In the tracks of Perry Anderson


 I just read Perry Anderson’s In the Tracks of Historical Materialism [1983], a collection of lectures in which he surveys the scene a few years on from Considerations on Western Marxism [1976]. Generally, he finds predictions he made in the earlier book to have held up well: the concerns of Western European Marxism had drifted from philosophy and literature towards history and political economy; and the centre of gravity had moved from Latin Europe to the Anglosphere.

The mainstream is accustomed to seeing the Soviet collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the terminal crisis of Marxism, although most Marxists in Western Europe and the United States had ceased to see the USSR as model or hope for years, many for decades. The decline in French, Italian and Iberian Marxism traced here by Anderson reflected the belated estrangement from Russia of their Communist Parties – which had been serious political players – and the brief flowering of Eurocommunism.

It was here that the ‘crisis of Marxism’, so called, had its source and its meaning. Its real determinants had very little to do with its overt themes. What detonated it was essentially a double disappointment: first in the Chinese and then in the West European alternatives to the central post-revolutionary experience of the twentieth century so far, that of the USSR itself. Each of these alternatives had presented itself as a historically new solution, capable of overcoming the dilemmas and avoiding the disasters of Soviet history: yet each of their upshots proved to be a return to familiar deadlocks. Maoism appeared to debouch into little more than a truculent Oriental Khruschevism. Eurocommunism lapsed into what looked increasingly like a second-class version of Occidental social-democracy, shamefaced and subaltern in its relation to the mainstream tradition descending from the Second International.

It was, of course, the latter disappointment that was the crucial one. It directly affected the conditions and perspectives of socialism within the advanced capitalist countries which had seemed till then to offer the most opportunities for real progress by the labour movement in the West. Here, then, we can see why the ‘crisis of Marxism’ was a quintessentially Latin phenomenon: for it was precisely in the three major Latin countries – France, Italy and Spain – that the chances of Eurocommunism seemed fairest, and the subsequent deflation was sharpest. The forms of that deflation have varied widely, from clamorous transfers to the right to mute exits from politics altogether. The most widespread pattern, however, has been a sudden shrinkage of socialist challenge and aspiration, now scaled down – with a bad conscience, and worse pretexts – to fit the crabbed accommodation of a new social-democracy to capitalism. Decked out as a fresh ‘Eurosocialism’, beneficiary of the falling away of Eurocommunism, the governments and parties of Mitterand, Gonzalez and Craxi have since attracted the allegiance of most of the repentant and disabused, within a prospect of prudent reform at home and pronounced adherence to the ‘Atlantic community’ abroad.

The situation elsewhere was necessarily rather different. In Britain and the United States, West Germany and Scandinavia, there had never been mass Communist Parties to attract the same projections or hopes in the post-war period. In Northern – as opposed to Southern – Europe, social-democratic governments had been the norm for decades: reformist administration of capitalism held few novelties for the Marxism that had developed there since the sixties, whose main political focus was precisely a critique of it. In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War were relayed, virtually without interruption, by those of the world recession, to create the context for a continuous growth of Marxist culture, from a very small starting base, rather than a crisis of it. These conditions produced an environment affording little soil for collective conversions or collapses of the Gallic or Italian type. A steadier and more tough-minded historical materialism proved generally capable of withstanding political isolation or adversity, and of generating increasingly solid and mature work in and through them. This is not to say that analogous developments may not affect sectors of the Anglo-American or Nordic Lefts in the future. The popular consolidation of political regimes of imperialist reaction in Britain, or the United States, in the mid eighties may well break the nerve of some socialists, drawing them rightwards in an anxious quest for the middle ground. The extent of such possible responses, however, remains to be seen. [pp. 76-77]

A generation on, the intellectual current of 1970s Anglo Marxism is still quite strong, as an intellectual current. But as Anderson worried, the tide of broader socialist movements continued to flow out. That has left questions of strategy almost as remote as they were for the Western Marxists – and necessarily so, because without a mass far left movement, who is the subject of any strategy we might come up with? Recent works that have talked strategy – for example, Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power – have seemed more like motivational books than strategies proper.

In In the Tracks… Anderson makes some comments about the relationships of feminist and environmentalist movements to socialist ones, seeing them as challenges for historical materialism – not in the sense that they were opponents, but in that they posed issues Marxism had often been weak on and needed to come to terms with. In the context of discussing this, he writes about the differences between organising in class terms and organising in terms of gender:

Workers will characteristically rebel against their employers, or the state, collectively: class struggle is social or it is nothing. Women do not possess either the same positional unity or totalised adversary. Divided by economic class themselves, within their class dependent on men dependent on them, their forces are generally more molecular and dispersed, the point of concentration of their effort as liable to be a particular partner as a general gender. The peculiarity of the feminine condition within male-dominated societies can be seen, in this respect, from the absence of any specialised agencies for the regulation or repression of women: that is, any equivalent to the coercive apparatus of the State on the plane of social class… There is never any overall centralisation of the structures of women’s oppression: and this diffusion of it critically weakens the possibility of unitary insurgence against it. Without a centripetal focus for opposition, collective solidarity and common organisation are always more difficult to achieve, more friable to maintain. [p. 92]

The irony of this statement is that feminism has had much more success over the last few decades than the working class in general. And it has been successful despite the structural weaknesses Anderson supposes – the decentralisation of the oppression, the atomisation of women themselves. It has been successful – insofar as it has, there is clearly a long way to go – in a hegemonic sense – in nothing so much as a vast change in attitudes across society.

Clearly the problems of anti-capitalism are very different. But is the difference really that socialism faces a centralised adversary, in the state? I don’t think so, and the point is actually well-put by a younger Perry Anderson himself, in his 1965 essay “Problems of socialist strategy” (in the New Left Review collection Towards Socialism):

Leninism and social-democracy are apparently in every way poles apart: violence against legality, vanguardism against passivity, discipline against democracy. Yet in one respect there is a fundamental similarity between the two. They both polarise their whole strategies on the State: civil society remains outside the main orbit of their action. Here lies the clue to the real adaptation of the one and the false adaptation of the other. For in the East, the State was the sole vector of social action and transformation: civil society had no structured existence independent of it. To change society, Leninism, in one form or another, was a necessity. But in the West, just the opposite is true. There, in conditions of diminishing scarcity, civil society predominates politically over the State, and determines it in its image. The heteronomy of the State is the root cause of the failure of social-democracy….

Both parliamentary and insurrectionary strategies are aimed squarely at the State, to the exclusion of the whole terrain of civil society…. It has been seen how the whole structure of power in advanced capitalist countries is polycentric. In effect, beyond a certain point, diminishing scarcity tends to diversify and dilate the whole fabric of society. A multiplication of focal points, groups, institutions, takes place against the background of a continuous accumulation of capital and valourisation of resources. Where goods, skills, values are relatively more abundant, civil society becomes more solid and structured… It was this balance between civil society and the State which both allowed the growth of democracy – and its confiscation by the hegemonic class, in the successful defence of capitalism. The autonomy of civil society prevented the permanent erection of an arbitrary state, but it also made it unnecessary. Power was not exclusively lodged in a top-heavy, massive State machine, whose democratisation would de facto threaten to revolutionise the whole existing social order. It was diffused through the whole variegated, supple, intricate texture of civil society. It was the invisible colour of daily life itself.

It seems to me that the younger Anderson got this fundamentally right – the State is not the centre of power in advanced capitalist society. And his line – basically Gramscian – is miles away from poststructuralist ideas of ‘decentred power’, in that it actually sees footholds for counter-power, despite the decentralisation. But what are these footholds, 40 years on?

Published in: on 3 June, 2007 at 9:52 pm  Comments (20)  

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  1. feminism has had much more success over the last few decades than the working class in general.

    What ‘success’ are you talking about here?

    his line – basically Gramscian – is miles away from poststructuralist ideas of ‘decentred power’, in that it actually sees footholds for counter-power, despite the decentralisation.

    What ‘poststructuralist ideas of ‘decentred power” are you talking about here?

  2. Hey Mark,

    Re: success of feminism – I suppose a wide range of things, such as greater reproductive freedom, a broader set of choices about what spheres to work in, positive changes in the norm of household relations, etc.

    Re: decentred power: Well, you know more about this than I do! But I am thinking, for example, of Foucault’s theories of power linking subjectivity and practice to power through discourse. Also the related ideas of ‘performativity’ (Michel Callon, Judith Butler), which is the main way in which I’ve encountered them in economics. These are to me interesting, sometimes no doubt useful, ways of thinking but less useful for strategising real change, as opposed to celebrating isolated acts of ‘resistance’.

  3. Foucault doesn’t have ‘theories’ of anything, and he doesn’t link subjectivity and practice to power through discourse. That’s all Butler, IMO.

    You can talk about the workers’ movement as having the same kinds of success as the women’s movement here: greater social mobility, educational opportunities, minimum conditions, average conditions etc. for both women and workers, but still the same pattern of domination resilient in both cases.

  4. Well I’ll defer to your judgement as an almost-published Foucault scholar here. My knowledge of Foucault is mainly from undergrad sociology where we no doubt got a vulgarised version.

    In fact having checked my textbook it’s definitely how Foucault has been vulgarised. Cf Johan Fornas’ “Cultural Theory and Late Modernity” [1995: 64-65]: “Power is exercised both in intersubjective relations and through objectivised institutions: the micropowers of everyday life and the institutional macro-systems mediate each other. These social institutions and everday practices are further integrated with communicative and cultural discourses. The will to knowledge is for Foucault always a will to power: compounds like ‘discourse/practice’ underline that knowledge-practices and power are inseparably united.”

    What do you mean he doesn’t have theories of anything, though? Actually in the book that sparked my post Anderson claims that Foucault’s politics were externally-driven and not closely linked to his scholarly work. So he moved with the political winds, first away from marxism to a kind of liberalism, then back to a radical anarchism.

    I think you characterise the limited victories of workers and women accurately – “but still the same pattern of domination resilient in both cases”. I wouldn’t disagree and it’s in line with the point that I was making with regard to Anderson. In both cases, the advances have not come about primarily through state-focused political activity, though they may be reflected in legislation.

  5. When you get through all the thick language, what Anderson is saying in Towards Socialism, which was put together when he was in his early twenties, is that the Communist Party of Italy is pretty neat and that the Wilson government can be a bridge to a socialist Britain. I don’t think either of those opinions suvived very long.

    In terms of mixing up ‘revolutionary’ and ‘gradualist’ strategies, EP Thompson’s New Left writing is a lot more interesting – I wrote a bit about it here:
    If you wanted to be a bit ahistorical and annoy a lot of people you could argue that Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution takes after Thompson’s strategy.
    Wade Matthews, who recently did a PhD on the subject, has published a paper about the weaknesses of both Anderson’s and Thompson’s strategies:

  6. Thanks Scott. I’ll check out the Matthews piece – I’ve already read your essay.

    I didn’t get the Wilson government part, but the whole thing (‘Towards Socialism’) is very Gramsci. And as Anderson put it in the 1970s, Gramsci took the West Euro left by storm and eventually was being cited in support of every kind of strategy, or every kind of shift to the right or quietism disguised as strategy. Still, there’s a lot to like in Gramsci, I think. (Maybe that’s the problem, he appeals to everyone.)

    I’ve read Thompson’s NLR strategy pieces too and agree with what you say about them. I don’t think they’re a million miles away from what Anderson was writing at the same time – compared to Leninism or social democracy, they’re pretty much in the same camp. I was thinking of writing something eventually on what can be taken from them today, with the state quite differently positioned in advanced capitalist countries.

    I’m starting to think I’m the only person around who actually likes Perry Anderson. He takes a lot of beatings!

  7. Power, 40 years on?

  8. What does ‘Leninism’ mean, though? ‘What is to Be Done?’ That is now being understood profoundly differently by a new generation of scholars (eg Lars Lih). In any case, it was never an important text for British communists I mean official ones). You could go back to the British Road to Socialism, which was formally adopted by the CPGB in 1951. I don’t think there is very much that is original in what Anderson is saying about strategy.

    I like the panache of Anderson’s famous historical essays from the ’60s, though I don’t agree with them, but I think that, in his recent writing specially, he’s become incredibly pretentious and precious and very hard to read. He always chooses the more obscure word and the more dificult construction. He’s like an English Adorno.

    There’s an unabashed love of capitalism that comes into the open in Anderson’s post-Cold War writing, too – think of the stuff on Fukuyama, Oakeshott, and other right-wing thinkers. Like many British Marxists, from Hyndman up to Hitchens, Anderson hides a worship of ‘the productive forces’ and an uninterrogated idea of ‘modernity’ behind occasional talk about the good old class struggle.

    His favourite part of Marx is probably the first section of The Communist Manifesto, with its gauche celebration of capitalism. I think that, even before the end of the Cold War, Anderson was a power-worshipper, looking to the Soviet Union and its allies rather than Joe Bloggs to change the world.

    Thompson is a different kettle fish entirely. His histories celebrate the ‘backwardness’ that Anderson’s famous essays decry. (Compare ‘Time, work discipline, and industrial capitalism’ and ‘Origins of the present crisis’.) This difference comes through in the political strategies and tactics they
    recommended in the New Left.

  9. Re Chavez, Gransci and civil society, here’s something from a couple of days ago:

    ‘Thus Chavez launched into one his longest and
    most detailed talks on the thought of Gramsci,
    explaining Gamsci’s concept of “historical
    blocs,” in which a particular class manages to
    acquire hegemony that is expressed in structures
    and super-structures. The super-structure,
    explained Chavez, consists of two levels, of the
    institutions of the state and of the civil
    society. The civil society, according to Chavez’s
    explanation of Gramsci, consists of economic and
    private institutions, through which the dominant class spreads its ideology.

    The conflict in Venezuela can thus be understood
    as one between the institutions of the state,
    which used to be controlled by this civil
    society, but no longer is, and the old civil
    society. To this old civil society, according to
    Gramsci, belong the Catholic Church hierarchy,
    the mass media, and the education system as the
    principal institutions. The dominant classes use
    these institutions to disseminate their ideologies, explained Chavez.’

  10. It’s true Anderson does sometimes have a penchant for pretentious writing, but I think “an English Adorno” is going too far! It depends what he’s writing about and the audience – I found his Origins of Posmodernism book heavy-going for such a short book, and I don’t understand his enthusiasm for Fredric Jameson (truly an American Adorno, unless Adorno already gets that title). But elsewhere, on more concrete politics, he still writes with panache – for example, in his regular London Review of Books essays.

    I haven’t read the Fukuyama piece yet, but I did recently read his essay on “the intransigent Right” – Oakeshott, Schmitt, Strauss and Hayek – and found it quite a good treatment of the transition in conservative thought from a direct defence of property against democracy, to a defence of democracy in the Cold War. It’s not a flattering portrait of Oakeshott in particular.

    As for that section in the Communist Manifesto… it has been cited ad infinitum in the last twenty years among a much broader section of marxism than Anderson, and by people like Francis Wheen, for obvious reasons. It may be gauche, and a product of a conjuncture where the young Marx and Engels saw themselves briefly on the same political side as the bourgeoisie, but it is undeniable that the mature Marx saw a progressive side to capitalism.

    Anderson often gets a bad rap these days for his ‘pessimism of the intellect’ – or for playing down the subjective side of class struggle. It’s the opposite criticism of that made of the strategic stuff, for example in that Matthews piece you mentioned above, that it was excessively voluntarist. I think it comes down to the problem of lacking a concrete political subject from whose point of view one can strategise.

  11. Forgot to mention, re: Anderson’s pretentious vocabulary. Whoever had my copy of ‘In the Tracks…’ before me went through it with a dictionary and pencilled helpful definitions in the margins!

  12. Francis Wheen is appalling.

    Thompson’s and Anderson’s New Left era political thinking has some similarities, but these are superficial, IMO.

    Both Thompson and Anderson (in the early ’60s) recommend that the British far left use the bourgeois democratic (clunky term, but you know what I mean) features of their society, and disagree with the idea that 1917 provides a model for a British, or for that matter Western Euroepan, revolution.

    But Anderson’s reasons are rooted in his economism and his teleological view of history. He thinks that Western Europe is too economically ‘advanced’ for a Russian-style revolution.

    Thompson, on the other hand, thinks that the struggles of ‘the freeborn Englishman’, and not economic advancement, are the main cause of the bourgeois democratic features of his society. He actually argues, in key New Left texts like ‘Revolution’ and ‘Revolution Again’, that post-war prosperity is eroding British democracy; he looks back nostalgically to the austerity of the war years, believing it fostered egalitarianism and democratic sentiment.

    It’s true that Thompson and Anderson both overestimated the possible role that ideas and intellectuals could have in politics. But Anderson saw intellectuals acting as a sort of brains’ trust for the labour movement and its parties, working out viewpoints that could be passed down the food chain as orders. Thompson, by contrast, thought that leftist intellectuals should try to inspire ordinary folks to make change by disseminating ideas as broadly as possible and breaking through the apathy and economism of the post-war era.

    It must also be said that Perry Anderson wore a brand new bright blue – almost fluorescent, reportedly – suit and tie when he went to Hull in the early 1960s to give a speech to some striking dockers.

  13. Re: Chavez on Gramsci. That is fascinating! I have to say though that I feel very uncomfortable about the disparagement of “the theory of freedom of expression” among the “Big Lies”.

  14. Mike: the quote from Fornas seems fine on Foucault; your description of his political trajectory is complete rubbish, however. I argue in my maybe-one-day-published book (and this bit is likely to be excised) that Foucault never really changes his political leaning, just that it comes to express itself differently in different contexts – post-WWII, he joined the PCF like everyone else, then left if after the doctors’ plot, when, in the absence of any serious force on the left in France other than the PCF, he just wasn’t very political, until the post-1968 climate naturally led him to become involved in politics again, and then when that dropped off in the late ’70s, so did he. He was never an anarchist or a liberal; it’s probably fair to say he was a communist early on, but really only in a capital-C sense.

  15. Here’s an essay by Staughton Lynd on Thompson and political strategy:

  16. Hey Mark,

    The description of Foucault’s political swings is Anderson’s not mine – I wouldn’t presume to comment. To be fair, though, he doesn’t call him a liberal as such, but a Cold War anticommunist of the type that became the Nouvelle Philosophes, and says that pre-1968 he “veered towards a technocratic functionalism, even claiming that ‘an optimal functioning of society can be defined in an internal manner, without it being possible to say ‘for whom’ it is better that things should be thus.” Of him, Levi-Strauss and the Tel Quel crew, he writes: “Conservative or collusive as these positions may be, they have little actual edge or weight. It is less their iniquity than their fatuity that is striking. Reflections of a political conjuncture in an essentially unpolitical thought, they can alter again when the conjuncture alters. They tell us something general about French history in the past decades, little that is specific about the ideas of structuralism itself.” [ItToHM, p. 57]

    Again, though, what do you mean when you say Foucault has no ‘theories’ of anything?

  17. Scott,

    I initially read some ‘forces and relations of production’ determinist arguments into Thompson’s ‘Revolution’ – in fact I was not expecting it from Thompson and found it the most interesting point about his argument.

    That is how I interpreted his argument against the ‘Leninist doctrine’ that socialism would not grow within the womb of capitalism. (He actually quotes Stalin as representing this position: “The bourgeois revolution is usually consummated with the seizure of power, whereas in the proletarian revolution the seizure of power is only the beginning….”) I find the counterposed idea that in fact socialism may be growing as an ‘interpenetrating opposite’ within capitalism really interesting.

    But you are right that he portrays such embryonic institutions as working class victories rather than institutions developed through logics of capitalist development. Working class subjectivity is to thank.

    To some degree that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. The ‘freeborn Englishman’ may deserve credit for extensions of democracy, for example, but I find it unconvincing that he is solely responsible for “the advances of 1942-48” – taking this to mean the expanded role of the state in welfare and economic regulation. To start with, similar structural forms appeared post-war and post-Depression in advanced capitalism under a broad range of political configurations, and involved novel strategic conceptions on the part of capitalist policymakers about the role of the state in sustaining capitalism.

    So these material institutions were the creation of a new form of self-conscious capitalist subjectivity also, strategy arising from the need to deal with problems of a quite objective nature. Yet they could be considered – as Thompson does – embryonic institutions of socialism.

  18. Oh, no question. The welfare state was created by liberals, after all – Beveridge and Keynes. A bit of a bum deal for six years of war service on the part of the British working class. There were strong arguments about the nature of the welfare state within Thompson’s circle, with John Saville (sceptical) and Dorothy Thompson (very positive) facing off, and EPT perhaps in the middle.

    An interesting question here is: what is socialism? This is hardly ever answered by socialists. EPT was very down on definitions which assumed that socialism had to be global and had to based on economic prosperity, the end of scarcity etc
    In important ways he takes his ideas about socialism from pre-capitalist societies, much as Marx did in his last decade.

  19. Anderson’s view of Foucault is interesting, because it was one I was initially tempted to take since it’s what the superficial evidence shows. But if you approach the question chartiably and ask what Foucault would have done if he held the same political views throughout his life, you basically get that he would have done exactly what he did do! It’s infantile to claim that because Foucault worked at high levels for the French government that he was engaged in collusion – after all, the PCF at that time was part of the French political apparatus, and France internationally was, OK ultimately imperialist and pro-American, but fairly agnostic regarding the Cold War, partly because of the PCF’s influence on French political society.

    What Foucault says about theory is that it implies a “prior objectification”. I.e. he doesn’t work out a theory and apply it to data. Rather, he deploys ongoing conceptualisations as he investigates. Of course, I claim, these are essentially based on simple structuralist approach to reality and a consistent implicit ontology. However, this isn’t to say Foucault is disingenuous: approaches and political ontologies are not theories.

  20. I’ve just registered that the Anderson remarks come from a 1983 text. This kind of critique of Foucault was pervasive around that time – Poulantzas’ is the classic version. The amount of Foucault material available to these critics though was a fraction of what’s available today and views of Foucault from before the last ten years are more or less defunct, IMscholarlyO.

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