Going Full Circle

Issue section: 

The politics of Perry Anderson reveal a lot to Kevin Best.

The story of Perry Anderson is the story of the British left and the revival of Marxism and radicalism after the Second World War. Paul Blackledge traces Anderson's 'evolution towards that early radicalism with an eye to the ideas and events that influenced his idiosyncratic interpretation of Trotskyism, so as to make sense of, and immanently criticise, his later trajectory and his contemporary political perspective'. And what a trajectory - from reformism to Guevarism, Maoism to Trotskyism, before returning to reformism. A stout opponent of poststructuralism and a consistent anti-imperialist throughout, he is now back at the helm of New Left Review.

The first 'New Left' was born in 1956 with the simultaneous campaigns in Hungary and Egypt by east and west respectively, opening up organisational space for the first time between the post-war dualism of the Warsaw Pact and Nato. It was tight though - Marxism, entombed and sanctified, was the almost exclusive preserve of the Communist Party. The Labour Party hegemonised much of the left, talking left in opposition and draped with the slogans of CND. In 1964 Anderson was a critical supporter of Wilson's Labour government, until that approach had clearly failed. By the time of the events of 1968 western Marxism had provided him with a philosophical gateway to revolutionary politics and the orbit of Deutscherite Trotskyism.

For Paul, who is otherwise sympathetic to his subject, there are two fault lines running through Anderson's theoretical understanding. Isaac Deutscher understood the Soviet Union to be a degenerated workers' state that could be reformed by a political revolution from above. This involves a conceptual slippage: the working class no longer has to be the agency involved in social transformation. Thus, just as Anderson had looked to Wilson's welfare state, he saw the Soviet Union as in some way being progressive. He eventually lines up with Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of the USSR in seeing no systemic alternative.

The second fault line Paul highlights occurs with Anderson's development of ideas from Sartre, Lukács and Gramsci in locating obstacles to socialist advance closer to home. According to Anderson, Trotsky had failed to understand the nature of bourgeois democracy in the west and he set himself the task to 'situate the specificity of the European experience' in general, and of Britain in particular through the essays 'Origins of the Present Crisis' and 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci', and in two epic historical studies, 'Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism' and 'Lineages of the Absolutist State'. Anderson argues that Britain's bourgeois revolution is premature and incomplete and the aristocracy still dominates a ruling class partnership with the bourgeoisie. A weak bourgeois ideology produces a weak proletarian ideology like the Fabians and the Labour Party - 'a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat'. Therefore there is no possibility for socialist revolution in Britain unless the bourgeois revolution is completed first.

The idea is developed using Gramsci to show how parliamentary democracy in the west is an ideological barrier to socialism. To be fair to Anderson, and Paul teases this contradiction out well, at the same time as coming to these pessimistic conclusions, he also releases Gramsci from the clutches of reformist elements with a critique of Gramsci's concept of hegemony.

Reformist conclusions can be taken from Gramsci's predominate model of hegemony used in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci draws a distinction between the state (parliamentary democracy) and civil society (political parties, trade unions, schools and lawyers). It places the site of hegemony in the west with civil society. The state is just an 'outside ditch' - if it is rocked or even brought down by economic crisis, institutions will hold firm until the state is back on its feet. Therefore reformists deduce that no direct challenge to the state is necessary and civil society can be reformed.

What Anderson does brilliantly is to explain that Gramsci draws on different models of hegemony elsewhere in the Prison Notebooks that compensate for this. The state as we know it may rock with economic crisis, and civil society may appear to hold consciousness in place, but behind the scenes is the 'silent absent force which gives them their currency: the monopoly of legitimate violence by the state'.

I have to confess that before picking up this book I knew very little about Perry Anderson. To my pleasant surprise, this book had me searching out Anderson texts for myself which was well worth it in the end.

Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left
Paul Blackledge
The Merlin Press £14.95