Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism - Lukacs to Jameson

To mark the publication of two new books from Perry Anderson, Verso has posted excerpts from two of his earlier works - on Western Marxism - on its site.  These are analyses of the Western tradition and its culmination in Fredric Jameson, by a writer who himself is a major figure in that tradition.

This blog has often proclaimed its admiration of Perry Anderson.   I first began to read him while a graduate student. It was not essays in the New Left Review that caught my eye, or indeed in the London Review of Books - by the early 1990s, when I discovered him, clearly his favoured venues - but rather a pair of formidable books which collected earlier essays stretching back to the 1960s.  English Questions brought together articles of Anderson's on British history - political history and intellectual history, including his contributions to the 'Nairn-Anderson theses', co-written with his equally brilliant colleague Tom Nairn.  A Zone of Engagement - the battlefield metaphor is apposite - collects superb profiles and critiques of international figures in the recent or contemporary history of ideas, such as Isaiah Berlin, Marshall Berman, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, Michael Mann, and Andreas Hillgruber.  The book culminates in a stunning 110 page essay on Francis Fukuyama,'The Ends of History', elucidating the genealogy of post-Hegelian philosophical history culminating in Gehlen, Kojeve, Niethammer and Fukuyama himself - an extraordinary virtuoso performance of erudition, critique and style.

That last essay should not, in some ways, have been a surprise.  English Questions contains an essay equally exceptional though of a different kind.  'Components of the National Culture', published in 1969 when its author was under 30 years old, ranges over all the main currents in then-contemporary British intellectual culture - literary study, political theory, historiography, philosophy, economics.  Not merely this, but Anderson advances the radical idea that British intellectual culture had been shaped by a 'white immigration' - Namier, Wittgenstein, Berlin, among others - which had determined its characteristic conservative tenor in the twentieth century with its hostility to totalizing vision and its lack of a critical sociology. 'Components' shows all the virtues of 'The Ends of History' already in place - the extraordinary learning, the incisive critique, the polemical verve, the striking confidence across multiple disciplines - in a young scholar as yet without a firm academic position.

If anyone thinks that I can only praise Anderson, that is not quite the case.  My disappointment in him is that he has never attended at any length to his Irish patrimony.  It's not that he denies his background in a republican Anglo-Irish family from Waterford; or that he is uninterested in or ignorant of Ireland - it's more, I suspect, that his whole career has been built on a deliberate will to complicate and alienate his inherited tradition - British and Irish - by the admixture of an exceptional range of European intellectual influences.  When asked by an incautious journalist if he was English, Beckett famously replied 'Au contraire', and I suspect Anderson would share the sentiment.  But his learning and acuity make me thirsty to see these capacities trained on Irish materials at some point.  In the same Beckettian mood, he'd agree with Adorno that one must have tradition in oneself in order to hate it properly.  That Anderson is aware of his Irish background is not to be doubted; that he has not yet shown it his analytical hatred is perhaps to be regretted.

Nevertheless, his books on the Western Marxist tradition are one of the main strands in his own career.  Considerations on Western Marxism offers an account of the academic fate of defeated 'Western' Marxism (as compared to 'victorious' 'Eastern' Marxism institutionalised in the Soviet Union), in the post-1917 generations - Korsch, Gramsci and Lukacs, and then the Frankfurt School.   Arguments within English Marxism dramatised the debates about Marxist interpretations of British history in which Anderson was, along with figures such as Nairn, Ralph Miliband, and EP Thompson, a principal participant.   In the Tracks of Historical Materialism brought the story of Western Marxism up to the 1970s, with the structuralist moment in France, where historical materialism was replaced by what Anderson memorably referred to as the 'exorbitance of language' in thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida.  The Origins of Postmodernism, Anderson's study of the great American Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, is the last movement in this quartet.

So I am posting here, from the Verso site, sections from the first, second, and last books in this grouping.  No better reading will be found anywhere, I submit.

Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism

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