Thursday, 2 November 2017

Eagleton on Lenin and Luther

After delivering his lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ in Leicester in 1884, Morris was introduced to the local clergyman Rev. Page Hopps who, in Fiona MacCarthy’s retelling of this well-known anecdote, ‘said that the Socialist society that Morris was envisaging would need God Almighty himself to manage it.  “Alright, man, you catch your God Almighty, we’ll have him,” cried Morris, jumping up, ruffling his hair and shaking his fist close to Page Hopps’s face’.

One of the figures who has done most to capture God for left-wing politics in our own time is Terry Eagleton, whose talk on ‘Lenin after 100 Years, Luther after 500 Years’ I chaired in the Storey Institute, Lancaster, on Monday evening.  In a series of brilliant comparisons and contrasts which probably only he could pull off, Terry offered us a sweeping account of both Lutheran Protestantism and Leninist Communism as intellectual, cultural and socially transformative projects.  Tackling one crucial political misconception, he argued in some detail that Lenin’s vanguard notion of the party is not as transcendent of (and therefore potentially domineering over) the working class as Luther’s ‘hidden God’ - to borrow Lucien Goldmann’s old term - is over fallen humanity.

A follow-up event yesterday, in which Terry spoke alongside author Sara Maitland on the idea of ‘Creation’, was more single-mindedly theological, though the odd political implication did peep out now and again.  I must say that, as a lifelong atheist whose attitude to formal religion is probably best summed up by Matthew Arnold’s great poem ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, I’m still not sure what I make of the ‘theological turn’ of some recent thinkers on the Left.

‘Never look a gifthorse in the mouth’ might be one’s immediate, pragmatic response; anything that can tip people leftwards, in dark political times, should probably be seized at.  But when it comes to longer-term and more principled thinking about the relation of religion to Left politics, well, for me personally, at least, the jury is still out.   Terry Eagleton  has a new book, Radical Sacrifice, coming out from Yale University Press next Spring; it looks, on the evidence of the publisher’s blurb, like one of the most ambitious syntheses of radical politics and theology that he has attempted for some years.  So I await this volume eagerly, and hope that it may resolve some of the issues here for us.


Tony Pinkney said...

The publisher's blurb for 'Radical Sacrifice' is available at:

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