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Ian Birchall

Terry Eagleton and Marxist literary criticism

(Spring 1982)

From International Socialism 2:16, Spring 1982, pp. 114–124.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The last decade has seen the production of a considerable amount of work in the area of Marxist aesthetics and literary criticism. This work has been very uneven in quality and in general has revealed serious limitations. A brief historical sketch, necessarily schematic, may help to put this work into some sort of context [1]:

  1. In the ten or fifteen years after 1917, it was possible for cultural theory and practice to develop in close interaction with revolutionary politics and organisation. The most important developments and debates took place in Russia and Germany; the writings of Trotsky and Gramsci, and the early work of Brecht, are the best-known products of this period.
  2. The rise of Stalinism put an end to the fertile interaction of politics and aesthetics. On the one hand the doctrines of socialist realism and ‘Zhdanovism’ sought to reduce literary judgements to political standards that were ultimately conservative. In opposition to this, the theoreticians of anti-communism proclaimed the complete independence of literature from political criteria. The few individuals who tried to swim against both streams – Orwell, the early Sartre – bear the marks of their isolation.
  3. The crisis of Stalinism after 1956 opened up the debate again. In their various ways Sartre, Raymond Williams, Lucien Goldmann and Ernst Fischer tried to defend the social relevance of literature while insisting that the relation between writers and class was more complex than the Stalinist framework could allow. The seminal work of Lukács was translated into English and was widely read and discussed.
  4. By the early seventies a new generation, radicalised by the events of 1968, was entering the field. They attempted to develop the important work of the post-Stalinist period. This new generation, however, found itself still working largely in isolation from revolutionary practice; and in general its work was done within the still expanding institutions of higher education. This situation necessarily imposed certain limitations and distortions on the work being done.

Firstly the rarefied atmosphere of academic debate tended to produce an ever-increasing weight of cross-reference to a growing body of trendy theorists, removing the argument further and further from the central issues. By the time one had read Eagleton on Macherey on Lukács on Engels on Balzac, one probably hadn’t time to actually read Balzac.

Secondly, because much of the argument took place in the framework of existing academic structures and syllabuses, a great deal of work focussed on the established literary tradition rather than on the task of creating an alternative revolutionary ‘tradition’.

And finally, most of the work tended to be done in isolation from the contemporary developments of radical cultural practice; there was little dialogue between the seminar on Barthes or Derrida and the emergence of political theatre or politicised rock music.

None the less it would be quite wrong to dismiss all this work as valueless. If most of it has signally failed to come up with the right answers, at least it is asking some of the right questions. And even that is now under threat. The current Tory attack on higher education is ideological as well as economic, and one target will be those approaches (Marxism, feminism, structuralism) which seek to relate the study of literature to the critique of ideology. (The recent MacCabe affair at Cambridge was an early skirmish).

The questions raised include some fundamental ones. What is the relation between literature and ideology? Do works of literature simply embody ideologies, or can they be the basis for criticising and transcending ideology? Can Marxism offer a method of evaluating literary works without resorting to the crude mechanical formulations of Zhdanovism? To what extent does a sociological account of literary production lead us to deny any significance to the intentions of the individual author? To what extent is materialism compatible with the application of recent work in linguistic theory? How can a political account of a literary work succeed in confronting, not just the overtly political aspects of the text, but the work as a whole, and in particular its form?

In many ways the work of Terry Eagleton can be taken as symptomatic of the new generation. Several books, plus a large number of articles, notably in New Left Review, have established a well-deserved reputation. [2] Moreover, unlike many of his contemporaries, Eagleton is a committed revolutionary socialist, for whom Marxism is much more than a set of abstract categories. He may not have successfully achieved the unity of theory and practice; but one can at least sense the anguish that he has failed to do so.

What follows is merely a provisional attempt to confront some of the problems raised in Eagleton’s work. Provisional, not only because of the scope of such an article, but because of the particular complexities of Eagleton’s work. In reading earlier marxist aestheticians, such as Georg Lukács or Lucien Goldmann, one is struck by a serene self-confidence, an assertiveness of tone; Eagleton’s work comes closer to the fragmentary, rambling style of his hero Walter Benjamin.

Moreover, Eagleton’s work is in continuous evolution, marked by acknowledged and unacknowledged shifts of position. His earliest work derives from Raymond Williams and left Catholicism and includes a book on Shakespeare. But by 1970 Eagleton seems to have become unduly impressed by the thesis, emanating from Perry Anderson and New Left Review, that English Marxism is peculiarly backward, and that other countries have achieved much more (though unfortunately not actually the revolution). Exiles and Emigrés develops this theme, and Criticism and Ideology begins in an uncharacteristically cringing tone, describing the English Marxist aesthetician as ‘acutely bereft of tradition ... a tolerated house-guest in Europe, a precocious but parasitic alien.’ (CI, p. 7)

Hence Eagleton’s love-hate affair with French literary theory, in particular the work of Pierre Macherey and Jacques Derrida. Often he seems to be frantically plundering their work in search of the solutions that evade him. Yet at the same time he is clearly aware of their limitations (he has recently described Derrida as ‘among many other more interesting things, one of the more recent mutations of a clapped-out bourgeois liberalism’). [3] Yet he has not found any point of reference that will enable him to get free of their clutches.

The major strength of Eagleton’s work is his insistence on the relation between literature and ideology. For him every work has something to say about society and about the ideas that serve to maintain the existing social relations. Moreover, he points to the particular ways in which literature is used as a means of ideological conditioning in our culture:

From the infant school to the University faculty, literature is a vital instrument for the insertion of individuals into the perceptual and symbolic forms of the dominant ideological formation, able to accomplish this function with a ‘naturalness’, spontaneity and experiential immediacy possible to no other ideological practice. (CI, p. 56)

It is this central importance accorded to ideology that makes Eagleton’s work of value to us. Even if we discard his solutions, we shall have to come back to the central questions that he is asking.

But if the concern with ideology is Eagleton’s main merit, his greatest weakness is a failure to define exactly what his project as a critic is. For a ‘Marxist literary critic’ can play a variety of different social roles. On the one hand he can exist within the academic establishment, providing an alternative Marxist view to the orthodoxies of university convention. Nowadays the many anthologies of critical view-points that are published for the benefit of students are not considered complete without the presence of a token Marxist. Such work may often be interesting, but capitalism can learn to live with such Marxists, just as it has learned to live with the trade union bureaucracy and rock and roll.

In Walter Benjamin Eagleton outlines an alternative and ambitious programme for ‘Marxist criticism’:

The primary task of the ‘Marxist critic’ is to actively participate in and help direct the cultural emancipation of the masses. The organising of the writers’ workshops, artists studios and popular theatre; the transformation of the cultural and educational apparatuses: the business of public design and architecture; a concern with the quality of quotidian life all the way from public discourse to domestic ‘consumption’; in short, all of the projects on which Lenin, Trotsky, Krupskaya, Lunacharsky and others of the Bolsheviks were intensively engaged remain, for all the differences of historical situation, the chief responsibilities of a revolutionary cultural theory that has refused, other than tactically and provisionally, that division of labour which gives birth to a ‘Marxist literary criticism’. (WB, pp. 97–8)

Such a project is exemplary; but it cannot be wholly realised by an act of individual will – it needs a mass movement. In the absence of even an embryonic mass movement to relate to Eagleton vacillates between the two different conceptions of his role.

One point at which Eagleton’s vacillation becomes evident is his style. For one professionally employed to communicate the beauties of English literature, Eagleton writes English extraordinarily badly. His style is often condensed and overladen with an erudition which the readers are assumed to share. Style is not a matter of accident or personal competence. Eagleton writes like this because he is unsure what audience he is addressing, on what grounds he is fighting the class struggle.

A brief example may help to make the point:

Who is the major English Marxist critic? Christopher Caudwell, hélas. It is in such a pat question and answer that the problem of a Marxist criticism in contemporary Britain is most deftly posed. (CI, p. 21)

What can we make of this? Firstly, it assumes a familiarity with the small talk of literary history (André Gide, asked who was the greatest French poet, replied ‘Victor Hugo, alas’). Secondly, the reference to ‘pat question and answer’ seems to relate to an academic circle of which Eagleton is a member in which such exchanges are taken for granted.

The central focus of Eagleton’s work is ideology. But this is not to say that his account of ideology is wholly satisfactory. Indeed, many of his formulations tend to a fatalism that defuses class struggle rather than serving it. It is, of course, salutary to be reminded of the power and resilience of ideology, to insist that we cannot transcend or destroy it by a simple act of will. And yet the problem remains that, if we are concerned to change the world rather than merely interpret it, then we must find means of transcending ideology. A model in which some authors and books are ‘on our side’, allies in struggle, weapons in our hands, may be cruder than Eagleton’s elaborate theoretical constructions, but the reality of struggle may also be crude.

Eagleton attacks two opposed concepts of the relation of literature to ideology. On the one hand, he rejects the ‘vulgar Marxist view’ that literary works are merely ‘reflections of dominant ideologies’. But he also rejects the position, identified with Ernst Fischer, that authentic art ‘always transcends the ideological limits of its time.’ (MLC, p. 17). Likewise, he rejects Lukács’ model of the transcendence of ideology:

Georg Lukács, in his Studies in European Realism, argues that Balzac’s greatness lies in the fact that the ‘inexorable veracity’ of his art drives him to transcend his reactionary ideology and perceive the real historical issues at stake. Ideology, here, clearly signifies a ‘false consciousness’ which blocks true historical perception, a screen interposed between men and their history. As such, it is a simplistic notion: it fails to grasp ideology as an inherently complex formation which, by inserting individuals into history in a variety of ways, allows of multiple kinds and degrees of access to that history. (CI, p. 69)

In an attempt to go beyond such an oversimplified view of ideology, Eagleton draws on the work of Althusser and Macherey for an account of the particular relation of art to ideology, one in which art ‘is held within ideology, but also manages to distance itself from it, to the point where it permits us to “feel” and “perceive” the ideology from which it springs.’ (MLC, p. 18). In Criticism and Ideology, his final formulation is dense and cryptic in the extreme:

... a ceaseless reciprocal operation of text on ideology and ideology on text, a mutual structuring and destructuring in which the text constantly overdetermines its own determinations. The structure of the text is then the product of this process, not the reflection of its ideological environs. The ‘logic of the text’ is not a discourse which doubles the ‘logic of ideology’; it is rather, a logic constructed ‘athwart’ that more encompassing logic. (CI, p. 99)

The trouble with such a formulation is that, by employing the abstractions ‘ideology’ and ‘text’, it glosses over the fact that different texts have very different relations to ideology. Clearly texts by, say, Brecht and Patience Strong do not relate to ideology in the same way. In practice, the theory must be judged by its treatment of particular texts. And in fact Eagleton’s critical writings tend to stress the pervasive, inescapable nature of ideology. In the earlier Exiles and Emigrés he had shown that despite the critical aspirations of both upper-class and lower middle-class novelists, ‘both modes of fiction were tied, at crucial points, to the dominant orthodoxy they opposed.’ (EE, p. 13). The limits of Orwell’s social criticism is shown in an essay which makes no mention whatsoever of Homage to Catalonia. And in Criticism and Ideology the overview of writers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (George Eliot, Dickens, Henry James, Yeats, Lawrence and others) stresses the recurrence of ‘organicist’ ideology in apparently diverse writers.

In Marxism and Literary Criticism Eagleton develops a theory of the relation between the text and ideology that derives largely from the work of Macherey:

The text is, as it were, ideologically forbidden to say certain things; in trying to tell the truth in his own way, for example, the author finds himself forced to reveal the limits of the ideology in which he writes. He is forced to reveal its gaps and silences, what it is unable to articulate. Because a text contains these gaps and silences, it is always incomplete. Far from constituting a rounded, coherent whole, it displays a conflict and contradiction of meanings; and the significance of the work lies in the difference rather than unity between these meanings. (MLC, p. 35)

The problem is that in such account ‘truth’ has become purely relative. Dickens telling lies about trade unions in Hard Times and Zola telling the truth about miners’ working conditions in Germinal; both are simply contradictory texts. Camus creating racist myths about Algeria and Sartre telling the truth about the French army’s torture there: both texts. The French state was more perceptive: it knew which one to ban.

Most of the texts which Eagleton chooses to illustrate his account of ideology are drawn from established figures of English literature: Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, Conrad, Lawrence, T S Eliot, etc. In itself this is a worthwhile activity. In the universities, the comprehensive schools and through television adaptations, the classics of literature are used to propagate ideology. Thus Thomas Hardy was a ‘Great Writer’ who believed that an omnipotent fate inevitably thwarted human aspirations. Every time that lie is repeated another blow is struck by those who want us to believe that we cannot change the world. There is a job of demystification to be done and Eagleton’s account, if not wholly original, is at least clear and incisive:

Until quite recently, the story of Jude might have been summarised in a conventional critical account as the tragedy of a peasant boy who uproots himself from a timeless and settled rural community in the pursuit of learning, fails to achieve that worthy ideal through excessive sexual appetite, and in failing reveals the inexorable destiny of man himself, doomed to perpetual unfulfilment on a blighted planet. No part of that statement is in fact true, and to ask why not provides a starting-point for a more accurate reading of the novel. Jude is neither a peasant nor particularly oversexed; Marygreen, his childhood home, has nothing settled or timeless about it; the Christminster culture which attracts him is shoddy rather than worthy; and his failure to achieve it has no ‘cosmic’ significance whatsoever. The novel goes out of its way to emphasise all these facts, and only a reading biased by ideological preconceptions about Hardy’s fiction could fail to recognise them. [4]

But valuable as such attacks are, they are only part of the task of a Marxist critic, and Eagleton often defines other parts as outside his concern. He has little interest in so-called ‘popular culture’, seeing its relation to ideology as being less interesting than that of ‘great literature’. More importantly, he excludes much of the tradition of radical proletarian culture. Thus in discussing English culture’s ‘impermeability’ he observes ‘While Meyerhold and Piscator were at their peak, English theatre was dominated by the grandfather of all naturalists, George Bernard Shaw ... there is no English Brecht’ (WB, pp. 94–96). We can leave aside the dismissive attitude to Shaw (Lenin called him ‘a good man fallen among Fabians’ and Brecht, who wrote an article called Three Cheers for Shaw were more generous). But much more significantly this formulation disregards the whole tradition of political theatre, mainly associated with the Communist Party, in Britain from the twenties to the forties. This tradition may have been technically mediocre, and it was certainly distorted by Stalinism, but it existed and it has lessons for us. To pose the question in terms of an ‘English Brecht’ is to surrender to the bourgeois myth that literature is a gallery of great individuals. Again, Victor Serge does not earn a mention in any of Eagleton’s writings. For Serge stands outside the established hierarchies of literature (largely because he was stateless: syllabuses tend to be constructed on the basis of national literatures).

Time and again Eagleton stresses the area of agreement with established academic opinion. Thus he tells us: ‘most of the agreed major writers of the twentieth century – Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence – are political conservatives who each had truck with fascism’. (MLC, p. 8) Who, we might ask, did the agreeing that, for example, the convoluted and incomprehensible racist Pound is more major than the anti-fascist Orwell?

Eagleton’s insistence on remaining on the terrain of the established literary tradition must, in part at least, be explained by his theory of ideology. For if all texts stand in relation to ideology then what possibility is there of developing a revolutionary alternative?

Thus Eagleton is positively hostile to what he calls ‘literary ultra-leftism’ (CI, p. 162), identified in particular with revivals of the proletcult which:

aims an unintended insult at – to chose merely one example – those Lancashire mill girls of early Victorian England who rose an hour before work to read Shakespeare together. It would be a curious kind of materialistic critic who would now wish to inform those women, in wise historical retrospect, that they wasting their time over a reactionary hack. (CI, p. 166)

Here an ultra-left Aunt Sally is used to evade the real issues. What we tell the dead can have little relevance; but surely Eagleton would not want to tell the living women of Chix or Lee Jeans that they should be reading Shakespeare instead of picketing. And can he be confident that there is no connection between deference to ‘great literature’ and deference to the employer?

This in turn leads to the difficult problem of literary evaluation. For Eagleton one of the tasks of the Marxist critic is to provide a scientific basis for such evaluation:

It should not, then, be a matter of embarrassment that the literary texts selected for examination by Marxist criticism will inevitably overlap with those works which literary idealism has consecrated as ‘great’; it is a question of challenging the inability of such idealism to render more than subjectivist accounts of the criteria of value. (CI, p. 162)

Yet even a thoroughly scientific account of such criteria may be of only limited interest. Eagleton devotes a book to the Brontës in order to reach the not very startling conclusion that Jane Eyre is a good book but Wuthering Heights is a better one. (MP, p. 94) Sometimes such judgements may be of interest; he makes a good case for claiming that Lawrence’s Women in Love is less successful than The Rainbow because personal relationships are less rooted in society. (EE, p. 213) But ultimately it is not really very useful to ask whether, for example, Robert Tressell is a better writer than Henry James. What is important is to argue that the former is on our side, a producer of texts that are weapons in our struggle, while the latter is at best a producer of documents to be analysed and demystified.

Eagleton’s fatalistic conception of ideology also leads him into severe problems in dealing with the question of intention in literary production. The discrepancy between the intentions of the author and the actual text he or she produces is of course a commonplace of Marxist criticism. It can be traced back to Engels’ famous remarks on Balzac, where he notes the contrast between the novelist’s conservative ideas and the way in which his books confirm a revolutionary understanding of history. And, in more general terms it is the fact that human beings’ achievements do not coincide with their intentions that makes political practice necessary.

Much of Eagleton’s literary criticism is concerned with drawing out the contradictions between the intentions of authors and the way the texts actually operate. Thus in discussing Conrad’s Under Western Eyes he notes that ‘there is a tension between what the novel shows us of Razumov and what it says of him.’ (EE, p. 26) Drawing on the French Althusserian theorist Pierre Macherey, Eagleton tries to show how what is omitted or suppressed in a text may illuminate the contradictions of the author’s ideology. In Criticism and Ideology he attempts to construct a theoretical model including both ‘General Ideology’ and ‘Authorial Ideology’: ‘There is no question here of “centring” the literary text on the individual subject who produces it; but neither is it a matter of liquidating that subject into ‘general’ aesthetic and ideology forms.’ (CI, pp. 59–60)

But Macherey wants to go further. Eagleton tells us that ‘Macherey is in fact opposed in the final analysis to the whole idea of the author as “individual subject”, whether creator or “producer”, and wants to displace him from his privileged position. It is not so much that the author produces his text as that the text “produces itself” through the author.’ (MLC, p. 83)

There are many indications in Eagleton’s work that he has been tempted along this road. Not only does he write of the ‘spurious belief that the truth of a text resides in the consciousness of its author’ [5]; he adopts formulations which seem to liquidate the individual writer completely:

The phrase ‘George Eliot’ signifies nothing more than the insertion of certain ideological determinations – Evangelical Christianity, rural organicism, incipient feminism, petty-bourgeois moralism – into a hegemonic ideological formation which is partly supported, partly embarrassed by their presence.’ (CI, p. 113)

But if no space is to be found for the individual intention, then the question of revolutionary artistic practice can be postponed to the millennium; only the revolution will make revolutionary art possible, rather than revolutionary art helping pave the way for the revolution.

In Eagleton’s case, unlike that of some of his contemporaries, there is no question of the use of Marxist categories being merely decorative or incidental. He is a committed Marxist, a revolutionary first and a literary critic second. He is scathing about the academic ‘Marxism’ that is so widespread in some circles; thus he describes the currently fashionable work of Foucault as ‘a glamorous rationale for erstwhile revolutionaries unnerved into pessimism by the current problems of class struggle in the advanced capitalist societies.’ (WB, p. 58) His Marxism is resolutely anti-Stalinist; time and again he takes Trotsky as a model of Marxism in general, and Marxist cultural theory in particular, although his belief that ‘Stalinist theory is... a radical deformation of Marxism from which valuable materialist concepts may nevertheless from time to time be salvaged’ (WB, p. 90) allows him to make continued borrowings from the Althusserian school.

On the status of the Marxist method Eagleton takes a hard position. The Marxist aesthetic is an integral part of the totality of Marx’s thought [6]; Marxism is not just another ‘approach’ to literature, to be taken alongside Freudian or mythological criticism (MLC, p. vii); Plekhanov and Mehring were wrong to believe that Marxism had to be supplemented by an aesthetic drawn from Kantianism.

And yet, perhaps by contamination from the academic milieu, more likely out of an exaggerated desire to avoid any over-rapid reduction of text to class alignment, Eagleton time and time again is to be found doing what he argues against supplementing Marxism with some form of idealist thought. In various parts of his work Eagleton draws heavily on feminism, psychoanalysis, and above all the work of the French structuralists and post-structuralists. Very briefly, structuralism seeks to extend the methods of linguistics to other areas of human activity by discovering rules – like those of grammar – of which the participants are not conscious; thus the intentions of the subject are subordinated to the laws of structure. Post-structuralism – especially the work of Jacques Derrida – puts more stress on the ambiguities of language and effectively dissolves the subject altogether; pushed to its limit, it implies that any text can mean anything- and hence nothing. Structuralist and post-structuralist thought in particular concern themselves with the relation between the ‘signifier’ (the written or spoken sign) and the ‘signified’ (the concept to which it refers). The signifiers are not simply expressions of a reality beyond themselves, but are themselves material as written or spoken words.

Such an approach contains enormous dangers. In the name of materialism the materiality of the text itself becomes substituted for a concern with the world beyond the text. Eagleton’s love-hate relation with post-structuralism has not blinded him to the reactionary potential of such theorising and its incompatibility with a Marxist materialism:

In rematerialisising the sign, we are in imminent danger of de-materialising its referent; a linguistic materialism gradually inverts itself into a linguistic idealism. In evolving a practice upon literary texts which every English University greets with a certain nervous contempt, we have played straight into the hands of the Yale English school. For nothing could suit that particular group of modish academics better than the notion that even ‘history’ is a text. The proletariat is to be neither supported nor repulsed; it is to be textualised. And since we have rejected the theological concept of hierarchies, then it is the crassest folly to insist that the proletariat is in principle a more significant text than Adolphe or Crotchet Castle. [7]

In one of those flashes of satirical brilliance that occasionally illuminate his erudite pages, Eagleton has demolished the pseudo-materialism of certain post-structuralists:

Few things could be more material than goblins. Those who dismiss them as mere phantasms, products of ‘illusion’ or ‘false consciousness’, fail to recognise that goblins belong to material, historically specific discourses, inscribed in certain definite, material apparatuses, producing certain pertinent material effects. Goblin-discourse is the support of certain specific social practices, with concrete ideological effectivities, not least in the Cornish region of the social formation. It if may seem unnecessary to insist upon this simple fact, we need only recollect the stubborn persistence of an older empiricist problematic which would seek to unbare some spontaneous ‘correspondence’ or ‘non-correspondence’ between goblin-discourse and the ‘real’, encoded, no doubt, in some basic observational language itself metaphysically privileged and theoretically unproblematised. There are those, in short, who remain obsessed by the question of whether goblins actually exist or not, as there are those, indeed, who would still seek to pose the problem of whether gendarmes actually exist or not. The materiality of the signifier ‘goblins’ is brutally repressed: deprived of its concrete effectivity within an articulated set of discursive practices, ‘goblins’ becomes no more than a transparent sign within the order of discourse, to be endorsed or eradicated insofar as anything in the order of the real may be found to ‘fit’ with it, or insofar as anything in the order of the real may be deduced from it. [8]

A parallel influence, which Eagleton often seeks to combine with post-structuralism, is that of Brecht and his stress on the concept of production. The artist is to be understood as engaging, not in some mysterious act of ‘creation’, but in production. So, in examining the literary text, we should see it, not as something complete and perfect, but as something which reveals the way in which it was produced. The classic example of this is the so-called ‘estrangement’ effect in the plays of Brecht; Brecht never allows us to surrender to the theatrical illusion, but constantly reminds us that we are watching a play, not reality.

This current is a much more positive one, and no revolutionary aesthetic can evade the achievements and problems of Brecht’s work. Yet if over-emphasised the ‘production aesthetic’ too can substitute a materiality of the text for the relation of the text to the real world. In recent years a kind of bastard Brechtianism has stressed Brecht’s techniques and ignored his politics; its ultimate logic would be to see Blazing Saddles as the great revolutionary film of our era.

If Eagleton stops well short of the worst excesses of this trend, he still stands clearly on the side of Brecht against Lukács, that is, his identification is with the formal innovations of twentieth century modernism, and against the classic tradition of nineteenth century realism.

He is, of course, quite right to insist that literary form is of crucial importance, and that it forms an integral part of the ideology of the text. But his approach leads him to overestimate the subversive impact of purely formal dislocation:

If George Eliot had decided on a fit of wild abandon to kill off all the characters of Middlemarch in the final paragraph, she would certainly have radically undermined Victorian ideological expectations and it is unlikely that the novel would ever had been published; but she would not have undermined such expectations as effectively as if she had finished the novel in mid-sentence. (WB, p. 72)

The word ‘effectively’ invites consideration. Since George Eliot’s day a good many novels have ended in mid-sentence; some have dispensed with sentences altogether. But bourgeois ideology has survived.

The debate between realism and modernism points to some of the crucial limitations of Eagleton’s thought. It is, of course, true that the classic realism of the nineteenth century novel is no longer an adequate model, and that the structuralists have made some valid points in criticising the over-naive notion of the ‘real’ that lies behind much nineteenth century realism. But despite that concession, it remains true that realism of some sort is central to any Marxist aesthetic. No work that does not, in some way or another (and obviously a wide variety of styles are possible) relate to and criticise the reality of the external world can be a tool in the transformation of that world. In Walter Benjamin Eagleton suggests that it may be time to go beyond the modernism/realism debate. (WB, p. 90) His remarks are brief and inconclusive, however, showing that this remains an unresolved dilemma in his work.

Finally, the theoretical ambiguities of Eagleton’s work culminate in a political ambiguity. He notes that his work has been produced in a period when ‘the class struggle is effectively on the downturn’. (WB, p. 96) He also observes that ‘the vulnerability of Western Marxism to idealist deformations lies above all in its relative separation from mass revolutionary practice’. (WB, p. 82) But mass parties do not grow on trees: they have to be built. And what is crucially lacking from Eagleton’s work is a sense of how the valuable and necessary ideological work he is engaged on relates the task of building such a party. In his personal political practice Eagleton may be an exemplary Leninist. But such Leninism does not structure his work. As a result, when class struggle or revolution are brought into the text, they seem like rabbits out of a hat, laudable gestures, but not rooted in the fabric of the preceding argument.

Eagleton’s own works, then, just as much as those he studies, are riddled with contradictions. He wishes to challenge the whole ideological apparatus of ‘Literature’, yet defends the established evaluations of traditional literary criticism. He recognises the need for revolutionary writing, yet dissolves the intentions of the author in a swamp of determinations. He sees the need to combat ideology with the utmost vigour, yet surrenders to a fatalistic notion of a pervasive, inescapable ideology. He defends materialism, yet perpetuates the myth of the self-contained text.

Eagleton still holds an open choice. Nothing he has written as yet can prevent his co-option back into the academy. Yet much of what he has to say is of relevance to those seeking to build a revolutionary movement. The choice, when it comes, will not be simply a matter of personal integrity, but of the fortunes of the class struggle in Britain.


I am indebted to Gareth Jenkins for his searching criticism of an earlier draft of this article. I have adopted a number of his formulations, but the responsibility for the judgements made remains my own.

1. For more details on some aspects of this, see my earlier article The Spectre of Zhdanov, IS 2:1.

2. The works dealt with in this article are Exiles and Emigrés (London 1970) (EE); Myths of Power (London 1975) (MP); Marxism and Literary Criticism (London 1976) (MLC); Criticism and Ideology (London 1976) (CI); Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London 1981) (WB).

3. Literature and History 6:2, 1980, p256.

4. Introduction to Jude the Obscure (Macmillan, 1975).

5. New Left Review 110.

6. Introduction to M. Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx, London 1973.

7. New Left Review 107.

8. A Note on Brecht and Realism, in F. Barker et al. (eds.), The Politics of Modernism (Colchester 1979).

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