Great Philosophies."

I'm unsure who may be the ideal reader for this ambitious condensation. I have some familiarity but far from in-depth expertise with the formidable Marx; Eagleton wisely selects early on enticing excerpts from primary texts to illustrate Marx's insistence that ideology based in material conditions must emerge from the ability of people to create a space in which to flourish which enables thought and reflection. This space cannot be gained until material advances occur. Therefore, radical change must happen, and Eagleton insists that such progress emerges more from a benign, "somewhat anarchistic" commonwealth of a cooperative band of "free associations," rather than the institutional tyranny many associate with the state socialism imposed and rejected since Marx himself.

As the thinker's "final vision," I wonder if his interpreter gives enough scope to allow this explanation the room it needs to expand. Eagleton crams so much in such small space that this booklet's more an inspirational text than an analysis. He does not direct us to any secondary material and the firsthand citations don't leave a reader with much of a context for their disparate concerns over a few decades.

Still, the paraphrasing stays lively, no small achievement.
"In trying to understand myself and my condition, I can never remain quite identical with myself, since the self which is doing the understanding as well as the self understood, are now different from what they were before. And if I wanted to understand all this, then just the same process would set in. It is rather like trying to jump on one's own shadow or yank oneself up by one's hair. And since such knowledge also moves people to change their condition in a practical way, it becomes itself a kind of social or political force, part of the material situation it examines rather than a mere 'reflection' of or upon it. It is knowledge as an historical event rather than an abstract speculation, in which knowing that is no longer clearly separable than knowing how." (4) 
That is only part of the second paragraph of the book, to exemplify the concentrated effort filling this study of the "superabundance" that creativity unleashes when materially essential goods and needs find satisfaction.

Eagleton continues in the philosophy section to expand this concept, and he warns that "[w]hen philosophy becomes ideology, it tends to distract men and women from historical concepts by insisting on the primacy of the spiritual, or by offering to resolve these conflicts at a higher, imaginary level."(14) His anthropological section looks into Marx's grounding of the theory of labor in the human body from where social life emerges: he notes difficulties with this action-oriented, bodily-centered philosophy, and where we draw the line between individual and communal selves.

He cites a wonderful passage from the early writings to show how when capital employs labor and not the other way around, capital as "dead" assumes a "vampiric power" (32) from stored labor that a miser then hoards, and how this withholding accelerates alienation when one holds on to money and goods rather than spending one's earnings on theater, dancing, music, love, books, food, and fun. It's a fresh look at Marx and a valuable perspective against reification of the "dead" embodied in capital.

Eagleton realizes Marx is not primarily a philosopher, so the critic sums up historical materialism. While Eagleton locates in class definitions problems as we try to define "workers" in Marxist terms. the appeal of "this audacious, imaginative theory" remains, even as Eagleton ends this chapter with more questions that he, we, or Marx can answer.

The conclusion takes on politics. Eagleton agrees that Marx meant respect to remain inherent as a basis for the proletariat's rise to power, and Eagleton sympathizes with a reading of Marx open more to self-fulfillment as leisure would increase as energy "to cultivate our personalities in whatever way we choose" would result in the communal communist vision. He shifts in the closing paragraph too rapidly towards what a "[g]enuine socialist democracy" (55) would bring as to an improvement in civic participation on the "purely abstract citizens of liberal representative democracy," but the elided point appears to be that people count for Marx more as individuals while their collective action matters. It's a bit too compacted down for understanding unless you read between the lines, but this is the approach taken by a book that may keep stimulating more questions than solutions about Marx. (Amazon 6-6-12)

No comments: