Books March 2006

What’s Left?

A new book by the West’s most influential Marxist shows him to be both “the most profound essayist wielding a pen” and on the wrong side of history

In 1986 the New School in New York managed to assemble a quartet of scholars to discuss the state of “radical history.” This must have been the only occasion upon which Americans could have witnessed Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and Edward Thompson—the three giants of the English Marxist school—on the same platform. The other, younger participant, Perry Anderson, modestly refers to them in this book as “the three doyens.” Yet by then he had already caught and held the attention of a new audience, with the publication of two works of macro-historiography, Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State. And it was his own contribution on that occasion that far outshone those of the senior members. Brusquely asserting that radical history had reached a point of diminishing returns (how many more “out groups” really remained to have their forgotten struggles unearthed?), Anderson offered the challenge of a “history of possibility”: a grand narrative of missed opportunities that would avoid the merely counterfactual. Nearly two decades later, he has yet to take himself up on this intriguing proposal (or even to allude to it in his mention of the event itself). But he has succeeded in extending his critique of radical and conservative ideas alike, to the point where he must be accounted the most polymathic, and at the same time the most profound, essayist currently wielding a pen. His handling of the relationship between history and philosophy, and historians and philosophers, would—if the word did not possess a connotation of the meretricious—deserve to be called “dazzling.”

It is now a little more than forty years since, in partnership with Tom Nairn, Anderson authored a set of historical theses about the entropic state of British institutions. This enterprise, and the mordant exchange with Edward Thompson to which it gave rise, marked the emergence of a new sort of polemic: English yet strongly inflected with “Continental” sources and comparisons. Under Anderson’s stewardship, the New Left Review became a journal of international renown, with himself as primus inter pares of a brilliant and varied editorial équipe. Perhaps a little volatile in its politics—the later sixties saw some flirtations with modish Third Worldism, and even a willingness to be gulled by the neo-Stalinist charlatan Louis Althusser—and sometimes overfond of opacity in prose, the NLR strove to uphold a staunch internationalism and an independence from the mental categories of the Cold War.

Relaunching the magazine for the new millennium, Anderson wrote a landmark editorial. By the year 2000, the communist “alternative” had itself fallen victim to an irreconcilable conflict between its forces and relations of production. In Britain, it had been Mrs. Thatcher, not the Left, who had understood the archaic nature of British institutions and undertaken the upending of consensus. Postmodernism had etiolated the generation of the sixties; the radical ideas were coming from the Right. Anderson took all these developments and faced them as they actually were. For the first time in its history, capitalism, he conceded, was without a rival, let alone a challenger. Neither a socialist state nor a conscious working class existed in opposition to the market economy. Moreover, the “Left” intellectuals had implicitly abdicated even at the level of ideas, resorting to campus isolation and adopting “standards of writing that would have left Marx or William Morris speechless.” In a marvelously lucid earlier essay (available in his previous collection A Zone of Engagement), Anderson had been one of the very few Marxists to take seriously the work of Francis Fukuyama on “the end of history.” And he had been on the scene in Moscow when Boris Yeltsin applied the quietus to Russian Communism. Some comrades began to mutter ominously about the What’s Left Review

I was at first disappointed by the apparent banality of the title of this new collection. The use of “spectrum” is one of the hoariest and most conventional means of describing the demarcations of allegiance and alignment. (To take a salient current case that Anderson chooses to evade, the so-called neo-conservatives are attacked most of all for their impetuous radicalism and their willingness to “destabilize”; if this is not exactly Left, it is certainly not Right, either, as the paleolithic Right is the first to point out.) However, some continuum is necessary for the arrangement and subdivision of these pieces, which extend from what Anderson terms “the Intransigent Right” (of Michael Oakeshott, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Friedrich August von Hayek) through the center-Right and center-Left (of Ferdinand Mount and Timothy Garton Ash), the wavering or “adjustable” Left (of Jürgen Habermas, Norberto Bobbio, and John Rawls), and the “Vanquished Left” (of the aforementioned Hobsbawm and Thompson, with additional roles for Sebastiano Timpanaro and Robert Brenner). In his preface to the discussion of this latter group, Anderson surely furnishes a clue to his own fidelities by writing: “But to be defeated and to be bowed are not the same. None of these writers has lowered his head before the victors. If a dividing line is wanted between what has become the Center and remains the Left, it would lie here.”

The immediate problem with that statement is that it appears to negate, or at the very least to contradict, the important admissions made in that definitive NLR editorial of 2000. Can Anderson really be saying that true leftism consists in proudly refusing to acknowledge historical eclipse? It would be difficult to confect a less Marxist position. Yet there is something of the cavalier and the quixotic about him: wedded to the classics in matters of literature; Anglo-Irish by provenance and Etonian by education; the man who first alerted me to the finesse of Anthony Powell as social historian as well as novelist. Occasionally his prose contains asides of an extraordinary loftiness. “I detest pubs,” Anderson tersely informs us, while on another page he deploys the beautifully feudal and anachronistic term “caitiff” to describe the lowly officials of the Irish Republic.

The full difficulty takes time to disclose itself. Anderson perhaps conflates too much by placing Oakeshott, Schmitt, Strauss, and Hayek in one category (Oakeshott could arguably be called an authentic reactionary; Hayek actually wrote an essay, which Anderson elides, on why he was not a conservative; Schmitt compromised with National Socialism; Strauss fled from it), but as a short course on the shades and tones of modern intellectual conservatism, the essay could hardly be bettered. In his discussion of the British Tory constitutionalist (and nephew of Anthony Powell) Ferdinand Mount, as with his dissection of Timothy Garton Ash, his exegetical skill and his impatience with waffle and euphemism are harnessed to superb effect. It is when addressing the “Adjustable Left” that Anderson—one of whose favorite terms of approbation is “cool”—becomes less objective and more sarcastic.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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