BritishMarxist historian specializing in the history of political thought. He is described by his contemporary Terry Eagleton as Britain's most brilliant intellectual. His work has been described by Scott Malcomson as a synoptic oeuvre stretching from 800 bc to last week. Few (if any) scholars display a comparable grasp of both the broad sweep of world history and its finer nation-specific details, and fewer still have his command of the vast literature—in several European languages—devoted to the subject. For much of his career, Anderson's work has been distinctive for its interest in strategy, the need as Marx famously put it not merely to understand society but to try to change it as well.
Anderson was born in London, but his family moved to Shanghai shortly after his birth, and then to the US (when the Japanese invaded China), where he spent the remainder of war. He has produced his own account of this period of his life, which can be found in Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005). After the war, his family returned to Ireland, his ancestral home. He was schooled at Eton and then Worcester College, Oxford, where he met Isaac Deutscher, the formidable Marxist intellectual and biographer of Leon Trotsky who was to have such a formative influence on his career.
In 1962, in controversial circumstances that have never been fully explained, Anderson took over the editorship of New Left Review, bringing onto the editorial committee such stalwarts of the new New Left as Tom Nairn, Robin Blackburn, Juliet Mitchell, Gareth Stedman Jones, Alexander Cockburn and Peter Wollen. Under his stewardship New Left Review became what it is today, one of the most important forums for critical writing on art, history, politics, literature and film. The journal took a broad international focus, exploring in detail the specific historical situations of a wide range of countries; in particular, it focused on the situation in the Third World, perceiving there to be greater scope for radical change at the periphery; it also sought to explore and interrogate the new theories being produced by Left-oriented scholars such Louis Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Lacan, but pointedly not Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. In 1970, Anderson founded New Left Books (later known as Verso) to extend the project begun with New Left Review in book form.
A prolific author of short essays, many of them published anonymously as editorials in New Left Review, or under a variety of pseudonyms, Anderson is surprisingly reticent about republishing these in book form. Indeed he has consistently refused to republish several of his most famous essays and in some cases has actively repudiated his previous work.
It was his essays on British national culture which became part of what is now known as the Nairn-Anderson theses that propelled him into mainstream attention. These essays, particularly ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ (1964) and ‘Components of a National Culture’ (1968), both since republished in English Questions (1992), are Anderson at his uncompromising best. Treating the UK as a foreign country, they lacerate their subject matter with the incisiveness of a scalpel.
Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.