The Poverty of Theory

I wrote recently about some basic elements of the ‘structuralist’ Marxism of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. The historian EP Thompson wrote a superb polemic against this strand of thinking published with other essays in the book “The Poverty of Theory” published in 1978 (a title which references Marx’s polemic against Proudhon “The Poverty of Philosophy”). In this post I will try to capture some of the key points raised by Thompson.

What comes across most strongly from Thompson’s argument is that he is an empirical historian. For him Marx provides a set of analytical tools, a method to interrogate history. He therefore wholeheartedly rejects Althusser’s criticisms of both empiricism and historicism. For Althusser it seems Marxism is  a predefined set of structures to which history must be made to fit. This makes no sense to Thompson the professional historian, whose Marxism is part of his professional toolkit with which to interrogate the world.

In particular this imposition of a structured mode of production as the determining factor can only be brought from outside the human experience of history. In this sense, what the structuralist approach to Marxism has done is to create something that is idealist in nature. It depends on imposing a process developed entirely within thought to the analysis of history.

For Thompson the dominant or determining structure of Althusser is rigid and mechanical. Everything is made to fit within a pre-determined structure. A strait jacket or orrery which in practice operates as a limit on the analysis of actual historical events, and therefore a hindrance. Humans end up excluded from their own history which is determined in thought by the dominant structure  before it is acted or written.

It is here that Thompson makes a link to Stalinism, which also placed limits around what it was possible or permissible to think. While claiming to be high philosophy, Althusser’s approach is similarly dogmatic. Structuralist Marxism is a means for looking down at history from above and channeling thought, rather than for broad and open exploration.

Finally Althusser argues that Dialectical Materialism constitutes a new science, inaugurated by Marx. Thompson strongly refutes this. The dynamic human relationships which are so important to Marx’s thought cannot be reduced to the procedures of the physical sciences. There are forces whch drive human activity and thought, but agency and contingency remain important factors. Marx’s line from the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Bonaparte” is entirely relevant:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

Human agency is important, we do make our own history. But we are not Robinson Crusoe. We operate within and are constrained by the society and economy of our times.

I do find that the structuralist approach to Marxism defined by Althusser and Balibar attractive. It works through in an extreme form the sort of thought process which does form a valid part of Marxism. But most of Thompson’s criticism is valid. Marxism is not a mechanical science, but a way of approaching analysis – something which becomes clear in Marx’s own work such as the Class Struggles in France and the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

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