The discourse of sociology, though never at the heart of modern bourgeois culture, has always seemed pivotal to the critical self-understanding of modernity. Unlike the other major disciplines, sociology has presented itself simultaneously as a special science of structural patterns and as a totalizing search for social meaning. In the former mode, sociology has sought to summarize and codify the results of systematic research into a broad range of social institutions and social problems; in the latter mode sociology has persistently cast itself as either philosophical underlabourer for the human sciences or as their most general level of substantive explanation. Whether posing positivistically as the science of society, or hermeneutically as the recovery of the meanings that constitute social interaction, sociology has been the most intrinsically ambitious of the modern academic formations, and for just that reason also the most frustrating and uncertain.

In a benchmark essay written many years ago,footnote1Perry Anderson characterized classical sociology as the mature bourgeois intellectual response to historical materialism. With some admiration, Anderson went on to place American structural-functionalism, for all its familiar flaws, as the inheritor of that grand theoretical project, with British social ‘theory’ by contrast seen as cravenly tied to empiricist protocols and measly reformist imperatives. Less respectful of the Parsons generation, Robin Blackburn’s companion piece of the time decisively bracketed functionalism off as a quintessentially bourgeois ideology: grand theory, undoubtedly, but false rather than merely flawed.footnote2 The most sustained new left treatment of sociology, combining Anderson with Althusser, was Göran Therborn’s 1976 text Science, Class and Society. footnote3However, whilst it radiated the hubristic confidence of its problematic, this insightful work considerably eased the tension between sociology and Marxism. The latter was to be deemed superior, of course, but this was more to do with history being on its side, rather than sociology being condemned as anything like ‘false consciousness’. Sociology and historical materialism were both ‘valid’ sciences, Therborn argued—coexisting and possibly incommensurable knowledge forms rather than plainly antagonistic ones. The emerging ‘crisis’ of sociology in the 1970s, for Therborn, was not so much a reflection of its inadequate categories, or its unrespectable procedures, or the ideological inclinations of its practitioners; the crisis simply signalled that sociology’s time was almost up, and that the day of the (complex) Marxist science of society was only just dawning.

Strangely, since that time there have been few sustained considerations, from a left perspective, on the nature of sociology, or its relationship with Marxism, and the reasons will be familiar enough. In spite of Therborn’s implied caution that it was still early days for Marxism, the crisis that enveloped sociology as he wrote quickly spread to Marxism itself, and to left theorizing more generally. And for many of the same reasons. The intellectual structure of feeling from the late 1970s onwards became increasingly inimical to claims to found a true social science, and, indeed, to claims for any sort of conceptual totalization. The ‘maleness’ of the rationalist cast of mind that both sociology and Marxism alike engendered and presupposed was subjected to profound feminist and psychoanalytic critique. The close connection between strivings for Correctness in Theory and social exclusiveness and homogeneity in politics and personal life seemed inappropriate for the burgeoning social pluralism of the day. Within the academy, in fact, the undertow of methodological pluralism in sociology came to seem attractive once more when compared to the apparent monism of Marxism.footnote4 Yet there were livelier sources of plurality farther beyond sociology, which by the 1980s was increasingly portrayed as an ‘established’, and therefore temperamentally conservative disciplinary subculture. The social institutions and social ‘problems’ studied by sociology, moreover, were predominantly the institutions of the West, the North and the ‘centre’ rather than those of the East, the South and the marginal. And whilst Marxism still provided a rich vein for all manner of oppositional thought, Marxism viewed as any sort of self-sufficient and superior ‘system’—a sociology in effect—became stigmatized in the growing ‘postcolonial’ consciousness. Marxism was thus re-envisioned as the ‘official opposition’ rather than an authentic historical alternative to bourgeois European orthodoxies.footnote5Empirical changes in the nature and proportions of the ‘typical’ class structures of capitalist modernity heightened the sense that, far from a new Marxist era dawning, historical materialism was being eclipsed alongside other elements in the modernist constellation. Then: 1989 and all that.

Such background pressures made their impact on the few attempts to address the interface between historical materialism and sociology that surfaced during the 1980s. To take one significant trajectory, Erik Olin Wright’s work has been sustained under the sign of Marxism’s governing categories, but Wright has been more emphatic in subjecting critiques of historical materialism to sustained criticism than in any simple assertion of Marxism’s superiority over sociology.footnote6 Indeed, for Wright, the saving of Marxism requires that each of its three major ‘nodes’—the theory of history, class analysis, and an emancipatory class politics—must not only be thoroughly revised, but also must be regarded as a separately arguable project. In terms of theoretical style, Wright became a convert to the ‘analytical’ mode of conceptual development, a discourse which has been explicitly sceptical of the traditional ‘dialectical’ claims made for the Marxist method. Whatever the merits of this scenario, it results in a propositionally ‘weak’ Marxism and the disintegration of its traditional ‘indissoluble’ nucleus of theory and practice, removing thereby the most important features of Marxist thought that ‘bourgeois’ theorists have objected to for over a century.footnote7

In another emblematic encounter, Chris Wickham has rightly advertised the merits of historical sociologists Michael Mann and W.G. Runciman.footnote8 But the specific value of those individual contributions ultimately takes second place in Wickham’s appraisal to their placement as the works of scholars who are held to be very close, methodologically speaking, to historical materialism. In a similar assessment, Perry Anderson returned in 1990 to the situation of British sociology, finding himself pleasantly surprised to witness in the work of Giddens, Mann, Gellner and Runciman a substantial volume of historically grounded grand theory.footnote9 This time, as Anderson now sees it, the tables have been turned: whilst us radicalism may have energetically and commendably ousted the reigning Parsonian model in sociology, no systematic new vision of either the task of sociology, or of the arc of history, had emerged there through the 1970s and beyond. The baton of sociological theory thus once again passed to Europe, and in particular to Britain, with considerably brightened prospects for a high-order rapprochement between historicized social theory and a generously framed Marxist historicism.

In many ways, I share that sense of how things have developed, and of the real promise and progress represented by the new socio-historical mappings. But, outside the pages of this journal, it is hard to see how the overall story could be presented as one in which sociology progressively approaches an updated Marxism. It might be more plausible to say that nothing much can any longer be adduced to keep Marxism out of the box of ‘general social theory’, and that the perennial efforts to clinch historical materialism’s difference from, and superiority to, ‘bourgeois’ sociology and history have simply failed. Not only that; the belated alliance between the senior weighty men of the Left and those in the academy—often one and the same social type—could be interpreted as a sign of cultural stagnation rather than triumph. Marxism, it has been said, profoundly shares with sociology the problem of being definitively modern in a postmodern culture, and it is accordingly riven, just as mainstream sociology is, with problems of melding together in a satisfactory way the ever more apparently contrary demands of cultural specificity and of large-scale structural theory, of the benefits and costs of generalized categorial schemas, of the liberating and the ordering impulses.

At best, one could proceed, Marxism has been refigured, at worst it has become old hat, when viewed through the lenses of established discourses and radical pluralisms alike. Meanwhile, sociology—erstwhile ‘queen of the social sciences’—faces its own seemingly endless regime of internal doubt and contestation. Even as it dissipates, retrenches, or reaches beyond its customary cognitive boundaries, sociology faces severe threats to its institutional base, with stiff competition for students and resources from the new quasi-disciplines such as women’s studies, media studies, business and policy studies, cultural studies, African-American and other postcolonial programmes, and so on. In some sense, of course, this situation could be read as progressive, if paradoxically so: just as sociology has become steadily more interdisciplinary, so those new interdisciplinary fields will surely fail to fulfil their considerable promise without serious sociological endeavour becoming prominent within them.footnote10 In less sanguine mood, though, sociology—and, arguably, Marxism too—looks poised to enter the final tragic-heroic Hegelian moment of ‘sublation’, in which its immanent truths are in a way preserved, but also superseded, as new carriers of the Idea take flight.