Has any period since Marx’s death been marked by weaker conviction among Marxists than our own? Doubts and doubters have been with us for as long as Marxism itself, but those of today no longer face a compelling politicaltheoretical field of force, dominated by an individual, movement, party, state or indeed, a general faith in the forward march of humanity. ‘We live in a time,’ writes Stanley Aronowitz, ‘when all the old assumptions about politics and history appear enfeebled. Throughout Western industrial societies, both of the capitalist and state socialist types, the theory and practice of workers, intellectuals, women and ecologists have, in different ways, questioned the adequacy of Marxism as a theory of the past and present and as a guide to the future.’ footnote1 In the past, Marxists were able to dismiss the doubters by pointing to their alleged class origins, or they could confidently modulate from theory to practice by pointing to trends of history showing the progress of socialism. But today, as Aronowitz’s own work reflects, the Marxist mood has lost assurance and become uncertain.

For the first time since the socialist movement was born Western Leftists today relate themselves to no pole of authority or attraction. No Marxist party enjoys deep attachment beyond its membership, no revolutionary state appeals widely beyond its citizens, no individual leader commands worldwide respect, no mass movement ignites enthusiasm. For many of its critics Marxism is not quite a god that failed, source of profound disillusion and betrayal, footnote2 but rather an old-fashioned and simplistic outlook which, over time, has grown outmoded much like the Ptolemaic system, requiring too many epicycles upon epicycles to ‘save the phenomena’. Simpler then to become frankly pluralist, or to look for other keys and watchwords—‘power’ or ‘domination’, for example.

Contemporary research has explored, and political life has revealed, one after another area not easily accommodated within traditional Marxian categories, leading sophisticated intellectuals to become impatient with Sartre’s one-time elevation of Marxism as the untranscendable ‘philosophy of our time’. A sympathetic post-structuralist, for example, might consider Marxism as one contemporary narrative among many, as illuminating for a certain type of experience, but not to be privileged over other narratives. Others, drawn first to the Frankfurt School, say, or to Althusser, Sartre or Gramsci by their desire to reconcile Marxist conviction with recalcitrant aspects of experience or areas of research, have subsequently found it impossible to sustain the tensions of a hyphenated Marxism, and have forsaken it altogether as overarching outlook. Even among activists: André Gorz has combined some of the most imaginative contemporary explorations of socialist possibility with his abandonment of the proletariat, just as Rudolph Bahro’s departure from Marxism has coincided with his engagement with Green radicalism. footnote3 ‘Post-Marxism’ often leaves Marxism behind out of a sophisticated dialectical sense that it has aged, grown too narrow for the current range of understandings and experience, as well as movements, unable to comprehend, say, the nuclear threat, or the psychoanalytic realm, or feminism.

However we explain the ‘post-Marxist’ mood, we know that such a widespread subjective trend is an objective event: times have changed, because Marxist self-assurance has dwindled. How are the Left’s recent intellectual vicissitudes to be described and explained? In this time of recession it takes a thinker of courage—as well as sophistication, intelligence and self-confidence—to survey recent Marxism from an unabashedly Marxist perspective, one which would also seriously evaluate contemporary ‘post-Marxist’ thought. Such is the task that Perry Anderson assigns himself in his latest book, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. footnote4

Anderson produces a breathtaking sketch in which Marxism ends where it began, as the theory and practice of our world. Yet the book’s strength is that of a forcefulintelligence—not that of a movement; its authority is that of an informed mind—not that of history; its defence of Marxism is that of a brilliant exponent—who refuses to allow events and ideas to call it into question. Anderson ends up bridging today’s doubts, not by making them his own and exploring them, not by confronting conviction with fact and letting his analysis move freely through them, but by dint of a remarkable tour de force which denies that Marxism has fallen into crisis. This denial is its weakness.

The book is likely to be read primarily as a critique of French post-structuralism, and will no doubt receive detailed evaluation of the adequacy of its sketch of the French intellectual scene (and also of its treatment of Habermas and of the women’s movement). My concern here is not to present a conventional review of In the Tracks of Historical Materialism but, after briefly outlining its contents, to explore critically Anderson’s point of view on the situation of Marxism today. Having done that, I will then present an alternative point of view, one which accepts that we are in crisis and suggests a direction for negotiating it. My goal is to begin a discussion, within and beyond the pages of New Left Review, on the need for a new and more fruitful relationship between historical materialism and the various non-working-class movements that have shaped our generation and vice-versa.

After some introductory comments on Marxism’s uniqueness as a critical theory, Anderson summarizes the predictive conclusions of his earlier Considerations on Western Marxism. footnote5 These set the framework for a rapid sketch of the trajectory of Marxist intellectual production in the West in the 1970s: the rich, sustained expansion in the us and uk, and the steep decline in the Marxist tradition of France and Italy; the equally dramatic general shift of emphasis from philosophical and cultural studies to historical, economic and socio-political ones; and the revival of radical politics which did not, unfortunately, eventuate in ‘a reunification of Marxist theory and popular practice in a mass revolutionary movement.’ footnote6