By E.P. Thompson
This book (the first of two volumes of E. P. Thompson's collected political essays) brings together four major statements in a consistent examination of the theory and practice of a democratic communist movement. The first three essays have already appeared, two of them being now out of print. The first, OUTSIDE THE WHALE (1959) was an influential statement of the early New Left, PECULIARITIES OF THE ENGLISH (1965) is now acknowledged as a central text in the interpretation of modern British history, and OPEN LETTER TO KOLAKOWSKI (1973) discusses the predicament of socialist critics of orthodox communism.
The fourth essay, which makes up nearly half of this book and which is published here for the first time, is THE POVERTY OF THEORY. This 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 at "Marxism'. In converging shafts of 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 the essay echoes The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx's annihilating attack on Proudhon, which, like Engels' Anti-Duhring, is a work read long after its subject has been consigned to oblivion.
E P Thompson as a leading member of the democratic opposition within the Communist Party in 1956, and subsequently of the founders of the New Left. He is the author of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (Revised edition Merlin Press 1977). The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Whigs and Hunters (1975) and other historical writing and editor of Out of Apathy (1960), and (with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall) of the May Day Manifesto (1967 and 1968).