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New Work on Perry Anderson

Book Review

Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left, by
Paul Blackledge
(London: The Merlin Press, 2004) ISBN 0850365325

Liam O Ruairc • First published in Radical Philosophy 128
November/December 2004

Despite being some rather elusive figure, Perry Anderson is one of Britain’s most important intellectuals. His work, spanning over four decades, represents one of the most significant political and theoretical contribution to Marxist theory in the English speaking world. It is in great part due to his efforts, through his work as editor of the New Left Review and its publishing house Verso (formerly NLB), that the English speaking public was introduced to the work of thinkers like Althusser, Gramsci, Sartre, Poulantzas, Colletti and many others; and that Britain was finally able to have its own equivalent of Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. For Anderson, the purpose of this was an attempt to place British socialist strategic thinking on a firmer theoretical footing. Those reasons were sufficient to convince Paul Blackledge, an English academic whose political sympathies lie with the Cliffite International Socialist tendency, to write a book length study and critique of Anderson’s thought. The book aims to trace Anderson’s evolution from his early radicalism to his later reformism and liberalism, make sense of it, and immanently criticise his later trajectory and contemporary political perspective.

Blackledge argues that the central problematic of Anderson’s thought revolves around the fact that all the various strands of Marxism had at their heart a lacuna: they contained no satisfactory theory of the modern bourgeois state as it had evolved in the West, and no systematic account of the nature of bourgeois democracy. Anderson believed that it was imperative to address this lacuna in theory and turned to this task in order to inform revolutionary practice. In his Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, Anderson’s most significant books according to Blackledge, he undertook a panoramic study outlining the genealogical underpinning of the differential development of states West and East. Because of geographical and temporal delineation, Russia no longer inhabited the same conceptual framework as the West. The political consequence of this position is that a specifically Western strategic framework for revolutionary advance would have to be developed, which while incorporating insights from Lenin should also break with some of the essential characteristics of Bolshevism. For Blackledge, these books are “his most influential, yet perhaps also his most flawed work”. He outlines some of the problems of Anderson’s analysis, and in particular its political conclusions. He questions whether Anderson was able to adequately articulate the distinction between the modern Western capitalist state and the Russian state of 1917. More importantly, he criticises Anderson’s strategic proposals for never being posed in concrete organisational terms. Blackledge explains that Anderson’s failure to address this issue has weakened his contemporary strategic orientation. Anderson’s analysis, in spite of its strengths because of its abstract character, is severely limited as a guide to action.

“Outside an organisation that could test his ideas in practice, and without the historical research necessary to deepen them, Anderson’s insights remained formal and abstract, with no real purchase on the actual struggles of the proletariat.”

For those reasons, and given that the focus of Anderson’s work was primarily political rather than academic, Blackledge concludes that it was “something of a failed project”. In his influential analysis of Western Marxism, a current he contributed much to put on the intellectual scene, Anderson had sharply criticised the ‘structural divorce of theory and practice’ characteristic of that trend of thought. For Blackledge, this ironically equally applies to Anderson’s thought.

From the 1980s onwards, Anderson gradually distanced himself from Marxism. With the various defeats of the left East and West, he came to critically accept Fukuyama’s obituary of socialism, as no systematic alternatives to capitalism any longer existed. In essence he argued that social democracy could be reinvigorated through the incorporation of the best elements of liberalism and be given a new lease of life in a regulated European integration. He argued that “the parameters within which history can turn at the present conjuncture were much more circumscribed than Marx had anticipated: not socialism, but more humane forms of capitalism were the only practical alternative to triumphant neo-liberalism.” Also, according to him, Michael Mann had a developed analytical theory of the pattern of human development “exceeding in explanatory ambition and empirical detail any Marxist account”. Blackledge is very critical of Anderson’s conclusions. If Anderson’s position is correct, then the only principled position to take is “stoical opposition to capitalism”. If Anderson is wrong, as Blackledge believes, events such as France 1995, Seattle 1999 and Argentina in 2002 show that an alternative is possible and that “the parameters within which history can turn at the present conjuncture are considerably broader than Anderson’s assessment allows.” Blackledge’s criticism is not so much that Anderson failed to predict those upsurges, but the fact that his analysis provides no concepts by means of which he could have discovered them.

Paul Blackledge’s book is the second one to be published on Perry Anderson’s thought. The other one, Gregory Elliott’s Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History (1998) is much more comprehensive than Blackledge’s book. As the bibliography shows, Elliott had access to and made use of much more material than Blackledge. Elliott's ability to examine Anderson’s thought in its smallest details is also difficult to rival. What is original about Blackledge’s book is its radical political critique of Anderson’s thought. Elliott is too close politically to his subject to be able to fully articulate an immanent critique of Anderson’s ideas. Specifically, Anderson’s thought has evolved to accept a highly pessimistic interpretation of the contemporary political conjuncture that Elliott broadly shares. According to Elliott, Anderson’s political perspective in the 1990s can best be characterised by its realism. However, for Blackledge, Elliott is wrong as Anderson’s political reorientation in the 1990s “was premised upon certain contestable assumptions and let to some highly unrealistic conclusions.” It is “unwise” to adopt Anderson’s position: “Socialists must reject his political perspective if they are to avoid gross strategic errors.” Blackledge identifies three central flaws at the core of Anderson’s thought. First, political impressionism resulting from an undynamic conception of the political conjuncture. “Anderson’s use of relatively static theoretical frameworks have hampered his elucidation of realistic political perspectives. A consequence of this has been that his strategic political conclusions have been consistently impressionistic.” He was thus too optimistic for the perspectives for revolutionary advance in the West after 1968, and then too dismissive of them once the left was on the retreat. The second flaw is his pessimism regarding working class agency. Anderson, according to Blackledge, has a tendency to downplay the role of workers struggle; in particular he rejects the idea that contradictions might develop between the consciousness of British workers and the ideology of Labourism. The third flaw is Anderson’s acceptance of Isaac Deutscher’s conclusion that socialism will not necessarily come ‘from below’ as the self-emancipation of the working class, it can be the result of a revolution ‘from above’. This has resulted in Anderson having illusions about the progressive nature of the Soviet bloc and in “transposing his conceptualisation of the key locus of the class struggle from the point of production to the Berlin Wall.” It is due to those three (fatal?) flaws that, for Blackledge, Anderson’s thought from its earliest days was unable to account for potential challenges and systematic alternative to capitalist modernity. A decent intellectual biography, Blackledge’s sharp and clear political polemic is a useful complement to Elliott’s more comprehensive and less critical study of Anderson’s thought.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

23 November 2004

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