How England learnt to think, and nothing was ever the same again

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 24 September 1994 23:02 BST

THIS paperback is dying. I handle it gently, this old Penguin Special, but there is already a rusty aura around each page, a faded pinkness in its once-red cover. In another 25 years nothing will remain of it but a few discoloured, close-printed shreds.

When Student Power appeared in 1969, hard, bright and new, it flashed in the hands of the young. 'Problems, Diagnosis, Action. Edited by Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn'. It was a year or less since the student revolutions. In Britain, the universities were still seething. The political landscape which had seemed granite now shook like a theatre set. Millenarian hopes flew around the sky and sang unforgettable songs.

The pathetic fallacy, so dear to columnists, suggests that a rotting book must hold dead ideas. Most of the expectations of Student Power were false. A new revolutionary movement cleansed of Stalinism and Labourism? Young intellectuals taking rebellion to the industrial working class, a transfer of the liberation struggle from the Third World to the 'imperial metropoles'? The book's contributors got the future wrong. But in many ways they got their own present right. They were young, too - the oldest 31 - and they used their minds with devastating freedom on the world about them.

The death of Sir Karl Popper last week induced a colleague to dig out his own copy of Student Power. Its central item was Perry Anderson's essay 'Components of the National Culture', in which Popper figures prominently and very unfavourably. This was one of the most famous polemics of the decade. In the long term, it changed the way in which the British understood the relationship between thought and politics. Brief as it was, the essay amounted to an entirely new and original history of British intellectual life in the 20th century. In the short term it provoked a frightful outcry. Anderson was accused of everything from adolescent vulgarity to racialism.

Perry Anderson began by asserting that 'Britain, the most conservative major society in Europe, has a culture in its own image: mediocre and inert'. This culture had failed to provide any intellectual alternative to the status quo. Here was a reason why radicals in Britain found it so hard to think their way out of the system they wanted to overthrow. Anderson concluded that the missing component, the 'absent centre', was sociology - the discipline that had flourished in Germany even before 1914 and had transplanted itself to the United States in the Thirties. Without either a 'classic sociology' or a national Marxist tradition, the British had no way to theorise about their own society. Intellectual life consisted of cultivated middle-class people who avoided general theories - and were mostly related to one another.

But then came the immigrants. From the Bolshevik Revolution to the victory of Hitler, a tide of intellectuals fled from Central and Eastern Europe. According to Perry Anderson, it divided into two streams. The radical 'Red Emigration' (the Marxist 'Frankfurt School', and many of the writers like Brecht) mostly landed up in the US. But the 'White Emigration' - the conservatives - chose Britain. As Anderson wrote, 'England epitomised the opposite of (the upheavals from which they were fleeing); tradition, continuity and orderly empire'. The White refugees fell so in love with England's massive indifference to ideas that (being Continental intellectuals) they made a theory out of not having theories.

Anderson listed some of the White immigrants and their disciplines. He included Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosophy), Bronislaw Malinowski (anthropology), Lewis Namier (history), Karl Popper (social theory), Isaiah Berlin (political theory), Ernst Gombrich (aesthetics), Hans-Jurgen Eysenck (psychology), Melanie Klein (psychoanalysis). As the exception to prove the rule, he asserted that the only important thinker of the left to settle in Britain was Isaac Deutscher, which did less than justice to many others - such as Eric Hobsbawm or Nicholas Kaldor.

For Anderson, 'a White emigration rolled across the flat expanse of English intellectual life, capturing sector after sector'. The invaders promoted England's vague individualism to a general theory about 'negative liberty'. The outcome was 'a chloroforming effect', or a 'silent and constant underpinning of the social status quo'.

It is fascinating to compare this sketch of English intellectual life 25 years ago with Lord Annan's Our Age (1990), which tackles the same subject in a wider framework. Noel Annan fought a ferocious battle against academic prejudice in the Fifties in order to introduce sociology to British universities. Many of his complaints resemble Anderson's; he, too, found the English tradition complacent, appallingly ignorant of German and French ideas, stuck in the mud of a static individualism. But nowhere - not even dismissively - does he mention Anderson's theory that this tradition was crucially reinforced by immigrant intellectuals.

Perhaps this is because the ''Red Emigration', in its old age, struck back. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper had raged against Hegel's view of history as process. 'The Hegelian farce has done enough harm. We must stop it. We must speak - even at the price of soiling ourselves by touching this scandalous thing.' But in the Sixties, the left-wing Hegelian ideas of the Frankfurter School - Marcuse, Adorno - flew back from California to intoxicate a whole student generation.

Since then, nothing has been the same. The reign of neo-Marxism and then Marxist structuralism in British universities did not last long. But Perry Anderson's 'absent centre', the hole where sociology ought to be, has been filled. One grand general theory after another has rampaged through almost every field of study, from literary criticism to archaeology and even to political science. Almost all of them draw on Popper's 'scandalous thing': the analysis of subjects not as static phenomena but in their relationship to the 'social process' as a whole.

Where Perry Anderson went wrong, it seems to me now, was that he actually underestimated the impact of his 'White Emigration'. It did not simply reinforce English mental conservatism. It transformed it into dynamic ideas with a right-wing sociology of their own.

Some of the 'Whites' may have been reactionaries, but they were still Continental thinkers who believed in the force of theory. When Mrs Thatcher proclaimed that there was 'no such thing as society', she was not repeating old Tory and Liberal sneers at brainy generalisations. She was launching a vigorous, authoritarian crusade designed to break down communities into atomised individuals powered only by greed. Popper, in her hands, became a weapon. Faith in ideology, that European import, passed from the left to the far right. And there it remains.

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