Sunday 8 July 2007

Which writers are the real radicals?

Some time in the early '80s I attended a lecture in Manchester by Terry Eagleton, then Professor of Poetry at Oxford. At the end of the lecture, Eagleton was surrounded by a gaggle of far-left newspaper sellers, all eager to persuade him of the merits of their inky tabloids. We sophisticated postgrads smiled at their naivety: how could they think that their crude sloganeering had anything in common with the elegant formulations of this erudite Marxist theorist, whose books on critical theory and post-structuralism adorned the shelves of our bedsits in Withington and West Didsbury?

After reading Eagleton's column in Saturday's Guardian, bewailing the end of Britain's 'long tradition of politically engaged writers', I wonder if there might be more similarities than we imagined. Eagleton's thesis, wrapped around a whistlestop tour of the history of radical British writers, is that the current generation of left-wing authors has sold out, with the result that, in the words of his title (no laughing at the back now) 'only Pinter remains'.

Eagleton echoes Pryamvada Gopal's recent criticism of Salman Rushdie (see this post), describing the author as 'a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.' (Leave aside the rights and wrongs of deposing a murderous dictator for a moment, Terry, but 'criminal' to remove a regime that bombed girls' schools, assassinated teachers and harboured the mass-murderers who planned 9/11?). Christopher Hitchens is also taken to task for having 'thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons.' Eagleton just doesn't get it: he can't see that there might be good left-liberal reasons for opposing clerical fascism or Ba'athist tyranny, nor can he accept any definition of 'radical' that doesn't include reflexive anti-Americanism (being a 'remorseless satirist of the west' is apparently de rigeur, even when the greater danger comes from elsewhere).

Instead, Eagleton is left clutching desperately to dear old Harold Pinter 'who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all', despite Terry's admission 'that his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.' Better not mention Pinter's well-known support for that great radical icon, Slobodan Milosevic, or these sensitive, liberal sentiments in the immediate aftermath of the carnage at the World Trade Center:

People do not forget. They do not forget the death of their fellows, they do not forget torture and mutilation, they do not forget injustice, they do not forget oppression, they do not forget the terrorism of mighty powers. They not only don't forget: they also strike back.
The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of America over many years, in all parts of the world.

Sorry, Terry, if it's a choice between Hitch and Sir Salman on the one hand, and Pinter the apologist for Serbian agression and fundamentalist terror on the other - I know who I think are the true radicals.


For further comment on the Eagleton article, see Norm, and this from Fat Man on a Keyboard:

The criterion for inclusion amongst the pantheon of great radicals is to agree with Eagleton, especially on Iraq....For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.

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