Terry Eagleton

Photo Credit: from PHILWEB

There is something rather eerie as well as delightful in seeing one’s long-dead self rise phoenix-like from the ashes of history. New Slant takes its name from what one might in suitably scriptural fashion call Ur-Slant - a journal of the Catholic left which ran in Britain from 1964 to 1970. These, significantly, were the years of a Labour government in the United Kingdom, though not a government of which we were particularly fond. The Labour government which mattered most to us Slantites was the post-war administration which ousted Churchill, nationalised the coalmines and railways, established the National Health Service and (most vitally from our viewpoint) passed an Education Act, one year after I myself was born, which for the first time admitted working-class children free to secondary education. Since I and most of my colleagues on the journal, being English Catholics, therefore mostly of Irish provenance, therefore of mostly working-class origin, were the beneficiaries of this enlightened piece of legislation, one might claim that Slant was the product of the first Labour government, rather than of the union-bashing one against which we spent much of our time writing and agitating.

    The role of Slant was to politicise a newly emergent Catholic, liberal middle-class in Britain, which the Vatican Council had done much to bring into being. The generation of Catholics who had benefited from the Education Act were now forming what was really the first Catholic middle class of any size and substance in British history; and as such they were particularly open to the new climate of progressivism which permeated whole swathes of the church in the conciliar period. What most of them were not likely to do, however, at least unprompted by militant groups like ourselves, was to translate this new-found enthusiasm for community, ecumenism, liturgical reform and ethical liberalism into more radical political terms. Our role, then, was not to try to transform the deeply conservative Catholic masses, a task that would have required rather more than the pooled resources of a dozen or so Cambridge students and a handful of renegade Dominicans; rather more realistically, it was to move clerics, opinion-formers and lay leaders to the left by confronting them with the political implications of their own theological progressivism. In this indirect sense, we hoped, we might exert a wider influence on the Christian body as a whole. Indeed, it was common enough at the time to stumble across what one might call dedicated non-readers of Slant -- those Christians for whom the journal’s intellectual level proved rather too taxing, but who were mightily cheered by the mere news of its existence. The fact that the Slant position, as we called it with the Kama Sutra well in mind, was even possible, whether or not it was feasible, provided hope in itself for large numbers of disaffected papists.

    Slant was always more than a journal. We ran campaigns (including a petition to the bishops over the war in Vietnam), leafleted parishes, established local groups, threw conventions, hi-jacked a highly successful existing annual conference, spun off an Irish sister journal and a more populist paper called Slant X, infiltrated respectable middle-class bodies like the Downside Symposium and the Newman Association, and held regular dialogues with the Communist Party (who we also tried vainly to move to the left…). We even organised a ‘pray in’ in Westminster Cathedral, much to the discomfort of the Cardinal Archbishop. (He was, embarrassingly, a remote relative of mine, though there was a tacit agreement between us that neither party should breathe a word of this scandal). But most of this was made possible by the political ambience of the times. Slant was represented among the British left in general on its marches or at its gatherings, and drew its energies as much from May ’68 as from a reformist papacy. Renewal was everywhere in the air. Why should one of the most politically benighted institutions in human history be immune to it?

   The journal folded in 1970, just when revolutionary energies in the West were running high. This was largely for contingent reasons: we could no longer sponge off a kindly left-wing Catholic publishing house (Sheed & Ward) whose accountants were becoming alarmed at our financial losses, and there was a dwindling editorial consensus about what exactly we were or should be up to. Some members of the editorial collective finally abandoned the church and disappeared into secular left politics, in which Roman Catholics, accustomed as they are to systematic analysis, doctrinal thought, collective activity, a robust tradition of social thought, a heritage of working-class Irish republicanism and a suspicion of individualism, have always been prominent in Britain.  Other comrades were pained by the absurdity of seeking to politicise a body which did not even believe in birth control, let along the victory of the proletariat; yet others, like myself, hung on in some limbo between Mass and the masses.

    Yet all this, too, had an historical as well as contingent cause. By a stroke of ill-fortune, Slant pre-dated two vital developments in religious politics which were to flourish shortly after its demise. The first was the battle for civil rights by Catholic republicans in Northern Ireland; the second was liberation theology and the struggle in Latin America. (Today, when so many disenchanted ex-political types have settled glumly for half and foresworn the salad days when they were green in political judgement, that whole continent, most inconveniently for Trotskyist turncoats, has begun to shift steadily to the left). These were the kind of situation which might have provided our otherwise rather cerebral conjuntures of Marxism and Christianity with some much-needed specificity. As it was, we faded out partly for the reasons I have mentioned; partly because the changes in the church from which we had drawn our motivation were being steadily rolled back by a deeply hostile hierarchy and apathetic laity; but also because we lacked an historical context in which an otherwise improbable-sounding case might have appeared more relevant and plausible.

     The situation of New Slant is very different. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a matter of theology having to swim hard to keep up with the general leftist current. There were enormous political and theoretical resources at hand to nourish any leftist Christian project. In our own time, it sometimes seems that the relationship has been reversed, at least at the level of theory, and that theology (or certain vital strands of it) is now a powerhouse from which the secular left may draw inspiration. In a curious evolution unforeseeable in the more buoyant years of student insurrection and left-wing European governments, theology itself has now become one of the few lonely preserves of radical leftist thought. This may be surprising, but it is not inexplicable. As long as there was a thriving leftist political culture, a theology which took its colour from that background did not particularly stand out. Indeed, one of its problems was to spell out what, if anything, a specifically Christian radicalism added to radicalism tout court. If it is obviously less onerous to develop a political theology when history from a radical standpoint seems to be on the up, it is also in this particular sense somewhat harder.

     Once the political climate alters, however, the problems of theology change along with it. In one sense, it is simpler to identify and proclaim the specifically revolutionary challenge of the Christian gospel against a pallid intellectual backdrop of liberal pragmatism; in another sense, that theology has in such periods fewer resources on which to draw. It is also true that if theology must stand askew to the world, it is easier for it to do so when the globe is in the grip of neo-liberal-inspired massacres and miseries than when, roughly speaking, history appears to be on the side of truth and justice. But by the same token it is less simple for it to cash its political commitments in practical terms, as it was not for the Ur-Slantites.  Our problem was not a lack of radical outlets; in a sense, it was just the opposite. With the kingdom of God apparently at hand in the shape of Tariq Ali, Macolm Xand Daniel Cohn-Bendit, what was the point of a specifically eschatological perspective on a world which seemed on the most euphoric estimate capable of moving under into the New Jerusalem pretty much under its own steam?

     In this sense, there are distinct (if largely unadvertised) advantages for the left to periods of political downturn like our own. Like hanging, failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. For one thing, it reminds one of the limits of politics, of which the left is less likely to be aware when it seems to be sweeping all before it. Vacuously assertive slogans such as ‘Everything is political!’ are well enough for those who thought only ten minutes ago that nothing was; but they conceal an unpleasant kind of triumphalism, which is a common leftist defect in an era of political advance. Theology has much to say about the limits of the political, which is not of course the same as being anti- or a-political. The same triumphalism is manifest in dogmatic purism, which at times of historical progress one feels that one can afford. Slant’s theology was much more a matter of the resurrection than the crucifixion. The left in its less exuberant days, needing as it does support from even the most improbable quarters, is less likely to look gift horses in the mouth, not least when it comes to the business of practical and intellectual alliances. The shift from the neo-Leninism of the 1960s and ‘70s to the loosely linked radical fronts of our own day reflects this fact.

   But there is a much more momentous difference between the two periods. If religion may be part of the solution today, it is much more obviously part of the problem. This was not so much true of the era of civil rights, student, anti-war and national liberation movements, when the nearest thing to religion on the left was a glazed-eyed, innocuous vein of libertarianism known as flower power. It may have been rather silly, but it was better than killing abortionists. What has happened in our own day, ironically, is that (some) theology has moved to the far left at the very time that (some) popular religion has moved to the far right. The consequent split between the Muslim, Jewish or Christian intelligentsia and the believer-on--the-street is an ominous one.  Of course there were rednecks and fundamentalists even in the days of the Rolling Stones, not least in God’s own country. Even the Taliban are hard put to match large masses of Americans for sheer visceral intolerance, and it is scarcely for want of trying. The difference is that the Taliban do not even pretend to be open, liberal-minded and democratic. They may be murderers and wife-beaters, but at least they are not unctuous hypocrites.

     Even so, the waves of religious bigotry currently surging across the globe belong very obviously to our own period, even if their roots run far back into the past. The changes in corporate capitalism which have wrong-footed the left and brought the theologians out in protest also lie somewhere near the source of suicide bombing and ‘Kill A Long-Haired Latte Drinker For Christ’ campaigns. The opposite of love is not hate, as Sigmund Freud (though not James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom) was well aware, but fear, which then breeds hatred by the bucketful. Jesus was almost certainly not done to death because the colonial establishment of the time and its local lackeys and assorted running dogs detested him, but because they were afraid of the consequences of his actions for their own unstable authority. Similarly, Western fundamentalism and other currents of benighted belief are in large part fearful reactions to the very social system they celebrate. Men and women will be as quick to kill when they feel their traditions and identities to be under threat as they will be to take up a shotgun to defend their children. As far as the Muslim world goes, those who smoulder under a sense of injustice are also likely also take up arms and slaughter the innocent, for injustice is far harder to bear than another’s wrath or indifference or even contempt. The opposite of terrorism is justice.

       Religious bigotry has understandably given something of a boost to liberal pragmatism, which is in some ways well-equipped to resist its lethal certainties. Yet though liberalism is a mightily powerful weapon against such redneckery, it is far less effective in combating the system which helps to give rise to it. This is one evident reason why the Christian and Marxist options are nowadays back on the intellectual agenda. The resources of conventional politics are dismally insufficient to tackle the various global crises which confront us. Against its neo-liberal offspring, classical liberalism is increasingly powerless. What has helped to deplete it is not just its political toothlessness in an age of corporate capitalism, but its extreme nervousness of belief itself. Over the past few decades there has been a tacit consensus, not least among the erstwhile leftist French intelligentsia, that belief leads straight to the Gulag or the gas chambers. The massive failure of political nerve that marks so much Western theorising today owes its origin not so much to the formidable power of the corporations, but to the long shadow of Hitler and Stalin. Belief is of course potentially dangerous. It is what men and women are prepared to kill for, as well as die in the place of others for. This is why one should approach it in fear and trembling.  One simply needs to recall that in some situations only one thing exceeds the potential perils of belief, and that is non-belief.

     Grand narratives may well be a risky business. But to imagine that they have now been rolled up and removed is the privilege of Parisian intellectuals and Harvard academics. If the war between capitalism and the Koran (or a perverse reading of that text) does not fit into that category, it is hard to see what does. And it is this, along with the steady destruction of Nature, which will define our century. It is in this light that one is so heartened by a collection of essays like those in this volume, which in their erudite, versatile and thoroughly serious way represent a kind of wisdom which puts the pragmatists as well as the absolutists to shame. 

  

Originally published at the Introduction to The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins and Neal Magee with an afterword by Slavoj Zizek. 

 

   

  

 

Comment