Terry Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology is a work of major importance.footnote1 Its range includes the conventionally separate fields of poetics (the specificity of literary discourse and the character and conditions of literary value); ‘literary criticism’ (the analysis and judgment of particular works); literary history; and the sociology of literature, ‘institutional’ and ‘genetic’. Its objective is to assist in the supersession of these particularisms and the re-composition of their problem-areas into a conceptually unified domain under the command of historical materialism. The book is also remarkable for its emphatic attention to its own situation: its first chapter, which includes reflections on the nature of bourgeois criticism, an incisive account of the particular history of literary studies in England—Scrutiny and its aftermath—and a long critique of Britain’s foremost socialist theoretician of culture, Raymond Williams, is in fact Eagleton’s analysis of his own formation as a critic and a map of the conjuncture in which he now seeks to intervene. So marked a combination of ambition and ‘self-awareness’ is rare in Marxist literary theory. Criticism and Ideology is also and very evidently a transitional work, not only by virtue of the place that it will come to occupy in a lengthening sequence of books, but also, as Eagleton himself observes, because of the modifications and developments of argument that occur within it, in a compositional series whose order is not that of the published volume. It could hardly be otherwise: the range of topics dealt with is very wide; the problems raised are among the most intractable in the entire history of Marxist reflection on culture; and it is still unclear, despite the simple presumption of some and the peremptory denials of others, whether the ‘ancillary’ theoretical discourses called upon—psychoanalysis and semiotics—are in any full or rigorous sense compatible with historical materialism. Eagleton’s insistence on the provisionality of his book must, then, be taken seriously; to overlook it is to ask of his arguments what they do not claim to offer and to waste the many opportunities that they do provide. The remarks that follow are made on this understanding; what they represent is not a critique—as of a consolidated intellectual position, in the name of a stable alternative—or even a comprehensive review of the standard kind, but a series of notes, neither complete nor conclusive, written in counterpoint to some key themes invoked in or arising from the book.

Criticism and Ideology is the first major study in Marxist literary theory to be written in England in forty years—that is an important part of its distinction. It is also, Eagleton would add, the cause of its embarrassment. ‘Any English Marxist who tries now to construct a materialist aesthetics must be painfully conscious of his inadequacies.’ For, as he explains, ‘It is not only that so many issues in this field are fraught and inconclusive, but that to intervene from England is almost automatically to disenfranchise oneself from debate. It is to feel acutely bereft of a tradition, as a tolerated house-guest of Europe, a precocious but parasitic alien.’ It is appropriate that Eagleton’s preface should open with this statement, for the distinction so vividly registered there, between England and continental Europe, forms the major premiss of his analysis of socialist culture in modern Britain, and in particular of the work of Raymond Williams.footnote2

The political and cultural ramifications of that distinction are thoroughly familiar now, after more than a decade of steadily widening acceptance among British Marxists. And its salutary effects are obvious: there now exists an identifiable Marxist current in British culture, still small and vulnerable, but nonetheless versatile and productive, and perhaps more internationalist in cultural outlook than its longer-established counterparts in France, Germany and Italy, from which it has learned so much. But it needs to be asked whether the foundations of the distinction were entirely sound, and whether, in the changed politico-cultural conditions of the late Seventies, its weaknesses may not now be of greater importance than its strengths. An issue so large and complex, theoretically and in terms of substantive historical analysis, cannot be discussed in the present context. One concrete indication of its contours, taken from Criticism and Ideology, will have to suffice for the present.

Returning to the ‘dilemma’ of the materialist aesthetician in England, Eagleton evokes the memory of his ‘major forebear’, Christopher Caudwell, in these terms: ‘insulated from much of Europe, intellectually isolated even within his own society, permeated by Stalinism and idealism, bereft of a “theory of superstructures”, Caudwell nevertheless persevered in the historically hopeless task of producing from these unpropitious conditions a fully-fledged Marxist aesthetic. His work bears all the scars of that enterprise: speculative and erratic, studded with random insights, punctuated by hectic forays into and out of alien territories and strewn with hair-raising theoretical vulgarities. If Caudwell lacked a tradition of Marxist aesthetics, it is a measure of that absence that we, coming after him, lack one too.’ (p. 21) It should be said, first of all, that this portrait, although not inaccurate, is tendentiously drawn. Caudwell was no more ‘insulated from much of Europe’ than any other Communist in his material circumstances who read only two European languages besides his own; and what was ‘lacking’ in his formation as a theorist of aesthetics was not so much a Marxist tradition (he was aware of and at least partly acquainted with the ‘classical’, largely pre-1914 Marxist writings in the field) as the incomparable German tradition of philosophical aesthetics. A more important consideration, however, is that this portrait of a supposedly Anglo-Marxist predicament seems recognizable from another, much wider context. ‘Insulated from much of Europe’—by the mid-Thirties, imprisonment and exile had so disabled many Marxist intellectuals. ‘Intellectually isolated even within his own society’—the Frankfurt School before its emigration. ‘Permeated by Stalinism and idealism’—more so than Lukács in the first case, or Adorno in the second? ‘Bereft of a “theory of superstructures”’—only in the sense that no historicist Marxism conceptualizes the superstructure in a way that Eagleton would find acceptable. In short, Caudwell’s political and intellectual predicament was not so peculiarly English at all. On the contrary, if we look more closely at his work, we find that, with all due allowance made for the particular national and intellectual-biographical circumstances of its author, its basic structure—an almost total neglect of political and economic theory in favour of aesthetic, philosophical and other cultural questions, a marked dependence on a coeval national idealism (neo-utilitarian aesthetics) and on psychoanalysis, and all this in the context of marginal, almost self-effacing participation in the Communist Party—is more or less homologous with that of much Western Marxist production in his own time.footnote3

The issue here is not simply one of intellectual equity in respect of Caudwell or of his lesser English contemporaries—I would agree that ‘there is little, except negatively, to be learnt from [Caudwell]’, and still less to be gained from any policy of national self-reliance. It is, rather, the politically crucial question of historical understanding. What I would argue is that the history of Marxism in modern Britain should be constructed not in terms of a polar contrast with its more striking continental record, but as a variant, albeit an ‘extreme’ one, of a structurally singular Western European experience whose matrix is the political history of the continent; and that the England/Europe distinction, in its most common summary form, is actively inimical to any such understanding.

‘The Thirties’—the phrase seems naked without inverted commas, for it is now less a chronological marker than a highly charged and highly ambivalent image. The period between the Depression and the Korean war saw virtually a whole generation of British intellectuals won and then lost to Marxism and the politics of the Left. As such, it is of central importance, both for what it might tell us of political choices which are in many respects before us still, and for its symbolic role in the ideological contests of today. Yet British Marxists have scarcely begun to investigate it. Some rest content with the sentimental and politically anodyne archivism of which John Lewis’s The Left Book Club is a characteristic recent product; while others, embarrassed and repelled by old-guard (and often rear-guard) reminiscence and by the relative poverty of the objects of its fixation, turn away to other, more commanding models of revolutionary thought and action—typically, to ‘Europe’. Few now could quarrel with this evaluation, or wish it rescinded; but it has too often induced an amnesia that is entirely negative and disabling. The historiography of Thirties culture has been dominated for more than a quarter of a century now by two types of interpretation: one originating in Scrutiny and only recently inflated to quasi-anthropological status in Martin Green’s Children of the Sun; the other, blatantly and militantly anti-communist, beginning with The God that Failed and now relayed by George Watson’s Politics and Literature in Modern Britain. Against these, British Marxists have little to offer except memories and disclaimers. This intellectual and political failing has never been creditable; today, as the Left faces a widening anti-Marxist cultural mobilization, its consequences are more than we can afford.

The particular terrain in which Eagleton situates himself is, of course, that of literary criticism, and here too his first concern is to plot its most significant contours. Literary criticism as it has traditionally been conceived and practised in modern England is essentially a maieutic discipline. Its task is to assist the birth of a ‘response’ whose possibility is certified in advance by the identical ‘human’ constitutions of writer and reader, needing only the practised hand of the critic to ease it into actuality. What criticism seeks to produce, if anything, is the conditions of its own disappearance. ‘All criticism should confess its limitations; but bourgeois criticism rarely seems more confident than when it speaks of its own redundancy.’ (p. 11) Eagleton is right in this, and right too when he points out that the infertility of literary criticism is an illusion. In a brilliant analogy, he likens the actual work of criticism to the process that Freud termed ‘secondary elaboration’ or ‘secondary revision’. Just as the dream-text is continually worked and re-worked by censorship, elaborated into coherence or driven still further into unrecognizable disorder, in the interests of the norms of waking life, so bourgeois criticism ‘elaborates’ and ‘revises’ the literary text, reducing its discrepancies, concealing its gaps and silences, in the name of an ideal ‘coherence’. This process whereby criticism becomes the sponsor of the text’s ‘ideal’, ‘the text as it would “want” to appear’, is the undeclared productive activity of criticism and the source of its ideological potency.