Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • English Questions by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 370 pp, £39.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 375 9
  • A Zone of Engagement by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 384 pp, £39.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 377 5

For the past thirty years, New Left Review has been the most consistently interesting political journal in the country. And Perry Anderson, who used to edit it and still helps direct it, has been its consistently most interesting contributor. Like those who wrote for the two papers it replaced, the Communist New Reasoner and, later, Universities and Left Review, the contributors to New Left Review were provoked by the condition of what Tom Nairn called Ukania. But they distanced themselves from the old Ukanian Left. The country’s economy, they said, was in chronic decline, its politics were a comprehensive disaster, its society was stalled in defensive resentment, and there was no redemption to be had from what Anderson then saw as ‘the ferruginous philistinism and parochialism’ of its ‘long national tradition’. Sentimentally, he now recalls, they offended patriots (E.P. Thompson especially). ‘Intellectually, they disturbed canonical Marxist opinion, as transmitted from Capital. Politically, they nettled the Labourism of reformists and the ouvriérisme of revolutionaries.’

In the beginning, they recovered two sets of voices. The first were those of the British working class, all but silenced by the trade union leaders, ‘sergeants of dead souls’, as Anderson now describes them, who delivered block votes at the Conference and thence to the executive committee of a party most of whose other active members had settled for the ‘humbugs of card-vote and constituency, trade-union bluff with Parliamentary cant, Deakin crossed with Burke’. The second were the voices of left intellectuals from Europe. It was to these, especially to Sartre and Gramsci, that Anderson was drawn. Assuming with Gramsci that the history of France was the norm, all else deviation, and distanced from his Englishness by an Anglo-Irish descent, the echoes of a Chinese childhood, an astonishing command of European languages, and a distaste for national sentiment, he was led initially to argue that what was so odd about Ukania, and so awful, was the ‘hegemonic’ predominance of an archaic ruling class and the ‘corporate’ subordination to that class of a defensive labour movement.

In a distancing third person, Anderson now accepts that ‘this Gramscian polarity was given too cultural a turn.’ His ‘national nihilism’, as Isaac Deutscher put it, had got the better of him. In 1987, in ‘Figures of Descent’, which he now reprints together with some of his earlier NLR essays, in English Questions, he offered a more material and pointedly comparative account of what by then seemed to be a deeper and rather different kind of calamity. The imperial economy had now gone, and Labour’s Tory state had since been captured by a belligerent bourgeoisie. In the Sixties and Seventies, Anderson had been persuaded by Sartre. The highest task of a creative Marxism was to analyse ‘concrete universals’. Like other Marxists, he was trapped: the past foreclosed the political present, and revolution was the only escape. Seventeen years ago, in the wake of the radicals’ brief rule in Lisbon, and after ‘the better part of a decade’, as he now recalls, ‘of radical ferment in Western Europe’, he wrote a long piece on Gramsci – not reprinted here – ‘that sought to draw a balance-sheet of the last great strategic debate of the international labour movement, for struggles’, he then thought, ‘still pending’. When Franco Moretti, to whom he now dedicates A Zone of Engagement, wrote back from Italy, then in ferment, to say that the essay was in fact ‘a farewell in fitting style to the revolutionary Marxist tradition’, it was not a verdict, Anderson now concedes, ‘that I was disposed to accept. But not for the last time, his judgment proved better than mine’. As late as 1983, in an essay on Marshall Berman, Anderson could still allow himself to imagine ‘a diversity founded on the far greater plurality and complexity of possible ways of living that any free community of equals, no longer divided by class, race or gender, would create’. ‘What would be distinctive about a socialist revolution that created a genuine post-capitalist democracy is that the new state would be truly transitional towards the practicable limits of its own self-dissolution into the associated life of society as a whole.’ But this marked the end of his early expectations. By then, he knew that Régis Debray had been right: the events in France in 1968 announced a voyage to China which, like Columbus’s, rediscovered America. They were the beginning of the end, which came in Lisbon in 1974. If there was a new beginning, it happened then. Robert Dahl, whom Anderson does not mention, dates the start of what he regards as the most recent of the three great waves of enthusiasm for liberal democracy, the one we’re riding now, to Portugal in 1975.

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