The Poverty of Theory


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ISBN 9789350020814


Dorothy Thompson writes in her introduction: ‘This essay is a rarity among Edward’s published work. Although he was throughout his life interested in the philosophy of history and in various theoretical formulations, he concerned himself with these mainly in private reading and private discussion. Why then did he write this essay? He had read the work of Louis Althusser and found very liitle in them to affect his work. When Althusser appeared on the scene he made little impact on practicing historians. For some reason however, he suddenly became a major force among graduate students and some young historians and literary scholars. Most historians would have been prepared to wait for the new influence to demonstrate its validity in the production of innovative work in history; not only did this not happen, but Althusser’s followers – even some of the historians among them – began to declare that history was a non-discipline and that its study was of no value. It was the influence that Althusser’s writings were having on scholarship that made Edward take on the uncongenial task of putting the case for history against his closed system.’

The result is a major critique of Althusserian Marxism, or ‘theoretical practice’, entering closely into questions of epistemology and of the theory and practice of the historian. Around this detailed polemic, Thompson develops a constructive view of an alternative, socialist tradition, empirical and self-critical in method, and fully open to the creative practice evidenced by history – a tradition sharply opposed to much that now passes as ‘Marxism’. In converging shafts to close analysis and Swiftian irony, the author defoliates Althusser’s arcane, rationalist rhetoric and reinstates ‘historicism’, ‘empiricism’, ‘moralism’ and ‘socialist humanism’ in a different Marxist inheritance.

The title of this essay echoesThe Poverty of Philosophy, Marx’s annihilating attack on Proudhon, which, like Engels’ Anti-Dühring, is a work read long after its subject has been consigned to oblivion.

Edward Palmer Thompsonwas an English historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19thcenturies, in particularThe Making of the English Working Class(1963).


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