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New Left Review I/180, March-April 1990

Perry Anderson

A Culture in Contraflow—I

Few subjects can be so elusive as a national culture. The term lends itself to any number of meanings, each presenting its own difficulties of definition or application. Towards the end of the sixties, I tried to explore what seemed one significant structure to fall under such a heading in Britain—the dominant pattern of social thought, as displayed in a range of intellectual disciplines. [1] ‘Components of the National Culture’, New Left Review 50, July–August 1968. The product of this attempt had many failings. Written at a time of rebellion, in a spirit of outrance, it mounted a peremptory broadside on its chosen target. The price of this general excoriation was paid in a variety of local simplifications or misjudgements. Overstatement in critique was also accompanied by over-confidence of cure—a theoretical triumphalism that was no service to the radical alternatives advocated. These short-comings aside, however, there was also a broader problem of method. For the procedure of the essay was open to two opposite, yet in some ways equally cogent, objections. From one standpoint, how could such a wide diversity of learned pursuits—roughly, the different humanities and social sciences—be responsibly brought into a single focus? From another, why give such attention anyway to a set of narrow academic specialisms, rather than to major popular manifestations of the national culture? The moment of 1968 explains why it was possible to be at once so selective and so sweeping. The choice of ground was a natural expression of campus ferment; as was the coup de main that could scoop its land-marks together into a systematically interrelated set of obstructions.

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