U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left (Chapter 2)

AndersonConsiderations on Perry Anderson’s “Realism”

by Nick Witham, Canterbury Christ Church University

Nick Witham is Senior Lecturer in American Social and Cultural History at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK, and will take up the role of Associate Media Editor at the Journal of American Studies in January 2015. His first book, The Cultural Left and the Reagan Era: U.S. Protest and Central American Revolution, is under contract with I. B. Tauris, and will appear in 2015. He is currently working on a new project that examines popular histories written by American historians as a means of engaging with an audience beyond the academy, focusing on the work of Richard Hofstadter, John Hope Franklin, Daniel Boorstin and Howard Zinn.


In more than half a century of labor as an historian, essayist, long-time editor of New Left Review (NLR) and central figure in the formation of the publishing house now known as Verso Books, Perry Anderson has revealed himself to be, in equal measure, a resolute analyst of the status quo, and a perceptive critic of political ideas. It is my aim in this short post to place Anderson’s recent NLR essays “Imperium” and “Consilium” in relation to his career-long dialogue with the intellectual traditions of the Anglo-American left, and to discuss what I see as his attempt to situate a left-wing “realist” approach to U.S. foreign policy within them.

Born in London in 1938, Anderson spent his early years living in California and Ireland before education at boarding school and university in England. This cosmopolitan upbringing, during which he came into regular contact with a “plurality of different cultures,” would shape the internationalism that became a distinct theme in his later political thought. [1] Anderson attended Oxford University between 1956 and 1959, and gained a political education through his campus-based experience of the world-historical events of the period. 1956, for example, was a key year in the development of the British New Left, with the dual experience of Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez Crisis inspiring spirited opposition to both Stalinist interventionism and the legacies of disintegrating European colonialism. Combined with the onset of the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., this was the conjuncture that helped to form an Anglo-American student movement that was equally skeptical of doctrinaire Communism and Western welfare democracy, and keen to express itself in new forms of radical politics, culminating in the widespread insurgencies of 1968.

NLR 1962After leaving Oxford for London, Anderson’s main work during the 1960s came at the helm of NLR, the publication he and several other young British radicals took over in 1962. Under his editorship, the journal sought to break with what its new management saw as the parochialism of their predecessors (who numbered amongst them Stuart Hall, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams). This “second generation” of the British New Left, as historians have come to see them, attempted to use NLR to bring the academic rigour of European leftist theory to bear on real-world events in a manner that fused scholarship and journalism. To this end, Anderson published two significant essays – “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964) and “Components of the National Culture” (1968) – that sought to use Gramscian concepts to obtain an understanding of the development of English history. It was this type of analysis, he argued, which would open up a space for the emergence of the oppositional culture that Britain, unlike the rest of Western Europe, lacked. In 1974, Anderson went on to publish Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, complimentary volumes that attempted a Marxist interpretation of European political history up to 1917. Two years later, he authored a short but influential engagement with the development of Marxist thought in Western Europe between 1920 and 1975, entitled Considerations on Western Marxism (1976). Then, in 1983, Anderson gave up the editorship of NLR, and soon thereafter took an academic position as professor of history and sociology at UCLA.

Since moving to the United States, he has published widely on topics in contemporary political and intellectual culture, from the development of the European Union and the state of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis and Fredric Jameson’s writings on postmodernism. In placing Anderson’s recent writings on U.S. foreign policy in relation to this long and varied career, I am keen to explore how Anderson has blurred the lines between Marxism and a self-conscious “realism” in recent years, and consider how this has impacted his analysis of U.S. foreign policy.


In January 2000, Anderson returned to the editorship of NLR, and, in the process, made an effort to reformulate its political orientation. Justifying this “overhaul” in an editorial, he argued that it was necessary to extend the “real life” of the journal beyond the conditions that had given rise to it. [2] The historical conjuncture of the 1960s had given way to an era defined by “the virtually uncontested consolidation, and universal diffusion, of neoliberalism.” [3] As such, Anderson suggested that NLR seek to interpret the world through the lens of an “uncompromising realism,” which, whilst “refusing accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power,” would also seek to combat any spirit of empty consolationism on the left. [4]

As the first in a number of editorials penned by Anderson in the first decade of the twenty-first century, “Renewals” stood primarily as a statement of principle for the journal itself. Since 2000, he has regularly returned to the essay’s central focus on “realism”, not least in his recent essays on U.S. foreign policy. However, Anderson’s realism, as it emerges out of both “Imperium” and “Consilium” (but particularly the latter essay, given its focus on political thinkers), is by no means identical to the patterns of thought usually imagined by International Relations scholars when they use the term to describe a theoretical stance that presupposes the anarchic nature of world politics, and stresses the significance of forms of statecraft based not on cooperation between states based on shared norms, but on the inevitability of conflict and competition.

In using “Imperium” to trace the intertwined “impulses of isolation and intervention, nationalist pride and internationalist ambition” [5] and their relationship to the “general interests of capital in the United States,” [6] Anderson provides an impressive overview of more than a century of diplomatic and political history, but one in which the terms “realist” or “realism” only appear fleetingly, and in footnotes. In “Consilium”, on the other hand, the concept is given more detailed attention. After discussing, and, in the most part, dismissing, a range of liberal internationalist thinkers (Walter Russell Mead, Michael Mandelbaum, John Ikenberry), Anderson turns to the “realist ideals” expressed by Robert Kagan, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Art. In different ways, he praises the work of these figures, especially Brzezinski’s “harder-edged realism…free from the liturgies of democracy and the market,” [7] and Art’s relentless focus on the mechanisms of statecraft, which Anderson describes as “realism at higher resolution.” [8] However, these figures, presumably because of the “constitutively advisory” genre of writing on grand strategy into which their work fits, are, in Anderson’s view, ultimately unable to escape the temptations of an interventionist Wilsonianism. He criticises Kagan for extolling American exceptionalism in his recent writings on the Obama administration, [9] Brzezinski for re-articulating Raymond Aron’s notion that much of America’s power lies in its ability to “serve an idea”, [10] and, finally, Art for dissolving realism in his recent writings “into a potentially all-purpose justification of any of the adventures conducted in the name of liberalism.” [11]

On the final page of “Consilium”, Anderson zeroes in on some of these ideas to suggest: “genuine realism” is “not…a stance in inter-state relations, or a theory about them, but…an ability to look at realities without self-deception, and describe them without euphemism.” [12] In making this point, Anderson is, I think, arguing for left-wing realism as an approach to U.S. foreign policy. He cites several authors who he thinks uphold this tradition, including Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky. [13] However, the most interesting aspect of the realism he puts forward is not contained within this relatively unsurprising list of names, but in the suggestion that important lessons can be drawn from realist International Relations scholars who have little or no sympathy with the left. In making this point, Anderson demonstrates a striking ecumenicism of historical thinking, which is all the more revealing when it is considered in relation to his 2000 “Renewals” essay as part of a longer-term effort on the part of NLR to recalibrate the way the Anglophone New Left views world politics. For example, this approach is also evident in Anderson’s praise in 2007 for the “outstanding work” of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose neo-realist approach to the role of the “Israel lobby” in U.S. foreign policy-making, he has argued, is significantly more constructive than the “pusillanimity of the American left” when it engages with the same topic. [14] Anderson’s musings on realism therefore remind us of the important fact that considerate engagement with the work of thinkers positioned across the entire range of the political spectrum must play a vital role in the culture of the left.


ConsiderationsWritten in 1976, the conclusion to Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism took thinkers such as Adorno, Benjamin, Sartre and Althusser to task for their lack of engagement with political praxis and internationalism. Ending on a climactic ideological note that is hardly surprising given the author’s proximity to British Trotskyism at the time, he suggested: “All that can be said is that when the masses themselves speak, theoreticians – of the sort the West has produced for fifty years – will necessarily be silent.” [15] I want to suggest that Anderson’s conscious engagement with realism since 2000 can be read as an attempt to come to terms with this type of rhetoric, and its place in the collective consciousness of the generation whose politics were formed as part of the New Left. It is now impossible to imagine him expressing with such confidence the prediction that a broad-based political alternative to capitalism is likely to emerge. Furthermore, and in spite of its brilliance, his writing is now as detached from concrete political praxis as the Western Marxists he was criticising in 1976.

However, I am reluctant to read Anderson’s realism as evidence of a conservative “turn” in his historical and political thinking. His writing has grown both pessimistic and Olympian, but it remains resolute and penetrating, qualities that are as evident in in his analysis of American foreign policy as they are anywhere else. This brings to mind another of his aphoristic and eminently quotable assessments of Marxist intellectuals, this one penned in 2005 about E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and a range of other figures, but equally relevant to Anderson himself: “to be defeated and to be bowed are not the same. None of these writers has lowered his head before the victors. If a dividing line is wanted between what has become the centre and remains the left, it would lie here.” [16] The forces of the left with which Anderson identified during the 1960s and 1970s may be in decline, but unlike Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman and many other New Leftists-turned-liberal interventionists, he has resisted the temptation to offer encomiums to American power in the light of changed historical circumstances. For this, and for his attempt to open up a discussion of left-wing realism, he should be praised, but also debated, discussed and disagreed with.

[1] See “Reflections on the Left from the Left”, a video interview with Perry Anderson conducted by Harvey Kreisler at the University of California Berkeley, 27 April 2001.

[2] Perry Anderson, “Renewals” in New Left Review II:1 (January-February 2000) 6.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Ibid, 3-14.

[5] Perry Anderson, “Imperium” in New Left Review II:83 (September-October 2013) 21.

[6] Ibid, 111.

[7] Perry Anderson, “Consilium” in New Left Review II:83 (September-October 2013) 142.

[8] Ibid, 150.

[9] Ibid, 141.

[10] Ibid, 148.

[11] Ibid, 155.

[12] Ibid, 167.

[13]It is worth noting the similarity of Anderson’s ideas here to those of two International Relations scholars who have sought to rehabilitate Chomsky’s reputation within their discipline by discussing his thought in the context of realism: Mark Laffey and Ronald Osborn. See Mark Laffey, “Discerning the Patterns of World Order: Noam Chomsky and International Theory After the Cold War” in Review of International Studies 29 (2003) 587–604; Ronald Osborn, “Noam Chomsky and the Realist Tradition” in Review of International Studies 35:2 (April 2009) 351-70.

[14] Perry Anderson, “Jottings on the Conjuncture” in New Left Review II:48 (November-December 2007) 15.

[15] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976) 106.

[16] Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (London: Verso, 2005) xvii.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a wonderful piece–thanks so much for it.

    A few thoughts.

    First, it matters, I think, in putting together Anderson’s biography, that his father was a foreign service bureaucrat whose early career was in China, and that his brother is Benedict Anderson, the famous scholar of southeast Asia and “imagined communities” (this seems to account, at least in part, for Anderson’s specific brand of cosmopolitanism).

    Second, it probably also matters that Anderson became close, at UCLA, with Robert Brenner (in the period that Brenner was transitioning from completing his book on merchant capitalism and beginning his long study of the long downturn in the global economy).

    Brenner’s “realism” (that’s probably a good word for it, come to think of it, though it is not how his work is always discussed) has particular details that other “realisms” do not: the requirement, for example, for “micro-foundations” that has marked his work since the early studies of the transition.

    Brenner wants to know how individual actors, arrayed as they are, and seeking to reproduce or aggrandize themselves, do not simply, continually, hit “refresh” on a given political order. How, under such circumstances, is change possible?

    Anderson adopts much of this theoretical architecture (is this the basic premise of the recent NLR articles we are thinking about in this roundtable?) and makes a strong argument for “ideas” as one important force that disturbs the endless repetition of a given sociological scene. (As such, he might be accurately described as an important, unacknowledged, Marxist theorist of the politics of intellectual history).

    Finally, I have a pet theory about Anderson’s turn to “realism”: that it derived, earlier in Anderson’s career, in large part, from EH Carr’s writings, and came increasingly to encompass the insights of Carl Schmitt in the 1990s and aughts (corresponding to Anderson’s supervision of Gopal Balakrishnan’s dissertation on Schmitt at UCLA, and, of course, Balakrishnan’s magnificent work on Schmitt and German political theology).

    The gravamen of this point, I guess, is that Anderson’s “realism” now seems to me substantially Schmitt-ian, whereas in the earlier New Left texts, it seems much closer to that of Carr (and Deutscher). That makes his “realism” not a vulgar Heracliteanism, as it were, but specifically oriented to the “friend-enemy distinction” and the sovereignty of the exception (this, I think, is why Anderson sees such continuity between Clinton/Albright and Bush/Cheney/Rice/Wolfowitz, which Louis Cooper rightly highlighted as one of the more problematic claims in the 2 essays).

    Would love your thoughts on any of this!

  2. I appreciate this post and also Kurt’s comment.

    I think Marxism and realism (or “realism”) have certain natural (for lack of a better word) points of connection; still, Anderson’s clear affinity for some of the realists is striking. In addition to the praise he has for R. Art and the others you mention, I noticed he again praises Mearsheimer in ‘Consilium’, p.119 n.9 (referencing the late Peter Gowan’s 2002 NLR review of Mearsheimer’s ‘Tragedy of Great Power Politics’). Anderson also clearly admires Nicholas Spykman (discussed early in ‘Imperium’).

    Further in the realism vein, I’d like to ask for your thoughts on Anderson’s treatment of Kennan. Kennan is in several ways an unattractive figure (elitist; evidence that he was a racist, etc.), but Anderson’s relentless criticism of Kennan in the footnotes of ‘Imperium’, in its determination to debunk what he sees as myths about Kennan, largely overlooks any positive aspects (I think there were a few) and seems, to me at least, rather one-sided.

    P.s. on Schmitt: I don’t really detect a big Schmittian flavor in ‘Imperium’ and ‘Consilium’, but I haven’t read Schmitt (beyond a snippet here and there), so probably I am just not attuned to this.

  3. Thanks Kurt and Louis for the comments.

    Kurt – on Anderson’s childhood, you’re spot on, and the points you raise about Brenner are very interesting. Anderson certainly subscribes to his version of the “long downturn”, but I hadn’t thought about Bernner as a “realist” until you mentioned it, and that is a really nice idea. I suppose it depends on exactly how you define the term (something Anderson doesn’t do in much detail, and, mea culpa, neither do I…).

    On Anderson as an important theorist of “the politics of intellectual history”, I couldn’t agree more. Throughout his career he has paid close attention to ideas and the public role of intellectuals. Peter Linebagh attacked him for this apparently elitist stance in a review in the 80s, but Anderson had already made the point in Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (and has reiterated it since) that while “bottom up” histories are very important, they need to be complimented by good accounts from the “top down”. Hence, I think, the continual preoccupation with political ideas, which is there in almost all of his writings.

    Louis – it’s a good question about Kennan and where he fits into Anderson’s version of “realism”. I’m in the US at the moment and my heavily annotated copy of the NLR issue is back in the UK, so I can’t double check, but my impression was that Anderson isn’t quite as down on Kennan as you imply. I thought that in this he was essentially following Anders Stephanson, who is a continual presence in the footnotes to “Imperium” (I understand they are long time friends). But perhaps I’m wrong?

    • Nick,
      I’d have to look again at Anderson’s remarks on Kennan. I might be wrong, but my impression is that they’re almost entirely negative (he does acknowledge that Kennan, a couple of years before his death opposed the ’03 Iraq war). It’s true Anderson does cite Stephanson a lot. I like, on the whole, Stephanson’s Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy, and I think it is a little less ‘down on’ Kennan than Anderson is. (But we may be getting into fine distinctions here.)

  4. I would first like just to echo the praise above for this very insightful post and great discussion.

    And at the risk of overdetermination here of Anderson’s intellectual trajectory, I’d like to throw into the discussion two other facets to Anderson’s turn toward “realism.” What strikes me as most unusual about his use of the term is that it is primarily not about guarding against or rooting out naïveté, but about unmasking euphemisms. As Nick and Louis point out above, what unites his appreciation of Art, Brzezinski, Chalmers Johnson, Bacevich, Mearsheimer/Walt, Spykman and others is that their rhetorical approach is one of absolute candor, an aversion to finesse. (I’d add it is this definition of the term that keeps him from appreciating the “realism” of Kennan or, say, Kissinger.)

    In a roundabout way, I think this defInition of realism has a lot to do with Anderson’s longstanding conversation with Fredric Jameson’s work, especially on utopia. Anderson’s realism, it seems to me, has no brief against utopian thinking in the way that Jameson carries it out, but the debt or the convergence, I would argue, runs even deeper. What both Anderson and Jameson have long pursued is a viable understanding of the interaction of base and superstructure under the conditions of postmodernity (or neoliberalism, to which Anderson has turned more since his book of postmodernity), specifically with a mind to be both relentlessly critical about but also not dismissive of the resources that might and do exist within the superstructure to affect and even to change the material conditions of the base. I think Jameson calls this process and posture of rigorous stock-taking utopia and Anderson calls it realism, but it is, I think, really the same process.

    The two-part nature of Anderson’s project, it seems to me, reiterates this procedure: “Consilium” is, in one sense, simply an intellectual historical explanation of the content of “Imperium,” but in another, more important sense which I think has already been fully brought out in this roundtable, it is an attempt to identify intellectual resources for the Left.

Comments are closed.