Jesus, Marx and the flippancy of Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton still has the knack of turning out catchy sound bites, such as the following:

The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition.

The problem is that Eagleton’s renowned flippancy has once again ensured that he misses a deeper truth here: one can trace a path from the recorded sayings of Jesus to the Inquisition, as one can from Paul as well. And we can also follow a thin line from Marx’s writings to the atrocities of Stalin or Pol Pot. That is a far harder pill to swallow, but I suggest it is more truthful. Why? First, it is easy to blame the ‘distortions’ of followers and zealous disciples, while leaving the original words of the founder untainted. Second, a profound dialectic may be found within both Christianity and Marxism, one that leads to the Terror, to oppression and bloodshed, and another powerful line that leads to liberation. Third, although both elements may at certain times be inseparable, and although one needs to make some tough choices (as Lenin found), the trick is to ensure that the liberating side of the dialectic comes out on top. Easier said than done.

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12 thoughts on “Jesus, Marx and the flippancy of Terry Eagleton

  1. exactly. in fact it’s close to what my paper at Capital Against Capitalism/AASR will be gesturing toward. i’ll probably get shouted down by some Trots for being a voluntarist

    1. And that’s my next post: the easiest position in the world is the say, ‘but only if they had followed Trotsky, or the SRs, or the Mensheviks, or whoever’. None of them won a revolution.

  2. I chanced upon your blog a few month ago and have been following it with some interest ever since.

    Although I have no strong feelings about religion I have a longstanding interest in theology. (While a Bristol in the 1970s I went to a series of lectures by Herbert McCabe on Aquinas put on by the Theology Department.)

    However, I am sorry (in a very English sense of the word) to say that your latest post is not up to the mark.

    You slide too easily between ‘the Terror’, and ‘oppression’ and ‘atrocities’. Through your extensive reading of Marx and Engels you must be well aware that to call any ‘line’, between them and Stalin, ’thin’ is something of an understatement.

    History is the cruellest goddess that ever yet drives her victorious chariot over the corpse of the slain, not just in time of war, but also during peaceful economic development.

    From this perspective Stalin was, if anything, a bit soft.

    1. George, I do not get your initial point re the Terror; or rather, there is a non sequitur between that statement and your argument for Stalin being the true successor to ME. Two responses on that point: first, you are blinkered by the typical bourgeois, capitalist propaganda against ME on that one; second, you missed my argument re the dialectical nature of this heritage, for both Jesus and Marx.

      … hang on, it just hit me: you’re a left Stalinist! You wanted him to be tougher. Damn, it’s just like Hegel: now we have left and right Stalinists.

      1. Stalinsmoustache,
        You wrote:

        “you are blinkered by the typical bourgeois, capitalist propaganda against ME”

        My response would be something along the lines of Matthew 7:3

        “you missed my argument re the dialectical nature of this heritage, for both Jesus and Marx.”

        Sorry, I got stuck on the ‘dialectical’ bit.

        Following Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is its use in the language I find that in the UK ‘dialectical’ means:

        ‘a complex relationship that I do not understand and can’t be bothered to investigate’.

        Perhaps you have a different usage in Australia.

        You also wrote:

        “D__n, it’s just like Hegel: now we have left and right Stalinists.”

        I believe Lenin used the expression, “All comparison are odious” somewhere or other. However, if he did, he forgot to add that they can be great fun: as is this one.

  3. Yes, and I threw up a little in my mouth spending money on that introduction to Jesus the Revolutionary, as I have already read the liberal biblical studies nonsense on which it is based stretching from Herder to the Jesus Seminar – which is Romantic nonsense, of pure origins, and fantasy, and therefore denial.

    But the “easier said than done” is even more interesting. There is the old “postmodern” criticism, that all liberation movements also contain a totalitarian streak, that they suppress some sectors, that they are never liberating for all or even all they intend to liberate, etc, etc. But the more radical doubt, which risks the “essentialist” charge but I not I think in a bad way, is that there is no form of human society which, in the long term, can significantly eradicate oppression. If(!) an essentially “misanthropic” view of humanity is correct, is this a good objection to Marx? If so, then the objective violence can never be justified, it can never be balanced by – negatively speaking – the eradication of systematic violence, or – positively speaking – the introduction of more equitable systems. Or at best, the improvement is not radical enough (and so, does not justify a radical change, but maybe some evolutionary social change, we should all become Mensheviks). I have the nagging feeling, you see, that this is true of humanity, that we are, in whatever groups we form ourselves, within whatever infrastructure, deeply fucked as a species. I am oddly on the side of Augustine and the Reformed here (although, with them, speaking generally, this negative assessment of human nature is made in light of the possibility of a genuine intervention for the positive; absolute depravity is posited because they believe in an absolute good human. Whereas, for me, the will for humans to act significantly better, and the corresponding vision of a significantly better society, is fantasy. There can be no irruption in reality, only in idea – which is why Badiou is right to use Paul’s idea of the Resurrection as his prime example for, against Badiou, a glorified humanity can never be more than an idea). So the answer is – if we go down this track – a form of minimising the damage, that is, liberal conservatism. Or a leap of faith, or transhumanism, perhaps.

  4. Stalinsmoustache,
    You wrote:

    1. George:
    ‘a complex relationship that I do not understand and can’t be bothered to investigate’ – you deserve to be sent to Siberia for that!

    Is this the response of an irritated liberal, or is this the first stirrings of your inner Left Stalinist?

    In my defence, I was not attacking the concept of dialectics, I was merely summarising observations I have made over more than forty years of the way the word is used in the UK.

    Truth hurts. Maybe not as much as jumping on a bicycle with a seat missing, but it hurts.
    Drebin, Naked Gun 2 1/2

  5. @Stalinsmoustache
    On a more serious note, I’ve just read your ‘The Ethical Failure of Terry Eagleton’. You seem to have demolished the theological leg of Eagleton’s stool.

    Meanwhile in the UK, the Marxist leg has been the subject of the gnawing criticism Andrew Murray.

    Here is an extract from his review of ‘Why Marx Was Right’ http://21stcenturymanifesto.wordpress.com/

    Eagleton “makes a number of errors, from locating the Bolshevik revolution in the wrong city, to asserting that the left-wing of the Bolshevik party favoured gradual collectivisation of agriculture, when in fact this was the position of the Bukharinite right-wing.

    “In this context, Eagleton also amplifies the commonplace misattribution to Marx of the view that socialism could not be built in an economically backward country like Russia. He takes this further, arguing that socialism “rides on the back of the wealth [produced by capitalism] rather than building it up”, adding “It was Stalin, not Marx who saw socialism as a matter of developing the productive forces.”

    “This is doubly wrong. First, Marx himself saw socialism as removing the fetters holding back the development of the productive forces and by no means believed the level reached under capitalism to be optimal. Second, it is by no means clear what policy Stalin should have followed in this respect, given the situation in 1920s Russia.

    “Had the Soviet government adhered to Eagleton’s understanding of Marx, it could have done nothing but redistribute grinding poverty, rather than building up a modern economy.”

    1. Yes, Eagleton espouses a left-colonialism, dismissing the bulk of communist revolutions as ‘backward’ – you can sense his cultured shiver at the very thought of spending too much time in Russia or China or Nepal or Vietnam.

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