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17 June 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 12:20pm

An examination of hegemony and power in The H-Word

Perry Anderson's book asks whether dominance is based on consent or coercion.

By Gavin Jacobson

Perry Anderson’s writing displays two marked qualities: stunning erudition and a quirky idiolect. Recondite Anderson-isms, which often have Greek or scientific origins, include “alembicated”, “allogenous”, “aporia”, “autocephaly”, “costive”, “dégrin­golade”, “facultative”, “galumphery”, “neuralgic”, “prodromes”, “purulent”, “scoria”, “synallagmatic” and “threnodies”. Such phraseology defies the contemporary reflex against sesquipedalianism. It also captures something of Anderson’s Olympian detachment from trends in contemporary thought and prose. Who else would have the gumption to use “peripeteia” in the title of their latest book?

Anderson is the most distinguished living Marxist historian. His first two books, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (both 1974), are masterworks of historical sociology which examine the structures of power in Europe from the ancients to the 20th century. He was also the editor of New Left Review between 1962 and 1983, and again between 2000 and 2003, advancing a Marxism that drew on Continental theorists such as Althusser, Gramsci, Lukács and Sartre. Anderson dismissed British intellectual life as a wasteland of servile tradition and empiricism. “No classical Marxist,” he wrote, “ever showed much complaisance towards his or her own national culture . . .” If core European nations such as France, Germany and Italy loom large in his corpus, the country of his birth is notably absent. “I do not regret the omission of Britain, whose history since the fall of Thatcher has been of little moment,” he wrote in 2009.

Anderson has long doubted Marxism’s ability to fulfil its promises of economic and social deliverance. Shortly before she died, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the “road of ­socialism . . . is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats”. Enzo Traverso has also shown, in Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (2016), that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 a culture of defeat has overlaid the left’s utopic imagination. But if Luxemburg thought there was pedagogical insight to be gained from failure, Anderson sees little hope of redemption. The mid-20th-century rupture between theory and practice turned Western Marxism into “a product of defeat”, while its “major works were, without exception, produced in situations of political isolation and des­pair”. In an editorial for the NLR in 2000, he argued that the “only starting point for a realistic left today is a ­lucid recognition of historical defeat”. His article for the March 2017 number of Le Monde Diplomatique was titled “Why the system will still win”.

Anderson does not offer solutions for contemporary neoliberal disorders, nor is his work framed by heavy dialectical machinery or crude economic determinisms. Two works in particular bear out the analytical, rather than remedial, nature of his work. One is The New Old World (2009), a series of critical reflections on the European Union and its liberal champions. The other is his best-known essay, “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964), in which he argued that English history had not conformed to Marxist predictions of economic development. It underwent the first bourgeois revolution of any major European country. It experienced the first industrial revolution, “producing the earliest proletariat”. Its empire was unrivalled and “‘set’ British society in a mould it has retained to this day” (a shrewd assessment, given the post-Brexit recovery of the “Anglosphere” and “Empire 2.0”).

The bourgeoisie failed to supplant the aristocracy, however, and left no revolutionary heritage for the working class to redeploy. Marxism, the one social theory capable of challenging the status quo, ossified into a futile Labourism. The result was the entrenchment of a single hegemonic class, comprised of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, which not only controlled the means of production but was “the primary determinant of consciousness, character and customs throughout the society” – the permanent taproot of Britain’s sclerotic and outworn political culture.

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Anderson returns to the notion of hegem­ony in The H-Word. The term is commonly understood to signal the domination or preponderance of one state or social group over another. Yet such an established definition has concealed a complex history about the origins of hegemony and what it means. Anderson’s is a short book on a large subject, and was devised while he was working on American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2015), a commanding and revisionist critique of US grand strategy. The H-Word does not deploy “hegemony” to unlock a social phenomenon or to describe a specific period of history. Rather, it is “an exercise”, as Anderson explains, “in comparative historical philology”, tracking the concept’s shifting meanings and applications, from its birth in classical Greece to the post-1989 age of US ascendency.

Anderson ranges across many settings, including the Russian labour movement at the turn of the 20th century; Italian communism and German conservativism in the interwar years; American political science and international relations theory during the Cold War; ancient Chinese philosophy in the Warring States period (c.453-221BC) and what Anderson calls its “sequels” in the People’s Republic of China. He also segues into early Tokugawa Japan.

Out of these varying historical contexts, he isolates two broad tensions that define the intellectual history of hegemony. The first concerns whether it rests on consent or coercion. The Greek term “hēgemonia” –leadership based on consent – first appeared in Herodotus, and coexisted with “arkhē”, which implied the force of empire. Over the years, intellectuals have battled over this disjunction. For Gramsci, who provided the first “systemic theory of the term”, hegemony relied on force and consent. Writing of the Count of Cavour’s Piedmontese Moderate Party in the Italian Risorgimento, Gramsci argued that force and consent “balance each other, so that force does not overwhelm consent but appears to be backed by the consent of the majority”. For later scholars such as Paul Schroeder, whom Anderson has called “the greatest living American historian”, hegemony constitutes acknow­ledged leadership. For Susan Strange, a formidable scholar of international relations, the conduits of US power – military pacts and open markets – made its hegemony “a form of imperialism”.

The second tension is between hegemony as a relation of power between classes or between states. In the Russian revolutionary movement the term “gegemoniya” was used by Marxists to assert working-class leadership over other oppressed classes. Later, in the 1980s, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall recognised something similar in the hegemonic appeal of Thatcherism, which bound assorted identities and social interests under a political lodestar by combining, in Anderson’s words, “monetarist neoliberalism and organicist Toryism”, charming everyone from bankers to workers.

The link between hegemony and international relations began with the German jurist Heinrich Triepel’s Hegemony: a Book of Leading States (1938). After the interwar period, and the publication of other seminal works such as E H Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939), hegemony became a naturalised concept in international relations theory. It came to stand for a range of conditions, from Rudolf Stadelmann’s notion of “guided balance” to Hedley Bull’s description of “imperialism with good manners”.

It was not until the pioneering efforts of Giovanni Arrighi in the late 1970s, especially with his Geometry of Imperialism (1978), that thinking about hegemony as either a domestic or an international condition came together in a comprehensive synthesis. Arrighi located hegemony in a domestic model of economic organisation and production that is then imitated by ruling groups in other states.

The H-Word is not just a neat exegesis, or a cool genealogy of ideas. By mapping the changing fortunes of hegemony – its peri­peteia – from the crude psychologising of Cold War realists such as Hans Morgenthau to neoliberal mandarins such as Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane, who dismissed “hegemony” as a descriptor of US power; from the devout Atlanticism of Raymond Aron, who backed US leadership in postwar Europe, to the neo-imperial lust of Niall Ferguson, who laments “the absence of a will to power” in US foreign policy, Anderson captures the many political and intellectual climes in which the term was elaborated.

Anderson doesn’t do innocence. There are no concessions here to anyone who lacks a basic familiarity with Western political science and theories of international relations. Names are introduced in an expanding roll-call without any summary of who they are. Nor is Anderson inclined to write a book of obvious political relevance. As he notes in The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, a sister volume to The H-Word, the “limits of a philological survey have dictated these inevitable restrictions”.

The closest he gets to saying something of immediate bearing is in a deft examination of hegemony in China, through which he illustrates two determining themes of the country’s contemporary politics. The first, associated with the intellectual historian Wang Hui, relates to Chinese economic development: the hegemony of capital and the spectacle of consumerism. The second, associated with the political scientist Yan Xuetong, concerns the renewed dreams of a Pax Sinica under Xi Jinping.

The H-Word is not a purposeless exercise in conceptual genealogy. It is part of Anderson’s larger attempt to explain the forms and transformations of liberal power, both actual and in the minds of its prime architects. Yet if the West has passed into the gloaming of neoliberalism, Anderson’s book will help us understand how one hegemony dies as another begins. Emmanuel Macron’s election in France suggests that the neoliberal order endures. Just. But the chilling threat of his defeated rival Marine Le Pen should warn the left about the costs of failing to promote a more equal and humane vision of the good life: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.”

The H-Word: the Peripeteia of Hegemony
Perry Anderson
Verso, 208pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel