Terry Eagleton on The Communist Manifesto
From a review of Eric Hobsbawm's How to Change the World
Few works have sung the praises of the middle classes with such embarrassing zest as The Communist Manifesto. In Marx’s view, they have been by far the most revolutionary force in human history, and without harnessing for its own ends the material and spiritual wealth they have accumulated, socialism will prove bankrupt. This, needless to say, was one of his shrewder prognostications. Socialism in the 20th century turned out to be most necessary where it was least possible: in socially devastated, politically benighted, economically backward regions of the globe where no Marxist thinker before Stalin had ever dreamed that it could take root. Or at least, take root without massive assistance from more well-heeled nations. In such dismal conditions, the socialist project is almost bound to turn into a monstrous parody of itself. All the same, the idea that Marxism leads inevitably to such monstrosities, as Hobsbawm observes, ‘has about as much justification as the thesis that all Christianity must logically and necessarily always lead to papal absolutism, or all Darwinism to the glorification of free capitalist competition’. (He does not consider the possibility of Darwinism leading to a kind of papal absolutism, which some might see as a reasonable description of Richard Dawkins.)
Hobsbawm, however, points out that Marx was actually too generous to the bourgeoisie, a fault of which he is not commonly accused. At the time of The Communist Manifesto, their economic achievements were a good deal more modest than he imagined. In a curious garbling of tenses, the Manifesto described not the world capitalism had created in 1848, but the world as it was destined to be transformed by capitalism. What Marx had to say was not exactly true, but it would become true by, say, the year 2000, and it was capitalism that would make it so. Even his comments on the abolition of the family have proved prophetic: about half of the children in advanced Western countries today are born to or brought up by single mothers, and half of all households in large cities consist of single persons.
Hobsbawm’s essay on the Manifesto speaks of its ‘dark, laconic eloquence’, and notes that as political rhetoric it has ‘an almost biblical force’. ‘The new reader,’ he writes, ‘can hardly fail to be swept away by the passionate conviction, the concentrated brevity, the intellectual and stylistic force of this astonishing pamphlet.’ The Manifesto initiated a whole genre of such declarations, most of them from avant-garde artists such as the Futurists and the Surrealists, whose outrageous wordplay and scandalous hyperbole turn these broadsides into avant-garde artworks in themselves. The manifesto genre represents a mixture of theory and rhetoric, fact and fiction, the programmatic and the performative, which has never been taken seriously enough as an object of study.
Marx, too, was an artist of sorts. It is often forgotten how staggeringly well read he was, and what painstaking labour he invested in the literary style of his works. He was eager, he remarked, to get shot of the ‘economic crap’ of Capital and get down to his big book on Balzac. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. It is a project that should be eagerly supported by all those who dislike having to work. It holds that the most precious activities are those done simply for the hell of it, and that art is in this sense the paradigm of authentic human activity. It also holds that the material resources that would make such a society possible already exist in principle, but are generated in a way that compels the great majority to work as hard as our Neolithic ancestors did. We have thus made astounding progress, and no progress at all.
In the 1840s, Hobsbawm argues, it was by no means improbable to conclude that society was on the verge of revolution. What was improbable was the idea that within a handful of decades the politics of capitalist Europe would be transformed by the rise of organised working-class parties and movements. Yet this is what came to pass. It was at this point that commentary on Marx, at least in Britain, began to shift from the cautiously admiring to the near hysterical. In 1885, no less devout a non-revolutionary than Balfour commended Marx’s writings for their intellectual force, and for their economic reasoning in particular. A whole raft of liberal or conservative commentators took his economic ideas with intense seriousness. Once those ideas took the form of a political force, however, a number of ferociously anti-Marxist works began to appear. Their apotheosis was Hugh Trevor-Roper’s stunning revelation that Marx had made no original contribution to the history of ideas. Most of these critics, I take it, would have rejected the Marxist view that human thought is sometimes bent out of shape by the pressure of political interests, a phenomenon commonly known as ideology. Only recently has Marxism been back on the agenda, placed there, ironically enough, by an ailing capitalism. ‘Capitalism in Convulsion’, a Financial Times headline read in 2008. When capitalists begin to speak of capitalism, you know the system is in dire trouble. They have still not dared to do so in the United States.
Terry Eagleton has a new book out entitled simply Why Marx was right and is speaking at Marxism 2011