Marxism and Form

Marxism and Form

Perry Anderson’s Spectrum journeys through the abstract worlds of conservative and liberal intellectual thought, and leaves in its trail insights on the substance and style of ideas.


“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.

The 1980s and ’90s administered a series of painful shocks to the milieu to which Anderson’s early writing had been addressed. He appears to have undergone something of a political or intellectual crisis in the mid-’80s, leading him not just to reassess the prospects for the left in a world dominated by neoliberalism but also, one may infer, to reconsider the function of his own writing. Displaying an enviable resilience and capacity for self-renewal, he has committed himself to the ideal of “uncompromising realism,” however politically discouraging the findings of such realism may be. Whether as a result of this recasting or because of changes in the public sphere of Western societies–or for quite other literary, personal or material reasons–Anderson, always a powerful analyst and coruscating polemicist, has emerged in the past fifteen years or more as one of the leading intellectual essayists of our time, read and admired far beyond any sectarian confines. In 1992 Verso (which he had helped to found as the publishing arm of NLR) issued two collections of his essays: English Questions brought together several already celebrated longer articles on the “deviant” character of British history and politics, viewed from within a particular European Marxist optic, while Zone of Engagement collected pieces mostly focused on recent and contemporary theorists and political commentators. Several of the essays in the latter volume, in particular, are models of serious intellectual appraisal: deeply informed, ranging, severe. There are few writers whose name on the cover of a periodical constitutes an irresistible incitement to find out what they have to say–on whatever the subject may be–but I know I am not alone in putting Anderson in that very select company.

Spectrum is a collection of fifteen essays, all but one of them previously published, the great majority in The London Review of Books or New Left Review. The contents are arranged in a progression across the political spectrum: from “the Intransigent Right” of Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt and Friedrich von Hayek; through the reformist conservatism of Ferdinand Mount and the anticommunism of Timothy Garton Ash; to “the Adjustable Centre” of John Rawls, Norberto Bobbio and Jürgen Habermas; and on to “the Vanquished Left” of E.P. Thompson, Robert Brenner, Sebastiano Timpanaro and Eric Hobsbawm (plus two slightly more marginal pieces on Göran Therborn and Gabriel García Márquez, both of which appeared originally in these pages). Although Anderson is on record as regarding decolonization and the women’s movement as the most significant developments in human emancipation in the past half-century, his subjects in this collection are all European or North American (García Márquez aside) and all male.

Two further, less easily classifiable pieces are included in an appendix. The first is a sympathetic assessment of The London Review of Books from its inception in 1979 to 1996 (the piece first appeared as the introduction to an anthology from the journal published in that year). The other is a remarkable essay, arresting and haunting, on Anderson’s father and the Chinese Maritime Customs Service for which he worked, one of the most improbable organizations thrown up by the uneven history of imperialism, largely staffed by well-educated Westerners but answerable to the Chinese government. This piece has some of the satisfactions of amateur family history, delving into Anderson’s Anglo-Irish military background, but it is bolstered by his habitual command of the forces, both proximate and distant, at work in shaping world events and is inflected in places by tones not usually associated with his writing–delicate, painterly, compassionate.

The chief impression left by the best essays in this volume is one of extraordinary intellectual power. The analysis of the theoretical and empirical claims made in the work of its subjects is both dazzling and unyielding: These are “critiques” in the full sense of that term in its original German philosophical usage: reconstructions of the internal logic of ideas, deductions of the intellectual and sociological conditions of their possibility, withering exposures of their inconsistencies and omissions. His range is proverbial: It hardly seems fair that one man could move with such ease through the history of so many periods and regions or through so many different kinds of writing. The word “magisterial” is overworked, often as a slack synonym for “impressive,” yet if one attends to its definition–“having the bearing of a master, invested with authority”–then the aura of omnicompetent grandeur about Anderson’s writing makes the term irresistible. That the contemporary left should possess such a voice, one in which radical political aspirations are blotted neither by phony populism nor by rebarbative academicism, is important and heartening. Anderson remains an inspiring example of thinking in the world, about the world and for the world.

Yet to what readership, so much of the world having changed, does Anderson now address himself, and from what vantage point, so many of the old doctrinal certainties having shriveled, does he now write? One of the phrases that has been used to identify the characteristic perspective of Anderson’s recent work is “Olympian universalism.” The noun is obviously apt: Not only is Anderson a staunch adherent of the Enlightenment tradition of unfettered rational analysis; he is a universalist in the geographical as well as philosophical sense, attending impartially to developments in all parts of the world. He is the least parochial of writers–apart, I feel bound to say, from his constant (and, in its way, parochial) dismissiveness of English culture as incorrigibly sterile and hidebound.

But “Olympian,” too, does capture something that may be becoming more and more characteristic of his writing voice. One index of this that may at first appear no more than an idiosyncratic indulgence comes to strike the reader as a systematic self-distancing from the popular and demotic, and that is Anderson’s deliberate deployment of a recondite, but nontechnical, vocabulary. Where else in contemporary writing is one likely to come across the following terms, culled almost at random from among these essays: magma, taxative, lustration, censitary, carmagnoles, scoria, galumphery, alembicated, exaptation, caducity, postilla, plus near archaisms such as contemn, glozing and moiety, as well as neuralgic (used to characterize an argument) and brigade (used as a verb, a particular favorite of Anderson’s)? In addition, the extent to which his prose is sprinkled with words and phrases taken from other languages puts him in company with older grandees of European letters like George Steiner (he hits the true Steinerian note in such sentences as: “Leopardi is the last major European writer to be a direct interlocutor of Antiquity”). Even omitting the many French terms that can plausibly lay claim to a presence in educated English, we encounter tat gratuit, salonfähig, glacis, cabotage, guerres en chaîne, signum rememorativum, déphasage, en toutes lettres, chasses gardées, décombres, in nuce, fin de non recevoir, plumpes Denken and many more. No one could accuse Anderson of playing to the gallery. Instead, he moves with confidence among the choice spirits of European culture, past more than present, capable of seeming as distant as Petrarch or Spinoza from the streetwise Netheads who define contemporary popular styles.

Except, of course, when it comes to politics, and with Anderson it always does come to politics–or, rather, it always starts there. The primacy of the political in intellectual life is the unifying theme of these essays, and “politics is always a Kampfplatz,” as he characteristically put it in his NLR editorial. The limply academic “site of struggle” would be a poor substitute for the German term here: Anderson has in mind a more direct clash between two opposing sides. The informing impulse of his analyses is to reveal how there always are only two sides. On this matter he speaks admiringly of the contention by the conservative German political philosopher and Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt that the defining feature of politics is the division between “friend” and “foe.” This insistence lends a certain spatial simplicity to Anderson’s charting of the intellectual field. On first inspection, various thinkers may appear to have multiple affiliations or to be otherwise hard to classify politically, but one of the most familiar cadences of Anderson’s prose is the sound of digging beyond these surface distractions. For example, Ferdinand Mount may seem to be sympathetic to a number of radical constitutional reforms, “but the generous note struck on these pages must still find its place within the score as a whole.” Similarly, Garton Ash’s “sincerity” in criticizing the Western record in the Balkans may be “beyond question,” but his promotion of the notion of “Central Europe” needs to be unmasked as “ideological,” possessing “a hard policy edge.” The center always turns out to be uninhabitable ground in Anderson’s polarizing political topography; the “logic” (a favored term) of the underlying affiliations will always come out. Even iconic left-liberals like Habermas and Bobbio “ultimately” (another favored term) reveal their true colors. A highly critical account of the two philosophers’ responses to “successive wars waged by the West” in the 1990s concludes: “The political complexion of such positions is clear enough.” In these pieces Anderson acts as a zealous health-and-safety inspector for the left consumer, insisting that a range of interesting writing be labeled “Dangerous: May contain liberalism.”

The other governing intellectual strategy of Anderson’s writing is, these days, left more implicit: It might, unsympathetically, be termed “the tyranny of deep explanation.” In parodies of old-style communist rhetoric, a place was always found for the phrase “It is no accident, comrade, that…” where the contention in question would assert a common causality linking two improbably distant developments. Anderson could no more be charged with crude economic determinism than with crude anything else. But a disposition to explain “consciousness” in terms of “social being” (to invoke Marx’s canonical formula) lingers. As in so much contemporary work in the humanities and social sciences, especially of a self-described “radical” inclination, a particular cachet attaches to “explaining” ideas or aesthetic creations as the expression of some set of social circumstances assumed to be more fundamental. When this strategy is conjoined with a thoroughgoing insistence on the underlying topography of the Kampfplatz, one always risks hitting a paranoid note or seeming to understand history in terms of conspiracy theory writ large. One does not have to be committed to a know-nothing nominalism to find some of these proposed connections implausibly tight, just as one does not have to be a political innocent to find some of the alleged mechanisms implausibly sinister. Certainly, there are times in reading Anderson when history can seem like “no accident” waiting to happen.

This set of intellectual dispositions seems most likely to pay dividends when addressed to the work of figures who directly engaged in the ideological debate of their time, like Schmitt and Hayek. Less promising material is provided by figures who stuck closely to their own disciplinary protocols, like John Rawls. For the most part, Anderson provides a full and fair recension even of those theories he goes on to criticize, but I detect signs of impatience in his dealings with Rawls, perhaps akin to the impatience that characterized the younger Anderson’s dismissive remarks about British philosophy of the 1950s and ’60s. What he terms Rawls’s “complete abstention” about commenting on current affairs is surely one source of this impatience; Anderson expects thinkers to act as public intellectuals, especially when their trade is political philosophy. But a knock-on effect of the tyranny of deep explanation may be at work, too. Thus, in his powerfully forensic recent piece on the responses of Rawls, Habermas and Bobbio to the international conflicts of the end of the twentieth century, Anderson looks to (a selective description of) early political experience to account for the character of their respective philosophical enterprises: “Service in America’s war to regain the Pacific; a boyhood in Nazi Germany; underground resistance against Italian Fascism. It would be surprising if three such distinct experiences were without trace in the work of those who went through them.” “It would be surprising” sets off uncomfortable echoes of “it is no accident.” But would it be so surprising? It is not, after all and pace Anderson’s second sentence, the distinctiveness of the three experiences that makes them likely to leave this kind of trace: It would have to be, rather, that in each case the formative power of the experience was strong enough and relevant enough to affect the later work. The experiences in question came early in these figures’ respective lives, before any of them had embarked on their defining adult activity. Moreover, not only are the experiences different; the genres of subsequent work were different, too. One can readily see why, in Bobbio’s case, his involvement in the partisan resistance to Fascism might stand in an illuminating relation to his writings on postwar Italian politics. But Rawls was doing philosophy, and both the Kantian and analytic traditions that shaped his work gave that enterprise something of a formal or autotelic character. Anderson’s tactics with Rawls, who comes in for some rough handling in this book, may occasionally appear to deny this enterprise its own internal imperatives.

Hardly surprisingly, Anderson’s gift for entering into and imaginatively possessing work on widely differing topics is most winningly displayed in his dealings with figures whose writing he admires. The essay here on Robert Brenner’s attempt to track the impact of new forms of mercantile capital on English seventeenth-century politics is a prize example, tirelessly analytical without ever being reductive. Yet even in these essays, a certain hauteur or sharpness of reprimand occasionally obtrudes. At one point, he teasingly reproaches Eric Hobsbawm for a weakness for honors and similar emblems of acceptance by the British establishment, but then he adds, as though in partial exculpation of the great man’s foible: “In Britain an inability to resist gewgaws is anyway as common among eminent scholars–historians of all stripes foremost among them–as once African agents of the slave trade.” At first reading, I did not properly register the offensiveness of this comparison. Is he really saying that the acceptance of knighthoods or (in Hobsbawm’s case) the Companion of Honour by contemporary scholars displays a weakness on a par with that of those African intermediaries who sold their compatriots into a life of slavery, suffering and early death? No, one protests, he is simply looking for a telling comparison in the matter of being unable to resist “gewgaws,” and the gullibility of African slavers in this matter was once a truism. The allusion is scarcely hobbled by political correctness and may be the more vivid for that. Still, one wonders why Anderson’s literary imagination proposed such a gratuitously slighting comparison.

The tonal lapse in this instance may, most charitably, be read as an expression of Anderson’s own pride in a kind of outsiderdom, a prickly resistance to any kind of establishment incorporation (a position not impaired by the appointment at UCLA that he has held for some years). “Uncompromising realism” involves standing out against more than one kind of compromise. When in the same essay he cites the older historian’s astringent comments on contemporary liberal democracy as indicating “how unassimilable Hobsbawm’s work is to any comfortable consensus,” he is bestowing his highest praise. When, by contrast, he comments, apropos Hobsbawm’s tendency to find silver linings in his otherwise somber account of the triumph of global capitalism, that “a resistance that dispenses with consolations is always stronger than one which relies on them,” he is pulling moral rank.

Anderson stands apart in another, more elusive way, too. Although he is without question immersed in the effort to understand the contemporary world–restlessly ranging from China to Peru, searching for causality, registering variety–there is a sense in which he does so in the manner of the great intellectual figures of the nineteenth century. He is essentially a private scholar, not a professional academic; he is at ease in several languages and, by contemporary standards, unimaginably well read in the whole European intellectual and literary tradition; he charts both the evolution of civilizations and the spasms of the zeitgeist with a mixture of command and intimacy; his majestic, long-paced essays would not have been out of place in La Revue des Deux Mondes or the Edinburgh Review in their prime; and whether in discerning the movement of mind in contemporary thought or the movement of capital in the world economy, he habitually operates with an intellectual ambition that is little short of Hegelian.

These qualities make him “untimely,” in Nietzsche’s sense, for all that his reading and engagement with the world is strenuously à la page (as he might put it). And this is another way in which matters of tone and style start to become revealing indices of self-positioning. At one point in his recollections of historian E.P. Thompson, his former comrade and antagonist, Anderson records that Thompson “chaffed me for impudence about Swift.” The slight archaism is perfectly judged, hinting at the school prefect ticking off his fag; the idiom catches his sense of Thompson’s seniority, a complicating ingredient in their famous (and famously fierce) exchanges several decades ago. Something similar recurs in his winning essay on the eccentric Italian philologist, political theorist and proofreader Sebastiano Timpanaro, where Anderson rounds out his portrait by saying: “As for questions of character, his categories retained an eighteenth-century ring: his most frequent term of dispraise was mascalzone–‘scoundrel.'” One senses the appeal of such a vocabulary to Anderson. In his appreciation of Thompson, he recounts an anecdote in which the older scholar asked a mutual friend what Anderson was up to. The friend mentioned that the latter was writing a piece on conservative thinkers (reproduced as the first chapter of the present collection), to which Thompson retorted: “Yes, I know. Oakeshott was a scoundrel. Tell him to stiffen his tone.”

For all his pessimism about the course of recent history, Anderson has retained his conviction that scoundrels should not be allowed to get away without a good thrashing. This too, he implies, should be a matter of honor on the left, and so, in keeping with this aristocratic code, a number of those who have given offense are “called out,” challenged to a dialectical duel, theories at twenty paces. Anderson gives them both barrels; this collection resembles the reading room of a club, temporarily turned into a field hospital, the mortally wounded gasping in every armchair. Some of these unfortunates are fellow stylists, and there are occasional moments in Anderson’s prose that suggest he may be tempted to shoot in the air, honor satisfied. But then some inner ancestral voice barks at him with military-gentry gruffness: “Stiffen yer tone, Anderson.” And by God, sir, he has.

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