Monday, July 9, 2007

Literary Leftists

Via Normblog, this article by Terry Eagleton lamenting the decline of the British socialist writer. Eagleton makes a bit of an exception for the execrable Harold Pinter, but even he isn't totally safe from Eagleton's scorn: he characterizes Pinter as a "champagne socialist" and he admits that Pinter's political work is "artistically dreary." So he's a hypocrite and a boring writer, but his heart is in the right place. All is forgiven!

But at least according to Eagleton, British socialist writers are an endangered species, at least compared with prior epochs:

The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state, it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the corruptions of the ruling class. The great Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough was known as Comrade Clough for his unabashed support of the revolutionaries of 1848. One of the most revered voices of Victorian England, Thomas Carlyle, denounced a social order in which the cash nexus was all that held individuals together.

Carlyle was also an enthusiastic supporter of slavery, but I suppose Eagleton doesn't much care about something like that. In the 20th Century, the Eagleton pantheon includes literary leftists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. And he gives a nod to Brecht and Sartre, despite the fact that, like many leftist intellectuals of their era, they looked the other way at Stalin's atrocities. (Some leftist literary figures will still apologize for Stalin, if they get riled up enough.) So supporters of slavery and mass murder are fine by Eagleton, so long as they are sufficiently anti-capitalist.

But now, well, while most literary types still lean left, they just don't stack up to the old guys.
Eagleton is particularly peeved at Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, because both of have been outspoken enemies of political Islam. (In Rushdie's case, I suppose it might have something to do with the fatwah. Serious death threats tend to concentrate the mind.) Rushdie's knighthood really sticks in Eagleton's craw.

Fat Man on Keyboard makes an incisive comparison, from the perspective of the democratic left:

So what have these writers done to upset the eminent critic? Exactly what Orwell did; take a morally consistent line against totalitarianism. This is from Orwell’s essay, Why I Write; ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as 1 understand it’. Note that these terms are not mutually exclusive but complementary. For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.

Fair enough, from Fat Man's perspective. I suspect that, despite their current renegade status, both Hitchens and Rushdie would consider themselves to be men of the left, despite their current apostasy. (Unlike, say, David Horowtiz, who has made his break with the left explicit.)

And yet, while I admire Orwell immensely, he was wrong about the whole democratic socialism thing. During the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the literary figures like Blake and Byron and even Carlyle can be excused for their error. Clearly, the political economists like John Stuart Mill who fought for things like free trade and private property, and, oh, incidentally for the abolution of slavery were the good guys in that debate. But the Industrial Revolution was indeed a new thing and the gains from it were not initially distributed as widely as one might have preferred. So yeah, you can see how people could be skeptical of the whole capitalism thing.

Likewise, in the immediate post-depression postwar era, a guy like George Orwell can be excused for thinking that some form of socialism was both inevitable and desirable. Don't get me wrong -- he was wrong and people like Hayek and Ayn Rand were right. But one can criticize Orwell's commitment to socialism while recognizing his other virtues. And, unlike people like Brecht and Sartre, he was never an apologist for Stalin.

But today it is simply not possible for a humane, intelligent, informed, compassionate individual to be an advocate of mass full-bore socialism. One can legitimately argue as to whether a mixed economy with significant market elements would be preferable to Laissez-faire free market capitalism. But the central lesson of the 20th century is that markets work. Both the empirical and theoretical evidence is now in, and the radical critics of capitalism were just plain wrong about nearly everything. To the extent that Orwell shared the widely-accepted critique of capitalism, he was wrong.

Perhaps Eagleton is right: perhaps the radical literary critic of the free market is indeed a dying breed. Let us hope so.

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