Anderson and Gramsci
Photograph by Sebastian Baryli
From The Nation:
What is the role—or function, or significance—of Marxist thought in a time when the triumph of the working class doesn’t appear to be on the agenda? As many observers have pointed out, it remains indispensable for tracking capital, including capital’s devastating effects on the environment. On the question of how much of a cohesive program can emerge from the diverse progressive voices making the most noise of late, the jury is still out. But the noise level itself at least argues against preemptive melancholy. And that includes voices raised against, say, US militarism and for the victims of global economic inequality. As a habitual de-provincializer, Anderson should be able to see that. Since the 1960s, when he forced the English to read Gramsci and factor the existence of empire into their analyses of class, he has always been ahead of the curve on international issues. It may be that his willingness to exchange revolution for realism is, among other things, an indirect way of registering today’s international brutalities, which are also brutal in their impact on a left whose analyses and strategies often remain largely domestic in their scope.
Still, the bleakness of Anderson’s world—a place with very little reason, let alone reason for hope—isn’t the only alternative to keeping faith with capital-R revolution. In order to save his or her intellectual self-respect, the writer need not sacrifice solidarity with those who have had little access to higher education and may not therefore follow all of the references. One thing demonstrated by Anderson’s on-again, off-again love affair with the R-word is the risk that, judged by that high standard, all other desires and commitments will seem trivial and random by contrast. As in erotic relationships, that position seems less an objective reflection of how things are than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, it is far from all one will take away from reading him.
“The thought of a genuinely original mind,” Anderson writes of Gramsci, “will typically exhibit—not randomly but intelligibly—significant structural contradictions.” What is true of Gramsci is also true, of course, of Perry Anderson himself. The contradictions are not random, but structural and intelligible. More important, this is true of the historical reality that both Gramsci and Anderson have done so much to illuminate.