Perry Anderson – Ideas, Theory, and Politics

July 21, 2019 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

R.G. Williams

This short essay is a study of the Marxism of Perry Anderson. Anderson is one of our best Left historians and one of our best political thinkers. He has developed, since the 1950s and 1960s, as one of the most original and creative writers of the British New Left. His essays and his books are known for their rich theory and for their rich ideas. Anderson must be one of the most dynamic figures ever produced by British Marxism and by British Socialism — both in terms of his own thought, his own ideas, and his own writing, but also in terms of his influence. He deserves his importance — both for his work and for his ideas.

Perry Anderson has written a great deal about Marxist ideas, Marxist theory, and Marxist politics. What has always distinguished Anderson’s work, however, has been his ability to convert theory into wider politics. Anderson’s essays, from the 1950s to today, have always been consistent in their ability to take the ideas of the Left and to convert them into concrete ideas capable of solving the problems of the Left. In other ways his work has been some of the most influential Socialist thinking and writing since the Second World War. Anderson is certainly the most influential thinker of the British New Left, and the New Left more broadly. His analysis of British society and British politics, in particular, demonstrates Anderson’s abilities — both as a writer and as a theorist. The ideas that Anderson has generated for the Left have been crucial ideas — especially when they have been used to generate better ideas and better politics.

In Britain, and in many parts of the world, Anderson is best known for his theoretical work, his political work, and his historical work. He is known as one of the best Marxist thinkers. His essays, in particular, remain some of the best produced essays in the history of the British Left — and the history of British Marxism. Most of this work has appeared in the New Left Review, the journal that Anderson helped to write, and to edit, from the early 1960s. Anderson’s essays have always been loaded with theory — but have always been pointed towards solving political problems and political dilemmas. For many sections of the Left, Anderson has always ranked highly in terms of the development of the ideas of the New Left — particularly the theoretical dedication and the political dedication to Socialism. At the same time, any reader of Anderson will always gain something from reading his work — whether that is theoretical knowledge, political knowledge, or historical knowledge. Anderson is probably the greatest living expert on the ideas of the Left since the 1950s. He has thought about every development in Marxist theory and Marxist politics since the 1950s — and placed each of them firmly within the historical tradition and the political tradition of Marxism.1

Anderson’s Marxism is a Marxism which emerged out of Western Marxism. The distinctive features of Anderson’s Marxism are clear in each of his essays and each of his books. The first feature is his theory — his commitment to Marxist theory. The second feature is his politics — his commitment to Marxist politics. The third feature is his ability to place all of these commitments into a historical framework, a theoretical framework, and a political framework. For Anderson, Historical Materialism is not simply a method of historical analysis but one which can be applied to most other aspects of social theory — from politics to economics, from culture to theory. In many ways, Anderson has been the best example of the many thinkers to have emerged within Western Marxism since the 1950s. Indeed, Anderson is probably the most politically and historically engaged thinker of the New Left — as is shown by his more political and historical essays. There is also the fact that Anderson is one of the few remaining thinkers of the original New Left — from the 1950s and the 1960s. Anderson might be a Left theorist, but his best work has come from his engagement with history and with politics.

Anderson’s theory of Socialism has always been connected to his politics of Socialism. Anderson’s Socialism is a Socialism which is based heavily in the Marxist tradition of Socialism. He has spent his adult life both thinking about Socialism, writing about Socialism, and fighting for Socialism. As an intellectual he has done much for the struggle for Socialism.

Anderson’s Marxism has emerged out of the reality that Marxism found itself in during the 1950s and the 1960s. After the Second World War, Marxism became fractured — by the reality of the Cold War and by the reality of Stalinism. The crisis of 1956, the reality of Imperialism, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956, and the coming of the Vietnam War, split international Marxism. From this emerged the New Left and the ideas of the New Left. This New Left sought to confront both Stalinism and Capitalism. This New Left sought to fight for a liberated struggle for Socialism. Anderson’s Marxism emerged from this New Left and has formed a crucial part of the New Left. Most of Anderson’s work can be said to be the attempt to think politically for Socialism — a Socialism opposed to both Stalinism and Capitalism. The emergence of the New Left was a crucial development in the history of Marxism and the history of Socialism. Anderson’s Marxism is part of the New Left.

Anderson has contributed to Marxism in three areas — theory, politics, and history. He has contributed in each of these areas — with effective work and good work. Anderson’s essays on theory, politics, and history remain part of the intellectual politics of the Left. Indeed, in these three areas he remains one of the best theoretical thinkers of the New Left. Indeed, Anderson is probably the best New Left thinker who is still writing and still thinking today — given the march of time.

Anderson’s theory is based in Socialist theory and the theory of the New Left. His grounding in theory has always gone back to the basic ideas of Marx — before adapting them through the lens of historical and political experience. Anderson has especially been an effective theorist on Historical Materialism — developing further the Marxist principles of applying a materialist analysis to both history, politics, and society. From this Anderson has made major contributions to the theory of Marxism — defending its basic premises and its basic ideas from opponents on both the Left and the Right. A particular area where Anderson has proved a brilliant theorist has been his critique of postmodernism, his ideas about society, structure, and social structure, and his ideas about hegemony. To his theory Anderson has always added the best from the Western Marxist tradition, and from the work of Gramsci. Indeed, as shown through a number of essays, Anderson is probably the best historical and political interpreter of Gramsci and Gramsci’s ideas. Anderson has always used the ideas of Gramsci for what they were intended for — to understand society so as to develop the political ideas necessary for Revolution, Social Revolution, Intellectual Revolution, and Socialist Revolution.

Anderson’s politics is based in Socialist politics and the New Left. This has been Anderson’s political position since the 1950s and the 1960s. Indeed, if we look at Anderson’s political development, we can see a great deal of continuity in his politics — as they have developed over the last half-century. While many Marxist thinkers have maintained a continuity in their thought and their politics, Anderson is rather unique in that his shifts, across the spectrum of Marxist thought, have generally been consistent. While Anderson has clearly modified his views, here and there, since the 1960s, he has also sought to maintain his basic political commitments to Marxism and to Socialism. While others on the Left shifted to the Right, especially in the 1980s and during the 1990s, Anderson has been consistent — and consistently a Socialist. This has ensured that his political analysis has always been clear and consistent — both in good times for the Left and bad times for the Left. There is a sense, with Anderson, that he made his political commitments long ago and he has consistently maintained those political commitments — despite setbacks for the Left and for Socialism. With every problem for the Left, since the 1960s, Anderson has sought to use his intelligence and his ability to research and to write to develop both the theory and the politics necessary to maintain the struggle for Socialism and to improve the struggle for Socialism. This means that much of Anderson’s work, in one way or another, has always been about the politics of the Left, as much as it has been about the theory of the Left.

Anderson’s history writing is based in intellectual history. He has mostly concentrated on finding ways to develop Historical Materialism as both theory and practice. In this area his work has sought a better understanding of intellectual history and political history. His two main historical works, ‘Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism’ (1974), and ‘Lineages of the Absolutist State’ (1974), have been attempts to provide a better Marxist understanding of the Ancient world, the Feudal world, and of Absolutism.2 They also provide a greater understanding of how Capitalism emerged out of the crisis of Feudalism. Both of these works are rich in both historical work and in theoretical work. Alongside this has been his work in the area of intellectual history — particularly the history of Marxism, the history of Western Marxism, the history of hegemony, and the ideas of Gramsci.3 Anderson’s history has been a crucial part of his work — both in theory and in practice. Indeed, most of Anderson’s theory and Anderson’s politics have been historically based — in his attempts to use history to outline politics.4


It is important to remember that Anderson’s Marxism has always been a developing Marxism. Anderson has never sought to simply repeat ideas — but to develop ideas into new ideas. Anderson’s Marxism has always been about the struggle of ideas and the development of ideas. Anderson’s Marxism and Anderson’s Socialism has always been about the intellectual struggle and the political struggle. For Anderson, the Socialist Revolution will always require both intellectual revolution and social revolution.

Anderson’s work is extensive — mainly as a writer of essays, which make up the majority of his work. These essays have always appeared in a consistent and dedicated style — one which is both analytical and polemical, but always dedicated to political analysis and historical analysis. Anderson’s style of work has become as interesting as the work itself — showing his ability to not simply write about a topic but to place that topic into a wider politics — a politics which is useful for both the Left and the struggles of the Left. In many ways Anderson remains one of the best writers that the Left has produced — certainly in the latter half of the 20th century. This has made him a consistent asset for Socialism.

One criticism of Anderson has always been his commitment to theory. The majority of Anderson’s work has always been based on a deep commitment to theory — particularly in the development of Socialist theory and Marxist theory. The majority of criticisms and critiques of Anderson which have emerged in the last few decades have usually centred on his theory — or his interpretations of theory. This is to be expected, given Anderson’s vast amount of written work, but it also highlights other parts of Anderson’s importance. Anderson has often operated as a developer of theory. His intellectual project, especially from the 1970s, has always been to develop Socialist theory and Marxist theory in difficult times for both Socialism and Marxism. This has made Anderson very cautious about both political developments and intellectual developments — yet it has also made his work sharper and more critical. Anderson has always operated best when his work develops both original ideas and criticises established ideas. His greatest contribution to the theory of the Left and the theory of Socialism has been his commitment to keeping theory always linked to concrete political developments and concrete intellectual developments. Anderson’s Socialism has operated in a similar form — he has always tried to think of Socialism in clear and effective terms. This has also given Anderson a long-term perspective — rather than a short-term perspective. Indeed, his hopes for Socialism, for Revolution, and for Socialist Revolution, have always been long-term hopes. The defeats of the Left and of Socialism, in the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in Neo-Liberalism, might have dampened the struggle of others — yet Anderson has always remained committed and dedicated, both to Marxism and to Socialism. Instead of seeking short-term success Anderson has always remained committed to long-term success. The Socialist Revolution might not happen today, or in the near future, but the struggle for Socialist Revolution always continues. This has allowed Anderson to weather the defeats of the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, and to maintain his own Socialism. Anderson’s commitment to Socialism is a long-term struggle. The Socialist Revolution will be victorious — even if its victory is well in the future. Anderson is a pessimist, but Anderson is also an optimist. This makes Anderson one of the best Marxist thinkers of our times.

Anderson has often been criticised. Indeed, his responses to criticism have often produced some of his best work and his best theory. In a career which has lasted since the 1950s it would have been impossible for Anderson to avoid criticism or critiques.5 His disputes with others on the Left have often been fierce — and dramatic — though they have tended to be friendly. His great debate with E.P. Thompson, and the debate over the direction of the New Left Review, are great examples of where Anderson has welcomed debate and discussion.6 Indeed, the debate with Thompson produced many of Anderson’s best essays — particularly ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’ and ‘Figures of Descent’.7 Anderson’s debates with others in the Left, from Thompson to Unger, from Althusser to Bobbio, has produced not only some of Anderson’s best work but also some of the best work in the Marxist tradition. In recent years Anderson has concentrated on trying to understand the modern development of the Capitalist States since the end of the Cold War, particularly the United States, the European Union, and India. He has followed this with a powerful analysis of both the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution.8 Anderson might be criticised yet his impact for the Left, for Marxism, and for Socialism, has always been positive.9

Thinking about Anderson and his work will continue. Anderson has done enough, written enough, and thought enough to be remembered within the tradition of British Marxism — and beyond it. Anyone who reads his work will always be struck by its effective variety and its effective writing. Anderson specialises in history, the history of ideas, politics, and political thought, but he has managed to turn each into a literary form. His style is more than simply style — it is a crucial part of his substance as a thinker and a writer. No one who reads his essays, or his books, can ignore the ideas contained within them — simply because of the effective style by which he describes and lays out his ideas. Each part of Anderson’s work, from the polemics to the essays, seems distinct, yet also part of a much greater project and a much greater politics. Anderson is someone who has always written to keep the ideas of the Left as effective ideas and as effective politics. Anderson is someone who has always kept his Marxism and his Socialism alive. Anderson is a man who has turned politics into a literary form. Anderson is a man who has turned history and politics into a literary form. The Marxism of Anderson is a Marxism which can still help us — both politically and historically..


1. P. Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, (1976)
2. P. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, (1974)
P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, (1974)
3. P. Anderson, The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, (1976)
4. P. Anderson, Origins of the Present Crisis, (1964)
5. P. Anderson, Origins of the Present Crisis, (1964)
6. P. Anderson, Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism, (1966)
7. P. Anderson, Figures of Descent, (1987)
8. P. Anderson, Two Revolutions, (2010)
9. G. Elliott, Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History, (1998)
P. Blackledge, Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left, (2004)



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This post was written by R.G. Williams

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