Thursday, 10 July 2008

All along the watchtower

His aloof­ness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of "the Olympian"; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable tangle of right and wrong.
Isaac Deutscher, 'The Conscience of the Ex-Communist' (1950)

Perry Anderson: éminence grise of the New Left Review / Verso, historian, contributor to the LRB, and looking here, to my mind, somewhat like Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

What exerts a fascination for me is his resolutely "extraterrestrial" stance (the line is Gregory Elliott's). His scanning of the times always inhabits a disabused longue durée, that never fails to irritate and annoy others on the Left (including myself). The spatial and temporal metaphorics that inhabit his work, and the commentary of others on him, always suggest distance, if not absence - to quote Ian Birchall, "Anderson is a somewhat reclusive individual (as one who has been active on the left for over 45 years, I have seen Anderson in the flesh just once)".

To grasp the style we can take a recent example "Jottings of the Conjuncture" - a typically modest title - in which Anderson examines the state of the times and four alternative narratives of the left (Tom Nairn's Faces of Nationalism, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire, Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century and Adam Smith in Beijing, and Malcom Bull's 'States of Failure'). His summary of these efforts might well stand for his own stance: '[t]hese constructions form a set of imaginative enterprises, which seek to look beyond the epiphenomenal headlines of the period at longer-term logics of the world-historical changes we are living through.' (35) What differs is his conclusion. 'In this becalmed universe, the cry "Another World Is Possible" risks sounding increasingly desperate.' (10)

Supposedly, when challenged in 2000 on the question of rise of the anti-globalisation movement Anderson remarked "one swallow does not make a summer". We might take this as typical of Andersonian aloofness except that his very lack of enthusiasm seems also to indicate a certain analytical acumen. When the journal /collective Turbulence posed the question "What would it mean to win?" in 2007 what was noticeable, as Franco "Bifo" Berardi pointed out, is that none of the contributors could imagine an answer. (We might also add that Anderson has not endorsed the kind of pessimism that Berardi has succumbed to; the very "strength" of the Olympian stance is to neither indulge present enthusiasms or counsels of despair).

Of course such a stance is understandable anathema to large sections of the left, especially those concerned with activism. The tone of hostility to Anderson is best conveyed in a 1986 review essay by Peter Linebaugh on Anderson's In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Verso, 1983). As Linebaugh was a one-time student of E.P. Thompson - polemical adversary of Perry Anderson - then the tone might not come as a surprise. It should be noted, however, that Linebaugh was no supine disciple of Thompson, as his memoir of his time as a student of Thompson's memorably makes clear (Linebaugh "From the Upper West Side").

The review is launched with the conceit of reading Anderson's book on a flight from Washington DC to New Orleans. This becomes the metaphor for Anderson's Olympian stance that cannot scan the class struggle operating below in the abode of production. For Linebaugh Anderson's language itself exemplifies this abstract 'stratospheric' academic position. Anderson is ultramontane, not so much the Pope of Marxism but taking orders from the Pope - his own self-construction of the classical tradition. 'He lives in an interesting time-warp: partly Baroque, partly public-school Bohemian, partly 60s-style Trotskyism.' (Linebaugh 143) A rather ad hominem construction but, to be overly psychoanalytic, can we detect the element of irritated fascination at work here?

There is much to agree with in Linebaugh's characterisation, and certainly Anderson's 'meta-Trotskyism' has never had much time for heterodox traditions of the left like the situationists. This appears to be the result of Anderson's conclusion, pre-1989, that state-capitalist theories of the USSR inevitably led to political disorientation and a shift to the right - true of certain dissident American trotskyites ("salon intellectuals"), but hardly doing justice to other traditions.
The sticking point, and this may explain Gregory Elliott's slightly halting turn to a more Andersonian position, is that Anderson's relentless scanning and refusal to provide bromides of a sudden turn for the better seems all the more resonant in the context of defeat. Whether Anderson's charting of this context may be excessive, and overly linked to his attachment to once existing "socialism"; the point still remains that in the absence of significant signs of class struggle on a scale that threatens to match the scale of capitalist "advance" the "extraterrestrial" Marxism of Perry Anderson has its own disabused actuality.
Perry Anderson, "Jottings on the Conjuncture." New Left Review 48 (Nov / Dec 2007): 5-37.

Ian Birchall, "New Left Review: The Search for Theory." International Socialism 115 (July 2007).

Peter Linebaugh, "In The Flight Path of Perry Anderson." History Workshop Journal 21 (1986): 141-146.

Peter Linebaugh, "From the Upper West Side to Wick Episcopi." New Left Review I / 201 (September-October 1993): 18-25.

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