The intellectuals once more
A more important issue of the last few decades has been “What is Living and What is Dead in Marxism.” After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Marxists hailed this as an advance. No longer must “genuine Marxism” be hobbled by association with its Stalinist caricature. Alas, for them, “genuine Marxism” gained no traction. In fact the answer to the question is now pretty straightforward: all of Marxism is dead.
How then to account for the fact that one can still learn from scholars who profess Marxism? A case in point is Perry Anderson who spoke twice at Columbia University on March 28-29.
Born in 1938, Anderson exercised as position of influence through his editorship of the New Left Review in 1962-82 (and again in 2000-03). He is currently a professor of history at UCLA. Anderson won his spurs in a controversy with the homegrown British Marxist E. P. Thompson, whom he accused of naïve empiricism. Anderson wrote as the champion of Euro-Marxism, including its most recent incarnation in the work of Louis Althusser. In subsequent years he has shown himself capable of sharp critique of fashionable trends on the Continent. In fact, many of his assaults have been delivered against postmodern currents in continental Europe, which he regards as a form of reaction
I have read and profited from most of Anderson’s books. In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) he showed himself an adept commentator on some of the thorniest questions of medieval history.
His first talk at Columbia was a dazzling survey of the origins of the concept of the intellectual. He traces the idea (if not the word) to an analysis by the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon in 1819. Then the concept took root in Austria, migrating to Russia in the 1860s. There it gave rise to the expression intelligentsia, borrowed in all western languages. At the end of the century it returned to France (as intellectuel) with the conflict over the Dreyfus affair. The speaker covered various twentieth-century developments, which I will not attempt to summarize.
During the question period, I asked Anderson to comment on the changes wrought by the blogosphere. He demurred, suggesting that he is not quite up to speed on the technology of the current century. My own view is that when blogs first surfaced a decade ago, they seemed bright with the the promise of a wonderful democratization of opinion. Nowadays anyone can be a successful pundit. All it took was fifteen minutes setting up a Blogger account, and you were on your way. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Only a few blogs have attracted significant traffic, and some of these are run by individuals who have their base in the standard print media. For the rest of us, the process is akin to sending a message in a bottle. Yet some do receive and open the bottle.
There remains the important question of the gate-keeping function. How is access to the status of intellectual obtained? Determination and luck play their part, but the process still remains opaque.
To put it differently, how does one become an intellectual? It is not enough to reflect on the history of ideas and their relationship to the deeper aspects of public policy issues. No, the budding intellectual must gain access to the public prints, so that one’s meditation becomes part of a dialogue. As far as I know, there has never been a study of failed and would-be intellectuals-—those individuals who sought to intervene in the discussion, but never succeeded in getting their voices heard.
Be that as it may, I return to the question posed at the outset: How can I admire Perry Anderson, an adept of a failed ideology? Several comaparisons come to mind. A good many years ago when I was a graduate student I profited a good deal from such French Catholic writers as Henri-Irenée Marrou and Jean Daniélou. I am certainly not a Catholic or even a Christian. Another thinker who has profoundly affected me is the Hindu Nirad C. Chaudhury, author of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I have never been drawn to Hinduism, and indeed intensely dislike the institution of caste. So I suppose the lesson is this. Be adventurous in your choice of mentors. After all, you don’t have to swallow what they say whole. Indeed, I certainly do not share Perry Anderson’s professed enthusiasm for the views of Noam Chomsky.