E.P. Thompson

The Poverty of Theory

or an Orrery of Errors


Digitalized by Mark R. Baker on November 11, 2010. Marked-up by Jonas Holmgren for the Marxists Internet Archive.

“To leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality”
Karl Marx


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. As a historian and as a writer on political matters he was concerned to examine particular problems rather than to enunciate overarching general principles. He approached his subject matter certainly with expectations - even assumptions - which were to be tested against the evidence. Such prior conceptions often demanded new kinds of evidence, and one of Edward’s contributions to historiography was that he, along with others of his generation, opened up new sources for the study of past societies as well as interrogating many existing sources in new ways. He came from a tradition of Marxist historiography, but always preferred to refer to a tradition rather than a system. Towards the end of his life he ceased to consider himself a ‘Marxist’ - not because he no longer respected the tradition, but because the term had acquired a quasi-religious connotation which seemed to involve arguments which were irrelevant to the fruitful development of the positive elements in the tradition. He preferred to call himself a ‘historical materialist’.

Why then did he write this essay? He had read the works of Louis Althusser and found very little in them to affect his work. There have been numerous proponents of closed systems in religious thought and at the fringes of philosophy whose work has not concerned historians to any great extent. The basic platonic mode of thought by which human endeavour is to be judged by its degree of approximation to a pre-existing ideal is to be found in most system of religious thought in which the teacher, by exegetic or hermeneutic means extracts the truth from some form of holy writ. That there have been elements of such an approach in some forms of Marxist writing cannot be denied, but on the whole the historians who were writing in the tradition in the fifties and sixties were more interested in Marx as a major intellectual influence than as a prophet. When Althusser appeared on the scene he made little impact on practising 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. We had been attending a series of international seminars on Social History in Paris, and found that scholars who shared our outlook in France, Germany and the United States were having the same experience. Edward read up all the relevant published work and packed volumes and notes into a car and we set out to spend a fortnight out of the tourist season on the shore of Lake Garda. We walked in the hills each morning, had lunch and then spent the afternoon and evening writing. So this essay was actually written in two weeks of intensive work, being argued about and corrected as it went along. It was intended as a polemical statement and written for a particular moment.

Of course it produced responses. Some of these emerged at an extraordinary evening at a History Workshop conference in Oxford in December 1979. This was for some reason held in a dimly-lit ruined building, and had been set up as a discussion. It ended up however as an emotionally-charged event whose repercussions continued for months if not for years. Unfortunately the paper to which Edward was replying which had particularly annoyed him when he saw it a short time before the debate, seems to have been completely re-written for the published version.[1] Nevertheless, the point to which he took particular exception is explained in his published reply - his categorisation as a ‘culturalist'. At the end of the evening a leading History Workshop character asked whether he would continue to publish relevant material. Edward replied that he thought he would not be publishing much of anything for a while, since he felt that his time would be taken up in trying to organise opposition to the sighting of cruise missiles in Britain. The answer was ‘cruise what Edward?’

As a definitive work of ‘theory’ the essay has many shortcomings. It is much more a defence of history than an exposition of an alternative to Althusser’s views of Marxism. Edward saw the dispute not only as a scholarly one, but as the tackling of a set of intellectual assumptions which in politics could be taken to justify Stalinism and the discredited methods of the old Communist parties. Readers of Althusser’s autobiography, a strangely haunting volume which is now available in English as well as French[2] may feel that the gulf between the two writers lies not only in their different intellectual approaches but in their whole lives. Perhaps one may even use the despised word 'experience’?

Dorothy Thompson


Contents | The Poverty of Theory



[1] (ed) Raphael Samuel, People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 375-409.

[2] Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, New Press, New York, 1993.


Last updated on: 7.30.2016