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Olympus Mislaid?

Olympus Mislaid?

A Profile of Perry Anderson
Gregory Elliott

At the very outset of his story, Berlin seems to have
mislaid Mount Olympus.

Perry Anderson
‘The Pluralism of Isaiah Berlin’ (1990)

In the Foreword to A Zone of Engagement Anderson
notes the discontinuity between its first three chapters,
classified as ‘intra-mural surveys within the intellectual
world of the revolutionary Left’, and the remainder of
the book, culminating in a long essay on Fukuyama

Longtime editor of New Left Review and co-founder of
New Left Books; diagnostician of English exceptionalism

which upholds the essentials of his verdict on
contemporary history. Anderson’ s dawning scepticism

and historian of European Absolutism; sometime

from the mid-1980s about the ‘revolutionary Marxist

interlocutor of Trotskyism and monitor of Western

tradition’ – to which he had adhered for close on two

Marxism; today, contributor to the London Review of

decades – attached to both its analytical resources and
its political prospects. Historical materialism had come

Books and Professor of History at the University of
California – Perry Anderson enjoys a salience within

under challenge as a ‘theory of historical development’

Anglophone Marxist culture that is widely acknowledged.

Yet the career of a figure whom Terry Eagleton has

from Anglo-Weberian historical sociology; revolutionary

nominated ‘Britain’s most brilliant Marxist intellectual’

ascendancy of the West’ .5
Evidence of Anderson’ s altered stance prompted

l

remains curiously unexplored.

Various reasons might be adduced for this – not least,

socialism had been discountenanced by the ‘societal

critics to wonder whether he remained a Marxist or

the deterrence to scrutiny afforded by the work of a

socialist of any species, never mind a revolutionary one.

polyglot polymath, possessed of the

‘olympian

Where did the erstwhile partisan of Lenin and Trotsky,

universalism’ he once attributed to Marx and Engels. 2 In
an age of specialists, Anderson is a generalist – but quite

the scourge of academicism and Eurocommunism, now

the reverse of an amateur. If, in the words of one sardonic
observer, he has produced ‘a synoptic oeuvre stretching

stand?

Trotsky once remarked that ‘Lenin thought in terms
of epochs and continents. ‘6 Something similar might be

of that oeuvre that it should have commanded the

said of Anderson who, in consequence, has always
played the long game, emulating the ‘ability to wait’

respectful attention of the relevant authorities (whether

enjoined by Trotsky in his time. 7 Notwithstanding the

from 800 BC to last week’,’ it is testimony to the quality

on 800 BC or last week). Olympian, in matters of

significant discontinuities by which his career has been

substance and style alike, Anderson unquestionably is.

punctuated,

The epithet has become a cliche of commentary upon

Anderson’s project, disclosed by recurrent historico-

him. But Marxist mortals need not fear to tread: for what

political themes and patterns of response. Today, it might

is love without the thunderbolts?

The appearance in spring 1992 of two collections of
Anderson’s essays – English Questions and A Zone of
Engagement- signalling a ‘turning-point’ in his politicointellectual development,4 offers an opportunity to
attempt a rudimentary reconstruction of it to date. For
whilst neither volume affects completeness, each
arguably obscures as much as it illuminates about their
author’s evolution since his debut in 1960.

there

are

profound continuities

in

seem as ifhe has heeded a version of the counsel given to
disabused Communists by Isaac Deutscher in 1950, and
‘withdraw[n] into a watch-tower’, whence he can ‘watch
with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a
world … and … interpret it sine ira et studio’.8 But in one
crucial sense he has not withdrawn to the watchtower
(though he may now reside in an ivory one), since unlike Deutscher – Anderson has been stationed there all
along.

Radical Philosophy 71 (May/June

1995)

5

Despite his youthful impetuousness and occasional

critique of capitalism. In the first register, Marxism

intemperance, the historical perspectives of Perry

furnished a causal knowledge of the past and present,

Anderson have invariably been secular, attuned to the

and thereby informed the struggle for a liberated future,

longue duree. Underlying a certain inconsistency of

guiding political actors in the adoption of viable strategic

orientation and affiliation, induced by the shifting

means to the feasible socialist end. In the second register,

imperatives of successive conjunctures, is a settled

without regressing to the ‘utopian socialism’ which

aftentisme, distanced from the contingencies and

Marx, Engels and their successors claimed to have

vagaries of the immediate. Anderson would never

superseded, Marxism not only provided reasons for

subscribe to Braudel’ s provocation: ‘Events are dust.’

opposing capitalism, but ought (so Anderson maintained

Nor, however, would he consider a half-century in

with increasing urgency in the early 1980s) to explore

politics a long time. In a passage composed a decade

the institutional contours of a future socialism.

before Braudel coined his slogan, and which Anderson

What becomes of this prospectus amid the

11011

actuality of reformist, let alone revolutionary, socialism

has cited approvingly, Trotsky wrote:

Twenty-five years in the scales of history, when it

– at a time when (to invert Marx and Engels) ‘the real

is a question of profoundest changes in economic

movement which abolishes the present state of things’ is

and cultural systems, weigh less than an hour in

not ‘communism’ but global capitalism, and its trophies

the life of man. What good is the individual who,

include the traditional agencies and strategies, parties and

because of empirical failures in the course of an
hour or a day, renounces a goal that he set for

programmes, of its historic antagonist?I’ The permissive
conditions of what a critic (privately) dubbed

himself on the basis of the experience and analysis

‘Andersonian

of his entire previous lifetime? <)

disappeared; yet its habits have manifestly died hard. It

Meta-Trotskyism'

have

clearly

is the tenacious consistency of Anderson’ s project,
Fifty years on, and a few hours into that lifetime,
Anderson’s own professed source of inspiration is the
stoicism of Gramsci, whose ‘strength of mind was to

resolutely focused on epochs and continents, and
seemingly immunized against conjunctural vicissitudes,
that raises the most intriguing questions about it.

bring moral resistance and political innovation
together’ .10 Whatever the identity of the figure in the
Andersonian mirror, however, it reveals an enduring
commitment to the socialist ideals of a lifetime. If this is
an accurate characterization, it shifts the burden of
critical attention, away from suspicion of incipient
heresy, to the maintenance – in the absence of any of the
political co-ordinates which might sustain it – of the

Reorientations within English
Marxism
Anderson’s initial contributions to the collective
enterprise of the first New Left in 1960-61 comprised a
tribute to the recent Cuban Revolution and a critique of
Swedish social-democracy.l-+ Each, albeit briefly,
indicated two of the distinctive strands in his

‘olympian universalism’ of Anderson’s station in the

philosophico-political formation: an orientation to

watchtower. That posture was problematic in the past,

Sartrean Marxism and a commitment to Third World

when the existence of global socialist organizations

revolutionary nationalism. Two further components,

nevertheless permitted him to speak in the name of an

possibly the most durable – the influence of Deutscher

imaginary international which never found satisfactory

and Gramsci – found expression in an introduction

embodiment. But with the debikle of socialist traditions

written in 1962 to accompany Italian Communist Party

in the twentieth century, and with the consequent crisis

documents. Commending the PCI’s ‘combination of

of Marxism – at first strenuously denied, at length

fluent modernity and lability in the domestic Italian

reluctantly conceded – Anderson’s position has become

situation and intransigent militancy on colonial issues’,

yet more precarious, for ever more deracinated.

Anderson remarked the asset it had in the ‘sophisticated

Contrary to Hegelian Marxism, Anderson had tended
to define

‘scientific socialism’

as the external

and indigenous Italian Marxism’ of its pre-war leader.I’i
With the recession of CND and the exhaustion of the

conjunction of a theoretical research programme and a

original New Left, Anderson was poised to assume the

practical movement, rather than as ‘the theoretical

editorship of NLR and reorient it on the avant-garde

expression of the proletarian movement’ .11 Predicated,

model of Les Temps Modernes. Anderson and his

even so, upon what the early Lukacs designated as ‘the

colleagues made what they regarded as a virtue of

actuality of the revolution’, 12 in its mature form

necessity. The moment of 1956 having passed, they were

Anderson’s Marxism conceived historical materialism as

without the domestic anchorage or continental relays of

an explanatory science of history and a normative

their predecessors. Reacting to this dilemma, they

6

adopted an attitude of militant ‘separatism’ towards

The substantive theses ventured on the national

indigenous left-wing currents and implemented a

trajectory may be assembled under four headings: ( I ) the

comprehensive internationalization of the Review. If> At

prematurity and impurit}, of the English ‘bourgeois

home, the new NLR renounced political mobilization for

revolution’ in the seventeenth century, generating a

cultural reformation: the induction of the French and

dominant agrarian capitalism and an allied mercantile

Italian Marxisms that might seed their hitherto missing

capitalism; (2) the priority of the English Industrial

British counterpart. Abroad, it looked to a regenerated

Revolution,

Communist movement and national liberation struggles

revolutionary mobilization against France at the end of

as vectors of anti-capitalist advance – an emphasis

the eighteenth century, polarizing a precocious

evident in the book-length study of ‘Portugal and the End

proletariat and a self-effacing bourgeoisie; (3) the

of Ultra-Colonialism’ contributed by Anderson in
1962.17

century, with its domestic legacy of aristocratic

Thus, when NLR redirected its attention to the UK in
1963-64, unveiling the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’ on
British

history,

it

was

with

the

intention

of

defamiliarizing the national physiognomy: Britain was
treated as if it were a foreign country and emerged
unrecognizable to many readers. Quite apart from the
iconoclastic conclusions of the Theses, this effect was
directly traceable to an alien idiom: the systematic
application of predominantly Gramscian categories to
the British social formation.

The centrepiece of the Theses was Anderson’ s
‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, I x whose title indicates
their motivation. Noting the absence of ‘even the outline
of a “totalizing” history of modern British society’,

and

its

coincidence

with

counter-

supremacy of British imperialism in the late nineteenth

hegemony; (4) the exceptional continuity of British state
and society in the twentieth century, spared external
destruction or internal reconstructionY
Following his survey of its historical genesis,
Anderson turned to the contemporary structure of British
society,

under a rubric –

‘History

and Class

Consciousness: Hegemony’ – which acknowledged the
Lukacsian-Gramscian provenance and ‘culturalist’ tenor
of his account. In sum, the dominant English ideology
was a ‘comprehensive conservatism’ – a compound of
‘traditionalism’ and ’empiricism’, the one venerating the
past, the other abolishing any future.23 For its part, the
proletariat was dispossessed of any ‘hegemonic
ideology’ and marked, instead, by ‘an immovable
corporate class consciousness’, seemingly unsusceptible

Anderson argued that

to revisionism, yet no less unamenable to ‘Socialism.24

until our view of Britain today is grounded in some

Having demoted the industrial bourgeoisie, and deflated

vision of its effective past, however misconceived

the industrial proletariat, of the Communist Manifesto

and transient these may initially be, we will

and

continue to lack the basis for an understanding of
the contradictory movements of our society, which

‘Labourism’ as the incarnation of economic
corporatism. 25 As regards the overall configuration of

alone could yield a strategy for socialism. I’!

class power in the UK, in accordance with one reading of

Capital,

Anderson

launched a critique of

Anderson’s ambition, then, was to conceive the

the Prison Notebooks, he postulated the ‘supremacy of

‘effective past’ accurately, so as to interpret the present

civil society over the state’ ,2tJ intimating that a war of

aright, and thereby meet a precondition for transforming

position would have to be engaged there by socialists.

it into a socialist future. Theoretical history – a genealogy

What political conclusions did Anderson infer from

of the present – was a necessary condition of adequate

the foregoing? Initially, cautious expectations of a future

political practice.

modernizing Labour government, under its ‘dynamic and
Gramscian

capable leader’, Harold WilsonY These were soon

characteristics of the undertaking stand out. The first is a

disappointed – and as rapidly discarded. However

focus upon the singularities, rather than the similarities,

ingenuous they might appear in retrospect, they

of the national variant of capitalism: ‘the differential

nonetheless demonstrate that Anderson held an

Methodologically,

three

defining

formation and development of British capitalist

‘operative’ conception of Marxist theory.2x This was

society’ .20 The second is consideration of the longue

further apparent from a long essay, published in 1965, in

dun?e – ‘the distinctive overall trajectory of modern

which his strategic perspectives were clarified and

British society since the emergence of capitalism’21 – as

applied to Britain. 29

the key to the current conjuncture. And the third is anti-

In the Foreword to English Questions Anderson

economism – in particular, the sovereign power assigned

remarks that, just as the French 1789 constituted the

culture and ideology in the reproduction of the British

paradigm of the bourgeois revolution England had

social order.

evaded, so Italian Communism functioned as a ‘coded

7

contrast’ with British Labourism in his early work. 30 In

Figures of Descent’ more than two decades later was not

‘Problems of Socialist Strategy’ – never reprinted – the

coupled with an)’ national strategic reflection – which is

contrast is uncoded. Taking his cue from an ideal-typical

expressly declined in its conclusion. J7 In this respect, the

continental Communism, which supplied the terms of his

omission of ‘Problems’ and presentation of English

comparisons with Leninism and Labourism, Anderson

Questions in two companionate parts – the first collecting

sponsored the kind of structural-reformist strategy for

essays on British politics and culture from the 1960s, the

socialism which would become institutionalized as

second containing retrospectives upon them – is

‘Eurocommunism’ a decade later.

misleading, doing less thanjustice to Anderson’s original

According

to

‘Problems’,

the two

received

conceptions of socialist strategy – the revolutionary

zone of engagement.

‘Problems’ established the governing Andersonian

(Communist) and the reformist (social-democratic) –

problematic: a comprehensive polarization between East

‘became ruling visions on different sides of the great geo-

and West, within which a sub-division – between the

political divide which runs between Western and Eastern

insular and the continental- was inscribed. According to

Europe; they correspond to two worlds and two

its terms, differential historical temporality generates

histories. ’31 Adapted to its environment of ‘scarcity’,

distinct social formation and dictates specific socialist

which precluded the realization of an ‘authentic

strategy.

The

problematic

permits

of

further

socialism’ east of the Elbe, ‘Leninism’, for all its faults,

discrimination and significant variation. These would

constituted ‘an immense, promethean progress for

occur, most obviously, with a displacement of the state

Russia, as it does today for China’. Replication of it in

(East)/civil society (West) couplet, in favour of a polarity

the West, by contrast, would be ‘fundamentally

between feudal-Absolutist state (East) and capitalist-

regressive’, imperilling a ‘vital historical creation’ –

bourgeois-democratic state (West); and a consequent

democracy – which any advanced socialism must

reversal of verdicts on a revolutionary strategy for

transcend, not destroy.32 This did not ratify the social-

socialism in the West. Nevertheless, these variations are

democratic road to power, since it, in turn, was vitiated

internal to an invariant geo-political problematic of

by its statism – a parliamentarism which fundamentally

European historical development.

misconceived the ‘polycentric’ power structure of
capitalist democracy, neglecting the predominance

Abstract cosmopolitanism

therein of ‘civil society’ over the state.’-‘

In 1992 Anderson repented the ‘national nihili-sm ,-

This is not the place to examine Anderson’ s

exhibited by his deployment of a typology of the

alternative socialist strategy. It will be sufficient to note

putatively typical (France, Italy), and the allegedly

that, having identified civil society as the locus of

exceptional

capitalist hegemony in conditions of liberal democracy,

cosmopolitanism’ might be an equally apposite

(Britain),

In

‘Origins’ :’H

‘Abstract

Anderson deduced a corresponding counter-hegemonic

characterization of Anderson and NLR’ s self-conception

role for socialist culture, articulated by an anti-capitalist
intelligentsia. 3-+ Cultural avant-gardism was thus

throughout the 1960s, intent as they were upon a

prescribed, even as

layer of them, as the potential artisans of a socialist

political

vanguardism

was

proscribed, for the West.

Anderson would disown this essay, criticizing it for

polarization of national intellectuals and conversion of a
culture, to international traditions.

The principal contemporaneous rejoinders to the

compromises with reformism and illusions in the

Nairn-Anderson Theses, by E. P. Thompson and Nicos

socialist vocation of the Labour Party.35 Whatever its

Poulantzas, each entered powerful objections to them –

demerits, it endeavoured to complement the Gramscian

the former to the ‘inverted Podsnappery’ of their

diagnosis of British society with a prognosis for British

typologism; the latter to their ‘culturalism’ – whose

socialism. Indeed, it was the first and last such text of its

justice was not accepted at the time, but only obliquely
conceded in ‘The Figures of Descent’ .3’1

kind released by Anderson. The bulk of a manuscript
from 1970 – ‘State and Revolution in the West’ – its title

Poulantzas’s Althusserian critique, which imputed a

conjoining Leninist precedent and Gramscian horizon,

Lukacsian interpretation of Gramsci, mounted a

never saw the light of day. ‘The Antinomies of Antonio

challenge on Anderson’ s own chosen terrain of Western

Gramsci’ , extracted from it and published six years later,

Marxism. A promised reply never materialized.-+ o

effected a convincing refutation of Eurocommunism

Experiencing the gravitational pull of Althusserianism,

(including the young Anderson), rather than a vindication

Anderson was doubtless inhibited by a measure of

of the revolutionary socialism to which he had by then
gravitated. 36 Unlike ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, ‘The

concurrence with it. In contrast, Thompson’ s charges

8

provoked an animated counter-statement.-+ I Ultimately,

the exchange was something of a dialogue of the deaf; to
switch to Anderson’ s metaphor, the duellists did not
really cross swords. 42 Whilst Thompson’s concentration
upon the details of Anderson’ s interpretation of the past
distorted the express purpose of the Theses, Anderson’ s
orientation to the present evaded Thompson’ s
interrogation of an unsustainable, normative paradigm
of bourgeois revolution. Yet since this, the English 1789
manque, was what supposedly marked off national
development as exceptional – even pathological, given
the momentous consequences for British socialism
deduced from it – Anderson’ s silence was symptomatic
of difficulties eluded.

The main innovation of Anderson’ s apologia, far
from recanting national nihilism, accentuated it.

Foreshadowing the bonfire of English vanities in
‘Components of the National Culture’, Anderson
bemoaned the absence in Britain of a ‘classical
sociology’ and an indigenous Marxism. 43 Anderson’s
riposte to Thompson thus rendered NLR’s affiliation to a
Western Marxist tradition patent, and from 1966 the
Review systematically embarked upon a naturalization
of the Continental schools.

Meanwhile, the Wilson government’s domestic and
foreign policies were volatilizing the species of
reformism implicit in the Nairn-Anderson Theses. A
fleeting interest in trade-unionism, as the front line of
resistance to economic crisis-management, produced an
essay from Anderson in 1967 which firmly demarcated
socialism from syndicalism, while striking an
unwontedly positive note about industrial organization
and struggle:~4 But in common with their contemporaries
throughout the advanced capitalist world, Anderson and
co. experienced the radicalizing impact of the Vietnam
War and soon turned their attention elsewhere. 1967
marked the peak of NLR’ s enthusiasm for a revolutionary
current in the Third World – Guevarism – whose
theorizations by Debray were published and extolled by
Anderson. 45 It also witnessed the emergence of a shortlived national student movement, in which NLR invested
intellectually and participated politically.

Anderson’s own contribution to ‘studentism’ was
‘Components of the National Culture’, published in NLR
in the summer of 1968,46 and preceded by an editorial
which pointed to the intimate connection between its
bombardment of the ideological headquarters of the
bourgeoisie and the student revolt. In the essays of 196466 the evaluative criterion had been a revisionist/
reformist Western Marxism, in whose name not only the
hegemonic culture (,traditionalism’l’empiricism’), but
its corporatist mirror-image (‘Fabianism’) and its
original New Left antagonist (‘populism’l’moralism’),

had been reproved. Now, however, in tacit self-criticism,
that criterion was further circumscribed to revolutionary
Marxism and the revolutionary socialism it grounded.

Anderson’s maoisant motivation, conformable to
notions of ideological struggle diffused by the Chinese
Cultural Revolution then underway, was readily apparent
from his invocation of Lenin and Gramsci: ‘Without
revolutionary theory … there can be no revolutionary
movement. Gramsci added, in effect, that without a
revolutionary culture, there will be no revolutionary
theory. ’47 The task of cultural renovation dictated a prior
wave of creative destruction – ‘a critique of established
British culture’ .48
The basic argument of ‘Components’ is well known.

The peculiarity of the national intellectual culture
consisted in an ‘absent centre’: the lack of a totalizing
‘classical sociology’ and – crucial concomitant and
correlate – the absence of a national Marxism. 49 This was
ultimately attributable to the non-revolutionary mission
of the industrial bourgeoisie in Britain, as a result of
which Gradgrindery and Podsnappery had compounded
to form le vice anglais. The United Kingdom boasted an
‘intellectual aristocracy’, which related to its society as
if it were ‘an immutable second nature’, where other
countries possessed a separate intelligentsia. 50 This
configuration had been reinforced by a ‘white
emigration’ from the turbulent Continent – Popper,

9
L

Berlin, Namier, et al. – which had achieved pre-eminence
in the major disciplines – economics and literary
criticism excepted – and confirmed ‘insular reflex and
prejudice’ .51
The details of the swingeing ‘inter-sectoral survey’

to which Anderson proceeded need not detain us. His
summary conveys its thrust:

The void at the centre of this culture generated a
pseudo-centre – the timeless ego …. The price of
missing sociology, let alone Marxism, was the
prevalence of psychologism. A culture lacking the
instruments to conceive the social totality typically
fell back on the nuclear psyche, as first cause of
society and history …. Ultimately … the twentieth
century itself, with its political or cultural
revolutions, becomes an impossible object.

The chloroforming effect of this configuration
is general. Silently underpinning the social status
quo, it stifles intellectual questioning of the
existing order and deprives political opposition on
the Left of the resources needed to understand its
society, the condition of changing it. History has
tied this knot, and only history can undo it. A
revolutionary culture is not for tomorrow. But a
socialist practice within culture is possible today:

the student struggle is its initial form. 52
The antidote to the conservative national culture was
Continental Marxist culture; its vector, the student
movement; its vehicle, NLR and New Left Books. In the
‘era of revolutions’ , Anderson and NLR’s extra-territorial
self-conception crossed Sartreanism – a collective of
independent, avant-garde intellectuals – with Leninism
– a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries.

Actuality of the revolution?

The apparent hiatus in Anderson’s published work
between ‘Components’ and his European history books
of 1974, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and
Lineages of the Absolutist State, has erected a formidable
obstacle to tracking his path from the late 1960s to the
mid-1970s, when he emerged as a critic of the
theoreticism of Western Marxism and advocate of the
Trotskyist version of classical Marxism queried in A
Zone of Engagement. In fact, in a series of anonymous

pieces in NLR, in internal documents, and in two lengthy
manuscripts, Anderson refined and revised the
revolutionary Marxism professed in ‘Components’.

Initially – up to the turn of the decade – this assumed the
form of an Althusserian Maoism, displaying some
credence in the official propaganda of the Cultural
Revolution. Thereafter, out of growing disenchantment

10

with Chinese foreign policy, a gradual transition to
Trotskyism was set in motion. 53
At all events, by 1968 the prohibited strategy of 1965,
no longer reduced to ‘insurrection’, had been elevated
into the mandatory road to socialism in the West. The
major premiss of this conclusion was supplied by the
May Events in France of that year, interpreted as ‘the
return ofthe repressed’ to the hitherto becalmed universe
of advanced capitalism;54 revolution was immanent in
the metropolis. This reading of contemporary history
inflected Anderson’s political perspectives for nearly a
decade, retreating only with the normalization of the
Portuguese ‘revolution of the carnations’ and the
mobilization of the Second Cold War.

The immediate significance of May ’68 for Anderson
can be gauged from a set of unpublished texts, dating
from 1968-70, which take as their starting-point the
‘actuality of the revolution’ in the West. The first two are
entitled ‘Document A – Theory and Practice: the
Coupure of May’ and ‘Document B – Ten Theses’. Aside
from its positive invocation of Maoism, the former
anticipated Considerations on Western Marxism (1976),
detecting in the emergence of two major currents of
Marxism in May – Trotskyism and Maoism – the
harbinger of a reunification of revolutionary theory and
practice. This development – in conjunction with
ongoing student radicalization in Britain – obliged NLR
to clarify its political outlook. The ‘Ten The6es’

undertook such self-clarification, adopting an orthodox
Trotskyist position on the Soviet Union (but exempting
China from analogous critique); casting the industrial
proletariat as the principal agency of a revolutionary
strategy for socialism; stipulating the destruction of the
bourgeois state and the institution of the dictatorship of
the proletariat in the transition to communism.

A notable feature of the ‘Ten Theses’ is their
optimism about the prospects for socialism. Two
subsequent texts – ‘The Founding Moment’ (1969) and
‘State and Revolution in the West’ (1970) – investigated
some preconditions for the redemption of that promise
and sought, via a critique of Gramsci’s political theory,
to rethink revolutionary-socialist strategy. As Anderson
had already indicated in his ‘Ten Theses’, although a
broadly Leninist strategy was necessary in the West, the
specificity of bourgeois democracy ruled out mere
repetition of Bolshevik tactics. Accordingly, ‘State and
Revolution in the West’ essayed a Leninist revision of
‘Problems of Socialist Strategy’. Given the nonrepetition of the French May and the waning of the
student movement, certain of its conjunctural
conclusions were apparently infirmed. Having, however,
rectified his geo-political problematic by replacing

a

the ‘kingdom of necessity’; it had misfired where

differentiation between capitalist (democratic) and

socialism enjoyed the material and social preconditions

feudal (Absolutist) states, Anderson undertook a lengthy

for attainment of the ‘realm of freedom’ .

Gramsci’s

state/civil

society

couplet

with

detour via history.

Anderson, then, had tabled the riddle posed by what

In other words, ‘State and Revolution in the West’

he later called the ‘Sphinx facing Marxism in the West’5X

was the precursor of Anderson’ s history project, only the

and aimed to solve it. It manifestly confounded him. Still,

first two instalments of which materialized. These

in the mid-1970s, with the victory of the Indochinese

comparative surveys of the ‘divergent trajectories of the

Revolution, the overthrow of the Caetano regime in

major Absolutist States of Eastern Europe and Western

Portugal, and industrial militancy throughout the OECD

Europe’ were intended to issue in two further studies: of

zone, Anderson reckoned the Left’s prospects to be at

the sequence of bourgeois revolutions that uprooted the

their most favourable since the onset of the Cold War. 5,)

Absolutist states; and of the capitalist states that emerged

This was the phase of rising expectations in which

in the wake of those revolutions. In the sequels, Anderson

Considerations on Western Marxism appeared, rendering

promised, ‘[ c ]ertain of the theoretical and political

his subscription to a variant of Trotskyism explicit.

implications … will … become fully apparent … ’55 If, in

Composed in 1974, and published two years later

addition, reportedly planned volumes on the socialist

with an Afterword, Considerations represents a public

revolutions and post-capitalist states had ever appeared,

settlement of accounts with post-classical European

the implications would have been transparent.

Marxism. In effect, however, it comprises two

The disparity between original programme and actual

autocritiques. The first – in the main text – retracts the

outcome is massive; it possibly constitutes the single

counter-position in ‘Components’ of a valorized

most important fact about Anderson’ s intellectual career

Continental

– the ‘absent centre’ of his oeuvre. For the Andersonian

configuration, at the expense of a classical Marxism

tradition

to

a

degraded

national

history of Absolutism was no mere antiquarianism, but a

superior to both; the second – of the main text – qualifies

genealogy (or prehistory of the present): the prelude to a

its counter-position of an inviolate classical Marxism,

comparative history of the European capitalist states,

organically

which would permit rigorous theorization of them, and

unregenerate philosophical Marxism, structurally

thus facilitate the formulation of a viable revolutionary

divorced from working-class politics.

strategy against them – the missing programmatic link of

bound

to

political

practice,

to

an

The argument of Considerations has been-rehearsed

Leninism in the West. The history project thus aspired to

many times and need not be repeated here. Anderson

correct on a gigantic, continental scale the undertaking

reiterated the diagnosis – Western Marxism as the

discharged, in miniature, at the local level in ‘Origins of

theoretical transcription of practical defeat – and

the Present Crisis’: reconstruction of the effective past in

prognosis – a reunification of theory and revolutionary

order to understand the present and master the future.

practice after 1968 – made in ‘The Coupure of May’.

What frustrated Anderson can only be conjectured. 56

The contemporary incarnation of classical Marxism –

In his analysis of Russian Absolutism, however, he had

Trotskyism – was in the process of revitalization,

arrived at a conclusion with inclement implications for

whereas Western Marxism was on the point of

contemporary revolutionary socialism:

extinction. Any rejuvenation of classical Marxism

The Russian Revolution was not made against a
capitalist State at all. The Tsarism which fell in
1917 was a feudal apparatus: the Provisional
Government never had time to replace it with a
new or stable bourgeois apparatus. The Bolsheviks
made a socialist revolution, but from beginning to
end they never confronted the central enemy of
the workers’ movement in the West. 57

would, however, be obliged to address what Anderson
characterized as the ‘incompletion of historical
materialism’, confronting its unresolved problems:

above all, the nature of bourgeois democracy and a
strategy for its supersession. 60 Their solution had a basic
‘precondition’ – namely,
the rise of a mass revolutionary movement, free of
organizational constraint, in the homelands of

The unstated consequent was stark: Leninism –

industrial capitalism. Only then will a new unity of

vindicated in principle, by negative deduction from the

socialist theory and working-class practice be

barren record of social-democracy – enjoyed no practical

possible, capable of endowing Marxism with the

confirmation as a strategy in Western social formations.

powers necessary to produce the knowledge it
lacks today.61

The revolution had prevailed where socialism was
condemned by inherited backwardness to immersion in

Pending fulfilment of this precondition, Marxism would

11

presumably remain the kind of ‘second-order’ discourse
reprehended – yet represented – by

Anderson.h~

Adverse conditions
In 1976 Anderson staked the reviviscence of Marxist

Anderson’s original conclusion of 1974 reverted to

theory upon the imminence of mass revolutionary-

his epigraph from Lenin, adamant that its instruction be

socialist practice. In the event, contemporary history

accepted to the letter: ‘Correct revolutionary theory …

mocked the promise of May. Consequently, for all the

assumes final shape only in close connection with the

indemnities conferred by an intellectual independence

practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary

akin to a Sartre, and a geo-political perspective even

movement. ‘h.’ However, his inference from a hypertrophy

more capacious than that of Deutscher, scarred by

of practice was paradoxical: occupation of a post in

cumulative defeats and confronted by intractable

neither class struggle, nor academy, but in the

problems, Anderson’s Marxism would itself slowly

watchtower, whence conjunctural manifestations and

change colours.

institutionalizations of class struggle could be scanned.

Just as Anderson’s typology of Marxism idealized an
undifferentiated classical tradition as the norm against
which to calibrate flawed post-classical trends, so too he
transfigured the Trotskyist inheritance, by casting
singular exceptions as the general rule, therewith erecting
an imaginary Trotskyism. Responding to these and other
criticisms from colleagues on NLR, Anderson’s 1976
Afterword, as Eric Hobsbawm noted in a review,
‘retract[edl much of the first 90 per cent of his essay’ .64 It
did so in two respects: first, by revoking the stringent
conditions on the union of theory and practice laid down
in 1974, on the grounds that, qua historical materialism,
Marxism was primarily a theory of history (hence of the
incorrigible past), not a ‘revolutionary sociology’ of the
present;6:i second, by scrutinizing the imperfections of

In the Foreword to A Zone

(~f Engagement,

Anderson

observes that the aim of ‘The Antinomies of Antonio
Gramsci’, published in 1976, had been political:

Written in the wake of the Portuguese Revolution
… this was an account of Gramsci that sought to
draw a balance-sheet of the last great strategic
debate of the international labour movement, for
struggles still pending. That, at any rate, was my
expressed intention. When it appeared, however, I
received a long letter from … Franco Moretti …

telling me that I had written a farewell in fitting
style to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. In
those days, this was not a verdict I was disposed to
accept. But, not for the last time, his judgement
proved better than mine. 6x

classical Marxism. On inspection, these turned out to be

Anderson’s recalcitrance persisted for a decade aJter.

grave enough. Anderson queried Marx’ s reconstruction

the appearance of the Gramsci essay, whose principal

of the ‘laws of motion’ of the capitalist mode of

target was the reformist reunification of theory and

production, Lenin’s indiscriminate theory of the

practice

embodied

In

Eurocommunism.

Acute

capitalist state, and Trotsky’s problematic of ‘permanent

interrogation of reformism did not thereby vindicate

revolution’, before drafting an agenda of ‘great

revolutionary socialismY) Anderson repudiated any

unanswered problems’ for Marxist theory.hh

projection of the achievement of hegemony in civil

Over a decade and a half, Anderson had successively

society by the working class prior to – let alone instead

adopted, and then qualified or rejected, various

of – the capture and destruction of the bourgeois state,

alternatives to the national intellectual culture. First of

reaffirming the realism of the classical Marxist

all,

had

prospectus. Unlike its predecessor, ‘Problems of

approximately graduated from Sartre and Lukacs, thence

Socialist Strategy’, ‘Antinomies’ deliberately proceeded

to Gramsci and Althusser. Subsequently, an attempt had

at a generic level, abstaining from ‘concrete analysis’ of

been made to contrast a unified classical Marxist tradition

any West European social formation. Conscious of the

with Western Marxism tout court. Now, however, the

discrepancy between revolutionary theory and Western

classical tradition in whose name the Western

reality, it concluded by begging the question: since ‘[t]he

theoreticians were criticized proved more problematic

masses … [had] yet to be won over to revolutionary

than originally depicted. By 1975, classical Marxism was

socialism … the central problematic of the United Front’

itself under critical scrutiny. And belying Anderson’s

– implemented by the Third Congress of the Comintern

tributes to its achievements, its ‘great unanswered

in 1921 – ‘retain[ed] all its validity .. .’7()

Western

Marxism,

within

which

he

problems’ were of such a magnitude as to render

The defeat of Eurocommunism in Spain, Italy and

incomplete

France, the termination of the Portuguese Revolution,

(Anderson’s original judgement), not simply imperfect

and the manifest failure of the Trotskyist tradition to

(his second), but ‘largely a system of vacuums’: the

remedy the prevalent ‘poverty of strategy’,71 soon led

esoteric verdict of 1975. h7

Anderson to revise his sanguine short-term expectations.

historical

12

materialism

not

merely

Prior to this, however, it was the ‘poverty of theory’,

the actual political (and potential military) contest of

proclaimed by E. P. Thompson in 1978, that engaged his
energies. In the judicious response which Thompson’s

Western and Eastern blocs. 74 Nuclear competition was
not explicable by the ‘isomorphism’ of equivalent

philippic elicited, Anderson described it as ‘the most
sustained exposition of Thompson’ s own credo’. 72

Arguments within English Marxism (1980) warrants an
identical verdict. Broadly welcoming Thompson’ s
confrontation with Althusser, and the encounter thereby
staged between British Marxist historiography and
Western Marxist philosophy, Anderson not only
arbitrated their differences, but offered an elegant
restatement of classical Marxism. The possibility of
social-scientific naturalism and the validity of
epistemological realism; the necessity of empirically
controlled theory; historical materialism as the science
of social formations; mode of production as its masterconcept; the systemic contradiction between the forces

‘super-powers’; it was rooted in the ‘great contest’

between capitalist and post-capitalist states. As to the
rights and wrongs of that contest, Anderson’ s historical
interpretation implied political recommendation: in a
word, anti-anti-Sovietism, analogous to the ‘anti-antiCommunism’ defended by Sartre at the height of the first
Cold War. Unequivocally, ifnot uncritically, Anderson’s
sympathies lay with the Soviet party to the inter-systemic
contest.

The rationale for this stance was spelt out in a short
talk on Stalinism in 1982. Following a phase of orthodox
Trotskyist observance on the subject, Anderson’ s
analysis now coalesced with the heterodox views of
Deutscher. Having itemized the merits of Trotsky’s
assessment – in particular, the ‘political balance’

and relations of production as the explanans of epochal
transitions; moral realism and consequentialism; a

displayed by his ‘firm insistence … that the USSR was in

‘dialectical’ conception of historical progress; authentic

the final resort a workers’ state’, defensible as such

communism as the supersession of advanced capitalism;

against Western imperialism 75 – Anderson attended to its

the ineluctability of political revolution in any
conceivable transition to socialism – in these (and other)

limitations. These centred upon its characterization of
Stalinism as an international phenomenon, which had

respects, Anderson’s credo was that of a traditional, yet
non-dogmatic, revolutionary Marxism. In place of the

been falsified by the historical record. Right to evaluate
the internal role of the Stalinist bureaucracy as ‘centrist’,

antitheses of the past, Arguments propounds the mature
Andersonian synthesis of classical, Western and Anglo-

Trotsky was wrong to adjudge its external performance
purely ‘counter-revolutionary’:

Marxisms.

Addressing Thompson, Anderson concluded on a
familiar note:

The two major forms of historical progress
registered within world capitalism in the past fifty
years – the defeat of fascism, the end of

So far, our contrasting contributions to a common

colonialism – have .,. been directly dependent on

socialist culture have in many ways each involved

the presence and performance of the USSR in
international politics … 7(,

restatements or criticisms of classical inheritances,
more than innovative advance into unknown

Whatever the cogency of Anderson’s conclusions,

terrain. The reasons for that are not hard to seek:

the essential thing to underscore here, in view of the
omission of this key piece from A Zone of Engagement,

the absence of a truly mass and truly revolutionary
movement in England, as elsewhere in the West,

is the degree of his political investment, at the height of

has fixed the perimeter of all possible thought in

the Second Cold War, in the ‘presence and performance’

the period. But the example of Morris … shows
how much can still be done in what appear to be

of the USSR.

The logic of this filiation was revealed in In the

adverse conditions. 73

ideology of the 1940s and ’50s. Disputing Thompson’ s

Tracks of Historical Materialism (1983). Reviewing the
predictions made at the close of Considerations,
Anderson found them partially fulfilled: Western
Marxism had largely run its course by the mid-1970s;
subsequent historical materialism had ascended to the

‘exterminism’ thesis, Anderson’s position on the Cold

concrete; and an Anglo-Marxism had duly crystallized.

War assigned explanatory priority to the global

On the other hand, the reunification of theory and practice

By 1980 those conditions included the trans-Atlantic
ascendancy of the New Right, the launching of the
Second Cold War, and the re-edition of the anti-Marxist

confrontation between the contending systems of

in a mass revolutionary movement had failed to

capitalism and Communism – a conflict conceived, in
Deutscherite fashion, as the ‘deformation’ of

eventuate, with deleterious consequences for strategic

international class struggle and its ‘displacement’ onto

ensued: the ‘crisis of Marxism’ afflicting Southern

innovation. Moreover, an unforeseen development had

13
L

Europe from the late 1970s. 77

Marxism firm ground and undermines it: the vantage-

To explain this reverse, Anderson entertained the

point debouches into the quest for one … To change the

hypothesis that historical materialism had been

metaphor, by Anderson’s own admission the riddles of

challenged and vanquished as a research programme by

the Sphinx extended beyond a ‘poverty of strategy’ for

(post- )structuralism, on the ‘master-problem’ of ‘the

socialism, to encompass the plausibility of its proletarian

nature of the relationship between structure and subject

agency and the feasibility/desirability of its post-

in human history and society’7H – only peremptorily to

capitalist goal. Compared with the ‘scientific socialism’

dismiss it. Quite the reverse of resolving the problem that

of Marx and Lenin, this was the very epitome of terra

had preoccupied Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on the

infirma.

morrow of Liberation, Levi-Strauss and co. had

And yet – now in Galilean fashion – the Earth had

reproduced it on the eve of May. 79 The matrix of Latin-

moved. October 1917 and its descendants conferred such

Marxist crisis resided elsewhere – in political history:

empirical warrant as Anderson could muster for his

the twin defaults of Maoism and Eurocommunism as
socialist alternatives to Stalinism. Ho

reaffirmation of the rationality of revolutionary
socialism. In consequence, by 1983 his estimation of the

That was the bad news. The good news was the

‘constitutive ambiguity’ of the relationship between

alleged reversal of ‘[t]he traditional relationship between

Western Marxism and international Communism equally

Britain and Continental Europe’ as regards Marxist

applied to him:

culture – tantamount, indeed, to a ‘nascent AngloAmerican hegemony in historical materialism today’ .81

On the one hand, this was a filiation which from its
very outset ‘” had embodied hopes and aspirations

This judgement had been privately retracted even before

for a developed socialist democrac,V … Hence [its]

it was publicly pronounced, in view of the manifold

permanently critical distance … from the state

symptoms of an insular strain of the Continental virus
infecting Marxism. 82 Even so, it evinces a bizarre

structures ofthe Soviet Union … On the other hand,
this tradition nearly always had a sense of the

bibliocentrism on Anderson’ s part to tax such pro-

extent to which the Russian Revolution and its

Eurocommunist Marxists as Poulantzas with regressing

sequels, whatever their barbarities or deformities,

to reformism, while sparing their American counterparts,

represented the sole real breach with the order of

corralled in the academy.x.> Soon, at any rate, little sign of

capital that the twentieth century has yet seen –

the ‘nascent hegemony’ was discernible either side of

hence the ferocity of the onslaughts ofthe capitalist

the Atlantic, amid the consolidating hegemony of a post-

states against them … H7

structuralism which, contrary to Anderson’ s implausible
hypothesis, was widely perceived as having infirmed
historical materialism. For all its insights, Anderson’ s
discussion of French philosophy, excoriating work which
NLR had once sponsored, displayed a ‘negativism’8-l that

preached solely to the converted.

Coupled with an insistence that Marxists explore the
institutional structures of socialism as ‘a future
society’ ,85

Anderson’s

vindication

of historical

materialism posed as many questions as it answered:

historical materialism remains the only intellectual
paradigm capacious enough to be able to link the ideal
horizon of a socialism to come with the practical
contradictions and movements of the present, and their
descent from the structures of the past, in a theory of the
distinctive dynamics of social development as a whole .

… Marxism has no reason to abandon its Archimedean
vantage-point: the search for subjective agencies capable
of effective strategies for the dislodgement of objective
structures. 86
Archimedes promised to move the Earth if allocated a
firm spot. Anderson’ s elaboration of the conceit
contradicts its pretension. It simultaneously allots

14

Instantiating the ‘sole real breach with the order of

Crisis’. Summoning Arno Mayer’s The Persistence qj’

capital’, international Communism thus rendered the

the Old Regime to his aid, Anderson reasserted the

projection of future ruptures something more than mere
Zukunjtsmusik. In the absence of other – superior –

class of Victorian Britain. By the same token, however,

candidates, the provisional Eastern place-holder of actual

he was obliged to revoke the claims advanced for the

socialist practice, imparting ballast to critical Western

‘exceptionalism’ of the trajectory of British society in

accuracy of his portrait of the hegemonic landowning

Marxist theor.v, reposed in the Second World. To be sure,

this regard: the national specificities of a pan-continental

Anderson’s own aspirations were for a ‘developed

configuration of class power now furnished the

socialist democracy’, whose privileged terrain would be
the currently inhospitable zone of advanced capitalism.

explanans of the travails of British capitalism – the
explanandum, pace Thompson, of ‘Origins’ .l)1 The record

But he was thus left in the position identified by Ronald

of the subsequent years had corroborated Anderson’ s

Aronson: ‘[p ]rojecting the idea of socialism against its

conjectures: Labourism had burked its ‘modernizing’

actual history and outcome’ .xx The crisis of Marxism and

projects in the 1960s and ’70s, conforming to subaltern

socialism could only be deflected by a gesture to the East,

type; Conservatism had continued the deindustrialization

and a wager on the West, that bespoke its profundity.

of the British economy, accelerating what it purported to
reverse.l)2

The verdict of the world

Now Anderson was justified in reminding critics of

In the Tracks of Historical Materialism is the last

the focus of the Theses: the present crisis. However, the

Andersonian

striking thing about ‘Figures’ is the absence from it of

revolutionary Marxism. The next few years yielded an

the kind of strategic recommendations inferred from

genuinely

confident

statement

of

intervention in the modernism/postmodernism debate, a

‘Origins’. These implicitly followed later, in the

preface to Deutscher, joint interviews with Habermas,

concluding essay of English Questions, in Anderson’s

and a caustic assessment of social democracy.Xl) Yet as

advocacy of the programme of constitutional reform

the last effectively conceded, the Archimedean ground

associated with Charter 88 (of which he was a founding

plotted in Tracks was being inundated by the flood-tides

signatory), and of a democratized federal Europe,

of contemporary history.

Anderson once remarked of Deutscher that, having

wherein the unbound capitalist Prometheus of the
twenty-first century might be tethered to social ends.l)3

desisted from any endeavour to reunite classical Marxist

By socialist standards, such perspectives. were, as

theory and revolutionary political practice after the

Anderson readily conceded, moderate enough. But with

Second World War, he had opted to become a

the convulsions of Communism and the disorientation of

professional historian.l)() In the late 1980s, against the

social democracy,l)4 they ‘[held] out the best promise of

backdrop of Western triumph in the Second Cold War,
Anderson took the step prepared in his defence of the

practical advances in equality and emancipation in
Western Europe at large’ .l)5

historian’s vocation, and relaxation ofthe theory/practice

From one angle ‘The Light of Europe’ might be seen

criterion, at the end of Considerations, tacitly emulating

as a return to Anderson’ s origins: it reissued the

Deutscher’s solution.

summons to a resumption of ‘the unfinished business of

This evolution was apparent from Anderson’s post-

1640 and 1832′ with which his 1964 article had ended.’!6

1986 reflections on three broad topics: the essays on

Where it upheld ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, ‘A

British politics and culture contained in the second part

Culture in Contraflow’ ,l)7 by contrast, overturned

of English Questions; a series of surveys, in NLR and the

‘Components of the National Culture’, offering a

LRB, of non-Marxist thinkers, mostly collected inA Zone

catalogue raisonne in lieu of the fusillade of 1968.

Anderson’s political measurement of the cultural

of Engagement; and the long essay on Fukuyama with
which that volume concluded (about to be reissued, in

climate in the late 1980s produced a remarkably positive

expanded form, as The Ends of History).

reading: ‘the political and intellectual worlds went in

For close on twenty years after 1968, despite his

opposite directions … ’98 The first thing to note about it is

discreet critical sympathy for Bennism in the early 1980s,

that, even were the thesis of an academic-intellectual

Anderson preserved a public silence on British politics;

radicalization in response to the New Right to be

unlike Nairn, he attempted no development of the

accepted, this would not license Anderson’ s conclusion

original NLR Theses, or their revolutionary redirection

that it was somehow directed against ‘capital’, as

in ‘Components of the National Culture’. ‘The Figures

opposed to neo-liberal (de)regulation of it. Secondly –

of Descent’ , a retrospect and update published in 1987,

and relatedly – the sound of goalposts being moved is

defended the central thrust of ‘Origins of the Present

unmistakable: academic resistance to political reaction

15

is construed as intellectual radicalization. Yet it would

enough. It was Mill who wrote that ‘ideas, unless

be equally plausible to argue that, whilst the polity moved

outward circumstances conspire with them, have

– to the right – the academy (if not the polytechnics)

in general no very rapid or immediate efficacy in

stood pat, in the middle of the road (where, predictably,

human affairs.’ But circumstances may also

it got run over). The fact that Sir Keith Joseph and his ilk

circumscribe ideas themselves. Some of the

incriminated liberals in a collectivist complot with

necessary ones for an effective opposition were, in

Marxists against the propensity to truck, is eloquent

British conditions, still missing. lo-+

testimony to his radicalism (not to mention paranoia).

Thirdly, however, just as the Thatcher dispensation
decisively altered the parameters of party politics, so too
it induced a fundamental reconfiguration rightwards of
the national intellectual culture. Neo-liberal Kulturkampf
incited no mutiny in the senior commonrooms,’)’) but
rather an ever-increasing moderation and normalization. lOO The conformities of the English would
certainly have struck Anderson in 1968, even if they
escaped him two decades later.

The combination of cross-Channel and trans-Atlantic
interchanges registered by Anderson did indeed generate

‘Components’ had been able to nominate an agency for
its culturalist strategy: the student movement. Twenty
years later, history had (to borrow Anderson’s metaphor)
untied the Gordian knot of 1968, providing some of the
resources with which to analyse British society. Yet it
had tied another, no less ingenious one, for whose
severance the requisite Alexander was wanting.

Notwithstanding diminished political horizons – an
‘alternative of similar scope’ to Thatcherism, rather than
revolutionary socialism – here, as in Considerations and
Arguments, Anderson’s conclusion issued in fatalism. It

the ‘mutation’ he identified: ‘British culture became

deposited its readers in the political void of a circular

looser and more hybrid.’ 101 Yet he had once looked to

causality, bereft of any prospective redemptive agency

Europe, not out of credence in the intrinsic virtues of

intermediate between high culture and low politics:

cross-fertilization, but because the national culture

without propitious circumstances (i.e. any significant

signally lacked what the Continental abundantly

political movement), no fully adequate ideas; but without

possessed: the totalizing theory indispensable to

fully adequate ideas, no propitious circumstances (i.e.

revolutionary politics.

effective opposition). In its own, non-revolutionary

In the shape of the historical sociology of Mann and

terms, ‘A Culture in Contraftow’ testifies to a poverty of

Runciman, Giddens and Gellner – stimulated, in part, by

theory, strategy and agency. The contraftow terminates

the (negative) example of historical materialism – Britain

in gridlock.

now boasted its own ‘totalizations … of heroic

The indeterminacy of Anderson’s later work in these

magnitude’.102 For all the ceremony accorded them,

respects was unerringly detected by John Gray, in an

however, in each instance theoretical frailties and

otherwise laudatory review. l05 Noting that he was

empirical fallibilities were disclosed by Anderson’ s

‘strangely reticent on the fiasco of Gorbachev’ s reformist

discussions, which rendered any claim to have surpassed

socialism’, Gray harpooned the ‘bizarre collation’

Marxism inadmissible. I03 Anderson’ s real concern, it

effected in the final paragraph of ‘A Culture in

may be surmised, was not an implausible superiority of

Contraftow’. Anderson writes there that ‘the collapse of

Mann over Marx, but their mutual incapacity –

the Communist order in Eastern Europe and the approach

uncorrected elsewhere – to rise to the explanatory

of federation in Western Europe have struck away mental

challenges posed to them as theories of ‘the distinctive

fixtures of Left and Right alike.’ IOn But this is to equate

dynamics of social development as a whole’ .

the regional modification of the capitalist state system

Anderson’s panorama of domestic culture ended with

with the elimination of an antagonistic socio-economic

a troubling contrast between the oppositional ‘high

system – an equation affording socialist consolation only

culture’ of the 1980s and the socialist ‘popular culture’

to the credulous. And if any mental fixtures had been

of the 1930s. To account for it, he resorted to an habitual

struck away, then an obvious candidate would be

theme:

Anderson’s own. Although no one could have guessed it

if no convergence of terms or audiences like that

from his post-lapsarian writings –

including an

of the thirties was in sight … the … fundamental

insouciant report on the Moscow coup and its

reason was the absence of any significant political

denouement in 1991 7

movement as a pole of attraction for intellectual

indeed constituted a mental fixture of Anderson’ s

the Communist order had

opposition. … Situations in which cultural

Marxism. By his criteria, its destruction represented the

production fails either to reftect or affect the

zonal restoration – and hence global dominion – of

political direction of a country are common

capitalism.

16

Due confirmation of this can be found in ‘The Ends

tension that should have linked the two, towards

of History’, which largely aligns itself with Fukuyama

another axis. In the absence of the magnetic pole

against his critics, and whose concluding section,

of a revolutionary class movement, the needle of

‘Socialism?’, eschews silver linings. Arguing that

the whole tradition tended to swing increasingly

‘[njone of the political currents that set out to challenge

towards contemporary bourgeois culture …. the

capitalism in this century has morale or compass

successful restabilization of imperialism … meant

today’,IOX Anderson seems to imply that socialism has,

that major sectors of bourgeois thought regained a

by classical Marxist criteria, become utopian once again.

relative vitality and superiority over socialist

Ecological distempers may serve to demonstrate the

thought. The bourgeois order in the West had not

long-run unsustainability of capitalism as a global mode

exhausted its historical life-span … 112

of production. That does not suffice, however, to

With appropriate alteration of details, an analogous

substantiate the viability of socialism. The vices of

‘displacement’ may be discerned in Anderson’s

contemporary capitalism compound the quandaries of

Marxism, conceived as neither a reformist nor a

contemporary socialism, aggravating its programmatic

‘revolutionary sociology’, but increasingly confined to

and strategic deficits: ‘[t]he case against capitalism is

an alternative historical sociology. Yet the devil is in the

strongest on the very plane where the reach of socialism

detail. In the mid-1970s, notwithstanding his estimate of

is weakest – at the level of the world system as a whole …

the fate of socialism in the West in the half-century after

in the past fifty years, internationalism has changed

October, Anderson could assert ‘the descendant position

sides.’ lOt) At the close of the century, as at its outset, the
alternative

appears

unambiguous:

socialism

or

of capitalism on a global scale, in an epoch which despite
everything saw a third of the world wrested from it’ .113

barbarism. If, however, Anderson’ s sympathies are

Moreover, with the destabilization of imperialism, he

manifestly with the first term, his analyses point towards

could confidently expect ‘socialist advance’ in the

the greater plausibility of the second.

metropolitan countries. Two decades later, Western

The figure in the mirror
Paying homage to the qualities of Isaac Deutscher in

prospects had evaporated; and the Eastern results with
which they were inextricably bound up, had been
overturned. At the ‘end of history’, amid the virtual

1984, Anderson wrote: ‘serene olympian, visionary

societal exclusivity of the West – the uncontested

iconoclast, shrewd politician. He had an element of each

position of capitalism on a world scale – Perry” Anderson

in his own make-up. The culture of the Left needs them
all.’ 110 Apparently resigned to the persistence of
capitalism for the foreseeable future, the ‘shrewd

seems to have mislaid Mount Olympus. But in this end
there may lie a beginning: an origins of the global crisis,
perhaps?

politician’ in Anderson is concerned to pursue
practicable reforms of it, whilst avoiding the temptation

Notes

– congenitally succumbed to by two-second social

The overview offered above derives from a work in progress
on Perry Anderson, to which readers are referred for fuller
exploration of the themes sketched and documentation of the
claims advanced. Pending due acknowledgement there of my
innumerable debts, I am grateful to William Outhwaite for
the invitation to tryout an initial version at a Sussex
University seminar; to Francis Mulhern for fraternal criticism
of a draft; and to Peter Osborne, for his finite patience.

Needless to say, none of them should be (dis)credited with
the courage of my convictions.

democrats – of mistaking these for socialism. Anderson
is not about to ‘settle’ either; I11 to vary one of his titles,
he pertains to the intransigent Left at the end of the
century. And yet it might legitimately be wondered
whether, by comparison with his earlier self, he is not too
much the ‘serene olympian’, too little the ‘visionary
iconoclast’ .

Eagleton’s remark appears in his review of Ellen Meiksins
Wood, The Pristine Culture (~f Capitalism (Verso,
London, 1991), in the Guardian, I October 1992.

Anderson’s current vantage point is an academy in
California, moonshine state: glimpsed in the mirror of

Considerations on Western Marxism, his figure would
cast a familiar image. Tempting as it is, so trite a
conclusion should be resisted. For there Anderson had
not only scripted his own ulterior development, but
anticipated the common, insurmountable dilemma of
independent Marxist intellectuals after the fall:

everything happened as if the rupture of political
unity between Marxist theory and mass practice
resulted in an irresistible displacement of the

2

Considerations on Western Marxism, New Left Books,
London, 1976,p. 13.

3

Scott L. Malcomson, ‘10,000 Megalomaniacs: Perry
Anderson, Man of Steel’, Voice Literary Supplement,
March 1993, p. 21.

4

See the Foreword to A Zone of Engagement, Verso,
London, 1992, p. xii.

5

Ibid.

6

Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast Trotsky: 1929-1940, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
1979, p. 19 n. 2.

17

7

Cf. Norman Geras, ‘Literature of Revolution’, New Lefl
RevieH’ (NLR) 113-114, January/April 1979, pp, 14ff. on
‘political impatience’,

29

‘Problems of Socialist Strategy’, in Anderson and
Blackburn, eds, Towards Socialism.

30

English Questions, pp. 5-6.

8

Cf. ‘The Ex-Communist’s Conscience’, reprinted in
Tamara Deutscher, ed., Isaac Deutscher, Marxism, Wars
and Revolutions, Verso, London, 1984, pp. 57-8.

31

‘Problems of Socialist Strategy’, p. 225.

32

Ihid., p. 230.

‘The USSR in War’ (1939), in Leon Trotsky, In Defense
of’Marxism, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1990 (here p.

15); cited by Anderson in ‘Trotsky’s Interpretation of
Stalinism’, in Tariq Ali, ed., The Stalinist Legacy,
Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984, p. 123.

33

Ihid., pp. 237-9.

9

34

Cf. ihid., p. 241.

35

In’ A Decennial Report’, unpublished editorial report on
NLR for 1962-74, n.d., pp. 15-17.

36

See ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, NLR 100,
November 1976/January 1977, p. 27 n. 48, where
‘Problems of Socialist Strategy’ is cited as representative
of the ‘illusions of left social-democracy’.

10

See the Foreword to English Questions, Verso, London,
1992, p. 11.

11

Engels, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, in Karl Marx
and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Volume Three,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p. 151.

37

Cf. ‘The Figures of Descent’, NLR 161, January/February
1987, p. 77; English Questions, p. 192.

In Lenin: A Study in the Unity of’ His Thought, New Left
Books, London, 1970, p. I I.

38

See the Foreword to English Questiolls, pp. 4-5.

39

Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965),
reprinted in The Po vert.’>’ (~f’ Theory and Other Essays,
Merlin, London, 1978; Poulantzas, ‘Marxist Political
Theory in Britain’ (1966), NLR 43, MayIJune 1967. Cf.

English Questions, pp. 128-9, 167.

40

Cf. the unattributed ‘Introduction to Poulantzas’, NLR 43,
May/June 1967, pp. 55-6.

41

‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, NLR 35, January/
February 1966.

12
13

Cf. The German Ideo log’, in Karl Marx and Frederick
Engels, Collected Works, Volume Five, Lawrence and
Wishart, London, 1976, p. 49.

14

‘Cuba, Free Territory of America’, The New University
(Oxford), no. 4, 5 December 1960 (co-authored with
Robin Blackburn); ‘Sweden: Mr. Crosland’s Dreamland’,
NLR 7, January/February 1961; ‘Sweden 11: Study in
Social Democracy’, NLR 9, May/June 1961. A fourth
early text, co-signed with Stuart Hall, advanced a socialist
case against British membership of the Common Market:

‘The Politics of the Common Market’, NLR 10, July/
August 1961.

15

‘Introduction to the Debate of the Central Committee of
the Italian Communist Party on the nnd Congress of the
CPSU’, NLR 13-14, January/April 1962, pp. 152-3.

16

See Michael Rustin, ‘The New Left as a Social
Movement’, in Oxford University Socialist Discussion
Group, ed., Out (~f’Apathy: Voices (~f’the New Lefl30 Years
On, Verso, London, 1989: and my review of Lin Chun,
The British New Lefl, in RP 68, Autumn 1994. Anderson’ s
diplomatic balance-sheet of the time, ‘The Left in the
Fifties’ (NLR 29, January/February 1965), may be
fruitfully compared with his retrospect in Arguments
within English Marxism, New Left Books, London, 1980,
chapter 5.

17

Published in three instalments in NLR 15, MayIJune 1962,
NLR 16, July/August 1962, and NLR 17, Winter 1962.

18

NLR 23, January/February 1964: reprinted in Perry
Anderson and Robin Blackburn, eds, Towards Socialism,
Fontana/NLR, London, 1965 and (with minor revisions)
as chapter I of English Questions.

19

English Questions, p. 16.

20

Ibid.

21

Ibid.

22

Ibid., pp. 17-29 (the theses are summarized on pp. 2930).

23

Ibid., p. 31.

24

Ibid., p. 33.

25

Ibid., pp. 35-7.

26

Ibid., p. 40.

27

‘Critique of Wilsonism’, NLR 27, September/October
1964, p. 22. See also the unattributed editorial, ‘Divide
and Conquer’, NLR 28, November/December 1964,
marking Labour’s victory in the recent general election.

28

See Raymond Williams, ‘Notes on British Marxism since
the War’, NLR 100, November 1976IJanuary 1977, for
the distinction between ‘academic’, ‘legitimating’ and
‘operative’ modes of Marxism.

18

42

Cf. English Questions, p. 4 n. 5.

43

‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, pp. 22-3.

44

‘The Limits and Possibilities of Trade Union Action’, in
Robin Blackburn and Alexander Cockburn, eds, The
Incompatibles: Trade Union Militallc:v and the
Consensus, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967.

45

See the unattributed article, co-authored with Robin
Blackburn, ‘The Marxism of Regis Debray’, NLR 45,
September/October 1967.

46

NLR 50, July/August 1968; reprinted in Robin Blackburn
and Alexander Cockburn, eds, Student Power, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1969 and (with revisions) as chapter 2
of English Questions. In the Acknowledgements to the
latter, Anderson confides that his early essays have been
‘shorn of some of the bombast and excess of the period to
render them more readable’ . In the case of ‘Components’ ,
the effect is somewhat to moderate the insistency and
astringency of its declared revolutionary-Marxist
affiliations.

47

English Questions, p. 47.

48

Ibid., p. 48.

49

Ibid., pp. 51-6.

50

fbid., pp. 56-9.

51

Ibid.,pp.61-3.

52

Ibid., pp. 103-4.

53

Of especial importance here were the exchanges between
NLR editor, Nicholas Krass6, and the Fourth International
leader, Ernest Mandel, over Trotskyism: Krass6,
‘Trotsky’s Marxism’ ,NLR 44, July/August 1967: Mandel,
‘Trotsky’s Marxism: An Anti-Critique’, NLR 47, January/
February 1968; Krass6, ‘Reply to Ernest Mandel’, NLR
48, March/April 1968: and Mandel, ‘Trotsky’s Marxism:

A Rejoinder’, NLR 56, July/August 1969. Anderson’s
editorial input into the Krass6 texts, but subsequent
persuasion by Mandel’ s second response, are remarked in
the ‘Decennial Report’, pp. 29-31.

54

Introduction to the special issue on France, May 1968,
NLR 52, November/December 1968, p. 5.

55

See the Foreword to Lineages ~fthe Absolutist State, New
Left Books, London, 1974, pp. 9-11.

56

Some combination, perhaps, of extrinsic disappointments
(the non-realization of revolutionary expectations) and
intrinsic problems (especially those generated by Robert
Brenner’s recasting of the debate on the transition from
feudalism to capitalism).

57

Lineages

58

In the Tracks (4Historical Materialism, New Left Books,
London, 1983,p. 80.

59

‘A Decennial Report’, p. 85. Cf. the unattributed editorial,
‘Victory in Indochina’, NLR 91, MaylJune 1975.

60

Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 103-4.

61

Ibid., p. 104.

62

Ibid., p. 53. See also Anderson’s 1974 ‘Political and
Philosophical Interview’ with Lucio Colletti, reprinted in
NLR, ed., Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, New Left
Books, London, 1977, especially pp. 348-50.

63

Ct:. Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 105-6: pages
whose invocation of ‘the masses’ prompted the charge of
‘anti-intellectual magic’ from E. P. Thompson in his
review, ‘The Marx Claimants’, Guardian, 16 September
1976.

(~fthe

Absolutist State, p. 359.

Solidarity, Verso, London, 1986; and ‘Social Democracy
in the Eighties’, Against the Current, 1986 (incorporated,
with revisions, as ‘The Parabola of Social Democracy’

into ‘The Light of Europe’, chapter 6 of English
Questions).

90

‘Document A – Theory and Practice: the Coupure of May’,
unpublished manuscript, n.d., p. 9.

91

See English Questions, pp. 128-30, 121-2.

92

Ibid., pp. 169-84.

93

See ‘The Light of Europe’, in English Questions,
especially pp 345-53, and cf. A Zone of Engagement, p.

365.

94

See, in addition to English Questions, pp. 307-25,
Anderson’s Introduction to idem and Patrick Camiller,
eds, Mapping the West European Left, Verso, London,
1994.

95

English Questions, pp. 352-3.

96

Cf. ibid., p. 47.

97

Published in two instalments in NLR 180, March/April
1990, and NLR 182, July/August 1990; reprinted as
chapter 5 of English Questions.

64

‘Look Left’, Nnv Statesman, 24 September 1976.

98. Ibid., p. 200.

65

Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 109-11.

99

66

Ibid., pp. 112-21.

67

‘A Decennial Report’, p. 79.

68

A Zone

69

As Anderson candidly acknowledged elsewhere: see ‘The
Strategic Option: Some Questions’, in Andre Liebich, ed.,
The Future qf Socialism in Europe?, Interuniversity
Centre for European Studies, Montreal, 1978, pp. 27-8.

100 One example: a report from a Commission on Social
Justice, instituted by the Labour Party, whose
philosophical premisses owe more to Nozick than to
Rawls, and by whose criteria 1. S. Mill (let alone T. H.

Marshall) would count as a ‘Leveller’. (The pejorative use
of an honourable term – not from 1917, or even 1789, but
1649 – is itself symptomatic in this regard.) Interestingly,
in a survey of ‘The Intransigent Right at the End of the
Century’ (London Review (~fBo()ks, 24 September 1992),
Anderson had shrewdly remarked Rawls’s minimal
‘impact on the world of Western politics’, in contrast to
the influence of Hayek, Strauss et al. on the New Right.

(~fEngage111ent,

p. xi.

70

‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, p. 78.

71

In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, p. 28.

72

Arguments within English Marxism, pp. 2-3.

73

Ibid., p. 207.

74

See Anderson’s Foreword to the NLR symposium
Exterminism and Cold War, New Left Books, London,
1982, p. viii.

75

See ‘Trotsky’s Interpretation of Stalinism’, pp. 124-5.

76

Ibid., p. 126; and see the remainder of this important
passage.

Cf. ibid., pp. 194, 200.

101 English Questions, p. 204.

2 Ibid., p. 231.

3 Cf. ibid., pp. 206-30 and the essays on Mann, Runciman
and Gellner in A Zone (~f Engagement.

104 English Questions, pp. 300-30 I.

105 ‘Enlightenment Projects’, The Times Literary Supplement,
14 August 1992.

77

See 111 the Tracks qfHistorical Materialism, pp. 9-31.

78

Ibid., p. 33.

79

Ibid., pp. 54-5; cf. pp. 40-54.

80

Ibid., pp. 76-7.

81

Ibid., pp. 24-5.

82

In ‘NLR 1980-1983’, unpublished editorial report on
NLR, n.d., pp. 45-6.

83

The imputation of bibliocentrism is adapted from Kate
Soper’s Humanism and Anti-Humanism, Hutchinson,
London, 1986, p. 117 n. 79.

84

Anders Stephenson and Cornel West, ‘The British and the
Rational’, Socialist Review, 1984.

85

In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, p. 97.

86

Ibid., pp. 105-6.

87

Ibid., pp. 68-9.

III See Anderson’s ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 21
October 1993, commemorating the late E. P. Thompson.

88

‘Historical Materialism, Answer to Marxism’s Critics’,
NLR 152, July/August 1985, p. 78.

112 Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 55.

89

See ‘Modernity and Revolution’, NLR 144, March/April
1984 (reprinted with a Postscript in A Zone of
Engagement); Preface to Isaac Deutscher, Marxism, Wars
and Revolutions (reprinted with a Postscript in A Zone of
Engagement); (with Peter Dews) interviews with JUrgen
Habermas, in Dews, ed., Habermas: Autonomy and

106 English Questions, p. 30 I.

7 See ‘August in Moscow’, London Review (~f Books, 26
September 1991, and (more recently) Anderson’s review
of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, ‘Darkness Falls’,
Guardian, 8 November 1994.

108 A Zone qf Engagement, p. 358.

109 Ibid., p. 366. For an analogous verdict on the Fukuyama
thesis, see my ‘The Cards of Confusion: Reflections on
Historical Communism and the “End of History'” , RP 64,
Summer 1993 (reprinted in Christopher Bertram and
Andrew Chitty, eds, Has History Ended? Fukuyama,
Marx, Modernity, Avebury, Aldershot, 1994).

110 ‘The Legacy of Isaac Deutscher’, in A Zone of
Engagement, p. 73.

113 Ibid., p. 56.

19

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