The critic Harold Bloom developed an essentially Oedipal theory of poetry, which he called the ‘anxiety of influence’. He argued that each generation of artists must ‘creatively misread’ those who came before, in order to present their own body of thought as unique and without precedent. In the political sphere, it is hard to recall a movement that has elevated novelty to a higher virtue than has New Labour; just as it’s hard to imagine a better euphemism for their project than a ‘creative misreading’ of the British socialist tradition.
Leaving aside the host of Blairite Ministers rebelling against their Old Labour pedigree (Hilary Benn, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband spring to mind), the Prime Minister follows Harold’s axiom slightly differently. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher and the free-market, he nevertheless despises what he calls the ‘forces of conservatism’. The annihilation of the Conservative party is an unwavering and in some respects irrational ambition of Tony Blair. And his father? A lifelong Tory: QED, Harold Bloom…
There may be people who do not see the poetry in politics and the politics in poetry, but Professor Terry Eagleton, the pre-eminent socialist critic of his generation, is surely not one of them. Yet Tony Blair’s anti-Conservative conservatism is not, as Terry sees it, his primary contradiction. ‘Another contradiction is this: there is Blair the moderniser, Blair the pragmatist, and there’s I think there’s a much more dangerous Blair which is the public school Christian moralist, the shiny-eyed zealot, which I think is a side which plays to George Bush.’
Does this not feed into the same theory of Blair the pathological paradox? How many socialists are so contemptuous of ideology? How many such socialists simultaneously preach the universal values of liberal democracy? Is this what Tony means when he talks of ‘triangulation’?
Terry’s response is at first diplomatic. He claims that he would not criticise Tony for not sounding like a socialist because ‘he never claimed to be one’. It is the fact that the PM’s not even a social democrat that really riles him. Warming to the theme, the author declares, ‘Tony Blair is not interested in equality, he’s not interested in redistribution, he’s not interested in the Labour movement. I think he’s profoundly uninterested in the Labour party. He regards himself as post-ideological and I think nothing is more ideological than that.’
Perhaps the whole notion of ideology is considered a little last century to the leftist establishment these days. If this is the case, Terry is to be admired for holding firm to his original Marxist convictions. After Theory, the recently published follow up to his seminal Literary Theory, is a sustained denunciation of those who have, as he sees it, given up on the big political and metaphysical issues. The problem for Terry is that, along with the pragmatic Blairites, even the radical Left has embraced the concept of ‘post-ideology’. Naomi Klein writes, ‘When critics say that (anti-globalisation) protesters lack vision, they are really objecting to a lack of an overarching revolutionary philosophy – like Marxism, democratic socialism, deep ecology or social anarchy. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful’.
It turns out that No Logo is up there with New Labour when it comes to betraying the old socialist narrative. The anti-globalisation movement is nothing more than what Martin Wolf calls ‘the grin on the Cheshire cat of revolutionary socialism. It is what is left when the moralism and the passion remain but when the intellect and organisation have gone’.
Terry dismisses this analysis as ‘churlish’. Whilst he admits that the movement ‘has its organisational defects and it doesn’t have a tight ideology’, he believes ‘there are different metaphors that dominate the Left at different times. Perhaps it used to be things like production, now I think the idea of say the environment has been a kind of metaphor – a figure – around which a whole number of different issues can cluster. The language changes from time to time’.
‘Let’s face it’, he remarks apropos of the Mark Wolf comment, ‘the intellect and the organisation on the Left didn’t get it all that far’. Perhaps he is just being self-deprecating. There is a sense though, of a man who, having identified the centre of an argument, will always position himself at its margins. It is an almost juvenile abdication of responsibility. For who, if not he, should be defending the intellectual heritage of the Left?
It seems inconsistent coming from a man who once remarked that the merit of post-structuralism ‘is that it allows you to drive a coach and horses through everybody else’s beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself’. But then, as he remarked during our discussion of our Prime Minister, ‘most people are contradictory in various ways’.
After Theory by Professor Terry Eagleton is published by Allen Lane.