Terry EagletonSaturday May 18, 2002One of the darker ironies of the 20th century is that socialism proved to be least possible where it was most necessary. To go socialist, you need material resources, democratic traditions, cooperative neighbours, a flourishing civil society, an educated populace; and it was just these vital ingredients of the project which colonialism had denied to its premodern, poverty-stricken clients. As a result, one bitter irony bred another: the effort to build socialism in these dismal conditions led straight to Stalinism, and a bid for freedom twisted inexorably into its monstrous opposite. The present century looks set to be dominated by a rather different sort of irony. Capitalism greeted the millennium with one arm brandishing The Wealth of Nations and one foot triumphantly planted on the corpse of its socialist rival; yet scarcely had the century turned before this victory began to look suspiciously pyrrhic. Indeed, we may yet see the capitalist world glancing nostalgically back at the socialist project it screwed so effectively. Socialism, after all, is out to expropriate the propertied classes, not to exterminate them. Its weapons are general strikes and mass struggle, not anthrax and dirty nuclear bombs. Its aim is for people to live in plenty, not for them to scavenge their scanty grub from war-scarred urban deserts. Socialism was the last chance we had of defeating terrorism by transforming the conditions which give birth to it; and those who helped to send it packing - not least those among them whose offices are rather high off the ground - ought to be licking their lips for the taste of ashes. Could it be, then, that in defeating socialism, capitalism will turn out to have undone itself into the bargain? What if those who run the show have turned up their noses at the one thing that might have guaranteed their survival, physically if not politically? Marx described the working class as capitalism's gravediggers; but to see these useful functionaries off the premises may simply be to end up digging your own grave. For the wretched of the earth have not of course retired; they have simply changed address. Whereas Marx looked for them in the slums of Bradford and the Bronx, they are now to be found in the souks of Tripoli and Damascus; and it is smallpox, not storming the Winter Palace, that some of them have in mind. To this extent, The Communist Manifesto has been both challenged and vindicated. It was right to predict that poverty and wealth would polarise sharply on a global scale; and it was right, too, that the dispossessed would rise up against their rulers as a result; it was just thinking more of mills than the World Trade Centre, trade unions rather than typhoid. But if Marx really was wrong about the working class, then this is bad news for the transnational corporations, since what one might see as having stepped into their shoes then has the savagery of despair, not the confidence of collective strength. Those who announce that Marx's industrial proletariat has sunk without trace should be reaching for the anti-radiation tablets, not for the champagne. A few years back, there was much dust and heat about the "end of history". What this portentous phrase meant was that since capitalism was the only game in town, significant political conflicts were now as passé as sideburns. This is both obtuse and untrue, but that's not the point: we knew that much before September 11. It is rather that we now have dramatic evidence that the end of history might eventually spell the end of history in a rather less metaphysical sense. The fact that capitalism now has no real rivals in the official political arena is precisely what causes the unofficial rancour that can blow enormous holes in it, including nuclear ones. Socialism may have seemed a dark threat to those with most to lose from it, but at least it is a secular, historically-minded, thoroughly modern creed, a bastard offspring of liberal enlightenment. It has a deep-rooted contempt for political terrorism, whether it denounces it as immoral or just petty-bourgeois. Unlike fundamentalism, whether of the Texan or Taliban variety, it doesn't dismiss alternative life-styles or symbolist poetry or a cellarful of chianti; it just inquires why these things somehow always end up in the hands of a few. Unlike fundamentalism, too, it is earth-bound and iconoclastic, sceptical of high-minded ideals and absolutes. The same might be said of American pragmatism, which always preferred turning a fast buck to brooding on the infinite. But the more terrorism occupies the space vacated by socialism, the less pragmatic America is bound to become. Indeed, it may well end up defending itself from Islamic fundamentalists by becoming every bit as fearful of freedom as they are, in which case it will have nothing left to defend and both parties will have lost and won. In a curious duo of strangers and brothers, your enemy conquers by persuading you to turn into a monstrous mirror image of himself. If you really want to unmask liberal freedoms as hollow, the best way is to attack them with suicide bombers rather than sociological essays, since such attacks, by provoking authoritarian measures, bring about the bogusness the bombers perceive as surely as the eye picks out a constellation in the stars. And since Americans, as the most conformist bunch of individualists on the planet, have a tradition of safeguarding their freedom by authoritarian means, they are particularly vulnerable to being discredited in this way. Liberal values are not, in fact, bogus; it is just that they cannot escape the taint of hypocrisy. The fatal flaw of liberal capitalist states is that they are by nature opposed to fundamentalism, yet cannot survive without it. Only a state with a few absolute values up its sleeve can finally contain the anarchy of the marketplace and the human unhappiness it breeds. But what such states get up to makes a mockery of those values all the time. George Bush really does believe in religion, and believes in nothing of the kind. Bin Laden's thugs may be morally obscene fanatics, but they don't have that particular problem. They simply want a brutally benighted state, not a state which is continually forced to defend its enlightened values by brutally benighted means. And it may be that in detonating that built-in contradiction in the west, they will score their most signal victory. Unless, of course, the left stages a comeback in the meantime. Indeed, in a way it already has; it is just that it, too, has changed its address. What used to be known as socialism is known today as anti-capitalism. Hardly a major difference. Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester.