Messianic America: Can He Explain it?

Luiz Munhoz/Divulgação
Perry Anderson at the Frontiers of Thought conference, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2013

At the age of seventy-seven, Perry Anderson is the most distinguished living member of a generation of British Marxist historians and theorists who dominated intellectual life on the British left from the late 1950s until the 1990s. They included Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Ralph Miliband, Isaac Deutscher, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel, and Gareth Stedman Jones. If you were a young historian just starting out in the London of the 1970s, as I was, these figures were lodestars. You didn’t have to share their politics to be inspired by their work. They championed a social history that sought to rescue the poor and excluded from what Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” They set out to rescue what was living and humane in Marxism from the rigor mortis of Stalinism.

Perry Anderson (Eton, Worcester College, Oxford) was an Olympian figure amid the ferment of the times, a Trotskyist with an aloof and cutting style whose editorship of New Left Review turned it into the most intellectually serious venue in Western Marxism. Anderson arrived at Oxford in October 1956, and the twin dramas of that moment—the Suez debacle and the Hungarian uprising—helped make him a lifelong foe of Western imperialism and an equally passionate critic of Stalinist tyranny.

This brought him into conflict with Eric Hobsbawm, who defended Communist ideals, if not the Soviet system, to the end of his life. Anderson also felt called upon to emancipate the British left from its parochial provincialism, welcoming Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, and Nicos Poulantzas into the pages of New Left Review and Verso books. Anderson’s embrace of French theory provoked the most brilliant of the British historians, E.P. Thompson, into a furious polemical exchange in which Thompson defended the native sources of English radicalism and excoriated the desiccated abstraction of Continental theorizing against Anderson’s call for a more cosmopolitan and intellectually ambitious Marxism. In the 1970s, these debates within the Marxist canon were gripping and vital. Now, forty years later, they appear as distant as the disputations of medieval scholastics.

Anderson, now a professor at UCLA, cleaves to the ancient faith, and so his new book offers an opportunity to ask what power of illumination Marxism still retains. What was elevating about Marxism? Even those who didn’t like Marxism’s politics admired its intellectual ambition and its faith that history with a capital H had a discernible logic. Anderson’s work has held true to this ideal of rendering the logic of historical change visible, using a Marxist approach that is idiosyncratically his own. In his most recent book, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, he sets himself the task of developing “a connected understanding of the dynamics of American strategy and diplomacy in a single arc from the war on Mexico to the war…

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