October 24, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Milton, Paradise Lost and Revolution

From Terry Eagleton. "The God that Failed." Re-membering Milton, eds. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. 345, 349.
Throwing history into reverse, the left wing retreats to an origin in order to keep alive a future beyond the shabby sell-outs of the bourgeoisie. Their mythologies glean the trace of the revolution within the revolution, a submerged subtext within the dispiriting narratives of official bourgeois history, whether this subtext is, as with Milton, the salvific history of the godly remnant or, as with Walter Benjamin, the tradition of the oppressed that haunts ruling-class history as its silenced underside. Blake knew that only a revolution which penetrated to the body itself could finally be victorious; Milton, as Christopher Hill remarks, believed that “the desire for reformation did not sink deeply enough into the consciences of supporters of the Revolution, did not transform their lives.” Thus Hill reads Paradise Lost not as the expression of political defeat but as the urging of a new political phase: “the foundations must be dug deeper, into the hearts of individual believers, in order to build more securely.”


To blame Marxism for [the conditions of Stalinism] is then somewhat akin to blaming God for the failure of seventeenth-century revolutionary hopes. To blame God in this way, Milton sees, can only mean one thing: that the Puritan bureaucrats, opportunists and careerists are then let comfortably off the moral and political hook. It was destiny after all; nothing to feel guilty about. But the failure of revolutionary hopes was not of course predestined and neither was Stalinism. . . . There are always those who, like the Koestlers and the Orwells, find it convenient and persuasive to blame the God that failed; but if we wanted a more accurate analogue of Paradise Lost in the twentieth century, we might do worse than looking at Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.

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