In the tracks of Perry Anderson

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 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?

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