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E.P. Thompson's 'Queen of The Humanities': Class Theory and Historical Materialism.

E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory is a critique of Louis Althusser’s structuralist interpretation of Marxism and it’s relation to discipline of history. In this critique, Thompson defended his formulation of the materialist conception of history, the importance of historical analysis and an outline for the proper use of conceptual abstractions. Thompson’s theoretical framework, that favoured the “empirical idiom”, underpinned his historical work on the English working class. His discussion of working class experience between the 1780s to the early 1830s became a crucial reference point in the class theory of the Marxian tradition and generated much contention and debate with his assertion that class is neither a “structure” or “category”, but a “historical relationship” that is not reducible to economic relations. Thompson attempted to reintroduce human agency into the study of class and redress the failings of economic reductionism that stemmed from the base-superstructure model. Thus, Thompson’s work is at odds with ‘orthodox’ Marxism and draws attention to the difference between class as “structure” and class as “lived experience”. That is, the conflict between structural accounts of class that emphasises the political economy of capitalism and those that conceptualize class in terms of social and cultural formations. However, this tension in class theory needn’t be irresolvable as these two modes of analysis and conceptualization of class are not mutually exclusive. Structural accounts of class, properly employed, are a useful tool for understanding historical processes and historical accounts of class cannot proceed without invoking conceptual frameworks of what constitutes class. Class theory, both with regards to structural approaches and historical analysis, has validity when engaging with both the political economy of class and the historical experiences of class. Insofar as each methodology is applied appropriately and their respective limitations understood.

Class is both a theoretical construct and lived experience. Analytical categories are legitimate to the extent that they are approximations of empirical data and attempt to elucidate actual experience. Thompson’s critique of Orthodox Marxism is based around its perceived processes of sociological reification and economic reductionism that rendered historical hypotheses from the vantage point of overriding economic determination either false or trivial. Class experience cannot be reduced to economic dynamics alone and more comprehensive understandings require a conception of the “dialectical intercourse of social being and social consciousness”. Thus, for Thompson:

“Classes do not exist as abstract, platonic categories, but only as men come to act in roles determined by class objectives, to feel themselves to belong to classes, to define their interests as between themselves as against other classes.”

Thompson’s definition of class quoted above aligns with concept of “class-for-itself” and eschews the category of “class-in-itself” often derived from Marx’s discussion of class in The Poverty of Philosophy and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, though not explicitly categorized as such by Marx it is nevertheless an analytically fertile distinction. The category of class-in-itself refers to a common social position within the relations of production, while class-for-itself denotes a consciousness of this common experience and recognition of the antagonistic interests of opposed classes. However, despite this clear distinction between class-in-itself and class-for-itself the former is never fully explicated within Marx’s overture. In fact, the manuscript of Marx’s final volume of Capital breaks off before answering the question, “What constitutes a class?” Having just defined wage-labours, capitalists and landowners as the three great classes of modern capitalism, Marx identifies the source of each class in their source of income: wages, profits and rents. He then argues that with this division of classes into sources of income, stratification and differentiation can be identified within these social groups. Marx’s truncated discussion of class in Capital does not render class theory invalid, but introduces the complexities of intermediate strata and class fragments not acknowledged in standard accounts of class found in orthodox Marxism. However, Marx maintained that the “continual tendency and law of development of the capitalist mode of production” was ever forming the opposition of labour and capital. And this relation between capital and labour constitutes a structural feature of the capitalist system.

Marx’s account of the political economy of capitalism is based around the opposition of two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He acknowledged the existence of other classes and in later writings noted the increase in a middle stratum between labour and capital, but considered these two social groups and their relationship to be of central importance to defining the modern mode of production that developed in Western Europe after the collapse of feudalism. Moreover, Marx argues the intermediate classes between proletariat and bourgeoisie contributed to the “social security and power of the upper ten thousand”. Thus, while Marx recognized the empirical reality of complex stratification both between and within the classes of 19th century Britain, he still affirmed the dichotomous two-class model as representing the most salient and important features of the economic system.

Marx’s simplification of class relations is based on the observation that the mode of production that prevailed at the time was predicated upon the concentration of the means of production within a concentrated social group and the alienation of the means of production from the majority of the population that formed the ranks of free labour. That is, the relations of production that prevailed at the time were largely divided between the class of individuals who owned the means of production and those who lived by selling their labour power, while the middle stratum occupied a marginal position in the mode of production. Marx’s analytical categories of labour and capital were used to represent the economic dynamics of capitalist social relations, with the production and appropriation of surplus-value that constitutes the “absolute law” of capitalist production. Of course, the historical experience of class cannot be reduced to relations of production and economic categories alone, such an attempt to theorize along those lines would lead to crude economic determinism and neglect the agency of class actors.In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx offers an account of the social position and political role of the peasantry during the tumultuous birth of the second French empire, which illuminates the distinction between class in and for itself alongside the interplay of economic and cultural dynamics. Marx argues:

“In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class”

Though, he continues:

“In so far as there is merely local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interest begets no community…no political organization among them, they do not form a class.”

Thus, in the latter case, while not a class-for-itself the peasantry is not capable of “enforcing their class interest” which is distinct from the proposition that that such a group of individual would not constitute a class. In the historical experience of the French peasantry of the mid-19th century, the peasantry was split into class fractions and the conservative fraction of this class supported the regime of Louis Bonaparte. This historical eventuality was the result of a unique confluence of events and part of any explanation of these events must involve the memory of Napoleon and the glory bestowed on the nation from his military victories. Class consciousness and the dynamic of class conflict are not reducible to economic determinates and relations of production alone, but are always a unique cultural and social formation. In this vein, Thompson argued:

“Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationships with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time – that is, action and reaction, change and conflict”

For Thompson, the experience of class is embedded in historical time and can only be understood as a diachronic phenomenon and that reduction to set of ‘laws’ cannot but be a process of reification that obscures and misconstrues actually historical processes. Therefore, Thompson’s conception of class is centred on the historical experience of individuals and their consciousness of this experience as class consciousness. In Thompson’s formulation, class involves the dialectical interplay of both social being and social consciousness. Contrary to accounts of class in political economy, Thompson does not assign an undialectical determinism to the relations of production in his historically grounded conception of class formation. He argues that relations of production have a determining influence on the lived experience of individuals, but this determining influence does not determine class consciousness. Prior to class consciousness, historical relationships can exhibit “class logics” and “ways”, but this does not represent class in the “full sense”. Moreover Thompson argued, the manifestation of class patterns through the historical continuum cannot be rendered into absolute “laws”, commonalities of experience are discernable, however, these never manifest in exactly same fashion in each historical period. In this view, the formulations of structural theories of class perpetuate sociological reification and incorrectly impose class models on ill-suited historical data.

In The Peculiarities of the English, Thompson criticises Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn historical work on the English class system for imposing class models on inappropriate historical data. Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn in a series of New Left Review articles had advanced a thesis regarding the “symbiosis” of the English bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy in the Glorious Revolution and again with the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 that extended political representation to men of property. In these pieces, Anderson and Nairn criticised the conciliatory temperament of the English bourgeoisie and the effect of this on the English intelligentsia and working class movement. Thompson criticized the authors on multiple points, particularly for their importation of models derived from the French experience of revolution to evaluate and rebuke the English bourgeoisie for their lack of “courage” and the subsequent impact on the working class movement, which was said to have inherited an improvised revolutionary ideology. He objected to Anderson and Nairn’s thesis on the basis that it neglected the unique experience of the English bourgeoisie that militated against the wholesale overthrow of the aristocracy. Throughout this critique, Thompson’s explicit point is that the experience of class constitutes a unique historical, social and cultural formation that cannot be reduced to an a priori model. Of course, Thompson did regard conceptualization to be an important part of historical analysis. He stated: “without the (elastic) category of class – an expectation justified by evidence – I could not have practiced at all”. However, models crafted on a particular historical episode and extrapolated beyond its original realm often produce gross mistakes of historical analysis.

Thompson noted “concepts are approximations”, and this does not render them “fictions”. Conceptualization is vital to the facilitation of understanding, the extent to which actual historical processes deviate from logical schema can be ascertained from empirical observation. Class is both a theoretical construct and lived experience; the concept of class is useful, only in so far as it pertains to the experience of class. Moreover, the political economy of class is not without its usefulness; class relations constitute an important structural feature of the capitalist system. However, class experience cannot be reduced to economic relations and to apprehend class in its full sense requires an understanding of the unique social and cultural formation of each historical episode. The historical outcomes of class-conflict cannot be understood from economic factors alone and the importation of a model from one historical episode to another without sufficient elasticity to accommodate important differences is often inappropriate and can lead to sociological reification. Thompson’s claim that history is the “queen of the humanities” and that political economy must be “superseded” by historical materialism is not without merit when approaching the experience of class. Class-in-itself is an important economic category, but class-for-itself viewed from the unitary perspective of historical materialism centred on the dialectical interplay of social being and social consciousness renders a more nuanced understanding of class.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Andrew, E. (1983), “Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers”, Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 16, No. 3., pp. 577-584.

Johnston, J. and Dolowitz, D.P. (1999), “Marxism and Social Class”, Marxism and Social Science, ed. A. Gaulile, D. Marsh and T. Tant, Basingstoke, Macmilam, pp.129-151.

Kaye, Harvey J. (1984), The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Marx, K. (1919), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. , ed. F. Engels, Translated E. Untermann, Chicago; Charles H. Herr and Company.

Marx, K. (1950), “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Selected Works, Moscow; Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 225-311.

Marx, K. (1986), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Trans Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, Ed. Frederick Engels, Moscow; Progress Publishers.

Thompson, E.P. (1968), The Making of the English Working Class, London; Penguin Books.

Thompson, E.P. (1979), The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London; Merlin Press.


Anonymous said…
Great work.

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