Victorian Sensibility

Christianity had already been processed by the Victorian sensibility in a way which made this situation inevitable.  The growing dislocation of fact and feeling in Victorian society meant a division between religion and theology; the former was fostered as a body of humane and safely generalised feeling, the latter suspected as rigid dogma.  Religious sentiment, shorn of its factual context of theological truth, could then be conveniently blended into any version of life which needed some emotive underpinning, used as a structure of feeling in arguments essentially in different terms. (73)

Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left


Christian Socialism, paradoxes and contradictions

The basic contradiction in Christian socialism was that it attempted a radical critique of contemporary society in the context of an ultimate disbelief in social reality as an object worthy of absolute attention.  Christian socialism was so concerned to assert, against the pressures of merely utilitarian change, that socialism was about human morality and relationship, that it tended to forget that it is only in the detailed institutional processes of society that feelings and relationships are negotiated.  The failure to grapple with actual issues was a failure of nerve which reflected the fundamentally conservative basis of much Christian socialist thinking.  When socialism advanced beyond an unformulated humanitarianism to the level of specific proposal, the deeply conservative elements which had so far offered a basis for anti-capitalist criticism, in their concern with an older, “organic”, and personal community, could then shift under pressure into an anti-socialist stance, as the quotation from Maurice’s letter indicates.  The very elements which constituted the basis of much Christian socialism could be the elements which broke it down into a vague, timeless, utopianism when it met the challenge of actual issues.


The paradox of Christian socialism was that its very depth and cosmic sense was the basic cause of its impotence.  By emphasising that socialism was a religious matter, concerned with the whole human situation in relation to the divine, it inflated it to a significance which was then too elevated to comprehend actual detail.  Its distrust of, and lack of interest in, institutions reflected a disengagement from social reality which could be justified at a theological level; socialism meant the incarnation of the divine in human society, but the centre of interest could then be the divine rather than the human. Criticism of industrial capitalism was easier within this framework than advancing positive suggestions of an alternative society, since it was always easier to describe what was not divine than what would be. (70-72)

Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left

Ambivalence about the Poor

Another, vital, contradiction can be found in a basic attitude to the working classes among middle-class Christians.  The working class could be seen both as dirty, debauched criminals, and as immortal souls needing salvation; each attitude existed in terms of the other, since the working class were debauched because they were not saved, and proclaimed their need of salvation by being in this depraved condition.  But this provided a useful ambivalence of feeling which could be used to reinforce the ambivalences we have already seen.  Since criminality and the need for salvation lay so close together, so did stern chastisement and charity, and a real repressiveness towards working people therefore carried a built-in justification.  In this way, the ambivalence of the liberal dilemma we saw earlier could be rationalised in terms of routine feeling and action: active recruiting could be combined with hostility and suspicion.  Either attitude, the sense of criminality or the need for salvation, could be employed to suit the circumstances: the debauchery of the poor could be encompassed and forgotten within a charitable forgiveness when the need to secure larger congregations was uppermost; the criminal tendencies of the poor could be stressed as a useful check when liberalism looked like getting out of hand.  The mechanism was self-regulating — the more criminal men are the more they need salvation, but the less capable they are of being trusted or brought to share actively in the formulation of values and policy: the less essential it is for men to be excluded, the less essential it is for them to participate. (63-65)

Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left

Liberal Church

This kind of fundamentally impotent liberalism has become a dominant mode of thinking in the renewal which is now going on in the Catholic Church, and an awareness of its limitations is therefore all the more urgent for catholics.  On the part of the hierarchy, liberalism takes its usual anti-political form — the form of an appeal not to use political “labels” in reference to the church, an assertion that the church is independent of politics.  The appeal, in other words, is still to a specious disinterestedness, for in capitalist society, as we have seen in our first discussion, to stand still or aloof is to ratify the status quo, and thus, objectively, to support capitalism; this kind of independence is itself a political attitude, in mystified form.  On the part of the progressives, lay and clerical, there appears a great drive towards change and reform, but always within liberal limits, and within, largely, the limits of the church itself; the reformist energy is spent on minor abuses, or on interior matters (ecumenism, liturgical reform, etc.).  Of course a matter like ecumenical reform is never wholly interior, in the sense that it has general consequences in the world; but it, and other topics, have absorbed a great deal of self-consciously “progressive” energies which have often stopped short of seeing the consequences of renewed Christianity as a revolutionised society, except in a vague and ill-defined way.  The inherently self-defeating nature of the liberal position and the anguished sense of failure are perfectly exemplified in the debates on the morality of war: these are either conducted with great energy in the abstract realms of natural law and just war theory, or, as a slight advance on this, in terms of international institutions like the UN or personal protest and “change of heart”.  The point is that all these attitudes completely evade the social issues involved in war, and the necessity of political action within, as well as between, states.  The interrelation of war and a permanent war-economy, and, ultimately, of exploitation, violence, and divisiveness in war and in the structures of capitalism, is frequently missed. (41-42)

Adrian Cunningham and Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left

Fog of Hesitation

Liberal values operate in an area of freedom and leisure, behind the nasty reality of capitalism, and the indirectness of the link — private incomes, investments, privileged education, the old-boy network, university posts — conceals the fact that the liberal, leisured class is dependent on the exclusion from these things of the vast majority of people.  The one thing upon which disinterestedness  cannot play is the economic-exploitative basis of disinterestedness — its own very definite interest, its socially biassed position.  As Robert Frost ironically put it, a real liberal would have to be too liberal to be a liberal.

This is the basic contradiction of liberalism: that its intellectual independence is the product of social exploitation; its disinterestedness is blind to its own nature, and its posture of continual worried introspection is not allowed to probe beyond values to facts.  Because of this contradiction there must always be a “crisis” of liberal culture, for part of the liberal stance is a diffusion of its own values throughout society as a whole, and this is a self-defeating project; the values themselves can only exist within a leisured class.  This is the root of the liberal dilemma from Arnold to the “more means less” school of educational thought; liberal values must reach their limit in a fog of hesitation and self-searching, for to push any further would be to undercut their own basis. (39-40)

Adrian Cunningham and Terry Eagleton | The “Slant” Manifesto: Catholics and the Left

The Cult of Inclusivity

A concern with pluralism, difference, diversity and marginality has yielded some precious gains.  But it has also served to displace attention from various more material issues.  In fact, in some quarters culture has become a way of not talking about capitalism.  Capitalist society relegates whole swathes of its citizenry to the scrap heap, but is exquisitely sensitive about not offending their beliefs.  Culturally speaking, we are all to be granted equal respect, while economically speaking the gap between the clients of food banks and the clients of merchant banks looms ever larger.  The cult of inclusivity helps to mask these material differences.  The right to dress, worship or make love as one wishes is revered, while the right to a decent wage is denied.  Culture acknowledges no hierarchies, but the educational system is ridden with them.  Speaking with a Yorkshire accent is no obstacle to becoming a television newscaster, but being a Trotskyist is.  It is against the law to insult ethnic minorities in public, but not to insult the poor.  Any adult is free to sleep with any other who is not related by blood, but they are not also free to undermine the state.  Sexual experimenters are treated with indulgence by metropolitan liberals, while strikers are met with suspicion.  Difference is to be welcomed, but full-blooded conflict is not.  Nobody should arrogate the right the tell others what to do, an attitude tax evaders find mightily convenient. (35-36)

Terry Eagleton | Culture

Culture, Commodity, and Inclusion

The breaking down of cultural hierarchies is clearly to be welcomed.  For the most part, however, it is less the upshot of a genuinely democratic spirit than an effect of the commodity form, which levels existing values rather than contesting them in the name of alternative priorities.  Indeed, it represents an assault less on cultural supremacism than on the notion of values as such.  The very act of discrimination becomes suspect.  Not only does it involve exclusion, but it must inevitably imply the possibility of a superior vantage-point, which seems offensive to the egalitarian spirit.


The bogus populism of the commodity, its warm-hearted refusal to rank, exclude and discriminate, is based on a blank indifference to absolutely everyone.  Careless for the most part of distinction of class, race and gender, impeccably even-handed in its favours, it will yield itself, in the spirit of a whore-house, to anyone with the cash to buy it.  A similar indifference underlies the historic advance of multiculturalism.  If the human species now has a chance, for the first time in its history, to become thoroughly hybrid, it is largely because the capitalist market will buy the labour-power of anyone willing to sell it, whatever their cultural origins. (156-157)

Terry Eagleton | Culture

The Present, with more options

The final limit on capitalism, Marx once commented, is capital itself, the constant reproduction of which is a frontier beyond which it cannot stray.  There is thus something curiously static and repetitive about this most dynamic of all historical regimes.  The fact that its underlying logic remains pretty constant is one reason why the Marxist critique of it remains largely valid.  Only if the system were genuinely able to break beyond its own bounds, inaugurating something unimaginably new, would this cease to be the case.  But capitalism is incapable of inventing a future which does not ritually reproduce its present.  With, needless to say, more options… (10)

Terry Eagleton | Why Marx was Right