Perry Anderson

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Francis Rory Peregrine Anderson (born September 1938, London) is a British historian and political essayist. A specialist in intellectual history, he is often identified with the post-1956 Western Marxism of the New Left.


  • The most advanced socialist thought in England is Raymond Williams’ superbly intricate and persuasive work... Any English Marxism will have to measure itself against this landmark in our social thought.
    • "Socialism and pseudo-empiricism". New Left Review 35 (1966): 2-42; as cited in: Blackledge, Paul. Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left. Merlin Press, 2004. p. 91.
  • The international disputes which united and divided Luxemburg, Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, Bordiga or Trotsky on these issues represent the last great strategic debate in the European workers' movement. Since then, there has been little significant theoretical development of the political problems of revolutionary strategy in metropolitan capitalism that has had any direct contact with the masses. The structural divorce between original Marxist theory and the main organizations of the working class in Europe has yet to be historically resolved. The May-June revolt in France, the upheaval in Portugal, the approaching dénouement in Spain, presage the end of this long divorce, but have not accomplished it. The classical debates, therefore, still remain in many respects the most advanced limit of reference we possess today. It is thus not mere archaism to recall the strategic confrontations which occurred four or five decades ago. To reappropriate them, on the contrary, is a step towards a Marxist discussion that has the—necessarily modest—hope of assuming an ‘initial shape’ of correct theory today. Régis Debray has spoken, in a famous paragraph, of the constant difficulty of being contemporary with our present. In Europe at least, we have yet to be sufficiently contemporary with our past.
    • "The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci", New Left Review (1976)
  • Self-satisfaction is scarcely unfamiliar in Europe. But the contemporary mood is something different: an apparently illimitable narcissism, in which the reflection in the water transfigures the future of the planet into the image of the beholder. What explains this degree of political vanity? Obviously, the landscape of the continent has altered in recent years, and its role in the world has grown. Real changes can give rise to surreal dreams, but they need to be calibrated properly, to see what the connections or lack of them might be.
    • "Depicting Europe", London Review of Books (20 September 2007)
  • What kind of political order, then, is taking shape in Europe, 15 years after Maastricht? The pioneers of European integration – Monnet and his fellow spirits – envisaged the eventual creation of a federal union that would one day be the supranational equivalent of the nation-states out of which it emerged, anchored in an expanded popular sovereignty, based on universal suffrage, its executive answerable to an elected legislature, and its economy subject to requirements of social responsibility. In short, a democracy magnified to semi-continental scale (they had only Western Europe in mind). But there was always another way of looking at European unification, which saw it more as a limited pooling of powers by member governments for certain – principally economic – ends, that did not imply any fundamental derogation of national sovereignty as traditionally understood, but rather the creation of a novel institutional framework for a specified range of transactions. De Gaulle famously represented one version of this outlook; Thatcher another. Between these federalist and inter-governmentalist visions of Europe, there has been a continual tension down to the present.
    • "Depicting Europe", London Review of Books (20 September 2007)

Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005)

Perry Anderson. Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, London: Verso, 2005
  • Polemical zeal can produce an fixation on the other side, or sides, of purely hostile intent.
    • Foreword, p. xi
  • Politics is not a self-enclosed activity, organically generating a body of concepts internal to it. What counts as a set of ideas with a bearing on the political conflicts of a time varies according to epoch and region. Today it stretches far beyond the purview of political science, traditionally conceived. Philosophy, economics, history, sociology, psychology, not to speak of the earth and life sciences, and the arts, all intersect at different points with terrain of politics, in its classic definition.
    • Foreword, p. xi
  • The classical legacies of political thought, from Plato to Nietzsche, and the immediate tasks of running the world, at home and abroad, have been of most concern to the Right. Normative philosophical constructions have become a specialty of the Centre. Economic, social and cultural investigations – of past and present – dominate the output of the Left. Any attempt to come to grips with all three outlooks is thus obliged to traverse quite variegated ground.
    • Foreword, p. xiii
  • Beyond the discrepant local sympathies of these careers – with their splay of temporary identities: Conservative, Zionist, Nazi, Old Whig – they reflected a common theoretical calling. […] In Schmitt’s own writing, the obscure figure assumes various – typically oblique – historical guises, as political or juridical restrainer in different epochs. But the Stygian cap fits the collective effort of this cluster of thinkers. For these were indeed constructions designed to hold something back. What they all in the end sought to restrain was the risks of democracy – seen and feared through the prisms of their theories of law, as the abyss of its absence: to misterion tes anomias, the mystery of lawlessness.
  • The dichotomies which are the signature of their work – the esoteric and the exoteric, the civil and the managerial, the friend and the foe, the lawful and the legislative – are so many cordons. Their function is to hold popular sovereignty at bay. The different gifts displayed in this enterprise, whatever view is taken of it, were remarkable. For all his later tendency to textual dressage, Strauss's range and subtlety as a master of the canon of political philosophy had no equal in his generation. Schmitt's moral instability never impaired an extraordinary capacity to fuse conceptual insight and metaphoric imagination in lightning flashes of illumination around the state. Hayek could seem tactically ingenuous, but he fashioned a theoretical synthesis out of his epistemology and economics whose scope and strength has yet to be supplanted. Oakeshott was the literary artist in this gallery. His writing varies considerably in quality, and can be whimsically arch at one moment and curiously crude at another, disconcertingly close to Punch or Cross-Bencher. But at its best, when it moves into high register, it can rise to a lyrical beauty.
  • The trope was eminently Oakeshottian. Politics was not a battle of interests, or a quest for truth, or a voyage of progress – it was an aesthetic performance, to captivate an audience. But it was not high theatre (Oakeshott had also insisted that politics was a second-rate activity). It was more like commercial theatre, the drama of the boulevards that plays to our emotions or embarrassments – Rattigan rather than Racine, he explained. On this stage, Mount has certainly given us a stylish production. We might call it the comedy of reform.
  • Historically, Garton Ash belongs to the last levy of the Cold War, a cohort fired by an uncomplicated anti-Communism. His staunchness made him a natural candidate for recruitment to MI6, which propositioned him early on, as it had Ascherson in his time.
    • Ch. 3. "Dreams of Central Europe: Timothy Garton Ash" (1999), p. 65, Originally published as "A Ripple of the Polonaise", London Review of Books (25 November, 1999)
  • Values – ethical, epistemological, aesthetic – figure in the contests over the field, but they do not define it. Intellectuals are judged not by their morals, but by the quality of their ideas, which are rarely reducible to simple verdicts of truth or falsity, if only because banalities are by definition accurate.
    • Ch. 3. "Dreams of Central Europe: Timothy Garton Ash" (1999), p. 76, Originally published as "A Ripple of the Polonaise", London Review of Books (25 November, 1999)
  • For Rawls simultaneously appeals to the natural outlook of a democratic society to found his conception of the person, and to his conception of the person to found the basic structure of a democratic society. The warrant of the doctrine of two moral powers is that it ‘suits’ a society in which justice is conceived as fairness; and the warrant of justice as fairness, with its schedule of fundamental principles and primary goods, is that it ‘protects’ the exercise of the two moral powers. The attenuated idea of a person is the theoretical plinth of a desirable constitution, determining what count as primary goods ‘in advance’ of any further requirements of social life – yet is also no more than an ideological reflex of the culture it is supposed to generate. In a vicious circle, public arrangements are deduced from personal capacities defined as adapted to public arrangements.
    • Ch. 4. "Designing Consensus: John Rawls" (1994), p. 108
  • What the structure of Rawls’s argument indicates is a more fundamental feature of his thought. This is an amphibious world, which contains just enough land of real social reference to avoid the tricky deeps of first philosophy (the gesture is roughly: let’s start out from where we’re at – in other words, Bush–Clinton country), while floating carefully enough on the waters of abstraction to avoid contact with the ground of actual political change (for example: what has happened in the US since the 1970s). The result is a kind of political cabotage, a critique of existing society that clings nervously to its shores. Readers of Rawls might well ask: where is the actual justice in the United States that corresponds to the ideal construct he offers us, if it is based on ‘plain truths widely accepted by citizens’?
    • Ch. 4. "Designing Consensus: John Rawls" (1994), p. 108-9
  • The first, and most obvious, feature that separates Habermas’s later treatment of law from his original study of the public sphere is its completely unhistorical method.
  • Bobbio’s theoretical defence of the distinction between Left and Right, for all its eloquence, may thus be more vulnerable than it appears. If we ask why this should be so, the answer surely lies in the difficulty of constructing an axiology of political values without coherent reference to the empirical social world. Bobbio often writes as if he could separate his ideal taxonomy from contemporary history, but of course he cannot. In practice he admits the political scenery of the present into his account selectively, for the purposes of his argument. But it is in that present that the deeper reasons and limits of his intervention lie.
  • Rawls resorted to Hegel in his internal reflections on a constitutional state. On the plane of inter-state relations, Kant remained his philosopher of reference, as the theorist of conditions for a perpetual peace. So too for Habermas. But since Kant failed to envisage the necessary legal framework for a cosmopolitan order, as it started to take shape through the permanent institutions of the United Nations, Habermas, when he came to review the progress made since 1945, also looked towards the philosopher of objective idealism. Measured against the sombre background of the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, he decided, ‘the World Spirit, as Hegel would have put it, has lurched forward’. As we have seen, Bobbio was responsible for the most pointed appeal to Hegel of all. In one sense, he was more entitled to do so.
    • Ch. 7. "Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre" (1998)
  • Welcoming Hegel’s idea of reconciliation as akin to his own enterprise of public reason, Rawls drew the line at his vision of the international realm as a domain of violence and anarchy, in which contention between sovereign states was bound to be regulated by war. Habermas’s gesture enlisted Hegel, on the contrary, as a patron of cosmopolitan peace. The first could not square his Law of Peoples with the lawlessness of Hegel’s states, the second could only enrol Hegel for pacific progress by turning him philosophically inside out. Bobbio, by contrast, could take the measure of Hegel’s conception of world history, as a ruthless march of great powers in which successive might founds overarching right, and invoke it in all logic to justify his approval of American imperial violence. Law was born of force, and the maxim of the conqueror – prior in tempore, potior in jure– still held.
    • Ch. 7. "Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre" (1998)
  • It will take time to get a more settled sense of Thompson’s distinction as a historian and a writer. His work spans too many forms for easy judgement, and its aura can be a temptation to short cuts. But a tension between what might be called his nineteenth and his eighteenth century sensibility was certainly at the creative centre of it.
  • In certain temperaments, intellectual skills and political sympathies have little or no connection. Frege’s anti-Semitism or Wittgenstein’s philo-Stalinism lacked significant leads to their philosophy. Such cases are common enough. Timpanaro was not one of them.
  • Historically, even in the greatest minds of the Enlightenment, they could be at variance. Rousseau, the most advanced political thinker of his generation, was emotionally a pietist; Voltaire, politically at ease with a benevolent absolutism, scorned the consolations of Savoyard Christianity. For Timpanaro, Leopardi had represented the possibility of a synthesis beyond either: firm republicanism, unswerving atheism.
  • At times, in the scales of misery, society seemed of small account to Leopardi – emperor and beggar alike pitched into the grave. So conceived, philosophical pessimism always risked becoming political defeatism. Timpanaro was not subject to this temptation. He was intensely – even on occasion, he admitted, too vehemently – political. But he was also quite free from the monomania of any ‘pan-politicism’, as he once called it.
  • The – now shop-worn – label of ‘magical realism’ is customarily applied to Márquez’s novels. It has never fitted Vargas Llosa, who disavows the adjective.
  • The Violencia that ravaged Colombia for the next decade, pitting Liberals against the ruling Conservatives, took 200,000 lives – a catastrophe worse than any endured in Peru. This was the historical background to Márquez’s early career as a journalist and writer. But he seems to have remained eerily untouched by it.
  • Over this landscape, Göran Therborn's Between Sex and Power rises up like some majestic volcano. Throwing up a billowing column of ideas and arguments, while a lava of evidence flows down its slopes, this is a great work of historical intellect and imagination, the effect of a rare combination of gifts. Trained as a sociologist, Therborn is a highly conceptual thinker, allying the formal rigour of his discipline at its best, with command of a vast range of empirical data. The result is a powerful theoretical structure, supported by a fascinating body of evidence. But it is also a set of macro-narratives that compose perhaps the first true example of a work of global history we possess.
  • Merchants and Revolution, dedicated to Stone, comprehensively overturns that judgement. Its author, Robert Brenner, belongs to that rare group of historians who have given their name to a whole literature – the ‘Brenner Debate’ on the origins of agrarian capitalism in Europe recalling the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ of old. His new book, in which the name of Marx is never mentioned but his spirit is omnipresent, transforms the landscape of the English Revolution. Merchants and Revolution is distinguished by three achievements, any one of which would be impressive enough. Together, their combination is an extraordinary feat.
  • Great men have foibles for which they can be forgiven; including an occasional failure to see where their greatness lies, or what might diminish it.
  • All hegemonies have their limits, and no policies ever achieve just what they intend. But the salient feature of the present is not that the world at large is out of control, but that it has never been subject to such an extent of control by one power, acting to diffuse and enforce one system, as we see today.
  • The greater pleasures of reading the LRB are thus paid for in a more erratic and limited horizon.
    • Debts 1. "The London Review of Books" (1996; 2005)
  • Far from participating in a current literary scene agog with vogue and hyperbole, the LRB has kept what is widely perceived as a mandarin aloofness from it. Complicity with the institutions of literature, whether patrons or advertisers, is scarcely a charge that can be made against the paper.
    • Debts 1. "The London Review of Books" (1996; 2005)
  • A wonderful range of writing is offered in these and other forms. Stylistically, there are unspoken limits. The delphic or serpentine are not part of the repertoire. No fear could be more foreign to the journal than of ‘the mischief of premature clarification’, against which Fredric Jameson – whose arrival in its pages is a welcome departure from consistency – once warned. The too vehement is likewise at some discount, suspect of ‘rant’. Perhaps the best way of conveying the overall climate would be to say that the paper resists any trace of l’esprit du sérieux, in the Sartrean sense: that is, of the portentous, high-minded, hypocritical. Against all these, its playfulness finds expression on the largest as well as smallest of topics. Emblematic in this collection are the saturnine tones of Edward Luttwak, as a ‘heavy-weight’ contributor. 12 It is enough to think of the contributions of President Havel to the New York Review to understand their antithesis.
    • Debts 1. "The London Review of Books" (1996; 2005)
  • The range of emotions parents can arouse in their children – affection, rebellion, indifference, fear, adulation, their disturbing combinations – suggest a repertory of subjective universals, cutting in each individual case at random across cultures. What children know – as opposed to feel – about their parents, on the other hand, is likely to be a function of objective constraints that vary more systematically: tradition, place, life-span.
    • Debts 2. "An Anglo-Irishman In China: J.C. O’G. Anderson" (1998;2005)

Quotes about Perry Anderson

  • Perry Anderson is a towering figure in the annals of contemporary Marxism. As such, he deserves a special sort of intellectual history, one that engages and illuminates and challenges.
  • The writing of western European history as the rise, fall, and succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes of production is a fascinating project. But the only person to try it seriously soon throws the Marxist apparatus over the side, where it splashes and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State are great and fascinating books, but they are not Marxist. They are Weberian. The key processes in Anderson's books concern not "modes of production" but rather "modes of domination." And when Marx and Engels's writings became sacred texts for the world religion called Communism, things passed beyond the absurd into tragedy and beyond tragedy into horror: the belief that the logic of development of the economy was the most important thing about society became entangled in the belief that Joe Stalin or Mao Zedong or Pol Pot or Kim Il Sung or Fidel Castro was our benevolent master and ever-wise guide.
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