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Thoughtcrime: Terry Eagleton, Salman Rushdie, the Iraq War and how it isn’t what you do or say, it’s what you might have done…. July 13, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Iraq, The Left, The War On Terror.


A provocative article in the Guardian last weekend by Terry Eagleton about the role of politically engaged writers. Now I have to admit that broadly speaking I like what Eagleton writes. He manages to be clear and concise while simultaneously dealing with interesting and weighty concepts. Do I agree with these concepts? Nah, not all the time, but he’s hardly likely to lose any sleep over that.

Still, I’m not entirely convinced by a correspondence that is working its way through the Guardian this week on foot of the article. Eagleton proposed that:

For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.

Lest the accusation of “champagne socialist” in reference to Pinter give you pause for thought, consider where Eagleton goes next.

The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment’s reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent Muslims travelling and to strip-search people “who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan”. Deportation, he considers, may be essential further down the road.

Ouch! We’ll return to Rushdie in a moment. But…David Hare is really a reformist, is he now? Hitchens, in fairness, has retreated from his more unpleasant (as, I think, ejh rightly noted in response to an earlier post) positions, and that contrarian spirit still seems to burn brightly. Amis is a different matter. smiffy has dealt at length with some of his more curious pronouncements previously. In any case, being pedantic, there is the small issue of definitions, since all the above remain politically engaged, if not quite promoting the politics Eagleton might approve of. And of those given as examples has any one of them shifted in the totality of their approach to a clear right wing position? Doesn’t seem like it to me, although Amis might be the closest contender for that particular accolade.

Eagleton does make some interesting points.

There are a number of factors in such renegacy. Money, adulation and that creeping conservatism known as growing old play a part, as does the apparent collapse of an alternative to capitalism. Most British writers welcome migrants, dislike Tony Blair, and object to the war in Iraq. But scarcely a single major poet or novelist is willing to look beyond such issues to the global capitalism that underlies them. Instead, it is assumed that there is a natural link between literature and left-liberalism. One glance at the great names of English literature is enough to disprove this prejudice.

In some respects I agree with that thesis, except that I don’t think it is necessarily” global capitalism” – that diffuse, nebulous entity that everyone blames and yet is reified to the point where inaction is the only possible logical response – alone that is the problem. Frankly I think it’s the much more boring and familiar local version of capitalism that locks out even the most anodyne alternatives (and again, and that’s twice in one week, I’d point back to Nick Cohen and what he writes about the fundamental power of the nation state to at the very least ameliorate the negative aspects of globalisation).

Anyhow, back to Rushdie. Eagleton is unstinting in his praise…up to a point.

The great communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid died just as the dark night of Thatcherism descended. Rushdie’s was one of the few voices to keep alive this radical legacy; but now, with his fondness for the Pentagon’s politics, we need to look elsewhere for a serious satirist.

[As an aside someone noted in the Guardian that MacDiarmid is, ironically, also notable for rejoining the Communist Party after the invasion of Hungary. Hmmm…]

Let’s consider the original quote again…

The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment’s reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Which is fine…except as one S. Rushdie wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday:

In the past weeks I have had to endure an astonishing quantity of vitriolic attacks. It has been quite like old times. I find myself quite unable to respond to the many attacks on my character, my integrity, the quality of my writing, my courage or lack of it, my alleged weaknesses as a husband and even my choice of home address. I have learned the hard way that public opinion, once formed, simply exists, and even if it is utterly detached from the truth it acquires, by repetition and credulity, a truth of its own. So be it. I am grateful to those who have spoken up on my behalf, at a time when I have felt too shocked and hurt to do so myself.

Rushdie has accepted – whether wisely or not – a knighthood. This has infuriated a range of people who still harbour a grudge over the Satanic Verses. Most notably Al-Queda, who in their perpetual search for some new infamy to justify the unjustifiable have alighted upon this matter (Actually it was profoundly depressing, to see a few Labour politicians with cultural links to the sub-continent line up to condemn the knighthood with the most spurious ‘back of an envelope’ criticisms).

So the name Rushdie has re-entered the public space in a way which is unfortunate and potentially dangerous to his safety.

Still, as he notes:

…allow me, rashly, perhaps, to take issue with Terry Eagleton’s description of me as someone who has been “cheering on [the west’s] criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Comment, July 7). As to Afghanistan, it is true that I, in common with many others, not all of them on the right, and many of them in the Muslim world, believed that the hold of al-Qaida and the Taliban over Afghanistan needed to be broken. Eagleton may be the kind of “radical” who would prefer those fascist, terrorist gangsters to have retained their hold over a nation state, but that is his problem, not mine.

He continues:

As to Iraq, it is true that I wrote, before the beginning of the Iraq war, that there was a case to be made for the removal of Saddam Hussain. In the same article, however, I also wrote that the American plans for regime change, unsupported as they were by a broad international coalition, were not justifiable.

And that:

Since that time, anyone with the slightest knowledge of my activities in the US must know that, as president of PEN American Center, I led that organisation in a number of campaigns against the Bush administration’s policies, that I participated in any number of anti-war events and that in my public lectures all over America I have for years been a vocal critic of the Iraq war. It is bizarre and untruthful to say that I have a “fondness for the Pentagon’s politics”.

Pausing for a moment, let us consider that far from being ‘fond’ of the Pentagon’s policies Rushdie has – again at some danger to his own safety – been prominent in disputing them publicly. The issue of ‘cheerleading’ the ‘criminal adventures’ in Iraq and Afghanistan…well, the latter remains under a sufficiently broad UN mandate to arguably justify supporting the events of 2002. What has come afterwards is a matter for a different debate. Yet as regards Iraq cearly the overall tone of the article is a misrepresentation of the position of Rushdie.

And it is an interesting misrepresentation because it would take as much time for Eagleton to collate information that would puncture his thesis of Rushdie as global shill of the neo-cons, as it took me to pull together the various articles and letters I have referenced here. That he did not, that he was convinced Rushdie supported the Iraq War is perhaps indicative of a narrative that has developed around Rushdie, one which has moved from viewing him as a staunch liberal/left upholder of freedom of speech to one where he is seen as in part the architect of the chaotic political and cultural response to his writings (although talking about reactionaries I well remember the response from sections of the Conservative party during the initial period… but then why would one expect any better from that quarter?). And this narrative is but a hop skip and a tap of the keyboard away from branding Rushdie as somehow a fervent neo-conservative, because after all that’s what liberal/leftists are, isn’t it? This is a dubious narrative to buy into – even by accident – because unlike Eagleton, or me, or most likely you, Rushdie is someone whose life is literally on the line for expressing thoughts that others view as anathema and worthy of extirpation.

But it is in the apology that Eagleton excels. For here he says:

Sincere apologies to Salman Rushdie for falsely claiming that he supports the war on Iraq (Letters, July 9). I am, however, dismayed by his implications that he might have supported an invasion under different circumstances. My general point, I think, still stands that he and other writers have ceased to challenge the global system which lies at the root of the war.

The second sentence is the important one, more important than the rhetorical fluff of the last one which makes almost no sense in terms of the public profile that Rushdie has assumed on the Iraq War, or the broad scope of his writings which are clearly positioned in a critique of a global system that has developed from the colonial period and the clashes between tradition and modernity (a vastly better methodological viewpoint than the ridiculous notion of ‘clash of civilisations’) within societies still disentangling themselves from colonialism and/or the traumas of rapid societal change.

That there was a case to be made for the removal of Saddam is one which democrats and socialists should hardly find contentious. The debate and discussion had to be what were the means employed to do so or whether such a removal was a sensible goal in the then existing circumstances. I see nothing in what Rushdie wrote in response to Eagleton that would make me believe that ‘he might have supported an invasion under different circumstances’.

But even if he did, and how on earth is one to know what is inside the mind of another, this smacks of an almost Orwellian approach to the inner self (although considering that Eagleton is a champion of Slavoj Žižek – who I like too, but would regard the veracity of his propositions with some caution – that perhaps goes with the territory, after all, if you believe there is a methodology for interpreting the complexity of human thoughts and feelings it is hardly more than a further step to believing that you can predict them even when the person says otherwise!) . How can Rushdie – someone who is in a much more exposed position – defend himself against the charge that what ‘he really really means, no really’ is some course of action he didn’t, and couldn’t take?

How can any of us?


1. soubresauts - July 14, 2007

Jeez, I knew Eagleton was capable of blunders, but that takes the biscuit.


2. WorldbyStorm - July 14, 2007

It surely does.


3. soubresauts - July 14, 2007

Another example of Eagleton’s blunders:

See what he writes about the time Samuel Beckett and his wife Suzanne (though they weren’t married then) narrowly escaped the clutches of the Gestapo:

“They finally took refuge in a small village near Paris, where Beckett worked in the fields and took up once again with the Resistance. Unusually among modernist artists, this supposed purveyor of nihilism was a militant of the left rather than the right.”

(www.deccanherald.com/archives/mar212006/panorama1634332006320.asp Why do I have to find this Guardian article on an Indian website rather than the Guardian’s site? Is the Guardian clearing out old stuff?)

Eagleton’s grand mixture of ignorance and chancing your arm. Sam & Suzanne spent the last few years of the war in great deprivation in the remote Provencal village of Roussillon, a long, long way from Paris. It’s not insignificant… And Beckett a militant of the left??


4. ejh - July 18, 2007

1. as, I think, ejh rightly noted in response to an earlier post

Well, not quite. My view was not that Hitchens had retreated from his positions regarding, say, Bush, or his fairly vile attempts to paint opponents of war as friends of fascism. It was that in selecting the target of religion, he’d rediscovered some fire and been able to rely on his own political knowledge and rhetorical talents as well as actually attacking a powerful target and thereby speaking truth to power if I may be forgiven the cliché. Certainly seeing some of the specious and strained rebuttals of his position (with reference to which, there’s an Eagleton review of Dawkins in the LRB which I enjoyed and disagreed with) I’ve found myself cheering on the old turncoat.

2. The debate and discussion had to be what were the means employed to do so or whether such a removal was a sensible goal in the then existing circumstances.

I don’t think this is adequate. There was also a very large debate to be had about the intentions and agenda of those advocating the invasion. This is important for any number of reasons but perhjaps most pertinent to what Eagleton is saying, unless we discuss agendas and intentions we are simply saying “we are the good guys, we have the right to do this sort of thing is we want to and the only question is, whether we should do so”. Which rather serves to exclude the view that the invasion was about resources, about capital, about power.

And surely Eagleton’s main argument, the specifics of Salman Rushdie aside, is that there’s not really a high-profile literary intellectual, with the exception of Harold Pinter, who represents that rough position? Who will look at liberal democracy and see deep-rooted conflicts of class and race and power?

Now it may be that to blame the intellectuals themselves for that is hardly fair, since the same is (largely) true of the Western world in general – that the system itself is not threatened and rarely questioned and that therefore you’re not going to get the intellectual ferment that arises out of conflict. Jean-Paul Sartre was influential in a France that knew the Popular Front, the Nazi invasion, deportations, liberation, colonialism and the events of 1968. There is nothing to put alongside that sort of history (and a good thing too, some people may feel) but one consequence is that nobody is interested in the political role of the intellectuals because there is so little for them to talk about.

(Incidentally, this:

Eagleton may be the kind of “radical” who would prefer those fascist, terrorist gangsters to have retained their hold over a nation state, but that is his problem, not mine.

is really quite unpleasant, is it not?)


5. Sunny Singh - July 18, 2007

Thanks for making that point re: Eagleton. I had hoped for better from Eagleton. I wrote a piece supporting the granting of knighthood to Rushdie and have been taking the flak for it since – from fanatic trolls who threaten stoning but also from liberals who think Rushdie is a sell out precisely because of the narrative created around him by publications such as the Guardian. Good on you for clearing the air.


6. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

ejh, there is much in what you say regarding the second point you make, but whether you’re being entirely fair to Rushdie regarding the last point is I think less clearcut. It is unpleasant, but also perhaps understandable from someone who was utterly misrepresented by Eagleton and who might have to pay a higher price than Eagleton ever will due in part to such misrepresentations. I’m not attempting to make Rushdie out to be some sort of secular saint, but I still think Eagleton crossed a line in terms of not bothering himself to check a basic fact, and once more that leads us to a narrative about Rushdie which is extremely telling. In any event, taking Orwell, et al, as smiffy noted to me yesterday, Orwell was not quite as unambiguously a clearcut figure as Eagleton might like to think he was, particularly towards the end of his days. But that’s the point, no one is. None of us can live up to the sort of standards Eagleton sets.

Thank you Sunny.


7. ejh - July 18, 2007

I don’t think Rushdie’s entitled to respond to a mistake with that sort of smeary comment – if it’s “understandable” then that’s a very generous understanding. I also don’t think that Rushdie is likely to suffer any ill consequences as a result of Eagleton’s piece. All Eagleton really did was make a mistake, for which he apologised (which is more than Alexander Cockburn did when similarly erring about Michael Berubé, as Crooked Timber watchers will have seen.)

But honestly, I know you tend to bend over backwards to see the point of view of people with whom the left does not get on, and that’s fair enough, but when you write:

I see nothing in what Rushdie wrote in response to Eagleton that would make me believe that ‘he might have supported an invasion under different circumstances’.

I do need to ask how hard you’re looking.

Rushdie states, clearly, and it’s not at all an unusual position, that he opposed the plans for invasion “unsupported as they were by a broad international coalition“. It seems reasonable then for Eagleton, or myself, or yourself for that matter, to conclude that had the US put together such a coalition, as they did in1991, Rushdie is saying he would have supported it. That’s not a leap of logic or a search for implication, that’s surely his plain meaning.

So while Eagleton was plainly wrong on a serious matter, and has said so, I really don’t think that others of your criticisms can be sustained.


8. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

I’m not sure I’d define Rushdie as someone the ‘left does not get on with’. Nor am I as sure as you regarding the lack of threat to Rushdie.

Having said that I see your point re the ‘invasion’ although my reading was that he meant UN supported and that his public anti-war activities (which is more than some who were equivocal before the war have done) since would tend surely to demonstrate the emptiness of Eagletons comments in the broader sense.


9. ejh - July 18, 2007

I think Rushdie’s had a combative relationship with the left for some time: but as the whole point is that our impressions and reality are sometimes at odds, I wouldn’t push it. I do think however that his views have moved quite a long way since he was writing The Satanic Verses (which I have read) and Midnight’s Children (which I have not). Of course that doesn’t remotely mean he’s wrong to alter his views, but I don’t think either that having “a critique of a global system” is quite what Eagleton means by “challenge” or that Rushdie’s critique is quite what it was. One should not judge people’s views on the basis of impressions, but nor should one judge them on the basis of what they were twenty years ago.

I really, genuinely don’t believe that anybody is going to attack Salman Rushdie on the basis of an erroneous claim made by Terry Eagleton in an English newspaper, in the same way that I don’t believe that Channel Four programmes or Mirror photographs, doctored or not, involving British troops and atrocities in Iraq, endanger those troops. The sort of people who are going to do stuff like that have their minds made up already and get their information from rather different sources.

Of course I’m aware of what has happened to Rushdie and for that matter I’m aware that people can be attacked because of false claims in newspapers (I’ve had a similar experience myself) but I think if anybody’s going to have a pop at Rushdie – which might conceivably happen in the present circumstances – it’s still going to be about the book which was the subject of the fatwa. Eagleton got his facts wrong, it happens, he apologised and rightly so, but let’s not go overboard about it.


10. WorldbyStorm - July 18, 2007

That’s very true, and I’m not suggesting the article alone would be the cause if someone did attack Rushdie, again I’m more interested in the narrative it feeds into which is potentially dangerous to Rushdie and one which could have been checked with almost no effort.

As to his views, I haven’t sensed that shift, but I’ll go and have a look.


11. ejh - July 19, 2007

When it comes to checking – I think the point is, we only check those things about which we’re doubtful. Presumably Eagleton wasn’t in any doubt, so he didn’t check – and that’s how mistakes are made. We all do it and the more so as we get older: we’re absolutely sure of things that on inspection turn out to be absolute nonsense. Now the reasons why someone should think Rushdie to be a supporter of the war when he is not, that’s an interesting question and I think you’re right to identify the Rushdie narrative as providing the answer: “he thinks this sort of thing, so this is the sort of thing he must think”. But I’d reckon that happens to most prominent and outspoken figures to some degree.

I think there’s a case for saying that having erred on the war question, Eagleton shouldn’t have bothered pursuing the wider point about writers and the global system – perhaps better to leave it, when you’re badly wrong on the main point you’re fighting a losing battle. But I do think that Rushdie’s response about Afghanistan was wholly out of order and I do think that Eagelton’s wider point is generally correct, that there is a notable absence of prominent literary figures who are in disagreement with western capitalism per se as opposed to certain aspects of it. Though whether Trevor Griffiths or David Edgar would agree….


12. John Green - July 19, 2007

Can I just echo ejh’s point about the circumstances in which intellectuals are writing. There needs to be a thirst for novelists who are questioning the foundations of western life before publishers will sign them up, and while I suspect you’d have no problem finding writers from India, the Far East, Latin and South America, or Africa producing critical plays and novels, the publishing industry in the UK has changed so much over the past 40 years that there isn’t the same public space for this political discussion. Or rather, it has moved elsewhere. Publishing today is largely celebrity based and driven by crime, chick-lit, historical romance, and the like. Even Eagleton seems stuck to name more than a handful of eminent playwrights, novelists or poets. Who reads them, after all, but a narrow strata of academics and middle-class sophisticates?

Also, as ejh points out, one of the reason the 20th century generated such polarized views among novelists was the fact that the era itself was polarized: Fascism and communism looked very much like they were going to be the future in the 1930s, tempting everyone to join sides, not just “intellectuals”. That polarisation continued through to the cold war. Eagleton neglects to mention, btw, that it wasn’t until the cold war that Sartre threw in his lot with the Communists. He was very late in joining the Marxist camp, doing so just as a lot of people were jumping ship, right after Budapest. He wasn’t “questioning the foundations of western society” for the first 30 years of his career at all.


13. ejh - July 19, 2007

Well, there was existentialism, the Resistance and Algeria, so he didn’t exactly leave things be.


14. John Green - July 19, 2007

Hi ejh,

Indeed there were, but I wouldn’t regard the first two as “questioning the foundations of western society” in the sense that I think Eagleton means. I think he’s lamenting the lack of writers, playwrights or poets offering Marxist or ultraleft criticism. In which case, I would say 1) the end of the cold war and the failure of actually xisting socialism may have someting to do with that 2) Since Marxism is in every essential feature wrong, perhaps we should be grateful that intellectuals have got past the strait-jacket of its dogmas, and 3) legitimate criticism of the Western world is being made all over the place by people who have more important things to do than write plays and novels for an audience of Eagletons.

Not that I want to ruffle any feathers here. 😉


15. ejh - July 19, 2007

Except of course that he’s talking about writers who actually reached a rather wider audience than literary critics, that’s his whole point. Which renders your third point as silly as your second.


16. John Green - July 20, 2007

Well, ejh, we can agree to differ about the second, but as for the third, refer back to the point I made about the change in the publishing industry. The capacity to reach a wider audience just isn’t an option these days.


17. John Green - July 20, 2007

Just to expand, as I hope is my entitlement: I won’t take offence at being thought silly or as having presenting a “silly” point (isn’t that a cricket term?), but as far as the status of Marxism is concerned, I write as a former Marxist whose break with it developed from personal involvement in the Workers Revolutionary Party in the early 80s and exposure around the same time to the works of Cornelius Castoriadis and the Solidarity group in the UK. My movement away from Marxism was reluctantly taken and a process that took a period of some years and a lot of reading and arguing. Fundamentally, however, I came to recognise that the labour theory of valuable is unsustainable (and that Marx knew it), that the historical materialist idea that socialism follows capitalism which follows feudalism is not borne out by examination of the facts outside of western europe (nor within, if we include Russia), and that the idea that progress demands an organization of enlightened intellectuals with access to a higher truth than the rest of the working class but nevertheless representing its interests is a recipe for totalitarianism that would see the people killed in their own name and kept in line by a bunch of frustrated schoolteachers and foremen/women.

Without wanting to sound preachy myself, if you just read one work on this topic, make it Howard and King’s two-volume History of Marxian Economics, which tracks the problems faced by the first two generations of Marxists as they tried to cope with the theory’s lack of coincidence with the real world. Although I’m sure you have better things to do.

Now I imagine I’ve made myself look sillier.


18. ejh - July 20, 2007

Although I’m sure you have better things to do.



19. John Green - July 20, 2007

Although I’ve read your blog. I can’t imagine what.


20. Scourge of Drifty Ponces - July 22, 2007

Oooh bitchy, bitchy, bitchy.

Look, you bunch of perfumed ponces, Eagleton’s frustrations are directed at, what I like to call, political pruners; people whose critical scope and political engagement has withered to a spectacle of splitting hairs and the debating of detail. Eagleton’s faux pas concealed a greater resentment at the narrowness of Rushdie and his wet liberal ‘no but yes, but, well…maybe’ attitude to the current calamities of the West.

Now, Johnny Green, in terms of your evidently absurd break from Marxism on such superficial grounds, well….have you ever heard of ideas developing? Are you that stunned that Marx didn’t come up with a fall-proof teleological theory of economics? Who has?

But Marx’s arguments in relation to how ideologies functions as based on power relations, plus his anchoring of political ideas on the basis of the human being, the species being, is an indispensible foundation to build on.

You know you’re drifting right wards. Sort it out.


21. Mick Hall - July 22, 2007

Its not for me to intervene when middle class intellectuals scratch each others eyes out over a triviality, but if I were a choose between Terry and Mr Rushdie in this playground scrap, I would happily hold the formers coat. Yes there is some truth in the left finding Rushdie difficult to take at face value, as to do the political centre, the right and the majority of the human race. [I would have thought]

If we are logging up crimes and in Rushdie’s defense, he did not unlike the Gallant Pinter, vote for the dreaded Thatcher in 1979. Still one can only rejoice at a sinner returning to the fold and say what you will about Harold, as far as opposition to Blairs criminal adventure in iraq is concerned, the old scribe is pure gold.


22. Nick Trip - December 7, 2011

I think the “…case to be made for the removal of Sadam Hussein…that democrats and socialists should hardly find contentious” shows now that Eagelton was correct.
It is quite obvious that if Sadam had bananas instead of oil, we would never have wasted our time.


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