Review of 'Spectrum', Perry Anderson, Verso £25
Perry Anderson edited New Left Review (NLR) from 1962 to 1983 and again between 2000 and 2004. He has remained the intellectual powerhouse behind what is the most important journal of academic Marxism in the English-speaking world.
Anderson's reputation is well deserved, and he will be known to many older readers as the author of a brilliant two-part history of Europe, alongside penetrating critical analyses of post-war Marxism, post-structuralism and the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, in addition to two famously polemical debates with Edward Thompson on English history and the nature of Marxism.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s he retreated from the revolutionary Marxism which informed these earlier essays, to interpret the collapse of Communism in the East and the decline of social democracy in the West as evidence supporting Francis Fukuyama's famous 'end of history' thesis.
Anderson's argument that there were no longer any systemic alternatives to capitalism informed his relaunch of NLR in 2000. He suggested that while NLR should aim to counter the pseudo-radicalism behind Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's (and now George Bush's) imperialist wars abroad and their class wars against the poor at home, the scale of the left's defeats had been such as to undermine optimistic hopes for socialism.
While this pessimistic analysis weakens Anderson's reading of contemporary politics, one of his great strengths lies in an ability to immanently criticise the work of other intellectuals. This is more than evident in Spectrum, an excellent collection of his essays written over the last decade. Anderson argues that while the growing hegemony of the right has forced theoretical and political adaptations on the part of the centre, the left, though defeated, remains unbowed.
He scrutinises the works of a series of important thinkers from across the political spectrum 'within the intellectual and political currents of their time', with a view to examining the tensions that arise out of 'specific contradictions of argument'.
In each case he writes powerful and critical analyses of the work of writers as diverse as the thinkers whose ideas inform the neo-cons in the White House, through their liberal critics, and onto the Marxism of authors such as Eric Hobsbawm and Robert Brenner. The book will stimulate anyone interested in contemporary political thought.
Nevertheless, despite the power of the individual essays, Anderson's strategic pessimism has an unfortunate affect on the totality. The whole tone is one of academic respectability. Consequently, whereas Anderson's audience was once the student radicals of 1968, it seems he has resigned himself to addressing the Senior Common Room. This doesn't simply mean that he is far too polite. More importantly, by their very nature Anderson's essays are limited to pointing to contradictions in the arguments of his targets. While this approach could act as a springboard from which to point beyond the status quo, because Anderson dismisses the possibility of a radical alternative to capitalism, he does not rise above negative critiques of others to formulate a positive political alternative.