Sunday, 3 June 2018

Terry Eagleton at the Hay Festival

Consummate showman that he is at the lectern, Terry Eagleton played his large audience beautifully in the Tata Tent at Hay on Friday morning.  A sequence of fine Eagletonian quips and gags softened the crowd up for his eloquent defence of Marx and Marxism against popular misconceptions and for an introduction to the concepts of tragedy and sacrifice as they feature in Terry’s own recent work. Marx was aligned with Oscar Wilde as a spokesperson for a socialism of leisure, as opposed to William Morris’s vision of a socialism of creative labour – a contrast which, to my mind, is more to Morris’s credit than that of the other two.

Dai Smith was to have chaired the talk, but was prevented from doing so by illness, so Terry ran his own question-and-answer session.  The first questioner leapt to his feet and delivered a kneejerk condemnation of Communist regimes as ‘bloody dictatorships’, but subsequent questions were more on Eagleton’s side, sympathetic to the powerful critique of capitalism he had outlined, though with reservations here and there, naturally.  I had a real sense that the Hay festival, for all its slick professionalism, lavish corporate funding and media domination, might have shifted significantly to the left, or at least to a more left-liberal position.

A question about immediate political tactics in the UK of 2018 came up, as did such topics as Brexit; and my wife Makiko Minow and I found ourselves disagreeing afterwards as to what degree a predominantly theoretical discourse such as Terry’s in the Tata Tent should or should not be ‘cashable’ in practical-political terms – she feeling that it needn’t be, and I more anxious that it should, though I’m not sure I see exactly how.  I do feel, though, that for William Morris, whom Terry had praised for his detailed account of the transition to communism in News from Nowhere, the question of the party is a crucial one.  This might not run quite as far as Trotsky’s slogan ‘my party right or wrong’, but none the less Morris’s gargantuan efforts on behalf of the Socialist League show how committed he was to forging a genuinely transformative political agency.  The pressing question for us – whether Corbyn’s Labour Party can be such a force – remains an open one.  I shall just have to get myself to local meetings and September’s Annual Conference in Liverpool and make my own decision about that.


Tony Pinkney said...

Terry subsequently seemed to be doing brisk business signing copies of his books, so that indicates strong interest too. One young chap turned up in the queue with no less than six Eagleton books tucked under his arm for signature - obviously a major convert to the cause!

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