I want to thank Ivan Lett, the Online Marketing Coordinator at Yale University Press, for inviting me to participate in his creative experiment: a blog discussion of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Why Marx Was Right. For years I have counted myself among the dedicated readers of Eagleton. At the Missouri School of Journalism I wrote my master’s thesis on concepts of culture in The New York Times Magazine, a labyrinthine topic since “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” according to Raymond Williams in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Eagleton relieved me of intellectual constipation in The Idea of Culture, serving as a major thought-guide for my research and writing. I cannot think about culture without indebtedness to his perspicacious analysis. Not too long ago I reviewed On Evil in the unlikely pages of Christianity Today. I say “unlikely” because the author is both a Marxist and a Catholic – a strange combination for “a magazine of evangelical conviction.”
For those who are not yet acquainted with Eagleton, consider Stephen Regan’s appraisal of his influence and style in The Eagleton Reader:
To call Terry Eagleton the most gifted Marxist thinker of his generation is only a slender acknowledgement of his critical and creative achievements. There is simply no other cultural critic writing today who can match his popularity or his prolific output. His work has made an impact on the teaching of literary and cultural studies throughout Europe, and in almost every part of the world including China, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, Canada and the United States. For the post 1970s generation of students, researchers and teachers currently engaged in literary and cultural studies in Britain, Eagleton is the critic par excellence. The appeal of his work stems, in part, from the bold enquiry he has launched into the origins and aims of ‘English studies,’ and from a closely related and equally relentless questioning of the function of ‘criticism’ today. Almost single-handedly he has transformed the very nature of critical discourse, breaking down distinctions between critical and creative writing, between academic seriousness and popular comedy, and generally making criticism a more companionable and hospitable domain.
A salient feature of his critical prose is its scintillating dialectical style, its shrewdly discerning grasp of social and cultural contradictions, and its hair-raising way of pushing conflicting arguments so forcefully into collision that they burst and suddenly reveal some unexpected insight or perspective. A favourite Swiftian technique is to construct some plausible, sophisticated argument with meticulous care, only to knock the skids from under it and watch it topple to oblivion. Conversely, we are just as likely to be presented with a set of seemingly ridiculous, far-fetched assumptions, and then discover in the course of argument how just and reasonable they are. Such swift and agile reversals are the hallmark of his deft rhetorical style. Increasingly, his writing has adopted the deflationary humour, the epigrammatic wit and the delightful display of paradox that characterizes the critical essays of Oscar Wilde. Eagleton has a repertoire of rhetorical ploys that effortlessly surpasses the skilful gambits of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. While not being averse to the occasional deconstructive spin on his own writing, he has no truck with Derrida’s evasion of political commitment.
Like Saint Oscar, Eagleton enjoys a fashionable flaunting of his dialectical tendencies, though strictly within the precincts of critical theory. At the same time, his fondness for ambivalence and disputation is not merely academic inclination, but a way of articulating a deeply felt and lived response to the conflicts and injustices in class society . . . . For over thirty years Eagleton has been steadfast in his commitment to the socialist transformation of class society, however outdated or obdurate that idea might seem amidst more fashionable postmodern pursuits (viii-ix).
Let me compare this blog discussion to the contemporary British novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. In keeping with Eagleton’s sympathies for the sweaty proletariat, I’d like to envision myself as Mr. Stevens, the unassuming and dutiful butler who serves at Darlington Hall. Eagleton, in an ironic twist, shall be Lord Darlington – the center of attention at a dinner party he’s hosting on “Why Marx Was Right.” For weeks I’ve been executing the details for this event, making sure that it comes off without a hitch. All of the guests at the party are thoughtful Christians who aren’t afraid of Marx, even though fellow believers tend to view him as an implacable enemy of the faith.
Compare two Christian attitudes toward Marx. The majority report comes from Craig Carter, a professor of religious studies at Tyndale University College, who regards Marx as a heretic:
The greatest threat to peace, justice and freedom in the word today comes, not from Christianity as the Left would have you believe, but from the heretical offshoot of Christianity known as Marxism . . . . Marxism is a Christian heresy and Modernity is the period of Western civilization in which this heresy gradually replaces and drives out orthodox Christianity. We are living in the period after Christendom in the sense that we live in the declining phase of Western culture during which time time the heresy predominates, although orthodox Christianity is far from dead. Yet the center of the Christian world is moving south as the Marxist heresy spreads throughout the West. Whether or not some form of Marxism will triumph in the West is not yet known, nor do we know which form it will take if it does. But this we know: if it does triumph Christianity will be eradicated.
The minority report comes from Merold Westphal, a professor of philosophy at Fordham University, who favorably regards Marx as a plagiarist of the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos. In Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, he writes:
There is something profoundly biblical in Marx’s critique of modern society. Or, to speak more generally, the hermeneutics of suspicion in the hands of modern atheists is not only a secular theology of original sin; it is also a secular version of the prophetic message. Those who profess to take biblical authority seriously can ignore (or refute) it at their peril.
Some may want to respond: “But we have Amos, so why do we need Marx?” The question is fair and deserves not one but two answers. First, we need Marx as well as Amos, perhaps Marx as a commentary on Amos, because Marx is about us in a way that Amos is not. I have been Christianizing and modernizing Amos to remind us that his message is not just about wicked people long ago and far away. We do not have that hurdle to overcome with Marx. His critique of religion is about Christians in capitalist society. We know he is talking about us. If Balaam’s ass could speak the Lord’s rebuke to Balaam (Numbers 22), why not a modern atheist speaking the Lord’s rebuke to the modern church? Amos may understand our hearts as well as Marx does, but Marx understands our society in a way Amos could not. If we intend to let Amos really address us, we will probably have to read him with a generous dose of Marx thrown in.
The converse is equally true, and represents my second answer to the question, Given Amos, why Marx? The habits of reading and thinking that will enable us to dismiss Marx will almost certainly enable us to read Amos without noticing what he is saying (213).
I prefer the minority report on Marx, not because I’m a hammer-and-sickle pinko and not because I think he was right all of the time or even most of the time. I prefer the minority report because Marx attunes me to the dark shadow of the American Dream, and my easy acquiescence with it. Westphal says it best: “Marx’s challenge to the churches is a hermeneutical challenge. It dares us to recognize in some of our most widespread rules of reading the ground of the ideological function and idolatrous substance of our faith. And it defies us to develop a hermeneutics of justice and compassion, one that seeks to hear rather than to hide what the Bible says about the widows and the orphans, the women and children in single-parent families.”
No well-trained butler, of course, would publicly disclose his opinions as I’ve done here. Forgive the vulgarity. The guests at Darlington Hall may not concur with my preference for the minority report, but they all seek to engage Marx with charity and discernment. You won’t find allergic reactions at this dinner party. Each of them has selected a chapter in Eagleton’s book for close scrutiny. Without further ado, I’ll step out of the way and introduce the guests. Please join us for the conversation.
Tuesday, March 29
No Matter Your Opinion on Marx, You’re Wrong (Chapter 4)
by Jonathan Fitzgerald
Abstract: Terry Eagleton challenges the oft-held presupposition that “Marxism is a dream of utopia.” By considering Marx’s view of the relationship between history and the future, human nature, the necessity for social institutions, and genuine equality, Eagleton turns the assertion that Marx’s vision for the future is utopian on its head. Eagleton’s argument is not directed solely at those who would flatly discount Marxism; rather it seems his reasoning is effectively directed at readers – like the author of this essay – who are sympathetic to Marx’s views but discount them for all the wrong reasons. While Eagleton does not make a convincing case that a fully Marxist society can succeed (nor does he actually try to do so), he succeeds in creating a more informed conversation by correcting readers’ misconceptions.
Bio: Jonathan Fitzgerald is an editor at Patrol, columnist at Patheos, freelance writer, and educator. He holds degrees from Gordon College and University of Massachusetts–Boston. Currently living in Jersey City, he will be moving to his native Boston soon.
Wednesday, March 30
Why Do We Work? Answers from Karl Marx, Wendell Berry, and Dorothy Sayers (Chapter 5)
by Jake Meador
Abstract: One of the most common dismissals of Marx accuses him of historical reductionism. “Marx creates a caricature of history in which every event is determined purely by class struggle or economic factors,” goes the critique. Eagleton addresses the refutation by clarifying what Marx actually said about historical causality and then explaining how his claims are not as simplistic or materialistic as some critics have suggested. Going beyond mere refutation, Eagleton then develops a Marxist theory of work that is far more holistic in nature than many of Marx’s critics might expect. In his response, Meador compares Marx’s theory of work and history to two other less conventional economic thinkers, British dramatist Dorothy Sayers and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry. Through comparing these three authors we can avoid the more typical Marxist vs. Capitalist debate while also seeing both the overlap and the conflict between Marxist thought and the small-scale localism of Berry and Sayers.
Bio: Jake Meador is a writer and editor. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture and RELEVANT Magazine. He holds a degree in English and History from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He blogs at Notes from a Small Place. Currently living in St. Paul, Minnesota, he will return to his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska in the fall.
Thursday, March 31
When Does Truth Not Matter? A Study of Marx and Materialism (Chapter 6)
by Albert Lee
Abstract: In the wake of the latest financial crisis of 2008 that brought the largest economies on earth to the brink of disaster and destroyed trillions of dollars in wealth worldwide, the public has been searching for answers in an environment of openness unprecedented in generations. Numerous public intellectuals have been re-thinking the dominance of the economic ideology and system of global capitalism. Literary critic Terry Eagleton has sought to revive the thought of Karl Marx as a counterweight to the prevailing economic order. What should we make of this man’s ideas, which have alternatively been lionized and demonized in myriad cultures for the past century? What are the consequences of bringing Marx’s work to bear on our current situation? This essay examines the popularly misunderstood materialism of Marx. Lee engages this specific idea of Marx and its implications through an examination of the relationship between ideology and practice, noting the ways in which his materialism — properly understood — is a brilliant and essential corrective to prevailing rationalist views of the human person, and yet expressing reservations about the violent assumptions underlying his views and consequences thereof. Finally, Lee suggests a fundamentally more materialist alternative to Marx’s violent ontology.
Bio: Albert Lee is a technology assistant working at a small Christian culture magazine near Charlottesville, Virginia. He holds a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Friday, April 1
Administrative Tyranny: Marx’s Misguided View of the State (Chapter 9)
by Andrew Walker
Abstract: Terry Eagleton insists that Marx’s understanding of the state has been misunderstood. Objecting to the claim that the state leads to irrepressible tyranny and the loss of liberty, Eagleton claims that Marx was in fact an opponent of the state and that his philosophy had no intent to wrest power into the hands of the State. Objecting to Eagleton’s claim, Walker discusses the anthropological deficiencies surrounding Marx’s view of man and how this inadequacy detrimentally impacts political authority. He contends that Marx failed to properly delineate the function of the state from being minimally administrative to maximally coercive. While the historical record reveals no long-term success for Marxism, Walker shows that failing to limit the reach of the state has led to disastrous and deadly consequences in the history of statecraft and secondly, that Marxist models have debunked Marx’s own claims.
Bio: Andrew Walker works at a public policy organization in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a contributor to Mere Orthodoxy. His writing has appeared in The City, The Kentucky Citizen, and The Louisville Courier-Journal. He holds degrees from Southwest Baptist University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This fall he begins a graduate degree in political science at the University of Louisville.