The Antinomies of Perry Anderson

Perry Anderson’s essays on the history of Marxism show his dazzling erudition and breadth of historical vision. But the British Marxist’s work has also been deeply shaped by his changing political outlook, as his 1960s hopes in socialist revolution have given way to a more sober reading of capitalism’s crises.

Perry Anderson at Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre, 2013. (@fronteirasweb / Flickr)

Few historians could rival Perry Anderson’s ability to write intelligently on questions as diverse as ancient Greece, culture and political theory, and contemporary developments from Brazil to Italy. But if the British historian’s erudition has made him stand out in the world of letters, so, too, has his life-long commitment to socialist politics. Indeed, most appraisals of Anderson focus on this latter point, rather less examining the historical arguments and epistemological underpinnings that inform his studies.

But we can get a better understanding of Anderson when we adopt the approach toward intellectual history which he himself employs. This first means reading the intellectual’s work as an “intentional totality,” aiming to detect its contradictions and omissions, whether conscious or otherwise. But it is also important to historicize his approach, by shedding light on its intellectual, social, and political context.

With Anderson, we can do this particularly fruitfully when we look at his attempts to grapple with the history of Marxism— and in particular, the “Western Marxist” tradition that developed outside of the state-socialist countries. In combination with his often-withering judgements on the various Western Marxists, Anderson pursued his own search to overcome its legacy — not as an idle exercise in intellectual history, but in a bid to pull up the roots of the Left’s many shortcomings.

Τhe Trilogy on the History of Marxism

Anderson’s first book on this theme was Considerations on Western Marxism, published in September 1976. It examined the different Marxisms which developed in postwar Western Europe, organically linked to the Soviet-influenced Communist Parties.

Anderson averred that the “key hallmark” of Western Marxism is that “it is a product of defeat.” For him, the Russian Revolution’s inability to spread abroad defined its Stalinist internal character, which in turn shaped the theories propagated by Moscow’s satellite-parties, which could not fundamentally challenge its own realities and policies.

For Anderson, the defeat of the revolution in Germany — setting the fate of the Russian Revolution and consequently that of the global working class, blocked the dialectical development between revolutionary theory and political praxis — up to that point one of the distinctive features of the Marxist tradition.

Thus, the Marxist theory that developed from the interwar period onwards, starting from the Frankfurt School, was limited to a philosophical discourse mainly discussed within universities. The classical Marxist tradition had used theoretical work to prescribe tasks for political action. Conversely, Western Marxists abandoned the economic and political analyses of their predecessors to develop a jargon focusing almost exclusively on epistemological issues, “correcting” Marx through the use of other “bourgeois philosophers.”

The political and epistemological reply to this degeneration lies, for Anderson, in the Trotskyist tradition, with intellectuals like Ernest Mandel who attempted to bridge the gap between theory and praxis — the inherent vice of Western Marxism. Their works dealt with issues related to the political economy of capitalism and politics, abandoning topics that Western Marxism had favored such as epistemology.

In historicizing Anderson’s political and theoretical preferences, it is important to look at the debate on the question of reform versus revolution in this period, between the Eurocommunist currents in the Communist Parties and the Trotskyists. This issue re-emerged in light of the mid-1970s transitions from dictatorship to liberal democracy in Southern Europe — and the opposite process in Latin America.

However, unlike the Trotskyist Fourth International, Anderson’s Marxism was more inclined to historical analysis rather than to politics and political economy. Their common denominators were recognition of the working class as the principal subject that would lead the process of social emancipation and the belief in Marxism as the theoretical body that would inform revolutionary political practice.

At the same time, Anderson never became an activist. Rather, he was a politically and theoretically informed intellectual, akin to those of the Eurocommunist parties that he condemned in Considerations on Western Marxism. This particularity was also reflected in his method, which lacked any explicit reductionism — of ideas or politics — to the economic level.

He remained within an analytical framework that privileged the geopolitical conflict between the October Revolution and its enemies as determinant factors of emerging ideas. This epistemological suggestion is not very different from the Weberian tradition, where the Political functions as an autonomous sphere in relation to the economy.

A historical-materialist approach on the level of ideas would, instead, be closer to that presented in works on the history of political thought by Ellen Meiksins Wood. Her approach to political ideas is, instead, defined by a set of regulating concepts such as social relations, property forms, and state formation.

The similarities between Anderson’s work and the proclivities of the Western Marxist tradition also become apparent in the way that the British historian formulated many of the guiding questions of his study, informed by Antonio Gramsci.

Against Thompson?

Anderson developed this line of reflection in Arguments within English Marxism, a work focused on British historian E. P. Thompson and his polemic with French philosopher Louis Althusser. Despite Anderson’s criticism of Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory, his intention was to reapproach him after a schism was created between the two — and the generations they represented — in their debate a decade earlier on the nature of the British state and capitalism. The hopes of the movements of the 1960s had been disappointed and the global left was retreating after defeats in Latin America and Southern Europe: it was time for convergence, not further division.

That said, Anderson was clear about his differences with Thompson, given that in The Poverty of Theory Thompson had named Anderson’s Νew Left Review as representative of Althusserianism within the British context. Anderson’s reconstruction of the differences between himself and Thompson extended beyond the epistemological level to include political issues.

For Anderson, their key political disagreement had to do with the dilemma between reform and revolution (with him in the latter camp). Their differences are thus explained with reference to the geopolitical developments of the postwar era and, more precisely, the splits within the communist camp. Where Thompson became a New Leftist after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Althusser became fascinated by Chinese anti-revisionism.

Yet, Anderson’s own understanding of socialism and how will it be achieved was quite distinct from either man. For him, the new phase in human history would be introduced by a violent transitional period that implies: “the dissolution of the existing capitalist state, the expropriation of the possessing classes from the means of production and the construction of a new type of state and economic order, in which the associated producers can for the first time exercise direct control over their working lives and direct power over their political government.”

This, alongside a focus on the need for a “fundamental economic crisis” to allow such a change to happen, made clear his rejection of reformist theses. Indeed, this understanding of socialist political transformation was close to the one proposed at that time by Ernest Mandel. In Considerations on Western Marxism, he acknowledged Mandel as one of the exemplary intellectuals in the West whose stance succeeded in bridging the gap between theory and political practice.

In the University

Quite different was Anderson’s style in his sequel to his study on Western Marxism, entitled In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. Addressed to a university audience in Irvine, California, this book assesses the intellectual trends of structuralism and post-structuralism in France from 1945 until the 1980s.

Anderson detects strong continuities between the two traditions, portraying the latter as a transfiguration of the former. His engagement with these systems of thought is explained with reference to the dominance of structuralist trends within French Marxism which, for Anderson, was in sharp decline from the early 1980s.

The intellectual root of this deformation lies in the dominance of structuralism, informed by the theoretical work of Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure. This meant an emphasis on discursive logic over societal functions — that is, society was analyzed with the rules and tools of language analysis.

More specifically, the epistemological ground  shared by the post-structuralists was characterized by “the exorbitation of language,” “the attenuation of truth” and “the randomization of history,” ultimately implying the relativization of the basic principles of the Enlightenment, dissolving any certainties in the realm of ethics and politics.

Anderson’s narration of the internal history of the structuralist and post-structuralist traditions has some valuable insights, but is marked by many rough homogenizations that confuse rather than clarify the topic under examination, in order to seek a totalizing narration.

Most scholarship would not agree that postwar French Marxism was dominated by structuralism — and the assertion that structuralism, an academic epistemology, accounted for the political defeats of the Eurocommunist parties of the period, appears to share the same idealism which Anderson here criticized.

This set of questions demonstrates the limitations of Anderson’s chosen analytical categories. But the British historian also adds another extra-intellectual factor to the decline of the two traditions he examines, namely the defeats of Maoism in the East and Eurocommunism in the West with which structuralism was allied.

With their political impasses, the theory collapsed, too. But Anderson does not explain the exact relation between theory and its external reality. If there was a direct relationship between reality and theory, then how come the global influence of Gramsci, the quintessential Western Marxist theorist, survived the 1980s and 1990s both inside and outside academia?

Anderson’s diagnosis of the definitive demise of Western Marxism proved wrong, especially considering the global and diverse influence of this tradition in recent decades. Nonetheless, Anderson optimistically observed that studies that stood on the opposite side of Western Marxism — both in terms of epistemology and content — had emerged in the English-speaking world over the past few years.

The production of Marxism thus moved from Latin Europe to the English-speaking countries. It was there that studies by Ralph Miliband, Erik Olin Wright, Harry Braverman, and Michel Aglietta among others, focused on the political and economic aspects of the capitalist world order and attempted to analyze the historical specificities of the contemporary conjuncture.

Anderson admitted that his prognosis about a growing dialectic between solid Marxist analyses and revolutionary political praxes had not been vindicated — indeed, most of those studies remained within academia.

Anderson does not, however, explain this asymmetry. Why was there a geographical shift while the gap between socialist theory and political praxis remained constant? An adequate reply to this question would demand a firmer analysis of the political crisis of the Left at the time and a deeper understanding of capitalism’s reconfiguration, which was only later fully visible.

Already when this book was published, Anderson had moved to the United States, ultimately taking a tenured teaching position at UCLA. Most of the studies he indicates as sociologically and historically informed were conducted by academics, never claiming any dialectic between socialist theory and practice.

These were people radicalized during the 1960s and the 1970s, through their involvement in the student revolts; the radical topics of their research were an outcome of the movement, but these intellectuals never turned them back toward society in the form of theories capable of mobilizing working people.

Anderson was no exception to this rule. From this point on, his circles were built around progressive intellectuals of America’s prestigious universities rather than figures committed to a revolutionary change of the world. Indicative of this turn was the shift in the contributors to New Left Review, which again mostly derived from North American universities. Robert Brenner, Mike Davis, Fredric Jameson, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Michael Sprinker were regular NLR writers during this period.

There was good reason for this. For the political crisis that Anderson outlined had deeper roots than the crisis of Eurocommunism. It was an expression of the Western left’s collective inability to deal effectively with the reconfiguration of the capitalist economy that took place with the Oil Crisis of 1973.

Eurocommunism was one variant of the Left which demonstrated its political limitations in this conjuncture as it confronted the dilemma between reform and revolution, most evident in the impasse of the Italian Communist Party. Revolutionary organizations never acquired the necessary weight to substantially challenge the status quo. And already in the mid-1980s, social democracy had begun embracing significant parts of the programs of the neoliberal right.

This wider systemic crisis within the Left, produced by the reconfiguration of capitalism, can account for the growing disjunction between its theory and praxis. The Left slowly but steadily started to disengage from the social sphere, limiting itself to the ivory towers of universities.

In the 1980s, Marxism was challenged by other theoretical paradigms from within academic fields that had progressive political connotations — not by a social movement that could reshape and redirect its priorities.

This is why Anderson’s narration notes the antagonism between different theoretical traditions within university structures, not outside of them. British and American universities could continue to “host” the Marxist tradition since here the Left never posed a substantial challenge to their status quo.

The establishment did not erase Marxism completely, but integrated it as another theoretical tradition separated from political practice. Adopting this line of reasoning, one could argue that Anderson’s trilogy on Marxism was itself a product of this defeat. Its impasses, therefore, should be interpreted according to these seismic shifts in the world-system, rather than as failures of specific theoretical paradigms in the Marxist canon or the author himself.

After the Fall

Anderson’s lack of adequate historicization of his own trilogy on Marxism had to do with his inability to realize the extent of the wider structural transformations underway at the time, rather than any kind of intellectual dishonesty. But his work would soon foreground a sense of defeat.

This was particularly apparent in A Zone of Engagement, a collection of essays published between 1983 and 1992. This book signals a series of shifts in Anderson’s epistemology, politics, themes, and style, deviating significantly from his trilogy on the history of Marxism.

The first half of this book is focused on Marxist thought in the mid-1980s, but in the next chapters, Anderson discusses intellectual developments among non-Marxist thinkers. This is explained on the basis of the theoretical challenge posed by non-Marxist macro-sociological analyses during the 1980s like those of Michael Mann and W. G. Runciman, but also the political challenge that the left faced from the liberal-socialist tradition (à la Norberto Bobbio) after the collapse of the USSR.

But Anderson did not account for the structural causes of these intellectual and political phenomena — something which, as mentioned above, can be traced back to the Left’s inability to deal effectively with the crisis of 1973.

The lack of solid explanation for the emergence of these phenomena and the integration of non-Marxist theory into his analysis indicated a change in his convictions regarding Marxism’s explanatory-predictive power. Τhe role of the working class as the key actor of social transformation could not remain unchanged, but now became the subject of a subdued omission.

Debates within the Marxist canon on issues of theory and strategy were substituted by intra-academic discussions concerning the proper method in the discipline of intellectual theory. His self-understanding as a Marxist attempting to challenge the fallacies of political reformism and non-dialectical theory was thus replaced by the adoption of methods from within university milieus.

Anderson’s political change of heart is also apparent, here, consigning the  feasibility of revolutionary politics to the past. This change is crystallized in his reevaluation of his own influential 1976 text,“The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.” In the introduction to A Zone of Engagement, Anderson admits that his comrade Franco Moretti had been right to say that this text had signaled the end of hopes for revolutionary transformation in the West.

In his text on Marshall Berman in A Zone of Engagement, he had “insist[ed] that revolution is a punctual and not a permanent process.…that has a determinate beginning — when the old state apparatus is still intact — and a finite end, when that apparatus is decisively broken and a new one erected in its stead.” For Anderson, this vision of an abrupt and violent event bringing radical social transformation was no longer feasible in the West.

This was not to embrace the idea of an “end of history,” forcefully rejected in the essay on Francis Fukuyama in this same volume. For Anderson, the liberal political scientist had mainly succeeded in synthesizing “liberal democracy and capitalist prosperity together in an emphatic terminal knot,” amidst the triumphalism following the end of the USSR.

But for the British Marxist, since the conditions that brought socialism into emergence in the nineteenth century continued to exist, there was no reason to believe that liberal capitalism signaled the end of history. Rather, he retorts that modernity with all its contradictions is an open-ended process, and its negation — socialism — is still an open possibility. But past assertions about the feasibility of socialism had been substituted by uncertainty about its short-term prospects.

Anderson’s political hopes for the short term were thus of a different hue to the recent past. We see this in his early hopes in the political integration of the European Union; intellectual recommendations such as David Held’s work on democracy were also new in the Andersonian intellectual universe.

Also altered was Anderson’s style, this book echoing that used in the London Review of Books, where most of the essays were initially published. In this liberal outlet, there was no space for the Marxist idiom and the inner-Marxist polemics common in his previous studies.

Textual and political criticism continued to be the key axes of his essays, but the tone had changed. The post-1991 situation did not inspire political confidence: if Anderson’s audience was now far bigger, and his ideas thus reached beyond the intellectual left, this was within a liberal publication.


The upheavals of the early 1990s produced no stable new order, even if it was harder to advance concrete alternatives. Fast forward to 2005, and the US-led alliance was bogged down in the “war on terror” and the Left driven by a renewed anti-imperialism, even as religious obscurantism and the right-wing specter of a “clash of civilizations” raised their heads.

In this context, Anderson issued another volume on the history of twentieth-century political thought, entitled Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas. This volume includes essays analyzing the works of scholars covering the whole spectrum from “Intransigent Right” to the “Vanquished Left,” most of them published in the London Review of Books and the NLR between 1992 and 2005, thus illustrating the transformations since the “end of history.”

In the foreword, Anderson mentions that this book is a continuation of the A Zone of Engagement, in both its aims and its logic of examining a vast array of intellectuals. However, there were a series of discontinuities, not so much regarding his epistemology on intellectual history, but rather his own position regarding the moderate-liberal left and its capacity (or not) to effect significant political and social reform. In this sense, it is useful to compare the main arguments in Spectrum with his 2000 NLR editorial “Renewals,” condensing his political outlook on the global shifts of the 1990s.

Spectrum is divided into three parts, according to a combination of political and thematic criteria. The first part examines the tradition of the Right, focusing on the work of Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Friedrich von Hayek, Ferdinand Mount, and Timothy Garton Ash. The next part examines theorists of the liberal left — meaning those occupying the political space of social democracy (Bobbio, Jürgen Harbermas, and John Rawls).

These theorists are taken as a discrete group given that: a) their philosophical works formulated solid theories of social consensus in the internal life of Western societies and, b) their later philosophical efforts elaborated on analyses of global transformations which ultimately justified the imperialist interventions of the 1990s.

As in A Zone of Engagement, Anderson here avoided framing his analysis with any concept deriving from the Marxist canon. His key aim is, still, the contextualization of individual authors’ work within their intellectual and socio-historical environments.

However, as Stefan Collini aptly notes, Anderson does more than just contextualize the ideas he examines, instead he constructs “‘critiques’ in the full, original sense of that term deriving from German philosophy — ‘reconstructions of the internal logic of ideas, deductions of the intellectual and sociological conditions of their possibility, withering exposures of their inconsistencies and omissions.’”

In other words, Anderson’s method here was closer to a sociology of knowledge than to a traditional history of political thought, where extra-linguistic reductions are suspected of the vice of “determinism.”

Anderson’s diagnoses on politics had changed since 1992, when A Zone of Engagement came out, as had the political context itself. The prospects of democratic renewal in ex-Soviet countries proved to be an illusion, with their political systems now dominated by corrupt oligarchs.

More generally, the neoliberal right became dominant worldwide and the liberal left (including social democracy, which Anderson had not dismissed in A Zone of Engagement) lost any potential autonomous presence as it completely caved to neoliberal dogmas.

Meanwhile, the Left was unable to offer any long-term vision or practicable economic and political solutions alternative to the neoliberal status quo. Thus, Anderson’s open prognosis about the Left’s possible faces after the collapse of the USSR was replaced with a more definite evaluation: the Left had been defeated. The image that appears in Anderson’s account evokes the famous quote: “My idols are dead and my enemies in power.”

Against Popular Frontism

So, what stance should a left-wing intellectual adopt, in this new conjuncture? In his 2000 editorial “Renewals,” Anderson insisted that the answer lay in “uncompromising realism,” meaning acceptance of the Left’s defeat, but also irreconcilable criticism of neoliberalism’s political and economic establishment. From this point on, Anderson’s political target is the “extreme center” and its intellectual adherents.

If back in 1992 he had considered the EU a possible vehicle for overcoming nationalist divisions, by the time of his 2000 editorial its subordination to the American hegemon had doomed such a perspective. This new conjuncture was, instead, defined by the expansion of the capitalist order throughout the world, a historical process that many theorists of the time described with the euphemism “globalization.”

Τhe US hegemon was expanding its geopolitical influence in new territories throughout the globe, establishing its economic interests ever farther-afield while creating new dependencies between the capitalist center and its peripheries.

But hegemony, as Gramsci noted, is established not only through consensual methods but also by force. The US-led imperialist wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in ex-Yugoslavia — normally, backed by the leading EU countries — illustrated this diagnosis.

Perry Anderson observes that Habermas, Bobbio, and Rawls each endorsed these wars, albeit with different justifications; thus their romanticization of the fate of Western democracies since the late 1970s gave way to a series of legitimizing analyses for Western imperialism. These trends illustrated wider transformations that social democracy had experienced during the same period, increasingly hegemonized by the assumptions of the neoliberal right.

For Anderson, the task of intellectual historians on the Left should be the deconstruction of these legitimizing discourses of the capitalist world order, ideological mystifications produced also by the intellectuals of the liberal left.

In the early 2000s New Left Review thus explicitly demarcated itself from the liberal left on the grounds of opposition to imperialist war, a lasting division which now became a defining theme of Anderson’s work. He attributed this criticism of American dominance to Eric Hobsbawm, to whose trajectory he dedicated a piece in Spectrum entitled “Vanquished Left: Eric Hobsbawm.”

Yet there were also substantial differences between the two men, especially in that Anderson’s Trotskyist politicization distanced him from the Comintern’s Popular Frontism, to which Hobsbawm always harked back. Anderson’s criticism of Hobsbawm on this specific ground had intensified in the 1980s, when the latter’s Marxism Today pieces advocated a revived Popular Front, this time against Thatcherism.

Hobsbawm rested his hopes for confronting Conservatism not in the reconfiguration of the Labour Party’s identity on an explicit class-based politics, but rather through coalition with the Social-Democrat split and Liberals.

Anderson saw this strategy as incorrect in the short-term and dangerous in general, as it would drive Labour’s degeneration into a neoliberal party of the extreme center. Hobsbawm was thus condemned for being unable to see the connections between the policies suggested in Marxism Today during the 1980s and Labour’s deformation in the 1990s, abandoning the promotion of working-class interests.

This was not just a dispute at the level of political strategy, but also concerned Hobsbawm’s reading of history. For Anderson, it was centrally important to understand the historical role of the bourgeoisie and the problematic way that Hobsbawm had conceptualized it.

He argued that Hobsbawm’s The Age of the Empire had provided no analysis of its role in the eve of the twentieth century and in the face of the emergence of new forms of multinational corporations. In particular, Ηοbsbawm was criticized as unwilling to take Marxist economics seriously in constructing his arguments regarding the key financial crises of the century.

The reader might, however turn the same criticism back against Anderson, given his failure to use an explicit Marxist analytical framework for his studies on the history of contemporary political thought. Can the topic itself — that is, political ideas — justify this absence from his work?

This becomes even more perplexing when we consider his explicit self-identification with the camp of the Marxist left. Can this political belonging stand up, without a theoretical commitment to Marxist analysis? Doesn’t his Olympian outlook contradict his left-wing commitments, implying a dissociation from the polarization produced by the class struggle itself?

Anderson’s hesitation in adopting an explicit Marxist theorization can be traced back to the experience of defeat following the collapse of the USSR. If, for many Marxists in the 1970s, the global revolution was on the doorstep of history, or at least a feasible possibility, the early 1990s transformed this into a remote prospect, making any bid to define the parameters of its triumphant march unthinkable.

Yet, even granted Anderson’s puzzlement faced with the disappearance of the communist world, the knowledge gained on the global capitalist ascendancy in subsequent years has arguably made the adoption of Marxism an even more obvious precondition for examining possible alternative futures.

Creating those alternatives remains the task at hand. Anderson casts doubt on several of Hobsbawm’s prognoses concerning the immediate collapse of the capitalist order, rightly noting that the world finds itself under the ascendancy of the American hegemon and that the system could only be challenged by a global financial crisis.

Yet our recent experience shows that even that is not enough — further highlighting the inability of the global left to offer substantial alternatives to the neoliberal establishment.

As against Hobsbawm’s underestimation of capitalism’s sustainability, Anderson proposes an “uncompromising realism:” for “accurate intelligence of the enemy is worth more than bulletins to boost doubtful morale. A resistance that dispenses with consolations is always stronger than one which relies on them.” That commitment to intellectual rigor and looking facts in the face is, indeed, the most precious legacy we can draw from his work.