Thursday, May 15, 2008

Anderson's Considerations on Western Marxism

I read a library copy of Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism. Previous readers have left it heavily underlined and have also left some notes in the margins. I was most surprised, and I suppose a bit gratified, when after reading Anderson describe Rosa Luxemburg’s distinctive path as marked by, “successive theorizations of the general strike as the archetypal aggressive weapon of the self-emancipation of the working class” (13), I looked over and say in the left margin, almost tucked into the binding ‘Sorel?’ My thought exactly.

Of course, this book is from the Duke University library. So when Anderson writes, “Astonishingly, within the entire corpus of Western Marxism, there is not one single serious appraisal or sustained critique of the work of one major theorist by another” (69), we should not be surprised that a previous marxinaut has underlined this, and written next to it, “Jameson an exception?” It is none the less gratifying, if only because this is such a wonderfully medieval form of scholarly debate, to read below that, “he’s not a major theorist, litboy.” And finally, in pen, “girl?” I am not the first one to comment on this comment. So I’m putting it on the internet.

Anderson’s brief history of an object he calls Western Marxism is clear and packed full of useful information. It is one of those texts that makes a broad range of complex material appear comprehensible and within one’s reach. The book is clearly useful, but I mistrust it. Here, I reproduce nearly two pages, a long paragraph, from the book—I wouldn’t normally do this, but I think Anderson manages to summarize and condense his basic narrative and argument here in a remarkably lucid manner:

“The circle of traits defining Western Marxism as a distinct tradition can now be summarized. Born from the failure of proletarian revolutions in the advanced zones of European capitalism after the First World War, it developed within an ever increasing scission between socialist theory and working-class practice. The gulf between the two, originally opened up by the imperialist isolation of the Soviet State, was institutionally widened and fixed by the bureaucratization of the USSR and of the Comintern under Stalin. To the exponents of the new Marxism that emerged in the West, the official Communist movement represented the sole real embodiment of the international working class with meaning for them – whether they joined it, allied with it or rejected it. The structural divorce of theory and practice inherent in the nature of the Communist Parties of this epoch precluded unitary politico-intellectual work of the type that defined classical Marxism. The result was a seclusion of theorists i universities, far from the life of the proletariat in their own countries, and a contraction of theory from economics and politics into philosophy. This specialization was accompanied by an increasing difficulty of language, whose technical barriers were a function of its distance from the masses. It was also conversely attended by a decreasing level of international knowledge or communication between theorists themselves from different countries. The loss of any dynamic contact with working-class practice in turn displaced Marxist theory towards contemporary non-Marxist and idealist systems of thought, with which it now typically developed in close if contradictory symbiosis. At the same time, the concentration of theorists into professional philosophy, together with the discovery of Marx’s own early writings, left to a general retrospective search for intellectual ancestries to Marxism in anterior European philosophical thought, and a reinterpretation of historical materialism in light of them. The results of this pattern were three-fold. Firstly, there was a marked predominance of epistemological work, focused essentially on problems of method. Secondly, the major substantive field in which method was actually applied became aesthetics – or cultural superstructures in a broader sense. Finally the main theoretical departures outside this field, which developed new themes absent from classical Marxism – mostly in a speculative manner – revealed a consistent pessimism. Method as impotence, art as consolation, pessimism as quiescence: it is not difficult to perceive elements of all these in the complexion of Western Marxism. For the root determinant of this tradition was its formation by defeat – the long decades of set-back and stagnation, many of them terrible ones in any historical perspective, undergone by the Western working class after 1920” (92-93).

One of my suspicions here has to do with the manner in which Anderson has constructed this historical object, ‘Western Marxism.’ It is not a self-referential intellectual field, nor is it really a retrospectively created one (like François Cusset’s ‘French Theory’), rather, it is a group of thinkers and texts—the two are run together—that share a common position, defined by their mode of engagement, vis-à­-vis Marx and his immediate successors, in particular Lenin. Western Marxism does not encompass all those thinking about Marx, even declaring themselves to be Marxists, even philosophizing within Marxism. Anderson gives us at the end a sketch of a tradition of Marxism inspired by Trotsky, including Ernst Mandel, which is separate from Western Marxism.

Anderson’s basic argument about the theoreticization of Marxism is well-taken. Theorists who speak of action through discourse often, it seems to me, walk a fine line between cultural criticism, or working the language, and out-and-out sophistic self-justification (that is: I make my revolution here in language, in the classroom, where it counts for my career, rather than putting my body in the way of the police, or giving my intellectual energy to organizing and protest for which one receives no academic points). I am not sure I would know a genuine praxis if I saw one. Perhaps this means only that I should read more Gramsci and Lenin. My inclination, and I am concerned it can never be more than that, is to think that whole problem of mixing theory and practice is the result of false categories and distinctions. This is not at all to say that the one can be the other, but rather that new terms and new forms of sociability will render the problem senseless.

Most interesting from a historical point of view is Anderson’s assertion that after the First World War, Marxist intellectuals lost an internationalist cosmopolitanism that had in the past served them well. Certainly, this is linked to much larger trends, and Anderson is of course correct that the Stalinization of the various parties had a part in cutting out the institutional framework which might have supported Marxist internationalism despite increasing nationalist tension. And yet the problem seems larger to me, and perhaps not quite rightly framed. Stalin is not enough of a reason for the French to stop reading Italian theorists. Answering this question would require understanding first the many modes in which nationalism functions (discursive, institutional, political...), and then also the ways in which intellectuals are unable to escape, or sometimes even see, these constraints. Both are hard questions to answer, and require empirical detail well beyond what Anderson is interested in doing here. The book is, at any rate, an excellent introduction to the contours of the field, which is what it set out to be. I would recommend it to interested students, but I’m not sure that I could make use of it in a class. Otherwise, it is a historiographical artifact of the 1970s displaying a fascination with Gramsci and Trotsky, an almost endearing will to progress, and the workmanlike simplification that I have come, for some reason, to associate with British writers of this period.

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