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Joseph Brooker on reading the New Left Review

The New Left Review is a journal of leftist thought founded in the early 1960s. In 2000 it relaunched with a slightly different look – glossy, sleek, elegant, but still uniquely rigorous and austere. Not only does it have no letters page: even the contributors don’t always receive credits or details. It’s not like the London Review of Books where the contributor bylines have often said things like ‘Frank Kermode is somehow still here’ or ‘Michael Dobson is probably in Stratford – if you have his mobile number, you might try ringing that’. I have a collection of NLRs which I admire for their colours at least as often as I read them. Sometimes a Fredric Jameson article about a 7-hour Russian film I’ll never see is the most accessible thing in an issue. But recently I found time to go through some copies from the last year.

I read a few articles and reviews, but with most diligence and ceremony I read Perry Anderson on Putin’s Russia, in the July / August 2015 issue. You could say that discussion of current affairs consumed 10 months late is oxymoronic. Surely things have moved on in that Ukrainian crisis we were all gripped by last year, at least till another crisis or two came along? They probably have, but Perry Anderson isn’t all about topicality. This is a historian whose first books were on feudalism and the absolutist state. He probably thinks it’s too soon to tell the impact of the fall of Troy. This 35-page essay on the state of Russia after the annexation of the Crimea naturally goes back not just to Shevardnadze and Stalin but to Tsarism and the industrial revolution, and to ‘steppe and tundra thinly inhabited by hunter-gatherer tribes’. But I don’t mean that Anderson’s vast historical range makes him out of date, like the don in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939) who thinks everything in the modern world is a trivial echo of antiquity. A remarkable feature of Anderson is that he is so up to date, as well: not just on the political latest from Ukraine, but on, for instance, recent Russian cinema. Its ‘cultural sump’, Anderson adjudges as only he can, ‘makes even the worst films of the Soviet era look presentable’.

I don’t fanatically read everything that Perry Anderson writes, and (though it looks daftly presumptuous to say so) I don’t even agree with everything he says; but I do appreciate almost anything of his that I manage to read. Like many others I admire the encylopedism, the seemingly intimate knowledge of every period of the subject in hand over the last century and more. I cherish the style, which I think is an under-appreciated model in my own discipline: at once expansive and economical, by turns synoptic and caustic, forever superbly poised as a ballet dancer. I suppose I take as much sheer pleasure from reading a page, even a sentence of Perry Anderson as from any other writer (I’m trying to think of other contenders: Lorrie Moore?). So this little blog entry means to mark the aesthetic dividend of returning to the NLR, as much as anything I’ve learned from it intellectually.

As for the actual content of ‘Incommensurate Russia’, it’s rather rangy, offering a landscape more than a polemic. It starts with the late Putin era, builds to the recent Ukraine crisis, cycles back through history mainly in search of the fortunes of Russian nationalism, and winds up with a stark vision of Russia today: ‘trapped with no exit in sight’ in its contradictory role in the global order. It’s a downbeat analysis if you’re keen on Putin. This may well have been against the grain of much geopolitical commentary when Anderson wrote the essay – I seem to remember people talking more about what Russia had gained, how dangerous it was, the perils of a new Cold War, how badly Barack Obama had handled it, and so on. But it’s not surprising for Perry Anderson to be unconvinced by current consensus and look beyond it. I can still remember travelling by train to the 2003 march against war in Iraq, reading an essay by him that scorned the delusions of protesters like me and at least eight million others. That really annoyed me, but it looks like I got over it eventually.

To read The New Left Review ‘Incomensurate Russia’ issue, click here

by Joseph Brooker, June 2016

Dr Joseph Brooker

Dr Joseph Brooker

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