David Aaronovitch: So what have these radicals ever achieved?

'I can't help seeing that Terry Eagleton's form of radicalism has become an excuse for not doing anything'
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The Independent Online

On page 98 of his memoir, The Gatekeeper, the Marxist academic Terry Eagleton gives thanks that he has never become "the most dispiriting stereotype of all, the militant young leftist who has matured with age into a sceptical liberal or a stout conservative. Sheer horror of the cliché if nothing else, has kept me from this fashionable fate".

But he is being pleasantly disingenuous. Though most of his adult life (he is now 58) has been spent attached to various Oxford colleges, Eagleton has never looked like becoming a sell-out. For one thing it would have been too much of a disappointment to his fellow dons, who have – as he tells it – an exaggerated respect for eccentricity. And Eagleton has a reputation to look after.

Damn. That sounded hostile, when what I wanted to say was that The Gatekeeper is one of the most entertaining and insightful books I have read in the last couple of years. And so wonderfully short! It's just that, as a militant young leftist turned sceptical liberal social-democrat (and a bit stout too), I felt got at.

I was at a sit-in in Oxford in 1973 when he came along to give an alternative lecture, as mentioned in his book, and I even stood for election to the student union on the sole policy of sitting-in in other buildings. But though my own political journey may be a cliché to him, it's been a pretty complex internal struggle for me.

In addition, I do not always enjoy discussions with academics. They can be slippery in dispute, and have a tendency to mark the argument of the other person, as though criticising an essay, rather than risking engaging in equal debate with it. The section of Eagleton's memoir entitled "Dons" invokes a world that makes Hogwarts seem brutally modernistic, but also raises unanswered questions about who would want to inhabit such a universe. When I was a student there, briefly, I found Oxford an odd and often very silly place.

Two reasons, then, for sounding snippy, come together thus. How come he, as an en-spired academic, a fellow, a professor, a tolerated luminary of the most elitist institutions in Britain, gets off on slagging me on the basis of my radical inadequacy? He can stick his Bourdieu where the sun don't shine. I feel like this, of course, because he presses on a nerve. I have thrown in my lot with conventional politics. I no longer believe in revolution or socialism, but in change. I class myself as a progressive, but in so doing have let go of almost all the certainties that once acted as reliable guides. My intentions are honourable, but I belong to those who find themselves sailing without reliable charts. I may end so far from my destination that it calls the entire voyage into question.

Many on the left have dealt with the events of the last quarter century by becoming, essentially, conservative. It is interesting that Eagleton quotes Brecht and Walter Benjamin in describing capitalism as the truly revolutionary force. It is the job of socialists, therefore, to stand for the essential nature of man and society against this chaotic dynamism.

You will find many in the green movement whose perspective is similar. What could be more disruptive than "globalisation"? Global capitalism, political phlogiston, is the destroyer of ancient societies, close-knit communities, old verities, crafts, artefacts and so on. It even threatens our fox-hunting countryside, according to that green conservative, Roger Scruton. Parochial mystics unite!

To Eagleton practical examples of good politics are all defensive. One stands up for "vital services" in one instance, or "nurseries" in another. Things are terrible. Worse, it seems, than at any time. Capitalism has become "more pervasive, aggressive and triumphalist than ever". And the only sane thing to be is pessimistic. "Revolutionaries," he writes, "are those realist, moderate types who recognise that to put things to rights would require a thoroughgoing transformation. Anyone who imagines otherwise is an ideal utopian, though they are more commonly known as liberals and pragmatists."

This truth, he acknowledges rather beautifully, is so awful that being a realist (and therefore a revolutionary) means "living a vigilant, cold-eyed, soberly disenchanted sort of existence". Which makes revolutionaries precisely the sort of people, Eagleton admits, with whom no one in their right mind would want to associate.

Older now, defeated but wise, "more wryly alert to the limits of the political", he is still a radical, "who cannot overcome [his] astonishment that there are people in the world who believe, by and large, that this is it. Eagleton accounts himself superior yet again to the liberal, who "imagine[s] that what we see now is pretty much all we will ever get".

While my strings react to his plucking, I can't help seeing that Eagleton's form of radicalism has become an excuse for not doing anything. I am not sure whether he would account Blair a conservative or a liberal. I am sure that he sees Third Way-type politics (crudely, politics that seeks to limit capitalism's capacity for chaos while harnessing its dynamism) as hopelessly inadequate. I often do as well. But to put it at its crudest, who has done more for the poor in Britain: Gordon Brown or the Workers Socialist League? Who has done the most to get Third World debt reduced, Clare Short or Dave Spart?

Although capitalism is credited by Eagleton with trying to kill off history, many on the left make their own contribution to social amnesia. What are we to make of socialists who think that things were better under Margaret Thatcher? That things are worse now than when we had the 11-plus and when 3 per cent of children went on to higher education? Than when life expectancy was 10 years lower, illiteracy levels much higher, when there were legal colour bars operating, when domestic violence was more or less legal, when women could be raped inside marriage, when there was bear-baiting, lynching and other such quaint, local mayhem? Some victories here for liberals and pragmatists. So here's another cliché: the cliché of the ageing revolutionary don.

The trouble is that I think those coming after are the problem, and I share with Eagleton a generational concern about the next lot. Although those Maggie students he characterises as a whole tranche of "brutally self-interested young fogeys" have now passed on, he still finds that students look "wonderingly on academics rumoured to be Marxists,with the curiosity of someone encountering his first coprophiliac". I will take Eagleton's word for this. This lot he thinks to be "adrift and amnesiac ... trapped inside their own experience like a goldfish in its bowl".

I wonder what he would make of the journalist Decca Aitkenhead's new book, The Promised Land: travels in search of the perfect E. This is her story of how, just short of 30, she travelled the world trying to recapture the sensations of clubbing as a student in the early Nineties. There she had experienced "this beautiful club, full of captivating people, on a drug our parents never had, dancing to music we had only just invented". It was, she writes, instantly nostalgic.

And now he and I – I imagine – stand shoulder to shoulder in matched incomprehension.