Wallpaper and Barricades

Terry Eagleton

  • William Morris: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy
    Faber, 780 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 571 14250 8

The Left has always been uneasy with aesthetics. The very word suggests privilege, preciousness, a remoteness from the real. Even when radicals respect culture, they assign it, quite properly, a secondary place to social utility. If it’s a choice between snatching from the flames the Holbein or the hippie, the radical is a mite less agonised than the aesthete. Almost everyone agrees that a museum is not as fine a thing as an orphanage; what differentiates Left from Right is just the degree of mental reservation you feel about the proposition.

In any case, too many conservatives have hijacked the aesthetic to ratify their politics. The sublimity of power; society as a mysteriously unified organism; history as spontaneous growth; truth as an intuitive certainty felt on the pulses: it is no wonder (though it is a pity) that the old Left tended to counter these Burkeian mystifications with a bloodless rationalism. And that rationalism merely reflected the Utilitarianism of a society for which art was an embarrassing superfluity. The contemporary Left, to be sure, has rectified this error with a vengeance. If politics once swallowed up culture, culture has now almost entirely absorbed politics. There is a good deal more interest in Madonna than in the multinationals.

There was always, however, an alternative heritage. The young Marx owed much of his critique of capitalism to the aesthetics of Friedrich Schiller, and aesthetic notions lurk within the political and economic thought of his maturity. If the early Marx opposes industrial capitalism, it is as much because it robs us of our sensuous life as of our material well-being, plundering the body and stripping its perceptual organs to so many commodified objects. Nothing about Sky television would have surprised him. The Frankfurt School, and Marcuse in particular, were the great inheritors of this cultural politics; but meanwhile an indigenous British current of it had got under way, passed from Coleridge and Carlyle to John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold. From this radical-Romantic viewpoint, industrial capitalism was to be condemned for stifling a creativity which the arts, above all, most finely exemplified. Art was the enemy of alienation, craftsmanship the antithesis of labour. Human culture implied a community at odds with the atomised social order of the marketplace.

There were three mighty flaws in this generous vision. It was embarrassingly nostalgic, enraptured by the dream of an organic society of colourful peasants and clean-limbed artisans before the Fall into modernity. Freedom was less a matter of having the vote than of being allowed to doodle the odd gargoyle on a cathedral roof. It was unsure whether its target was industrialism or industrial capitalism, which somewhat blunted its political edge. And it was inescapably idealist, trusting to a change of heart rather than a transformation of the economy. Scornful or ignorant of socialist thought, it was forced to oppose the social order it detested with pre- rather than post-capitalist forms. Its Romanticism was thus radical and reactionary together – a bizarre blend of communalism and neo-feudalism in which the predatory capitalist was ousted by the paternalist landlord. It was this tradition which lay behind the great figures of Modernist English literature, radical reactionaries to a man (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis) though not, as it happens, to a Bloomsbury woman.

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