Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors Paperback – 29 Feb 1996
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This essay, "The Poverty of Theory: Or an Orrery of Errors", is a 200-ish page demolishing of Althusser and the Althusserian tendency within socialist theory. With excellent wit, insight and a clear writing style Thompson shows how Althusser has fallen into every possible idealist trap while trying to maintain a Marxism of the kind that Marx himself constantly warned against. The theses and claims of Althusser, with all their philosophical posturing and word-games, are revealed as being mostly meaningless and if not that, quite dangerously wrong. Especially Althusser's total failure to understand the procedures of historical science is brilliantly demonstrated. This essay should be required reading for any Marxist interested in philosophy and in particular those sympathetic to structuralism.
The second essay is called "Outside the Whale", and is a general critique of the conservative, apathetic political stance of intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, ranging from Orwell to Kingsley Amis. Thompson uses the likes of Wordsworth and Blake to defend the possibility of progress and the importance of being politically engaged. This essay is short, but effective, and contains many memorable phrases.
Next comes "The Peculiarities of the English", which is, despite what one would expect from an essay with that title, not a discussion of the peculiarities of the English but a rebuttal of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn. These had, in different articles, denigrated British history and the British classes as not conforming to their expectations of societal progress. Thompson both refutes this and criticizes the 'platonist' tendency to use concepts like "the Revolution" and "the Bourgeoisie" as models to which real history should aspire and conform. This essay has been used now and then to accuse E.P. Thompson of petty nationalism for Britain, but considering the real content that makes one wonder whether those accusers have actually read it. In any case the debate between Thompson and Anderson is a little passé now, but it may be of some interest to Marxist historians and historiographers.
The last essay is probably the most famous, and infamous, one Thompson has written: his "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski". The 'letter' is a response to Kolakowski's justified anger at socialists and their stance towards Soviet society, published as "Responsibility and History" in the literary magazine Nowa Kultura. E.P. Thompson agrees fully with Kolakowski's polemics against the Soviet state and society, but tries at the same time to defend socialism in general and Marxism in particular as an intellectual 'approach', one that should not in his view be permanently tainted with the blood of Stalin's (and others') victims. The essay itself is difficult to judge on its merits, so the reader had better decide for herself. In any case Kolakowski was not at all pleased with it and wrote an angry rebuttal, to which Thompson never responded, saying that he felt it did not address what he had meant. The debate between the two has had some renewed interest recently, with Tony Judt writing about it in the New York Review of Books (because of the new one-volume edition of Kolakowski's "Main Currents of Marxism") of last month, obviously supporting Kolakowski. Judt's article is quite silly but may be a good introduction to this essay for the novice.
Altogether, this essay collection is very worthwhile, both because of its content and because of the highly entertaining and stimulating writing style of the author. A must-have for socialists.