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This article is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

Vital Tradition
Terry Eagleton, Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read (Yale University Press) £20
Nicolas Tredell
In the last decade of the twentieth century, a new book by Terry Eagleton called Critical Revolutionaries might have been expected to focus on literary and cultural critics who were more or less Marxist: figures such as Adorno, Althusser, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Brecht, Goldmann and Sartre. But this book mentions them only briefly – indeed, Althusser is relegated to an endnote, which is probably appropriate to his status today (despite his sensational uxoricide). Critical Revolutionaries focuses, as its subtitle says, on five critics who did not, pace Marx, change the world but only interpreted texts – though in doing so they did change ‘the way we read’, which is perhaps to alter a small portion of the world: T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams.

It will not of course have escaped Eagleton’s notice that these (like the theorists he once espoused) are all dead white males. Moreover, only one of them, and then only in his later work, could be called a Marxist: Raymond Williams. Eliot declared himself an Anglo-Catholic and a royalist and Richards, Leavis and Empson were liberals, though the last was left-leaning, a member of CND and an opponent of the Vietnam War. While Eagleton has not gone as far as Perry Anderson, in his later work, in his exploration of non- or anti-Marxist thinkers, he clearly wishes to give a voice to critics who, he asserts, ‘rank among the most original and influential of modern times’ and were key creators of ‘a vital tradition of literary criticism [that] is in danger of ...

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