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19 March 1999

The New Statesman Profile – Perry Anderson

He is one of Britain's great Marxist intellectuals, yet now he seems a strangely conservative figure

By Edward Skidelsky

Perry Anderson exemplifies a type that has almost vanished: the unaffiliated intellectual. The leading British Trotskyite, he has never belonged to a political party. An eminent historian, he has never held a full-time post at a British university. His writing belongs to none of the various categories of academic literature; it attempts, at its most ambitious, to comprehend them all in a total synthesis. His thought owes allegiance to no national tradition; it belongs to the floating corpus of western Marxism. It is fitting, if ironic, that this revolutionary free-booter should finally settle at the University of California at Los Angeles. Repressive tolerance has triumphed over one of its fiercest adversaries.

Anderson is notoriously elusive. No interviews, no broadcasts – and even the London School of Economics, where he is a visiting lecturer, did not have a photograph to contribute to the illustration of this profile. Yet for all his elusiveness, his influence on British intellectual life has been enormous. The conduit of this influence was the New Left Review, the socialist bi-monthly which he edited from 1962 to 1982. Anderson’s goal was the introduction into Britain of a new kind of socialist culture, alternative to both the official Marxism of the Communist Party and the stolid reformism of the Labour Party. His followers saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Inspired by Gramsci, they aimed to establish a socialist hegemony in the realm of ideas from which, they hoped, a revolutionary movement would follow. The leading lights of Continental Marxism – Lucacs, Gramsci, Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse and Althusser – were published and discussed, often for the first time in Britain. Non-Marxist structuralists such as Lacan and Levi-Strauss were also introduced. High theory was interspersed with the other amour of the era: Latin American terrorism.

Anderson’s cosmopolitanism is partly a product of biography. He was born in 1940 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family; his father was an official in the Chinese Maritime Customs. Eton and the stuffy Oxford of the 1950s no doubt exacerbated Anderson’s distaste for “spiritual patriotism”. Marxism offered the alternative of a truly international ideology, and Trotskyism, with its tradition of “revolution in more than one country”, was the most internationalist variant of Marxism. Anderson cites, as precedent for his own attitude, “the scorn of Marx and Engels for German provinciality and philistinism, of Lenin and Trotsky for Russian religiosity and Oblomovism, of Gramsci for Italian operatics and sentimentalism”. The cosmopolitanism of Marxist theory was, one suspects, a stronger source of appeal for Anderson than its promise of social justice. His is a socialism of the head, not the heart.

The agenda of the New Left Review was set out by Anderson in a couple of fierce polemics: “Components of the National Culture” (1968) and “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964). They are the most scintillating essays he has written. The mediocrity of postwar intellectual life in Britain is the subject of the former. Written with a young man’s scorn, the essay surveys and dismisses British contributions to history, philosophy, political theory, psychology and aesthetics. These local failings are the consequence of a more fundamental vacuum: the absence, at the centre of British intellectual life, of any general theory of society that might unify the disparate branches of inquiry. Sociology, in Anderson’s view, is the queen of the sciences. In its absence, intellectual life fragments; a process dignified by the English totems of “empiricism” and “piecemeal research”. This failure is not innocent; nothing is innocent for a Marxist. The absence of social theory serves to perpetuate the bourgeois social order; that which cannot be conceived cannot, a fortiori, be attacked.

“Origins of the Present Crisis” was one of a series of articles by Anderson and Tom Nairn offering a historical explanation for the predicament analysed in “Components of the National Culture”. The failure of the English bourgeoisie to develop a coherent world-view was, they argued, a consequence of its failure to draw a clear line of opposition between itself and the aristocracy. The revolution of 1640 was aborted: the reform of 1832 half-hearted. A corrupt bargain was struck between nobility and capital, in which the former lent dignity to the latter in return for the preservation of its constitutional privileges. The timidity of the bourgeoisie in the face of the aristocracy was later paralleled by the timidity of the proletariat in face of the bourgeoisie. “A supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat.” The proletariat accepted from the bourgeoisie the “timid and dreary” philosophy of Fabian gradualism. The result was “Labourism, most stolid and mundane of political movements”. This denigration of British history provoked a passionate reply from E P Thompson, a Marxist of very different lineage. Anderson responded, and their exchange is as interesting and as revealing as the better-remembered “Two Cultures” debate between F R Leavis and C P Snow.

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Anderson’s argument was put forward as an explanation not only of Britain’s cultural conservatism, but also of her relative economic decline. It addressed a widespread mood of the 1960s, in which anti-establishment attitudes were mingled with anxiety about falling growth. The image of the “clean break” seemed to answer both problems at once. It quickly became part of the lexicon of Wilsonism; its echoes are still audible today in Blair’s rhetoric of “modernisation”.

The influence of the New Left Review increased steadily under Anderson’s editorship, its circulation rising from 2,000 to 8,000. Its impact was particularly strong in the new universities and polytechnics, where it contributed to the formation of that leviathan called critical theory. But as the New Left Review entered the 1980s, it became increasingly clear that the revolution it had initiated would not spread beyond the academy. And even there, its influence was confined to certain sub-disciplines in the humanities. All it had achieved, in fact, was the replacement of one kind of intellectual provincialism with another. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the collapse of socialist politics in this period.

The movement away from practical politics towards questions of culture and ideology is characteristic of western Marxism as a whole. The failure of Marx’s political and economic predictions left his disciples with only one remaining role – that of Kulturkritiker. As Anderson himself points out, “the hidden hallmark of western Marxism . . . is that it is the product of defeat“. His attitude towards it is ambivalent. Admiring its sophistication, he reproaches it with “culturalism” and contrasts it unfavourably with the classical tradition of Trotsky. Even Gramsci, the most politically minded of the great western Marxists, is accused of shifting the burden of revolutionary struggle on to the cultural sphere and neglecting the mechanics of state power.

Anderson is too intelligent and honest to deny the intellectual and political triumph of the right in the past decade, and yet he has never formally renounced his revolutionary convictions. They have just sunk quietly into the background, becoming a kind of coda to what is now his main occupation – the exposition of other people’s ideas. In this he is masterly. Yet intellect and political loyalties still occasionally conflict, producing confusion. A good example of this is his essay on Francis Fukayama’s The End of History. Fukayama’s grand narrative of historical progress – even though it culminates in the triumph of bourgeois liberal democracy – is of precisely the kind to win Anderson’s admiration. Anderson defends it against its detractors, claiming, on impeccably Marxist grounds, that their various refutations of Fukayama’s hypothesis amount to nothing more than local difficulties, and do not constitute a genuine contradiction. But then – as if suddenly realising what he has admitted – he amasses a whole set of difficulties of his own, ranging from environmental problems to feminism. But these are no more a fundamental contradiction than the difficulties he has previously dismissed. All are manageable within the confines of the present world-system. Fukayama has beaten Anderson at his own game.

Defeated on the political plane, Anderson has at last succumbed to the “siren voices of idealism”. His latest essay, The Origins of Postmodernity, is a work of cultural criticism in the classic tradition of Benjamin and Adorno. It is essentially a defence and an elaboration of Frederic Jameson’s thesis that postmodernism constitutes “the cultural logic of late capitalism”.

Postmodernism is a natural target of attack for a Marxist. What it signifies is the final disappearance of any critical perspective on the capitalist order. The Soviet Union, for all its imperfections, provided such a perspective, and its existence sustained the avant-garde throughout Europe and America. Now there is nothing but capitalism. Any revolt is immediately assimilated and commodified. Art, realising this, has abandoned its haughty intransigence and entered into alliance with the market. The tone of the essay is one of sorrowful resignation. Anderson can diagnose the malady, but he has no cure.

There is something strangely conservative about Anderson’s denunciation of a world in which, to quote Jameson, “we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience”. All that remains of Marxism, now that the political illusions have been shattered, is nostalgia for a lost seriousness. It can hardly be a coincidence that the fiercest critics of postmodernism, the most intransigent defenders of the eternal verities, have all been Marxists: Alex Callinicos, David Harvey and Terry Eagleton. At first glance this appears an ironic reversal, but on reflection it could hardly have been otherwise. Marxism cannot be other than conservative, because the one truly revolutionary ideology of the modern world – under whose sign “everything solid melts into air” – is capitalism.

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