Old Left Review: a reply to Perry Anderson, March 2000

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2000, the left
Tags: ,

Martin Shaw

OLD LEFT REVIEW

a reply to Perry Anderson


New Left Review has taken the turn of the Millennium as the signal for a relaunch. This is more, however, than an attractive redesign of its long successful format and a renumbering from year Zero. According to its recently re-appointed editor Perry Anderson (editorial, NLR 1 – new series, Jan.-Feb. 2000), the relaunch involves uncompromising ‘renewals’ of theory a decade into a new era when the certainties of the the Cold War have been swept away. Noting the ‘widespread migrations of intellectuals of the Left into institutions of higher learning’ (possibly a reference to his predecessor, Robin Blackburn, who has recently taken up a chair at Essex), Anderson promises a journal that is scholarly but not academic; and that (after four decades without them) there will be regular book reviews, as well as more debates.

The promise of glasnost should be welcomed; but the first issue of the new series, in which Anderson, Blackburn, Tom Nairn and Peter Wollen, all members of the ‘second New Left’ which took over the review in the early 1960s (sic), make up roughly half the contributors, is not an auspicious start. This is a small, but undeniably impressive, intellectual group of men now touching sixty renewing its project, rather than that of a wider left, after four decades. I am old enough myself to recall when an NLR writer proposed the slogan ‘Beware the Pedagogic Gerontocracy’ as the watchword of the first LSE student revolt in 1967. At the time I thought the slogan rather suspect (although I recall loyally painting it onto a banner); from the vantage point of my own half century its flaw is obvious. Yet like the crustiest academic department, the Review admits new and younger contributors only to its outer portals and engages with the outside world only on its own terms.

The real problem of the ‘renewed’ NLR is not, however, generational or social but theoretical and political. For Anderson, intellectual rigour goes hand in hand with ‘refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power’. Here, we might think, is an older cohort that has resisted, commendably, the supposedly binding link of age with conservatism. But this ‘new’ NLR – however much Anderson dissociates himself from the ‘sterile maximalism’ that might follow in other hands – betrays another conservatism, a reassertion of intellectual and political boundaries that have had their day. The real faultlines of the new world, which cut across these old certainties, are barely recognized.

The problem is capitalism. This, in a nutshell, is Anderson’s old/new wisdom. And this is also the problem of his wisdom. His is a Marxism largely mesmerized by the neo-liberal renewal of capitalism in the global age. Thus he fails to catch the real sources of the global in the universalistic, even revolutionary politics of democracy and human rights. This globality is the true spirit of the age, not a mere property of ‘the ruling system’ or mode of projection for capitalist elites. Anderson dismisses this as the ‘well-meaning cant or self-deception of the Left’, but its sources lie in momentous worldwide movements.

Anderson is realistic enough to recognize that these movements offer an alternative perspective on the last decade to that of neo-liberal hegemony. ‘In a longer perspective, a more sanguine reading of the time can be made. This, after all, has also been a period in which the Suharto dictatorship has been overthrown in Indonesia, clerical tyranny weakened in Iran, a venal oligarchy ousted in South Africa, assorted generals and their civilian relays brought low in Korea, liberation finally won in East Timor.’ He might have added, of course, that Stalinist tyranny was overthrown across the Soviet bloc: the alpha and omega of the current wave of democratic revolution.

Having found the new wave of revolution, however, Anderson discards it: ‘The spread of democracy as a substitute for socialism, as hope or claim, is mocked by the hollowing of democracy in its capitalist homelands, not to speak of its post-communist adjuncts.’ Yes, there are elements of hollowing and manipulation, but there are many too of renewal, and contestation, in the West as well as the non-West. And the democratic revolution, although it offers no glamorous seizure of power or expropriation of capital, may be all the better for its more modest modes of advance. It is not necessarily a substitute for socialism: it offers the possibility of space for social organization and struggle. Moreover, democratic movements have not generated totalitarianism and mass death, as did the discredited waves of both proletarian revolution and guerrilla warfare. One would think that the enormity of Communism’s record, from Stalin to Mao and Pol Pot, might hold Anderson back rather more from his quick dismissal of democratic transformation.

New genocides have, of course, been a shocking accompaniment of global change, from Bosnia to Rwanda. They are shamefully absent from Anderson’s agenda. Even if we accept his contention that ‘the system’ hardly ‘needs to be shielded from reactionary forces’, it is quite clear that there are many people in the world who do, and often with great urgency. The challenged remnants of both Communist and anti-Communist authoritarianism, in their new nationalist and post-Communist guises, have produced orgies of mass slaughter from Vukovar to Grozny and Dili with which to close the Cold War. If New Left Review wishes to ‘calmly shock readers by calling a spade a spade’, it might start by properly naming the génocidaires in the highest ranks of major and minor non-Western states.

To acknowledge the renewal of the mode of slaughter as a fundamental problem of the new era would not require the Review to hold back from criticizing Western military actions. It would however put them in a new light, and blunt the unidirectional, anti-Nato moral anger. It would involve acknowledging the complexities of international/Western power, which saves many innocent lives at the same time as it compromises and threatens others. It would involve recognizing that if ‘The journal should always be in sympathy with strivings for a better life, now matter how modest their scope’, even less than Western political leaders can it ignore the plights of Rwandans, Kosovans or East Timorese imploring relief from genocidal repression. It follows, not that the left should ‘maximally’ apologize for Western-global state institutions, but that it should seriously address their potential for global good as well as for international ill.

This would, of course, place NLR in the same field of argument, but not in the same position, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – its bêtes noires. Curious, however, that however much he excoriates these figures of Third Way liberal and social democracy, Anderson explicitly invites the attentions of that section of the Right that made ‘devastating criticisms’ of the Balkan war. Names are not provided; but the nationalist-isolationist tendencies in American Republicanism and British Conservatism are hardly congenial company. This proposal raises questions, not so much about editorial judgement – no doubt the odd quixotic Rightist piece can spice up an issue or two – but about political understanding. What has happened to Marxism when one of its most sophisticated practitioners will climb into bed with allcomers, provided that they are opposed to official policies, rather than offer space for serious debate with the dominant trends of the liberal- and social-democratic lefts?

New Left Review shares one obvious characteristic with New Labour. Its title reflects aspirations for a previous ‘third way’, nearly half a century old: an internationalist left beyond the ‘old’ official Cold War lefts of Stalinism and Atlanticist social democracy. When Perry Anderson first took over the Review, almost forty years ago, his editorial regime was sometimes called the ‘new New Left’, to distinguish it from the founding newness of Edward Thompson, Stuart Hall et al. Thereafter the issue of novel lefts became ever more confusing.

The latest calls for ‘renewals’ are problematic, however, at more than the level of nomenclature. There is a deep sense of retrenchment rather than advance, of defending a position defined by fixed enemies rather than new analysis, programmatic development or political principle. The original NLR’s anti-Cold War internationalism has long been compromised, not only by an over-generous view of Communism which Anderson does little to re-examine even now, but by the more general intellectual-political ‘immobilism’ that Thompson identified twenty years ago in the face of the nuclear threat. The danger now is more mass slaughter than global extermination, but the complacency is the same, as is the political distance from those most actively engaged.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, New Left Review can produce new thinking about pensions, but not about global politics. Its ‘renewals’ threaten to leave it with what Louise Arbour, retiring Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal, memorably called ‘yesterday’s visions’ of a juster world, defending national sovereignty against global order. The ‘renewed’ left is more hostile to the ‘imperialism of human rights’ (the title of last year’s NLR issue on Kosovo) than to the imperialism of colonial repression and genocidal massacre. The review’s position is a political and intellectual anachronism, which it will take more than redesign and book reviews to rescue.

8.3.2000

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