Terry Eagleton made his name in the 1980s by demonstrating that it is possible to write wittily and even elegantly about literary theory. At the time this was something of a revelation. Theory was almost synonymous with what its advocates might have called a “problematizing” style—things are more complicated than they seem, and language must embody that complication—and with what its opponents might have called sheer obfuscation. Eagleton himself, in his earlier writing, had not scaled the heights of opacity but had not been the most stylish of stylists.
In his 1976 book Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton wrote many sentences like this one about Dickens’ Dombey and Son: “The ideological basis of this ambiguity is that the novel is divided between a conventional bourgeois admiration of industrial progress and a petty-bourgeois anxiety about its inevitably disruptive effects.” Clear enough, in the earnest and wooden way characteristic of much Marxist criticism, and with an undertone, if you listen carefully, of tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague.
But then the University of Minnesota Press commissioned Eagleton to write an accessible overview of literary theory—a decision that proved more rewarding than the press could have imagined. Literary Theory: An Introduction became an academic bestseller: It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its first publication in 1983, largely because Terry Eagleton, it turns out, has remarkable gifts of clear exposition, narrative urgency (about ideas!), and mordant wit.
About the belief, proclaimed with zeal by the English scholar F. R. Leavis in his journal Scrutiny, that reading great literature makes you a better person, Eagleton notes: “When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” And on a later development: “Such deconstruction is a power game, a mirror image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: The winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.”
Clarity and wit, yes; but there’s something else at work here: not just a narrative urgency but also a moral one. Eagleton’s wit has a barb to it, and that barb is for people—whether traditional humanists or radical post-humanists—whose thought takes no real cognizance of injustice. His implicit critique of both the humanists and the devotees of deconstruction is that they are morally frivolous.
Eagleton comes by this moral impulse in two ways: through his Marxism and through his allegiance to a form of Catholic Christianity grounded in the pursuit of social justice. Few of Eagleton’s readers know that his early career focused more on theology than on literary criticism, although the merger of the two was his self-professed goal. In 1964 the twenty-one-year-old Eagleton was a founding editor of Slant, a journal “devoted to a Catholic exploration of . . . radical politics.” In the preface to his first book, The New Left Church—published in 1966, when he was just twenty-three—he wrote, “The essays in this book are concerned with the church, literature, and politics.”
At that time, Eagleton would later write, “I was a socialist, to be sure, but I was anxious to know how far to the left a Catholic could go without falling off the edge.” After consulting with clerical and theological friends, he got his answer: “It seemed there was no edge after all.” Eagleton means this politically—that is, he learned that you can’t be too far left to be a Christian—but it appears that the Catholicism he came to know in Cambridge didn’t have many other edges, either. This perhaps helps to explain why, a few years later, he crossed the Church off his professional list, leaving himself with literature and politics.
In one of his early essays, “Priesthood and Leninism,” he argues that Catholic priests should identify themselves explicitly with what Lenin called the revolutionary “vanguard.” This was not a self-description many Catholic priests were likely to adopt, but they did not offer an alternative account of their vocation that Eagleton found compelling. Thus, when he ultimately felt he had to choose between Catholicism and life as an “authentic radical,” it was clear which of the two would be pitched over the side.
For the next thirty years or so, Eagleton’s ecclesial and theological past disappeared from view. He rarely mentioned it, even in his 2003 memoir The Gatekeeper, which dealt with his working-class Catholic upbringing in Salford, near Manchester, and his eventual arrival at Cambridge. (Not incidentally, Salford was once the site of a mill owned by Friedrich Engels’ father.) In 2008 Eagleton mentioned his professional origins in a thoroughly self-mocking way: “I must confess that I did begin my intellectual career as an amateur species of theologian, in those heady post–Second Vatican Council days in the 1960s when anyone able to spell the name Schillebeeckx was instantly drafted onto the editorial board of some opaque theological journal based in Nijmegen.” (Or, perhaps, Cambridge.)
Christianity became largely a source of metaphor in his writings, as seen in the deconstruction-as-kenosis line cited earlier, or in this passage from his 2004 book After Theory: “There is a joke about the bogusly ecumenical Catholic who conceded to his Protestant colleague that there were many ways of worshipping God, ‘you in your way, and I in His.’ This is pretty much how many conservative critics regard theorists.” But then something more substantial started creeping back in.
One of the early signs came in 2006, when he reviewed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for the London Review of Books and led off with this now-famous sentence: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” The rise of the New Atheism seems to have brought the old combative Catholic leftist out in Eagleton; he has written often, and largely scornfully, about this movement.
So thorough has been Eagleton’s rehabilitation as a theologian that he has recently delivered the Gifford Lectures, established long ago to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God.” This might mean more, of course, if Gifford lecturers were all theists, which they are not; but Eagleton’s willingness to deliver the lectures suggests his willingness to be known once more as someone participating in an essentially theological conversation.
As far as I have been able to discover, none of this has brought Eagleton to the point of professing religious belief. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, an expansion and revision of the Terry Lectures that he gave at Yale in 2008, Eagleton denies the importance of the belief question: “Christian faith, as I understand it, is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” This kind of statement is problematically evasive, however: If there is a “promise of transformative love” to which I may remain faithful, who is the promiser? Surely that matters.
Similarly, in a 2007 interview with The Times of London, Eagleton said, “I certainly don’t think it’s odd that Christianity and Marxism should go together in my career, or indeed in anybody’s career.” Both are
concerned with emancipation, and in the narrative of each the poor play a central role. Something I am very drawn to [in both] is that their assessment of the present state of humanity is very glum, whether that is because of original sin or the class society. At the same time there is a feasible capacity for transformation. They see things as being much more stark and realistic than most forms of progressive liberalism. They are both tragic but, in contrast to a merely fashionable postmodern pessimism, both believe in the possibility of change.
When pressed by the interviewer, who was understandably puzzled by what these affirmations added up to, Eagleton refused, or simply was unable, to clarify. In dying on the cross, in suffering the ultimate defeat and humiliation, what was Christ accomplishing, or hoping to accomplish? “Well. He called it the Kingdom of God. But a lot of ink has been spilt over what that means.” Did it have anything to do with the actual resurrection of the dead? “No. I don’t know. He’s talking a traditional kind of Judaic talk. It’s the realm of justice, the realm where tragedy will be wiped away, the realm of fellowship. Though what that means . . .” He did not finish the sentence.
For Eagleton, Jesus is not the only prophet whose reputation has suffered unnecessarily and who has been unjustly mocked. There is also Karl Marx. If Eagleton was moved to the defense of at least some aspects of Christian teaching—its “narrative of emancipation,” its “promise of transformative love”—by the sudden prominence of ignorantly assertive attackers, he is moved to the defense of Marxism by a very different set of circumstances. Marxism as a serious rival to capitalism was swept away in the 1980s, as Eagleton acknowledges, but now he sees it primed for renewal. In a glowing review of a new collection of essays by the eminent and unreconstructed Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, Eagleton writes, “Only recently has Marxism been back on the agenda, placed there, ironically enough, by an ailing capitalism. ‘Capitalism in Convulsion,’ a Financial Times headline read in 2008. When capitalists begin to speak of capitalism, you know the system is in dire trouble.” And so the time is ripe, he judges, for his newest book: Why Marx Was Right.
Eagleton structures his book as responses to ten common criticisms of Marxism. He begins each of his main chapters with a paragraph-long summary of one of these complaints; I will try to boil them down even further here. In order, the objections are these: Marxism is irrelevant to today’s economic circumstances; Marxism always proves monstrously tyrannical when put into practice; Marxism’s strictly deterministic philosophy is “offensive to human freedom and dignity”; Marxism’s utopianism is hopelessly naive; Marxism “reduces everything to economics”; Marxism believes only in material reality, and thereby drains the world of meaning; Marxism is tediously obsessed with social class; Marxism is violent on principle, believing that the socialist end requires the violent means; Marxism makes the state omnipotent, thereby ensuring permanent tyranny; Marxism did not inspire and now fails even to reckon with the really interesting and powerful radical movements that have emerged in recent decades, including feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, and the like.
Well, ten for ten, I’d say, laying my cards on the table. But, striving for that open-mindedness that characterizes the very finest book reviewers, I have looked at Eagleton’s responses, and I find them largely, but not wholly, unconvincing.
Eagleton is at his worst, as one might expect, trying to defend the historical record of communist states. Wanting to affirm that the Soviet Union and Mao’s China “modernized” their societies, he has to acknowledge that the “human cost” of this achievement was “horrific”—but then immediately claims that “the cost was so steep partly because of the hostility of the capitalist West,” which also “forced the Soviet Union into an arms race which crippled its arthritic economy even further.” Yes; how deeply, deeply reluctant Stalin was to build a military superpower.
A little later, Eagleton magnanimously concedes that “the mighty liberal lineage from Thomas Jefferson to John Stuart Mill” is not at all “annulled by the existence of secret CIA-run prisons for torturing Muslims,” and merely asks the opponents of Marxism to “concede that show trials and mass terror are no refutation” of Marxism. But surely the word “mass” in that last-quoted phrase is worth noting: I don’t think even Eagleton would contend that CIA-run prisons are characteristic of Western society as a whole; and yet, for lengthy periods in their history, both the Soviet Union and Communist China were in effect vast police states that controlled their subjects by a pretty constant application—through multiple forms of surveillance, random arrests, and active military control of unstable regions—of at least low-level terror.
Eagleton concludes one chapter by sardonically claiming that the United States has solved the problem of mass unemployment by imprisoning more than a million citizens. It is perhaps best for his case that he move along to a new topic without asking, or allowing his readers to ask, how many people are imprisoned in China today, or what they are in prison for.
It is when Eagleton turns to what Marxism could be that he is at least somewhat more persuasive, but here, too, the arguments are familiar ones. They derive largely from an old dispute between, as the parties usually are defined, a strict, deeply econo-materialistic Marxism emerging from the Soviet bloc and a looser, more culturally sensitive Marxism usually associated with Western Europe, especially France. To adherents of the latter, the former represents “vulgar Marxism”; to adherents of the former, adherents of the latter are basically sissies.
Marx famously wrote that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Both groups of Marxists—the Eastern and the Western, the vulgar and the sophisticated, the hard-headed and the soft-hearted, call them what you will—agree that Marx is right in saying this but disagree about how literally he means it. The Eastern tradition often takes Marx to be saying that one’s “social being”—that is, one’s place in the class system—directly and completely governs one’s thoughts. Although the relation might not be immediately obvious, a sufficiently rigorous and sophisticated analysis should be able to draw a direct line between the economic conditions of a given time, place, or person and the thoughts generated therefrom.
For the kind of Western Marxism that Eagleton embraces, it’s more complicated than that. In his early book Marxism and Literary Criticism he writes that to understand works of literature “is first of all to understand the complex, indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit” (emphasis mine). For the vulgar Marxist, indirection equals evasion: Make the relations between what Marx called the economic “base” and the cultural “superstructure” too mediated and Marxist political philosophy loses its explanatory power.
But if you’re a Marxist and a lover of literature and the arts, you’ll be willing to risk that difficulty in order to preserve a realm of cultural freedom; you’ll want to mute the deterministic note in dialectical materialism. Thus Eagleton: “Capitalism was not the cause of John Locke’s philosophy or Jane Austen’s fiction. It is rather a context in which both can be illuminated.” (Note the indefinite article: a context: one among others.) Eagleton devotes one of the longest sections in this brief book to an attempt to save the base–superstructure distinction as much from vulgar Marxists as from the committed opponents of Marxism.
Eagleton tries to explain his position on these matters through a comparison to—you guessed it—Christian theology. Is Marxism a deterministic philosophy, its success the inevitable result of “the unstoppable march of history”? Well, yes and no.
There is an analogy here with the Christian interplay between divine providence and human free will. For the Christian, I act freely when I strangle the local police chief; but God has foreseen this action from all eternity and included it all along in his plan for humanity. . . . In one sense, the coming of the future kingdom of God is not preordained: it will arrive only if men and women work for it in the present. But the fact that they will work for it of their own free will is itself an inevitable result of God’s grace.
Got that? Well, then, similarly, “Marx does not think that the inevitability of socialism means we can all stay in bed.” Rather, “once capitalism has definitively failed”—it is not clear whether Eagleton thinks that has happened already or will very soon—then “working people will have no reason not to take it over and every reason to do so.” So, “just as for the Christian human action is free yet part of a preordained plan, so for Marx the disintegration of capitalism will unavoidably lead men and women to sweep it away of their own free will.”
Contemplating the explanatory scope of this extended analogy, let us not spend too much time noting that Eagleton offers one Christian view of divine foreknowledge and predestination, not the Christian view, or that he illustrates that view through the use of trivial (though pleasant) examples. Nor should we emphasize the lamentable fact that the analogy is, at the end of the day, a pretty poor one.
Rather, the key point is that, when Eagleton wants to describe a world that combines the comforts of purposefulness with the promise of meaningful human action, it is to Christian theology that he looks for an illustration. The idea that Marxism is a Christian heresy, or parasitic on Christian eschatology, has been a cliché for a century or more now, but it is rare for a Marxist to put the two metanarratives in such direct conversation, as Eagleton does. Christianity provides the template for Eagleton’s model of social hope, a model in which a reliable pledge of ultimate justice coexists with our ability to act freely and creatively.
Such freedom is vital to Eagleton, and he acknowledges that it depends to some considerable degree on leisure. Here his training in Catholic theology may play an unacknowledged role, for it seems to me that hovering behind Eagleton’s whole discussion of this topic is Josef Pieper’s small masterpiece Leisure, the Basis of Culture, published in 1948. In Eagleton’s account, Marx wrote so much about labor, money, and economics because he wanted to free us from bondage to them. “His model of the good life was based on the idea of artistic self-expression. . . . His ideal was leisure, not labor. If he paid such attention to the economic, it was in order to diminish its power over humanity. His materialism was fully compatible with deeply held moral and spiritual convictions.”
Reading this encomium, I find myself pausing to wonder why I have heard so little of this liberal and humane Marx over the last few decades. Perhaps Eagleton’s book should be called not Why Marx Was Right but Why Marxists Are Wrong. For in Eagleton’s account they almost always have been: Marx’s most devoted followers have consistently misread him, missing his humane generosity while seizing on and overstressing his harsher statements.
Eagleton’s Marx is a kinder, gentler figure. In addition to seeking creative leisure for all, he loved diversity and “was a sworn enemy of uniformity.” He was something of an early environmentalist. He may have been “gloomy about much of the past” because it “seemed to represent one wretched form of oppression and exploitation after another,” but (before you get too downcast) remember also that, according to Marx, “this dismal record was for the most part not our fault.” After all (somehow, this is consistent with the gloominess of our past), “one fairly consistent feature of [human] nature has been a resistance to injustice.” Things will get better: more diverse, more leisurely, more fair, greener. Be of good cheer.
Alexander Dubek famously wanted to introduce in Czechoslovakia “socialism with a human face”—thus the Soviet tanks soon thereafter—but the sheer sunniness of Eagleton’s socialism is nearly transhuman. The sheer sunniness of Eagleton’s Marx is almost blinding, and his gentle meliorism is almost indistinguishable from that of John Stuart Mill. In fact, Eagleton’s Marx may be John Stuart Mill. Reading Why Marx Was Right, it’s impossible to understand how Josef Stalin and Pol Pot ever could have believed themselves to be Marxists. Surely they were missing something. Or else Terry Eagleton is.
Eagleton can be rather easy to criticize, or just make fun of. Thus William Deresiewicz: “Eagleton wishes for capitalism’s demise, but as long as it’s here, he plans to do as well as he can out of it. Someone who owns three homes shouldn’t be preaching self-sacrifice.” True enough; yet I am inclined to let him off this particularly sharp hook because over the years he has rather consistently kept before his readers’ eyes some important things that they might prefer to forget. Thus Eagleton’s critique of the whole enterprise of Theory:
Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity, and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on.
This is true, and importantly true, and the fact that it was written by someone whose practices are less than wholly consistent with his professed beliefs does not make it any less true. (As a Christian, I am reluctant to be too hard on those who fail to live up to the standards they proclaim. An anecdote about specks and beams comes uncomfortably to mind.) For the last hundred years, as Arnoldian talk about the character-building power of great art has rung increasingly hollow, those who profess the humanities have struggled to figure out whether they can reconfigure and defend such claims, or whether they have to abandon them. And if abandonment is necessary, what are the alternative vocabularies? How can we articulate to ourselves why we do what we do—or why it’s worth doing at all?
Many of the answers given to these questions have been frivolous at best, cynical at worst. I don’t believe Marx was right about very much (although, if Marx actually had been the sweet-natured Romantic that Terry Eagleton portrays, I would find him a rather attractive figure), but he was asking, and striving to answer, certain deep and essential questions about human flourishing that the humanities today often seem to forget, or to evade. Marx and Eagleton alike talk the talk much better than they walk the walk; but, after all, the intellectual life is largely about talking, and any book that helps us talk about the things that really matter is a worthwhile thing. I have learned to be thankful for small favors.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press).