Terry Eagleton and Marxist Literary Theory

Terry Eagleton’s contribution to Marxist cultural theory is broad in its range. While his earlier writing examined in some depth certain Marxist categories of literary-cultural analysis, his later, more popularizing, work has argued persuasively the need for theory. Eagleton has revaluated the English literary-critical tradition, redefined the critic’s function, and reappraised specific authors from his historical materialistic perspective. These are substantive aspects of the general task of a Marxist critic. But what stands out more saliently in Eagleton’s recent texts is his resolute critical engagement with, and historical contextualization of, other modern critical trends. It is this engagement that will be considered here.

the-contradictions-of-terry-eagleton-5206Eagleton’s position, it will be argued here, entails not compromise but a strategism which is compatible with his Marxism. From one point of view, virtually all modern literary theories, each with its own inflections and motives, can be regarded as an implicit if not direct reaction against the New Critical claims as to the autonomy, independence, and objectivity of a literary text. Eagleton, as we shall see, has an ambivalent stance toward what he calls the “radical anti-objectivism” of recent theory.1 What this reaction against objectivity entails, at a deeper level, is an assault on the notion of identity. It is perhaps at this level that one can see most clearly the nature of overlap and divergence between Eagleton’s Marxism and non-Marxist theory.

In traditional logic, as deriving from its comprehensive formulation by Aristotle, the law of identity serves among other things as a basis of categorization and exclusive definition: an entity is what it is precisely because it is not anything else. Its identity is thus born in the process of dirempting its relations with other similarly “identified” things in the world, a process which thereby denies ontical status to those relations, treating them as somehow external to the entities related. This suppression of relations and relegation of them to a contingent status, a procedure closely tied to Aristotle’s various definitions of “substance” and “essence,” can serve a political and ideological function. For example, the identity of an object (which could be simply a physical entity or something as complex as a system of law or religion) which is in fact historically specific could be passed off as an eternal or natural identity. As Eagleton remarks in his essay on Adorno in The Function of Criticism, the notion of identity is “coercive”: it is the “ideological element of pure thought” and was “installed at the heart of Enlightenment reason.” It is installed also, one can infer, in all philosophies which positivistically accept the apparent given-ness of an object at face value, failing to see the object as essentially the result of a process whether philosophical or political.

The form of thought which most comprehensively impugns the notion of identity is dialectical thought. Hegel’s Logic is explicitly an attack on the one-sidedness of traditional logic, which fails to see identity as an intrinsic function of difference. It should be said that Eagleton has not sympathized with Hegelian Marxism, an antipathy partly taken over from Althusser. In Criticism and Ideology Eagleton was influenced (though by no means uncritically) by Althusser, particularly with regard to the epistemological break between the earlier “humanistic” and later “scientific” attitudes which Althusser claimed to have found in Marx’s work: it had been Althusser’s intention to divest Marxism of Hegelian notions. But, quite apart from the facts that Eagleton has moved beyond Althusser’s influence and acknowledged the lasting value of Lukács (whom he calls the greatest Marxist aesthetician 2), it should equally be observed that Eagleton has never denied the dialectical character of Marxism.

Marx, in both his earlier and later work, takes over some central features of the form of Hegel’s dialectic: firstly, an imperative to abolish or negate the given object (or state of affairs) by articulating the full rationality of that object’s relations with a particular social and historical context, showing how these relations constitute the object. That is why, when the bourgeoisie was the revolutionary class, the Hegelian system was called a “negative” philosophy; it could be interpreted as revolutionary. In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx saw the “outstanding achievement” of Hegel’s Phenomenology as the recognition of the “dialectic of negativity” as the moving principle of history. And of course, as late as the famous preface to Capital, Marx still claimed adherence to the form, though not the idealist content, of Hegel’s dialectic. Writing in 1859, Engels was at great pains to stress that the superiority of Hegel’s thought to previous philosophy lay in “the tremendous historical sense” of the dialectic, though Marx “divested it of its idealistic wrappings” (CPE, 55).

The second dialectical feature is a tendency to view an entity as unstable and intrinsically in a state of transition, being part of a more comprehensive process leading beyond it. This was an aspect of Hegel’s ontological vision whereby, for example, “existence” itself was viewed as contradictory. For Marx the notion of “contradiction” acquires a social content, characterizing not only the historical relations between classes but also the central bourgeois concepts. The bourgeois notion of the individual, for instance, entails a contradiction between the individual’s “human” needs as a member of civil society and that individual’s abstract identity as a “citizen” of the state.

The third aspect of the dialectic is the notion of “sublation,” which refers to the dual process of negating and transcending a given opposition or state of affairs while retaining certain features of what is negated. The extent to which this informs, for example, Marx’s view of communist society as arising out of bourgeois relations of production is problematic, not least in the realm of superstructure. According to Marx, a change in the “economic foundation” is followed by more or less prolonged struggle in the ideological sphere (CPE, 4). The point is that one ideology or social structure does not simply replace another in linear fashion; whatever predominance is achieved is preceded by struggle and conflict. But even here it is a question of emphasis. Eagleton has little sympathy with Lukács’ view of a Marxist society which Eagleton characterizes as “the triumphant sublation of the bourgeois humanist heritage” (WB, 83). But Eagleton acknowledges that “Socialists . . . wish to draw the full, concrete, practical applications of the abstract notions of freedom and democracy to which liberal humanism subscribes.”3

All three features of Hegel’s dialectic, utilized by Marx and Engels, constitute an attack on the notion of simple identity. Eagleton affirms that the “power of the negative . . . constitutes an essential moment of Marxism” (WB, 142). This perhaps gives us the clearest perspective from which we can understand how, in Eagleton’s eyes, non-Marxist literary theory can be useful to Marxism. For there is a sense in which modern literary theories can be viewed as embodying “negative” philosophies, attacking received notions of identity, subjectivity, objectivity, and language. Non- Marxist theories effectively arrest the Hegelian dialectic at its second phase (of externalization and relationality) and their political valencies depend on the direction of their reintegration of that externality. For example, structuralism uses “structure” and “language” as a basis of reintegration. Psychoanalysis posits the “unconscious,” while deconstruction effectively posits “difference.” Feminism and socialism use political goals as a basis. Eagleton brings out this “negative” aspect of literary theory in some detail. Among the “gains” of structuralism he ranks its demystification of literature, which it views not as unique or essential discourse but as a construct. The codes of structuralism are indifferent to traditional compartmentalizations. Again, structuralism regards “meaning” not as substantively self-identical but as relational, the product of a shared system of signification. Eagleton acknowledges that these views harbor an implicit “ideological threat” to bourgeois representational and empiricist views of language and literature inasmuch as structuralism shows reality and experience to be discontinuous rather than comprising a simple correspondence (LT, 107–109).

Eagleton also sees psychoanalysis as a form of inquiry of some value to Marxism. Eagleton refuses to regard Freud as an individualist. Rather, Freud sees the development of the individual in social and historical terms: “What Freud produces . . . is nothing less than a materialist theory of the making of the human subject” (LT, 163). Eagleton skillfully shows how Lacan rewrites Freud on the question of the human subject, its place in society and its relationship to language. Eagleton also demonstrates how, writing under the influence of Lacan, Althusser describes the working of ideology in society. What Eagleton effectively shows here is how the relation between Marxist and non-Marxist theory cannot be reduced to direct commensurability or opposition, and is rather one of extrapolation and varying degrees of mediation.

The most controversial “philosophy” of the negative is deconstruction. Eagleton accepts that there are political possibilities in deconstruction. According to Eagleton, deconstruction’s denial of a unity between signifier and signified, as well as its rejection of “meaning” as self-identical and immediately present, can help us to see that certain meanings – such as those of “freedom,” “democracy,” and “family” – are elevated by social ideologies to a privileged position as the origin or goal of other meanings. Deconstruction shows that so-called first principles are the products, rather than the foundations, of systems of meaning. Moreover, deconstruction’s view of all language as metaphorical, as harboring a surfeit over exact meaning, undermines classical structuralism’s typically ideological oppositions which draw a rigid line between what is and is not acceptable, for example between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, reason and madness. Eagleton also points out that Derrida himself, though not all of his followers, sees deconstruction as a political practice: he sees meaning, identity, intention, and truth as effects of a wider history, of language, the unconscious as well as social institutions and practices.

So far, all are in accord: Hegel, Marx, non-Marxist theory, and Eagleton’s Marxism. All view “identity” as somehow coercive, meaning as relational, the objective world as a subjective construction, and truth as institutional. One is tempted to think of the Homeric gods feasting at this banquet of pure difference. But just as Marx’s thought, whatever its similarities in form, has a content entirely different from Hegel’s thought, so Eagleton’s Marxism is marked by a specificity alien to non-Marxist theory.

It is true that some of Marx’s insights, such as those listed above, are superficially compatible with those of non-Marxist theory. But Marx’s attacks on the various expressions of identity, such as subject, object, and stable meaning, are without exception necessarily and internally related to the economic infrastructure. It is not just that the identification “private property” represents the bourgeois reification of an abstract category: such reification hides the nature of private property as a product of alienated labor. It is not just that man is abstractly perceived to have no essence: man is a result of specific productive forces and specific social relations. Again, man as subject is not created in an abstractly perceived interaction with objects: he produces himself through labor. And Marx views language not as a self-enclosed or independent system but as a social practice (GI, 18, 21, 51, 118). In each case, the “negative” aspect of Marx’s thought is necessarily, not contingently, related to his affirmative material basis.

There are at least two fundamental premises in Marx from which any Marxist criticism must begin. In the first place all forms of consciousness – religious, moral, philosophical, legal, as well as language itself – have no independent history and arise from the material activity of men. Eagleton identifies a twofold specificity of Marxist criticism: material production is regarded as the ultimate determining factor of social existence, and class struggle is viewed as the central dynamic of historical development. Eagleton adds a third, Marxist-Leninist, imperative, namely a commitment to the theory and practice of political revolution.4 Eagleton is aware of the highly mediated and complex relation between base and superstructure,5 but his aptly Marxist insistence on the primacy of material production can be seen, as we shall see, to be the basis of virtually all his attacks on non-Marxist literary theory.

The second premise is Marx’s view that the class which is the ruling material force is also the ruling intellectual force: it owns the means of production both materially and mentally. In the light of this we can better understand Eagleton’s statement of the tasks of a “revolutionary literary criticism.” Such a criticism

would dismantle the ruling concepts of “literature,” reinserting “literary” texts into the whole field of cultural practices. It would strive to relate such “cultural” practices to other forms of social activity, and to transform the cultural apparatuses themselves. It would articulate its “cultural” analyses with a consistent political intervention. It would deconstruct the received hierarchies of “literature” and transvaluate received judgments and assumptions; engage with the language and “unconscious” of literary texts, to reveal their role in the ideological construction of the subject; and mobilize such texts . . . in a struggle to transform those subjects within a wider political context. (WB, 98)

But all of this subserves the “primary task” of Marxist criticism, which is “to actively participate in and help direct the cultural emancipation of the masses” (WB, 97). Eagleton repeatedly stresses that the starting point of theory must be a practical, political purpose and that any theory which will contribute to human emancipation through the socialist transformation of society is acceptable (LT, 211). He effectively develops Marx’s premise above when he emphasizes that the “means of production” includes the means of production of human subjectivity, which embraces a range of institutions such as “literature.” Eagleton regards the most difficult emancipation as that of the “space of subjectivity,” colonized as it is by the dominant political order. The humanities as a whole serve an ideological function that helps to perpetuate certain forms of subjectivity. Eagleton’s views here imply that for Marxist criticism, “ideology” is a crucial focus of the link between material and mental means of production.

Eagleton affirms that the “negation” entailed by Marxist criticism must have an affirmative material basis. There is an internal, not merely epiphenomenal, connection between practical goal and theoretical method. Hence the similarities between Marxism and “negative” non-Marxist theories are purely superstructural: which is itself an impossible contradiction since no Marxist insight can be “purely” superstructural. Whatever “threat” structuralism may pose to received ideology is thwarted by its complicity. As Eagleton shrewdly observes, the reactionary nature of structuralism lies in the very concept of “structure” (LT, 141), in the very positing of this received ideological notion as a basis of enquiry. It is only at this expense that structuralism dismantles the ruling ideologies of subjectivity. The general point here is that whatever non-Marxist theory postulates as a base or infrastructure of investigation is in fact an aspect of superstructure. Inasmuch as these theories fail to articulate their connections with the material infrastructure, they lapse into an effective, if sometimes undesired, complicity with ruling ideologies.

This is why Eagleton views non-Marxist theories as both subversive and complicit with capitalism, a contradiction inherent in their superstructural status. He arraigns,for example, structuralism’s static ahistorical view of society, as well as its reduction of labor, sexuality, and politics to “language.” Structuralism, moreover, ignores both literature and language as forms of social practice and production. Its anti-humanism brackets the human subject, thereby abolishing the subject’s potential as a political agent. These factors, Eagleton observes, contributed to a certain integration of structuralism into the orthodox academy (LT, 110–115). Similarly, in Eagleton’s eyes, the insights of psychoanalysis are not necessarily politically radical. For example, he asserts that the political correlative of Julia Kristeva’s theories, which disrupt all fixed structures, is anarchism. And her dismantling of the unified subject is not in itself revolutionary (LT, 189–193).

quote-all-propaganda-or-popularization-involves-a-putting-of-the-complex-into-the-simple-but-such-a-move-terry-eagleton-327236Eagleton’s sustained critique of deconstruction hinges on a specifically Marxist notion of “ideology,” which he defines as a “set . . . of values, representations and beliefs which, realized in certain material apparatuses . . . guarantee those misperceptions of the ‘real’ which contribute to the reproduction of the dominant social relations.”6 A historical conception of the “real” underlies any Marxist view of ideology. And we can infer from Eagleton’s statement that, for Marxism, the impugnment of ideology entails an attack on identity, on all the “identities” which comprise distorted reality and which are passed off as eternal or natural truths. These identities must be dissolved into their constitutive economic and social relations. Eagleton acknowledges the complex, internal relation between history and ideology (CI, 80–99), but the point here is that for Marxism some notion of identity and reality (such as economic relations) must underlie this attack. For both Hegel and Marx, identity presupposes difference. But difference, in turn, presupposes identity, each being an intrinsic function of the other. But deconstruction effects a one-sided hypostatization of “difference” alone, effectively raising it to transcendent status. Derrida states that “the movement of différance, as that which produces different things . . . is the common root of all . . . oppositional concepts.”7 All of Derrida’s heuristic concepts – trace, dissemination, spacing, alterity, and supplement – are without exception metaphors for “différance,” which Derrida admits is based on the Hegelian notion of sublation (POS, 40), the basis of whose movement is identity-in-difference. But what does it mean to say that différance is the “common root” of all oppositions regardless of their content? For Hegel and Marx, the content of “difference” (which, taken historically, embrace both aspects of Derrida’s differing/deferring) is not generalizable, being always historically specific. The constitutive causes (ideological, social, and economic) behind various oppositions are quite different. But Derrida abstracts this historical complexity and variety into one indifferent and near-mystical cause: “the movement of différance.” Hence Eagleton says in his essay on Adorno: “Pure difference . . . is as blank . . . as pure identity.”

Again, there is a recognition in Derrida’s work that the manifestations of identity and presence in history are coercive. But this recognition is abstract: he views every philosophical opposition, regardless of its content, as a “violent hierarchy.” For Derrida, the base–superstructure model is one such deconstructible “opposition.” He views the “violence” of “writing” as “originary.”8 Derrida characteristically coerces historically specific texts and institutions into an abstractly uniform assailability in the name of “writing”: he defines “grammatology” as “the science of arbitrariness.” Hence Eagleton views deconstruction as outflanking every type of knowledge “to absolutely no effect.” Eagleton continues to say: “In the deep night of metaphysics, all cats look black. Marx is a metaphysician, and so is Schopenhauer, and so is Ronald Reagan. Has anything
been gained by this manoeuvre?” (WB, 140).

Eagleton points out in his essay on Adorno that not all identity or unity is equally terroristic and that poststructuralism effects an “indiscriminate conflation” of different orders of power, oppression, and law. He stresses that any effective opposition to a given political order presupposes unity, solidarity, and at least a sense of provisional identity. The point is that Marxist attacks on identity and ideology derive their force from their inclusion within a more comprehensive vision governed by the necessity of their relation to an economic infrastructure.

It is clear that in Eagleton’s view, Derrida’s insights, whatever their superficial opposition to prevailing orthodoxies, have merely a contingently subversive capacity since they dispense with “identity” altogether and do not claim internal coherence except a coherence of the negative: they can affirm nothing to replace the order they “subvert.” Eagleton points out that deconstruction’s “dispersal” of the subject, itself a politically disabling gesture, is “purely textual”: “the infrastructure . . . for deconstruction is not de(con)structible” (WB, 139). As Derrida admits, his thought effectively arrests the Hegelian dialectic at its second phase, of “difference”: he abstracts this phase, divests it of all historical content, and employs it as a transcendental principle. As Eagleton has it, deconstruction “fails to comprehend class dialectics and turns instead to difference, that familiar ideological motif of the petty bourgeoisie” (WB, 134).

Hence Eagleton regards deconstruction as itself ideological. Like much poststructuralism, it effectively “colludes with the liberal humanism it seeks to embarrass.” Eagleton insists that deconstruction reproduces common bourgeois liberal themes (the notions of “identity” and “substance” were, after all, attacked by Locke and Hume). Again, Eagleton observes that many of the ideas of deconstruction are already prefigured and developed in Marxist writers such as Benjamin, Macherey, and Adorno, where the empty shell of deconstructive “difference” is imbued with political content. And because deconstruction’s insights are divorced from any infrastructure, it is unaware of the historical determinants of its own aporiai (WB, 133).

Eagleton acknowledges the potential of deconstruction. But he is also aware that this potential is already contained in the dialectical character of Marxism. What is original to Derrida and his followers is their remorseless insistence on “difference” as a basis of impugnment of literary and philosophical texts. Eagleton says of the “negative”: “only a powerless petty-bourgeois intelligentsia would raise it to the solemn dignity of a philosophy” (WB, 142). The bases of Derrida’s insights are already contained, according to Eagleton, in the context of a far vaster historically self-conscious vision, in the writings of Hegel and Marx. In fact, Eagleton’s latest work, After Theory, suggests that  we need to return in some respects to a “plain realism.” He cautions that “If cultural theory is to engage with an ambitious global history, it must have answerable resources of its own, equal in depth and scope to the situation it confronts. It cannot afford simply to keep on recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are.”9


1 Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1984), p. 93.
2 Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1981), p. 84. Hereafter cited as WB.
3 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford and Minnesota: Blackwell/ University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 208. Hereafter cited as LT.
4 Terry Eagleton, Against the Grain: Essays 1975–1985 (London: New Left Books, 1986), pp. 81–82.
5 See Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: New Left Books, 1976), pp. 8–10.
6 Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: New Left Books, 1976), p. 54. Hereafter cited as CI.
7 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 9. Hereafter cited as POS.
8 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 106.
9 Terry Eagleton, After Theory (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane and Penguin, 2003), pp. 221– 222.

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