“Why Marx Was Right”: lively challenge to 10 myths

Book Review

Why Marx Was Right

By Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press, 2011, 272 pages

Paperback, $16.00 (also available in hardcover and e-book reader editions)

While appreciating the work of Karl Marx, it is often that one encounters difficulties in sharing your views with others. We often try to explain and relate, only to find we must first defend. Because so much has been done in the name of Marxism over the decades, to say that being an enthusiastic Marxist carries a lot of baggage is being charitable.

It’s not always an easy task to liberate the useful and vital ideas from beneath the weight of things like the “tyranny of Stalin,” the “Chinese Cultural Revolution,” and so on. Yes, one can argue that these phenomena had much or little or nothing to do with what Karl Marx worked away at, back before the turn of the last century, but the skills of many readers, however enthusiastic, are usually inadequate.

Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right is a real gift to those requiring both encouragement and inspiration. Eagleton’s bright, witty book marches forward into the usual stumbling blocks erected over the decades in the environment of popular ideology and topples them. The language is marvelously contemporary and quite easy for any reader to enjoy.

The purpose of the book is clearly to challenge the conventional wisdom, but the amount of enthusiasm in the writing provides a rollicking momentum. It’s a very personal sort of work, filled with an engaging and witty style. Some of the many amusing passages brought to mind the late Douglas Adams.

Eagleton defines the ten chief misconceptions about Marx’s work and purpose. The common assumptions Eagleton challenges are:

  • That Marxism reduces everything to the economic
  • That Marxism is no longer relevant, a relic of past history
  • That as theory Marxism is fine, but it fails in practice
  • That Marx sees people as mere tools of history, stripping them of individuality
  • That Marxism is a dream of Utopia
  • That Marx was a materialist who had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity
  • That its obsession with class makes Marxism irrelevant to today’s world
  • That Marxists are invariably advocates of violence
  • That Marxism promotes an all-powerful state
  • That all the interesting radical movements of recent history came from outside of Marxism

The vigor with which Eagleton tackles these arguments is considerable, but often the style of his language is less confrontational than one would expect. Though occasionally fiery, Eagleton is more often warm. I found his focus on the human dimension very commendable and immensely valuable. He is also relentless in his mission to keep the discussion contemporary, and this delivers Marx to the reader free of the dust and rubble of history.

The Marx that Eagleton stands before us in this book is one who ” had a passionate faith in the individual, … did not dream of a future in which we all wear boiler suits with our National Insurance numbers stamped on our backs.”

The text reveals Marx as, if anything, more relevant than ever. Eagleton details many ways Marx was startlingly forward in his thinking, someone who “paid such unflagging attention to the economic, it was in order to diminish its power over humanity.” In Eagleton’s book, Marx — and anyone who has found his writings inspirational — have acquired a potent advocate.

Upon finishing the book I felt rather like one of those people who long appreciated a work of art but then sees it after a careful, thoughtful and respectful restoration — the sort where details previously obscured suddenly capture one’s attention.



Frederick Barr
Frederick Barr

Frederick Barr has been involved in communications for over 25 years, first as a creative professional in advertising and design, and more recently as an information activist.