Marxist 'Punk' with a Chip on Both Shoulders; 'Token Trot': Terry Eagleton

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Byline: Richard Pendlebury

BACK in the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was the devil incarnateacross Britain's university campuses, one could expect to find the same slimvolume on pretty much every English Literature undergraduate's reading list.

It was titled Marxism And Literary Criticism, and its author was the thenachingly fashionable academic Terry Eagleton.

While Socialist Workers Party activists strove to dominate student unions, MrEagleton was the Citizen Smith of the tutorial. Class war and the overthrow ofthe state were very much his thing.

'Even those slightly acquainted with Marxist criticism know that it calls onthe writer to commit his art to the cause of the proletariat,' he fulminated.

'Critics are ...(usually) academics hired by the state to prepare studentsideologically for their functions within capitalist society,' he sneered.

To those who had come to examine the beauty and complexities of Shakespeare,these arguments were of little interest.

But Eagleton was undoubtedly a rising star; the young (ish) so-called 'punk oflit crit'. Marxism was chic. And many, many copies of his books were sold. Afew were even read to the end.

A quarter of a century on, Professor Eagleton, 64, remains an academic eminenceon the world stage.

Though Marxism is totally discredited, even among the Left, and the studentsless 'slavish' than of old, this ageing Che Guevara is still belabouringcapitalist society, which has miraculously survived his efforts to bring itdown.

What is more, his critics point out, he has done rather nicely from it.

'Is it that hard to explain what Eagleton's up to?' said William Deresiewicz,an academic at Yale University.

'The prolificness, the self-plagiarism, the snappy, highly consumable prose andsales figures: Eagleton wishes for capitalism's demise, but as long as it'shere, he plans to do as well as he can out of it.

'Someone who owns three homes shouldn't be preaching self-sacrifice, andsomeone whose careerism at Oxbridge was legendary shouldn't tell interviewersof his regret at having turned down a job at the Open University.' That wastelling him. But it was no worse than the maulings Eagleton has given toothers. He has habitually bashed mentors, colleagues and proteges, as well asideological enemies such as Martin Amis, ever since he managed to escape hisSalford slum childhood.

The product of a working-class, Irish Catholic family, Eagleton remembers beingthe only child in his class who had a coat. …