Perry Anderson’s Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

Perry Anderson’s realism.


Published in the late 1940s, a decade after his death, the Italian volumes of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks started the process of his secular canonization. A founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci had spent 11 years in Fascist custody. During this period, while his teeth fell out and his health failed, Gramsci filled 3,000 notebook pages with reflections on anything and everything he believed was relevant to Italian history and politics, and the prospects for the left in Europe. To get past the prison censors, he did so in coded, sometimes enigmatic abstractions. In 1937, still in Fascist custody, he died never having seen one of his two sons. At the time, he was mourned by his Communist comrades but by few outside those circles, and certainly fewer outside of Italy.

Today, Gramsci is a household name; one no longer hears it pronounced as if he were Polish. In college courses devoted to intellectuals, or Marxism, or political theory, students routinely learn of his insistence that consequential political action happens in realms, like culture, that had not heretofore seemed politically consequential. In this scheme, intellectuals become particularly important for Gramsci—not because he thinks attention should be paid to noncelebrities as well as to the talking heads in mass media, though he does, but because, as he understands power, the work of intellectuals is essential both to maintaining it (from above) and to taking it (from below). And much of that work, which goes on outside of the limelight, involves listening and adapting to those who don’t share your cultural values or political goals. The exercise of hegemonic leadership—a leadership by consent—can never occur without some element of concession to those who are led. In emphasizing the role that culture and civil society play in politics, Gramsci was telling the left that it had to lead—or rule—in a social landscape that seemed alien to it and that could easily be dismissed, then and now, as apolitical and even toxic to genuine left-wing commitments. To an extent that remains remarkable, given that he lived under Fascism and we live under various styles of liberal democracy, his landscape has become ours.

Perry Anderson has published two new books on Gramsci and hegemony, the term that has come to stand as the capstone of the latter’s political theory. The first, a long essay on Gramsci originally published in 1976 in the New Left Review, emphasizes the importance of hegemony to the revolutionary Marxist tradition of Lenin and company, from which Gramsci borrowed the concept and to which, Anderson argues, he remained more loyal than his modern admirers want to think. The second book, pulling back from the specifics of Gramsci’s thought, takes a more expansive view: It begins with Herodotus and Thucydides, spends some time on Confucian theories of wise rule, returns to Lenin and Gramsci, and carries the story forward to take in newer Gramscians like Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and more recent theorists of international relations. In both books, Anderson’s implicit subject is not so much what the left would have to do in order to lead—that was Gramsci’s great and perhaps tragic theme—but rather whether it even makes sense anymore to bother oneself with that question.

Who remembers, today, “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—the notion that, in the transition from capitalism to communism, total control would have to be exercised by the working class? Anderson believes Gramsci never abandoned it entirely. But what Gramsci is known for is the boldness with which he moved away from it. Conditions had changed (he was not the only one to notice this) between the revolutionary Russia of 1917 and the liberal democracies, some years later, of a relatively stable and prosperous Western Europe. In the West, power had entrenched itself in civil society as well as in a more modern, more democratic, more politically attractive form of the state. This meant that the left’s tactics would have to adapt themselves to this very different terrain. The storming of the barricades was no longer going to work. At the same time, for socialist militants, the deeply undemocratic history of how liberal democracies had come into being, with their structural neglect of (in the case of Italian unification) the peasants of the South, like the Sardinians Gramsci had grown up among, had provided opportunities as well as challenges. It made less sense to exercise dictatorship over other classes and more sense to seek alliance with them. Gramsci didn’t prescribe an electoral path to power, but it’s not hard to see how many would read him as pointing in that direction. Politics, for him, had to be respected as a relatively autonomous activity that was irreducible to class identity. Working-class militants would have to make a cultural and ideological appeal to groups that did not share working-class interests or values. The capitalist class had consolidated its power in much of Europe by making that appeal in reverse: It had learned to say at least some things that the working class wanted to hear.

Anderson modestly forgoes any claim to have discovered Gramsci for the English-speaking left, but he and his colleagues at the New Left Review probably did more than anyone else to demonstrate how inspiring the analysis of Italy’s arrested development, as worked out by the then mostly obscure Italian thinker, could be. What Gramsci did for Italy, Anderson and his colleague Tom Nairn tried, in the 1960s, to do for Britain: to explain why their own country—and, for that matter, many others in the North Atlantic—suffered from a similar blockage. Measuring Britain’s deviation from a revolutionary line of development, the so-called Anderson-Nairn theses emphasized the relative timidity of the country’s left-liberal theorists, the snobbish eagerness of its bourgeoisie to imitate and melt into the old landowning aristocracy, and the acquiescence of the working class, bought off in part with the proceeds of empire (to which it did not loudly object) and relatively satisfied by traditional forms of life or new habits of mass consumption, and therefore uninterested in taking up its responsibility to represent the nation as a whole. The result was too much social stability and not enough political dynamism.

What, then, was to be done? As Gregory Elliott notes in Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History, both the “diagnosis of the singularities of British history and society” and the “prognosis for British socialism” were Gramscian. Ironically, Elliott adds, “the strategy it sketched is a premonition of the Eurocommunism”—the electoral turn taken by many of Europe’s Communist parties, including Italy’s, in the 1970s—that Anderson later opposed. In the preface to his 2017 edition of his Gramsci essay, Anderson conveniently forgets his own early concurrence with Eurocommunism, but he does note with satisfaction that the compromises with liberal and social-democratic parties turned out to be suicidal for the Communists in Italy.

Critics like Nicos Poulantzas complained at the time that the Anderson-Nairn theses gave excessive importance to subjectivity: They cared too much about, say, the aristocratic ethos in which the mill owners wrapped themselves, underplaying the fact that, beneath that ideological camouflage, the new industrial bourgeoisie was in fact running the show. In both The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci and The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony, Anderson makes a similar complaint about Gramsci’s followers: that, encouraged by an erroneous interpretation of hegemony and thus making a potentially fatal mistake about the pliability of power, everyone else is giving excessive importance to ideology and culture. Eurocommunism is the conspicuous example for the first book, Stuart Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism for the second.

One might have expected that in his criticisms of Gramsci and the Gramscians, a Marxist like Anderson would have shifted the emphasis back from the cultural superstructure to the economic base. But that’s not what happens. What both books set against culture and ideology is not economics but physical coercion: military force as a—perhaps even the—decisive component of power, hence as perhaps the determining factor in history. Questions of how glaring a deviation this is from Marxist orthodoxy (if such a thing still exists) will certainly be of interest to those who look up to Anderson as a Marxist guru. But these questions are finally less interesting than Anderson’s impenitent insistence that coercion, not class or modes of production, is the heart of history. Getting away from an emphasis on coercion—call it dictatorship of the proletariat, or think of the barricades—is usually seen as Gramsci’s most salient accomplishment in reinterpreting the concept of hegemony. The major intention behind both of Anderson’s books is getting back to it.

In Antinomies, Anderson does this by showing that Gramsci’s source for hegemony was the debates among Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, before 1917, about the proper role to be played by the proletariat in a revolution everyone initially assumed would have to first be bourgeois. How much of a sacrifice should be made to the values of the capitalists or the peasants? In that context, Lenin argued that it was only by taking a hegemonic, or leading, role vis-à-vis other classes that the proletariat could truly become a class. Gramsci flipped the concept so that it could also describe the means by which the bourgeoisie came to rule over other classes, again via compromise or concession—but, Anderson says, he nevertheless got it from Russia. His “own treatment of the idea of hegemony descends directly from the definitions of the Third International.”

In The H-Word, Anderson goes back further in hegemony’s past, tracing the concept to ancient Greece in order to show the somewhat different meanings of hegemony in contexts like the Peloponnesian War or, earlier, the Greek military alliance against Persia. Put in an international context rather than a domestic one, hegemony is, or at least appears to be, less a matter of consent—its big political selling point for liberal democracies—and more a matter of coercion. (This is one reason why political thinkers who assume that there is no meaning in history except “dog eat dog” naturally gravitate to the international domain—that’s where their premise seems most plausible.) As Anderson shows, ancient Greek authors sometimes used hegemonia as a synonym for arkhe, or rule, and sometimes allowed it to suggest the existence of another sort of rule—perhaps morally superior—that involved some degree of common interest and therefore consent.

Anderson is cynical about this second kind of rule, hegemonia—the variant most commonly associated with Gramsci—and the context of Athenian empire and military alliance provides support for his cynicism. Here and later, Anderson tends to see hegemony in this less than completely coercive sense as a moralistic disguise masking the will to dominate and, if necessary, to destroy. Coercion, in Anderson’s view, is the true essence of power. He writes that in the fourth century, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, “Athenian oratory, no longer able to extol empire as before, revalued the virtues of hegemony, now suitably moralized as an ideal of the weakened.” The suggestion runs throughout the book that many on today’s left also moralize from a position of weakness—because they are not tough-minded enough to see power for what it really is.

Anderson’s view of power expresses one strain of materialism, but it is materialism of an undialectical, ahistorical sort. It leans on an undoubted reality—there is no doubting the exercise of military and police violence—but does nothing to explain, for example, how, why, and when certain agents gain or lose their coercive power: what allows it to be exercised or, on the contrary, what determines that it will not be determining. Anderson has never had any time for sociology, but perhaps the sociologists of power and violence could have been of use here. Without their sensitivity to what determines the exercise of violence, how convincing is Anderson’s version of hegemony? Not very. Continuing his long-standing feud with Stuart Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism, which he thought focused too much on the appeal of her right-wing ideology, Anderson objects that Thatcherite hegemony was defined by violence. As evidence, he offers the crushing of the miners’ strike and the war in the Falklands, but neither example accounts for Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success as well as Hall’s concept of “authoritarian populism,” a savvy combination of law-and-order nationalism below with a no-holds-barred untethering of the cosmopolitan financial sector above.

Writing in these pages in 2010, Mark Mazower noted Anderson’s attraction to “tough-minded realists,” including “realists” who are in no sense leftists, like the neocon Robert Kagan. In The H-Word, Anderson praises John Mearsheimer, not for his exposure of the pro-Israel lobby but for his “unsentimental realism, capable of calling things by their name.” E.H. Carr, whose sympathies extended at moments both to Stalin’s Russia and to Hitler’s Germany, gets by my count 14 deferential mentions in the index of The H-Word, third in line behind Lenin and Gramsci. What appeals to Anderson about Carr is that he is also a realist about international power, refreshingly cynical toward those who seek to moralize that power by calling it by some other, more pious name.

Distaste for the pieties of the left, as pronounced as that is in Anderson’s writing, is not quite enough to explain this perversity of appreciation. It also hints at the darkly seductive appeal of a (supposed) realism that would give up on leftist commitments entirely, leaving behind a resigned sense that the world will continue to work, as it has always worked, on the model of playground bullying. After all, he might say, what social forces are visible on the scene today that might give some other shape to all the bullying and change my mind? Man is and always will be a wolf to man.

To some, Anderson’s realism will also look like something else: stoicism (the term is worth underlining). In the absence of a revolution that might transform power into something else, one must accept it for what it is. But one might also say that, as a would-be stoic, Anderson too readily abandons the sense of the historian’s vocation, which demands an interpretive plunge beneath the frothy surface of events, the seizing of a structure that is more solid than violence. Anderson’s term for the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is “adventures.” Were these wars indeed merely adventures—which is to say, freely willed acts of bad judgment? Or was the US government pushed into these expensive fiascoes by economic or geopolitical imperatives that follow from its attempt to maintain its global hegemony? These questions—resembling those posed by scholars about the “necessity” invoked by imperial Athens before it wiped out Melos—should at least be named, and ideally addressed directly, if one wants to know how much military force does and does not count in the making of world history. Realism, properly conceived, demands that we know whether there is another coerciveness (for example, economic) behind physical coercion.

In his analysis of stoicism in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel suggested that the stoic was willing to think of the world as a chaos of meaningless, unrelated particulars because, by so doing, he was able to safeguard his inner freedom, his aloofness from the world. The joint temptation of aloofness and randomness makes a certain sense of Anderson’s historical and political stance. Stylistically, Anderson is a sort of anti-Orwell, disdainful of the rhetorical shortcuts and complacencies of common sense. At moments when others might feel obliged to attend to the vox populi, he is likely to send his regrets. (Mazower calls this his “trademark hauteur.”) One can almost imagine him saying (to cite Brecht’s sarcastic poem of 1953) that the people having disappointed us, it’s time to dissolve them and elect another.

Politically, this position has obvious drawbacks. But it does not deliver the goods even as history. In Anderson’s critique of the neo-Gramscians Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe—the co-authors of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy—he complains (correctly, in my view) that they give no sufficient reason to believe that the undoubted energy of the then new social movements of racial, gender, and sexual liberation would tend toward the socialism of their title. “Political efficacy,” Anderson writes, “is one thing and intellectual cogency another.” This sentence comes dangerously close to inverting Marx’s 11th thesis: What matters is not changing the world, only interpreting it cogently. One might also add that his focus on physical coercion even prohibits him from interpreting the world with the cogency he desires. Violence, like the new social movements, is simply too contingent. It defies explanation. The buck of explanation cannot stop there.

In his embrace of contingency, Anderson’s insistence on the primary role of coercion weirdly echoes the invocation of agency that he lamented decades ago in the work of E.P. Thompson. The chapter devoted to agency in Anderson’s Arguments Within English Marxism (1980) rejected the priority that Thompson accorded, in The Making of the English Working Class, to the will of individuals. It’s not that individual wills cannot be grouped into the will of a class, Anderson says; it’s that the making of a class in the strong, desirable sense cannot be assumed to have happened at all. Thompson is incapable of imagining this possibility, but Anderson is right to ask: “Could the English working class not have made itself?”—that is, could forces outside its control have made it? And if they did, isn’t it possible that the English working class may never have been a class? “If fundamental historical processes, the structure and evolution of whole societies, are the involuntary resultant of a duality or plurality of voluntary class forces clashing with each other,” Anderson asks, “what explains their ordered nature? Why should the intersection of rival collective wills not produce the random chaos of an arbitrary, destructured log-jam?”

Writing in 1980, he seemed relatively confident that order could indeed be perceived, if only one was willing to give up insisting on agency and pay heed, instead, to the slow, impersonal march of modes of production. Having now lost patience with the pace of this march, Anderson opens his violence-centered historical vision to a similar critique. As in the case of Thompson’s agency, is it not just “the random chaos of an arbitrary, destructured log-jam”?

What is the role—or function, or significance—of Marxist thought in a time when the triumph of the working class doesn’t appear to be on the agenda? As many observers have pointed out, it remains indispensable for tracking capital, including capital’s devastating effects on the environment. On the question of how much of a cohesive program can emerge from the diverse progressive voices making the most noise of late, the jury is still out. But the noise level itself at least argues against preemptive melancholy. And that includes voices raised against, say, US militarism and for the victims of global economic inequality. As a habitual de-provincializer, Anderson should be able to see that. Since the 1960s, when he forced the English to read Gramsci and factor the existence of empire into their analyses of class, he has always been ahead of the curve on international issues. It may be that his willingness to exchange revolution for realism is, among other things, an indirect way of registering today’s international brutalities, which are also brutal in their impact on a left whose analyses and strategies often remain largely domestic in their scope.

Still, the bleakness of Anderson’s world—a place with very little reason, let alone reason for hope—isn’t the only alternative to keeping faith with capital-R revolution. In order to save his or her intellectual self-respect, the writer need not sacrifice solidarity with those who have had little access to higher education and may not therefore follow all of the references. One thing demonstrated by Anderson’s on-again, off-again love affair with the R-word is the risk that, judged by that high standard, all other desires and commitments will seem trivial and random by contrast. As in erotic relationships, that position seems less an objective reflection of how things are than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, it is far from all one will take away from reading him.

“The thought of a genuinely original mind,” Anderson writes of Gramsci, “will typically exhibit—not randomly but intelligibly—significant structural contradictions.” What is true of Gramsci is also true, of course, of Perry Anderson himself. The contradictions are not random, but structural and intelligible. More important, this is true of the historical reality that both Gramsci and Anderson have done so much to illuminate.

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