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Perry Anderson (born in 1938) is one of the most important Marxist authors of the past forty years. As the principal editor of New Left Review since 1962, he has introduced and shaped English-language readers’ understanding of the principal Western European Marxist theorists of the twentieth century, above all the Italian Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony is now central to Marxist scholarship. Under Anderson’s guidance, New Left Review has brought the work of European and third-world Marxists to a broader public of intellectuals and activists. New Left Review has also published continuous analysis of contemporary political economy and culture that seeks to find openings for leftist politics and provides criticism of contemporary social scientists, philosophers, novelists, and artists. In addition, Anderson has made a major scholarly contribution to the understanding of England’s particular political development and to the analysis of European absolutism.
Anderson’s political orientation was shaped by two events of 1956 (the year he arrived at Oxford University as a student): the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution and the Israeli, French, and British invasion of Egypt. He was part of the New Left, which condemned both Soviet repression and Western imperialism against Egypt. Anderson, throughout his intellectual career, has argued that contemporary politics needs to be understood in the context of the historical development of states and classes. He has contributed to such a historical-materialist analysis through his study of the formation of the English state. His aptly titled “Origins of the Present Crisis,” published in New Left Review in 1964, explains the failure of British socialism in terms of England’s unusual historical trajectory, especially its lack of a bourgeois revolution. His analysis quickly came under attack from historian E. P. Thompson on both empirical and theoretical grounds (“The Peculiarities of the English”). Anderson responded with Arguments within English Marxism (1980), a booklength analysis of Thompson. Written as an appreciation and critique of Thompson’s historical and political writings, Anderson sees Thompson’s main contribution as a reassertion of the importance of culture and morality in socialist intellectual discussions. Anderson believes that Thompson slights the search for effective strategies of socialist politics. That is the task to which Anderson has devoted himself and New Left Review in recent years.
Anderson’s greatest intellectual contribution is his study of absolutist states and their role in the development of the European bourgeoisie. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, the first volume of Anderson’s study of transitions, provides the context for his analysis of feudalism in Lineages of the Absolutist State. Passages explores the dynamics of the slave mode of production and explains variations in feudalism across Europe in terms of divisions in the Roman Empire and the sorts of class struggle that erupted during the empire’s decline. Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) reconceived the social dynamics that followed the Black Death of the fourteenth century (the liberalization of peasant obligations in England and France and the reimposition of serfdom in much of Eastern Europe). Feudalism, in Anderson’s analysis, was neither destroyed nor replaced by a new mode of production. Instead, feudalism was reconstituted, as the aristocracy reasserted its dominance through the larger social form of the absolutist state rather than within local manors.
Anderson views the bourgeoisie as an inadvertent outcome of absolutist state polices designed by aristocrats to safeguard their collective interests. Both state and capital grew and profited from the monetization of taxes and rents, the sale of state offices, and the establishment of protected domestic monopolies and colonial ventures. Anderson explains the different trajectories of Eastern European and Western European states, and of England and France, in terms of the strength of aristocrats’ organization within estates, the extent of town autonomy, and the results of military competition. He was able to show how a new social group, the bourgeoisie, developed at particular sites within certain absolutist states, yet he never attempted to explain why the bourgeoisie was unable to continue to pursue its interests within absolutism. As a result, Lineages, despite its significant insights, was not able to serve as the foundation for Anderson’s planned but as yet unwritten study of the bourgeois revolutions. Since the early 1980s Anderson has moved away from historical studies and has concentrated his writings on contemporary politics and criticism.
- Anderson, Perry. 1974. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London:
- Anderson, Perry. 1974. Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London: NLB.
- Anderson, Perry. 1980. Arguments within English Marxism. London: NLB.
Elliott, Gregory. 1998. Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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