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Gregory Claeys & Terry Eagleton

at Edinburgh International Book Festival

An interesting event looking at Marx’s relevance in the 21st Century

Image of Gregory Claeys & Terry Eagleton

You would not necessarily think that a discussion on Marxism at 10:30 am on a Friday morning would draw a crowd. You would however be wrong, as the 300-seater Spark Theatre is jam-packed for this conversation between eminent political historian Gregory Claeys and Distinguished Professor of English Literature, literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton.

The event is chaired by spoken word poet Jenny Lindsay. The main focus of discussion is on Claeys new book Marx and Marxism and the ever-combative Eagleton’s 2011 work Why Marx was Right although there is also some talk of Eagleton’s latest work Radical Sacrifice. We open with each author been given seven minutes a piece to talk about their respective books as well as general thoughts on Marx and Marxism.

Eagleton goes first and amusingly refers to the time slot given as being like the Python sketch where contestants are given two minutes to summarise Proust. He does give some insight into Marx but spends most of his allotted time telling an, admittedly funny, bookshop anecdote. Claeys is less jocular but every much as erudite and sticks much more to the point. He cogently argues as to why Marx should still be read today and how some of his critiques about capitalism are as relevant today as they were in his day. Especially in the face of the accelerated financial inequality we have seen in recent decades. He does admit however that Marxist critiques are largely toothless when it comes to other current sociopolitical concerns such as over-population and climate change or environmental disaster as Claeys refers to it.

The second section sees chair Lindsay discuss with Claeys and Eagleton the most frequent criticisms of Marx. The most common being does Marxism inevitably lead to Stalinism/Maoism etc? Both men tackle this and the other questions from Lindsay well. Both are Marxists so they present various defences of these criticisms. However even if you fiercely disagree with their positions, you cannot doubt the rigour and intelligence of their arguments. Also while they may both be Marxists they do frequently disagree on certain interpretations of Marx’s thought which leads to some fun intellectual sparring. They are an interesting contrast too as Claeys is every inch the academic, where as Eagleton tends to be shorter and pithier in his answers. Partly as it seems he’d rather you read his book and partly as he wanted to leave more time for questions from the audience.

The final Q&A section provided some interesting moments too. Questions asked cover various topics including Corbyn, China, The possibility of “reds” and “greens” coming together, engaging young people with Socialism, finance and climate change. Both speakers were again informative and engaged in their answers. Even if you could take issue with some of the content of said answers; for example Claeys somewhat overly rosy view on China. It was clear from the questions that this was a firmly left-wing audience, however, this event proved to be an insightful look at Marx and Marxism that would have proved interesting for anybody politically inclined, regardless of stripe.