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.’footnote1 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.

The critiques elaborated in A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism are rooted in Giddens’s general theory of social structure and agency, his theory of ‘social structuration’. This framework involves complex, and sometimes obscure, prescriptions about what a good social theory must contain. Among other things, Giddens argues, social theories must recognize the knowledgeability and competence of actors; they must be built around a concept of the ‘duality of structure’, in which social structures are viewed as both the medium and outcome of the practices which constitute social systems; temporality must be treated as an intrinsic dimension of social processes; human action must be understood as involving conscious intentionality as well as ‘practical consciousness’, practical knowledge of the workings of society that are discursively inaccessible to actors; and all action must be situated within the unacknowledged conditions of action and the unintended consequences of action. These guidelines to theorizing constitute the heart of Giddens’s ambitious attempt at building a radical critical sociology.

This general framework is laid out in the Introduction and first two chapters of the book. Many readers will find parts of these chapters extremely dense. Very few readers, I imagine, will understand what is meant by a sentence like: ‘The chronic interpenetration of presence and absence, the symbolic interpolation of the absent within the presence of the continuity of everyday activities, is a peculiar characteristic of human social life as contrasted to that of animals’.footnote2 Giddens directs the reader to his earlier work, Central Problems of Social Theory,footnote3 for clarifications of this conceptual apparatus, but unfortunately that earlier book is even more difficult to decipher than A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Fortunately, once the more schematic conceptual discussions at the beginning of the book are finished, most of the rest of A Contemporary Critique is clear and engaging. And while the arguments throughout the book do draw on concepts introduced in the more opaque discussions, nevertheless the book can be fruitfully read even if the introductory conceptual material is not fully understood.

In this essay I will not attempt a general assessment and summary of the theory of social structuration itself. Instead I will focus on the core theme of the book: the critique of the Marxist account of the forms and development of societies and the elaboration of some of the essential elements of an alternative macro-structural theory.

The heart of Giddens’s argument revolves around three interconnected problems: (1) The methodological principles for analysing the interconnectedness of different aspects of society within a social whole or ‘totality’; (2) the strategy for elaborating classification typologies of forms of societies; and (3) the theory of the movement or transition of societies from one form to another within such a typology. Giddens criticizes what he considers to be the Marxist treatment of each of these issues: functionalism in Marxist analyses of the social totality; economic or class reductionism in the typologies of societies rooted in the concept of mode of production; and evolutionism in the theory of the transformation of social forms. In place of these central errors, Giddens offers the rudiments of his general theory of social structuration: instead of functionalism, social totalities are analysed as contingently reproduced social systems; instead of class and economic reductionism, forms of society are differentiated on the basis of a multidimensional concept of ‘space-time distanciation’; and instead of evolutionism, transformations of social forms are understood in terms of what Giddens calls ‘episodic transitions’. These critiques and alternatives are summarized in Table 1 below.