07 August 2011

Was Marx Right? A note on socialism, pluralism and civil society

It's actually hard to answer that question on the evidence so far from Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right, which my local library has acquired for me to borrow. Blog readers will recall that Eagleton's book was the subject of a harsh review from the philosopher John Gray, while Gray's review provoked my own reflections on what Marxism and communism actually mean. Eagleton clarifies matters a little, but his real agenda is not a proof but a defense of Marx against his critics. A more accurate title of his tome would be Why Marx's Critics Are Wrong. In it, Eagleton sets out to debunk several enduring objections to Marx, many of which he exposes as misrepresentations of the great rebel's actual beliefs. When it comes to affirming Marx's own views, Eagleton is often reticent, and sometimes even confused, especially when it comes to the decisive role of "productive forces" in history. He may know Marx and Marxism better than I do, but this book shouldn't be anyone's first introduction to Marxism, given its defensive and polemical nature. But even by the halfway point Eagleton has complicated Gray's condemnation of Marxism as totalitarian -- or at least forced a reconsideration of what exactly Gray finds totalitarian in Marx.

As Gray himself noted, Eagleton denies that Marxism is anti-individualistic. Gray believes that Marx's concern for "organic social unity" belies Eagleton's defense, but that term appears in Eagleton's book to be dismissed completely as a Marxian objective. Eagleton stresses a point that was made clear to any schoolroom student of Marx: the man was no utopian. As Eagleton elaborates, Marx's writings give no reader cause to believe that socialism would institute a paradise on earth. He emphasizes that, human nature being more intractable than some Marxists maintain, conflicts of personalities and desires would persist even under socialism. The only advantage to socialism, from this perspective, is that the social ownership of production and democratic control would make any obnoxious person less capable of making many other people's lives miserable. Such a person could never gain the power over multitudes' lives that a corporate executive enjoys, though people will no doubt find ways to make themselves and others miserable, despite the greater opportunities for personal satisfaction that socialism would presumably provide.

More important for a comparison with Gray, Eagleton strongly emphasizes the extent to which Marx was an individualist.

Equality for socialism does not mean that everyone is just the same -- an absurd proposition if ever there was one....Nor does it mean that everyone will be granted exactly the same amount of wealth or resources. Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone's different needs. And this is the kind of society which Marx looked forward to. Human needs are not commensurate with one another. You cannot measure them all by the same yardstick. Everyone for Marx was to have an equal-right to self-realisation, and to participate actively in the shaping of social life. Barriers of inequality would thus be broken down. But the result of this would be as far as possible to allow each person to flourish as the unique individual they were. In the end, equality for Marx exists for the sake of difference. Socialism is not about everyone wearing the same kind of boiler suit. It is consumer capitalism which decks out its citizens in uniforms known as tracksuits and trainers. In Marx's view, socialism would thus constitute a far more pluralistic order than the one we have now. (104-5)

Marx can't be both a pluralist and a totalitarian; the terms are understood to be about as mutually exclusive as possible. Yet Gray deems Marx a totalitarian because Marx's alleged organicism dictates that "his communist dream-world could be entered only by shedding particular identities." Eagleton seems to deny this point, but the two writers (Eagleton cites Gray in his own text) may be arguing past each other. Why Marx Was Right may be right without refuting Gray's charge. It boils down to what Gray means by "particular identities." The example he gives of a "particular identity" that would have to be shed is Jewishness. Jews, Gray wrote, "would be emancipated by ceasing to be Jews." If this is a representative sample, what Gray means by "particular identity" isn't Eagleton's ideal of individual self-realization, but group membership. In other words, what makes Marxism totalitarian for Gray is its assumed intolerance for what we call "civil society" in opposition to "organic social unity."

Modern liberals (not to be confused with the straw men of Republican propaganda) believe that a healthy civil society of multiple and multiplying self-generated groups and institutions is a necessary bulwark against a suspected tendency toward totalitarianism on the part of the modern state. Those civil institutions are the individual's first of defense against complete subjugation to state (or "people's") will. Some thinkers go further to argue that people realize their individuality and achieve self-realization, paradoxically enough, by forming or joining such groups. In their absence, it's implied, you can only be or become what the state dictates. The position of "civil society" remains an open question as I read Eagleton. If "civil society" thinkers are correct, citizens under socialism may not be as free to achieve self-realization as Eagleton hopes, precisely because self-realization is a social (though not necessarily a political) activity. It's important to note that nothing Eagleton has written suggests that Marxism must forbid the development of civil-society entities -- but it must also be conceded that nothing I've read so far would assure critics that civil society as they understand it would actually happen. A Marxist might well argue that "civil society" under socialism would only be a redundancy, and many self-styled Marxists throughout modern history have distrusted civil society, seeing spontaneous grass-roots institution building as a threat to revolutionary power. But the importance of civil society as understood by Cold War liberals is still subject to debate. The concept itself seems to be a product of the Cold War, defined by its perceived absence in totalitarian states. It may be that the notion of civil society depends on a notion of totalitarianism, and that the necessity of civil society depends on whether one accepts the existence of a totalitarian tendency for which civil society is the preventative or remedy. Meanwhile, Eagleon may well deny the premise that civil society is necessary to individual self-realization, on the assumption that self-realization wouldn't really be individual if joining groups was essential to it. At this point, however, it may be more imperative to find out what Karl Marx himself thought about the subject, if we can infer anything from his work. That may be my next project after finishing Eagleton, and I have a feeling that, even if I don't agree with him, he'll have done his job if I turn from him to Marx.


Anonymous said...

you can only be or become what the state dictates Correct me if I'm wrong, but since part of the premise of Socialism is that ALL people take part in the government through democracy, the what he is really saying is "You can only be or become what you dictate to the state.".

I think what Marx was getting at by the notion of "shedding particular identities" is that the majority of people base their identity by the group they identify with, which is a root of ideology. What he is really saying is in order to identify yourself, you need to drop the group identity and realize, first and foremost, that you and everyone else is a human being. Not a Jew, not a Gay, not a Conservative, but a human being. And until that sinks in, we can not truly deal with one another as equals, which is part of what socialism dictates.

Samuel Wilson said...

In a way, the argument for civil society resembles one of the arguments in support of labor unions. Union activists urge workers to join on the premise that the individual has no real negotiating power against the employer due to the latter's overwhelming advantages, except when he joins with others on the basis of common interests. Champions of civil society and its expression in group formation would argue that any individual is helpless against the state, no matter how democratic the state is claimed to be and no matter how much the state is supposedly shaped by the individual himself. Of course, Marx envisions a withering away of the state to complement the flourishing of true individuality, but civil-society theory starts from a fundamental distrust of the state as a form of absolute power and is bound to be skeptical toward promises of it withering away. For a lot of people, too, assertions of absolute equality on the basis of mere humanity raise spectres of interchangability and disposability that have more to do with their own anxieties than with anything Marx proposed.