Anderson’s Amphibologies: On Perry Anderson

Anderson’s Amphibologies: On Perry Anderson

Anderson’s Amphibologies: On Perry Anderson

Perry Anderson deftly punctures the EU’s self-serving myths, but his own pieties make him a better prosecutor than judge.


As a student during the 1980s, I gave the "European Union" section in the library a wide berth. The pall of soporific technocracy that hung over it made the adjacent shelves of books on law and political science enticing by comparison. A lot more has been written on the EU since then, most of it perpetuating that same "mortal dullness," to borrow a phrase from the historian Perry Anderson. Dullness, on the other hand, is one charge no one has ever levied at Anderson, whose new book, The New Old World, is as insightful, combative and invigorating as its illustrious predecessors. Given Anderson’s long and intimate engagement with Europe, both as an editor of the New Left Review and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books for the past two decades, one looks forward to what one gets–a bracing assault from somewhere on the left on the conventional Europieties, and new perspectives on the evolution, and likely future trajectory, of one of the most important political and cultural experiments of our time.

Anderson states the fundamental analytical difficulty of his project at the outset. Europe appears to be an "impossible object," constantly slipping among three quite distinct literatures. There are histories of the postwar continent, mostly written in the shadow of the cold war and paying little attention to the European Union; there is the vast outpouring of works, popular and scholarly, focusing not on Europe per se but on this or that European country. (The EU may be a polity of sorts, but the political and intellectual energies of most Europeans still flow at the national level.) Finally, there is what we might call professional EUrology: a series of interventions, chiefly by legal scholars and political scientists, on the technicalities of the integration process and its institutions. Given the amnesiac quality of much of this last in particular, Anderson’s ability to move fluently among the three literatures, and above all to evaluate the EU as an ideology, is necessary and timely.

Anderson takes as his starting point a series of reflections on the work of the historian Alan Milward, who in The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-51 (1984), The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992) and The Frontiers of National Sovereignty (1993) demonstrated the degree to which the politics of the nation-state remained vital in explaining the postwar drive toward European integration. Milward’s argument was that the revival of democracy in the nation-states of Western Europe, shaken by the experience of occupation and war, depended on the pursuit of prosperity through the rebuilding of cross-border economic networks. As this rebuilding took place, it became the motor of more permanent and far-reaching European cooperation. Accepting the basic insight, Anderson argues that Milward nevertheless exaggerates the degree to which this process was democratic; in fact, far from restoring and deepening democracy in Europe, as the EU’s founders wished, the institutions they built have eroded and weakened it. This tendency has reached an apogee in the creation of a single currency defended by a powerful centralized monetary authority that exerts deflationary pressure on wages in order to guard the rigid conditions of the Stability and Growth Pact. The lack of comparably powerful legislatures at the European level means that the voice of the popular will is silenced. (A rare exception was the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the EU’s constitutional treaty in 2005, a wrinkle ironed out by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.) Any democratic impulse in the integration process long ago withered away and has been replaced by an elitarian, even oligarchic form of consensus policy-making conducted behind closed doors and consummated in faits accomplis.

Anderson is significantly more admiring than Milward of the federalist impulses of EU architect Jean Monnet and his peers. He applauds their transnational vision, their dirigiste commitment to welfarism and their desire to set Europe on foundations that would allow it to forge its own path between the superpowers. At the same time, he insists that the federalists’ idealism needs to be set against the enduring impact of continental geopolitics: France’s fear of Germany after World War II; West Germany’s desire to rejoin the comity of powers; and above all, the brute reality of the American desire to see Europe as a stable garrison in the cold war. For Anderson, Europeans have simply failed to acknowledge their real status as an outpost of the American imperium; worse, over the decades from Truman to Bush II, they have become more subservient, not less.

Despite the disagreements, all this is presented with the utmost respect for Milward’s intellectual achievement. (Indeed, Milward is the book’s dedicatee.) The tone changes when Anderson takes up contemporary EUrology, dispatching with gusto the various models–intergovernmentalist, confederalist, imperial–that social scientists have offered as guides to understanding what has become in only a few decades one of the most complex of contemporary political structures. Common to most if not all versions of EUrology, Anderson charges, is an overestimation of what the EU has really achieved, an underplaying of its continued geopolitical weakness and a complacency about its embrace of neoliberal economics. The lack of accountability in European institutions cannot be written off as easily as the mainstream scholarship assumes, nor should we excuse or dignify the Eurocrats’ attempt to replace the guns and blood of political struggle with consensus reached through secret diplomacy.

That the initial chapters of The New Old World are based for the most part on pieces published previously in the London Review of Books does not make them any less valuable: such a penetrating and wide-ranging critique of the field is still rare. But at this point in the book, just when one expects Anderson to elaborate his own analysis of the European Union in more detail, he instead reprints a number of tours d’horizon of the three countries–Italy, France and Germany–that constitute what he terms the European "Core." The shift in gears from the EUrological to the national is abrupt and justified perfunctorily as though to set before our eyes that very impossibility of writing about Europe that Anderson notes to be such a striking feature of the intellectual landscape.

Part of the problem is that these pieces, although worth rereading, are in some cases quite old and have inevitably dated. (The first part of the Germany chapter was originally published as an essay in the LRB in January 1999.) Anderson’s political antennas, sensitive to considerations of the longue durée, are always closely attuned to the demands of the conjuncture. In his hands, historical analysis, massive and precisely crafted, invariably serves as ammunition in an unceasing war of position. Thus his essays, despite their dense scene-setting, distancing tone and expert knowledge, are nothing if not assessments of the moment. In this sense, though in almost no other, they resemble that effort at a "history of the present" that Anderson himself has castigated in the work of Timothy Garton Ash. (Like Garton Ash, Anderson focuses on the political class and its machinations; but whereas Garton Ash, in Anderson’s view, cozies up to it and offers a view from over its shoulder, Anderson stands at a remove and is constantly unmasking it.)

There is another difficulty. Anderson singles out his Big Three not only because of their role in the European Union but also–perhaps primarily–for their predominant place in European cultural life. A strictly EUrological intent might have suggested a different choice of candidates; momentum toward integration has frequently come, after all, either from smaller countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands or from the European Commission (the chief administrative organ of the EU). But Anderson’s idealist bent pushes him away from such themes and back to the specificities of Old Europe’s national Kultur bearers. In each case, the rise of neoliberalism is linked to the left’s loss of ideological and philosophical vigor. Something of the former Gramscian is manifested here: the implication is that because the left lost the war of ideas in Italy, France and Germany, catastrophic political consequences followed. Once there were titans like Sartre and de Gaulle, runs the message; now we are left with BHL and Sarko. The tone is regretful; the analysis, acerbic. But the overarching political conception is surprisingly old-fashioned–what counts is Big Three politics, each mediated by the international balance of forces but unfolding largely within its national borders. Dealing with exactly the same three countries, historian Charles Maier once wrote a classic of comparative history, Recasting Bourgeois Europe (1975), in an effort to explain the wider mutation of political life and institutions across Europe after World War I. Anderson does not do this. As membership in the EU has expanded from six states to twenty-seven, he has remained focused on the Big Three. He sees the EU as one further–perhaps the last–triumph of the Western European bourgeoisie, but his eschewal of systematic comparison offers less guidance than Maier’s on the reasons for its success.

These somber analyses of the hollowing out of Europe’s Core are followed in a quite different vein by a sequence of essays (originally published in the LRB in 2008) on Cyprus and Turkey. Here we move from domestic institutions and struggles over national cultures to sweeping, morally charged narratives set in an emphatically geopolitical context. Anderson terms his subject the European Union’s "Eastern Question," in the belief that its treatment of Cyprus and Turkey reveals as much about the EU as the treatment of the old Eastern Question (the fallout from the decay of the Ottoman Empire) did about the real nature of the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century. This is, in short, all about the unmasking of European pretensions. Despite their fine talk about human rights, the Europeans have consistently left the Greek Cypriots in the lurch and acquiesced in Turkey’s de facto partition of their island. At the same time, Anderson says, they have welcomed the prospect of Turkish membership, as EU policy-makers and polite opinion do their best to sweep inconvenient mention of the Armenian genocide under the carpet.

Anderson is in less familiar territory here, and it shows. His lengthy retelling of the Cyprus tragedy manages to be schoolmasterly and polemical at the same time. The pendant pieces on Turkey push tendentiousness further. He exaggerates the chances of Turkish membership in the EU (which currently look bleak, since Europeans, pace Anderson, do not do everything the Americans tell them to). But it is the history offered here that is uncharacteristically ropy. Having reminded us at the outset that the European Union is dealing with the descendant of an imperial state, he warns that the early modern Ottoman Empire was "designed for the battlefield, without territorial fixture or definition." One could as easily describe the British Empire in analogous terms, but to what end? The character of states is not fixed by their origins, and even when such assertions about empires are true, they are idle as guides to the present outlook and behavior of their postimperial successors. As for his suggestion that nineteenth-century imperial reforms failed to transform the religious foundations of Ottoman rule, this is scarcely borne out by the facts. If political Islam emerged in the late nineteenth century as a new program for the empire–dismissed by Anderson, with a typical impatience for the politics of piety, as "ideological bluster"–it was precisely because of the dramatic impact of the reform program on Islam’s place in Ottoman society.

A matter highly relevant to the worldview of the Turkish political elite also deserves more weight than Anderson devotes to it: namely, the massive human cost of imperial decline, as millions of Muslims over the century after 1821 were forced to abandon their lands in the arc from Greece through the Balkans to the Caucasus, and made a new home in Anatolia. But accounting for that forced migration would have complicated and contextualized the story of the Armenian genocide, which is Anderson’s real subject. It would have required explanation rather than indictment. One would have had to situate the genocide, for instance, within the embrace by the Committee of Union and Progress, the ruling party at the time, of a much more sweeping population politics, one that identified a bewildering range of ethnic groups–Christian and Muslim–as suspect and potentially disloyal elements, and brought to the fore the tight interconnection between the bureaucracies of mass murder and refugee resettlement during World War I.

As for the politics of the memory of the genocide, too much in Anderson’s charge sheet is dictated by rhetorical positioning. It is true, as he says, that the Turkish elite has connived in a silence about the genocide that remains hard, indeed dangerous, to break. But his allegation that European sympathies in this matter are on the side of Turkey’s Kemalist, secular elite strains belief. Turkey’s cover-up has been denounced in the French Parliament, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, among other venues. Of the many reasons Europeans are balking at Turkish membership, this is not the least important. And while it is certainly correct that Western historians of modern Turkey fight shy of using the "G-word" (just as Soviet historians used to weigh carefully what might jeopardize their access to the archives), this professional deformation does not inhibit the European commentariat that Anderson unnecessarily pillories.

A litany of authorial errors serves little purpose. It is more useful to explain the peculiarities of Anderson’s perspective and tone. Fundamentally, this book charts the reaction to a deep and evidently wounding disappointment, one that has more to do with Anderson’s ideas than can be explained solely by the global rise of neoliberalism and the long retreat of the left. It is Europe, perhaps above all, that has disappointed him. From very early in the history of the New Left Review, which turns fifty this year, Anderson embraced a Europeanist position for at least three reasons. First, it offered a convenient perch from which to lambaste the parochialism of the British left. Second, one could imagine that the regional concentration of power achieved by the Western European bourgeoisie through the economic integration process in the 1950s might paradoxically–if the left ever got its hands on the reins–pave the way for a coordinated continental path to socialism. And third, perhaps most important, the New Left Review regarded (Western) Europe as a kind of cultural and intellectual font and devoted itself to disseminating the works of Gramsci, Althusser, Mandel and many other social theorists previously neglected or unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world.

So far as the first of these reasons is concerned, the battle is over. The British Labour Party is now more unambiguously pro-European than the Tories, and Europe is not by and large a major bone of contention within it. As for the third reason, the scale of the achievement of the New Left Review and its associated imprint, Verso, which turns forty this year, is now clear: their dissemination of Euro-Marxism influenced intellectual life in Britain, especially on its campuses. But this did not have any greater political impact, since the universities were never, as the NLR once anticipated, the "weak link" of capitalism. Worse still, the fountainhead of ideas has dried up, and the European left is–so Anderson suggests–intellectually bankrupt.

This brings us to the remaining reason for Anderson’s embrace of a Europeanist position: the chances of turning the European Union into an engine of socialism, or at least of social democracy. As late as 1998, Anderson was still willing to see this as a possibility; in an exchange with the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, he anticipated that if the German Social Democratic Party won elections that year, "the four major countries of Western Europe…will for the first time in history be ruled simultaneously by governments declaredly of the Left. This constellation would occur just as the great project of a single continental currency comes into being. The power to reshape the conditions of life for the peoples of Europe for the better would lie in the hands of the official Left, across national frontiers, in a way that it has never done before." The Social Democratic Party did prevail, and under Gerhard Schröder it did form a government, but the outcome belied Anderson’s hopes. In short order, the Schröder government cut taxes, reduced welfare benefits and sent German troops into combat (in Kosovo and Afghanistan) for the first time since World War II. It was the latest in a series of disappointments–in the EU, its institutions, its electorates–that has left Anderson facing a Europe very different from the one he has believed in over so many years.

What is left for him, then, but to pour scorn upon the pretensions of contemporary liberal Euroboosters? Do they see Europe as a beacon of light, a reminder of a better world than that across the Atlantic? They forget, says Anderson, that the European Union in geopolitical terms is nothing more than a "deputy empire." Do they praise it for having devised a postconflictual form of politics? Prove them wrong by reminding them that key member states retain strong senses of their own self-interest. All of this makes Anderson enjoyable to read. But it also makes him a better prosecutor than judge.

The desire to rout the liberals and pick holes in their woolly self-delusions leads Anderson into strange company. In particular, he has a soft spot for tough-minded realists and neocons. Robert Kagan is commended for providing, in Of Paradise and Power (2003), the best account of Europe’s subservience to the United States; Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009), Christopher Caldwell’s assault on the hypocrisies of immigration debate in the EU, is said to break "free from the prevailing morass of sanctimony and evasion" thanks to "the clarity of its historical analysis and sharpness of its comparative perspective." Not that Anderson cannot spot the weaknesses in the realists’ and neocons’ arguments; but their readiness to ignore taboos, to castigate the self-satisfaction of Old Europe’s elites, is something he seems to relish.

So too is their geopolitical realism. In Anderson’s Europe, one is constantly waiting for the old demons to return. Unified Germany in particular is depicted as a potential Bismarckian, if not quite Nazi, Grossmacht ready to impose its will on its cowering neighbors; the European Union is a new Concert of Powers replaying in a new key the old struggle for mastery. Throughout The New Old World, present-day presidents and prime ministers are termed "rulers," their governments "regimes," as though to imply their fundamental illegitimacy–despite their electoral victories. It is a view of the continent–and its voters–that sits oddly with the other plank of the Andersonian critique: the EU’s lack of democracy. Either power has relocated in some unaccountable way to the neoliberal corridors of Brussels, voiding national politics of much of its autonomy, or in fact it remains in the hands of the Germans, the French and other would-be hegemons. Anderson wants us to fear the old tyrannies and the new one at the same time, but this seems inconsistent, if not incoherent.

Elitism can take many forms, of course. Anderson’s political goals have, on the showing of this book, moderated considerably over time: what counts now for him in Europe is the revival of popular politics and the struggle against growing economic inequality. But if previous positions have been tacitly abandoned, there has been no diminution in authorial certainty: the tone of omniscience remains for the most part intact, and there are flashes of the author’s trademark hauteur. More discordant with his avowedly democratizing goals, it seems to me, is his prose. Connoisseurs of Andersoniana will enjoy recherché gems such as "amphibology," "capsizal" and "conflictivity." Without touching on the obiter dicta in French, German, Latin and Italian, we find, in only a few pages, "decathexis," "semi-catallaxy," "paralogism" and "censitary," alongside archaisms like "estoppage," "prebends" and "brigade" (used as a verb). Such language stands as testimony to elitism of a different kind, that of a small substratum of the postwar British left whose basically Leninist conception of radical politics led them to abjure too close a contact with the masses, whose ultimate victory they supposedly championed. But now another kind of elitism, much more impenetrable in word and deed, is in the ascendant in Europe. Anderson is good at puncturing its self-serving myths. But the explanation of its staying power must be sought elsewhere.


Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy