Wednesday, 11 July 2007


Terry Eagleton reckons that "there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life." He goes on to demonstrate why Amis, Rushdie, Hare et les autres eminences grises don't fit this category - in the case of the first two, because they've become reactionaries and in the case of Hare, because he's become a tinkerer rather than a radical, the Claudio Ranieri of theatrical-political intervention.

It's a depressing analysis and one instinctively reacts against it. In the theatre, at least, surely we're in the midst of a period of unusually high political commitment? What about all this docudrama; what about the last few plays at the Court, what about the current regime at the Soho? Then, reading between the lines of Eagleton's article, one realises why nobody qualifies as a radical nowadays: it's in the detail of that phrase "question the foundations". In legal terms, today's writers get off on a technicality.

By "the foundations", you see, he means capitalism. As usual, cry the wags. So DH Lawrence qualifies for Eagleton's list of radicals because his work "denounced 'the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition'": i.e., he attacks capitalism from the individualist right rather than the collectivist left. Presumably because Eagleton likes Lawrence, he's able to pick up on the moments he's not just hammering on about sex and find the key moments when he's instead resenting people for wanting money rather than sex. (Just because this is a simplistic reading of Lawrence shouldn't be taken as a dismissal of his work. It's just a dismissal of the idea that he's any kind of radical.)

So no-one's questioning capitalism nowadays. This is really a variation on that old plaint, "the left lost its way after '89". And it's a load of cobblers. No-one's questioning capitalism using the old tools of Marxist dialectic, sure, but is that surprising given the drubbing that dialectic had taken by '89? Look at it this way: in 1989 a discredited and corrupt system fell and many millions of people were liberated as a result. Only at the symbolic level did this in truth have anything to do with left against right, but the symbolism, as so often, was far more powerful than the reality.

Since then the left's battles have been fought on a series of single issues; rather than challenging the system we've sought to mitigate its worst degredations. Taking on Big Pharma, the leading polluters or even PFIs all involve questioning whether the profit motive is the most suitable way of engineering human welfare: the difference is that the argument proceeds by example rather than by doctrine.

But we're not challenging the foundations, so we're not radical. Well, perhaps. But perhaps now is not the time for radicalism, but for small actions with big repercussions. Let the dots be joined gradually, rather than the whole damn thing being inked in by theorists and technocrats in advance of any attempts at action.

This may be symptomatic relief, rather than cure. Fine. You can't cure a guy who's in love with his disease. All you can do is mitigate the symptoms and gently point out their point of origin, until he's prepared to listen. That, my friends, is the sadly reduced role of the "radical" left in modern political discourse. We've the Soviets to blame for that: they had their chance and they handled it atrociously and unforgiveably. Like it or not, we have to live with their lunacy having hardened the right against good sense, with their defeat having accustomed the right to the taste of victory. This is not a time for us to be radical, angry and big. This is a time for us to be good, and right.

As regards the place of literature in all of this: perhaps literature also got pragmatic. Perhaps writers listened to the atrocious self-belief of the world-changers of the sixties and seventies and thought, I can get something done, but went for a more modest goal than the wholesale change of society. Perhaps we live in a time where grand narratives are viewed with too much suspicion to be useful tools for change and perhaps the true radicals are the people whose ideology is unswerving but whose tactics are eminently adaptable. If you're not winning at half-time, you have to make a change.

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