Here is my long delayed second blog on Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right, and my follow-up to comments posted on the first blog dealing with human atrocities and socialist thought. If you didn’t read through those comments, it’s enough to know that some took issue with Marxism based on the way it was twisted (my words, not theirs) into violent and oppressive dictatorships under Mao and Stalin. Fortunately, Eagleton addresses precisely these issues in chapters 6 and 8 of his book.
Like Jesus, Marx was not a violent person. And yet (also similar to Jesus) Marx had marginal followers, vaguely adhering to some of his major ideas, who ended up murdering large numbers of people. How was this possible, and should Marxism be blamed?
Marx discusses the fact that revolutions might be necessary in order to up-end existing political-economic regimes, such as 19th century regimes that maintained a poor and uneducated peasant class. Removing these oppressive powers sometimes involves revolutions, and Marx was aware of this. However, he did not advocate for violent, bloody revolutions. To the contrary, as Eagleton points out, Marx held that revolutions “are usually a long time in the brewing, and may take centuries to achieve their goals.” Case in point: feudalism in Europe (a system that kept the great majority of people from receiving an education or making enough to sustain themselves) took centuries to overthrow. Eagleton again: “You can socialise industry by government decree, but legislation alone cannot produce men and women who feel and behave differently than their grandparents.” Revolutions might make quick work of installing new political powers, but undoing one system and rebuilding another (which was the sort of revolution described by Marx) does not happen over night, and rarely even happens over the course of 365 nights.
On the issue of Mao and Stalin, I wholeheartedly agree (and so does Eagleton) that the atrocities they committed were staggering and sickening. The sort of authoritarian state that undertakes such violent actions on its own people is no state that Marx would have advocated. The actions of these dictators were inexcusable and deserve to go down in the history books as some of the most heinous crimes against humanity. But in no way were these murders based on Marxian theory. Just as the thousands slaughtered during the crusades (and on the way to the crusades) cannot be accounted for by appealing to the gospels or the teachings of Jesus, the violence of dictatorial communist regimes has no basis in the writings of Marx or Engels or any other worthwhile socialist theorist.
Instead, like Jesus, Marx advocated for a type of revolutionary politics intended to overthrow the prevailing political order (which he viewed as unjust) in favor of a new order aiming at economic justice and political equality. Such a revolution, for Marx as well as for Jesus, should take place under non-violent means. Under this rubric, the revolutions of Gandhi and King are far closer to Marx’s teachings than the actions of Stalin or Mao.
The type of revolution that Marx (and, I’m arguing, Jesus as well) would support would be one in which advocates of the poor and oppressed, and the poor and oppressed themselves, stood up to the wealthy class and demanded equal access to healthcare, a living wage for work performed, and a reorientation of government policies away from favoring big business and toward favoring the welfare of the majority. In the past, these types of revolutions have been successful over the long haul without violent uprisings or bloody insurrections, and they can be successful again in the same way.