Can We Get Beyond Language to A Material Reality? Eagleton’s Marxist Critique of Postmodernism and the Politically Correct Left

The Young-Hegelian ideologists, in spite of their allegedly “world-shattering” statements, are the staunchest conservatives. The most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against “phrases”. They forget, however, that to these phrases they themselves are only opposing other phrases, and that they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world. The only results which this philosophic criticism could achieve were a few (and at that thoroughly one-sided) elucidations of Christianity from the point of view of religious history; all the rest of their assertions are only further embellishments of their claim to have furnished, in these unimportant elucidations, discoveries of universal importance. It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings.

-Karl Marx, The German Ideology


Marx challenged the Hegelians of his day, both Young and Old, with his materialism, his denial of the Hegelian idealism that saw ideas, and not the physical world, as what fundamentally exists. Marx wanted to emphasize not only how we shape the world through our thought, as the Hegelians did, but also how our thought is shaped by the world. Everything is not only a matter of ideas, for our ideas are shaped by reality, even as they also shape reality. “Circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances,” he writes in The German Ideology.

In his “19th Century Idealism and 20th Century Textualism”, Richard Rorty draws a comparison between the idealists and postmodern advocates of something he suggests we can call “textualism”, the view that everything is language, everything is texts, and that we cannot get beyond language to a physical reality. “In the last century,” Rorty wrote, “there were philosophers who argued that nothing exists but ideas. In our century there are people who write as if there were nothing but texts.” Some postmodern thinkers like Rorty seem to hold the view that we are confined to language, to texts, and could not have a pure experience of the physical world, an experience not already divided up linguistically by our inherited concepts. Experience always comes preconceptualized, making language inescapable. This view recalls Hegel’s own critique of sense-certainty in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Talk of Mind or Spirit has been replaced by talk of language, but the denial of the possibility of a pure empiricism or materialism that escapes Mind or language, and the view that all we could ever know would be Mind or language, is shared.

Just as Marx challenged the idealist thinkers of his day, today the prominent Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton wants to challenge postmodern thinkers with Marx’s materialist move. Eagleton levels the same sort of charges of conservatism at people like Rorty: “in [Rorty’s] ideal society the intellectuals will be ‘ironists’, practising a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude to their own belief, while the masses, for whom such self-ironizing might prove too subversive a weapon, will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously.” For Eagleton, Rorty and his postmodern allies have only managed to shuffle phrases around, as Marx puts it, “to…phrases” only ever “opposing other phrases”. As Marx wrote almost two centuries ago, in words that a critic of postmodernism could easily trumpet today, “they are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world.”

Eagleton agrees with the parallel Rorty draws between idealism and postmodern textualism, seeing Derrida’s deconstruction as an updated version of Hegel’s “immanent critique” in his The Illusions of Postmodernism. He just disagrees with Rorty’s sympathy for textualism, which Eagleton sees as hopelessly ineffectual and escapist. Eagleton traces the popularity of textualism to leftist defeatism, attributing the retreat into the world of texts to the left’s failure to effect real political change, particularly in the economic arena. Unable to make a difference in the real world, but also living comfortably enough not to need to, bourgeois academics withdrew from the public struggle to change the system, preferring instead to undertake their radical project to undermine conservative authorities while cloistered in the ivory tower, retreating to the comfort of the hermetic realm of hermeneutics, the world of texts, the only domain where they can feel powerful.

Interestingly, Rorty agrees with this diagnosis. In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country he actually decries the postmodern, “cultural” and “spectatorial” left, which he accuses of having given up on trying to take over the government and having settled merely for trying to take over the English department. Even as Rorty is sympathetic to the textualists philosophically, he calls for a return to economic and labor issues. Rorty feared that too much focus on the topics of the cultural left—on things like identity, language, and so-called “political correctness”—too much leftist elitism that talks down from the academy, smugly dictating the latest acceptable parlance for referring to members of exalted minority groups to the hapless proles out of the loop, might push these frustrated blue-collar workers—already politically abandoned by the economically complacent left in the wake of globalization—into the waiting arms of an opportunistic demagogue. Needless to say, his eerily prescient prophecy has been fulfilled.

Both Rorty and Eagleton agree that our focus should be on economic issues. Economic insecurity is so dangerous because it breeds susceptibility to totalitarian and fascistic movements as desperate people turn to extreme figures to lift them out of despair. Both think that the postmodern, cultural left should make way for a return to a labor-oriented left that attends to economic issues. Although they emphasize the importance of the contributions toward the cause of social justice made while the cultural left held sway, they want to see economic oppression come back to the fore as they see it as the root of so many of our problems.

But while Rorty disconnects his Deweyan, social democrat politics from his sympathy for textualism, Eagleton rails against both textualism and the role it has played in bringing about what he and Rorty see as the left’s disregard for economic issues. While Rorty offers textualists a way to stop being politically correct cultural leftists and to start being social democrats, Eagleton offers textualists a way to stop being textualists so as to stop being politically correct cultural leftists, and to start being Marxists. The question, for those who are sour on the politically correct left and willing to entertain a rethinking of their allegiances, is who makes the more tempting offer.

If we are sympathetic to the argument that the left should return to questions of labor, should we drop textualism to embrace it? Just as Marx sought to give idealists a reason to become dialectical materialists, can Eagleton offer textualists a reason to become dialectical materialists? And for those of us who do want to move away from the cultural left, should we land amidst Rorty and the reformist social democrats or Eagleton and the revolutionarily-minded Marxists?

For those already tempted by Rorty’s pragmatic critique of traditional metaphysics, which views truth with a capital “T” with nothing more than insouciance and prefers the verdict of democratic consensus to what Dewey called “the quest for certainty”, Eagleton wants to offer us something perhaps more tempting. In his deployment of Marx’s materialism, he wants to offer us a way to have our proletarian truth and knowledge without all the worrisome metaphysical baggage of traditional epistemology, and all while steering clearer than Rorty can of what they both see as the grandiose escapism of the cultural left. Marx’s materialism acknowledges the influence of both mind or language on reality, and reality on mind or language, leaving no unbridgeable gap between them. But the question remains: can this loop offer us a way out of the textualist confinement to language cut off from reality, a confinement that lends itself more readily to addressing linguistic and cultural issues than material ones?




Eagleton makes the case that it can in his The Illusions of Postmodernism, in Chapter Four of his more recent Why Marx Was Right, and in his most recent Materialism. The former is clearly meant to do battle with textualism itself, as Eagleton wordily spars with the regnant themes among Derrida’s epigones. The latter two works are more accessible defenses of Marxist materialism, and more directly spell out a positive account of materialism that tries to navigate between a crude reductionism and an overwrought vitalism. Eagleton wants to make plain that, for the Marxist, materialism means neither that matter is more important than human creativity in a way that leaves no room for talk of the human spirit, nor that we can go entirely off the rails by declaring matter itself to be alive, turning matter into the God so long desired from spirit.

Eagleton’s Marxist takes seriously the material conditions out of which human social arrangements arise. Ideas and ideology—ideas that are in the pay of the ruling class of any society—come late to the game, and are shaped by the material conditions out of which they spring. Material conditions shape thought, and not, as the textualists would seem to have it, only the other way around. Eagleton places special emphasis on Marx’s romantic view of humans as fundamentally creative beings, and the world as worked on by us as fundamentally an extension of our human selves. We put ourselves into material objects as we shape them through our labor. They contain part of us. We are embedded in material reality through our practical engagement with matter as material beings ourselves. His Marxist as materialist also, in later Wittgensteinian fashion, does not see any room for a reified mind or soul that exists apart from material. All is made visible through our actions and through language, leaving no hidden realm of mysterious mentality which might elude the influence of material conditions. When we do manage to hide what we are thinking and feeling, it comes after great struggle and with deliberate effort.

Throughout his works, what seems to irritate Eagleton most are the postmodern ideas that we are trapped within language—as textualism would have it—and that there is no universal human nature. In the early pages of The Illusions of Postmodernism Eagleton suggests that language is always pointing to something beyond it, that the distinctions between inner and outer, immanent and transcendent, are themselves both made within language and directing us to that which lies outside, making it inconceivable that language could act as a barrier between us and the world as he takes the textualists to claim. As Eagleton puts it: “To inhabit a language is always by that very token to inhabit a good deal more than it, and that there is that which transcends language is exactly what the interior of our language informs us of.” Language is always biting off more of reality than it can chew. This take on language, however briefly articulated, is meant to overcome the textualist’s trapped-in-language view. It is coupled with Eagleton’s repeated emphasis on the Marxist idea that material conditions shape the way we think in order to challenge the postmodern denial of a universal human nature.

Eagleton’s view of universal human nature seems to amount to the idea that we would not be the sort of creatures we are with the sort of language games that we have were the world different from what it is. That the world is the way it is accounts for the way our species deals with it. Because we share an evolutionary history, which occurred the way it did because of the way the world shaped us, and the world shaped us this way because of the way it is itself shaped, we share a way of encountering reality with other members of our species that ultimately gives us a proletarian sort of truth while still allowing us to throw out the quibbles of metaphysical scholasticism.

As Eagleton disarmingly puts it, Marx didn’t much care whether reality was at bottom made of matter or green cheese. What actually mattered for his materialism was not metaphysics but whether the proletariat could come by the hard-won knowledge of the material conditions of their own existence, knowledge that would then feed into the development of class-consciousness and ultimately the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie. It seems that, for Eagleton, the proletariat can indeed achieve such knowledge because for Marx there is a shared, universal human nature, the result of how our species-being has been shaped by our reality to encounter our reality. We can have knowledge of our material conditions because we are material beings, not in the crude, reductionist sense but in the stirring, inspirational, Marxist sense, where humans are fundamentally creative creatures, mixing their material being into the rest of matter through their labor as an artist pours his creativity into his works. Our intimate relation to matter as proto-Heideggerian Being-in-the-World means that through our practical activity as material beings we can come to understand the material conditions of our society. This is something of which all humans are capable, because of their shared species-being.

One of the reasons why the postmodern denial of truth is so shameful in Eagleton’s view is that it stems from an unselfconscious bourgeois smugness. It is a luxury to be able to be so playful and flippant about truth. Postmodernists take any authority to be bad news, desiring a sweeping tolerance for the endless variety of forms that might be tossed up by culture, but for people like Eagleton this view reflects a political naivety that ignores how often truth is the lever that can offer the oppressed an opportunity to pry themselves out of their situation. As Eagleton puts it:

One of the most moving narratives of modern history is the story of how men and women languishing under various forms of oppression came to acquire, often at great personal cost, the sort of technical knowledge necessary for them to understand their own condition more deeply, and so acquire some of the theoretical armoury essential to change it. It is an insult to inform these men and women that, in the economic metaphor for intellectual life now prevalent for the USA, they are “buying into” the conceptual closures of their masters, or colluding with phallogocentrism. Those who are privileged enough not to need to know, for whom there is nothing politically at stake in reasonably accurate cognition, have little to lose by proclaiming the virtues of undecidability. There is no reason why literary critics should not turn to autobiography or anecdotalism, or simply slice up their texts and deliver them to their publishers in a cardboard box, if they are not so politically placed as to need emancipatory knowledge.

(The Illusions of Postmodernism, 5)

This is all stirring stuff, which might be just the sort of humble view that could tempt truth-starved Rortians to jump ship for dry land. Rorty’s fans admire his intellectual modesty and humility, but it’s hard to decide who is humbler, Rorty with his staunchly democratic refusal to have anything to do with the claims of elitist Platonists and scientistic experts to true knowledge, or Eagleton, whose Marxist truth appears only to have shown up for work at all for the sake of the working man’s liberation. It almost seems as if we could all be Rortians and that Eagleton wouldn’t really mind all that much, were it not for the fact that the revolution hasn’t happened yet. For Eagleton often remarks that Marxists would like nothing more than for the revolution to be over so that they can stop being Marxists. If we were all enjoying the freedom of a post-capitalist society then maybe we could be ironists, but it seems that Eagleton wants us to realize that if we are ever to be free, we first need to embrace historical materialism in earnest. Part of the reason Eagleton objects to postmodernism is its self-congratulatory announcement that the future is already here, that history is over, and that it doesn’t get much better than welfare state capitalism—something that is all too easy for the turtlenecked literati to believe when hobnobbing at their cocktail parties, but which is perhaps harder to stomach for the caterer who has to collect their plates of partially gnawed strawberries and half-eaten mini-quiches.

Eagleton also finds irony in the fact that shortly after the postmodern declaration of the end of history, when we are supposedly all progressing further toward a post-religious, post-metaphysical pragmatism of Rorty’s imagining, where we sit around and engage amiably in the human conversation without any metaphysical table-thumping or philosophical priggishness, Islamic fundamentalism violently asserts itself—a full-blooded religious and metaphysical meta-narrative that has no qualms about making philosophically weighty assertions about ultimate reality and has no problem with declarations of certainty. Eagleton points out that, apart from some old-time religiosity in some regions of the United States, the West is heading in the direction of ironic detachment toward one’s “final” vocabulary, what one would expect from wealthy, comfortable, technologized, information-driven market societies. At the same time, it has come face to face with an enemy that shares none of its embarrassment about asserting absolute truth. Eagleton asks whether the West can get by with pragmatism, or whether it needs to go metaphysical again, the idea being that perhaps Eagleton’s own Marxist materialism, which neither strays too far into a full-blooded metaphysics, nor gives up the game entirely in the way pragmatism does, has something to offer in the midst of this clash.

After this sustained attack on the postmodern attitude, we might wonder how Rorty would reply to Eagleton’s efforts to break us out of the textualist’s trapped-in-language-view and to reassert a universal human nature, meant to guarantee us knowledge of material conditions as a result of the way these material conditions have shaped us to encounter them. In his response to Frank Farrell in Rorty & Pragmatism, Rorty admits that in earlier characterizations of his own view, such as in “The World Well Lost”, his position does seem to align with his understanding of textualism, as he endorses a sort of romantic triumphalism of a subjectivity that is happy to forget about trying to discover the objective world. In his earlier works, he does seem to embrace the trapped-in-language textualist view, and to embrace it as liberating. This earlier view seems to amount to thinking that we’ve been chasing reality all this time when we should have been seeing our language as shaping the reality we encounter. We’ve never penetrated beyond language to the objective world, and talk of being able to do so makes little sense, a realization which is actually freeing, for it undermines the undemocratic knowledge claims of Platonist philosophers and scientistic experts who see themselves as keepers of the truth, a truth that others must be made to obey. Forget about reality, we’re trapped in language anyway, and the better for it.

But then, Rorty explains, he came to realize that actually we can’t make sense of being able to separate out the projections of language on reality from the contributions of reality to language, and so we can’t make sense of saying that it all comes down to our projection of language on reality as the textualists hold. In his response to Farrell, Rorty endorses the view that, as Farrell puts it, “We err if we think we can divide up the contributions of the world, language, and interpreter, so as to specify what the contribution of one of those sources would be, in independence of others.” As Rorty explains:

For as I (now, at least) see the matter, the picture of the mind projecting structure onto an unstructured world is just as bad as the idea of the world projecting structure onto, or into, language. I should like to reject the whole set of optical metaphors—projecting as well as mirroring, reflecting, or shadowing—and thus to reject the question Which comes first, subject or object? This means rejecting the question Whose contours were there first? Language’s or the world’s? Whose contours are reflecting whose? …I, the other language-users, and the rest of the universe all are what we are because the other two sides of the triangle [of myself, other language-users, and the rest of the universe] are what they are, and…there is no point in trying to break down “are what they are” into more specific processes of projecting or reflecting. This is because there is no way of examining any of these three sides in isolation from each other, in order to see who is doing what to whom. To fully accept this moral would be to stop talking about realism and antirealism and, more generally, to stop asking questions about our relationship to the rest of the universe.

(Rorty & Pragmatism, 192-194)

For Rorty, we can’t isolate the roles that my own language use, the language use of others, and reality play in order to see which comes first. And if we can’t tease out what the world gives us from what we and others put on the world, then we can’t make the distinction between what stems from reality and what stems from language. If we can’t separate language out as coming first, then we can’t say that it’s all a matter of language shaping reality. We can’t be textualists. Rorty wants us to realize that it is pointless to try to say that one or the other comes first. It is pointless to try to break down the circle of language and reality to make either language or reality more fundamental, bringing him close to the view which Marx and Eagleton also champion, where “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.”

However, what led Rorty to embrace the circle of language and reality, and so ditch the language-as-fundamental textualist view, was not the Marxist realization that the circle of language and reality guarantees that, as beings shaped by the same reality, our species shares enough to have an encounter of reality that allows us all to discover the same truths in practical activity in the world. Rather, what guides Rorty is a realization that we should give up on trying to separate reality from language—a realization that we should give up trying to represent how the world is. And this seems like exactly what Eagleton’s Marxist wants to do when he distinguishes between proper knowledge of material conditions and the ideology of the ruling class which covers over those material conditions.

Eagleton’s Marxist would seem to want to say that we can have proper knowledge of material conditions, of reality, while ideology is merely projected on reality. He can arrive at this sort of statement, presumably, by coming to understand the relations between men and circumstances, so that he can see where men have made circumstances (ideology) and where circumstances have made men (material conditions). But Rorty sees language as shaping reality and reality as shaping language in so interwoven a fashion that we can’t distinguish between where one stops and the other begins, we can’t isolate one to see what exactly it is that they do to each other. For Rorty, this means that we can’t even make sense of saying that some ideas are “just” ideology and some ideas are “really” indicative of something in reality. Rorty’s take on the circle of language and reality makes us unable to distinguish between the contributions of reality and language, between the truth about material conditions and ideology. No one could claim to have penetrated through ideology to proper knowledge of material conditions, not because we are trapped in ideology (as textualism might be thought to say), but because we can’t make sense of the attempt to distinguish between ideology and proper knowledge of material conditions. To have proper knowledge of material conditions, it would seem like we would have to be able to separate the interweave of the influence of language of ideology, from the influence of reality. But it is this tangled ball of influences that seems so inextricably interwoven. What for Eagleton overcomes textualism, and so offers the proletariat knowledge of their material conditions that they can use to combat ideology, is what at the same time allows Rorty a way to deny that historical materialism can make much sense of trying to distinguish between knowledge and ideology. The circle of language and reality can be pressed into service for more than just the Marxist cause.

Where does this leave Eagleton’s Marxist defense of a universal human nature? Rorty agrees that “we would not have the language and the beliefs we do were the world not as it is.” In endorsing the circle of language and reality he is on board with the idea that we and our language have been shaped by reality, which is ultimately the basis for Eagleton’s Marxist endorsement of universal human nature. Eagleton takes it that the influence of material reality on the development of our species is what enables us to have shared knowledge of the material conditions necessary for the liberation of the workers. But, as we saw, where Rorty demurs is in thinking that we can separate the influences of material reality from the influences of language-users. And we can’t sort out what sort of commonalities there are across the human species—and so develop a view of what is held in common across humanity, a view of human nature—if we can’t even sort out what reality makes from what we make. On Rorty’s view, we can’t put subject or object first. We can’t see what comes from culture and what, if anything, is constant regardless of cultural variations. This means there’s not much point in trying to develop an account of human nature from which a account of knowing reality could be derived. But it’s also more than that. For Rorty’s brand of historicist pragmatism, there is a huge difficulty in finding any quality that all humans are said to share in all times and all places. Different groups of humans in different times and places have banded together and shared various attitudes, of course. But it seems difficult to point to much worth taking as indicative of a universal human nature across the great myriad of forms of human life.

Against all this Eagleton will defend the view that the circle of language and reality enables us to be engaged in the world in a way that allows us to describe material conditions because, as Marx put it, “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.” We can be in touch with reality in a way that penetrates through ideology because we are inseparably part of the formation of reality, and this allows us to come to an understanding of how circumstances have shaped us. For Eagleton, it seems, there must be some hope of disentangling what is made by reality from what is made by us if there is to be any hope of overcoming ideology and having proper knowledge of material conditions. As for human nature, Eagleton will insist, as he does against the postmodernists generally, that human beings share enough in common—birth, death, pain, and so on—to make some rough generalizations about them as a species while eschewing the sort of heavy-handed and metaphysically-loaded universal human nature of enlightenment rationalism.

At the same time, in his discussion of Wittgenstein in Materialism, Eagleton does seem sympathetic to the idea that truth is something that happens within a vocabulary, and that outside of vocabularies, and regarding vocabularies, there is little to say about there being a best representation of the world. If he is indeed sympathetic to this line of thinking, it would seem to give up the game, however. Why pick up the Marxist vocabulary, which, as a whole, does not describe reality better than any other, since its criteria for more accurate description are internal to it? Once the Marxist vocabulary is up and running, we can distinguish between knowledge of material conditions and ideology. But why think that picking up the Marxist vocabulary is, in the first place, something to do with material conditions? At that point, it seems like picking the Marxist vocabulary would stem from one’s political goals, what one found expedient, just as the pragmatists suspect and admit.

Perhaps a way to respond to this sort of thinking is to be found in Eagleton’s endorsement of Wittgenstein’s own emphasis on how the contingency of our language-games does not mean that we can simply drop them whenever we please and pick up new ones. When Wittgenstein stresses that our language games are rooted in forms of life, in what we do, there is an inherent conservatism, as if we can’t help but do what we do. We can’t help but play the language-games we do. And if we play the same language-games, as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie might be said to do, then we share the same approach to the world, so that we can make sense of there being ideology, which masks over truths that we—because of our shared language-games and forms of life—would all recognize, were we being honest. It is because of the sorts of creatures we are, for Eagleton, that we play the language-games we do, and so share enough in common that our language-games are sufficiently similar, across classes, that we can distinguish between ideology and facts about material conditions.

And perhaps this is what the disagreement comes down to between Rorty’s pragmatist and Eagleton’s materialist Marxist, just how readily revisable our language-games are. Rorty wants them to be seen as readily revisable, for this is what brings about progress, when we learn to talk in different ways and so drop old problems and antagonisms. Eagleton acknowledges in Wittgensteinian fashion the contingency of vocabularies, but stresses that they cannot be so easily revised, and indeed it is because our vocabularies are sufficiently entrenched that they can act as an emancipatory lever for the proletariat. Do we make progress by dropping old, problematic ways of talking, or by rubbing the noses of the elite in the unpleasant realities of their forms of life, as revealed in their existing vocabularies? Faced with this disagreement, we might actually suspect that, ultimately, some combination of these two may be necessary.

At issue too is the extent to which a different vocabulary would really involve a different way of encountering the world. How confined are we as creatures shaped by the world in the development of our vocabularies? Confined to the point where, no matter the culture or class, our disparate vocabularies all force us to admit certain things about our condition? Keep redescribing until things get better, or realize that, no matter the redescription, we’re stuck with certain features of our vocabularies because of the sort of creatures that we are and thus the kind of encounter of others and the world that we are going to have. Either emphasize that we can’t help but see the world in a certain way, or emphasize that we can. Again, we might ultimately suspect that we might do either depending on what we are trying to change, though there may be little to turn to for help in deciding what approach befits a particular situation, since the decision threatens to repeat itself. Why decide that this can’t be helped but that can? Because we can’t help but decide that this can’t be helped but that can? Or because we can?

Indeed, faced with this clash of conflicting views, faced with conflicting conclusions about the circle of language and reality, and haunted by undecidability, it may be time to wheel out the pragmatist’s favorite question: does any of this matter in practice? Does it matter whether we take Eagleton or Rorty’s view of the language and reality circle? And, to pay homage to the Marxist emphasis on praxis, is our aforementioned caterer going to need to give a damn about any of this to hope and work for a better future?

Interestingly, Rorty and Eagleton come fairly close to one another in their shared eschewal of full-blooded metaphysics and their shared emphasis on the practical over the theoretical. Marxism emphasizes the practical because it ultimately has the very practical, real world aim of making things better for the workers, a goal to which metaphysics contributes little. And pragmatism, as Dewey and Rorty would have it, emphasizes the practical because it has the very practical, real world aim of enabling democracies to better themselves, another goal to which metaphysics contributes little. Both are anchored in political goals, which see philosophy in the service of the workers and democratic citizens respectively, rather than seeing the common folk as the fodder for philosopher-kings.

But Eagleton is unwilling to go “Stalinist”, as he accuses Rorty of doing. He is unwilling to see one’s philosophy as properly being whatever best serves one’s political goals. The smear is rather out of place, given that Rorty’s political goals are democratic and so the opposite of Stalin’s. But Eagleton wants to stress that, even as his philosophy happens to be what best serves his political goals, he thinks it also succeeds in getting something right about reality as encountered by the sort of creatures that we are, and this is what enables it to avoid the Stalinist charge. Rorty, on the other hand, is content to come out with it and admit that his philosophy serves his political goals, while sharing the suspicion common to Nietzsche and the pragmatists that pretty much everybody does much the same, even if they don’t own up to it. Everybody goes with the philosophy that best favors their political goals, but they don’t admit this because it leads to bad press—people call you a Stalinist—so they insist that their philosophical view, in a stroke of good fortune, happens to be true, thus invoking reality to legitimate their politics.

To see whether any of this is something that our hapless caterer should care about, it helps to ask, could there be an ironist Marxist? Could one take Rorty’s pragmatist view and still embrace the political program of the revolutionarily-minded Marxist? Rorty frequently suggests that we should not read to much of a person’s politics back into their philosophy. He thinks that one could be a pragmatist philosophically and just about anything politically. If pragmatism in its crudest form is going with what works, then pragmatism will mean going with what one views to work. For Dewey and Rorty, that means social democracy. For Nietzsche, who embodied pragmatist views while despising democracy, showing only contempt for the Last Men who would occupy the democratic state, it meant an individualist elitism that cares little for the masses. If extreme conservatives can agree with the pragmatists philosophically, then why not Marxists?

It is not obvious that there could not be an ironist Marxist. There could be someone who thought that historical materialism was best seen as one possible working vocabulary that could be pressed into service to answer to human needs, and saw fit to employ it. Indeed, even Eagleton and Marx agree that Marxism popped up to serve a certain purpose in a certain time and place and should fade from view once its goals have been achieved. This self-aware historicism may even lend it to being embraced ironically.

But could one care that much about bringing on the revolution if one treats the whole Marxist business as contingent? Rorty has maintained, against the criticisms of those like Simon Critchley, that ironists can still passionately care about moral matters, they can still be sensitive to cruelty, while being ironists. If Rorty is right, then the ironist can care about the Marxist cause even while not thinking that we can make sense of the claim that historical materialism is backed up by reality.

However, Eagleton raises another issue for the ironist—is Rorty’s ironism, for all its anti-elitism against Platonists and scientistic experts philosophically, actually just as condescending toward the proles, who still believe in unqualified objective truth, of all things, after all? I think Rorty’s general strategy for avoiding condescension is to deemphasize the importance of philosophy for politics. He is dismissive of the idea that the abstract debates over truth, and the differences between himself and his philosophical critics, matter all that much in public life. It is true that a nation of ironist pragmatists would see themselves differently than many American citizens probably do at present. There would not be no change at all in our self-conceptions if Rorty’s ironism were to sweep the nation. But in terms of political goals, they remain unchanged. Labor unions are still important, whether one is a social democrat with positivistic and scientistic philosophical views or a social democrat with pragmatist philosophical views. Rorty’s reformist political goals, his belief in the need to make working conditions better within the system of welfare state capitalism, do not change. The caterer need not bother with the philosophical debate between pragmatism and historical materialism, only with being engaged, as should the bourgeois partygoers, in bringing about labor reforms through participation in the democratic process.

But this is not how Eagleton and many of Rorty’s other critics want to see the matter. Eagleton sees Rorty and others like Stanley Fish to be paving the way for ideology in being so insouciant about proper knowledge of the material conditions of reality. Without attention to the truth that workers are oppressed, it is all the easier for wealthy elites to dangle their propaganda in front of their noses, ensuring they will forever continue to turn the great capitalist wheel with heads bowed, giving the capitalist his power. James Conant, another of Rorty’s critics, thinks that it is very important to still talk publicly of truth, whether in the court room or the civil rights rally. Admitting that our philosophical views are pretty much always in the service of our political goals gives up the game, Eagleton and Conant think, to opportunistic demagogues who can ride roughshod over the oppressed by redescribing what they are doing in favorable terms, all while not being answerable to the truth of the matter, understood as coming from our shared language-games and forms of life that arose from the sort of creatures that we are. It is of the utmost importance that the caterer manage to be acquainted with discussions of Marxism and his material conditions because this knowledge is what will raise class-consciousness, and so begin to overcome the competition and social divisions that keep workers divided and exploited by the wealthy capitalist owners. The caterer must realize the truth of his situation, while still engaged in the language-games he and the capitalist share he must see through their propaganda, not dismiss knowledge and truth as passé because they are always relative to certain language-games and forms of life.

So perhaps the differences between Eagleton and Rorty do matter for the caterer, if only because Rorty would say that they don’t while Eagleton and Conant would insist that they do. Of course, we might suppose that the importance of a knowledge of one’s materialist conditions need not include a knowledge of all the philosophical rivals to historical materialism, an acquaintance with all the objections and replies in the debate, at least not initially, even if it might at its best grow to that. What is most important for the Marxist is presumably not that workers have knowledge of philosophy but knowledge of their own exploitation. As Marx is always quoted for saying in the Eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Changing the world is the goal.

Rorty is not impressed by talk of the need for invocations of truth. He sees a post-metaphysical culture as no more impossible than a post-religious, secular culture, which views invocations of religious views in the public sphere as conversation-stoppers. Rorty just also sees invocations of metaphysics as conversation stoppers. To be assured that some political proposal is backed by the reality of historical materialism, even a qualified reality that arises out of the interplay of our forms of life, language-games, and the world, is, for Rorty, no different than being told some political proposal is backed by God. This appeal works on everyone who it works on, and fails to move anyone who does not already accept the necessary premises. Rorty maintains that it’s best to stick to the human conversation, to what Rawls calls “public reasons”, reasons that anyone from any background might find persuasive, and not try to wheel out one’s favorite knock-down arguments, since one person’s knock-down argument is another person’s conversation-stopper.

Not only does Rorty not pretend to have higher motives for his political goals, he also does not hide the fact that his opposition to Marxism stems from personal experience. He notably offers an autobiographical account of his personal history of youthfully embracing and then later eschewing Marxism. His parents were staunch Trotskyites, and he tells in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” of his childhood missions delivering press releases to and from union offices, organizers, and politicians, as well as his youthful efforts to reconcile his snobbish aestheticism with Trotsky’s instance that anything anyone does should be in the service of the Marxist cause. But Rorty would abandon his parents’ Trotskyism for a reformist, Deweyan politics of social democracy. As he puts it in his review of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx:

American leftists of my generation tend to think of Marx as having explained the injustices produced by nineteenth-century capitalism better than anyone else. But we regret that he mixed up sharp-eyed political and economic analysis with a lot of windy Hegelianisms. We think it a pity that the best political economist of the nineteenth century happened to major in philosophy, and never quite got over it. Like Sidney Hook, we suspect that Dewey filtered out everything that was worth saving in Hegel, and that all Marx adds to Dewey, Weber and the other philosophers of social democracy are some pungent details about exactly how the rich manage to keep the poor impotent, and some helpful hints for debunking the hypocrisy of defenders of the status quo. …Any tool is replaceable as soon as a handier, less clumsy, more easily portable tool is invented. The sheer clumsiness of attempts to use ‘a problematic coming from the Marxist tradition’ when dealing with contemporary problems is the most persuasive reason for doubting Derrida’s claim that we must read and reread Marx.

(“A Spectre is Haunting the Intellectuals: Derrida on Marx”)

Rorty thinks that the prolonged infatuation of the Western left with Marx is only doing more harm than good at this point, having resulted in the “spectatorial” postmodern left of today, which in his view seems content to sneer from the sidelines at the system it sees as irredeemable, instead of gritting its teeth and working to effect reformist political change, however modest it may be. He would see us allow Marx, having outlived his usefulness, to fade quietly into retirement.

Nor, for that matter, does Eagleton hide the youthful character of his own Marxism. He tells of handing out leaflets to workers alongside Christopher Hitchens, who, Eagleton is fond of remarking, was then a humble “Chris”. Hitchens, like so many other 60s radicals, would later largely abandon the Marxist left. For Hitchens, a man of expensive taste, it was far more appealing to rub shoulders with the wealthy Washington elite, ostensibly espousing a politics akin to Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism while wholeheartedly embracing capitalism in practice, along with a Voltairean enlightenment rationalism and the sort of Western aggression befitting the 18th century. Eagleton, now in his 70s, self-deprecatingly suggests that while so many of his compatriots grew up, apparently he has not.

More seriously, as he says, Eagleton thinks that so many of the 60s generation abandoned Marxism because it did not yield results, despite considerable efforts. But, for Eagleton, that the ranks have dwindled is all the more reason to keep at it, not to go over to becoming part of the wealthy capitalist elite, “If you can’t beat them, join them” not being the most noble slogan. The truths of Marxism, even as viewed through a qualified, Wittgensteinian lens, have not gone away by being ignored. Indeed, Eagleton’s Marxism combines with his sympathy for the liberation theology of poverty-minded Catholicism, which sees God as expressed in our efforts to help our fellow man, in a way that suggests Marxism means something entirely different for him than it does for Rorty. For Rorty, Marx made some important points about economic inequality, but didn’t offer us many tools for solving our problems that are of much use to us today. For Eagleton, Marx, like Christ, offers a condemnation of the way the world is in all its injustice and cruelty, which gives us not only a firm critical stance from which to launch the critique of capitalism, but also is the source of a passionate hope, a hope which these radical figures ignite within us, of a better future to which we might some day draw near. What for Rorty is a tool to be dropped when it has outlived its usefulness is for Eagleton a radical eschatological vision of a day when capitalism will finally be washed away, a vision that ever rekindles a burning desire for justice within our breast, the source of our hope that things can be better.

In the end, both Eagleton and Rorty offer practically-oriented approaches to philosophy that dismiss abstract metaphysics and see philosophy as properly in the service of political goals, even if Rorty goes farther than Eagleton in this regard. And both offer ways for those critical of the postmodern, cultural left to reassert the need for a focus on economic issues in the wake of the rise of populism. Rorty is perhaps slightly more revolutionary in his philosophy, while Eagleton is good deal more revolutionary in his politics. Who we each choose to side with, or whether we dismiss both of their offerings, may simply be a matter of our own political goals. Or there may be something nobler involved. If we can choose between these two ways of seeing ourselves, then perhaps part our choice has already been made.


6 thoughts on “Can We Get Beyond Language to A Material Reality? Eagleton’s Marxist Critique of Postmodernism and the Politically Correct Left

  1. Love it. I’m reposting it.

    But somehow I feel it would’ve been more digestible if you chopped it up and posted it over like couple weeks in like six different posts.

    Personally I don’t like to sit on my iPhone for like 20 minutes reading a super long and involved essay at one time.

    I mean I used to do this in my earlier posts but then I found that I don’t even take the time to read these longer posts😝

    But that’s just me.
    I had to skim through some of your post here but I read probably 60 percent of it


  2. Pingback: The Real Case Against Postmodern Fantasy. | Constructive Undoing

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