Saturday, April 2, 2011

Eagleton on Marxist Revolution

In chapter 8 Eagleton considers the following objection to Marxism:
"Marxists are advocates of violent political action. They reject a sensible course of moderate, piecemeal reform and opt instead for the bloodstained chaos of revolution. A small band of insurrectionists will rise up, overthrow the state and impose its will on the majority. This is one of several senses in which Marxism and democracy are at daggers drawn. Because they despise morality as mere ideology, Marxists are not especially troubled by the mayhem their policies would unleash on the population. The end justifies the means however many lives may be lost in the process."
Eagleton's response to this objection basically comes down to this: "Look, it doesn't have to come down to this: we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way." He argues that some reforms have involved violence while some revolutions have been bloodless so therefore there is no hard and fast distinction between the two. Real change is difficult and sometimes involves violence he claims complacently.

Eagleton claims that "one of the most urgent goals of the international socialist movement has been peace." (185) Without trying to be humorous, he says apparently with a straight face that one of the first acts of the Bolsheviks was to abolish the death penalty! (190) The Marxists, you see, are peace-loving, gentle souls who merely want to work for social justice. They gently urge a transfer of wealth from the pockets of the "rich" to the "people" and are always shocked and dismayed to encounter reactionary resistance. Imagine that! If wars are necessary, it is only because of Capitalist "encirclement" and "savage" reactionary violence. A Marxist is a man who sticks his hand into your pocket and is shocked - shocked I tell you! - when you punch him in the nose. In his mind, the Marxist was not robbing you, he was redistributing the wealth and for you not to cooperate is your condemnation. It is the Marxist's intentions you must consider, you see.

It always comes back to the politics of good intentions trumping all. Having admitted that both Stalin and Mao were "mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale" (184), Eagleton dismisses the relevance of this fact with a wave of the hand: "Yet very few Marxists today . . . would seek to defend these horrific crimes." (184) Of what relevance is this? The point is that few of the Marxists who cheered the rise of Lenin and Stalin would have approved of such crimes and yet their implementation of or approval of Marxist ideas led to those crimes. And in the case of Mao, having seen what Marxism wrought in Russia, he tried to implement it anyway in China. Who cares if Marxists then thought mass murder would result or if Marxists today are glad it did? What could be less relevant to the question of whether we should support Marxism today? Marxism must be judged morally by its effects, not its good intentions.

Capitalism is much maligned by Marxists because it does not announce its intention to make all people equal and happy. Capitalism does not do so because it knows that this is an impossible dream that only justifies violence and misery. This is not a flaw in Capitalism, but rather its greatest strength. By assessing human nature realistically and not trying to change it fundamentally it is enabled to ask the question of how to design a system that mitigates the weaknesses of human nature and prevents the worst of suffering. By seeking to work with, rather than fundamentally transform, human nature, Capitalism has created a system that has lifted more people out of grinding poverty than any other system in the history of the world so far. It does far more good with its modest intentions than Marxism does with its romantic ideals.

For Marxism, what makes a revolution is that it produces men and women who feel and behave differently from their grandparents. (181) A revolution, as Eagleton defines it, changes human nature. This is precisely what makes Marxism so anti-humanistic and dangerous. It seeks to change human nature and the difficulty (impossibility actually) of this goal frustrates would be reformers, leads to revolution and then frustrates even the revolutionary thus eliciting more and more drastic and violent policies in a vain quest to reach the impossible goal Marxism sets for itself.

The rhetorical approach reminds one of Obama's: two extremes are presented (pacifists and sociopaths) and then Marxist violence is justified because it avoids both extremes. This rhetorical ploy has the effect of making one seem moderate - if the audience does not think too long and hard about it. The truth is that the real choice is between violent coercion which is aimed at restraining the worst excesses of human greed and the violent coercion which has no less of an aim than the total transformation of human nature and the elimination of greed. Put like that, Marxist violence stands exposed as Utopian, extremist and unrealistic. Aiming too high makes for disaster.

Conservatism is not the opposite extreme of Marxism. If the goal of Marxism is to achieve a revolution in which human nature is fundamentally transformed, the goal of Conservatism is not to keep everything exactly the same as it is. To attribute this motive to Conservatism is a Marxist debating ploy and it is dishonest. Rather, Conservatism stands for gradual, managed, incremental, steady change. Neither change nor stability are absolute; we all know that change will come. But will it be bloody convulsions or social evolution? Will it be the Anglo-American kind of slow evolution of parliamentary traditions and the gradual emergence of democracy or will it be the French and Russian descent into chaos and madness in the wild-eyed belief that something better will emerge on the other side?

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