“It should be a matter of honour on the Left to write at least as well…as its adversaries.” Such a conviction, expressed with an almost antique downrightness of tone, is not common in writing today, and neither, perhaps, is the confident division of the world into “the Left” and “its adversaries.” Nor, for that matter, has the sentiment generally been well regarded by much of the left itself, which has often been wary of style and stylishness, suspecting such genteel notions of cloaking confusions and distractions that serve the interests of the established order. There is, therefore, something doubly bracing about encountering this sentence in the editorial that in 2000 launched a new series of New Left Review, a journal at the forefront of engaged intellectual work on the left since its inception in 1960 but one that in its early decades was scarcely a byword for good writing. This setting makes the choice of idiom all the more arresting: a “matter of honour,” no less! We are clearly in the presence of a distinctive voice, one not to be trifled with.
The voice in question is that of Perry Anderson, who has been intimately involved with the direction of New Left Review throughout most of the forty-five years of its existence and who has long been acknowledged as a formidable and accomplished intellectual figure in his own right–comparative historian, social theorist, political analyst. Traditionally, the chief obstacles to good writing on the left have been located in a certain remorselessness of political and theoretical zeal, an unlovely union of overabstraction and the doctrinaire exposition of a party line. Anderson has never conceded this charge; good writing in his view can take various forms and should not be incompatible with rigorous theorizing or trenchant political judgment. But in that same editorial he identified a new threat: He remarked upon “the widespread migration of intellectuals of the Left into institutions of higher learning” over recent years and immediately registered a warning of the “tares” this move has brought with it, above all “standards of writing that would have left Marx or Morris speechless.” In his new collection of essays, Spectrum, Anderson is equally unsparing in itemizing the “baneful effects” of academia: “peer-group fixation, index-of-citations mania, gratuitous apparatuses, pretentious jargons, guild conceit.”
Taking a deliberate, at times almost haughty, distance from these disfiguring fashions, Spectrum reveals a constant responsiveness to matters of style. The conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott is roundly denounced for various political and logical failings, but at his best, Anderson acknowledges, “his writing…can rise to a lyrical beauty.” The arguments of a book on the British Constitution by Tory political commentator Ferdinand Mount are utterly dismantled, but not without registering the author’s “cool prose” and “light touch.” Similarly, Anderson judges that the first part of Interesting Times, the autobiography of British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, is “the finest piece of writing this famously accomplished stylist has ever produced,” and he praises Hobsbawm’s tetralogy of works on the making of the modern world from 1789 to 1991 for “a style of remarkable clarity and energy, whose signature is the sudden bolt of metaphoric electricity across the even surface of cool, pungent argument” (thus displaying his own credentials in the matter as well).
Brooding on this recurrent feature of Anderson’s recent writing, I recalled the adage “Writing well is the best revenge.” Insofar as this applies in his case, one might say that it is “revenge” on history. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was possible for Anderson and his collaborators to believe that history was on their side, that the proper union of intellectual labor and working-class militancy would help bring about the socialist supersession of capitalism. Marx provided the main theoretical framework, Trotsky much of the political inspiration; among more immediate seniors, Isaac Deutscher and Ernest Mandel were stars to steer by. Anderson’s writing of those decades, much of it published in New Left Review, did not feel the need to make many concessions to those who were uninitiated theoretically or unsympathetic politically. The task was too urgent, the stakes too high, and in any case the “bourgeois” media were too complicit with capitalism and its political outriders. Anderson wrote several brilliant essays during these years (as well as two major works of comparative history, Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State), but though their brilliance may be undimmed even at this distance, one cannot help noticing how the whiff of sectarianism, of laying down the “correct” line, now hangs about some of these articles like stale cigarette smoke.