2 Themes in Marxist Social Theory

INJURED and feeling betrayed by Leszek Kolakowski's having arrived at a 'point of negation' in his passage from a Marxist humanism to an anti-Marxism, Edward Thompson composed an open letter to Kolakowski in the early 1970s containing a spirited defence of Marxism as 'a plurality of conflicting voices which, nevertheless, argue within a common tradition. The notion of a tradition, Thompson proposed, has the advantage of allowing for diversity by bringing all parts of the Marxist inheritance under scrutiny without dissolving Marxism into part of the common inheritance of all contemporary social theory and social science.1

In his polemic, Thompson usefully contrasted the idea of a tradition, drawn from literary criticism, with other ways the ideas offered by Marxism might be classified, especially the temptation of a self-contained, self-sufficient Marxism claim-

____________________
1
Thompson chastised Kolakowski for stepping outside the bounds of the Marxist tradition, characterized by 'the very stature, universality, originality, and power of Marx's work; the disciplines he commanded and reshaped; his characteristic methods and preoccupations; the many voices added to the tradition since his death; and the extent of contemporary Marxist discourse. The tradition exists. It has defined itself in Marx's work and in the evolution (contradictory as that is) of his ideas. The point is (if one affirms this tradition as one's own) less to define the tradition than to define where one stands within it.' Here, for the moment, I am concerned more to define the elements, challenges, and problems of the tradition than to define where I stand with regard to it. E. P. Thompson, 'An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski', in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1974. London: Merlin Press, 1974, 24-5. This essay has been reprinted in what may now be the more accessible source: E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. London: Merlin Press, 1978, 92-192. Embedded in this letter are some of Thompson's best discussions of such conceptual issues as the meaning of 'contradiction, 'law', 'logic of system', and 'reform' within Marxism.

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