Cover of The New Old World

The New Old World by Perry Anderson (Verso, £24.99)

The European Union today frightens some people, enthuses others, but seems simply to puzzle and bore most. Surely no institution in the world that is so important is so little thought about, let alone understood.

Thirty years ago, most people on the British left were fiercely hostile to European integration, seeing it as a vast capitalist plot. A decade later, this was replaced by widespread Europhilia – partly for the simple negative reason that almost any political structure seemed preferable to the archaic and over-mighty state structures of a UK ruled by Thatcher and Major. Today little remains of those emotional extremes. They’ve been replaced by a sort of dull taken-for-grantedness laced with ennui. Most contemporary writing about the EU, both academic and journalistic, is – the occasional ferocious Europhobic rant aside – tediously descriptive, as lacking in fire or fervour as the Union’s own debates tend to be.

Perry Anderson, in many eyes the sharpest critical mind in modern British socialist history, never shared in the wild swings between Eurodread and desire which consumed so many of his comrades. Across many years, he and his colleagues at the New Left Review (now celebrating its 50th anniversary) did more than anyone else to make the Anglophone world better acquainted with the political thought and intellectual traditions of continental Europe, especially of course in their leftist and Marxist variants. Anderson’s own writings, in a long series of critical, historical and theoretical essays, were constantly at the forefront. Now just over 70 and dividing his time between London and Los Angeles, he has nonetheless always been a European intellectual – not least in his enviable command of multiple languages – rather than an Atlantic one.

Yet there remained one odd semi-omission from this huge and multi-tracked intellectual endeavour. Perry Anderson and others at NLR wrote copiously on French, German, Italian and many more European countries’ politics and thought. But with a tiny handful of notable exceptions like Tom Nairn’s 1972 analysis of British Europhobia, they addressed these within discrete national frameworks and hardly ever engaged with Europe as a whole, as an idea, a common culture or an emerging political entity. In this they reflected a wider pattern of neglect.

The New Old World promises, but doesn’t entirely deliver, a radical break from that pattern. It engages throughout with the idea of Europe as such, and about a quarter of it is directly about the European Union, the rival ways it has been understood, and its possible futures. The core of this is a long, brilliantly argued critical survey of multiple theories and histories of European integration. Here, as with much of his other work, Anderson offers a guide to the relevant literature which is staggering in its range and the sharpness of its insights, though also of course intensely opinionated. He rightly applauds Alan Milward as the finest historian of European integration, and a great exception to the previously noted British pattern of neglecting or scorning that theme. He endorses – again I think rightly – Milward’s argument that the construction of the EU was always a nation-state project based on calculations of national interest, with the rhetoric of federalism and post-nationalism being mostly pious, empty blather. But when Anderson goes on to damn almost all leftist and liberal views of Europe’s prospects and suggest that it is commentators from the right who have been most acute and accurate on the subject, he is surely reacting too far against his own earlier preferences. Praising people like Christopher Caldwell and Robert Kagan, for their supposed bold realism on issues like immigration and European-US relations, leads him to skate far too lightly over the xenophobia if not racism which suffuse their writings.

Most of the remainder of the book, though, moves away – sometimes far away – from that initial focus and partly reverts to the old mode of looking at particular countries far more than at Europe as a whole or as an idea or structure. Thus there are long chapters on France, Germany and Italy, and less expectedly on Turkey and Cyprus. Including the latter makes clear sense in that of course Turkey’s potential membership poses the biggest question mark over the EU’s future direction, while Cyprus’s divisions provide the most potentially troublesome stumbling block. All these chapters are fascinating, insightful, often dazzling – but they’re only loosely connected to one another, leaving the overall architecture of The New Old World rather unbalanced and disjointed. This reflect the book’s origins in separate essays and lectures, most originally appearing in the London Review of Books, some written over a decade ago, and apparently only patchily updated or revised. This is especially problematic when some parts predate both the single currency and EU enlargement, let alone the great financial crisis of 2008 onward. Not revising to bring these differently dated sections into line with one another leaves several apparent inconsistencies as well as gaps. One might rather meanly say that Anderson, the veteran and highly successful editor, needed an editor of his own. Maybe, too he was wrong not to include any substantial discussion of Britain. He rather airily says that its history since Thatcher just hasn’t been very important or interesting. But surely one can’t begin thinking about (for instance) European foreign policies, relations with America, the “war on terror” or the consequences of the bank crisis without placing the UK near the heart of the European story.

Overall Anderson is stronger on the long view than on immediate political plots or prospects. Every so often he stands back to offer bold, broad suggestions which are, for good or ill, breathtaking in their sweep, as where he reverts to Marxist language in calling the EU’s creation “the last great world-historical achievement of the bourgeoisie”. And he concludes on a rare note of optimism, however qualified. The “European project” today may seem adrift and directionless, but that very fact opens the way for alternative ideas and unintended consequences. Economic crisis too offers radical opportunities as well as dangers. From these, the European left might just still renew itself, and again pursue the old dream of a citizens’ Europe.