Perry Anderson: He Is One of Britain's Great Marxist Intellectuals, Yet Now He Seems a Strangely Conservative Figure

By Skidelsky, Edward | New Statesman (1996), March 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Perry Anderson: He Is One of Britain's Great Marxist Intellectuals, Yet Now He Seems a Strangely Conservative Figure


Skidelsky, Edward, New Statesman (1996)


Perry Anderson exemplifies a type that has almost vanished: the unaffiliated intellectual. The leading British Trotskyite, he has never belonged to a political party. An eminent historian, he has never held a full-time post at a British university. His writing belongs to none of the various categories of academic literature; it attempts, at its most ambitious, to comprehend them all in a total synthesis. His thought owes allegiance to no national tradition; it belongs to the floating corpus of western Marxism. It is fitting, if ironic, that this revolutionary free-booter should finally settle at the University of California at Los Angeles. Repressive tolerance has triumphed over one of its fiercest adversaries.

Anderson is notoriously elusive. No interviews, no broadcasts - and even the London School of Economics, where he is a visiting lecturer, did not have a photograph to contribute to the illustration of this profile. Yet for all his elusiveness, his influence on British intellectual life has been enormous. The conduit of this influence was the New Left Review, the socialist bi-monthly which he edited from 1962 to 1982. Anderson's goal was the introduction into Britain of a new kind of socialist culture, alternative to both the official Marxism of the Communist Party and the stolid reformism of the Labour Party. His followers saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Inspired by Gramsci, they aimed to establish a socialist hegemony in the realm of ideas from which, they hoped, a revolutionary movement would follow. The leading lights of Continental Marxism - Lucacs, Gramsci, Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse and Althusser - were published and discussed, often for the first time in Britain. Non-Marxist structuralists such as Lacan and Levi-Strauss were also introduced. High theory was interspersed with the other amour of the era: Latin American terrorism.

Anderson's cosmopolitanism is partly a product of biography. He was born in 1940 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family; his father was an official in the Chinese Maritime Customs. Eton and the stuffy Oxford of the 1950s no doubt exacerbated Anderson's distaste for "spiritual patriotism". Marxism offered the alternative of a truly international ideology, and Trotskyism, with its tradition of "revolution in more than one country", was the most internationalist variant of Marxism. Anderson cites, as precedent for his own attitude, "the scorn of Marx and Engels for German provinciality and philistinism, of Lenin and Trotsky for Russian religiosity and Oblomovism, of Gramsci for Italian operatics and sentimentalism". The cosmopolitanism of Marxist theory was, one suspects, a stronger source of appeal for Anderson than its promise of social justice. His is a socialism of the head, not the heart.

The agenda of the New Left Review was set out by Anderson in a couple of fierce polemics: "Components of the National Culture" (1968) and "Origins of the Present Crisis" (1964). They are the most scintillating essays he has written. The mediocrity of postwar intellectual life in Britain is the subject of the former. Written with a young man's scorn, the essay surveys and dismisses British contributions to history, philosophy, political theory, psychology and aesthetics. These local failings are the consequence of a more fundamental vacuum: the absence, at the centre of British intellectual life, of any general theory of society that might unify the disparate branches of inquiry. Sociology, in Anderson's view, is the queen of the sciences. In its absence, intellectual life fragments; a process dignified by the English totems of "empiricism" and "piecemeal research". This failure is not innocent; nothing is innocent for a Marxist. The absence of social theory serves to perpetuate the bourgeois social order; that which cannot be conceived cannot, a fortiori, be attacked.

"Origins of the Present Crisis" was one of a series of articles by Anderson and Tom Nairn offering a historical explanation for the predicament analysed in "Components of the National Culture". …

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