In a review of Christopher Hitchens's recently published memoir, a review that is just a shade on the unfriendly side, Terry Eagleton writes at one point as if he (Eagleton) might be a liberal: 'Liberals ought to hold their convictions just as passionately as their illiberal opponents'. It could be, I suppose, that Eagleton means this as advice from the outside - the view of a non-liberal about how liberals ought to hold their convictions. But in context that looks unlikely; I doubt, for one thing, that Eagleton would want to count himself amongst the 'illiberal opponents' of liberalism.
A feature of his review, nonetheless, is that Hitchens gets denounced for not having remained true to his former beliefs. Hitchens is, Eagleton writes, that 'dreariest' type of cliché, 'the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz'. A little further on, Hitchens is said by him to have 'made his peace... with capitalism' (if not with the insolence of power). Such is the breadth of Eagleton's liberalism: housing the authentic tones of the believer who condemns a departure from the faith. If it is true that Hitchens has now given up on socialism and settled for capitalism - and on this score he is more than able to speak for himself - why should it not be treated by Eagleton as a change of mind within the range of what any genuine liberal might find comprehensible given the actual historical record of so-called actually-existing socialism, to say nothing of the fact that a significant proportion of humankind, including people in every class and social category, currently think that some form of capitalism - reformed, or further regulated as may be, or 'humanized', or mixed with other social forms - marks the furthest visible limit of the historical horizon? I would even wager that amongst people of Terry Eagleton's close acquaintance, personal and professional, there are many who are unable to see further than this horizon and yet whose thinking he does not treat as somehow morally culpable. Could it be that it's not the non-socialist state of mind as such that he condemns, but rather the change of mind? A mind that can't be changed, however, is not standardly one regarded by liberals as the very best kind. One might have thought that a liberal would be able to find the means of accommodating a change of mind such as that ascribed by Eagleton to Hitchens, without treating it in the disparaging made-his-peace-with way that Eagleton does.
Much the same can be said about his comments on the Iraq war. Eagleton's favoured terms for describing Hitchens's support for military intervention in Iraq are that he learned 'how to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz'; or, more prejudicially still, that 'Hitchens absolutely believed that it was right to unleash a murderous fury on the innocent people of Iraq'. Hitchens himself might have put this differently, of course; indeed he did many times. He might have said, for example, as Ian McEwan is reported (here) to have said: 'I wanted a fascist dictator removed'. Yet, along with plenty of others in his political neck of the woods the liberal Eagleton has seemingly failed to grasp this motive for support for the war from a section of the international left. Hitchens 'was never very adept at ideas', Eagleton remarks at one point. Well, there's more than one form of adeptness with ideas. There is a certain adeptness in the wilful failure to understand the contours of an alternative viewpoint when its proponents have made them as plain as can be.
As well as advising on how liberals ought to hold their convictions, Eagleton has something to say about the liberal virtue of tolerance. It comes in the following comment:
The problem, in a striking historical irony, is that it is the literary-liberal guardians of the flame of tolerance and pluralism who are nowadays most likely to be cultural supremacists and gung-ho militarists when it comes to the Muslim world.
Let's leave aside 'gung-ho militarists', shall we? That is just more in the 'loving Paul Wolfowitz' vein. But here we have a would-be liberal unable to rise to the height of accepting that a socialist might cease to be one without being condemned for reprehensible conduct, or of accepting that there could be impulses worthy of being taken seriously behind support on the left for dispatching the regime of Saddam Hussein; but who can only see the defence of liberalism itself against its enemies as a form of lamentably dogmatic cultural supremacism vis-à-vis the Muslim world. The latter charge is beside the point. Liberals enjoin tolerance so far and no further; it is not obligatory for a liberal to pretend that anti-liberal creeds are as valuable as liberalism itself, or to be tolerant towards practices that are grossly harmful to others. This is not a matter of intolerance towards the Muslim world tout court. Insofar as Muslim beliefs and practices - like the beliefs and practices of any creed, religious or otherwise - are consistent with the standard moral and legal norms of a liberal, pluralist society, they are to be tolerated. And insofar as there are beliefs and practices which their adherents claim to derive from Islam but are not consistent with the standard moral and legal norms of a liberal, pluralist society, there is no reason to tolerate them - again, just like the beliefs of any other creed, religious or otherwise.
There are, in fact, two types of liberal. One believes that liberalism is a better moral and political philosophy than its illiberal alternatives and is willing to say this upfront and follow through on the consequences. The other does not believe this, and is merely confused - not having any secure basis for saying why she is a liberal. Eagleton's adeptness of phrase on the present occasion obfuscates that important point. Whatever else may be said about it, his review is written in the language, not of liberalism, but now of the true believer and now of the shallow relativist.