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Perry Anderson and ‘Western Marxism’

(Spring 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 23, Spring 1984, pp. 113–128.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

P. Anderson
In the Tracks of Historical Materialism
Verso £4.95

Perry Anderson is perhaps the nearest British equivalent to those continental sages who have presided over the academic revival of Marxism during the past two decades – Althusser, Mandel, Poulantzas, Colletti, Habermas and the like. Indeed, as editor of theNew Left Review between 1962 and 1983, Anderson was largely responsible for the introduction into the English-speaking world of the body of writings he dubbed ‘Western Marxism’, both in the pages of the review and through its associated publishing house, New Left Books. For better or worse, he has, therefore, had a decisive influence on the intellectual formation of those practising versions of academic Marxism in institutions of higher education throughout Britain, the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

A new book by Anderson, especially one that surveys the current state of Marxism, consequently merits our attention. This is especially so when the work in question, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism [1], critically reviews the arguments of Anderson’s earlier essay,Considerations on Western Marxism (1976). Considerations itself was something of a self-criticism. In a series of major essays of the 1960s, notably Origins of the Present Crisis (1962) andComponents of the National Culture (1968), Anderson had argued that the British labour movement was so intellectually backward, so politically incorporated that one could not talk of a serious native Marxist tradition. These weaknesses could be remedied, Anderson contended, if the writings of the Western Marxists – Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Della Volpe, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Adorno, Sartre, Goldmann, Althusser, Colletti – were made available in the English-speaking world. This the NLR team proceeded to do.

The problems inherent in this project have now been so well-rehearsed that I shall not spend much time on them. [2] The analysis of English history on which it was based was inherently defective, and the whole ramshackle structure was blown sky-high by Edward Thompson in his famous essay Peculiarities of the English (1965). [3] Moreover, the NLR team appeared to believe that intellectual rigour required recondite terminology which, besides lending itself easily to lampoon [4], encouraged the belief that socialist theory was a mystery into which one could be initiated only after a lengthy and exhaustive apprenticeship (Anderson’s own baroque prose-style seems, in its predilection for words of Greek and Latin origin, to mirror his distaste for English culture). Last, and worst, high theory was accompanied by left-reformist politics of such naiveté that Anderson could welcome Harold Wilson’s rise to power, proclaiming that ‘the Labour Party has at last, after 50 years of failing, produced adynamic and capable leader.’ [5]

Wilson’s miserable record in office, and the storms of the later 1960s had a radicalising effect on NLR, and led to are-examination of its earlier theoretical and political stances. After a phase of idiotic Maoist posturing towards the end of the decade, this led to a growing convergence with the orthodox Trotskyism of Ernest Mandel and the Fourth International, based on a political orientation which was now revolutionary socialist rather than reformist. (At least three members of the NLR editorial committee, Robin Blackburn, Quentin Hoare, and Norman Geras we remembers of the USFI’s British section, then trading under the name of the International Marxist Group, for some time during the 1970s.)

Considerations was a product of this period, written in1974, at a time when the class struggle both in Britain and throughout Western capitalism was at its highest level since inter-war years. The essay is an attempt to situate Western Marxism as itself a product of those years, when Stalinism and fascism triumphed amid the collapse of the hopes of world revolution inspired by October 1917.

Anderson noted first the contrast between the Western Marxists and their predecessors. The latter had produced a body of work which Anderson, following Isaac Deutscher, dubbed ‘classical Marxism’. Deutscher had introduced this expression to distinguish Marx and Engels, Kautsky and Plekhanov, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky and Bukharin from the debased ‘vulgar Marxism’ of Stalin and Co. Anderson instead stressed that the classical Marxists had all been actively involved in the labour movement. Consequently their writings focussed primarily on questions of economic analysis and of political strategy and tactics, all subjects of direct relevance to their practice.

Western Marxism was, by comparison, a world away: ‘The first and most fundamental of its characteristics has been the structural divorce of this Marxism from political practice.’ [6] This separation of theory and practice was reflected not only by the fact that most of the Western Marxists were academics, rather than professional revolutionaries as in the case of earlier generations of Marxist intellectuals, but also in the subject matter of their work. This was characterised by:

studied silence ... in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism: scrutiny of the economic laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production, analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it. [7]

This was accompanied by ‘a basic shift in the whole centre of gravity of European Marxism towards philosophy’. [8] All the Western Marxists were, in terms of their professional qualifications and intellectual preoccupations, philosophers before anything else, and, even worse, philosophers whose work was marked by‘the constant presence and influence of it of successive types of European idealism’. [9]

These limitations could not be understood; Anderson argued, except against the background of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the Europe of Stalin and Hitler:

The hidden hallmark of Western Marxism as a whole is thus that it is a product of defeat. The failure of the socialist revolution to spread outside Russia, cause and consequence of its corruption, inside Russia, is the common background to the entire theoretical tradition of this period. Its major works were,without exception, produced in situations of political isolation. [10]

The main political reference point for the Western Marxists was Stalinism, in the form especially of the mass Communist Parties of France and Italy. Whether or not they adhered to these parties, like Althusser, or remained aloof, like Sartre, their situation was one in which intellectual activity and political practice could not meet.

No wonder that Anderson believed that the struggles of 1968 and after represented the way out of this impasse by making possible, for the first time since the 1920s, independent revolutionary politics. A revival of classical Marxism he saw prefigured in the works of orthodox Trotskyism, notably those of Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, and Roman Rosdolsky. Problems there were, but

the precondition of their resolution is ... the rise of amass revolutionary movement, free of organisational constraint, in the homelands of industrial capitalism. Only then will a new unity of socialist theory and working class practice be possible, capable of endowing Marxism with the powers necessary to produce the knowledge it lacks today. [11]

Considerations thus ended on what Anderson himself called an ‘apocalyptic’ note: ‘When the masses themselves speak,theoreticians – of the sort the West has produced for fifty years – will necessarily be silent.’ [12] In an Afterword added when the essay was published in 1976, Anderson qualified his enthusiasm for revolutionary practice of only two years previously, listing a number of areas in which classical Marxism itself required criticism and revision. [13] Nevertheless, two subsequent interventions, The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (1976–7) and Arguments within English Marxism (1980) were both written from roughly the same standpoint as Considerations. The first vindicated revolutionary socialism against Eurocommunist misreadings of Gramsci (and the ambiguities of the latter’s Prison Notebooks); the second sought to reconcile the positive aspects of Althusser’s philosophy and Edward Thompson’s historiography within the framework of classical historical materialist and revolutionary socialist politics. (An impossible task, some might say).

In the Tracks of Historical Materialism returns toConsiderations, commencing with a survey of the extent to which Anderson’s earlier predictions have proved valid. The answer seems to be that they have – up to a point. The philosophical outpourings of Western Marxist have been replaced by ‘a sudden zest, a new appetite, for the concrete’ (p. 21). Anderson lists what he regards as the outstanding political and economic studies of the past ten years, the works of authors such as Mandel and Poulantzas, Braverman and Wright, Aglietta and Therborn, Roemer and Miliband.

Moreover, as Anderson had predicted in Considerations, ‘the geographical pattern of Marxist theory has been profoundly altered in the past decade. Today the predominant centres of intellectual production seem to lie in the English-speaking world, rather than in Germanic or Latin Europe, as was the case in the inter-war and post-war periods’ (p. 24). This is especially true in the‘case of historical writing, so that ‘the traditional relationship between Britain and Continental Europe appears for the moment to be effectively reversed – Marxist, culture in the UK for the moment proving more productive and original than that of any mainland state’ (p. 25).

However, the rise of ‘Anglo-Marxism’ is the obverse of much more negative developments:

For in one absolutely decisive respect the flow of theory in these years did not run in the direction I had envisaged. The reunification of Marxist theory and popular practice in a mass revolutionary movement signally failed to materialise. The intellectual consequences of this failure was, logically and fatally, the general dearth of real strategic thinking on the Left in the advanced countries – that is, any elaboration of a concrete or plausible perspective for a transition beyond capitalist democracy to a socialist democracy. Rather than a ‘poverty of theory’, what the Marxism that succeeded Western Marxism continued to share withies predecessor is a poverty of strategy’ (pp. 27–8).

Closely connected to this is the phenomenon that has come to be known as the ‘crisis of Marxism, geographically confined to Latin Europe – essentially France, Italy and Spain.’ (p. 28). Generally held to be instances of this crisis are Poulantzas’s suicide, Althusser’s madness, the renegacy of Colletti and the nouveaux philosophes. More generally, Anderson notes,

in the three decades or so after the Liberation, France came to enjoy cosmopolitan paramountcy in the general Marxist universe that recalls in its own way something of the French ascendancy in the epoch of the Enlightenment ... Paris today is the capital of European intellectual reaction, in much the same way that London was thirty years ago. (p. 32).

Explaining this astonishing reversal involves, Anderson argues,‘an internal history, of cognitive blindnesses and impediments, as well as advances or insights’. It also involves an‘external history’, that of ‘the intricate web of national and international class struggles which characterise (Marxism), and whose course its own instruments of thought are designed to capture’ (p. 14). The central portion of the essay deals with the‘internal history’ of French Marxism, its conquest by structuralism and post-structuralism, that is, by the body of thought inspired by the philosophy of language developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and chiefly associated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze.

Saussure’s importance lay in the fact that he overturned the hitherto dominant conception of language, which had treated words as deriving their meaning from the real objects which they named. Saussure denied that this was so. He insisted, instead, that language must be conceived as a system of differences, each word gaining its meaning by virtue of its relationship to other words rather than the objects they named. In the same way Saussure argued that language as a system of rules (langue) took priority over the speech(parole) of individual subjects. Consequently, linguistics must become a fundamentally ahistorical discipline, concerned with‘synchrony’, that is the timeless relationships constitutinglangue, rather than ‘diachrony’, the changes which individual speakers make to the language through the passage of time.

It was Lévi-Strauss who converted Saussure’s structural linguistics into structuralism, a general method for the study of society. He did so by the simple move of identifying language with society, what Anderson calls the ‘exorbitation of language’ (p. 40). Societies, for Lévi-Strauss, had the structure Saussure had attributed to language. Structural anthropology became a programme for identifying the simple and universal structures underlying kinship systems and myths. Inspired by Levi-Strauss’s example, Lacan asserted that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, rewriting psychoanalysis as a sub-region of linguistics.

The move was, as Anderson rightly argues, disastrous. ‘Language is no fitting model for any other practice’ (p. 43). Language changes very little; individual speakers can say what they like(there is no linguistic equivalent of economic scarcity), but what they say makes no difference to the language; and, in any case, speakers are individuals, while social agents are usually collective(classes, nations, etc.). Anderson notes that the structuralists were not the only ones to make language the model of social life: Jurgen Habermas, the main heir of the Frankfurt school, has also done so,though with less disastrous consequences (pp. 57–67).

Structuralism was nevertheless able to penetrate Marxism from within by exploiting ‘one of the most central and fundamental problems of historical materialism’ (p. 34). Marxism, according to Anderson, has never been able to provide a satisfactory theoretical answer to the problem of the relation between structure and subject, between the dialectic of forces and relations of production, on the one hand, and the class struggle on the other. It has consequently tended to vacillate between two extremes – the evolutionism of Kautsky and Plekhanov, for whom the triumph of the proletariat was inevitable and who therefore lapsed into reformist passivity, and the voluntarism of anarchists and Blanquists, who see revolution as a matter of pure will.

The issue of structure and subject came to dominate the post-war French intellectual left, Anderson argues. Sartre’s failure to resolve the issue, starting from the individual subject, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, paved the way for what was seen as Levi-Strauss’s victory over him in their debate of the early 1960s. For those such as Althusser who took Levi-Strauss’s side in that controversy, structuralism seemed to offer a solution:the individual subject could be conceived not as an autonomous person, but as the ‘support’ or ‘bearer’ of anonymous structures. In his famous essay Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser reduced subjectivity to an effect of ideology, a necessary illusion generated to reproduce society.

The triumph of structuralism led inexorably to disaster, Anderson argues. First, there was what he calls ‘the attenuation of truth’ (p. 45). If words derive their meaning from each other, not from their relationship to the world, then how can we know anything about the world? We can’t, was the answer given by Derrida, one of those to radicalise structuralism into ‘post-structuralism’. ‘Therein nothing outside the text’. This extreme idealism was given a further twist by Foucault, who has over the past decade developed the notion of ‘power-knowledge’, according to which scientific theories’ claims to truth are simply means used to subject us to power-relations.

Secondly, structuralism led to ‘the randomisation of history’ (p. 48). The point had been already made by the great Russian Marxist philosopher and critic Mikhail Bahktin in the 1920s. Saussure’s pre-occupation with the structure of language, withlangue, meant that he regarded ‘history as an irrational force distorting the logical purity of the language system.’ Consequently, ‘from the system’s point of view, history always seems merely a series of accidental transgressions.’ [14] This is very clear in Levi-Strauss: anthropology studies the universal structures of myth, while historical change is ‘irreducible contingency’, something which cannot be understood. For Derrida,history itself becomes a myth, an illusion bred by Western metaphysics.

Thirdly, structuralism leads inexorably to ‘the capsizal of structures themselves’ (p. 51). Structuralism draws such a stark opposition between structure and subject, system and history, that inevitably it bred a reaction. But because subjectivity and change had been dismissed by Levi-Strauss and Co as irrational, the reaction itself took the form of irrationalism. This was the moment of post-structuralism, of Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze. They accepted structuralism’s view of history as a succession of accidents and its denial of any relation between language and reality, but made a cult of the accidental and the irrational. Structures were overturned, and chaos replaced it. Nietzsche, who had reduced the whole of reality to a blind and arbitrary struggle between different wills to power, became the philosopher of the day.

To this sorry intellectual story, Anderson adds a political history, which explains why Habermas’s preoccupation with language in Germany did not lead to such absurd consequences. Western Marxism had always had an ambiguous attitude to Stalinism, critical of its‘excesses’, yet generally still believing that ‘the Russian Revolution and its sequels, whatever their barbarities or deformities, represented the sole real breach with the order of capital that the twentieth century has yet seen’ (p. 69). The Western Marxists were usually ‘oblique and prudent’ in their criticism of the Stalinist states: ‘direct and extended analysis of them in their own right was rarely if ever attempted’ (p. 69).

This made them very vulnerable to the crisis of the international Communist movement’ which began with the death of Stalin in 1953and Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956. Increasing disaffection with the Kremlin set in, either because of its failure to liberalise itself (Sartre), or because of its breach with Stalinism (Althusser initially). This led many of the most important Western Marxists first to Maoism, and then to Eurocommunism. Maoism seemed to be an attractive, revolutionary alternative to ‘revisionism’, especially in the years of the cultural revolution. After disillusionment had set in Eurocommunism in the mid-1970s seemed to offer a ‘third way’ between Stalinism and social-democracy.

Maoism and Eurocommunism had much in common, despite superficial differences. ‘They shared a common point of negative reference in the USSR’ (p. 75). Moreover, both gods failed, as became clear by the late 1970s:

Each of these alternatives had presented itself as a historical new solution, capable of overcoming the dilemmas and avoiding the disasters of Soviet history; yet each of their upshots proved a return to familiar deadlocks. Maoism appeared to debouch into little more than a truculent Oriental Khruschevism. Eurocommunism lapsed into what looked increasingly like a second-class version of Occidental social-democracy, shamefaced and subaltern in its relation to the mainstream tradition descending from the Second International (p. 76).

No wonder that ‘the “crisis of Marxism” was a quintessentially Latin phenomenon: for it was precisely in the three major Latin countries – France, Italy, Spain – that the chances of Eurocommunism seemed fairest, and the subsequent deflation was sharpest’ (p. 767). In Northern Europe, where social democracy was far stronger than Stalinism, ‘reformist administration held few novelties for the Marxism that had developed there since the sixties, whose main political focus was precisely a critique of it’ (p. 77). There, and in the US, where Marxism was too young as an intellectual tradition to experience any serious crisis, ‘a steadier and more tough-minded historical materialism proved generally more capable of withstanding political isolation or adversity, and of generating increasingly solid and mature work in and through them’ (p. 77).

There is much to be said for Anderson’s archaeology of the ’crisis of Marxism.’ Having myself written a book on the subject which identifies the decay of Stalinism and the influence of Saussure’s followers as among the chief causes, I wouldn’t want to quarrel with much in his actual account of this crisis, except on points of detail. (As so often, Anderson paints with very broad brush-strokes: the result is much too casual and dismissive a treatment of Foucault, for example.) In the Tracks of Historical Materialism contains probably the best brief explanation of what went wrong with French Marxism in particular.

The problem lies less in what Anderson says, than with what is unsaid. For one thing, where does Anderson himself fit into the picture he paints? As usual, he seems to be a detached observer,recording events unfolding quite independently of him.

But this won’t quite do. For if one were to list those responsible for the introduction of structuralist Marxism into the English-speaking world, Perry Anderson and the New Left Review would figure very prominently. The first translations of Althusser’sand Lacan’s major essays appeared in the pages of the review. Nor was it a matter, as Anderson now sometimes suggests, for example inArguments within English Marxism, of merely making available these works without endorsing them. Anderson’s onslaught on the poverty of British intellectual life, Components of the National Culture, constantly recommends the French as offering a superior approach to anything on offer in this country: Althusser,Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, Braudel, Canguilheim, Cavailles and Bachelard are brandished like totems at their wretched British counterparts.

Anderson has now retreated from this position. In part, this maybe to do with what happened to the champions of French structuralism in Britain: they went post-structuralist. This was most strikingly true of Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst. Stalwarts of the short-lived Althusserian review Theoretical Practice, they subjected first Althusser, then themselves, and finally Marx to ‘rigorous’ criticism, in the end arriving at a point where they decided that neither scientific knowledge nor socialist revolution were possible. Now Tony Benn is too left-wing for the one-time ‘Marxist-Leninists’, and they are, appropriately enough, talking ‘Socialist Philosophy’ to other members of the Fabian Society.

Anderson has frequently made his distaste for Hindess and Hirst plain. [15] The sentiment is understandable enough. Yet those he now rejects were once nurtured by him intellectually. The rampant idealism which parades through journals like Screen and m/f is the logical outcome of a body of thought, structuralism, which Anderson himself was once on eof the chief British enthusiasts.

Much more serious than Anderson’s failure to place himself within the history he records is his largely uncritical attitude towards ‘Anglo-Marxism’. When one examines this body of work one can identify at least three distinct intellectual currents, which might be called, ‘the Old Historians’, ‘Analytical Marxism’, and ‘Social-Scientific Marxism’.

The first has produced much the most outstanding work. This is‘the brilliant pleiad of scholars that (have) transformed so many accepted interpretations of the English and European past ...: Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Victor Kiernan, Geoffrey de Ste Croix and others.’ (p. 24). As Anderson himself acknowledges, this group has a common intellectual and political past. All were members of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s. All were involved in the Historians’ Group, which, under the aegis of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr, sought to develop a coherent analysis of British history since the Middle Ages.

By comparison, the second group, ‘Analytical Marxism’, has emerged to prominence only in the past five years or so. This is a group of figures who have largely resisted the philosophical influence of Western Marxism. Instead, they have drawn mainly on the intellectual tools provided by the English-speaking intellectual world in order to clarify the Marxist theory of history. Chief among these instruments are analytical philosophy and rational-choice theory (essentially a development of neo-classical economics). The most influential product of this group is G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History – a Defence (1978), greeted by Anderson as a ‘fundamental work’. [16] Cohen’s interpretation of Marxism, which treats the development of the productive forces as the motor of historical change, has been on eof the main focusses of debate among Analytical Marxists, amongst whom most prominent other figures are Jon Elster and John Roemer. [17]

Third, and in many ways most important, is the third group,‘Social-Scientific Marxism’. The name comes from one of its main representatives, the Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn. Therborn, basing himself on Considerations, argues that Marxism has gone through three main phases: ‘classical Marxism’, whose theme was the ‘Critique of Political Economy’, ‘Western Marxism’, or the ‘Critique of Philosophy’, and ‘Social-Scientific Marxism’, which has set the goal of a ‘Critique of Sociology’. [18] Indeed, it’s a reasonable bet that most practitioners of ‘Anglo-Marxism’ would be found teaching in sociology departments somewhere in the English-speaking world, Germany, or the Scandinavian countries.

This, like any classification, is obviously fairly schematic, with plenty of blurring round the edges. But it does provide a useful framework within which to understand and to assess the work of‘Anglo-Marxism’. There is little doubt in my mind that the most interesting and creative group is the first, the Old Historians. But they are old, most of them now in retirement. The works they produced in the 1970s which Anderson rightly praises – Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters – are the fruits of maturity, rather than promises of greater things to come. Moreover, formed politically and theoretically in a tradition which insisted, in however debased Stalinist a form, on the unity of theory and practice, there is an orientation on struggle, a political engagement which runs through all their writings.

This is most striking in the case of the latest, and one of the greatest products of the Old Historians – G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981). This extraordinary masterpiece, though written at a high level of theoretical abstraction, and dealing with a long-dead past with all the remorseless attention to textual detail of an Oxford Greats don(which is what de Ste Croix was), is informed by an immense political passion, an intense hatred of class exploitation whether ancient or modern. De Ste Croix is on the side of the slaves and serfs of antiquity, and makes it abundantly plain that he hopes that their modern heirs will finish off class society.

Such a mixture of passion and rigour is largely lacking from the other currents of Anglo-Marxism. This is most evident in the case of the Analytical school, whose main aim seems to be to make Marxism intellectually respectable in the terms of bourgeois scholarship. The effect is usually to make Marxism disappear in all but name.

It is, however, its Social-Scientific variant that holds the key to understanding Anglo-Marxism. As I have said, it is the numerically preponderant current. Its origins, however, are largely apolitical. First, the post-war expansion of higher education involved the rapid growth of sociology and related subjects. Probably the dominant influence initially, in the US at any rate, was the work of Talcott Parsons and his school. Parsons regarded society as a self-producing system. Any social strains represented a maladjustment or‘dysfunction’ of the system which could be removed by minor modifications. It was a view of society which perfectly fitted Western capitalism during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s.

Unfortunately, of course, the boom came to an end. The return of economic crisis and class struggle undermined the credibility of Parsonian sociology at a time when it was already suffering from internal difficulties. What was needed, instead, was a version of sociology which paid more attention to conflict. Variants of Western Marxism – in the US often the Frankfurt School, in Britain usually Althusser and Poulantzas – seemed to fit the bill. Although critical of existing society they conceived Marxism as an essentially intellectual activity (Althusser’s ‘Theoretical practice’) divorced from the class struggle.

The cadre for this new, critical sociology was provided by the student movement. Many activists of the 1960s, some of whom had spent time in revolutionary organisations, ended up teaching sociology. Their background naturally inclined them towards a Marxist ‘Critique of Sociology’. Thanks to this infusion of new blood, the academic social sciences were revitalised.

Social-Scientific Marxism is thus more a school, or set of schools, of bourgeois sociology than it is anything to do with revolutionary socialist politics. Anderson is perfectly correct when he says that a ‘turn to the concrete’ (p. 67) is characteristic of Anglo-Marxism. The orientation of contemporary Marxist scholarship is primarily political and economic, rather than philosophical. Yet Social-Scientific Marxism shares with its Western predecessor a ‘structural divorce ... from political practice’. What has happened in the shift of the intellectual centre of gravity from Latin Europe to the Anglophone world is more a change of university or polytechnic department than a radical reorientation. During the heyday of Adorno and Althusser the philosophers interpreted the world; in that of Therborn and Wright the sociologists interpret it instead.

The rise of Social-Scientific Marxism has had its effect on New Left Review itself. Through most of its history it has been roundup with the fate of the British left. It emerged as one consequence of the split in the Communist Party after 1956 [A] and of the first CND era. Even after Anderson and Co. took over the review in 1962 and had turned it towards Continental high theorising, the question of its political orientation was always central. The different positions taken were often very silly – the cult of Wilson in the early 1960s and of Mao and Guevara in the later 1960s – but they undoubtedly mattered to those who took them.

Since the late 1970s we have seen a progressive detachment of NLR from any practical stance. A variety of different viewpoints have been expressed within it and through its publishing house – the crass reformism of Michael Rustin, the largely uncritical pro-Soviet analysis of the Cold War developed by Fred Halliday and Mike Davis,the orthodox Trotskyist version of revolutionary socialism of Mandel and Anderson himself, David Coates’s critique of left reformism. But it all seems to matter much less. There is no unifying theme or sense of direction.

Alongside this growing political detachment is what one can only call the Americanisation of the review. Many of the most important recent pieces have been written by American Marxists. Indeed, they have eclipsed the Latins in NLR’s pages. Much of the work I have in mind is of high quality – Mike Davis’s history of the American working class, Erik Olin Wright’s theory of contradictory class locations, Robert Brenner’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. At a purely intellectual level, the development is hardly surprising: the sheer size and wealth of the Us university system gives American academics an enormous advantage (it is striking how in subjects such as philosophy American exercise growing predominance over the English and the French).

However, the Americanisation of NLR must be one factor underlying its lack of political orientation. The absence of any mass reformist party, and the relative weakness of the revolutionary left mean that US Marxist scholars are under even greater pressure than their European counterparts to become purely academic socialists. The result can only be to encourage NLR’s propensities to elitism and idealism. Once it straddled the Channel in an attempt to save us from British parochialism; now it hovers somewhere in mid-Atlantic in Olympian solitude.

The change can be traced in Anderson’s own position. His essays of the 1960s were those of an enormously clever and erudite outsider hurling missiles at the philistine and complacent British academic world. Today, he is someone who is heard with respect by many academics, especially in the elite universities on the East and West coast of the United States. In the Tracks of Historical Materialism is one index of Anderson’s new respectability being the text of lectures given at the University of California at Irvine. There are even rumours of a Cambridge chair.

The turning point came with the publication of Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, the first two volumes in Anderson’s yet unfinished genealogy of the bourgeois state. They appeared at a time when ‘historical sociology’ was becoming fashionable, as a number of often younger academics became impatient with Parsons’ stress on social system and wanted instead to examine processes of struggle and change. In a return to Max Weber, the state once again became fashionable. Anderson’s books, themselves influenced heavily by Weber, converged with where the vanguard of English-speaking sociology – Barrington Moore Jnr, Immanuel Wallerstein, Theda Skocpol, Anthony Giddens, Philip Abrams – were already going. [19]

Anderson’s new location within the academic structures he once assaulted from outside helps to explain the rather feeble and unfocussed nature of the concluding pages of In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. Here he addresses the ‘poverty of strategy’ that is ‘the Sphinx facing Marxism in the West’ (p. 80). The result is disappointing.

It is true that Anderson refuses to succumb to the fashionable belief that socialism has nothing to offer causes of ‘human emancipation’ such as peace and women’s liberation. He insists:

Without the supersession of classes, there is small chance of the equalisation of sexes; just as without the dismantling of capital, there is little likelihood of the banishment of nuclear war. The peace movement and the women’s movement are, in their practical fate, in the long-run indissociable from the labour movement (p. 96).

Yet any force this argument might have is undermined when Anderson proceeds to consider various practical difficulties inherent in the idea of a socialist society. It is these difficulties, Anderson appears to believe, which are responsible for socialism’s lack of popularity, for the fact that ‘the very notion of socialism as an alternative form of civilisation has become effaced and remote within broad masses of the working class in the West, and fallen into popular discredit in significant zones of the East’ (p. 97).

The problem is thus one of filling various intellectual gaps within Marxism. Anderson does not envisage the possibility that it might be the fundamental political failures of the main socialist traditions which explain their unpopularity, in other words, that after more than fifty years of Stalinism and social democracy neither have anything to offer, and are seen to have nothing to offer by large portions of the Western working class. This is not necessarily a situation about which there is anything to cheer, since there is no evidence of the revolutionary left filling the resulting vacuum, butts roots lie elsewhere than in the failure of Marx and Lenin to sketch out a detailed account of what the economic and political institutions of a socialist society would be like.

One reason why Anderson does not see things this way lies in discontinued assessment of countries like Russia as in some sense ‘post-capitalist’ societies. Thus he wrote not long ago: ‘The fundamental hypotheses of The Revolution Betrayed (1936) remains unsurpassed to this day as a framework for the investigation of Soviet society.’ [20] But if the economic and social foundations of the USSR and its like really do represent a break with capitalism, then any failings of these societies must stem ultimately from defects in the Marxist conception of socialism – after all it has already been ruled out that these societies are, in reality, capitalist.

Whatever the reason, Anderson falls in with the current fashion for Utopianising on the intellectual Left. This is a politically dangerous move. Advocates of a return to Utopian socialism (for example, the authors of Beyond the Fragments) tend to commence by saying that revolutionary socialism isn’t radical enough, that it uses the weapons of capitalism, i.e. those of the class struggle, rather than seeking to ‘prefigure’ the future society in the present. Very rapidly ‘prefigurative politics’ collapses into the most banal of reformist practices, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of many would-be Utopians for the municipal left. All the daring of Fourier’s phalansteries becomes merely the self-deluding tinkering of the Greater London Enterprise Board.

The trouble with Anderson’s reflections on strategy in In the Tracks of Historical Materialism is that they can lend legitimacy to this sort of twaddle. More generally, nowhere in the book does Anderson confront one very obvious fact about ‘Anglo-Marxism’, namely, that if it has a political orientation it is that of left reformism. There may be few cases of full-scale apostasy on the British intellectual Left, but the exodus from revolutionary politics into the Labour Party has been enormous over the past five years. Yet Anderson, who has written some of the most cogent recent defences of revolutionary socialism, has absolutely nothing to say on this subject.

One might say in Anderson’s defence that, after all, the book originated as lectures to an American audience, and so there was no reason for him to address the question of the British Labour Party. That in itself is, however, an indication of his aloofness from any political orientation. Indeed, one way to read the recent split in the NLR editorial committee was that it involves less apolitical disagreement than the departure of those (Tom Nairn, Anthony Barnett, Fred Halliday and others), who have over the past few years acquired positions of standing in the left-reformist intelligentsia, for example through their contributions to Marxism Today, the New Statesman, and the like. The surviving members of the editorial board, including Anderson and his successors editor, Robin Blackburn, may be less vulnerable to the pressures which drew the others towards the Labour Party, but this reflects, at least in Anderson’s case, less a firm political stance than a location within predominantly academic milieux.

One way of placing Perry Anderson now would be to compare him to Plekhanov. No insult is intended in doing so, it is rather that Anderson now occupies a position rather like Plekhanov, as an erudite, elegant guardian of Marxist orthodoxy. Indeed, he shares a very similar conception of history to Plekhanov’s since he follows Gerry Cohen in according primacy to the productive forces in achieving historical change.

There is plenty of value to be gleaned from Anderson’s writings. For example, his critical but sympathetic review of de Ste Croix’s masterpiece was indeed itself something of a model, both praising th ebook’s strengths, and at the same time tactfully revealing ways of overcoming its weaknesses. [21] Like Plekhanov, Anderson can be a formidable defender of Marxism against its critics, as he shows in his discussion of structuralism and post-structuralism.

But as, with Plekhanov, there is a patrician aloofness, a detachment form political practice, a passive waiting upon events, about Anderson’s work. It is not that Anderson does not recognise the gap which exists between theory and practice, but rather that he regards its existence as inevitable. As long ago as 1966 he wrote:

The distinctive character of western European Marxism since 1918 has been its co-emergence and colloquy with various currents of idealism ... The same pattern is likely to be repeated in Britain, should an ‘Anglo-Marxism’ ever finally emerge. The precondition for a transcendence of this dialectic is the reunification of theory and practice in a mass socialist movement. [22]

Marxist theory is doomed to idealism unless a ‘mass socialist movement’ exists. The implication is that nothing can be done to bring such a movement into existence, that it will be the product of the spontaneous workings of history. But to set against this fatalism is the experience of the classical Marxists whom Anderson so frequently praises, of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci, all of whom sought to unite theory and practice within revolutionary socialist organisation, even if that organisation might seem isolated in comparison within the great currents of history.

‘Mass socialist movements’ will not come at the bidding of Marxist intellectuals. But they will not come at all unless socialists are willing to undertake the hard preliminary work of creating an organisation in which theory and practice are systematically related, in which theoreticians are forced to put their ideas to the test of practice, and in which everyday activity's subjected to constant critical scrutiny. No intellectual, not even one as gifted as Perry Anderson can overcome this by writing brilliant essays alone. Simply waiting upon history can only lead, in the end, to it passing you by.


1. P. Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Verso, £4.95. All references in the text are to this book.

2. See I. Birchall, The Autonomy of Theory, International Socialism 2 : 10 (1980).

3. Reprinted in E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London 1978).

4. P. Sedgwick, Pseud Left Review.

5. P. Anderson, Critique of Wilsonism, New Left Review 27 (1964), p. 3.

6. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London 1976), p. 29.

7. Ibid., pp. 44–5.

8. Ibid., p. 49.

9. Ibid., p. 56.

10. Ibid., p. 42.

11. Ibid., p. 104.

12. Ibid., pp. 109, 106.

13. Ibid., pp. 12–21.

14. V.N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York 1973), pp. 61, 78.

15. See, for example, Considerations, pp. 109–111.

16. P. Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London 1980), p. 40.

17. On ‘Analytical Marxism’, see J. Grey, Times Literary Supplement, 30 Dec 1983.

18. G. Therborn, Problems of Class Analysis, in B. Matthews (ed.), Marx: A Hundred Years On (London 1983), pp. 161ff.

19. For a survey of these developments, see P. Abrams, Historical Sociology (West Compton House, 1982).

20. Arguments, p. 117.

21. P. Anderson, Class Struggle in the Ancient World, History Workshop, No. 16.

22. P. Anderson, Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism, New Left Review 35, p. 41.

Note by ETOL

A. In the printed text “1968”, but from the context it is clear that this should be “1956”.

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Last updated: 16 January 2018