The Poverty of Theory Debate

Thompson, E.P. 1978. “Poverty of Theory or An Orrery of Errors”

Anderson, Perry. 1980. Arguments Within English Marxism. London: Verso.

Is there any polemic more biting in its wit, rigor and distaste than E.P. Thompson’s (EP) “Poverty of Theory”? Today, the essay would’ve been more simply titled, “Althusser: A Smackdown.” In processing this important essay, I’ve decided to divvy it up into Parts, so as to make a brief record—however imperfect—of the essay as well as, in a negative account, a display of Louis Althusser’s (LA) thinking.

PART I (Sections I-VII): Against LA’s Idealism and Anti-Historicalism (1-37/50)[1]

EP’s opening volleys take LA to task on three interrelated fronts, which are threaded through the rest of the book: 1) What he sees as LA’s unacknowledged idealism, which paradoxically is a mode of thinking LA ardently professes to work against. 2) LA’s equation of history and historical research with “historicism.” Stuart Hall had summed up this one as LA’s “disastrous conflation” of “historicism” and “the historical.”[2] 3) LA’s confusion of what he disparagingly calls “empiricism” with what EP sees as a proper “dialogue” between the conceptual and the evidentiary, or the object in thought and the real object—a relationship of relevance to both quotidian life and research.

Why are these fronts of critique related? Because LA, for instance, adheres to the view that (historical) “facts” themselves cannot exist outside of a theoretical (or ideological) field, or as EP puts it: “The theoretical act is prior to and informs whatever is presented as ‘empirical’ investigation” (21/29). In other words, for LA, it’s ideology all the way down. EP’s critique goes further, equating Althusserian structuralism to “theology” because of its base as a system of closed logic with ideology as the first instance. Later on, EP sums it up: “[LA’s] kind of idealism, since it prohibits an actual empirical engagements with social reality, is delivered, bound, and gagged, into the hands of the most vulgar empiricism” (124/167).

INTERMISSION (Section VIII): EP’s Historical Materialism Explained and Justified

He calls this section an intermission, giving hilarious instructions to philosophers. Leaving aside LA for the most part, EP engages a discussion on what historical materialism involves as well as why and how one “does” history. This section provides a lot of the raw material for Anderson’s critique of EP.

PART II (Sections IX-XII): Marx’s Method: What is Capital, Capital, Capitalism?

EP reminds the reader the often-forgotten subtitle to Das Kapital: “A Critique of Political Economy.” EP acknowledges that Marx fully deconstructed the structure of liberal political economy, but he says that in doing so Marx became entrapped by his own political economic “anti-structure” with its own “anti-categories” (60/82)—a “political economy” and a “structure” nevertheless, EP tells us. The implication is that LA takes this at face value and thereby “evicts” human agency and process from history in which process is replaced, or rather, subsumed by structure. EP ratchets up the critique with LA’s ahistorical notion of history “as a process without subjects,” dissecting its antinomies within the clockwork mechanics of the base/superstructure metaphor. (Perry Anderon [PA] takes EP to task on this point rather convincingly.)

EP ends this section ridiculing the entire conceptual vocabulary carefully built by LA, visually depicted in the machines (levels, instances, relative autonomy, structure in domination, determination). EP also points to LA’s conflation of analogies or metaphors with concepts and ontologies, rather than epistemological tools (e.g. class as the “motor” of history, “base/superstructure). Together, these aspects of LA’s project allow him to build a closed, clockwork-like orrery, which EP chalks up to an attempt at Grand Theory that stems from an “intellectual agoraphobia” (111/149) induced by the enormity of the unknown, the undeterminate, and the not-yet-determined.

PART III (Sections XIII-XVI): Humanism, Moralism, Stalinism (Final Stop, XVI-XVII: Conclusionism)

Building on the previous arguments, the final sections of the essay are mainly dedicated to positing that Althusserian Marxism amounts to the theoretical structure that underpins and produces Stalinism (posthumously) and other forms of authoritarian, anti-humanist socialisms. The rhetorical link is forged by the claim that both Stalin and LA—including their -isms—similarly regard “people as the bearers of structures (kulaks) and history as a process without a subject” (140/188). I think these claims of Althusser=Stalin are the ones that Perry Anderson refutes most resoundingly, so I won’t rehash them.

Arguments Within English Marxism

Although Perry Anderson (PA) spends considerable time combing through EP’s historical works—chiefly, The Making of the English Working Class and Whigs and Hunters—PA ultimately lodges his critiques within the polemical parameters set by “The Poverty of Theory.” This is slightly unfair because EP, the polemicist and rhetorician, will inevitably contradict EP, the more level-headed historian and theorist. PA acknowledges this, but nonetheless manages to show how certain symptomatic inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the essay have corresponding traces within EP’s deeper historical monographs.

Before getting to more of the book, I think it’s interesting to note the places in which PA says that, on paper, EP and LA are sometimes not that different, for example: 1) the way the legal impinges on various “levels” of 18th Century England’s social formation (69-71) 2) the conceptual affinities between EP’s “human experience” and LA’s “ideology” (80) or 3) EP’s empirical findings would often support a more structuralist account of history than he theorizes for the present and future (47). Note: I’m in no way trying to imply that PA’s goal is some quixotic attempt at a middle ground—well, not only that at least.

PA has less to critique on EP’s condemnation of “empiricism,” as LA understands it. I thought that EP’s critique of Althusser’s anti-empiricism and idealism were some of the strongest parts of “The Poverty of Theory.” Though PA shows these are not without faults and exceptions (cf. 126). (These parts of the book reminded me a lot of Andrew Sayer’s crtical realism in Methodology in Social Science). The chapters on “Agency” and “Marxism” are where PA drags “Poverty of Theory” through strongest critique.

Agency: PA shows the flimsy conceptual elaboration of “experience” and points to EP’s corresponding assumption that the working class somehow comes away with the “right” kind of experience through a hydraulic process of “suffering” producing “resistance.” PA presents the hegemonic work of English nationalism as a counter-example. Through this analysis, PA tries to show how LA’s “levels” and “overdeterminations”—though clearly clunky—do exert greater historical explanatory power. PA situates the faults on this point within EP’s more “voluntarist” view of class mobilization, which PA reminds us is belied by EP’s own historical investigations.

Marxism: Like Anderson, I also balked at EP’s claim that Capital contains “mountainous inconsistency.” PLOP! PA reviews the arguments EP makes about capitalism and Capital (discussed above). In one of his most crushing critiques, PA makes an argument regarding EP’s mangling oversight of LA/Balibar’s innovative distinction between mode of production and the social formation (67-68). PA says that the distinction in tandem with “instances,” “contradictions,” and “determinations” are precisely what allows Althusserians to conceptually and systematically tease apart the varied historical developments of various instances in producing a particular “overdetermined” result. Otherwise, they’d just be saying in “orrery” fashion that everything is related to everything else. Finally, and most egregiously in PA’s view, EP claims—with his notion of “human experience” in hand—that Marx provides no explanation of historical change. To which PA flatly responds: “[Marx’s] thesis that the contradiction between forces of production and relations of production is the deepest spring of long-term historical change” (81).

My Closing Thoughts

Despite some important quibbles, notably around EP’s take on Capital, I finished “Poverty of Theory” rather convinced and thankful to EP for explaining—and performing—the foam-at-the-mouth induced by mention of LA in some quarters. But this makes me all the more thankful to PA for providing a corrective antidote for the extent of my initial reaction. As far as Althusser goes, I’m still mulling over where I stand: I think my head puts me closer to Anderson’s position, but my idealism—in the colloquial sense—puts me closer to Thompson’s position. Of course, all this depends on the concrete problem one is trying to address. Relatedly, I’m not convinced we even have to adopt the terms of the debate (e.g. structure vs. agency) between EP and LA. Or do we? If not, what conceptual tools are we left with?


[1] Page numbers here correspond to the Monthly Review essay collection and, secondly after slash, to the Merlin Press stand alone version.

[2] Hall, S. 1985. “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication” 2(2): 91-114.


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2 Responses to The Poverty of Theory Debate

  1. Pingback: EP Thompson: Moral Economy | Territorial Masquerades

  2. Alexander Ekelund says:

    Beautiful summary!

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