Chris Harman


Ever-decreasing circles

(June 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 6, 15 June–12 July 1980, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Arguments within English Marxism
Perry Anderson
NLB/Verso £3.9$ (paperback)

Perry Anderson, long-time editor of New Left Review has written a most peculiar book. Whole chapters read like nothing so much as an over-extended internal bulletin packed between glossy covers, with accusation and counter-accusation as to what happened at editorial meetings of NLR way back in 1962. Other sections are lengthy footnotes on the history of the 18th century, interspersed with abstruse discussions on historical methodology. Not the book to provoke bitter arguments in the works canteen or even the student union bar.

Yet within a certain milieu the book is being greeted as the most significant Marxist work of the year (see, for instance, Tariq Ali in the New Statesman of four weeks ago and Phil Hearse in Socialist Challenge of 22 May). This is more a comment on the milieu than on the qualities of the book.

Members of the middle class intelligentsia who incline to the left face a problem when it comes to turning their beliefs into action. They themselves lack any real power to change the world. In nine cases out of ten they are unwilling to make the break with their established life style which would be necessary if they were to get seriously involved in working class political and trade union activity. And so they tend to oscillate between two different sorts of activity: on the one hand throwing themselves enthusiastically into various one issue campaigns – in the last 20 years CND, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s and gay movements, the anti-nuclear movement – which are characterised by a populist (all ‘people’ uniting against a particular evil) rather than a class approach, so enabling the middle class activist to feel as important as the occasional worker who gets involved; on the other, particularly as these movements decline, retreating into a stance which justifies as political activity their own intellectual pursuits – from seeing the latest Brazilian film to giving a college seminar on semiology.

For fourteen years or more. Perry Anderson has been involved in a somewhat rancorous debate with the Marxist historian, Edward Thompson, of which this is the latest blockbusting episode. In their own ways, Thompson and Anderson symbolise the two poles between which the intellectual left move.

Thompson has been the intermittent activist in populist movements. After leaving the CP over Stalinism and Hungary in 1956, he founded a dissident Communist journal, the New Reasoner and merged it into the first version of New Left Review in 1960. NLR was seen as a vehicle for carrying socialist discussion into the growing anti-bomb movement and for building a new network of socialist organisation based on local left clubs. By 1962 CND was in decline, the left clubs had disintegrated, the circulation of NLR was falling, the editorial board was wracked by disagreements and Thomson had retreated to ‘sulk in his tent’ (to write his marvellous Making of the English Working Class), re-emerging for a few months in 1967 with the attempt to launch the May Day Manifesto as a movement, and again more recently with the attempt to build a movement against increased powers for the ‘state within the state’ and the deployment of cruise missiles. By contrast, Anderson has epitomised the tendency of the intellectual left to proclaim their own academic and leisure pursuits as exemplary political activity. He took over the faltering ‘activist’ NLR in 1962 and reoriented it increasingly towards discussion within the closed circles of left academia. The message of his article Origins of the present Crisis (1964) was that the lack of success of Marxist ideas in influencing the British working class movement was because of the ‘failure of any significant body of intellectuals to join the proletariat until the end of the last century’. NLR‘s self-proclaimed task was to win over these intellectuals now.

Tom Nairn, then Anderson’s almost inseparable intellectual twin declared: ‘The problem of any “new” socialist left assumes a more precise form ... What likelihood is there of constituting a stratum of intellectuals more effectively divorced from traditions?’ So NLR‘s aim was to build this stratum, which in turn would suggest new ways of acting to the Labour Party and trade union leaderships. A division of labour was necessary in which Anderson, Nairn et al. would develop ‘theory’ while the existing left leaders would continue to be responsible for ‘practice’. Hence in the two ‘popular’ NLR books of the mid-sixties, Towards Socialism and The Incompatibles, beside the ‘theoretical’ articles of Anderson and Nairn, there were ‘practical’ articles by Richard Crossman (Labour cabinet minister), Thomas Balogh (economic advisor to the Wilson government), Jack Jones (of the TGWU), Clive Jenkins (of ASTMS).

There was disillusionment with the Labour left in later years. But apart from a very brief involvement in the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation (RSSF) of 1968–9, no attempt was made by NLR to throw itself into the active development of a political current independent of the old forces in the Labour movement. And even within RSSF the NLR elements saw the task as building ‘red bases’ within the universities to act as ‘strategic minorities’ in the overthrow of capitalism, not as developing revolutionary organisation within the working class. With the decline of RSSF, NLR became still more divorced from the practical problems of the British working class movement.

The different practical choices made by Thompson and Anderson have found expression in contrasting theoretical frameworks. Thomson’s theory, like his practice, has contained a powerful activist component, but one which shies away from the traditional Marxist stress on the role of material life in determining the contours of class action. Typically, Thompson has berated reformist complacency – but gone on to condemn any ‘insurrectionary’, ‘apocalyptic’ vision of revolution. In his most recent ‘theoretical’ work, The Poverty of Theory he has delivered a devastating critique of the passive, sociological view of human action contained in the Althusserian and post-Althusserian schools – but then has gone on to describe as a waste of time the attempt by Marx to see why men and women sometimes intervene in historical events and sometimes do not, through an examination of the economic dynamic of capitalism.

The whole trend within Anderson’s thought has been to see theory as a self-subsisting entity. The first formulations of his positions in the mid-sixties were within the terminology of the ‘existential Marxism’ of Sartre and Merleau Ponty. But then in 1965 and 1966 the works of Althusser appeared on the scene. Althusser insisted that to see theory as validated by practice was to commit the grievous sins of ‘historicism’ and ‘humanism’. Science could only develop as a result of the internal development of theory itself, which wds the privileged activity of intellectuals, a self-contained ‘theoretical practice’.

Anderson, Nairn and the rest felt vindicated ‘theoretically’. Their Review became an advertising agency for the ideas of Althusser, with his ‘theoretical’ justification for their own divorce from activity; for his disciple Glucksman who dabbled in a chessboard approach to political analysis before running off to the right; for Nicos Poulantzas who employed esoteric jargon first to glorify China and then reformism; for Regis Debray who flirted with a boy-scout approach to guerrilla warfare that led a generation of Latin American revolutionaries to their deaths before becoming an advisor to the leader of the French socialist party.

Anderson, more than any other person, bears responsibility for the way in which an emasculated, jargonised parody of Marxism could take by storm a whole section of the British academic life, justifying on the one hand the refusal of intellectuals to engage in practical socialist agitation and propaganda, on the other the notion that you could have socialist regimes based on the denial of the most elementary working class rights.

‘Theory without practice is sterile.’ Nowhere has the sterility been more marked than in the case of NLR over the years. Its aim has been to clarify the ideas of the intelligentsia. But over every issue where the intelligentsia has suffered the deepest confusion, NLR has repeated those confusions: over the question of the Labour Party; over the whole idea that you could have socialist revolution without working class self-activity (Anderson’s Problems of Socialist Strategy of 1965 insisted that Stalin’s crimes were ‘socialist crimes’ because they were ‘planned’, and Arguments still speaks of ‘socialist’ revolutions in China, Yugoslavia, etc.); over the role of the trade union bureaucracy; over the question of incomes policy (in 1965 Anderson insisted that it would be ‘utopian’ to reject incomes policy out of hand and that the left had to raise the ‘transitional’ formulation of ‘No incomes policy without workers’ control’), over the question of reform or revolution (Problems reads in many places like a word by word premonition of the most recent British Road to Socialism); above all over the crucial question of whether it is necessary to relate revolutionary policies to the current struggles of workers.

These considerations enable us to see what the debate between Thompson and Anderson has really been about: on the one side has been a ‘Marxism’ that sees the need for practical intervention but refuses to conceive of this in terms of economically defined classes (despite the use of the terminology of class in Thompson’s theoretical and historical writings); on the other side a ‘Marxism’ which keeps close to the letter of at least some of the classics, but which runs away from any real notion of the unity of theory and practice, the real heart of Marxism.

The argument can go on in an everlasting circle, as each proponent makes devastating criticisms of the other, only to leave himself open to a just as devastating rebuff.

The fundamental barrenness of Anderson’s position is shown by the way in which he himself has admitted its own intrinsic limitations – and then backed away from taking them seriously. Four years ago he produced Considerations of Western Marxism. In this work he saw the classical writings of Marxism, produced by men and women up to the eyeballs in the practical working class movement, as superior to ‘Western Marxism’, the mainly philosophical writings of theorists ensconced in academic posts and cut off from the living movement. He suggested that the future of Marxism lay with that minority tradition that had developed out of Leninism, Trotsky and the left opposition and which maintained a concern with practice.

Considerations should have been an epitaph to the futility of what NLR had been doing for the previous decade and a half. That was too much for Anderson. In an ‘afterword’ he half-retracted his own criticism of theory divorced from practice.

The half-retraction is continued in the present volume. There are token phrases about the need to unite theory with practice; there is a mention of certain theoretical problems, of practical importance that have to resolved; there is even the (dishonest) claim that NLR were among the first people to criticise Althusser. But then there is also a half-hearted defence of Althusser’s contribution’ to Marxism (complete with the claim that Althusser’s system could not possibly have developed as a belated apology for Stalinist notions because Althusser implicitly supported Mao against Khrushchev and even went as far as to criticise the French CP’s actions of May 1968, 12 months after the event) and an attempted justification for NLR’s role within the British intelligentsia over the last decade and a half.

Anderson today claims to be a revolutionary, laying stress on the need for an insurrectionary seizure of state power as opposed to Thompson’s halfway house approach. Anderson also acknowledges, at long last, that ‘the absence of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement in England as elsewhere in the West, has fixed the perimeter of all possible thought in this period’. He even makes a number of bows in the direction of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ and the Fourth International. But despite (or perhaps because) of these he does not begin to broach the question of the building within the working class of a revolutionary organisation. Instead he merely calls for a further dialogue of intellectuals, in which reformists and revolutionaries will fraternally discuss ‘new problems’. An apparently conciliatory ending to the book suggests that he would like NLR to continue along its old, barren path but perhaps with a little help from Thompson and his friends.

One of Anderson’s complaints against Thompson is that Thompson has always ignored the Trotskyist tradition in his own criticism of Stalinism. In this Anderson is quite right. But the criticism can be turned against Anderson himself. Although he makes very friendly gestures towards the variety of Trotskyism that shares many of his own prejudices (on the ‘socialist’ countries, on the possibility of non-working class forces forging a socialist future, on the need for ‘transitional’ demands), he ignores today, as he has ignored in a hundred-odd issues of NLR those who do not share those prejudices. Among them is a little group who have made a modest attempt to take revolutionary Marxism out of the intellectualist ghetto and who have created a small but real presence in the workplaces. Could it be that the SWP is the ‘absent presence’ in the argument between Anderson and Thompson, the alternative that resolves the contradiction each can find in the other, the way out of a milieu and a debate that is otherwise a ‘decentred totality’, compelled to revolve in ever smaller circles?

Last updated on 21 September 2019