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Considerations on Western Marxism

(June 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Considerations on Western Marxism
Perry Anderson
NLB £4.50

THE aim of this short and pricey book is ambitious: nothing less than a general overview of ‘Western Marxism’, by which Anderson means the collection of intellectuals widely influential on the European left since the Second World War, and particularly since the revival of anti-Stalinist Marxism in the 1960s. In this group he includes such diverse figures as Lukacs, Gramsci, Korsch, Benjamin, the Frankfurt school, Della Volpe, Colletti, Lefebvre, Sartre, Goldmann and Althusser.

Anderson argues that despite their diversity all these thinkers represent a common response to the failure of the Russian revolution to spread to the West after the First World War, and the consequent suffociation of Marxism by Stalinists, fascism, and social-democracy. The ‘Western Marxists’ reacted by flying from active involvement in the class struggle to a preoccupation with philosophy, and indeed with idealist philosophy divorced from practice in a way that the classical Marxists, from Marx himself to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, would have violently rejected. Only today, Anderson concludes, with the revival of workers’ struggles and of the revolutionary movement in the advanced capitalist countries, can Marxist theory be integrated into the class struggle again.

In these very general and bald terms; there is a lot to be said for this interpretation of ‘Western Marxism’. And certainly the erudition that Anderson deploys in its support is impressive. However, one suspects that, just because of its generality, the argument would be a lot less impressive when confronted with the detail of any particular ‘Western Marxist’s’ thought (this suspicion is confirmed in the case of the ‘Western Marxist’ whose work I know best, Louis Althusser – Anderson quite simply gets some of his central theses wrong.)

A more serious problem is that the essay seems as much as anything else to be a self-criticism, although this is never made explicit. After all, Anderson, as editor of New Left Review, has more than anyone else been responsible for making these ideas and the works of the ‘Western Marxists’ available to English readers. Moreover, Anderson himself in many ways fits the description of a ‘Western Marxist’. On taking over NLR in the early 1960s Anderson and his associates launched an ambitious new reinterpretation of British history since the Civil War based on some of the ideas of Lukacs, Gramsci and Sartre and avowedly idealist (see his article Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism, NLR 35). This interpretation was demolished by E.P. Thompson in a celebrated article, The Peculiarities of the English (The Socialist Register 1965). Undaunted, Anderson has since widened his sights even further, launching into an ambitious study of the historical genealogy of the capitalist state. Two volumes have already appeared, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, which seem to owe more to Max Weber than to Karl Marx.

Considerations on Western Marxism cannot, therefore, be assessed without keeping in mind who wrote it. If anything, Anderson seems to overreact against his ‘Western Marxist’ alter ego, concluding: ‘When the masses themselves speak, theoreticians – of the sort the West has produced for fifty years – will necessarily be silent’ (p.106). This position leads naturally to the abandonment of any attempt to confront Marxist theory critically. Yet such an attempt is indispensable if theory is no longer to be divorced from the class struggle.

Anderson’s conclusion is closely linked to his enthusiastic discovery of an alternative tradition to that of ‘Western Marxism’ – orthodox Trotskyism. Yet if ever there were a theory, whatever its undoubted strengths, that was in need of critical examination, it is the one. Of the three figure’s selected as representatives of the Trotskyist tradition, Roman Rosdolsky is remembered chiefly for his commentary on Marx’s economic writings, which concentrates on explicating and defending Marx’s concepts rather than applying them; Ernest Mandel has consistently failed to use these concepts to locate the dynamic of international capitalism in its present phase, instead preferring to try and fit the world willy nilly into the concepts; and Isaac Deutscher concluded that the Stalinist bureaucracy that Trotsky fought for so many years could deliver the goods.

There is a certain logic in all this. Anderson’s work has been conducted at such a high level of abstraction that rather arbitrary what political line you opt for on the basis of the theory. So Anderson switched from support for left reformism in the Labour Party and elsewhere in the early 1960s to advocacy of student Red Bases as the way to smash capitalism in the late 1960s to Trotskyism today. The loose fit between abstract and concrete has also meant that it is as easy to switch theory around as it is practice (or the lack of it) because it is under no empirical control provided by the need to relate the theory to the class struggle: so the political shifts have been matched by largely unexplained philosophical shifts, from Sartre to Althusser to Colletti. Sloppy theory matches lousy or nonexistent practice. Even the rejection of ‘Western Marxism’ and the enthusiastic and uncritical adoption of revolutionary practice in the somewhat dubious form of Trotskyism à la Mandel involves the same divorce between theory and the class struggle that Anderson is attacking in ‘Western Marxism’.

To his credit, Anderson steps back from his worst excesses. In a Postscript to the main part of the book, he notes that there are in fact problems with the ‘classical tradition’ of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Some of the difficulties he points to (especially those relating to ‘the economic architecture of Capital itself’) seem to me to be pseudo-problems based on a failure to understand the thinkers in question. But others – and particularly those problems arising from the attempt of Mandel, etc., to apply Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and his analysis of bureaucratic workers’ states to the world today – are very real.

Fred Halliday’s interesting review of Livio Maitan’s book on the Chinese cultural revolution in NLR 100 (although his position is very different from ours) suggests that Anderson and his collaborators may be embarking on what could be a fruitful attempts to explore these problems. Anderson’s article in the same issue on the greatest of the ‘Western Marxists’ and the one who fits his schema least, Gramsci, is perhaps the best thing he has written. For once Anderson abandons global theorising to consider a specific problem; the answers he comes up with explode the Eurocommunist distortions of Gramsci, while by no means sparing the latter from criticism. Let us hope that these welcome trends in NLR continue in the future.

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