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.

It is a notable fact that at different times and in different ways Habermas, Bobbio, and Rawls, three of the most important intellectuals of the international Left, have endorsed the deployment of American military force. Removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or Slobodan Milosevic from Bosnia or Kosovo, or removing them from power altogether, has struck members of this trio as at least a defensible objective. Not so Anderson, for whom the invocation of human rights or international law by Washington is the sheerest effrontery. Using the word “adjustable” of his enemies in this regard is more than a question of exploring some of the inconsistencies of their positions, which as a matter of fact he does with his accustomed deftness. It is a clear insinuation that they are making their peace with power and orienting their “independent” minds toward the grand new imperial hegemon.

The undergirding assumption—that American imperialism remains, if I may so condense it, the primary enemy—is never actually set out or justified. This omission is a pity for two reasons: Anderson has for years lived and taught in the United States, and does not exhibit the snobbish yet lumpen contempt for American society that is so often found on the European Left; and it would certainly be fascinating to see his full attention engaged on the irony that the United States is simultaneously the most conservative and the most radicalizing force on the planet. A few years ago, when we jointly addressed a gathering in New York, he startled me by announcing that he thought the Confederacy should have been allowed to secede. His reasoning was elegant enough—slavery was historically doomed in any case; two semi-continental states would have been more natural; American expansionism would have been checked; Lincoln was a bloodthirsty Bismarckian étatiste and megalomaniac—but it was nonetheless remarkable to hear such a direct attack on the thinking and writing of Marx and Engels, who had been 100 percent for Lincoln and the Union and who had identified America as the country of future progress as surely as they had located Russia as the heartland of backwardness and despotism.

I had by no means forgotten this disagreement, but it came back to me with renewed force when I read Anderson denouncing “NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia,” and later the assault of the Coalition on “Iraq.” One must say at once that, whatever room there is for disagreement about both interventions, it is slightly disgraceful to see a socialist and a humanist echoing the claims made by aggressive and chauvinist dictatorships. Slobodan Milosevic naturally wanted to identify his “Greater Serbia” with the Yugoslav idea, and Saddam Hussein’s rule in Baghdad is one of the grossest cases on record of l’état c’est moi, but neither aggrandizement deserves to be taken at face value. And is it not still more extraordinary that a man will overlook the rights of Bosnians, Kosovars, and Kurds and yet assert the self-determination principle on behalf of the Southern plantocracy? A New Left Review editorial in 2003 announced that the need of the hour was solidarity with the “resistance” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and—yes—the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. If this is “what’s Left,” it can and must be said that a certain sort of Marxism has mutated from being defensively conservative into being outright reactionary—in both declensions of the term placing itself on the “wrong” side of history.

The honorable conservatism of Anderson’s style—and I do not say this out of any wish or need to be fair—is beautifully exhibited in the coda of this collection, a self-contained essay titled “An Anglo-Irishman in China.” Here is an account of Anderson’s own father’s dedicated work for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service; a commitment to China that lasted from the beginning of the First World War to the heat of the Second. We are introduced to a dedicated and sensitive man who “objectively” conducts the work of exploitation but who subjectively insists on the highest standards of probity and professionalism. (In an almost perfect moment of capitalist rationality, we discover that the belligerent powers of 1914—Britain, France, and Germany—did not allow their commercial proxies in the Chinese “concessions” to dissolve their common interest by any foolish quarrel of the sort that was then wrecking European civilization.) Here is a bravura interleaving of the micro with the macro: Anderson père conducts love affairs with different women and with Chinese culture, and keeps the civil-service banner as unstained as possible, all while eventually helping to administer subventions from the Japanese aggressor; in effect a servant of the British Crown, he stays in contact with Ireland and quietly supports the Sinn Fein and Home Rule cause. Between Hong Kong and Lungchow, often apparently supervising attacks on the customs collectors, flits the figure of the diminutive Communist Deng Xiaoping …

In his summoning of the past and his attention to family secrets, Anderson fils almost deliberately emulates the laconic yet precise manner of his literary hero Anthony Powell. One wishes that all history could be written as “coolly” as this.

Now, and thanks largely to Deng Xiaoping, China is a capitalist and militarist power of a high and imposing order. Its attitude to the exploitation of its own people is pitiless. It exerts claims on neighboring states as discrepant as India and Vietnam. Its UN veto is employed to thwart American “hegemonism” at every turn, and was part of the support system for Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Anderson’s father was obliged to keep two sets of books, as it were. It would seem a waste of talent if the same had to be said for his brilliant son.