As has no doubt been said many times before, Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso, 1976) is the perfect resource for a bird’s-eye view of the whole European Marxist tradition, useful both for the newcomer and anyone needing to reassemble the a holistic perspective, perhaps after studying one or more of these figures in detail. Anderson is famous for his wide range, synoptic abilities, and crystalline style; this book embodies those virtues perhaps all the more because he is dealing with (as he notes) some of the most difficult entries in the European philosophical canon, very nearly without reduction. He frames that in a crisp narrative that covers – after an impressive chapter on the debates within classical Marxism from Marx to Lenin – Lukács, Gramsci, Adorno, Benjamin, Lefebvre, Marcuse, Della Volpe, Sartre, Althusser, and more.
The basic argument is that the shift from classical to “Western” Marxism represented a shift from analysis of economics and politics, formed in close connection with the political action of the revolutionary proletariat, to an academic philosophical enterprise that tried successively to cross-breed Marxism with nearly every system in the Western philosophical canon. (Anderson, with a hint of condescension, frequently refers to these as “idealist” and “bourgeois” philosophies.) This was the result of changes in historical conditions: the end of any immediate prospect of revolution in Europe, the decimation of the revolutionary left under fascism, and the stranglehold of the Stalinist U.S.S.R. on the possibility of theoretical originality within the global communist movement. Anderson argues that this pushed theoretical Marxism away from contact with the proletariat and put it in the hands of bourgeois academics sheltered within the university, thinkers figures who were overwhelmingly philosophers and overwhelmingly interested in epistemology and aesthetics. Western Marxism, from 1920 to 1970, lived a period in which the seat of Marxism shifted from Russia and Germany to France and Italy, philosophers fought over the legacy of Hegel, and the likes of Rousseau, Spinoza, and Machiavelli were proposed as precursors or supplements to the Marxist canon. They also saw the capitalist state rebuilt and stabilized, and the working class “integrated” into capitalist society as they had not been in the revolutionary 1910s, 20s, and 30s. As a result of this appearance of a depoliticized proletariat and an impregnable liberal-democratic state, Western Marxism was marked by a pronounced pessimism.
Anderson has a few implicit and explicit takeaways from his survey. He clearly admires Gramsci as one of the few Western Marxists to have maintained a connection between theory and praxis, and for his innovative analysis of capitalist social institutions as mediators of ideology and social change. He recognizes the limits of the objective conditions for theory during the middle of the twentieth century, and is generous to Western Marxism for having enriched the tradition’s concepts and enlarged its intellectual purview. But he views with dismay the long retreat from empirical economic and political “materialist” analysis and the near-total takeover of Marxism by philosophers (at the expense of historians, economists, and political theorists). Toward the end of the book, he turns to Trotsky and his followers as an alternative tradition, one he views as marginal and persecuted, but which maintained both a commitment to historical analysis (in the histories of Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher) and to anti-bureaucratic (anti-Stalinist) political strategy. While far too historically sophisticated to claim that a mere return to “scientific” fundamentals would reinvigorate Marxism, Anderson did seem to hope in the 1970s that the signs of working-class militancy and the renaissance of Marxian economics would once again converge in an economic-political science informed by a revolutionary mass movement.
One of the things I found initially jarring in this book is how early Anderson dates the exit of economic and political analysis from European Marxism, namely around 1920. For those entering academia in the last decade, it is easy to see the “culturalism” (for lack of a better word) of left theory as the result of the “turns” scattered across the period between the 1980s and the early 2000s, rather than a defining feature of Marxist thought in Europe for the greater part of the last century. Indeed, it is frequently narrated that way by the most prominent chroniclers of the historical discipline. According to Anderson in the 1970s, the capitalist economy in the most important part of the twentieth century still lay mostly un-theorized, particularly the nature of the postwar state and its runaway success at anesthetizing the working class. He writes:
For after the prolonged, winding detour of Western Marxism, the questions left unanswered by Lenin’s generation, and made impossible to answer by the rupture of theory and practice in Stalin’s epoch, continue to await replies. They do not lie within the jurisdiction of philosophy. They concern the central economic and political realities that have dominated world history in the last fifty years.
Needless to say, despite Anderson’s rising optimism then, those were not to be answered soon after that statement, as the compromise between socialism and the capitalist state was brutally undone and left theory abandoned Marxism (and in some cases politics in any meaningful sense) altogether. But fifty years later, things have definitely changed: History is back with a vengeance, and not always at the expense of philosophy. Economics has always been philosophical, and the twentieth century economy, with its wars and states, welfare programs and oligarchies, technological networks and security systems—in short, its ideological state apparatuses—offers countless links between the theoreticism of philosophically-trained intellectual historians and nerve centers of capitalist power in the twentieth century.
It’s perhaps curious that Anderson kept a scientistic distance from philosophy that was clearly, all along, grappling with the epistemological and political import of science, that engine of 20th-century capitalism. It turns out that the body of concepts in the Western Marxist tradition are exceptional resources dealing with the empirical material of the 20th century that most needs understanding from a Marxist perspective, virtually all of which is scientific or theoretical in some way. If you can make it through Althusser, you can probably make it through cybernetics and you can definitely handle neoliberal economists. Beyond their ability to sharpen theoretical weapons, exposure to the social theories of Western Marxism—perhaps precisely due to their increasing distance from fashion—may not lead us to theoretical conversion, but neither is it the worst antidote to the ideological technicism that often passes for contemporary social science.