Writing about the state of the Labour Party in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s third general election victory in 1987, the historian Eric Hobsbawm asked: “Has it got the future in its bones?” What Labour needed, he thought, was not yet another restatement of “eternal” verities, but an account of its “aims and values now” and of how they might be realised in what he called, quaintly though not un-presciently, the “micro-chip economy.”
To borrow a distinction from Terry Eagleton’s new book, you might say that Hobsbawm was urging Labour to offer hope rather than take refuge in optimism. The optimist, Eagleton argues, is congenitally disposed to believe that things can only get better. “Authentic hope, by contrast, needs to be underpinned by reasons.”
Although Eagleton is making a political argument here, sometimes it looks as if he thinks optimism is primarily an offence against good taste: he says there’s something “intolerably brittle” about it, and dismisses the “cheeriness” of the optimist as the “most banal of emotions.” It should be said, however, that he’s no more forgiving of Ernst Bloch, the “philosopher of hope” whose prose is full of the kind of “pseudoprofundities” that give Marxist theory a bad name.
Bloch’s most serious failing, though, is one that is widely shared on the left, which, Eagleton believes, too rarely asks itself the question, “What if it were to fail?” As long as the left considers that entertaining the possibility of failure is tantamount to “spiritual betrayal,” it will never understand its defeats as anything other than minor delays on the royal road to utopia.