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New Left Review I/138, March-April 1983


Erik Olin Wright

Giddens’s Critique of Marxism

Critiques of historical materialism tend to be one of two types: either they are hostile attacks by anti-Marxists intent on demonstrating the falsity, perniciousness or theoretical anachronism of Marxism, or they are reconstructive critiques from within the Marxist tradition attempting to overcome theoretical weaknesses in order to advance the Marxist project. In these terms, Anthony Giddens’s book, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, is a rare work: an appreciative critique by a non-Marxist of the Marxist tradition in social theory. While finding a great deal that is wrong with basic assumptions and general propositions in Marxism, Giddens also argues that ‘Marx’s analysis of the mechanisms of capitalist production. . . .remains the necessary core of any attempt to come to terms with the massive transformations that have swept the world since the eighteenth century.’ [1] Macmillan, London 1982, p. 1 (hereafter cc). Indeed, there are certain specific discussions in the book—such as the use of the labour theory of value and the analysis of the capitalist labour process—in which Giddens’s position is closer than many contemporary Marxists’ to orthodox Marxism. The book is thus not a wholesale rejection of Marxism, but rather an attempt at a genuine ‘critique’ in the best sense of the word—a deciphering of the underlying limitations of a social theory in order to appropriate in an alternative framework what is valuable in it. While, as I attempt to show, I think many of Giddens’s specific arguments against historical materialism are unsatisfactory, the book is a serious engagement with Marxism and deserves a serious reading by both Marxists and non-Marxists.

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