efficiency in reading marxist literature

If you think

…there is a paradoxical sense in which Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx’s work, bears witness to its validity.

is a good representation of

In fact, there is a paradoxical sense in which Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx’s work, bears witness to its validity. If you want a compelling account of how Stalinism comes about, you have to go to Marxism. Mere moral denunciations of the beast are simply not good enough. We need to know in what material conditions it arises, how it functions and how it might fail, and this knowledge has been best provided by certain mainstream currents of Marxism.

you can go ahead and let Tyler Cowen do your reading for you. You also don’t know the difference between implying Stalinism is valid and thinking Stalin is a “beast” whose conditions of existence should be understood.

You also think might think

Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves.

accurately represents the main point of

Building up an economy from very low levels is a backbreaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves. So unless this project is executed gradually, under democratic control and in accordance with socialist values, an authoritarian state may step in and force its citizens to do what they are reluctant to undertake voluntarily.

Of course the shorter quote is completely uncontroversial taken literally. Despite Cowen singling it out as an example of how terrible a book Eagleton has written, how could he possibly disagree? Is there no disutility of labor at low levels of development. Did English capitalism develop through the free submission of labor to capital? Do capitalists pay wages just for the fun of it. So nobody in the universe disagrees with this claim. Why include it as example of how bad the book is? Because alongside the misleading quotes about Stalin and the Soviet Union the point Eagleton is making is clear – “nobody does this freely! we have no choice but to force them through an authoritarian state! roar!!!” Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what Eagleton is saying. For all sorts of reasons (feasibility, efficiency,etc.) Cowen would probably disagree with Eagleton’s preference for a gradual democratic-socialist path of development, but why bother addressing the real matter of contention when we can mislead the internet into thinking there is a Marxist humanities professor who wants to impose the necessary horrors of Stalinism on them.

Again, one would assume there about 3 million ways in which Cowen and Eagleton differ on economics, politics, and the content of Marxism. He could have chosen to focus on a few them instead of misleading quotes. He didn’t. Normally I wouldn’t even comment on a libertarian economist misreading a Marxist, but Cowen is an interesting example. He is widely read across the political spectrum so right now every non-Marxist with an intellectual bone in their body and an internet connection is living in fear of Eagleton. I also think he (Cowen) generally does a great job reading/representing other’s arguments in good faith. Compared to the rest of the internet he doesn’t strawman. I always recommend Marginal Revolution to students because when Cowen disagrees with someone he disagrees with them. He doesn’t make believe they think something obviously stupid and completely different than what they really think. Apparently, he makes an exception for people who are critical of capitalism.

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4 Responses to efficiency in reading marxist literature

  1. Dean says:

    Thanks for this! Without having the book on hand, I critiqued the quotes on their own right – admitting that context might help them:

    I’m glad to see that you cleared up some misconceptions – including some I had assumed.

    • rebellol says:

      Thanks for the comment and the link as well. To some extent your critique and the broader context serve a similar purpose. Whatever one thinks of Eagleton’s ultimate arguments these quotes (taken out of context) are not really what he means when he says Marx was right.

  2. Pingback: peanuts and marx |

  3. Pingback: It is only bad to mislead through selective quotation when N. Ferguson does it |

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