Monday, March 22, 2010


By Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press, $25, 176 pages

Reviewed by John Coyne

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. Although its football glory days are a fast-fading memory, it continues to attract high-priced academics from around the world, among them professor Terry Eagleton, who already holds down two professorial sinecures in England and Ireland. According to the university’s publicity, Mr. Eagleton is a “literary scholar and cultural theorist.” Notre Dame doesn’t mention the nature of that theorizing. But his publisher at Yale proudly identifies Mr. Eagleton as “a prominent Marxist thinker.”

It may surprise those who thought Marxism and its odd little intellectual subshoots had vaporized with the implosion of that strange alternative Eastern European universe, the culmination of the Marxist dream. However, in certain tight little literary/academic circles in England and Europe, and on some American campuses - usually the most expensive, where parents pay unconscionably high tuitions - Marxist professors not only survive, but are lionized.

That a celebrated Marxist theorist should be accorded such treatment at Notre Dame might startle some Catholics. Marxism, after all, was never a friend of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps because Mr. Eagleton’s background is Irish, with a Catholic upbringing and somewhat confused views on God (Marx and/or Freud frequently seem to fulfill that function) the church thinks there’s still hope. Nevertheless, one might think the welcome would be a little less warm at Notre Dame for a Marxist critic who writes that the concept of original sin “is what is so absurd about the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.”

But no matter. Mr. Eagleton believes evil does exist, and his task here is to define it. To that end, he takes us on a crash CliffsNotes tour of world literature, philosophy and theology, from St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (strangely, no Dante), up through Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, from the Manicheans through Iago to Lord of the Flies.

Mr. Eagleton’s survey of the literary and philosophical treatment of evil is clever and coherent. But it’s when he approaches 20th-century politics and ideology that the trouble begins, as it necessarily must for any Marxist. The challenge is to differentiate among the evils of the last century - to attempt to argue convincingly, as Mr. Eagleton does, that Hitler was “evil,” while Stalin and Mao were merely “bad.” To that end, it’s necessary to make certain concessions. What Stalin and Mao did was unconscionable, but it wasn’t necessarily “evil.”

Hitler’s murders were evil in part “because the rationality of modern political states is in general an instrumental one, geared to the achievement of specific ends.” But Hitler instituted “genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it.” (Mr. Eagleton goes on to add, startlingly, “Such evil is almost always confined to the private sector.”) However, “Stalin and Mao massacred for a reason. For the most part, there was a brutal kind of rationality behind their murders. This does not render their actions less heinous or culpable than those of the Nazis. … They are just in a different category.”

And so the difference: Hitler murdered “just for the hell of it.” Mao and Stalin butchered for practical political reasons. Bad, wicked Marxists, in other words. But not necessarily evil. And so, given that sliding scale and the natural reactions of an embittered Marxist survivor, Mr. Eagleton’s concluding observations about the United States should come as no surprise.

Of Richard Bernstein’s observation in his book “Radical Evil” that “the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 was ‘the very epitome of evil in our time,’ ” Mr. Eagleton writes that Bernstein “seems not to notice that the United States has killed inconceivably [sic] more innocent civilians in the past half-century than the total number of those who perished in the tragedy in New York. … Several hundred times that number have been slaughtered in the criminal war in Iraq. … Bernstein passes over the tyrannies and butcheries perpetrated by his own nation in the name of liberty.”

And so, after pages of smooth writing and reasoning - some might call it sophistry - we finally find where, in the mind of this surviving Marxist professor, the true evil resides. It’s right here in the U.S.A. Good stuff for the faculty lounge. So pay the tuition, pass the Guinness and “Go Irish.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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