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Poor thoughts on The Poverty of Theory (get it?!)

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

I ended up down a rabbit hole - hell, a warren - of the British New Left and as part of that I wanted to write my way to some thoughts on EP Thompson’s Poverty of Theory. It’s a book that I’ve seen a lot of people be opinionated about in some circles I’ve spent time in, in ways that discourage people reading it, which is unfortunate because I think it’s worth reading. In my opinion it’s very good book yet a flawed one that is less than the sum of its parts.

For the sake of my friend Rob Knox I want to say that again: The Poverty of Theory is a flawed book that is less than the sum of its parts. (See Rob? I’m educable!

Though to be fair the rest of this is probably evidence to the contrary. Hmm.)

In my view Poverty adds up to less above all because of some serious organizational flaws. (I should say, I have the Merlin edition reissued in 1995, which has just the anti-Althusser polemic with afterword and postscript, and an introduction by Dorothy Thompson. I think there was an earlier edition with some additional essays in it.) The book consists of untitled numbered sections with no organizational throughline that I can detect. Its parts do work together to support its over all points but the lack of signposting and the kind of “oh and ANOTHER thing!” character of the book, while sometimes charming in the way that hearing a friend rant can be charming, makes it a bit of a confusing read, a bit repettive and some of the time it’s like “Edward, why are you telling me this? Does this go anywhere or is it a shagy dog story?” But I do think there are many gems in there, as I’ll get to, that make it worth still reading.

The over all point of the book is a politically motivated polemic against Althusser and the UK milieu importing Althusser’s works in the 1970s, about which I’m of at least three minds: first, I find Thompson convincing in his political opposition to Althusser and co, and largely convincing in his theoretical claims against Althusser; second, I don’t care that much about this aspect of the book - I think people with correct political analysis will agree with me that Thompson is right about Althusser politically, but it doesn’t have a lot of urgency to me as it’s many decades ago and Thompson doesn’t frame the polemic against Althusser in a way that makes it seem relevant today; third, the polemic against Althusser as (dis)organized in this book is especially unfortunate because Thompson makes what are to my mind some really worthwhile points of more enduring relevance but does so subordinated to and to some extent interwoven with the polemic in ways that make those points harder to get at. The introduction says he wrote it in about two weeks, and, if true, while that’s impressive at one level, it sort of reads like something written at that pace and the failure to edit it shows a lack of discipline - and maybe of intellectual community. Was there no one who could force him to present his ideas more systematically, with more signposting, and in a way that looked both to the immediate Althusserian antagonist and to the longer term sweep of the left’s unfolding future, which might have benefitted from his insights if expressed in more disciplined form?

I don’t want to get into the Althusser stuff as I said, and that stuff takes up a huge amount of space in the book both in terms of words and in terms of the more compelling-to-me elements being woven with the Althusser commentary as I said, but I do want to briefly address it. As I said, I think Thompson was right. I find him especially convincing in the opposition to Althusser when doing two things, first, providing some of the context of the French Communist Party and its history and Althusser’s failures relative to that - really, his serving terrible politics, and second, noting that within the UK the Althusserian milieu and the uptake of Althusser not only did some work in line with the PCF’s bad politics but, related, ti also served anti-internationalist ends, so that radicals in the UK were less equipped to understand events in France and had fewer ties to better political currents who the PCF opposed. Hands down, Thompson’s right there. He should have frontloaded that.

I also find Thompson generally convincing in his criticisms of the theoretical content of Althusser’s work and of at least some Althusserians. Some quick bits on Perry Anderson in particuar. In a brief aside in “The Pecularities of the English,” his polemic against an article by Anderson and Tom Nairn, Thompon wrote that Marx and Engels treated “political economy as their direct antagonist, and entered into its own categories of analysis in order to overthrow it.” (Here: This debate was about how to characterize the period in the late 1960s, understood as an effect of a much longer history. Those issues are massive and that debate sprawling, and continuing in a reconfigured way with some new players later. I can not do any of it justice. I found this article by Alex Callinicos helpful, and I found it interesting to track backwards through some of the footnotes to other related works. Simon Clarke’s got a great piece critcizing another iteration of Anderson’s positions in this debate

In an equally brief aside in his response to Thompson, Anderson wrote that this was an "incredibly impoverished vision of Marx's work.” Two years later, in a different context and another aside, Anderson referred to "political economy (and its apex, Marx)" (Components of the National Culture Anderson, Perry. New Left Review; London Vol. 0, Iss. 50, (Jul 1, 1968): 3. ) and he would again in 1984 refer in passing to “Marx’s political economy” in a discussion of Maurice Dobb. (In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, 24.) Anderson writes in Arguments Within English Marxism that “the thesis that the contradiction between forces of production and relations of production is the deepest spring of long-term historical change” is “the central tenet of historical materialism.” (81) These remarks by Anderson are much more orthodox than Thompson’s account and more importantly, Thompson is simply right to say that Marx wrote against - wrote as critic of - political economy, though Thompson also thought Marx got caught up in political economy and took on too much of its reasoning. Anderson’s remarks suggest that if that were the case it wouldn’t be a problem for Anderson.

This aside has gotten too extended I want to get back to, to get away from, Althusser in Poverty. It’s been a long while since I read most of what I’ve read by Althusser and I’m not willing to reread to check Thompson’s treatment so while I assume the treatments are accurate, I can’t say this based on recall of the texts in question. That aside, it seems to me that some of Thompson’s argument in Poverty of Theory means that the fact that this debate happened right around when I was born and I’m reading it as an adult simply has to color how I read it: more precisely, significant time has passed such that the original context Thompson wrote in is no longer present and that has to figure in - time matters - for uptake of the debate. With the passage of time, Althusser’s work’s connection to the context Thompson wrote in, and to the politics Thompson correctly opposed, becomes loosened. And if, as Thompson wrote in the beginning of The Making of the English Working Class we’re not allowed to permit the enormous condescension of poverty against the followers of religious prophets and must take such followers on their own terms, which means letting the prophet and prophesy have a meaning and use to them that it doesn’t do us, then it seems to me we must let contemporary Althusserians do the same. That’s obviously not a strong recommendation of Althusser (I like his writing on the ISA’s, especially as refracted through Goran Therborn, and have written on them - welding them to some work by Thompson actually - and I think Thompson goes too far in his treatment of them, but otherwise the rest of the Althusser I read was time largely wasted and I don’t see the point), but it is to say that specifically on Thompsonian grounds I think we can not rule out that later Althusserians might do far more with those ideas than we can read off those ideas just on the page, and especially more than Thompson writing in the late 1970s could read off the page for all time. (To say otherwise would, I think, be to treat those ideas as a conceptual structure imprisoning its adherents such that they lacked agency, something Thompson spends a great deal of polemical ink railing against.)

I will say, part of why I’d like more people to read Poverty is that I’m a little concerned that within both the growing attention to capitalism among scholars and the renewal of socialism as a semi-reputable term (especially given how dire so much of the present seems, a condition that tends to lower people’s political expectations) there is a renewal to some degree of some of the kinds of mistakes Thompson wrote against, including some relative renewal of Althusserianism. (As I said I think we can’t know for sure that a contemporary Althusserianism must eventuate into what it did in Thompson’s context - it shouldn’t, if some other things Thompson wrote are correct, but he might respond that it would still eventuate into something else that’s garbage. A joiner making a table from wood performs an active process, he notes in an analogy in Poverty, and the wood doesn’t necessitate that a table be made. Still, he might add here, the object worked is not infinitely malleable: you can make a table from wood, but not a car, say, and Althusserianism may be a material particularly hard to work.) If the left becomes the social force we hope for, and if the broader working class goes on the offensive, the kinds of mistakes Thompson wrote against will become serious liabilities.

Alight, so what’s good and worth reading in the book (which I wish he had written up in more standalone essays linked together more logically as chapters in a disciplined argument) - Thompson’s account of what he calls historical logic, meaning the standards historians use for doing historical investigation and for discussing such investigations as a community; the accounts of history, and particularly the Marxist history writing he and others of his cohorots did, as having a conceptual content and contributing to concept creation that is not replicable by capital-T Theorizing alone without historical and other kinds of empirical investigation; his distinctions between empirical and empiricist (in the pejorative sense Althusser used); his discussions of the role of morality in Marx and Marxism, of how Marxists who claim there is no such role are confused, and of what their confusion consists in; his account of the first New Left and its relationships to opposition to Stalinism and the suppression of the uprisings in Hungary, and the closely related discussion of “socialist humanism” as a keyword of socialist humanism as a real and somewhat but only somewhat amorphous response in opposition to Stalinism; his account of Stalinism as not only a doctrine but as a complex of multiple interrelated phenomena, periodized into its having a practical force prior to giving rise to what he calls High Stalinism - that account informs the remarks about socialist humanism; his account of Marx as becoming trapped within the conceptual framework of political economy and only partially succeeding in getting out - I disagree with some of this but it’s thoughtful work worth thinking through - and the related discussion of how Marx’s investigation into what Marx called capitalism at its ideal average relates to investigation into actually existing capitalism - here too I disagree with some points but it’s thoughtful work worth thinking with; and finally, related to a lot of the above, the ways Thompson talks explicitly, and proceeds implicitly as well, in ways that I think anticipate some (and only some, and to be fair, conflict with other) elements of Open Marxism.

On that last point, Open Marxism, three thoughts. One, Thompson engages Simon Clarke directly in Poverty, with a brief critical aside and with a lot of praise for Clarke’s polemic against Althusser, which was unpublished at the time. (It later appeared in the book One Dimensional Marxism; Clarke’s contribution is online here: Ditto for Clarke’s criticism of Poulantzas, which was published at the time and is online here: Th ompson also cited and breifly discussed an essay by Ben Fine and Lauence Harris surveying debates primarily within the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE, the body Clarke was engaged with), largely to do with issues of value theory and I.I. Rubin’s work, some of which was also republished by the CSE in their journal. Clarke is a forerunner to/member of the tradition of Open Marxism, and a major component of his work is the debate on value within the CSE, some of which Thompson clearly was familiar with. I’ll note as well that Clarke wrote a defense of Thompson and others’ approach to history, against Althusserian critics, and which includes some worthwhile criticisms as well. That’s another point of resonance with the Open Marxism. It’s online here:

Two, there’s a substantial resonance with Werner Bonfeld’s essay on Open Marxism in the first issue of Common Sense, which I assume is where the tradition took its name from (if I recall correctly the phrase comes from a discussion between Mandel and Agnoli, which entered into CSE circles via Bonefeld as well). That’s online here: It’s page 34 of the journal, page 35 of the PDF file. Bonefeld begins with a criticism of Althusser and Althusserianism (his criticism thereof in his more recent book Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy is what sent me back to Poverty of Theory as the criticisms felt similar), then stresses the following: conceptual openness; sensitivity to the development of new phenomena within capitalism - paired with ongoing opposition to capitalism per se; emphasis on necessary conceptual incompleteness - which is to say, historically developing, conceptual frameworks, infomed by doubt as a critical principle; and emphasis on concrete inquiry into actually existing capitalism at particular periods in time - again investigation as historically situated - rather than simply completed by grasping capitalism once and for all through a set of theories, plus emphasis on class struggle as an open-ended, contingent set of processes, against orthodox certainty. Thompson said very similar, though there are important differences as well, and Thompson’s phrase “Marxisms of closure” is a good term for what Open Marxism opposed.

Three, I’ve tried to indicate here that I think the best parts of Poverty are its articulation of Thompson and his fellow travelers’ core perspectives, which as I tried to say I think he unfortunately reduces to just devices to oppose Althusser in a too exclusively localized and current to the moment kind of framework. Much of the perspective he elaborates was of course put to work in inquiry into labor and working class history (in a way that was both conceptually informed and concept-generating). I think these resonances are relevant to an effort to “develop a more robust account of the class nature of contemporary social and political movements” within an Open Marxist framework, as John Michael Roberts and Joseph Ibrahim put it in a recent article in Capital and Class that works within, and sympathetically criticizes parts of, the tradition of Open Marxism. (The article is here isn’t just to say ‘read Thompson’s writing, and that of his cohort, it’s still relevant,’ though I do think that. More than that, though, I think in Poverty Thompson highlights concepts that can help his and comrades’ work be most fruitfully read and, more importantly, I think those remarks can help inform reading non-Marxist writing (or work by adherents to a Marxism of closure) about work, workers, and the working class in ways that are generative. Thompson talks about how Marx transformed concepts of political economy, likewise I think Thompson can offer a model for how a broadly open marxist perspective can help transform concepts used in writing about work, workers, and the working class such that those transformed concepts, as well as the different understanding we get of the content of that kind of writing after this conceptual transformation, can inform Open Marxist inquiries into class, theoretically and empirically. I’ll add that personally I’d be keen to see more work on issues of working class organization and how that relates to other facets of capitalism and the capitalist state. (Here I might depart from Thompson politically on some points, which I’m fine with, like in my chapter in the Elgar law and Marxism volume where I linked Thompson and Althusser/Therborn to make an argument that moral economy should be construed as a source of resistance rooted in ideologies of systemic loyalty).

I have other obligations and interests in the short term so I don’t think I’ll spending long in the British New Left rabbit warren in the short term - I’ve climbed down into it more than once before, I’m sure I’ll be back - so some of this will have to wait, if I’m going to think more about it at all. Anyway, I do think Poverty has some fascinating remarks on the New Left and how that all played out.

Further, and finally for now, some of it feels not only time and place specific but resonant with my experience and I think evidence of a kind of pattern to processes over time - he writes about a malaise in the left, which I suspect isn’t just a matter of the specific moment he then happened (and I now happen) to be in. Rather, I suspect it’s partly a matter of what tends to happen in periods of aftermath, so to speak.

Late in Poverty Thompson argued there was “a general malaise” in the socialist movement outside the USSR, a malaise more intense in some quarters than others. This was tied to a lot of the movement’s official thinkers and writers being located in universities, as well as to changes over the 60s and 70s - I assume the relative decline of the New Left was on his mind here as well. In any case, he noted that academics who radicalized tended to do so among themselves and with little direct connection to non-university-based sections of society. That all sounds right to me though I think it may be starting to play out differently, at least in the US, as higher ed employment is pretty different (worse, and continuing to worse) since he wrote this, and I will note that the argument sounds kind of structural in a way that the tenor of other parts of his argument tend to weigh against. But whatever.

Anyway, having summarized that, he then wrote: “Thus we commence with a de facto sociological and intellectual segregation of theory and practice. And, for larger political reasons, the kind of experience of mass political activity, in which intellectuals have played a minority and a subordinate (sometimes overly subordinate) part alongside comrades of diverse experience - and, in particular, alongside comrades with practical positions of leadership within their own communities and places of work - this kind of experience has largely passed them by. (...) Of course, here and there real struggles have flared up (...) But in general it may be said that there has never been a generation of socialist intellectuals in the West with less experience of practical struggle, with less sense of the initiatives thrown up in mass movements, with less sense of what the intellectual can learn from men and women of practical experience, and of the proper dues of humility which the intellect must owe to this. This is to say that today’s Western Leftist intelligentsia is distinguished by its lack of political experience and judgement.”

This situation provided the “ground within which the ideological deformations of our time are nurtured. Isolated within intellectual enclaves, the drama of ‘theoretical practice’ may become a substitute for more difficult practical engagements. Moreover, this drama can assume increasingly theatrical forms, a matter of grimaces and attudinising, a game of ‘chicken’, in which each theorist strives to be ‘more revolutionary than thou.’ Since no political relations are involved, and no steady, enduring struggle to communicate with and learn from a public which judges, cautiously, by actions rather than professions, the presses may reek with ideological terror and blood. Moreover, this is precisely, the ground which can nurture an elitism for which intellectuals, by a multitude of precedents, are only too well prepared.” (Poverty of Theory, p247-249)

That all resonates with some of my experience of the left over time as I became more academic and as the anti-globalization movement and other things I was part of receded, and as Occupy arose and dissolved. I don’t know how much is my situation and how much is a broader condition, I suspect both are factors - some friends I showed these quotes to felt they were resonant with their experiences of the present and recent past of the left in the US and of left academics in particular.


After writing the above I’ve been reading Diane Elson “Value Theory of Labour” and was pleased to run across this her quoting from Poverty of Theory. She wrote that to understand

“form determination as an historical process is not simply a matter of noting that the social forms of a particular epoch have not always existed (see Banaji, 1976, p. 37-8). It is a matter of analysing them as determinate and yet transient: as the Marxist historian Edward Thompson puts it,

'In investigating history we are not flicking through a series of 'stills', each of which shows us a moment of social time trans- fixed into a single eternal pose: for each of these stills is not only a moment of being but also a moment of becoming . . . Any historical moment is both the result of prior process and an index to- wards the direction of its future flow.' “ (Elson, 140) A paragraph later she adds that “The point is that to analyse historical process we need 'a different kind of logic, appropriate to phenomena which are always in movement'. (Thompson, 1978, p. 230.)” (Elson, 141.) Thompson 1978 is Poverty of Theory.

She specifies as well that Marx’s analytical approach “was not to go outside the form looking for factors to explain it, but to go inside the form, to probe beneath its immediately apparent appearance. (See Banaji, this volume, pp. 17-21 for a detailed discussion of this point.) Going inside the form is achieved by treating it as the temporary precipitate of opposed potential what Thompson calls a moment of becoming, a moment of co-existent opposed possibilities, 'double-edged and double-tongued' (Thompson, 1978, p. 305-6).” (Elson, 142.) Her reference to Thompson doesn’t per se mean that Thompson was an apt value theorist but it does indicate that she thought Thompson (through his emphasis on historical openness, and corresponding oppennes of investigation which he posed against Marxisms of closure which were necessarily inadequate to real historical openness) resonant with her own and Marx’s approach to understanding value.

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