‘Radical Sacrifice’ by Terry Eagleton reviewed by Sean Ledwith

Radical Sacrifice

Yale University Press New Haven, CT and London, 2018. 216pp., $25 / £18.99 hb
ISBN 9780300233353

Reviewed by Sean Ledwith

About the reviewer

Sean Ledwith is Lecturer in History and Politics at York College. He is also a regular contributor…


In last year’s British general election, the campaign was twice suspended in the aftermath of Islamist attacks on London. ISIS-inspired individuals have targeted France even more in recent years with horrifying incidents in Paris, Nice and other locations, characterised by a conspicuously disregard for any loss of life, including their own.   Terry Eagleton’s latest intervention in contemporary politics, Radical Sacrifice, might initially appear to the casual reader to be motivated by a desire to analyse the clearly sacrificial mentality of the perpetrators of these incidents.

This most obvious form of sacrifice in the modern world, however, forms a surprisingly small part of Eagleton’s focus here. Apart from noting such attackers are ‘falling prey to a spuriously existentialist cult of action for its own sake’ (89), the author avoids any lengthy speculation of the causes and consequences of this headline-grabbing form of sacrifice. Instead, Eagleton seeks to critique the manner in which contemporary theorists such as Agamben and Badiou have sought to integrate the concept into secular intellectual systems that aspire to explain the nature of 21st century societies. Alongside these expositions, Eagleton dissects how thinkers in the ancient world such as Plato and St Paul made sacrifice a core constituent of their world-views.

Beyond that purpose, the author develops a typically sophisticated, if not always convincing, case that Marxism itself would benefit from reconsidering its traditionally sceptical view of the utility of the concept of sacrifice.  As such, this volume represents another example of the quasi-religious phase of the ‘later Eagleton’. In other works written in this decade such as Reason, Faith, Revolution, and On Evil, the author has effectively come full circle in his intellectual evolution. Eagleton has creatively sought to synthesise the leftist Catholicism with which he first emerged as a critical force in the 1960s, with the sober and yet stubbornly optimistic brand of Marxism he has clung onto in recent decades.  In characteristically unapologetic style, he defends the legitimacy of trying to identify common threads in what most commentators would regard as two incompatible belief-systems. In his view: ‘a great many secular views of the Judaic and Christian lineages are as grossly prejudiced and abysmally ill-informed as those, say,for whom socialism is simply a matter of the Gulag, or feminism the calamitous consequence of women throwing their natural modesty and decorum to the winds’ (x).

Eagleton’s formulations are delivered in the breezily amusing and erudite style that typifies his recent output. There is the usual dazzling range of references to figures as diverse as Virgil, Aquinas, Beckett and Woody Allen, along with welcome additions to the growing collection of ‘Eagletonisms’; that is to say, those memorable asides which litter his texts, making a telling point about an aspect of theory but in a down-to-earth manner. Here for example, he muses on the reasons why Christmas Day with Jacques Derrida might not have been a lot of fun, and ‘that if God exists, he must be hopelessly in love with Donald Trump’ (102).

In a more serious vein, Eagleton’s desire to reclaim a putatively progressive version of Catholicism leads him into a number of discussions of what he perceives as the emancipatory and subversive kernel that exists within the conservative shell of his long-lost religious faith. The crucifixion of Jesus, as the historical foundation of the entire Christian tradition, is laden with liberatory significance according to Eagleton. It was the Nazarene’s political agenda, contends the author, that ultimately led him to his fate at Calvary: ‘His solidarity with those who dwell in the borderlands of orthodox society, men and women whose existence signifies a kind of non-being, prefigures the non-being to which he himself is brought on the outer edge of the metropolis. In the person of Jesus, those whom Paul calls the filth of the earth are in principle raised up to glory’ (27).

Even some of the more abstruse elements of Catholic doctrine, Eagleton further argues, are decipherable in terms to which modern socialists can relate.  He co-opts Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan to re-conceptualise the Eucharist as a ritual that resonates with revolutionary potential concerning the transformation of the class-ridden present into a future post-class society. Christ’s transubstantiation of his body and blood into the bread and wine of the Last Supper (perhaps the most enigmatic of all Catholic shibboleths) becomes, in Eagleton’s terms, the eruption of a revolutionary force of world-shattering proportions into the quotidian mundanity of the everyday: ‘In commemorating a revolutionary Passover from death to life, turning back to the site of the primordial trespass, the Eucharist brings that saving event to bear on the present as the promise of an emancipated future’ (153).

Similarly, Eagleton regards Christ’s subsequent resurrection, according to the biblical account, as primarily a political event with layers of meaning that reverberate through all following generations. The miracle of the rolled stone, he suggests, ‘breaks into the disciples’ defeatist gloom after Calvary with all the illogicality of a Dadaist happening, inaugurating the unimaginably avant-garde reality of the kingdom of God’ (29). He further posits that this occurrence is a prime example of Badiou’s celebrated  conceptualisation of the ‘Event’, one of those ‘moments of pure rupture or primordial beginnings which are out of joint with their historical sites, in excess of their contexts, sprung as it were ex nihilio from empirical situations that could not have pre-calculated them’ (29).

Badiou’s explicit commitment to Marxism might appear to imply Eagleton is on relatively solid ground here, trying to draw parallels between a cornerstone of Christian belief and the necessity for revolutionary transformation in the world of late capitalism. He is also surely right to revisit elements of religious faith and practice with a more sympathetic eye than prominent anti-theists such as Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis whose critiques of religion adopt a sneering tone that looks down on believers as ignorant dupes. Eagleton’s sensitivity to the dual nature of religion is truer to the spirit of Marx’s pioneering analysis in 1844 which included not just the famous allusion to the ‘opium of the people’ but also the equally important highlighting of its role for millions as ‘the heart of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions’.

The danger for Eagleton, however, is going too far in the other direction and underplaying the role religion plays in sustaining the mystification and obfuscation that remains crucial to the ideology of class society. His explorations of the subversive potential of aspects of Catholic liturgy are stimulating and indubitably played a major role in his own personal journey towards Marxism. The stark reality, however, is that most people who sit through these rituals on a Sunday morning are unlikely to follow him on the path to revolutionary politics. The minority that do, will be there more likely due to experiences of alienation and exploitation in the workplace, rather than in a church. Catholics in the modern world have contributed courageously to movements from below that have fought against despotic regimes, notably in South America and Eastern Europe; but adherents of the faith have just as often played a reactionary role in perpetuating repressive ideologies, as witnessed in Ireland’s recent gay rights and abortion referenda.

There are also inherent problems involved in the notion of adopting Badiou’s concept of the Event as a useful addition to Marxism. In the definition referred to above, such an occurrence takes place outside ‘empirical situations’ and represents a rupture with the process of historical development. Assuming Eagleton wishes to retain the dialectical nature of the Marxist perspective (otherwise, his frequent references to the term would be anomalous), tendencies in history and society such as the transformation of quantity into quality have to be an integral part of theorisation.

The cornerstone of the Marxist case for a transition to socialism is that quantitative changes in capitalist society, such as the ever-expanding numerical weight of the proletariat and the centrality of socialised sectors of the economy such as education and health, make a qualitatively different mode of production not just desirable but feasible.

Whatever one makes of Badiou’s understanding of the Event, its reliance on ex nihilo occurrences is utterly incompatible with the traditional Marxist account of revolutions being rooted in existing contradictions of the system. Eagleton rightly wants to remind us (and the complacent elite) that the possibility of overturning entrenched power remains genuine  and that history is littered with examples of the oppressed striking down their masters. However, for this aspiration to be more than a heartfelt instinct, it needs to be backed up with empirical analysis of objective trends in the currently existing social and economic system that are taking us towards a crisis.

Apart from hopefully anticipating the death of the entire capitalist system, Eagleton also ruminates on the meaning of death for us as individuals and how religious thinkers can provide insights that, again, are assimilatable to those with a materialist outlook. This focus represents the exploration of another trope of the later Eagleton; the attempt to use the human body as the basis for a critique of the postmodern rejection of absolute truth. He points out that death, our unavoidable physical destruction, is an event shared by all members of the human race-past, present and future-and as such, should be regarded as the ultimate focal point for highlighting our collective identity as a species. Death is the force of certainty that crashes through all the ambivalences, nuances and prevarications of postmodernism without a backward glance. According to Eagleton, the facticity of death even has a progressive dimension in political terms: ‘emancipating slaves, springing lifers from their prison cells, releasing the anguished from their afflictions, replacing conflict with tranquillity and cancelling the inequalities between rich and poor. It would be hard to imagine a more potent revolutionary force’ (78).

Passages such as this may perhaps leave the author open to superficial accusations that he is straying close to the mentality of the ISIS-type death cults he condemns elsewhere. A more thoughtful response would be that this approach could be the foundation for a powerful reformulation of materialism with a subversive edge. Eagleton also invokes Hegel (as the supreme dialectician) to articulate how death can be made part of a theory that emphasises our essential other-centred nature. For the great German thinker, ‘death, like law is a universal truth, which nonetheless confronts us with our utter irreducibility as individual selves, at once levelling and individuating’ (78).

This radical conceptualisation of death, the author continues, can be deployed to underline the responsibility we all share to advance the emancipatory project as far as possible in the allotted time nature unconsciously awards us as organic entities on the planet. We must all confront individual extinction at some point in the future, so this realisation should spur us on to avert the collective extinction that capitalism threatens to inflict on the whole of humanity. As individuals, we may be fortunate to be not around when-and if –that cataclysmic day dawns. However, we should conduct our lives as if it is imminent and we are fighting desperately to facilitate an alternative future. In Eagleton’s, characteristically elaborate but stirring words: ‘one should strive to treat every moment as absolute, disentangling it from the ignominy of circumstance, standing inside and outside of history at the same time by living from the end times rather than simply in them’ (74).

12 July 2018

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