Economics/Class Relations

The Centrality of Social Relations: E.P. Thompson’s Concept of Class and the Renewal of Historical Materialism

By Gary Blank

E. P. Thompson was an avowedly Marxist historian, but did not hide his aversion for what he termed Marx’s “Grundrisseface.” Marx’s critique of political economy, Thompson suggested, only confronted the political economists on their own turf. Marx became entrapped within the “circuits of capital,” developing a highly conceptualized and abstract analysis of the capitalist mode of production in which determinism appeared to be “absolute.” According to Thompson, it was necessary to make the analytical shift from the circuits of capital to capitalismin which the hypotheses of historical materialism were not simply assumed, but shown to be so historically. Against Marx’s allegedly absolute determinism, Thompson posited a “historical” version of determination as the “exerting of pressures” or “logic of process,” in which determinations emanating from one direction are met with countervailing determinations from another.2Without suggesting that the differences between Marx and Thompson are unimportant, however, it is possible to see a similar dialectical method at work between them, at least with respect to historical process and determination. Rather than engaging in a detailed historical account of capitalism’s emergence, Marx sought to identify the “economic law of motion” of capitalism at its highest level of abstraction.3Yet, as Geoffrey Pilling has noted: “The task of Marx’s critique of political

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