October 27, 2002
AFTER THE TERROR:Nudge-Winking: a review of The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain by Jason Harding (Terry Eagleton, 19 September 2002, London Review of Books)
It was Fascism, in short, which helped to close down the Criterion, a point overlooked by those for whom Eliot and his magazine were themselves of this persuasion. In fact, Eliot was not a Fascist but a reactionary, a distinction lost on those of his critics who, in the words of Edmund Burke, know nothing of politics but the passions they incite. Ideologically speaking, Fascism is as double-visaged as the Modernism with which it was sometimes involved, casting a backward glance to the primitive and primordial while steaming dynamically ahead into the gleaming technological future. Like Modernism, it is both archaic and avant-garde, sifting pre-modern mythologies for precious seeds of the post-modern future. Politically speaking, however, Fascism, like all nationalism, is a thoroughly modern invention. Its aim is to crush beneath its boot the traditions of high civility that Eliot revered, placing an outsized granite model of a spade and sten gun in the spaces where Virgil and Milton once stood.
Fascism is statist rather than royalist, revolutionary rather than traditionalist, petty-bourgeois rather than patrician, pagan rather than Christian (though Iberian Fascism proved an exception). In its brutal cult of power and contempt for pedigree and civility, it has little in common with Eliot's benignly landowning, regionalist, Morris-dancing, church-centred social ideal. Even so, there are affinities as well as contrasts between Fascism and conservative reaction. If the former touts a demonic version of blood and soil, the latter promotes an angelic one. Both are elitist, authoritarian creeds that sacrifice freedom to organic order; both are hostile to liberal democracy and unbridled market-place economics; both invoke myth and symbol, elevating intuition over analytical reason. The Idea of Europe, as Eliot dubbed it, is in its own civilised way quite as exclusivist as the Nazi state which in Eliot's eyes helped to spell its ruin. It represented, as Thomas Mann understood, a disabling sublimation of the spirit that left actual human life perilously open to the assaults of barbarism. Moreover, though racism and anti-semitism are not essential components of right-wing Tory belief, as they are of most Fascist doctrine, they flourish robustly in that soil.
It is not surprising, then, that Eliot, like W.B. Yeats, should at times be found looking on Fascism with qualified approval, or that he should have made some deplorably anti-semitic comments. The problem with all such political strictures, however, is that conservatives do not regard their beliefs as political. Politics is the sphere of utility, and therefore inimical to conservative values. It is what other people rattle on about, whereas one's own commitments are a matter of custom, instinct, practicality, common sense. The Criterion was thus embarrassed from the outset by having to address an urgent political crisis while apparently not believing in politics. Eliot writes that a literary review must be perpetually changing with the contemporary world; but how can the idea of a Tory periodical not have a smack of the oxymoronic about it, given that the principles it embraces are timeless and immutable? 'Times change, values don't,' as an advertisement for the Daily Telegraph used to proclaim, written perhaps by a hack who enjoyed burning witches. Nor can it be a question of 'applying' these unchanging principles to altering conditions, since the application of universal precepts to the particular, with its resonance of left-rationalism, is part of what conservatism rejects.
These criticisms of conservatism, from one of the last (hopefully) great Marxist theorists, seem pretty fair, except for one thing. Conservatism can hardly be blamed when, having lost the struggle to limit the expansion of the state and the extension of the political into every aspect of human life, it is now somewhat schizophrenic about how to react to these phenomena.
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2002 8:11 AM