Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin

Karl Marx was a monumental figure. I knew that he spent years doing research in the library of the British Museum and wrote several dense volumes, as well as the Communist Manifesto. I didn’t realize that he was personally involved in left-wing politics. He was the leading revolutionary of his time, moving from country to country, attending meetings, writing letters, advising other communists and socialists throughout Europe, Russia and even the United States (he was even a regular contributor to a New York newspaper).

This is the 4th edition of Isaiah Berlin’s well-written biography of Marx, first published in 1939. Berlin, the famous British philosopher and historian of ideas, presents Marx as a brilliant thinker but a difficult person who devoted his life to bringing about the downfall of capitalism.

What is especially striking is that Marx strongly believed in gathering mountains of evidence in support of his political and economic theories. In that regard, he was a social scientist and an empiricist. Yet he labored in support of an idealistic vision of a future after capitalism that seems terribly unrealistic.

It was conceivable that the proletariat would rise up against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie, especially if a group of revolutionaries could seize power, as they surprisingly did in Russia (of all places). But it was a tremendous leap to think that the state would eventually wither away and the workers would create a functioning communist society. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is an ideal that sounds rational and even practical, but Marx doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to how such an ideal would be implemented. At least, Berlin never gives the impression that Marx spent much time thinking about the communist future. He was much too busy trying to overcome the capitalist present.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

The only Marx I’ve ever read is The Communist Manifesto. Given capitalism’s recent problems, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about him. This book by English academic and literary critic Terry Eagleton was probably a good place to start.

Why Marx Was Right is a chapter by chapter set of responses to common objections to Marx’s thought. In each case, Marx seems to come out on top: “This book had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?” It’s a well-written, rather breezy book. Eagleton suggests that Karl Marx was a brilliant social theorist, far ahead of his time, although I’m not sure how accurate Eagleton’s portrayal of Marx is. 

The Marx described by Eagleton sounds like a democratic socialist, a 19th century progressive and proto-environmentalist who understood the world more clearly and was a better person than the Communists who achieved power in the 20th century, claiming to be “Marxists” or “Marxist-Leninists”.

The biggest question I had after reading Why Marx Was Right is how Marx’s ideas would work out in practice. At one point, Eagleton describes what would apparently be a Marxist form of government:

It is not a state we ourselves would easily recognize as such. It is as though someone were to point to a decentralised network of self-governing communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central administration, and announce “There is the state!”, when we were expecting something altogether more inspiring and monumental.

That is the clearest description of a Marxist state in the book (as best I remember). According to Eagleton, Marx “defended the great bourgeois ideals of freedom, reason and progress, but wanted to know why they tended to betray themselves whenever they were put into practice”. Likewise, once socialism takes advantage of the infrastructure created by capitalism and evolves into communism, would that infrastructure tend to wither away, since the profit motive would no longer be in full force?

Eagleton argues that Marx would not eliminate the profit motive entirely, but it’s not clear how a truly Marxist state would function. Communism as instituted in the real world has never resembled the seriously democratic system Marx apparently proposed. Nor have communist governments been established in countries with advanced capitalist infrastructure. Marxism is one of those social experiments that have never been performed.

Yet some of what Marx argued for, especially as expressed by Eagleton, would be desirable correctives to the system we’ve got now. In particular, we in America would benefit from more democracy, more socialism and more environmentalism. In Eagleton’s words: 

Capitalism is the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us. The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.

Not complete control, but certainly more control.