Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary.

Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 11:04

Finnegans Wake, fascism, and the essential unity of the human race

Published in Fiction

Sean Ledwith shows how Finnegans Wake, far from being an incomprehensible waste of Joyce's genius, is an anti-fascist masterwork, uniting and celebrating the wholeness, richness and vibrancy of human culture

80 years ago, as the clouds of war darkened over Europe, one of the most notoriously baffling books of all time was published in Paris. From the moment of its release, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake acquired the reputation in many quarters of being not only baffling in content but also utterly unreadable in form. The first sentence alone often proves an insurmountable hurdle for many readers inclined to attempt to conquer this Himalayan peak of modern literature:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Another 600 or so pages jammed with the same apparently random smorgasbord of portmanteau words, puns, incomprehensible allusions and dearth of narrative signposts is understandably unappealing on first inspection. The book was dismissed even by some of Joyce’s most loyal supporters who had hailed Ulysses in the 1920s as the masterpiece of the century.

Three of the most important advocates of that work denounced its follow-up as a criminal waste of Joyce’s undoubted genius. The poet Ezra Pound, publisher Harriet Weaver and Joyce’s brother Stanislaus all played key roles in securing the tortuous passage of Ulysses through the publication process, often in the teeth of aggressive opposition from the literary and social establishment of the day. All three, however, ultimately became estranged from the author due to their negative reactions to the Wake. HG Wells was another prominent supporter of Joyce left nonplussed by Finnegans Wake and who expressed his reservations directly to the author:

I don't think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence... What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? ... No.

As a man of the left, Wells’ criticism also suggests that any social and political critique that might have been contained in Joyce’s previous oeuvre was entirely absent from the Wake and therefore the book has nothing meaningful to say about politics or society and represented pure self-indulgence on the part of the author. Wells’ judgement probably still reflects the consensus for most as Joyce’s final work is often cited as one of the greatest novels most people will never read.

Radical and subversive traditions

However, the 80th anniversary of Finnegans Wake is a suitable time to revisit the book and question both the notions that it is unreadable and that it has nothing to say about the world. In fact, a small number of commentators over the years have indicated that not only should the Wake be viewed alongside Ulysses as an indispensable part of the modernist canon, but the book actually draws its creative impulses from some of the most radical and subversive traditions in the West. One of the best commentators on the Wake, Bernard Benstock even goes as far as to suggest:

The political climate of ‘Finnegans Wake’ owes as much to fundamental Marxian dialectics as its psychological climate is dependent upon Freud and Jung and its evolutionary structure determined by Darwin. There is no reason to assume that Joyce was a Marxist but it is important to realise that Joyce was aware of the various political aspects of contemporary society spotlighted by Marx’s sociological perspective.

Benstock also draws attention to the fact that the Wake’s publication on the eve of WW2 is not incidental and that Joyce wished, in his own idiosyncratic style, to express his views on the rise of fascism that he had witnessed in Italy and France at close-quarters as part as long-term exile from his native Ireland. One year after completion of the work, Joyce was forced to flee France as the Wehrmacht launched its devastating blitzkrieg across the country, culminating with Panzers rolling through the streets of Paris that Joyce had regarded as home for almost twenty years. His record of helping Jewish families escape from Austria and Germany before the war is little known but dispels the myth that he was an apolitical figure in the 1930s, disinterested in the course of European politics. Using his contacts in the French and Irish ministries, Joyce arranged life-saving visas for scores of refugees fleeing the Nazi menace.

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James Joyce and Paul Léon

Paul Leon, one of Joyce’s closest supporters who defended the Wake, was arrested by the Gestapo due to his Jewish heritage and perished in Auschwitz in 1942. In his last months, Joyce fretted over the fate of his daughter Lucia, who due to chronic mental health problems was languishing in a sanatorium in Brittany. He would have known all too well the grim consequences that awaited such patients in the event of Nazi occupation. Even the muted welcome of the Wake itself was partly affected by Joyce’s revulsion against fascism. The American poet Ezra Pound, although a great advocate of Ulysses in the 1920s, was an unashamed supporter of Mussolini and Hitler by the time Joyce commenced work on the Wake. The differences between the two authors were not purely artistic.  

It would be an absurd case of reductionism, of course, to present the Wake as primarily an anti-fascist tract, but Bernard Benstock persuasively makes the case that Joyce regarded himself as the equivalent of the Irish monks who, at the onset of the Dark Ages of the early medieval period, sought to preserve the culture of the classical world as the forces of barbarism and darkness, in their eyes, closed in on civilisation. The astonishing breadth of allusions and references from the cultures of the world that Joyce draws on in the Wake is testament to his conviction that diversity and pluralism are essential to the flourishing of human beings and, implicitly, that the intolerance and racism of the far right represent a modern barbarism which must be resisted. One of the most celebrated (and accessible) sections of the book, the Anna Livia Plurabelle passage, rhapsodises on the richness and vibrancy of the tapestry of human societies over millennia:

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!

A clarion call for multiculturalism

Incredibly, phrases and vocabulary from some seventy languages have been identified in the book, along with a cornucopia of references to virtually all the major world religions, including Confucianism, Hinduism, Taoism and the Eddas of Scandinavia. Joyce had memorably chronicled his own loss of religious faith in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1902,but he never lost an appreciation of the importance of ritual and spirituality for millions around the world and would have been keenly aware of how the Nazis aspired to eradicate supposedly non-Aryan forms of belief.

Another one of the great scholars of the Wake, James Atherton, contends Joyce used the Koran, for example, as ubiquitously as a telephone directory, and incorporated the suras, or chapters, of Islam’s holy book throughout the text. As a major European writer in the first half of the twentieth century researching and utilising in depth a plethora of non-Western culture, Joyce has no equal. Even in our time, as Islamophobia permeates the ideology of the far right, Joyce’s willingness to absorb the vitality of other cultures stands out as exemplary. The fact that Joyce, who was practically blind by 1939, chose to deploy his encyclopaedic and labyrinthine knowledge of the varieties of human belief in such a gargantuan exercise can be seen as a heroic act of defiance in the face of an oncoming nightmare. It is not unreasonable to argue that Finnegans Wake is the ultimate literary clarion call for what we now call multiculturalism.

Benstock’s case that the left-wing credentials of the Wake have been neglected for too long also rests on Joyce’s use of two philosophers who can be seen as progenitors of the tradition of historical materialism and antecedents of Hegel and Marx. The ideas of the eighteenth century Italian thinker, Giambattisto Vico, are integral to the Wake – as evident in the book’s first sentence. He was one of the first philosophers to work towards a materialist philosophy of history, which did not perceive events as the unfolding of some form of plan based on the will of unseen but all-seeing deities. Vico devised a cyclical version of history, comprising of three epochs – the divine, the heroic and the human, climaxing with what he termed a ricorso, or reversion back to the beginning. Famously, the last sentence of the Wake links back to the first in a satisfying completion of the Viconian cycle: A way a lone a last a loved a long the.....

GiambattistaVico

Giambattisto Vico

Contrary to the view that the Wake is an incoherent and rambling mess, the four sections of the work loosely follow this scheme – albeit, with typical Joycean mischief, in reverse! Samuel Beckett, friend and collaborator of Joyce, in one of the earliest interpretations of the Wake argued the author’s appropriation of Vico symbolises an individual’s journey through belief, marriage and burial. Benstock, however, makes the case that Vico’s four stages are a historic first draft of Marx’s outline that humanity progresses through modes of production, climaxing with communism. The great author of Capital himself was not unaware of the role Vico played in paving the way for historical materialism:

Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature's Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter?

Trotsky also begins his epic history of the Russian Revolution with a reference to Vico’s ideas.

The other major conceptual underpinning of the Wake is provided by Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century Italian astronomer and philosopher who was executed by the Catholic Church for his heretical ideas on heliocentrism. More important for Joyce, however, was Bruno’s radical views on the unity of opposites and the limitations of dualism, which are impossible to study now without being reminded of similar ideas in the Hegelian dialectic. In a work from 1584, Bruno writes:

...even in the two extremes of the scale of nature, we contemplate two principles which are one; two beings which are one; two contraries which are harmonious and the same. Therefore height is depth, the abyss is light unvisited, darkness is brilliant, the large is small, the confused is distinct, dispute is friendship, the dividend is united, the atom is immensity.... Here are the signs and proofs whereby we see that contraries do truly concur; they are from a single origin and are in truth and substance one.

The emphasis on the importance of assimilation and synthesis in the thought of Bruno is adapted in the Wake in the form of numerous dualistic personality clashes between archetypes broadly representing the artistic and scientific mentalities. The dialogues between the brothers Shem and Shaun, St. Patrick and the Arch Druid, Mutt and Jutte, the Ant and the Grasshopper and many others throughout the book play out the contests between ideologies, nations and classes which have driven human history forwards. The dialectical power of these discussions, which Hegel and Marx would have appreciated, is revealed as no participant decisively emerges victorious and that, in the unfolding spiral of social development, everyone and everything contributes in some form. Alternatively, as Joyce in his inimitable way puts in the Wake:

a clappercoupling smeltingworks exprogressive process, (for the farmer, his son and their homely codes, known as eggburst, eggblend, eggburial and hatch-as-hatch can) receives through a portal vein the dialytically separated elements of prededent decomposition for the verypet-purpose of subsequent recombination so that the heroticisms, catastrophes and eccentricities transmitted by the ancient legacy of the past….

Joyce’s desire in the Wake to conserve the best elements of human civilisation is focused not only on identifying the cultural artefacts that have evolved over centuries, such as languages and religions, but also on those fields of enquiry that were emerging in his own lifetime. In the 1930s, relativity and quantum theory represented the most trailblazing branches of scientific discovery, and sections of the book clearly indicate that Joyce appreciated the revolutionary implications of these areas in terms of our understanding of the world. Einstein’s seminal notion that space and time are not separate categories but form a unified space-time continuum that shapes the universe is one of the other dualities that Joyce undermines. The author’s awareness of the transformative nature of Einstein’s view, of course, is in stark contrast to that of the Nazis who drove the great physicist, along with many of his Jewish colleagues, out of Germany:

And let every crisscouple be so crosscomplimentary, little eggons, youlk and meek, in a farbiger pancosmos.

Joyce’s appreciation of Theoretical Physics was famously reciprocated in 1963 when Murray Gell-Man turned to the Wake to name a newly discovered elementary particle of matter that is smaller than a proton or a neutron. Hence the ‘quark’ was born!

Barely any aspect of human activity is overlooked in the Wake. In one memorable passage, Joyce utilises the names of some of the finest cricketers of the age, alongside some of that sport’s distinctive jargon. The book incorporates numerous devices and techniques that were being pioneered in the contemporary worlds of advertising, cinema and television, such as montage and sloganeering. Joyce’s disdain for the elitist differentiation between high and low culture, and his preference for emerging ‘democratic’ art forms, is even apparent in the book’s title, which is taken from a popular American ballad.

A rallying call for revolution

In the light of all these elements being conjoined in a single text, it is difficult to think of any other artistic enterprise created by one person that so spectacularly illustrates the concept of totality, as understood by Marxist philosophers such as Gramsci and Lukacs. Benstock and other left-wing commentators have interpreted the climax of the book as a rallying call for revolution as HCE, the key protagonist, experiences a personal paradigm-shift that mirrors the transfigurative nature of political upheaval. Typically, Joyce utilises the vocabulary of Asiatic mythology to articulate this leap into the future:

Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayneArraySurrec-tion! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally! To what lifelike thyne of the bird can be.

The supposedly unreadable nature of the work is partly a linguistic consequence of this attempt to compress the essence of humanity into a single document that acknowledges the multitudinous achievements, failures and ideas of our collective experience as a species. For potential readers who have avoided the Wake so far, it might be worth considering that in the age of the internet, the book is actually far more accessible now than it was at the time of first publication.

Joyce’s breath-taking erudition can now be followed and tracked much more conveniently than for the first generation of readers. In that sense, it is a work for the 21st century even more than the 20th. Similarly, it could be argued that only in the globalised and hybrid era of late capitalism in which we are now situated is it possible to fully appreciate the grandeur and scope of Finnegans Wake. The book is a remarkable instancing of the emerging spirit of cosmopolitanism and a powerful riposte to narrow nationalism and chauvinism, both in Joyce’s time and ours.

The author himself also demonstrated the best way to approach the Wake is to read it aloud, as a lot of the subterranean allusions and nuances of the text emerge more noticeably in arguably the original art form of human beings – oral story-telling.

There is no evidence that Joyce was aware of Gramsci’s work (perhaps unsurprising in light of the latter’s incarceration in the 1930s) but Finnegans Wake is an unwitting monument to the great Italian Marxist‘s belief that our historical development, if permitted by a suitable course of events, will facilitate the cultural unification of the human race. Not in the sense of imposing uniformity but in the sense of recognising the commonality of experiences and beliefs that have driven men and women over millennia, and culminating in a new age of universal tolerance.

To conclude: an understanding of the historical and ideological ingredients of the Wake indicates that early sceptics such as Wells and Pound could not have been more wrong. As fascism rears in hideous head again in our time, with its visceral politics of hate, the message of the Wake about the essential unity of the human race is emphatically worth another look.

Don’t just stop the wheel, break it! Feudalism, capitalism and revolution in Game of Thrones
Friday, 12 April 2019 16:13

Don’t just stop the wheel, break it! Feudalism, capitalism and revolution in Game of Thrones

Sean Ledwith reviews Game of Thrones

The trailers have been scrutinised down to every second of footage. The stars have conducted their interviews in the form of an elaborate dance in which no significant plot element is revealed. The online theories have exhausted every possible twist. We are now only days away from the climactic eighth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

The scale of what is about to be unveiled can be judged by the fact the producers chose to forego new episodes in 2017 and concentrate their dramatic and financial muscle on maximising the impact for this year. We have been promised production values that will be unprecedented in the history of television. GOT has attained a status in popular culture that spans the globe and arguably makes it the biggest show of all time.

How should the left respond to this phenomenon? Stewart Lee, doyen of radical comedians in the UK, has dismissed it as ‘Peter Stringfellow’s Lord Of The Rings’. Other influential voices on the left, however, have persuasively made a case that the show offers an imaginative commentary not just on the evolution of capitalism up to this point, but also on what the system might have in store for humanity in the future.

Based on a sequence of novels by the American author, George RR Martin, the show has turned into one of the most popular television shows of all time since its debut in 2011. With an innovative mix of medieval-style power plays and other-worldly elements such as dragons and zombies, Game of Thrones has somehow tapped into an early 21st century zeitgeist of a world falling apart on the eve of a massive, if uncertain, transformation. The characters and situations featured in the series have intruded into popular consciousness at an increasing rate, as its audience has grown.

SL 1 GB

In 2012, the producers mischievously displayed in one scene a replica of George Bush’s head skewered on the end of a pike! They subsequently asserted that this was not a judgement on Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War but few were convinced by their denial. When Jeremy Corbyn spectacularly won the Labour leadership in 2015, one of the most popular memes that circulated likened his triumph to that of the show’s most heroic character.

Channel 4’s best-known news anchorman played on the catchphrase associated with the same character and his namesake to highlight the failure of the commentariat to comprehend the post-Brexit political tumult of our times: You know nothing, Jon Snow. Less amusingly, last year the unctuous Michael Gove appeared in a cringe-inducing video claiming to be inspired by another character from the show. Unfortunately for Gove, many interpreted his assessment of Tyrion Lannister as an unwitting self-criticism: You see this misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxic figure.

Earlier this year, with characteristic crassness, Trump tried to climb on the GOT bandwagon, tweeting that his proposed border between the US and Mexico is a variation of the 700 ft. high one made from ice featured in the series. Some sceptics might observe that the fictional wall is a more credible concept than the one in Trump’s head.

Contemporary resonances in the storyline and characterisations have been numerous and indubitably have played a role in the show’s phenomenal success. Arguably, the defining political issue of our time – deepening inequality between those at the top and bottom of capitalist societies – has been referenced on numerous occasions.

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The High Sparrow, leader of a militant religious order that briefly takes control of the capital city of Westeros, explicitly regards himself as acting in the name of the downtrodden and against the interests of the venal elite. He warns one of the latter that there will be a reckoning to pay, with words that might easily have come from Corbyn’s speechwriter:

Have you ever sowed the field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped the grain? Has anyone in House Tyrrel? A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many…strip away the gold and the ornaments, knock down the statues and the pillars, and this is what remains… Something simple, solid, true. The Tyrells’ finery will be stripped away … what will we find when we strip away your finery?

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Another faction with a radical political agenda in the series is the Brotherhood Without Banners. They are the survivors of brutal dynastic wars who have become disillusioned with their aristocratic masters and dedicated themselves instead to protecting the exploited and punishing members of the elite, wherever they find them. Their leader, Beric Dondarrion, spells out their new mission in a voice that drips with class hatred:

That’s what we are: ghosts. Waiting for you in the dark. You can’t see us but we see you. No matter whose cloak you wear, Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, you prey on the weak; the Brotherhood Without Banners will hunt you down.

The hatred of the elite that underpins the mentalities of the High Sparrow and the Brotherhood Without Banners is informed in our world by the duplicity and machinations of a generation of Western leaders who have prostrated themselves to the neoliberal agenda. The disillusionment with politicians that is now endemic in capitalist societies is the consequence of the hollowing-out of democratic processes by insidious corporate power. The mindset of the ‘career politician’, dedicated only to personal advancement through the mechanisms of focus groups and triangulation is memorably expressed by wily palace intriguer, Petyr Baelish:

Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

In contrast to the shallow ambition of Littlefinger, Jon Snow has emerged as the moral centre of the series due to his capacity for self-sacrifice and his willingness to look beyond traditional divisions and forge new alliances. His appeal to the Wildlings to join him is based on a strategic vision that only a united front of erstwhile enemies offers any hope in the face of an overwhelming threat to both. He tells them bluntly:

The long night is coming, and the dead come with it. No clan can stop them, the free folk can’t stop them, the Night’s Watch can’t stop them and all the southern kings can’t stop them. Only together, all of us, and even then it might not be enough but at least we’ll give the fuckers a fight.

Snow repeated his call for collective action in the last season, similarly imploring his deadliest foe to see the big picture:

If we don't win this fight, then that (points to wight) is the fate of every person in the world. There is only one war that matters... the Great War. And it is here.

Snow’s most important quality as a leader, it might be said, is his ability to comprehend the threat facing the peoples of Westeros as a totality. He perceives that the feuds and enmities that have bedevilled the Seven Kingdoms for generations need to be set aside to confront a force that could annihilate them all. The multi-level crisis we are enduring in this decade – with its volatile symptoms of revanchist racism, sexism, imperialism and austerity – needs to be comprehended as the manifestations of a systemic crisis rooted in the immanent nature of capitalism. Only the unified actions of the oppressed across the world, fighting on multiple fronts but with a common goal, may be enough to avert catastrophe in our world.

Aside from these thematic incursions of the preoccupations of our time, GOT has attracted a number of interesting attempts by writers on the left to analyse the nature of the show’s appeal and what it tells us about the contemporary state of capitalist culture. An alternative option, of course, would be to dismiss the series, like Stewart Lee, as nothing more than a re-heated version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with added soft porn and graphic violence to pull in an adult audience. The fact that the series has attracted a number of compelling analyses with a leftist agenda would indicate that there is more substance here than Lee and other sceptics allow.

The popularity of the show in an era of climate change, political turbulence and demands for change surely cannot be coincidental. The tools of a Marxist aesthetic can perhaps equip us to look beneath the decapitations and dragons and identify the roots of the show’s appeal in the peculiar concerns of the second decade of the 21st century. As Trotsky observes in his writings on culture:

Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.

One of the best Marxist deconstructions of the series comes from Tony McKenna, who eloquently explains why such a peremptory verdict is misplaced: 

For though Game of Thrones is ostensibly about a fantasy feudal realm governed by ancient blood lineages and autocratic decadence, the sense of foreboding – the awareness that a tangible and stable reality is ever more in danger of melting away – is something that a viewership living in the shadow of a vast global economic crisis can increasingly identify with.

Likewise, Laurie Penny of the New Statesman detects a resonance in the series with our crisis-wracked world that partly explains its impact:

What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

SL 4 Familia Lannister

Paul Mason, Guardian columnist and champion of Corbynism, is probably the best-known figure to have tried his hand at a leftist critique of the series. Mason perceives GOT to be dramatising a version of the transition from feudalism to capitalism that unfolded in Europe from the early medieval period. Mason argues that the Lannister family represent a parasitical feudal elite that has tenuously clung onto state power in the fragmented realm of Westeros, thanks to their monopoly of the gold supply from their redoubt at Casterly Rock.

Unfortunately, for them, it is now apparent that the supply is practically exhausted. Consequently, they are in debt to the unsentimental and coldly calculating financiers of Bravos. Mason detects a parallel not just between this scenario and an epochal transformation in the past, but also with one of the crucial political battlegrounds of our time:

If this sounds a lot like Greece and the European Central Bank, that’s only because their current stand-off replicates the essential power shift that happened towards the end of feudalism: debts accumulated under a corrupt patronage system, whose sources of wealth dried up and destroyed the system in the end.

Mason integrates the concept of thinning into his analysis of the series. This is a common theme in modern fantasy literature that concerns gradual disenchantment and the decline of supernatural influence in a particular alternative universe. Mason claims that the growing influence of the bankers of Braavos at the expense of the royal family points to an imminent bourgeois revolution in the Seven Kingdoms that will inaugurate a new era of capitalist development.

In contrast, the Marxist critic Sam Kriss has countered that Mason misunderstands both the nature of the transition from one mode of production to the other, and the shifting balance of power in the series. In his article Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory, Kriss argues that the decisive factor in Europe’s medieval transition to early capitalism was not a build-up of debt by monarchies, but the recurrent outbreaks of class struggle in the form of agrarian uprisings, such as England’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

He argues the Brotherhood Without Banners that has featured in the series represent a version of this oppositional force within Westeros that is preparing to sweep away all the ruling dynasties in the name of revolution from below.

SL 5 WhiteWalkersHorseback

On the theme of thinning, Kriss points out that Mason could not be more wrong: the reality of the show’s narrative arc is that magic and otherworldly powers are being re-energised in its alternative universe in the form of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, and the White Walkers from beyond the Wall in the North.

He also notes that Marx himself utilised quasi-magical language to explain the grip that capitalism has on our lives:

Capitalism is a monster more uncontrollable than any mere dragon, and a succession of bourgeois economists have tried and failed to rein it in. In Capital, Marx spends some time discussing the properly supernatural elements of the capitalist system: the bodiless phantasm that is exchange value, the topsy-turvy nightmare of the autonomous commodity.

Kriss believes that, in some form, the three forces of the Brothers, Walkers and dragons will collide at the climax of the series in a rupture of the status quo that promises to be far more transformational than simply a bourgeois revolution.

The most coherent and persuasive analysis of GOT from a Marxist perspective comes from Tony McKenna. He shares some of the views outlined by Paul Mason but expresses them with a more informed grasp of historical materialism and more insight into the probable story arc that the author is working with. McKenna cautions that those viewers, such as Sam Kriss, who are hoping for an emancipatory and upbeat conclusion that sees white hats installed in power and black hats dispatched into oblivion are likely to be disappointed. In 2016 Martin warned fans: Winter is the time when things die, and cold and ice and darkness fill the world, so this is not going to be the happy feel-good that people may be hoping for.

McKenna persuasively argues that such a sobering conclusion might not be what most viewers are hoping for, but would be consistent with both the internal logic of the series and the historical era he believes it parallels. McKenna shares Mason’s view that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is essentially the backdrop to the unfolding drama. He observes how the two characters who most viewers probably identify with at this point in the series, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, display characteristics of the feudal order that was ultimately supplanted by the emerging ethos of capitalism.

The former is the adopted son of Ned Stark and has been raised in a family that is admirable but historically obsolete:

The Starks….represent a more benevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism. 

The grisly fate of Jon’s adopted parents and brother in previous episodes might indicate that McKenna is right to be fearful of what lies in store for the current King in the North. Likewise, he argues readers and viewers who assume Daenerys Targaryen is destined to ascend to the Iron Throne are failing to note her record of securing political power is ambivalent at best. The Mother of Dragons has succeeded in overthrowing tyrannical slave-owning states in Essos but in many cases the erstwhile elites have re-asserted their influence and undermined her authority.

McKenna perceptively argues this is consistent with a Marxist understanding of how change has occurred in pre-capitalist societies:

When slave rebellions did take place in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization. 

McKenna concurs with Mason that the narrative logic of the series is heading towards the installation of a bourgeois-style regime that will suppress forever the influence of supernatural forces of either the fiery or the wintry variety. His choice of which character will end up on top of the pile at the end of next year’s eighth and final series will surprise and probably disappoint many viewers, but there is a compelling logic behind his theory that Sansa Stark will accede to the Iron Throne at the expense of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow or any other rival claimant.

The eldest daughter of the Stark dynasty personifies the diminution of enchantment, and its eclipse by a steely ruthlessness that characterised the rise to power of the embryonic capitalist class in the womb of the feudal order. In series one, Sansa was naively besotted by a royal prince who turned out to be a psychopath; at the end of Season 6 she was feeding an equally deranged despot to his own rabid dogs. She has now acquired the cold-eyed and unsentimental resolve of a Cromwell or Robespierre, determined to dispatch the ancien regime to the dustbin of history

Such a conclusion might fit an orthodox Marxist historical schema but would it fit the defining political quality of this second decade of the 21st century? That is to say, the stunning volatility and unpredictability of events. The post-2008 crash world has seen a sequence of shocks and surprises few would have predicted: the rise of Corbyn to the Labour leadership and to the brink of Number Ten; Britain voting to jump off the EU juggernaut; Bernie Sanders only being denied the Democrat nomination thanks to Clintonite skulduggery; and the still barely believable elevation to the Presidency of Donald Trump. The author’s narrative trajectory is gloriously impossible to predict, but if the show is to continue to tune into the turbulence of our time, something equally jaw-dropping surely has to be on the cards.

Some of its most memorable moments have involved characters and armies coming together to create improbable new alliances, such as Jon Snow's merging of the Night's Watch and the Wildlings, or Daenerys Targaryen linking up with Tyrion, outcast scion of the hated Lannisters who massacred her family. As the final season looms, most are expecting the spectral White Walkers to represent the darkest threat to civilisation in Westeros. However, as these icy warriors were revealed in Season 5 to have been originally men who were turned into a super-weapon that went wrong, perhaps some means of returning them to their original state to actually assist in the liberation of the Seven Kingdoms will be discovered.

Season 6 saw Bran Stark acquire time-travelling capability so perhaps he will avert the rise of the Walkers in the first place. Even if Dany is denied her apparent destiny, it is to be hoped her clarion cry for revolution is fulfilled in some form, both in her world and ours:

Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel.  This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Sunday, 24 March 2019 14:34

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

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Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

Ride of the Red Valkyries: Wagner, Marxism and ‘The Ring’
Saturday, 17 November 2018 18:29

Ride of the Red Valkyries: Wagner, Marxism and ‘The Ring’

Published in Music

Sean Ledwith examines how a dialectical approach that recognises the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.

In May 1876, as part of his search for spa-based treatments for his carbuncles, Karl Marx found himself in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. The atmosphere in the town, commented Marx in a letter to his daughter, was dominated by the imminent premiere of a long-awaited operatic cycle by the most controversial German musician of the day: ‘Wherever one goes, one is plagued with the question: what do you think of Richard Wagner?’ Marx’s curiosity regarding this burning question was piqued to the extent that he unsuccessfully tried to purchase one of the much sought-after tickets for the first performance.

In the decades following this unveiling of Wagner’s four-part ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ other notable figures on the left have found themselves enticed by the cycle’s titanic concatenation of mythology, romance, revenge and redemption not simply because of its dramatic power but also due to a political subtext which they believe is compatible with the emancipatory agenda of the left. This long-running thread of radical leftist critique of Wagner has attracted figures as diverse as Bernard Shaw, Theodor Adorno, Frederic Jameson and, most recently, the French critic Alain Badiou.

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Not the least surprising aspect of this remarkable trend is that, for most people, if Wagner is associated with any form of politics it is most likely to be that of the most destructive and heinous form of the political right – the Nazi leadership of the Third Reich which adopted him as their official composer of choice. Scenes from Wagner’s’ ‘Meistersingers of Nuremberg’ were the dramatic inspiration for the torch-lit parades in the eponymous city in the 1930s and Hitler made numerous high-profile visits to the Wagner family at Bayreuth to pay homage at the grave of his favourite composer.

Add to this, the documented examples of Wagner’s own virulent strand of antisemitism and the stories of his music being used as the anthems of the Nazi concentration camps in WW2, and it becomes even more surprising that thinkers on the left believe that he can be reclaimed for the left. An examination of their views however, alongside an understanding of the roots of the ‘The Ring’ in nineteenth-century revolutionary politics provides ample justification for the notion that there can be a ‘Wagner for the left’.

Although first premiered in 1876, the first stirrings of the tetralogy in Wagner’s imagination significantly occurred in 1848, the year a wave of anti-feudal uprisings swept Europe. Despite being court conductor to the King of Saxony, the twenty-five year old Wagner had no qualms about throwing himself into an insurrection against the monarchy and joining demonstrations calling for a democratic and unified Germany.

Some of his writings from that period have titles such as ‘Republican Ideals versus the Monarchy’ and ‘Art and Revolution’. Their contents reveal a man who was fully committed to challenging the sclerotic despotism of King Friedrich August, a monarch who had turned his face against even the mildest reforms:

Dynastic rule is on its last legs and the privileges of birth must yield to the free rights of honest labour…fifty years from now royalty will be reduced to mere symbolism or else be relegated to waxworks and museums. The dawn of social conscience is approaching.....

Wagner found himself building barricades and organising supplies of grenades with that most legendary of contemporary disrupters of the status quo, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. The composer volunteered for lookout duty at the top of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche watchtower, but was unable to avert the arrival of Prussian troops who provided the counter-revolutionary weight to smash the uprising in May 1849.

Wagner was forced to flee Germany and would not return for thirteen years. Others in the revolutionary leadership received death sentences and there is little doubt he would have faced the same if he had been apprehended. Wagner’s high-profile participation in the vanguard of progressive politics in the 1840s inevitably provokes the question of how he mutated into the appalling reactionary who in later decades penned hate-filled tracts such as Judaism in Music.

There are obviously a multitude of complex factors that explain how a person can shift from a revolutionary consciousness to a reactionary one but, in Wagner’s case, the specific nature of the 1848 revolutions must clearly have played a role. This wave of thwarted uprisings is commonly comprehended within the Marxist schema by deploying the concept of permanent revolution, first posited by Marx and then most fully developed by Trotsky in the twentieth century. The rising bourgeois classes of the nation-states of Western Europe found themselves initially challenging the decaying feudal oligarchies above them but then drew back from a decisive political engagement due to fear of the power of the embryonic working class that was stirring beneath them. Wagner’s intellectual journey from left to right in the aftermath of 1848 mirrored the receding optimism of Europe’s bourgeoisie regarding their ability to transform the continent with the pure ideals of the French Revolution of the eighteenth-century.

Although Wagner initiated work on ‘The Ring’ in Europe’s year of revolutions, it would take him almost three decades to complete; by which time the emancipatory impulse of 1848 had dissipated into disillusionment and reaction. In Wagner’s case, the retreat from the politics of liberation would take the ugly form of antisemitism, in which responsibility for the counter-revolution would be transferred from the capitalist class as a whole to primarily its Jewish section. A nascent anti-capitalist critique became distorted by the prism of antisemitism, possibly due to the influence of Bakunin who also suffered from this intellectual blight.

the ring

‘The Ring’ would retain the revolutionary ardour of the young composer who had marched alongside Bakunin in 1848 with characters such as Brunnhilde and Siegfried defying the commands of Wotan, the king of the gods in parts 2 and 3. The politics of defeat, however, would also be visible, in the ultimate demise of these challenges in the climactic part 4. According to Wagner scholar, Paul Lawrence, the composer displaced his youthful scorn for the bourgeoisie onto the Jewish people in a particularly twisted case of false consciousness:

Jews are the agent of law, inhibiting the freedom to be human; they're the agents of capitalism, reinforcing repression; and domination, that's seen as a Jewish thing – the Ring gives the holder power over the world.

The first leftist figure to actively engage with the Wagnerian project prioritised the link with Bakunin and the proto-socialist rebels of 1848 as the key to the cycle. Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Perfect Wagnerite’, first published in 1897 is still widely regarded as one of the best commentaries on ‘The Ring’, even by critics who do not share the author’s central claim that the tetralogy is essentially a political attack on the excesses of nineteenth-century capitalism.

Although Shaw’s personal politics never really strayed beyond tame Fabianism, this slim but powerfully written volume positively drips with class hatred, aimed at the hubris of the ruling class and what he takes to be their mythical avatars in the saga. For Shaw, ‘The Ring’ is a straightforward allegory in which the main classifications of characters represent the class structure of capitalist society. Alberic, his brother Mime and son Hagen, whose ruthless pursuit of the Rhinegold at the expense of human love, mirror the all-consuming pursuit of profit of the bourgeoisie. The dwarves of Nibelheim, who are enslaved by Alberic, take on the function of the proletariat, which toils away in darkness and degradation. The doomed gods, such as Wotan and Loge, are symbols of the declining power of religious leadership in a secular age. Shaw even interprets Siegfried, the ultimate iconoclast and challenger to the gods, as the dramatic incarnation of none other than Bakunin, Wagner’s erstwhile comrade-in-arms. This forceful reminder of the composer’s roots in a progressive revolutionary movement is a valuable antidote to the caricature of Wagner as a progenitor of fascism:

He was proclaimed as wanted by the police; that he wrote revolutionary pamphlets; and that his picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic is a poetic vision of unregulated capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by Engels’ Condition of the Labouring Classes in England .

Shaw’s analysis, however, is obviously the product of a pre-Holocaust era and therefore for a modern reader lacks the subtlety required to engage with the problematic presence of antisemitism in not only the cultural origins of Wagner’s version of the cycle, but also according to some critics, in its actual dramatic core. This was the theoretical challenge that exercised the figure who produced what is probably the most stimulating radical critique of ‘The Ring’ from the left.

Theodor Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ was originally written in 1938, as the terror of the Nazi regime was unfolding and finally published in 1952 when the depths of its barbarity had been fully revealed. Unlike Shaw, Adorno is able to ask perhaps the fundamental Wagnerian question for socialists, of how any viewer with radical sympathies can watch and appreciate the operas in light of the catastrophe anti-Wagnerians argue the composer was partially responsible for. The purpose of this study was to explicitly reclaim Wagner for the project of the left and save the composer’s reputation, which was inevitably in tatters after WW2.

The progressive dimension of ‘The Ring’, according to Adorno, was in Wagner’s deployment of the concept of ‘phantasmagoria’, a variation on Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism. The latter is capitalism’s ability to conceal the exploitative relationships that lie at the heart of all production and to create the illusion that our lives primarily revolve around products. In Adorno’s analysis of ‘The Ring’, Wagner effected a similar deception in the theatrical sphere by generating the illusion that the astonishing range of musical, dramatic, audio-visual and narrative ingredients of the tetralogy was the work of his own unique genius. The actual musicians, actors, back-stage operators and assorted others who converge to deliver the Wagnerian spectacle are pushed to the back of the viewers’ mind as we sit in awe at the composer’s stunning edifice of the imagination. The overwhelming effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) is to temporarily lift us emotionally out of the deleterious effects of alienation on our fragmentary everyday experience. This euphoria is short-lived but according to Adorno, creates a yearning for a social order that sustains a more durable sensation of coherence and purpose in our lives. In his words:

Because it does not, in the end, realise what it has promised, it is therefore fallible, given into our hands incomplete, as something to be advanced. It awaits the influence that will advance it to self-realisation. This would seem to be its true relevance for our time.

Adorno perhaps perceives here an aspect of ‘The Ring’ that was not present in the composer’s own conceptualisation, but the critic’s influential attempt to salvage Wagner from appropriation by the right played a major role in the postwar productions sanctioned by his grandson, Wieland Wagner, that redefined the cycle in a manner that was assimilable to the democratic and secular ethos of the post-Nazi West German state.

seigfried

In this century, the American Marxist critic, Frederic Jameson, has constructed a reading of ‘The Ring’ that assesses the pivotal character of Siegfried in parts 3 and 4 as symbolic of the transformational nature of bourgeois revolutions that rip apart pre-industrial modes of thinking. In ‘Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist’ (2013), Jameson notes that Siegfried is brashly contemptuous of the power of gods and dwarves, despite both playing a formative role in his development. For Jameson, Siegfried‘s ultimate demise in the climactic Gotterdammerung is a portent of the fiery destruction that awaits capitalism-and perhaps the whole of humanity if its ruthless pursuit of profit is not curtailed. Jameson writes:

We must now confront the character of Siegfried directly, inasmuch as he is positioned to bear the meaning of hope for the future and for the resolution of the baleful effects of the ring and its curse. First, he is the boy who, like the eponymous Grimm character, fails to learn fear. Then, and perhaps as a result of this youthful innocence, he embodies a more general ignorance about the world and about his own genealogy, something that could also be taken to signify his nascent individualism (as a bourgeois subject, for instance).

The innovations introduced by postwar productions of ‘The Ring’ are also the crux of another significant intervention by a major figure on the contemporary left, the French critic, Alain Badiou. In ‘Five Lessons from Wagner’ (2010), Badiou focuses on the highly influential French staging of ‘The Ring’ in 1968, Europe’s other year of revolutions. Perhaps affected by the revolutionary tumult of that era, the director Patrice Chereau and conductor Pierre Boulez devised a memorable finale in which the cast turn and face the audience and implicitly throw down the fundamental challenge that faces all generations on the left: ‘What is to be done?’

Like Wieland Wagner in the previous decade, Badiou contends that Chereau and Boulez successfully elided the fascistic overtones of prewar stagings in Nazi Germany and restored the universalistic and emancipatory core of ‘The Ring’. Like Jameson, Badiou perceives a residue of the revolutionary Wagner who had participated in the 1848 uprisings as being present in the cataclysmic downfall of the gods that leaves the world left for humanity to inherit:

In fact, I’m inclined to say that this ending consists in the fate of the world being handed over to generic humanity, stripped of all transcendence and left to its own devices, which will have to take responsibility for its own fate. This hypothesis is put forward in Gotterdammerung only after much trial and error and many partial revisions, and it ultimately boils down to this: after the gods comes humanity, regarded in a revolutionary sense, an utterly generic, not specific, sense.

Interestingly, the spectacular conclusion to ‘The Ring’ cycle also forms the core of Slavoj Zizek’s case that the political ramifications of Wagner should not be seen as the monopoly of the right. In ‘Why Wagner is Worth Saving’ (2004) , the self-styled post-Marxist constructs a characteristically idiosyncratic but stimulating analysis which, like the aforementioned thinkers, aims to encourage us to reject the conventional reading of Wagner as the musical godfather of fascism. Zizek notes that during the annus mirabilis of 1848, young Wagner was reading the works of the nineteenth-century pioneer of atheism, Ludwig Feuerbach, who would also prove to be a crucial influence on the development of the thought of Karl Marx.

The destruction of the gods in Gotterdammerung can be traced back, argues Zizek, to Feuerbach’s seminal notion in ‘The Essence of Christianity’ that the divinities of the world’s religions are nothing more than elaborate projections of human potentiality and that our progress as a species will come from perceiving them as such. He also focuses on the historical fact that Wagner famously worked on numerous versions of the denouement and struggled to construct a final sequence that would leave the viewer satisfied after fifteen hours of surging drama. The solution, according to Zizek,was a call-back to the revolutionary Wagner of the barricades in which Brunnhilde’s apparent betrayal of her lover, Siegfired, is in fact an act of death-defying courage in the name of a higher love – that of the cause of the people. Zizek notes:

Not sure about the final twist that should stabilize and guarantee the meaning of it all, he took recourse to a beautiful melody whose effect is something like "whatever all this may mean, let us make it sure that the concluding impression will be that of something triumphant and upbeating in its redemptive beauty …” The underlying paradox is that love, precisely as the Absolute, should not be posited as a direct goal - it should retain the status of a by-product, of something we get as an undeserved grace. Perhaps, there is no greater love than that of a revolutionary couple, where each of the two lovers is ready to abandon the other at any moment if revolution demands it.

valkyrie

When part 2 ,’The Valkyrie’, was broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in October this year, it is unlikely this interpretation – or any of the others outlined above – was paramount in the minds of many viewers. However, that staging was watched by probably the biggest ever audience for a Wagner production as it was simultaneously transmitted to 800 cinemas in 23 countries. There is clearly a growing audience for the composer’s essential vision of a decaying world desperate to be cleansed of fear and oppression. The interpretations of Adorno, Badiou and others are not always wholly convincing but illustrate how a dialectical approach that underlines the contradictions of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ might help us prepare for capitalism’s Gotterdammerung in the 21st century.

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who
Monday, 01 October 2018 15:47

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who

As we get ready for the next series of Doctor Who, Sean Ledwith praises a show which regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression.

This October Jodie Whittaker will make her debut in one of the most eagerly awaited British television seasons of the decade. For the first time the role of the time-travelling Doctor will be played by a female. When Whittaker’s selection as the ‘Thirteenth’ was announced last year it was predictably received by political troglodytes as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

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For the more enlightened majority, it was a welcome symbol of the growing acceptance of trans rights in British social attitudes. Not for the first time, the world’s long-running sci-fi series has reflected the social and political concerns of the wider population in creative and innovative ways. The series foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of a female Doctor in 2014 by regenerating the hitherto male villain of the Master into Missy, brilliantly played by Michelle Gomez. That inspired piece of casting proved hugely popular with critics and ordinary viewers alike, so the canonical formbook is already in place for Whitaker to be a success in the leading role.

Her predecessor as the Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation had also set the scene for a female iteration in his final episode by explaining how the Time Lords of Gallifrey have transcended the hang-ups of human sexuality:

We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We are billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a show that has endured in the public’s affection for over 50 years has been shrewd enough to tune into evolving social norms. What is less well known, however, is how on a significant number of occasions, writers and producers of a distictinctly left-wing hue have affected the trajectory of the show and taken it into the territory of radical and even revolutionary politics.

From its very first episode (inauspiciously broadcast the day after the JFK assassination in 1963) the makers of Doctor Who sought to carve out a niche for the show rooted in the democratic and populist instincts of a mass audience that was still being patronised by the hidebound patricians running the postwar BBC. Canadian-born Sydney Newman, as the new Head of Drama at the corporation in that year, explicitly viewed the show as part of his agenda to reflect the emerging values of a decade that would become synonymous with radicalism:

It was still the attitude that BBC drama was still catering to the highly educated, cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such. But above all, I felt that the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things.

Newman the made the bold step for the time of appointing a woman, Verity Lambert, as producer and an Asian, Waris Hussain, as scriptwriter for the early episodes. The latter explained how the show was partly fuelled by the presence of outsiders at its heart:

I was the first Indian-born director in the drama department. We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realised at the time.”

The initial brief was to create a programme that was both educational and entertaining by dispatching the Doctor and his companions backwards in time to historical locales such as the Aztec Empire or the Crusades in which they would confront hazardous situations but also, hopefully, pique the curiosity of a young audience and encourage them to find out more about such eras.

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The early episodes were mixed in terms of fulfilling these criteria but then the show’s status was transformed by writer Terry Nation’s introduction of its most iconic villains – the Daleks. These genocidal pepperpots have long since secured their status in the national psyche as almost figures of affection. Less than twenty years after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, however, the appearance on British television screens of mobile machines, chanting ‘Exterminate’ and ‘I Obey’ and with an obsession for racial exclusivity, understandably had an unnerving effect on millions of all ages. Memorable images of Daleks patrolling the streets outside Parliament acted as sober reminders of what might have befallen the UK if the forces of fascism had prevailed only two decades earlier.

The parallels between the metallic militarists and their real-world inspiration was made even more evident in the 1975 serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in which the human progenitors of the race known as the Kaleds wore SS-style black uniforms, saluted each other and were led by a Himmler-like fanatic named Nyder. The chief scientist of the Kaleds and ‘father’ of the Daleks, Davros, is another of the show’s greatest villains and resembles nothing so much as the ranting figure of Hitler, ensconced in a bunker in the last days of the Third Reich.

The era of the Second Doctor (1966-69) played by Patrick Troughton steered clear of political parallels for the most part, and was content to prioritise – at the expense of any educational element – the growing popularity of the bug-eyed monsters that Sydney Newman had hoped to downplay.

 SL Third Doctor Main

It was with the arrival of Jon Pertwee in the title role in 1970 that the first of the great eras of ‘political Doctor Who’ came about. The Third Doctor is sometimes interpreted as an establishment figure who was happy to be employed by a quasi-government military force known as UNIT, and tasked with conducting extra-terrestrial interactions mainly in the form of high explosives.

In fact, Pertwee’s Doctor was in the vanguard of ecological politics and was frequently to be found having heated exchanges with impersonal, corporate types who were impervious to any agenda that did not involve making profits. The 1973 serial, ‘The Green Death’, is probably most fondly remembered for the giant maggots that menace the Doctor but also deserves a place in cultural history as probably the first primetime television viewing to feature an unambiguous pro-environmental and ant-capitalist message.

Labour MP, Tom Harris recognised the significance of that moment:

They were extremely scary, but not only was it about environmental issues, it was also the first time that a corporate entity, a corporate company became the Big Bad. So it was all about how big companies manipulate communities, which was the first time that was done.”

Two remarkable figures behind the scenes were the inspiration for this pioneering phase of Whovian radicalism. Writer Malcolm Hulke was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was deemed sufficiently subversive to be worthy of MI5 opening a file on him!

Hulke was no uncritical Tankie, however, and clashed with the pro-Moscow party leadership with his support for Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Hungarian rebels of 1956. Hulke was first recruited to Doctor Who by Sydney Newman during the Troughton era, but it was during the tenure of the Third Doctor that he was given the opportunity to script a number of stories that expressed his anti-establishment instincts.

In The Silurians (1970), Pertwee’s Doctor tries to broker peace between humanity and a subterranean race of intelligent reptiles but is thwarted by war-mongering militarists on both sides. In Colony in Space (1971), the Doctor joins forces with ecological freedom fighters to obstruct the rapacious greed of the Interplanetary Mining Company.

In Pertwee’s last season, Invasion of the Dinosaurs featured a high-level conspiracy by government generals and civil servants to use time travel to reverse what they regarded as the excessively democratic aspects of Seventies Britain. Again, the upper-class antagonists are portrayed as indulging in dubious preferences for crypto-fascist attire and mannerisms.

The serial was broadcast amid the political tumult of the 1974 miners’ strike, the three-day week and the ‘Who Governs?’ election called by Edward Heath. With hindsight, the conspiracy depicted onscreen has disturbing parallels with the real plot hatched by rogue elements of the British deep state that subsequently came to light, aimed at toppling the Labour government of Harold Wilson.

These and other similarly daring storylines of the Pertwee era were also the product of Malcolm Hulke’s collaboration with the other left-orientated figure closely involved with the show in the early Seventies - Barry Letts. As producer, the latter encouraged Hulke to create scrips with a distinctive anti-Establishment voice and to portray the Doctor as the bane of bumptious bureaucrats and trigger- happy generals.

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Letts’ radicalism was informed more by what might be described as ‘Left Buddhism’ but still led him to produce serials such as The Monster of Peladon which depicted the Third Doctor taking the side of striking miners on the eponymous planet (also broadcast in the year of Scargill’s showdown with Heath!).

Tom Baker’s iteration of the role from 1974-81 is often regarded by those who recall it – and even many who do not – as the definitive version. However, from a political perspective, the Fourth Doctor represented a retreat from the eco-radicalism of Pertwee. Hulke and Letts departed the show along with Pertwee and their successors were content to let Baker’s larger-than-life personality alone supply most of the dramatic thrust.

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However, one interesting feature of the Baker years was the controversial depiction of the Time Lords as a bickering bunch of over-grown public schoolboys. In The Deadly Assassin (1976), the portentous rulers of Gallery were stripped of their previously omniscient demeanour as featured in the Troughton and Pertwee years, and re-styled as grasping, out-of-touch aristocrats, clearly unsuited to the great responsibilities they had acquired over generations. it was the House of (Time) Lords, perhaps?

Robert Holmes, writer of this story, has spoken of the influence of the Watergate scandal and the Pinochet coup in Chile. The story even identifies the Doctor as a former agent of the CIA (the Celestial Intervention Agency, that is!). This pivotal story, and subsequent ones set on Gallifrey, make it apparent why the Doctor is a quintessentially anti-Establishment figure who rejected the class system and conservatism of his home planet.

In its third decade, Doctor Who began to run out of creative gas, partly because of glossy competition from multi-million dollar US sci-fi imports and also because the bosses at the BBC could not decide what to do with a programme that seemed out of place in the emerging era of satellite television.

Before its demise in 1989, the original run of the show enjoyed one last fleeting outburst of primetime subversion of the status quo. The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, was derided by many at the time for assuring the programme’s doom, thanks to laughable special effects and some dubious choices of companions.

In hindsight, however, McCoy’s portrayal looks like a valiant parting shot at the neoliberal philistines taking over, both at the Beeb and in wider society. The most celebrated political story from this twilight of the classic series was ‘The Happiness Patrol’ that featured a thinly veiled caricature of Thatcher, called Helen A and played with relish by Sheila Hancock. Script editor of the time, Andrew Cartmel, was explicit about his motivation while attached to the show:

John asked me: If there’s one thing you could do with the show, what would it be? And I said, ‘Overthrow the government!’ because I was young and I didn’t like the way things were going at the time.

The disdain for Tory policies by senior figures involved in the show probably did it no favours in the final days of its battle for survival.

Doctor Who’s triumphant resurrection in the 21st century was fuelled by a grassroots movement by hundreds and thousands of fans to refuse to allow it to disappear forever. For the fifteen years it was offscreen, devotees around the world kept the Whoniverse alive by creating novels, blogs, magazines and other forms of alternative media.

Fans such Russell Davies, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who would go on to become the driving forces of ‘Nu-Who,’ cut their artistic teeth penning Doctor Who novels in these wilderness years.

With Davies as showrunner, the stunningly successful reboot from 2005 quickly made it apparent that the show had not lost its subversive edge. In World War 3 (2005), an alien shape-shifter takes over as British PM and makes reckless claims about a non-existent enemy that has the potential to unleash WMD in 45 seconds. Tony Blair is also the target of John Simms inspired re-imagining of the Master as a cynical British politician who rises to the top with ruthless disregard for friends and enemies alike.

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The Labour-supporting Davies and Moffatt also developed the iconoclastic portrayal of the Time Lords, initiated in the 1970s. In the post-Iraq story End of Time (2010), the Doctor’s own race has become so bloated on their own rhetoric they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the universe in a demented scheme to save themselves. As symbols of the British Establishment, the Time Lords have degenerated from the respected patricians of the 1960s to the delusional neo-cons of the 21st century.

Peter Capaldi, Whitaker’s predecessor in the role, has added to the Doctor’s repertoire of anti-capitalist sentiments with some well-aimed jibes at the system that many in workplaces throughout the public sector will recognise. Commenting on defective spacesuits that are actually designed to reduce the oxygen supply, the Doctor notes cynically:

This is the end of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet, like every worker everywhere. We’re fighting the suits.

Obviously, it would be absurd to imply the Doctor is an unambiguously left-wing figure and there have indubitably been many occasions in the show’s history when reactionary messages have been prominent. Marxist critic Sasha Simic makes a persuasive case that the character promotes an essentially liberal ideology based on modifying injustices rather than overturning them.

Nevertheless, the perennial popularity of a primetime show that regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression should be something the left can continue to draw sustenance from for many years to come.

Radical Sacrifice
Monday, 20 August 2018 13:33

Radical Sacrifice

Published in Religion

Other articles in this section of Culture Matters have dealt with the revolutionary strands and meanings, often deeply buried, in various religions. Here, Sean Ledwith reviews Terry Eagleton's latest book, which focuses on radical strands in the Catholic religion. The image above is Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion, 1938, in which Chagall identifies Jesus with the suffering Jews of Nazi Germany. It is Pope Francis's favourite painting.

In last year’s British general election, the campaign was twice suspended in the aftermath of Islamist attacks on London. ISIS-inspired individuals have targeted France even more in recent years with horrifying incidents in Paris, Nice and other locations, characterised by a conspicuously disregard for any loss of life, including their own. Terry Eagleton’s latest intervention in contemporary politics, Radical Sacrifice, might initially appear to the casual reader to be motivated by a desire to analyse the clearly sacrificial mentality of the perpetrators of these incidents.

This most obvious form of sacrifice in the modern world, however, forms a surprisingly small part of Eagleton’s focus here. Apart from noting such attackers are ‘falling prey to a spuriously existentialist cult of action for its own sake’ (89), the author avoids any lengthy speculation of the causes and consequences of this headline-grabbing form of sacrifice. Instead, Eagleton seeks to critique the manner in which contemporary theorists such as Agamben and Badiou have sought to integrate the concept into secular intellectual systems that aspire to explain the nature of 21st century societies. Alongside these expositions, Eagleton dissects how thinkers in the ancient world such as Plato and St Paul made sacrifice a core constituent of their world-views.

Beyond that purpose, the author develops a typically sophisticated, if not always convincing, case that Marxism itself would benefit from reconsidering its traditionally sceptical view of the utility of the concept of sacrifice. As such, this volume represents another example of the quasi-religious phase of the ‘later Eagleton’. In other works written in this decade such as Reason, Faith, Revolution, and On Evil, the author has effectively come full circle in his intellectual evolution. Eagleton has creatively sought to synthesise the leftist Catholicism with which he first emerged as a critical force in the 1960s, with the sober and yet stubbornly optimistic brand of Marxism he has clung onto in recent decades. In characteristically unapologetic style, he defends the legitimacy of trying to identify common threads in what most commentators would regard as two incompatible belief-systems. In his view: ‘a great many secular views of the Judaic and Christian lineages are as grossly prejudiced and abysmally ill-informed as those, say,for whom socialism is simply a matter of the Gulag, or feminism the calamitous consequence of women throwing their natural modesty and decorum to the winds’ (x).

Eagleton’s formulations are delivered in the breezily amusing and erudite style that typifies his recent output. There is the usual dazzling range of references to figures as diverse as Virgil, Aquinas, Beckett and Woody Allen, along with welcome additions to the growing collection of ‘Eagletonisms’; that is to say, those memorable asides which litter his texts, making a telling point about an aspect of theory but in a down-to-earth manner. Here for example, he muses on the reasons why Christmas Day with Jacques Derrida might not have been a lot of fun, and ‘that if God exists, he must be hopelessly in love with Donald Trump’ (102).

In a more serious vein, Eagleton’s desire to reclaim a putatively progressive version of Catholicism leads him into a number of discussions of what he perceives as the emancipatory and subversive kernel that exists within the conservative shell of his long-lost religious faith. The crucifixion of Jesus, as the historical foundation of the entire Christian tradition, is laden with liberatory significance according to Eagleton. It was the Nazarene’s political agenda, contends the author, that ultimately led him to his fate at Calvary: ‘His solidarity with those who dwell in the borderlands of orthodox society, men and women whose existence signifies a kind of non-being, prefigures the non-being to which he himself is brought on the outer edge of the metropolis. In the person of Jesus, those whom Paul calls the filth of the earth are in principle raised up to glory’ (27).

The Procession to Calvary Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1564

The Procession to Calvary, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

Even some of the more abstruse elements of Catholic doctrine, Eagleton further argues, are decipherable in terms to which modern socialists can relate. He co-opts Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan to re-conceptualise the Eucharist as a ritual that resonates with revolutionary potential concerning the transformation of the class-ridden present into a future post-class society. Christ’s transubstantiation of his body and blood into the bread and wine of the Last Supper (perhaps the most enigmatic of all Catholic shibboleths) becomes, in Eagleton’s terms, the eruption of a revolutionary force of world-shattering proportions into the quotidian mundanity of the everyday: ‘In commemorating a revolutionary Passover from death to life, turning back to the site of the primordial trespass, the Eucharist brings that saving event to bear on the present as the promise of an emancipated future’ (153).

Similarly, Eagleton regards Christ’s subsequent resurrection, according to the biblical account, as primarily a political event with layers of meaning that reverberate through all following generations. The miracle of the rolled stone, he suggests, ‘breaks into the disciples’ defeatist gloom after Calvary with all the illogicality of a Dadaist happening, inaugurating the unimaginably avant-garde reality of the kingdom of God’ (29). He further posits that this occurrence is a prime example of Badiou’s celebrated conceptualisation of the ‘Event’, one of those ‘moments of pure rupture or primordial beginnings which are out of joint with their historical sites, in excess of their contexts, sprung as it were ex nihilio from empirical situations that could not have pre-calculated them’ (29).

Badiou’s explicit commitment to Marxism might appear to imply Eagleton is on relatively solid ground here, trying to draw parallels between a cornerstone of Christian belief and the necessity for revolutionary transformation in the world of late capitalism. He is also surely right to revisit elements of religious faith and practice with a more sympathetic eye than prominent anti-theists such as Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis whose critiques of religion adopt a sneering tone that looks down on believers as ignorant dupes. Eagleton’s sensitivity to the dual nature of religion is truer to the spirit of Marx’s pioneering analysis in 1844 which included not just the famous allusion to the ‘opium of the people’ but also the equally important highlighting of its role for millions as ‘the heart of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions’.

The danger for Eagleton, however, is going too far in the other direction and underplaying the role religion plays in sustaining the mystification and obfuscation that remains crucial to the ideology of class society. His explorations of the subversive potential of aspects of Catholic liturgy are stimulating and indubitably played a major role in his own personal journey towards Marxism. The stark reality, however, is that most people who sit through these rituals on a Sunday morning are unlikely to follow him on the path to revolutionary politics. The minority that do, will be there more likely due to experiences of alienation and exploitation in the workplace, rather than in a church. Catholics in the modern world have contributed courageously to movements from below that have fought against despotic regimes, notably in South America and Eastern Europe; but adherents of the faith have just as often played a reactionary role in perpetuating repressive ideologies, as witnessed in Ireland’s recent gay rights and abortion referenda.

There are also inherent problems involved in the notion of adopting Badiou’s concept of the Event as a useful addition to Marxism. In the definition referred to above, such an occurrence takes place outside ‘empirical situations’ and represents a rupture with the process of historical development. Assuming Eagleton wishes to retain the dialectical nature of the Marxist perspective (otherwise, his frequent references to the term would be anomalous), tendencies in history and society such as the transformation of quantity into quality have to be an integral part of theorisation.

The cornerstone of the Marxist case for a transition to socialism is that quantitative changes in capitalist society, such as the ever-expanding numerical weight of the proletariat and the centrality of socialised sectors of the economy such as education and health, make a qualitatively different mode of production not just desirable but feasible.

Whatever one makes of Badiou’s understanding of the Event, its reliance on ex nihilo occurrences is utterly incompatible with the traditional Marxist account of revolutions being rooted in existing contradictions of the system. Eagleton rightly wants to remind us (and the complacent elite) that the possibility of overturning entrenched power remains genuine and that history is littered with examples of the oppressed striking down their masters. However, for this aspiration to be more than a heartfelt instinct, it needs to be backed up with empirical analysis of objective trends in the currently existing social and economic system that are taking us towards a crisis.

Apart from hopefully anticipating the death of the entire capitalist system, Eagleton also ruminates on the meaning of death for us as individuals and how religious thinkers can provide insights that, again, are assimilatable to those with a materialist outlook. This focus represents the exploration of another trope of the later Eagleton; the attempt to use the human body as the basis for a critique of the postmodern rejection of absolute truth. He points out that death, our unavoidable physical destruction, is an event shared by all members of the human race-past, present and future-and as such, should be regarded as the ultimate focal point for highlighting our collective identity as a species. Death is the force of certainty that crashes through all the ambivalences, nuances and prevarications of postmodernism without a backward glance. According to Eagleton, the facticity of death even has a progressive dimension in political terms: ‘emancipating slaves, springing lifers from their prison cells, releasing the anguished from their afflictions, replacing conflict with tranquillity and cancelling the inequalities between rich and poor. It would be hard to imagine a more potent revolutionary force’ (78).

Passages such as this may perhaps leave the author open to superficial accusations that he is straying close to the mentality of the ISIS-type death cults he condemns elsewhere. A more thoughtful response would be that this approach could be the foundation for a powerful reformulation of materialism with a subversive edge. Eagleton also invokes Hegel (as the supreme dialectician) to articulate how death can be made part of a theory that emphasises our essential other-centred nature. For the great German thinker, ‘death, like law is a universal truth, which nonetheless confronts us with our utter irreducibility as individual selves, at once levelling and individuating’ (78).

This radical conceptualisation of death, the author continues, can be deployed to underline the responsibility we all share to advance the emancipatory project as far as possible in the allotted time nature unconsciously awards us as organic entities on the planet. We must all confront individual extinction at some point in the future, so this realisation should spur us on to avert the collective extinction that capitalism threatens to inflict on the whole of humanity. As individuals, we may be fortunate to be not around when-and if –that cataclysmic day dawns. However, we should conduct our lives as if it is imminent and we are fighting desperately to facilitate an alternative future. In Eagleton’s, characteristically elaborate but stirring words: ‘one should strive to treat every moment as absolute, disentangling it from the ignominy of circumstance, standing inside and outside of history at the same time by living from the end times rather than simply in them’(74).

This review is republished from the Marx and Philosphy Review of Books.