Terry Eagleton: Class warrior

It is 7.30pm on a Tuesday night in the public library and the Macclesfield Literary and Philosophical Society is meeting. The comfortable denizens of the leafy Cheshire town have assembled to hear one of the world's leading literary theorists, Terry Eagleton, one-time enfant terrible of the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and now professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester. They don't all like what they are hearing.

It is far, far easier to lead the good life – or what Socrates called the examined life – when you don't have to worry about having a roof over your head, says the man who succeeded F R Leavis as Britain's most influential academic critic. The affluent folk of Cheshire demur. But what did they expect from a chap who, all these years on, still calls himself a Marxist? "There are indeed a great many more things in life than money," as he put it in his wry memoir, The Gatekeeper, but "it is money that gives us access to most of them".

The solutions of Marxism may not long find favour. There would be few in the modern world who would buy Eagleton's political prescription "Get out of Nato. Get rid of capitalism. Put the economy back into public ownership". But the follow-the-money analytical template at the heart of Marxian analysis remains as apt now as it ever was. Eagleton may not have the right answers but he still asks the right questions.

Take the questions he asked the novelist Martin Amis. In the foreword to a new edition of his book Ideology: An Introduction, Eagleton muses on why Amis and other metropolitan liberals and leftists in his circle have tangled themselves up in moves to defend Western freedom by undermining the core values it stands for.

Amis has suggested that moderate Muslims have lost the battle with extreme Islamists for control of their religion – and that therefore the whole Muslim community should be made to "suffer until it gets its house in order". He called, bizarrely, for the strip-searching of anyone who looks as if they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Only then would moderate crack down on the extremists in their midst. Perhaps, he said, Muslims should be prevented from travelling and, if necessary, be deported.

Eagleton, an academic with a colourful turn of phrase, went further than mere questioning. He called Amis's views vile and obnoxious and compared them to "the ramblings of a British National Party thug", provocations that were partly responsible for drawing Amis into writing a piece in yesterday's Independent making clear his position. All this in addition to enraging fans of Martin's father Kingsley, who Eagleton described as "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals."

Eagleton's central concern was that scarcely one British poet or novelist was willing to look beyond their fear of Islam to scrutinise the pressures which generate the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed religious fundamentalism. Global capitalism, he insists, requires a moral critique.

That sense is rooted deep in Eagleton's personal history. He was born in Salford in 1943 into a third-generation Irish immigrant family so poor that his two brothers died in infancy. All young Eagleton and his classmates had to eat at lunchtime was beetroot, which they would puke up in the afternoons. What he could consume voraciously was books. He thrived at a grammar school run by De La Salle brothers. It opened a new life, unthinkable for his parents' generation. The school, like his family, was Roman Catholic. And though he was later to reject religion, it shaped his worldview.

In 1964 he won a scholarship to Cambridge despite being hauled out of the entrance exams with the news that his father had died. At Trinity College, studying Victorian literature, he came under the influence of the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams. A brilliant undergraduate career ensued, and soon Williams's young protégé was publishing criticism notable for its breadth of learning. On his graduation his intellectual mentor secured his rebellious heir a teaching position.

From the outset Eagleton was ambivalent about Cambridge. He loved the intellectual hothouse but despised its social pretension, and the establishment reciprocated its distaste. Prince Charles, who was also at Trinity in the 1960s, called him "that dreadful Terry Eagleton".

He fell into the orbit of a radical Dominican friar, Laurence Bright, and became a Catholic activist. Marxism and Catholicism were comfortable bedfellows, he said. Eagleton lived a double life, fleeing high table to deliver meals on wheels to the elderly poor. The dual existence continued when he moved to Oxford in 1969, rising at dawn to leaflet the local car plant or sell Socialist Worker, before rushing back to Wadham College to teach Dickens or T S Eliot. But when Laurence Bright died, Eagleton abandoned religion and threw himself entirely into Marxism.

The move to Oxford, where he was to remain for 30 years, eventually becoming Oxford, Warton professor of English literature in 1992, was, he said, "rather like taking refuge from insincerity in Hollywood". His fame grew. Marxism was the cutting edge of academic thinking throughout the 1970s. His most famous book, Literary Theory: An Introduction, was a best-seller and became the lit-crit primer to a generation of English graduate students. Eagleton became a star. English teaching in Oxford had traditionally been based on close textual analysis, but Eagleton threw the subject open to the wider world, examining the relationship between literature and the culture from which it grew. He was a charismatic and inspiring lecturer. He was also flamboyantly controversial. He used his inaugural lecture as Warton professor to attack his predecessor, John Bayley.

His most serious work could be heavy-going and convoluted but it impressed. His After Theory in 2003 was hailed in The Independent by D J Taylor as a "huge achievement [which showed] just how formidable a presence the Marxist cultural critic can be". But his shorter works were much more accessible and even humorous. He has been extraordinarily prolific, producing more than 40 books.

At the heart of his philosophy is an attack on postmodernism, which he has described as "a sick joke". The cynicism and irony of postmodern thinking, he says, do not reveal the truth. Its lack of absolute values, and relativist notion that all ideas are of equal value, is a moral abdication. More than that, it is reactionary, because while it purports to embrace a nihilist neutrality, it endorses a capitalist status quo that oppresses the poor.

The apologists for capitalism hit back at the man who, during the 1980s, described himself as "the worm in Thatcher's apple". He is married to an American academic, Willa Murphy, with whom he has a six-year-old son. The couple live in Dublin, but have a house in Derry where she lectures in English at the University of Ulster. Eagleton also has an apartment in Manchester where he teaches. Someone who has three homes is ill-suited to attacking capitalism, his cheap-shot critics jibe.

Eagleton has no patience with such intellectual shallowness. His oft-quoted review of Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books famously began: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." What followed was an excoriating, furiously paced exposure of Dawkins's inadequacies, ignorance and slovenly preference for easy targets.

It was also a sign that, though Eagleton is now an atheist, he has not entirely shaken off his religious upbringing. "I attacked Dawkins's book on God because I think he is theologically illiterate. I value my Catholic background very much. It taught me not to be afraid of rigorous thought, for one thing."

But it is also because, he insists, Marxism offers the blueprint for a moral society. The failure of the Soviet Union discredits Marxism only to the extent that the Inquisition invalidates Christianity, he says. He is adamant, with the young Marx, that "philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it". The overthrow of capitalism has its counterpart in the religious concept of redemption: the world is so deeply flawed that only a complete transformation can cure it.

For Eagleton politics, religion and literature teach the same lesson. He quotes one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians, "God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the strong", to show that morality begins with a recognition of one's weakness and mortality.

One of his most recent books, The Meaning of Life, argues rigorously for a sense of purpose grounded in happiness and fulfilment, both individually and collectively. Happiness, he writes, "springs from the free flourishing of one's powers and capacities". And love, he concludes, is "the state in which the flourishing of one individual comes about through the flourishing of all".

It is not where you might have expected this great exponent of Marxism to have ended up, aged 64. It is some distance from the Dave Spart caricature offered by Amis's friends. At least, says Eagleton with a twinkle, he has avoided the usual fate of the militant leftist who has matured with age into a sceptical liberal or jaded conservative. "Sheer horror of cliché, if nothing else", he says, has preserved him from that.

A Life in Brief

BORN Terence Franics Eagleton, 22 February 1943, Salford, Manchester.

EDUCATION Often absent from primary school because of asthma. Attended a Catholic grammar school run by the De La Salle brotherhood and joined Stockport young socialists at 15. Read English (MA, PhD) at Trinity College, Cambridge.

CAREER Research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge 1964-69. Tutorial fellow at Wadham College, Oxford, 1968-89; lecturer in critical theory 1989-92; fellow at Linacre College, Oxford, 1989-92; fellow at St Catherine's College, Oxford, 1992-2001. Status as a prominent left-wing academic confirmed when 'Criticism and Ideology' was published in 1976. Most famous book, Literary Theory: An Introduction, published in 1983. In 1991 was made Warton professor of English literature. Currently John Edward Taylor professor of English literature at Manchester University.

HE SAYS "Readers are less and less seen as mere non-writers, the subhuman 'other' or flawed derivative of the author; the lack of a pen is no longer a shameful mark of secondary status but a positively enabling space, just as within every writer can be seen to lurk, as a repressed but contaminating antithesis, a reader."

THEY SAY "It is a dull business, correcting Eagleton's distortions, but this is the work he is obliging me to do." Manchester University colleague Martin Amis

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