April 17, 2011

Marxism and Literary Criticism (Terry Eagleton)

Here is a concise introduction to the subject of reading socio-political "relevance" in books. Terry Eagleton surveyed the rise of Marxist literary critics and their ideas and philosophies. It began with a definition of basic concepts of Marxist lit theory (base and superstructure) and then proceeded toward a critique of early interpretations of the theory. The approach is academic and somehow lacking some specific examples. The presentation of arguments was interesting even though it mentioned a lot of critics and books I'm not familiar with. The book will be most appreciated by those who have a background on the subject and its writers, from its originators Marx and Engels, to its modern interpreters Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Eagleton specifically approved of the types of response and criticism produced by the latter two: Brecht for his plays which were meant to be performed with complete improvisation, and Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – at least Eagleton convinced me to look out for these books. There are some good passages worth quoting but alas the book was mooched and I mailed it before I got the chance to type some passages I underlined. In any case, what I remember of the basic precepts and conclusions of the book range from the obvious (a text should not be overtly political) to the ingenious (texts are valued as much for their content as for the behind-the-scenes modes of production that went toward their publication; and also, history is an active arbiter of the relevance of literary texts, a book can be hailed as a success or failure depending on its place – or on the timing of its publication – in history).

Terry Eagleton is a critic best known for Literary Theory, another guidebook whose chapter one was a good background on the value judgements attributed to literary works, but whose succeeding chapters were written in one of those academic, scholarly, elegant, learned style. Hence, boring. I never did finish it.

His latest publication, Why Marx Was Right, is a return to the theory of Marxism. If the excerpt is any indicator, the book has a more philosophical (over academic) bent.

Because the working-class movement had been so battered and bloodied, and the political Left so robustly rolled back, the future seemed to have vanished without trace. For some on the left, the fall of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s served to deepen the disenchantment. It did not help that the most successful radical current of the modern age—revolutionary nationalism—was by this time pretty well exhausted. What bred the culture of postmodernism, with its dismissal of so-called grand narratives and triumphal announcement of the End of History, was above all the conviction that the future would now be simply more of the present.

. . .

Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists. In this respect, being a Marxist is nothing like being a Buddhist or a billionaire. It is more like being a medic. Medics are perverse, self-thwarting creatures who do themselves out of a job by curing patients who then no longer need them. The task of political radicals, similarly, is to get to the point where they would no longer be necessary because their goals would have been accomplished. They would then be free to bow out, burn their Guevara posters, take up that long-neglected cello again, and talk about something more intriguing than the Asiatic mode of production. Marxism is meant to be a strictly provisional affair, which is why anyone who invests his whole identity in it has missed the point. That there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism.

There is only one problem with this otherwise alluring vision. Marxism is a critique of capitalism—the most searching, rigorous, comprehensive critique of its kind ever to be launched. It follows, then, that as long as capitalism is still in business, Marxism must be as well. Only by superannuating its opponent can it superannuate itself. And on the last sighting, capitalism appeared as feisty as ever.

The new book – in sketching a new reading of the present based on an old model – appears to be not only a continuation but an extension, an amplification, of his Marxism and Literary Criticism. His introduced theme painted some very broad brushstrokes about why the contemporary global landscape is not very accommodating to Marxism. In the subsequent chapters of the book, his supposedly impassioned defense of Marxism from its detractors promises to be a hardening of his thesis about the continuing robustness of Marxism to describe the techno-capitalist society.


  1. I must say that Eagelton's Why Marx Was Right takes the wrong step in the right direction. The overly "nuanced" arguments in fact fails to hide an armchair academic's snide remarks over real emancipatory projects of real movements that have liberated millions of workers and peasants. The book cannot hide the author's Trotskyite loyalties. Admirable defense of "Marxism" but very much obviously divorced from the contingencies of Marxist practice and theory.

  2. Eagleton should stick to his "Marxist" literary criticism. He's better at that. :)

  3. Hmmmm. My impression is that Eagleton's orientation is on the theoretical aspects of Marxism as shaped by globalization. I did like some of his discussions in the book under review, especially the one about the relationship between form and content. But I can't say I buy all his recent arguments since I'm not buying the latest book. :p