Archive for the ‘New Left’ Category
Charlie Hebdo Seminar in Queens University Belfast Cancelled Amid Fears for “Reputation” and “Security”.
Can we Laugh About Everything? Not if Universities Have their Way.
This story broke yesterday but just how rotten the reasons given by the ‘University’ are are only just sinking in.
The event had been scheduled for Queen’s University, Belfast, in June.
Vice chancellor Patrick Johnston said he cancelled because of the security risk and concerns for QUB’s reputation.
But two academics who had been booked to speak said it was ironic that an event about free speech should be called off in this way.
Self censorship was one of the themes of the conference.
Professor Max Silverman from Leeds University told BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster: “It is deeply ironic that what was going on in Paris this year to do largely with freedom of speech is actually being replicated by the university itself.
“There is a bitter irony in that the ability to discuss these topics has been taken away from us by this university decision.
“If you cannot discuss these sensitive issues in a university then I don’t know where you can discuss them. I do fear for what we value most in our democracies.”
Prof Silverman said the cancelled conference was now getting much more publicity but “for all the wrong reasons”.
‘Baffled and dismayed’
“Queen’s University has a wonderful reputation. It is a very prestigious institution. I don’t think this is going to enhance that reputation at all,” he said.
Dr Brian Klug from Oxford said he was both “baffled and dismayed” by the decision to cancel.
“Organising this was an admirable initiative and I cannot understand why the university has pulled the rug out from under their feet,” he said.
“We really don’t know what the vice chancellor was worried about. We haven’t been told what that security risk consists of. I think we are all owed an explanation.”
Dr Klug said that not only was it not the role of the university to stop freedom of speech, but it was “the responsibility of academia to respond to complex international conflicts in a constructive analytical way”.
The symposium: Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo, had been due to be hosted by QUB’s Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities.
Twelve people died when two brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, fired on the journalists on 7 January at the satirical magazine’s offices in Paris.
Five others were killed over the two following days by one of their associates.
Padraig Reidy in Little Atoms provides essential background.
The Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Patrick Johnston, was today criticised after the cancellation of an academic symposium on the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo murders.
The symposium: Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo, was due to be hosted in June by QUB’s Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities. But delegates, including Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug were informed via email on Monday (20 April) that the event would not go ahead.
The email informed speakers: “The Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast has made the decision just this morning that he does not wish our symposium to go ahead. He is concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university.”
Doctor Klug said this morning he is “baffled” and “dismayed” by the decision.
“I don’t understand either of his concerns. The second – the reputation of the university – strikes me as ironic, as his action does not exactly reflect well on Queens,” he told Little Atoms via email.
More on Little Atoms.
Nick Cohen has commented on this story,
The Vice Chancellor at Queen’s – one Paul Johnston – cancelled the discussion yesterday because he was “concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university.”
What to make of his cowardice?
The most obvious point is that senior academics now see suppression of debate as a means of protecting “the reputation of the university”. Freedom of thought and open argument, once the best reasons for having universities, are now threats which must be neutered.
Second, it is now not only difficult or impossible to satirise Islam because of fear of violence, it is becoming difficult or impossible in British universities to discuss the actual violence. Not only can you not show Charlie Hebdo cartoons, you cannot talk about the motives of the men who murdered the cartoonists. Third, although he cannot prove this, Walsh suspects that there was no real security risk, just the possibility that someone’s feelings would be hurt when he and others unequivocally condemned the murderers of cartoonists and Jews. The possibility that someone will or may hear an argument he or she does not like is now enough to justify censorship.
Finally, Queen’s has made the vice-chancellors and academics protesting against the Conservatives’ plans to ban Islamists look like perfect fools and utter hypocrites. If universities censor learned debates on Islamism, how can they possibly deny the state the right to censor Islamists?
The beloved martyr Charb’s book Lettre aux escrocs de l’islamophobie qui font le jeu des racistes has been extensively commented on in the English speaking media.
There is a very fine article today in the Independent today:
This is worth underlining,
Stéphane Charbonnier was a cartoonist and writer. He was a supporter of the French Communist Party. And while, under his editorship, Charlie Hebdo aggressively poked fun at Catholicism and Judaism as well as radical Islam, his book – published in France last week – is a passionate rejection of the allegations that, under his editorship, Charlie Hebdo was “racist” or “Islamophobic”.
In the book, Charb, as he was always known, defends his publication of cartoons mocking radical Islam and caricaturing (but never mocking) the Prophet Mohamed. He argues – from a left-wing, anti-racist, militantly secular viewpoint – that the word “Islamophobia” is a trap, set by an unholy alliance of Muslim radicals and the unthinking, liberal Western media. The real issue, he says, is racism and Charlie Hebdo was never racist…
The Indy’s article is essential reading.
And in French there’s more: EXCLUSIF. Le testament de Charb
Aude Lancelin. Tué il y a trois mois, le directeur de “Charlie Hebdo” venait d’achever un livre où il répondait aux accusations d’islamophobie pesant sur son journal. “L’Obs” en publie aujourd’hui les extraits.
1o0 Lashes of the Whip if you don’t just Die Laughing.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a climate change denier is in possession of good fortune, and must be in want of right-wing sponsors.“
Spiked-on-Line (ex-Living Marxism, Revolutionary Communist Party)
Hat-Tip: Adam Barnett.
Left Foot Forward carries this story: Why is the Daily Express still quoting this crank in its weather stories?
Climate change denier Piers Corbyn believes the earth is ‘cooling’.
The Express reports: Piers Corbyn, forecaster for WeatherAction, said: “It is going to be very warm and sunny, with strong sunshine making it very hot and dry.“We could certainly beat 24C (75F) or 25C and even nudge close to a 27C (80F) in some spots which get the best of the sunshine.”
Adam notes: “Here’s Piers Corbyn on global warming, from his website” …we point out that the world is now cooling not warming and there is no observational evidence in the thousands and millions of years of data that changes in CO2 have any effect on weather or climate.”
Corbyn is wont to attack “Green Fools” who believe in climate change.
He is a one-man one-idea one-voice rebuttal of Naomi Klein.
On his more than strange website (Weather Action), this cartoon appears,
This quote gives a flavour of his thinking,
Polar bears did very well in the warmer times. They didn’t die out at all; they didn’t die out in the last 10,000 years, nor during the previous interglacial, nor the one before that. So, they’re just used as a deceitful heartthrob; you know, to pluck your heartstrings because the polar bears might die out.
This has drawn the admiration of London May Boris Johnson (Daily Telegraph. January 2013),
I wish I knew more about what is going on, and why. It is time to consult once again the learned astrophysicist, Piers Corbyn.
Now Piers has a very good record of forecasting the weather. He has been bang on about these cold winters. Like JMW Turner and the Aztecs he thinks we should be paying more attention to the Sun. According to Piers, global temperature depends not on concentrations of CO2 but on the mood of our celestial orb. Sometime too bright the eye of heaven shines, said Shakespeare, and often is his gold complexion dimmed. That is more or less right. There are times in astronomical history when the Sun has been churning out more stuff — protons and electrons and what have you — than at other times. When the Sun has plenty of sunspots, he bathes the Earth in abundant rays.
Adam is not equally impressed,
But Mr Corbyn is in a league of his own. As a study by researchers at the University of Sunderland into his wacky method of making weather predictions months in advance reported: “Some forecasts are clearly very good, and a few are very poor, but the majority fall in the grey area in between, where an optimistic assessor would find merit, but a critical assessor would find fault.“ In other words, you could get as reliable a weather forecast by looking out of a window.
I looked out of my window during the Winter and noticed it was oddly warm the whole time, with no snow at all in Ipswich. Corbyn proved wrong! In the 1970s Piers Corbyn (Wikipedia) was a member of the International Marxist Group.
His ‘student cell’, based in London University affiliate (independent since 2007) Imperial College, was somewhat separate to other IMG London student groups. Notably from the Central London Cell, ULU, Central London Poly and FE colleges, (I was a member, doing my ‘A’ levels at Westminster Further Education College), and the LSE cell.
The little band of Imperial College strugglers that Piers was part of rankled the Uni authorities and the NUS top-knobs. Apart from that I personally knew little of them.
This recounts part of Piers’ political career, described in a highly unsympathetic not to say, sub-Spart, way by an anarchist, (BM Blob. 1988).
One spokesperson that became well known was Piers Corbyn. He was a Trotskyist apparatchik belonging to the International Marxist Group (before the IMG dissolved itself into the Labour party). His influence was immense as regards general Elgin Ave policy and the line taken by the squatters newspaper (EASY-Elgin Avenue Squatters? Yes! ) This newspaper emphasized getting support from this or that institution (e.g. Young Liberals or, Paddington’s then Labour MP) and rubbished the libertarian current which called for “Free Housing for all” instead of the usual “nationalize the land” nonsense. The former demand was put forward by The Diggers who had a few years earlier been based elsewhere in Notting Hill. Later they were to become the backbone of the Rainbow Tribe Tepee people (c/f above photo) and The Peace Convoy.
This continues in a similar vein:
Despite all the mystifications and contradictions surrounding an alternative lifestyle, they nonetheless in Elgin Ave and elsewhere called for a radical approach to housing. Although Corbyn was an adept entryist and able, at times, to push para-state bodies like Student Community Housing (SCH) and the obsessively legalistic, Family Squatting Advisory Service (FSHS) he also kept getting way-laid by the libertarian atmosphere of Notting Hill. He once noted for instance how a guy known as “Shaky Dave” found in building street barricades, more therapeutic help than anything social workers, asylums or drug dependence had to offer. Later – befitting the trajectory of the IMG – Corbyn became a Labour party councillor in Southwark (Elgin Ave was rehoused in Camberwell) where from his bureaucratic perch, he defended the Pullens Estate and other Southwark squatters against the more Militant controlled Southwark Council who were evicting them. Many a Southwark squatter has mouthed-off about Corbyn, often saying how his presence spreads the illusion that something can be done by reforming the Council, thus pacifying the necessary direct action. One anarchist even punched him in the face.
There was an interview with Corbyn about the Notting Hill period on the BBC 4 series, “Lefties”. He has we learn, left the Labour Party. Down in his manor another opportunity opens: The Republican Socialist Campaign in the General Election for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, 2015
Republican Socialist Stands for Bermondsey The Republican Socialist Party (RSP) has chosen its first ever parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Bermondsey and Old Southwark, the seat currently held by Simon Hughes. Steve Freeman, who stood for the constituency as an independent in 2010, has agreed to stand.
Pundits are confidently predicating that Steve may well, possibly, get into double figure votes. With all that lovely climate change denying dosh sloshing about Piers will no doubt be tempted to support a fellow struggler for truth. Or perhaps he is happy with the UKIP backing Daily Express.
Islamic State: John Tummon wanted Left Unity to “distance itself” from use of “intemperate, inaccurate and moralist language such as ‘terrorism’, ‘evil’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘viciously reactionary’, ‘murderous’, genocidal’
One of the delights of Britain’s left is the ongoing squabbles. In the deepest recesses, or the bowels of the left, trying to emerge.
The Weekly Worker is rightly prized as significant hebdomadal (a quotidian word daily on Richard Seymour’s lips) reading in this respect.
On the elections for the leadership of Left Unity it is, we can safely say, without competitors.
The latest issue contains this ‘questionnaire’ to candidates.
Amongst them is this:
2. Do you oppose the idea of forming some kind of bloc within Left Unity that includes the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty? Should those who support the pro-Nato government of Petro Poroshenko, who refuse to condemn the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the possibility of an Israeli nuclear strike against Iran, be considered legitimate bloc partners?
Readers of the august journal might ask about the Weekly Worker/CPGB (Provisional Committee) and its own lengthy unity negotiation with said ‘social-imperialist’ Alliance for Workers’ Liberty – an episode sadly neglected in the present pages of the paper.
This began around 2000 with the declaration, “The AWL is a small organisation of serious revolutionaries.” “what distinguishes the AWL from that which often falsely passes itself off as Trotskyism is its culture of comparative openness and a willingness to think.” (9.3.2000)
Such as this, on the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s annual weekend school, Ideas for Freedom (17.7.2002)
The school was an excellent event and CPGB comrades learned a great deal from participation in both its formal sessions and in more off-the-cuff exchanges. Given our common commitment to open educational events such as this and the forthcoming Communist University, we should explore more imaginatively the possibilities of further joint schools and forums. Mark Fischer.
The honeymoon did not last. A few weeks later we see this:
“In more recent times, we have been able to collaborate with the CPGB/WW on many issues in and around the Socialist Alliance. Lately problems have arisen in AWL-CPGB relations.” AWL October 2002.
Future historians will no doubt unravel what happened in those fraught times, so crucial to the development of the international left.
But what interests the Tendance now is the bid by ‘Caliphate’ John Tummon for leadership of Left Unity.
John Tummon (NC, North-West) replies to two of the Weekly Worker’s exam questions as follows (Weekly Worker):
5. Do you disassociate yourself from those who resort to violence or threats of violence within the left? Will you insist that anyone found guilty of making such threats issue a public apology, no matter how belatedly?
6. Do you think Left Unity should draw a clear red line between the socialist politics of the working class and the petty bourgeois politics of the Green Party?
5. No – some behaviour is so bad that it provokes violence either of the word or deed and everything must be assessed by its context. I am not for absolute rules and detest the concept of zero tolerance.
6. No – the Greens have very similar policies to LU; both are broad parties, but LU is far smaller. The Greens are progressive.
This is from Tummon’s (defeated) Caliphate motion, at Left Unity’s last year Conference.
To show solidarity with the people of the Middle East by supporting the end of the structure of the divided nation states imposed by the Versailles settlement and their replacement by a Caliphate type polity in which diversity and autonomy are protected and nurtured and the mass of people can effectively control executive authority’. Left Unity distances itself specifically from the use of intemperate, inaccurate and moralist language such as ‘terrorism’, ‘evil’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘viciously reactionary’, ‘murderous’, genocidal’, etc in discussion about the Middle East; these terms are deployed by people and forces seeking not to understand or analyse, but to demonise in order to dominate, and they have no place within socialist discourse. ft Unity Resolution.
“We also distance ourselves from the Eurocentric brand of secularism that believes that the peoples of the Middle East must accept western terms of reference by consigning their religious faith to a separate part of their lives from their political aspirations, if they are to develop progressive societies.”
They certainly ‘ave ’em in Left Unity…
This election will be by Single Transferable Vote – just like the do in god’s Caliphate.
The Pack is on Charlie’s Heels Again!
More than a month after two gunmen attacked French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, killing 12 people, the newspaper’s newest issue is due to be released on Wednesday as it resumes publication.
“We needed a break, a rest… There were those who needed to work again straight away, like me, and those who wanted to take more time,” says Gérard Biard, the publication’s new chief editor. “So we reached a compromise, and agreed on February 25… to start off again on a weekly basis.”
If the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s next issue says anything, it’s that it will be business as usual at the publication. It features an illustration of a range of political and religious figures, including former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a jihadist and the pope, as a pack of rabid dogs over the headline, “… Here we go again!”
On France-Inter this morning the new editor of the trusty and much-liked weekly, Gérard Biard, expressed concern that their cartoons sparked more indignation today than in the past.
Phooey! We would like to see more outrage!
There is a rumour that the British Left will figure on a future Cover with the same theme as today’s issue.
Tariq Ali, clothed in a dead-sheep, will lead the charge against the lovable Charlie mutt.
Ten Afghan Arabi sheep were sacrificed to make this coat.
Behind him follows the SWP’s Alex Callinicos, in his Scarlet Pimpernel outfit, and Unite Against Fascism’s leadership, dressed in altar girl and boy costumes.
SWP Leader Prepares to Rescue Dusky Maidens from Charlie’s Evil Grasp.
Unite Against Fascism: ‘Shocked’ By Charlie’s Blasphemy.
Will Self, snorting cocaine, will be arm-in-arm with Assad Ali, Seumas Milne, George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob.
Will Self: Heavyweight Critic of Charlie Hebdo.
Talking of heavy-weights (former) in the background one can glimpse Sebastian Budgen with one of his family’s excellent Hampers – they kept him popular during his years at Greyfriars.
Budgen at Greyfriars.
Abridged Version Available on Verso Blogs.
There is a debate about a translation of Alain Badiou’s Le Rouge et le Tricolore on the Verso Blog (New Left Review).
“Alain Badiou analyses the events of the Charlie Hebdo attack in their global and national contexts, making the case for the incompatibility of the red flag of communism with the Tricolore of French national identity.”
Badiou considered the attack on Charlie and the Kosher supermarket to be fascist.
He made these observations to back up the assertion.
Le Monde version.
D’abord, il est ciblé, et non pas aveugle, parce que sa motivation est idéologique, de caractère fascisant, ce qui veut dire strictement identitaire : nationale, raciale, communautaire, coutumière, religieuse… En la circonstance, les tueurs sont antisémites. Souvent le crime fasciste vise des publicistes, des journalistes, des intellectuels ou des écrivains que les tueurs estiment représentatifs du bord opposé.
Verso (Dave Broder translation),
A fascist-type crime, in my view, has three characteristics.
Firstly, it is not blind, but targeted: its motivation is an ideological one, of a fascistic character, which means a narrowly identitarian one: national, racial, communal, folk, religious… In this case, the murderers visibly targeted three identities that classical fascism often attacked: journalists considered to represent the enemy camp, policemen defending the hated parliamentary order, and Jews…
Read rest on Verso site.
Tendance Coatesy’s gloss on this section of the article (from Alain Badiou on Charlie Hebdo, Le Rouge et le Tricolore. A Critical Appraisal.) arguing why the slaughter was fascist, “It was first of all targeted, and not random, next the motivation was of a fascist nature, from an identity, in this case anti-Semitic.“
Why is the word “anti-Semitic” (as in les tueurs sont antisémites, the killers are antisemites) left out?
Apparently, the translation is not of the Le Monde article linked at the end, but supposedly some earlier, longer version, which is for some reason not available online.”
This is the Mediapart version:
D’abord, il est ciblé, et non pas aveugle, parce que sa motivation est idéologique, de caractère fascisant, ce qui veut dire : stupidement identitaire, nationale, raciale, communautaire, coutumière, religieuse… En la circonstance, les assassins avaient visiblement comme cibles trois identités souvent visées par le fascisme classique : les publicistes considérés comme du bord opposé, les policiers défendant l’ordre parlementaire haï, et les Juifs.
Certainly it does not mention anti-Semitism.
But as this is close to the crux of Badiou’s rhetoric (I was going to say argument, but the whole article is more a sustained exercise in rhetorical fireworks than a calmly laid out set of reasons).
Badiou has himself been accused of anti-Semitism (for calling Sarkozy – mother’s father, Jewish – ‘l’homme aux rats’).
It is therefore of more than causal importance.
Why, then, was the term absent in the Verso piece?
The audience for the Le Monde article is, on any definition, greater than that of Medipart’s.
So why not go for the stuff people have actually read in France?
Another comment, “It is interesting to note what the Le Monde chose to leave out”
To coin a phrase, if Le Monde ‘abridged’ then, here, in the case of this translation, we have Vice Verso.
Perhaps there is a wider background.
This is what New Left Review veteran Tariq Ali thought about the murders at Charlie (no mention of the Kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vinceness, or anti-Semitism at all).
How serious is Islamophobia in France and other European countries?
France is the worst in Europe and tries to mask it by proclaiming its secular values (sound familiar?), but these values don’t apply to Islam. In fact, French secularism means anything but Islam. And when satirical magazines taunt them, they react. It’s as simple as that.
It may well this is the message which New Left Review and Verso intends to broadcast, above any other.
There is plenty of self-indulgent cack on the Verso site to endorse this judgement on their ‘angle’ about Charlie Hebdo.
Sunday’s marches above all saw the educated bourgeoisie contemplating its own strength and giving in to its self-enchantment. It’s not certain, however, that this makes for a ‘country’ or even a ‘people’, as we may well soon have good reason to remind ourselves.
One can see Ali rubbing his hands at many of Badiou’s own comments on Charlie Hebdo’s humour, such as these,
It may be amusing for the comfortably-off, but it is an indulgent ‘Western’ provocation against not only vast popular masses in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but also a very large section of the working population in France itself
These are all points where lurid cultural racism fuses with blind hostility, crass ignorance and the fear that the vast mass of Africans or banlieue residents – the wretched of the earth – inspires in the hearts of our self-satisfied petty-bourgeois.
Badiou mentions ‘anti-Semitism’.
Well – it’s not important?
Review Article. Culture and the Death of God. Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 2014.
And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to simulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?…
Some in the background then I saw
Sweet women, men, youths, all incredulous
Who chimed, ‘This is a counterfeit of straw
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!
I could not buoy their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathised;
And though struck speechless I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized.
God’s Funeral. Thomas Hardy. (1)
Terry Eagleton introduces Culture and the Death of God by announcing, “This book is less about God than about the crisis occasioned by his apparent disappearance.” He continues, “I start by showing how God survived the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and conclude with his dramatic reappearance in our own supposedly faithless age.” (Page iix) Determined, it appears, to wrong foot one of his most cutting critics, Gregor McLennan, that his ‘theological turn’ simply sets one “static slogan, (God is back) against another (God is dead)” Eagleton turns to cultural and intellectual history (2). That is, a would-be dynamic account, “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God, reason, nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted form time to time as forms of displaced divinity.”(Page 44)
Culture and the Death of God is not, then an account of the wider social and individual fortunes of atheism or secularism. The “lived experience” explored by Charles Taylor, the web of changing attitudes in the “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood as one option among others…” is dismissed (like – initially – Taylor himself) to a footnote. (3) Yet Eagleton is not shy of referring to the loss of “fundamental value” “moral rationales” (some of the deepest parts of feeling) – once offered by religion – in “underlying political power”.
Eagleton’s latest work is not a “sociological” history of faith and secularism at all. It is the story of the, long in coming, installation of “authentic atheism”, resting on the faithless ‘marketplace’ where the Economy is “rank atheist.” Eagleton tries to associate the ‘New Atheism’ with the ‘War on Terror’. The “alarmed liberal intelligentsia” clutching at “Reason, truth, science, progress and objectivity…” in the shape of Sam Harris, might suggest a very literal End of Faith to halt religious violence. That is by a pre-emptive nuclear strike against terrorism. (Page 202)
Culture and the Death of God offers a rapid overview of the Enlightenment. It is informed by a number of secondary works, such as Peter Gay’s classic account of the battles for “freedom”, and its synthesis of the Christian and Pagan heritage, and by Jonathan I. Israel’s more recent studies. The latter distinguished a ‘Radical Enlightenment,” of figures like Spinoza, Bayle. Diderot, based on “toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge and a ‘Moderate’ version – Locke, Newton, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot and Kant, to throw in a few names. Israel commented, “the difference between reason alone and reason combined with faith and tradition..”
Israel traced modern ideas of “personal liberty, comprehensive toleration, equality, sexual and racial and a secular morality of equity” back to this radical strain (5). Eagleton is more interested in its stand on religion. Many, the majority, classed as Auflkärer (the German word he frequently employs) were deists, who had no beef with God, only with Revealed and, institutional religion. “It was religion in this institutional sense that most of the philosphes took as their target.”(Page 7) Indeed, even the most radical sceptics and atheists were frightened of a godless, and ‘thus’ potentially immoral, populace. “The Enlightenment’s assault on religion, then, at root a political rather than theological affair.”(Page 12)
In fact Enlightenment thinkers were not really capable of killing off God even if they had wanted to. The claims of Reason – even, one assumes, Hume’s extreme scepticism ‘Pyrrhonism’ – were curbed, and their overweening ambitions, bootless. “When human reasoning becomes autonomous, it approaches divine status; but a rationalised world is also one in which its presence gradually dwindles, so that he grows remote from rationality and becomes accessible only through faith and feeling. In this sense the other face of rationalism is fideism.”(Page 34)
The French Revolution’s brief radical Dechristianisation, never struck a popular chord. The idea that “patriotism should be the new faith, the Declaration of the Rights of Man its Apostles” did not last long. The Culte de l’Être suprême that followed struck no roots, although the Constitutional Church had some support. Eagleton does appear close to one of Robespierre thoughts that, “Atheism is aristocratic. The conception of a great being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes successful crime, is democratic through and through.” Nevertheless, he observes, the ‘bloodless Supreme Being” could not, nevertheless take the place of the real, and bloodied, thing. (6)
Culture and the Death of God then takes us through a whole series of thinkers – remote from popular culture. The German Idealists tried to repair any split between reason and nature, the romantics went further and reinvented God as nature of culture, incarnate in Nationalism, and by the 20th century (modernist) Culture itself (post-Matthew Arnold) had risen to the empty throne, as the new vice-regent of God. As (falsely) in Eagleton’s eyes, as a source of social cohesion, the “corporate sense of culture” of ultimate value, and transcendence, all have stumbled along, ‘surrogates’ for the divine.
It is hard to take seriously Eagleton’s claim that “None of (these) divine deputies are “graven images of the godhead.” They are “phenomena in their own right, not simply a locum tenas or camouflaged version of something else.” But nearly every page of Culture and the Death of God traces religion in “textual styles of thought, which then unwittingly help to keep divinity alive in a more clandestine way.”(Page 45) So if many ideas do not simply stand in for God, if we look beneath the disguise – from the appearance to the ‘essence’ – we will find some divine contraband.
To cite just two cases. Nietzsche’s views on the ‘death of Man’, to pair with the ‘death of God’ are the condition for the birth of New Humanity. For Eagleton this is “orthodox Christian doctrine” – regardless of his notorious loathing on Christianity. (Page 159) Eagleton also asserts that Marx was “deeply informed by Judeo-Christian thought. It is not here, then, that an authentic atheism is to be found.”(Page 161) And “humanity for Marx is not a self-determining absolute, and so cannot scramble on to the empty throne of its Creator. If Marx is more religious than Nietzsche in some ways, he is less so in others.” (Ibid). In this – shabby – way at least one of the two most notorious atheists in history comes close to a posthumous conversion.
A commonplace – irritating – of some of the faithful is that people cannot really disbelieve in god. To try to do so is to end up with ersatz religion. Culture and the Death of God is not short in finding proof that we cannot do without ‘something’ to fill what Ferdinand Mount has called “an enormous empty space in people’s lives” created by the “the eclipse of a single God-centred explanation.” (7) Perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of these “substitutes” is of George Elliot’s devotion to Duty. A.N. Wilson has cited F.W.H. Myers’ that most beautiful and humane of Ethical novelists, “I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls – on a sanctuary with no presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.” (8)
In these, and countless ways, Eagleton tries to demonstrate that ‘God’ never really died in Western culture – his shadow loomed too large.
Before looking at what Eagleton considers authentic atheism – which does not mourn these sanctuaries – what exactly is his God centred explanation? In a sense only one part of the Godhead plays a role: Christ. Christian faith, he wrote in Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009) is not primarily about whether “there exists a Supreme Being” but “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” (9)
This is what is presented to us, “The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal. It is a message profoundly unacceptable to those sunk in dewy-eyed delusion (idealists, progressives, liberals, reformers, Yea-Sayers, modernisers, socialist humanists though one which as perfectly understood by a Jew like Walter Benjamin. Only if you can gaze on this frightful image without being turned to stone, accepting it was absolutely the last word is there a slim chance that it might not be. This chance is known to the Christian faith as resurrection. To acknowledge this thing of darkness as one’s own discerning in this monstrous image a reflection of oneself and one’s historical condition, is the revolutionary act which the Gospels know as metanoia, of conversion.”(10) Repentance, acceptance of this Revealed Truth, is a commitment to the future, not a submission to the past.
This, then, is the root of a “tragic sense” of religion, “Those who hold suffering and hope most finely in balance – the true tragic protagonists, so to speak – are those who rise up because they have little enough to lose, yet for that reason have the power to transform their condition.” One might call this Faith, a leap into the world itself, through divine grace. (11)
In Culture and the Death of God we learn of the social message contained within. The New Testament “shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common-or-garden morality is not some supernatural support, but the grossly inconvenient news that out forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born.” (Page 208)
These images of suffering, of the crucifixion, the Passion of the Christ, or the Mel Gibson portrait of the Stations of the Cross, faced with the imminence of the passing of the world, are unlikely to appeal to many a Doubting Thomas. Creating something from what we do not see, on the basis of one writer’s Christology, beyond the range of possible experience (and with little sign of the gentle warmth and kindness of the Redeemer), and putting this at the heart of faith itself, is the purest and most virulent irrationalism. How this will end in “compassionate communities “is a mystery too deep to grasp. One suspects that not many theologians, who have their own rooted human rationality, would follow Eagleton, for all of those twentieth century writers who have made the “scandal” of the crucifixion at the centre of their thought.
Capitalism, Secularism and Fundamentalism.
“Whenever the Almighty seems safely dispatched, he is always liable to stage a reappearance in one disguise or another.”(Page 119)
The economy, for Eagleton, we have noted, is “atheist”. Culture and the Death of God explains, “The faithlessness of advanced capitalism is built into its routine practices. It is not primarily a question of the piety of scepticism of its citizens. The marketplace would continue to behave atheistically even if every one of its actors was a born-again Evangelical.”(Page 196) The coming of Postmodernism – a self no longer coherent enough to need to project itself as God onto the world, has bolstered its faithless character. There is “no Big Other, no grand totality or transcendental signifier.”(Page 190) It is only now that the whole of Western society is undergoing the real harrowing of atheism.
Yet, “No sooner has a thoroughly atheistic culture arrived on the scene, one which was no longer anxiously in pursuit of that place-holder for God, than the deity himself was suddenly back on the agenda with a vengeance.”(Page 197) A vast list of causes, from the West’s international interventions, globalised capitalism, to social anxiety, anomie and powerlessness, has created a new surge in religion. “Western capitalism, in short, has managed to help spawn not only secularism, but also fundamentalism”. The latter, in its multiple forms, has appeared “as a refuge an a strength for those who feel crushed by its own predatory politics.”(Page 198) “The Almighty, it appears, was not safely nailed down in its coffin after all, He had simply changed address, migrating to the US Bible Belt, the Evangelical churches of Latin America and the slums of the Arab world. And his fan club is steadily increasing.”(Page 199) As a result we have a new ‘grand narrative, “the so-called war on terror.”
Is ‘secularism’ the “spawn” of capitalism? In Inventing the Individual. The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) Larry Siedentop has argued that its liberal roots, the ‘privatisation’ of individual judgement, lie in Christianity and the importance it places on the individual, not the group, the family, the tribe or the nation. From the grace of faith, to freedom of choice to believe or not, the journey Charles Taylor describes, was not smooth. Secular states – that is not dominated by religious authorities with freedom of belief for all – are the result of a long European ‘civil war’, to establish these freedoms. The left, in the broadest sense of the term, has shouldered much of this struggle. Many believers, particularly from religious minorities, have joined. The fight was not borne forward by those uniquely dedicated to Truth of the Event of the Crucifixion but by those with more modest horizons, the love of their fellows, those dedicated to tolerance and liberty.
That there are those opposed to this ideal, ‘fundamentalists’ is all too clear. The problems they cause, above all from political Islam, are with us now. Eagleton wrote in On Evil “Had the West acted differently in its treatment of certain Muslim nations, it might have escaped at least some of the aggression that is now seeing visited upon it.”(12) But is less than obvious that extremist Islamism would have been killed in the egg, if ‘justice’ to their calls – that is, their demands for a theocracy – a Caliphate – had ever been met. The killers in Pakistan are those whose “radical innovation consist of bringing chaos into being, thus putting creation into reverse. By blowing a black hole in what God has fashioned, he tries to catapult himself into equal terms with him.” (13) What possible ‘justice’ could slake their murderous “death drive”?
Culture and the Death of God is stitched together from a patchwork of intellectual texts. It folds up when it’s placed over the real, the mundane real not the Lacanian Real. It is Eurocentric. The ‘war on terror’ is a thin enough doctrine, but it covers something much deeper. As Fred Halliday pointed out (in 2002), there is an “enormous, long and very violent clash within the Muslim world between those who want to reform and secularise and those who power is threatened or who want to take power in the name of fundamentalism.” (14) Comments about the decentred self of Western capitalism and a “new form of Western cultural supremacism” are, frankly, trivial in comparison with the depth of these clashes. (Page 202)
A Marxist stand, a democratic socialist position, would be to side with the secular intelligentsia, defending religious pluralism, and the working class against the pious Islamist bourgeoisie and the genociders of the Caliphate and Al-Qaeda. But I leave that, vast, issue, hanging.
Eagleton never bothers to distinguish between agnosticism – hard (it is impossible to know that god exists or not), or soft (there is no reason to believe or not to believe in god) – and atheism – god does not exist. Many people who hold to these views simply do not feel the need for religion, have no “religious experience” and have no more divine gaps in their lives than they have a Third Eye. Believers are right to smart at ‘New Atheist’ charges that they are “are thick and/or uneducated “(Ferdinand Mount). There is a great deal of kindness carried out by religious people and we should glory in these acts. To be told that our ideas are either ‘really’ religious and/or Western examples of Western ‘supremicism’ is equally condescending. And we observe that Eagleton’s particular New Left Church stands, on the evidence, with few followers and empty of newly converted sceptics
(1) Cited in God’s Funeral. A.N. Wilson. John Murray. 1999. This is a much more humane and intelligible account of the loss of faith, and the ‘bereavement ’ felt by Victorians at this, than Eagleton’s lofty pamphlet.
(2) Mr Love and Justice. Gregor McLennan. New Left Review Second Series. 64. 2010.
(3) Page 3. A Secular Age. Charles Taylor. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007.
(4). The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Vol. 1. The Rise of Modern Paganism. Vol. 2. The Science of Freedom. Peter Gay. W.W.Norton. 1977 (1966). Page 4 Enlightenment Contested. Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670 – 1752. Jonathan I. Israel. Oxford University Press. 2006
(5) Page 869. Jonathan I. Israel op cit.
(6) Page 266. Fatal Purity. Robespierre and the French Revolution. Ruth Scurr.Chatto and Windus. 2006. See also Religion and Revolution in France. 1780 – 1804. Nigel Aston. Macmillan. 2000. For Aston Robespierre and the Jacobins’ Supreme Being did have supporters but for the majority, worshiping this deity was “like taking an ice-maiden for bedfellow…”(Page 274)
(7) Page 215. Full Circle. How the Classical World Came Back to us. Ferdinand Mount. Simon & Shuster. 2010.
(8) Pages 151 to 152. A.N. Wilson. Op cit.
(9) Page 37. Reason, Faith and Revolution. Reflections on the God Debate. Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 2009.
(10) Pages xxvii – xxviii. Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ. The Gospels. Verso 2007.
(11) Page 272. The Trouble with Strangers. Terry Eagleton. Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.
(12) Pages 157 – 8 On Evil. Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 2010.
(13) Page 97 Holy Terror. Terry Eagleton. Oxford 2005.
(14). Page 46. Two Hours that Shook the World. Fred Halliday, Saqi Books. 2002
See also: Eagleton, Terry (19 October 2006). . .