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International Socialism, Autumn 2000


Gilbert Achcar

The ‘historical pessimism’ of Perry Anderson


From International Socialism 2:88, Autumn 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In its 40 year existence the distinguished New Left Review (NLR) journal, whose first issue came out in 1960, appeared to have become an institution as firmly anchored in tradition as Britain’s monarchy or parliament. At the dawn of the new century, however, it has taken its entire readership by surprise and changed its editorial formula. The first issue in the year 2000 inaugurates a new series and so carries the number 1 – after 238 bi-monthly issues according to the old formula. This ‘second series’ provides the opportunity for a change in layout and cover following a remarkable consistency over the past four decades.

The new layout is airier, with a clearer typeface (a necessary concession to the rising average age of its readers!), a brief introduction to the authors of the main articles in each issue (up till now the journal would not on principle publish any information about the authors of its articles, other than in exceptional cases) and a systematic review section. In addition there is a commitment to publish debates regularly – the first new-look issue carries two debates: one between Robin Blackburn and Henri Jacot on pension funds as a possible lever for a ‘new collectivism’ under popular control and the other between Luisa Passerini and Timothy Bewes over a recent work by the Italian historian devoted to European culture.

Perry Anderson, who took control of NLR very soon after its foundation and tirelessly inspired it, has given the whole thing punch by opening the new series with an editorial of which the least that can be said is that it is not banal! Under the title Renewals, this remarkable theoretician of history has sketched out a fresco of the political and intellectual development of our world, using the savoir faire he shares with such masters of English-speaking Marxist historiography as Isaac Deutscher and Eric Hobsbawm.

Over time Perry Anderson has become more and more a practitioner of the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ championed by Gramsci. In his editorial he has now pushed this philosophical virtue to surprising extremes. For long, it is true, Anderson has displayed an inordinate taste for the superlative, a taste those familiar with his work know well. Nevertheless his writings have always been exciting and particularly enriching. But the editorial of the new series goes well beyond the momentary exaggeration that flows from individual idiosyncrasy.

What he shows towards the state of both the world and the radical left is, rather, a kind of bitterness peculiar to a whole section of that generation of left intellectuals whose seniority means they now dominate the universe of critical social thought. This was the generation which expected the 1960s to open up a bright future and then became brutally disillusioned by the success of the reactionary counter-offensive in the 1980s, the culminating apotheosis of which was the collapse of the Stalinist empire and the advent of a unipolar world under US hegemony in the last decade of the 20th century.

From the 1980s onwards a section of this generation withdrew from all militant political activity. Partly it did so out of distaste at the unappetising spectacle which the existing organisations of the radical left offered at the time (and still do), and partly because fatigue led it to abandon the task of constructing a more attractive political formation. This section retained its basic attachment to the left but tempered it considerably. After its own fashion it experienced a development closely resembling the one which emerged in response to the ebbing of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism, and which Perry Anderson himself analysed not so long ago under the heading of ‘Western Marxism’.

The parallelism is striking and certainly self conscious to such an extent that it constitutes what could be called a ‘syndrome of Western Marxism’. The best definition can be found in Perry Anderson’s own celebrated Considerations on Western Marxism. ‘The hidden hallmark of Western Marxism as a whole,’ wrote Anderson, ‘is thus that it is a product of defeat.’ [1] This variant of Marxism was characterised by ‘an ever increasing academic emplacement of the theory that was produced’ [2] and evolved into ‘an esoteric discipline whose highly technical idiom measured its distance from politics’ [3], this was ‘the sign of its divorce from any popular practice’. [4] In these circumstances ‘the needle of the whole tradition tended to swing increasingly away towards contemporary bourgeois culture’. [5] Though diverse, the theoretical innovations of ‘Western Marxism’ shared ‘one fundamental emblem: a common and latent pessimism’. [6]

What Perry Anderson wrote in 1976 provides the best clue both for understanding how the editorial content of the NLR has evolved since the 1980s and for reading Perry Anderson today. What does he now argue? Not content with stating that there has been a relative worsening of the balance of forces between capital and its enemies at a world level, he makes this acknowledgement of defeat the cornerstone for how the contemporary left should define itself: ‘The only starting point for a realistic left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat.’ [7] As he sinks into despair Perry Anderson paints everything in the sombre colours of a defeat which seems representative of a fully blown new ‘midnight in the century’. [8]

Worse still: for intellectuals, on their own ideological terrain, the present defeat has been unequalled for centuries if we are to believe Perry Anderson. ‘For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions – that is, systematic rival outlooks – within the thought world of the West; and scarcely any on a world scale either, if we discount religious doctrines as largely inoperative archaisms,’ he has no hesitation in affirming. [9] Whatever its practical limitations, ‘neo-liberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history’. [10]

What is particularly striking is that Perry Anderson seems more convinced of the omnipotence of neo-liberalism than most of its supporters! He paints a picture of the world which paradoxically offers much greater reassurance for the American empire than Washington’s strategic commentaries (political or military, official or semi-official) or eminent think tank discussions about American imperial politics do. [11] To take just one example, Anderson’s peremptory claim about the near absence of any systematic, rival perspectives at a world level has only to be compared with the well known – and fairly phantasmic – thesis of Samuel Huntington on the ‘clash of civilisations’.

In reality NLR’s editor has espoused another well known, but less widely shared, viewpoint – Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which he takes more seriously than most Western or non-Western commentators. Gregory Elliott’s book on Perry Anderson underlines this point and lets us situate the latest reflections of the NLR editor in the context of not only his personal development, but NLR as a whole since its creation. [12] Elliott’s work is a truly thorough, if a trifle laboured, account which enables us to trace the totality of Perry Anderson’s thought over a period of 40 years.

What is interesting about this study is that it provides some kind of intellectual portrait of the ‘new left’ generation which developed from the 1960s onwards and of which the NLR was the chief organ (more or less the equivalent of Die Neue Zeit for ‘orthodox Marxism’). Elliott describes the ideological polarisation of this generation between Maoist/Althusserian and Trotskyist/Deutscherian currents, with the latter eventually gaining the upper hand within NLR in the 1970s. In highlighting the hopes which the NLR group, following a tradition which owed more to Isaac Deutscher than to Leon Trotsky, invested in the Soviet Union, Elliott’s analysis subtly allows us to understand the catastrophist Weltanschauung which has gripped Perry Anderson in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The work gets livelier and more captivating the closer we get to the present period. Renewals appears as striking confirmation of Elliott’s pertinent commentaries on the intellectual peregrinations of his object of study.

Why should a thinker like Perry Anderson, whose inspiration is Marxist, take as his own the thesis advanced by that most illusory incarnation of bourgeois idealism, Fukuyama, a thesis categorically rejected by neo-liberalism’s own ‘realist’ partisans? Why should he place the new series of NLR under the sign of such an extreme defeatism/pessimism (from the left’s point of view, and triumphalism/optimism from the right’s, like in the original thesis)? To be sure, this situation demands an explanation quite different from that in respect of Fukuyama’s impressionistic thesis, born in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Between Anderson and Fukuyama there are not, nor could there be, any ‘elective affinities’; there is only the momentary intersection of two opposed trajectories.

Now, even if one sticks with ‘the thought world of the West’, which Anderson’s diagnosis has as its priority concern, one’s vision of actual social and ideological confrontations has to be particularly muddled by pessimism to affirm that ‘there are no longer any significant oppositions’ and that neo-liberalism ‘rules undivided’. Just how exaggerated this diagnosis is becomes even more obvious in Anderson’s later judgement on critical thought about capitalism, specially among students: ‘Virtually the entire horizon of reference in which the generation of the 1960s grew up has been wiped away – the landmarks of reformist and revolutionary socialism in equal measure.’ [13]

That impression may well be the one which comes from frequenting universities reserved for the social elites. It is certainly not the impression to be found in ordinary universities in the London or the Paris regions! That 30 years since 1968 and in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire the present generation of students has neither the same reference points nor illusions as the 1968 generation of their parents should not surprise us in the least. In particular, nothing could be more natural than disaffection with political parties, both large and small. Plainly the student movement in general is affected by the crisis of political representation amongst the wage earning masses in the wake of social democracy’s mutation and Stalinism’s death agony. Nevertheless revolutionary socialist currents are still very much in evidence in the universities. Above all, there is the well attested development of semi-anarchist currents, or substitutes for political parties in the form of networks and associations, which testify to a radical opposition to neo-liberalism and its destructive effects. [14]

If we take the situation in France, certain facts come to mind, such as: the December 1995 movement; the numerous sectional strikes which keep on bursting out (teachers and financial civil servants have recently brought down two ministers); the continuing development of new trade unions to the left of the traditional ones (e.g. SUD); the unprecedented electoral advances of the Trotskyist far left; the distribution rate of nearly a quarter of a million for a radical but not popular-looking monthly paper opposed to neo-liberalism (Le Monde Diplomatique); the near 20,000 membership of a campaign organisation against neo-liberalism (ATTAC); the huge commercial success of the cry of disgust at neo-liberalism (The Economic Horror), and so on. Who from the French side of the Channel could subscribe to Perry Anderson’s diagnosis?

Of course, for more than two centuries France has been, par excellence, the land of class struggle. Equally, the Anglo-Saxon countries have experienced the greatest triumphs of neo-liberalism. And it is no coincidence that the two following phenomena have gone together. On the one hand, the United States and Great Britain are the countries where Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the two main champions of neo-liberalism, operated and where the reactionary counter-offensive in the 1980s was acted out in its toughest form. They are also the countries where, when the pendulum swung back towards the centre under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the ‘recentring’ of the ‘new centre’ remained most firmly anchored to the right. On the other hand, these two countries are where the similar phenomenon to what Perry Anderson called ‘Western Marxism’ and whose principal characteristics we looked at earlier came most fully into its own.

Accordingly, the phenomenon of these last two decades could perhaps more appropriately be designated as ‘Anglo-Saxon Marxism’, as opposed to the ‘Western Marxism’ of the previous epoch. But such a formula would be unfair to the many Marxist and Marxist-influenced works produced in the English speaking countries over the last decades which are foreign to the paradigm of ‘Western Marxism’. This fact alone testifies, incidentally, to the enormous difference in the terrain of western class struggle (on which ‘the thought world of the West’ ultimately depends) between the scale of defeat in the inter-war period and that in the last quarter century.

Are the recent demonstrations against the neo-liberal order in Seattle and Washington, the movements around demands in the world of American labour over the last two years, or even the campaign around Ken Livingstone in London signs of a reversal in mood, the first fruits of a new wave of radicalisation, which could change the intellectual climate in the English speaking world? One can legitimately hope this is so without sowing illusions. [15] In reality, Perry Anderson’s editorial itself expresses profound pessimism while simultaneously and unmistakably marking a new radicalisation: the editor of NLR demonstrates a particularly combative mood, thus confirming a new radicalisation in the journal noticeable since the war in Kosovo.

This closing episode in 20th century history was the ‘defining moment’ for the western intellectual left, an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, which the last few years had partially obscured. NLR came through this test, firmly on the side of the left and faithful to the tradition of its origins. Let us wish that at the beginning of the new century the new series will successfully accompany the unavoidable new forms of anti-capitalist radicalisation just as effectively as the old series did in the second half of the century just gone.


This article is translated from the French original published in Actuel Marx 28, 2nd Semester 2000.

1. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso 1976), p. 42.

2. Ibid., p. 49.

3. Ibid., p. 53.

4. Ibid., p. 54.

5. Ibid., p. 55.

6. Ibid., p. 88.

7. P. Anderson, Renewals, New Left Review 2/1, January/February 2000, p. 16.

8. Ernest Mandel, once a source of inspiration for Perry Anderson and a major influence on NLR, before he died was right to be shocked at the exaggerated melancholy of our generation: ‘What would you have done, then, if you had been active in the 1930s, when Nazism and the Moscow trials intertwined?’ was his constant refrain.

9. P Anderson, Renewals, op. cit., p. 17.

10. Ibid.

11. The balance sheet drawn up by Perry Anderson on the Balkan War (Renewals, op. cit., p. 12) puts a much rosier glow on the imperialist order than the great majority of those drawn up by most Western commentators. Anderson is one of the very few to believe that the war in Kosovo ‘suggests how much stronger the New World Order has become since the early 1990s’. He points to the fact that the war in 1999 took place without as great a mobilisation as for the Gulf War, but omits to point out that in 1999 nearly twice as many days of intensive bombing were required to end it and that the Iraqi surrender had nothing in common with the compromise obtained by Belgrade with Moscow’s support. Anderson forgets that Milosevic’s forces, including the troops massed in Kosovo, emerged from the war much more intact than those of Saddam Hussein. This oversight allows him to claim, without any proof, that the Kosovo war will ‘in short order’ lead to the overthrow of the Belgrade regime, quite unlike the Bagdad regime which survived the Gulf War. Anderson also manages to imply that Moscow’s attitude in the 1999 war was more favourable to the American undertaking than it had been in 1990–1991, which is blatant untruth. He has the same inverted reading of the facts of the Chinese attitude. One might almost wish that Perry Anderson would read the imperialist press to raise his spirits!

12. G. Elliott, Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History, Cultural Politics series, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis 1998).

13. P. Anderson, Renewals, op. cit., p. 17.

14. It is notably the case in US universities: see the report by Liza Featherstone, The New Student Movement, in The Nation (New York), 15 May 2000.

15. One striking aspect of Perry Anderson’s ultra-pessimism is the way in which he raises very high the bar for a new modification of the balance of forces acting against neo-liberalism, succumbing thereby to a particularly crude economic determinism. Thus, according to him, the present balance of forces ‘will probably remain stable so long as there is no deep economic crisis in the West’. (Renewals, op. cit., p. 19) Following this, he goes one step further and adds: ‘Little short of a slump of inter-war proportions looks capable of shaking the parameters of the current consensus.’ (ibid.) Apart from its exaggerated character, this judgement carries a surprising reading of history from the pen of such a far-sighted historian. Quite the opposite is needed: let us wish that the new period of economic growth is consolidated so that the new wave of radicalisation which appears to be taking shape is strengthened. The long recessions of the inter-war period and of the last quarter of the 20th century led to a significant worsening of the balance of forces. Conversely, even Durkheim understood that boom phases are favourable to radicalisation of demands because of the expectations they raise. Besides, a new expansion under the present neo-liberal conditions of development in global capitalism clearly could not reproduce the ‘virtuous circle’ which flattered the Western working class during the long post-war boom.

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