EP Thompson, Marx, and bad abstractions
[Warning: heavy stuff ahead! This is another exercise in the minutae of Marxology, not to mention Thompsonology, drawing on my PhD research. For something more enjoyable, you could always go here.]
Last Friday I blogged about some scholars who have tried to use Marx's late writing on non-capitalist societies to correct the misapprehension that the hairy guy was an apologist for unconstrained capitalism and imperialism. One of the first commentators to sense the significance of Marx's late work for arguments like these was British historian EP Thompson in his 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'.
'The Poverty of Theory' was intended primarily as an attack on the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser, and his followers in British universities, but it could not avoid being, in part at least, an exercise in Marxology. The Althusserians that EP Thompson was criticising in his essay had usually wrapped their arguments in close readings of key texts by Marx. Althusser's claim to have discovered the true path of Marx's career, and to have differentiated the 'scientific' and 'non-scientific' aspects of his thought, was perhaps the most inflammatory of the many inflammatory arguments in his calssic books For Marx and Reading Capital.
In the 1960s and '70s Marx's oeuvre seemed to be growing. A new generation was giving the 1844 Manuscripts the attention they deserved, and the Grundrisse was finally being widely translated and interpreted. Althusser's curt dismissal of the 1844 Manuscripts and the rest of Marx's early work, and his claim that not even Capital, let alone the Grundrisse, was 'fully' Marxist, struck many scholars and activists as a renewal of the attempts that the leaderships of 'official' Communist Parties had made to limit the reading and discussion of Marx in the bad old days when ‘comrade Stalin’ had set the parameters for Marxology. Even if he used intellectual rather than bureaucratic methods, Althusser seemed to many of his detractors to be determined to impose a single, inflexible interpretation of Marx on a new generation which had little time for the orthodoxies of the past, and to proscribe those parts of Marx's oeuvre which did not fit with his interpretation.
EP Thompson makes it abundantly clear throughout 'The Poverty of Theory' that he does not accept Althusser and his followers' claims to be 'completing' Marx's thought. It would be difficult for him to maintain such a stance without at least sketching his alternative view of the meaning of Marx's life and work. Thompson provides such a view in sections nine and fifteen of 'The Poverty of Theory'. These two sustained excursions into Marxology take up thirty-four pages, or about a sixth of the total text, and are complemented by remarks scattered through most of the other fifteen sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. A pattern emerges when we examine the responses reviewers made to the Marxological sections of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Critics of Thompson's text have tended to make the interpretations of Marx a focus of their attacks. Supporters of Thompson, by contrast, have tended to pass over the Marxology, and discuss other aspects of 'The Poverty of Theory', like its eloquent defence of the art and craft of history, or the elaborate and occasionally amusing lampoons of Althusser and his theoretical progeny. Both defenders and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory' have made many references to the supposed unorthodoxy of Thompson's interpretation of Marx. More than a few commentators from both camps have decided that the essay is the work of an ex-Marxist.
Perry Anderson's book Arguments within English Marxism includes a chapter on the Marxological arguments in 'The Poverty of Theory'. Like the book to which it belongs, Anderson's chapter is a careful mixture of sympathy and firm criticism. Because Anderson’s discussion does a generally good job of summarising Thompson's dispersed and lengthy interpretation of Marx, and because his response to that interpretation mirrors the responses of many commentators, we can make it the basis for our a discussion of the Marxology of 'The Poverty of Theory'.
Anderson begins by suggesting that 'The Poverty of Theory' 'proposes a complete new account of Marx and of Marxism'. As Anderson notes, Thompson believes that Marx was the inventor of historical materialism, and that the goal of historical materialism is a 'unitary knowledge of society'. The 'charter' for historical materialism was set out in the 1840s, in texts like The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, and The Communist Manifesto. Those works were tremendously promising, but in the 1850s Marx wandered off the trail they had opened up. He had become 'hypnotised' by bourgeois political economy, and the result was the Grundrisse, a text that substitutes arid economic categories for the real world, and (mis)understands history as the faux-Hegelian self-unfolding of these categories, rather than as the product of the ideas and actions of real men and women. In the 1860s Marx partially 'corrected himself', in Thompson’s words, as the influence of the First International, the British labour movement, and Darwin's Origin of Species made him think in less economistic and less teleological terms.
Despite the advances of the 1860s and the fact that it is considered Marx's magnum opus, Capital is for Thompson a 'mountainous inconsistency'. Tour de forces like the chapter on primitive accumulation are juxtaposed with the sort of arid, reductionist abstractions that filled the Grundrisse. Anderson puts it well when he says that Marx was guilty, in Thompson's eyes, of the 'extrapolation of the purely economic categories of capital from the full social process'. In other words, Thompson believes that Marx sometimes confuses capital with capitalism. The metaphor of base and superstructure contributes to this error, because it encourages the tendency to reduce the intricate ideological, cultural, political, and legal 'superstructures' of a society to mere epiphenomena of a simplified model of that society's economic system.
Anderson notes Thompson's argument that the elderly Engels became aware of the weakness in Capital and tried, in his famous Letters on Historical Materialism, to rectify the dogmatic schematism it was helping create in a generation of self-proclaimed Marxists. Unfortunately, the warnings in Engels' letters were not always heeded. In the twentieth century, according to Thompson, Marxist historians have resumed the quest for a 'unitary knowledge of society' that Marx began so brilliantly in the 1840s. In the process, they have discovered a crucial lacuna in Marx's ideas. Without an explanation for how the conceptual modes of production Marx discovered and the real 'historical process' actually correspond, Marxists have struggled to avoid either economic determinism, which reduces diverse societies to a few simple economic formulae, or a sort of hopeless particularism, which treats every society as unique, and struggles to make useful generalisations across time and space.
Thompson compares the absence in Marx's thinking to Darwin's inability to explain how mutations are transmitted during the process of evolution. Just as Mendelian genetics filled the absence in Darwin's thinking, so the Marxist historian's concept of 'human experience' has filled the gap in Marx's thinking. It is human experience which relates the conceptual models Marx created to the real world and its history. To understand human experience, though, it is necessary to go beyond the writings of Marx and Engels, and encounter the ethical, utopian socialism of William Morris. Morris' emphasis on the importance of culture, ideas, and ethics to the lives of individual humans and the movement of history is taken up, according to Thompson, in the work of twentieth century Marxist historians. The result is the crucial concept of human experience, which becomes a sort of mediation between the 'objective' world of economics and the 'subjective' life of the individual. In one of the more famous passages of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ Thompson explains that:
Experience walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law.
Thompson insists that the shortcomings of Marx and Engels mean that Marxism as a science or 'high theory' must be rejected. Nor can the notion of a single Marxist tradition, which Thompson advanced in the 'Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', be sustained. Althusser and his cohorts comprise one of many strains of a 'theological' and 'irrational' Marxism which is locked in mortal combat with the 'reasoning' Marxism that Thompson identifies with. Thompson's tradition is marked by 'open, empirical inquiry, originating in the work of Marx, and employing, developing, and revising his concepts'. Both tendencies, or traditions, can be traced back to Marx and his inconsistencies.
Perry Anderson thinks that the Marxological sections of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ represent the ‘most novel’ part of the whole essay. Thompson has produced 'a quite new reading of Marx's intellectual trajectory' because he privileges 'neither the early philosophical writings nor the late economic works, but instead accords central importance to the polemical texts of the mid-40s'. It is not hard to take Anderson's talk of the originality of Thompson's Marxology as a rather backhanded compliment. 'Novel' seems a proxy for ‘eccentric’, because Anderson's praise is followed by a series of attacks on the credibility of two key points in Thompson's argument.
Anderson argues that the 'unitary knowledge of society' that Thompson expects from Marx was simply not possible in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the human sciences were in their infancy and much of the world of political economy remained a mystery even to Marx and Engels. Had Marx tried to write the encyclopedic text that Anderson associates with the goal of a 'unitary knowledge of society', then he would have ended up with something like Kautsky's, rambling, speculative, rather pretentious The Materialist Conception of History, rather than the rigorous work of science that is Capital. Marx had to launch the project of historical materialism somewhere, and he chose the field of political economy, because historical materialism asserted that the economy played the ultimately decisive role in any society. The intense studies in political economy recorded rather artlessly in the Grundrisse were the foundation stone of the house of historical materialism:
To establish a secure notion of the ‘economic structure’ of society is not thereafter to preclude or compromise historical study of its cultural or political ‘superstructures’, but to facilitate it. Without the construction of a theory of the mode of production in the first instance, any attempt to produce a ‘unitary knowledge of society’ could only have yielded an eclectic interactionism.
Anderson also upbraids Thompson for his objections to the base-superstructure metaphor and the use of the concept of mode of production, unmediated by the concept of 'human experience', outside the discipline of political economy. Anderson feels that Thompson's objections are irrational, given that he (supposedly) accepts the 'determinate nature of the base of modes of production'. Anderson perceives that Thompson is afraid of the prospect of economic reductionism, but he insists that this is not a necessary consequence of using the concept of mode of production or the base-superstructure metaphor in a field like history. (In one of the best passages in Arguments within English Marxism, Anderson goes on to show that Althusser's notion of mode or production is compatible with Thompson's own work as a historian in Whigs and Hunters. )
We have noted that Anderson gives a reasonable summary of Thompson's arguments about Marx, and that he outlines reservations that seem common amongst both admirers and critics of 'The Poverty of Theory'. But Anderson's case against Thompson's reading of Marx is redundant, because it rests on a misinterpretation of Thompson's concept of 'unitary knowledge of society'. Anderson takes 'unitary' to mean something like 'total' or 'comprehensive', and assumes that Thompson wanted Marx to follow The Communist Manifesto up with some sort of communist encyclopedia. (Anderson is quite correct, of course, when he says that such an undertaking would be quixotic; he is also justified in ridiculing The Materialist Conception of History, which nowadays reads less like a history and description of the world than a catalogue of the prejudices of Second International Marxism.)
What Thompson actually means by a 'unitary knowledge of society' is a knowledge that takes into account the diverse levels - ideological, political, cultural, economic - on which any society exists. Thompson has nothing against detailed investigations of a particular aspect of a society, but he insists that the subject under investigation should not be isolated in the sort of conceputal pigeonholes that the base-superstructure metaphor encourages. Thompson rejects the base-superstructure metaphor not because he rejects political economy in toto, but because he denies that the economy can be usefully analysed for long in isolation from 'superstructural' phenomena like culture and the law. When Thompson talks of a 'unitary knowledge of society' he is not naively expecting the impossible of Marx, but rather making an argument against the abstractions that Marx often chose to employ in the Grundrisse and in Capital.
We can grasp the last point more firmly if we remind ourselves of the nature of Marx's dialectical method of analysing and presenting his material. As Bertell Ollman has explained, Marx's dialectical method is based upon the abstracting of discrete elements of the very complex reality which surrounds human beings:
the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts…Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs…‘Abstract’ comes from the Latin, abstractere, which means ‘to pull from’. In effect, a piece has been pulled from or taken out of the whole and is temporarily perceived as standing apart…a focus is established and a kind of boundary set…
Anderson, of course, is suggesting that Thompson did not understand the sort of point Ollman makes here. According to Anderson, Thompson did not understand that Marx could not study 'everything at once', and had to abstract certain features of capitalism and its pre-history to write Capital. Other commentators on 'The Poverty of Theory' have levelled the same charge. In a long, angry essay called 'The Necessity of Theory', Paul Q Hirst accused Thompson of believing that 'Capital is doomed' because 'its method of analysis of economic relations through categories in abstraction contradicts the nature of historical research'. In his generally more positive response to 'The Poverty of Theory', Bill Schwartz convicts Thompson of the same mistake:
no-one can deny that problems exist in Capital, but what Thompson does is reject the text itself, in its totality...for the reason that it is built up out of abstractions...Abstraction itself is ahistorical [according to Thompson], as it disrupts the real historical process and is thus inherently reductionist.
Charges like these are not upheld by a careful reading of 'The Poverty of Theory'. Thompson does not reject Capital 'in its totality', and he does not convict Marx of failing to write an encyclopedia. Near the end of the Marxological discussion in section nine of his essay, he explains that Capital, while 'immensely fruitful as hypothesis', requires 'supercession' at the hands of contemporary historical materialism:
How could it be otherwise? To suppose differently would be to suppose, not only that everything can be said at once, but that immanent Theory (or Knowledge) found its miraculous embodiment in Marx, not fully mature to be sure (it had yet to develop to Althusser's full stature), but already perfectly formed and perfectly proportioned in its parts. This is a fairy story, recited to children in Soviet primary classes, and not even believed by them.
Thompson's ridicule of the idea that 'everything can be said at once' makes it clear that, to him at least, 'unitary knowledge' does not mean complete knowledge. And, far from dismissing dialectics and the method of abstraction at its heart, Thompson criticises his opponents for being insufficiently dialectical:
The eviction of dialectics from the Althusserian system is deplorable...in my own work as a historian I have...come to bring dialectics, not as this or that 'law' but as a habit of thinking...into my own analysis.
Insisting that 'the dialectic was not Hegel's private property', Thompson points to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and to a related tradition of poetic and mystical writing, arguing that they influenced Marx, and should be read today by scholars of Marx. For Thompson, the static, ultra-structural quality of Althusserian thought is partly the convergence of a forgetfulness about dialectics. What Thompson is questioning in 'The Poverty of Theory' is not Marx's dialectical method, but rather the restricted range of the dialectical abstractions Marx employs in parts of Capital and in the Grundrisse. He believes that too many of these abstractions suffer from ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’, because they have separated human economic activity from the rest of human activity.
Thompson is quite correct when he writes that different parts of Capital employ quite different levels of abstraction. He appreciated the chapters which understood aspects of political economy by abstracting them as part of historical processes involving non-economic forces. Many commentators on Capital have noted the sudden and dramatic entrances that history makes into the text. Discussing the chapter on the length of the working day that occurs about halfway through the first volume of Capital, Anthony Brewer notes that:
A much larger and more dramatic canvas emerges [here]...the concepts here have not been given the same rigorous theoretical foundations as the strictly economic concepts used so far. The argument is much looser.
The chapter on primitive accumulation that closes volume one of Capital was one that Thompson admired for its fusion of political economy and history. By bringing together the concept of capital accumulation and the actual history of the enclosures in one abstraction, Marx provides a foundation for concrete historical investigations into the transition from feudalism to capitalism, modernisation, and urbanism. The moral outrage that marks his discussion of primitive accumulation would also have delighted Thompson. Yet there is, for Thompson, a tension present even in the best parts of Capital:
the history in Capital...is immensely fruitful as hypothesis; and yet as hypothesis which calls into question, again and again, the adequacy of the categories of Political Economy.
It should be obvious that Thompson's objections to the base-superstructure model are intimately connected to his objections to the categories of ‘stasis’ and ‘closure’ that mar the Grundrisse and parts of Capital. Thompson opposes the model not because he is an idealist who thinks that the 'superstructure' fell from the sky, or because he resists the necessity to abstract discrete aspects of reality, but because he contests the possibility of usefully thinking about 'basis' and the 'superstructure' in isolation from one another. In 'History and Anthropology', the talk he gave in Emergency India on the last day of 1976, Thompson outlined the case against the basis-superstructure model:
However much the notion is sophisticated, however subtly it has on many occasions been employed, the analogy of basis and superstructure is radically defective. It cannot be repaired. It has an in-built tendency to lead the mind toward reductionism or a vulgar economic determinism, by sorting out human activities and attributes and placing some (as law, the Arts, Religion, ‘Morality’) in a superstructure, others (as technology, economics, the applied sciences) in a basis, and leaving yet others (as linguistics, work- discipline) to float unhappily in-between.
In 'The Poverty of Theory' the same argument is levelled at much greater length; Anderson does not grasp its terms, because he does not understand that Thompson objects not to abstraction per se, but to a certain type of abstraction.
The Missing Marx
The false moves in Anderson's argument are connected to a small but telling omission from his summary of Thompson's account of Marx's career. Anderson gives a great deal of attention to Thompson's praise for the 1840s texts and criticisms of the 'classic' works of political economy, but he ignores Thompson's suggestion that in his last decade Marx reconsidered some of the Grundrisse and Capital, and retreated from the 'whirlpool' of political economy that had threatened to swallow him. Thompson writes that:
I have argued that Marx himself was, for a time, trapped within the circuits of capital – an immanence manifesting itself in ‘forms’ – and that he only partly sprung that trap in Capital…How far Marx himself ever became fully aware of his imprisonment is a complex question…we should note that Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth.
These brief sentences are intended to draw attention to the vast amount of energy that Marx expended studying pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist societies during the last decade of his life. Thompson's reference to these late and still relatively obscure labours plays a cruical part in the account he offers in 'The Poverty of Theory' of the development of Marx's thought. As I noted in last Friday's post, a succession of scholars who have followed Thompson have shown that the late Marx abandoned the dangerous faith in capitalism and colonialism apparent in works like The Communist Manifesto, and from the sharp focus on political economy of the Grundrisse and Capital. In his last decade, Marx emphasised as never before the cost of industrialisation and other features of capitalist 'progress', insisted on the importance of the state, ideology, and other 'superstructural' factors to the growth of capitalism, and argued that pre- and semi-capitalist countries could achieve socialism without having to move through a 'stage' of capitalist development. The result was a series of rich but unfinished texts which both complement and revise the arguments in Capital.
Without the reference to the late work, Thompson might easily seem to be taking a quite negative view of the course of Marx's career. If Capital is the endpoint of that career, then Thompson's unfavourable comparisons of Capital to some of the works of the 1840s might suggest that Marx's was a story of a promise lost in the ‘whirlpool’ of political economy. When the reference to the late Marx is considered, though, then Thompson seems to be saying that Marx reached a sort of nadir in the 1850s with the Grundrisse, then recovered some of his balance and scope with Capital, and then, his detour into political economy over, resumed the quest for the 'unitary knowledge of society' that the 1840s had promised. If his career took this shape, then Marx made an implicit but profound self-criticism, and perhaps even took a view of the Grundrisse and Capital not entirely dissimilar to the one Thompson advances.
By ignoring Thompson's reference to Marx's post-Capital work, Anderson misrepresents Thompson's entire account of Marx's career. It is no surprise that commentators who have deemed 'The Poverty of Theory' an exercise in post- or anti-Marxism have also ignored the reference to Marx's late work.
The account of Marx’s thought in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ took some time to exert an influence over other Marxist scholars. As we noted earlier, the reaction to reviewers was either to highlight the supposed weakness of Thompson’s Marxology or else, if they were favourably inclined toward the rest of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, to pass it over in silence. Eventually, though, Thompson's words began to exert an influence. Franklin Rosemont’s important essay on Marx's late work included a frank acknowledgement of the significance of Thompson's arguments:
The most insightful commentary on these Notebooks has naturally come from writers far outside the mainstream - "Marxist" as well as academic. Historian, antiwar activist and Blake scholar E. P. Thompson, in his splendid polemic, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, was among the first to point out that "Marx, in his increasing preoccupation in his last years with anthropology, was resuming the projects of his Paris youth."
The tribute Rosemont pays is well deserved. With the benefit of a quarter century of scholarship by a succession of advocates of Marx’s late work, we can see the full meaning of the account of Marx’s career that Thompson gave in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. Most importantly, we can see the relationship between Thompson’s criticisms of Capital and his endorsement of Marx’s late work. Thompson’s view that the concepts in much of the Grundrisse and parts of Capital needed to be broadened to take in history and the ‘superstructure’, his insistence on the necessity of investigating the uniqueness of individual societies and events, and not subordinating them to the prescription of some universal history, and his inveterate opposition to economic reductionism have all been echoed in the work of a series of Marxologists. The reading of Marx that Perry Anderson and many others considered eccentric and obviously mistaken has proved remarkably resilient.