I was recently gifted a book by a friend who is cognizant of my deep interest in Marx. This book – ‘Why Marx was right’ by Terry Eagleton is about ten major criticisms against Marxism. Terry Eagleton has done more than justice to the writings of Marx by taking each criticism case by case and building a chapter around each wherein he tries to reason out why Marx was right and his claims were misunderstood. As each chapter unfolds I am astounded by the ingenuity and the aesthetic quality of Marx’s work. I am thus sharing some of the beautiful insights from this book which, I think, every historian/economist/philosopher should be aware of.
One of the major criticisms against Marx was that he reduced every aspect of history to economics, a phenomenon known as economic determinism. Marx was a proponent of the fact that a civilization cannot exist without ‘productive forces’ or ‘material production’ and that these forces are the prime movers of history. Those who oppose this idea contend that history can not be reduced to ‘material production’ and culture, science, religion and politics play an equally important role in shaping society and history. Although it it can be argued that the ideas, culture, religion and politics, which form the superstructure of a society, are to some extent driven by its economic base. For example, under slavery, it would be unnatural to think of the idea of freedom. For slaves, the act of performing their duties for their masters was as natural as is the idea of working 10 hours a day under capitalism or the idea of paying rent to the feudal lords under feudalism. Hence our ideas, culture and religious beliefs are to some extent dependent on the economic order prevalent in a given time period. But this is not to undermine the intrinsic importance of politics, culture or religion. If today we were to ask ourselves whether politics is a reflection of economics or economics is driven by politics, it would be difficult to find an answer to this question.
Marx, on the other hand, believed in a broader concept of material production. Under capitalism, material production is a means to a greater end, which is to keep oneself from starving. Marx, however, suggested that material production is important for its own sake and not because it serves as a means to an end. He believes that people should engage in an activity because they find it fulfilling to do so, not because they have to do it since they have no other option to sustain themselves. Against this backdrop,when Marx talks of material production, he is pointing towards the broader objective of emancipation of men and women. He is pointing towards the ‘Nature and human agency, the body and its needs,the nature of the senses, ideas of social cooperation and individual self fulfillment’. Marx believes that human labour has always been coerced in capitalism, even if the coercion in question is simply the need not to starve. He believes that good life consists of things done for their own sake. As Terry Eagleton beautifully puts it – “the best things are done just for the hell of it”.
So when Marx speaks of production as the prime mover of history, he does not mean production in its literal sense. He sees labour as a wonderful way of transforming reality. He sees intrinsic value in the process by which man uses natural resources and transforms them into ‘commodities’ and in the process of transforming them he transforms his own self and his own capabilities. This is how societies are transformed.
The following excerpt from the book elegantly summarizes the above arguments:
“The good life for him(Marx) is not one of labour but one of leisure. Free self- realization is a form of “production”, to be sure; but it is not one that is coercive…It is thus surprising that Marxism does not attract more card-carrying idlers and professional loafers to its ranks. This, however, is because a lot of energy must be expended on achieving this goal. Leisure is something you have to work for”