The Red Emigrant


Bruce Robbins in The Nation:

In “Components of the National Culture” (1968), Perry Anderson argued that some of the most influential intellectuals who fled to Britain from political violence on the continent—people like Berlin, Karl Popper, Bronislaw Malinowski, Melanie Klein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—had elective affinities with Britain’s very uncontinental tradition of nonviolent continuity and relative social stability. Once established in Britain, Anderson said, they reinforced and expanded that tradition, leaving Britain more conservative still. 

In Anderson’s view, Deutscher was the most prominent exception to this “White emigration.” Perhaps because of the idiosyncrasies of his radicalism—one that did not quite conform with either British communist or social-democratic politics—Deutscher was ignored by Britain’s academic world. Or perhaps it was because his intellectual independence, his journalistic flair and polemical style, didn’t conform with England’s cloistered and sometimes stodgy university culture. In any case, Anderson never ignored him—in fact, anyone searching for evidence of Deutscher’s intellectual afterlife would need look no further than Anderson’s brilliant accomplishments as a historian and political analyst. 

Like Deutscher, Anderson has proved over the years to be a polyglot polymath; like Deutscher, he recognizes no appeal above or beyond what Gregory Elliott calls, in his book about Anderson, “the merciless laboratory of history.” Both were drawn to the “olympian universalism” of Marx and Engels, although perhaps not equally so. 

Anderson related an anecdote that suggested a small but telling difference between the two men. In the 1960s, Anderson was loudly indignant at England’s lack of political dynamism. Why, he asked, could France boast of so many revolutions, while modern England had had none? In a foreword to the volume in which “Components” is reprinted, he recalled Deutscher informing him that he could not fully approve of Anderson’s disengagement from political possibilities on the ground, imperfect as they might be. Borrowing a term from Rosa Luxemburg’s misguided refusal to support Polish independence before World War I, Deutscher said that Anderson’s position was guilty of “national nihilism.” 

In saying no to nihilism even about nationalism, of which he was no fan, Deutscher was passing on some practical wisdom—­wisdom intended in particular for anyone trying to stretch political commitment beyond the heady enthusiasm of youth. To judge everyday politics by the high standard of revolution is to make oneself vulnerable to despair, or at least apathy. It can also be self-defeating, parachuting a set of abstract standards into a community that might be receptive to a politics’ goals but is either confused or alienated by the language in which those goals are pursued. As a longtime revolutionary, Deutscher was well-placed to insist that there are other paths toward social justice.

More here.