What’s useful in Marxism?

What’s useful in Marxism and what should be discarded?[1] That’s the question Anthony Giddens set out to answer in a book that came out 40 years ago: A contemporary critique of historical materialism: Vol 1 – Power, property and the state.

Even beyond the beautiful cover design, the book merits serious consideration. It is one of few works to critically engage with Marxism from outside of it, but not from a hostile position. The ambition seems to have been to try and salvage the useful bits from what he saw as a flawed social theory.


It has been noted before that CCHM is difficult to summarise, because “there is a sort of free-floating attention” (Ian Craib). Luckily, though, Giddens himself provides a fairly punchy summary in the Introduction:

“Let me try to put the facts of the matter as bluntly as possible. If by ‘historical materialism’ we mean the conception that the history of human societies can be understood in terms of the progressive augmentation of the forces of production, then it is based on false premises, and the time has come finally to abandon it.If historical materialism means that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’, it is so patently erroneous that it is difficult to see why so many have felt obliged to take it seriously. If, finally, historical materialism means that Marx’s scheme of the evolution of societies (from tribal society, Ancient society, feudalism, to capitalism; and thence to socialism, together with the ‘stagnant’ offshoot of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ in the East) provides a defensible basis for analysing world history, then it is also to be rejected. Only if historical materialism is regarded as embodying the more abstract elements of a theory of human Praxis, snippets of which can be gleaned from the diversity of Marx’s writings, does it remain an indispensable contribution to social theory today.” (pp. 1-2).

The point of all this, however, is that Marxian ideas are crucial to an understanding of the dynamic nature of modernity, but that these need to be salvaged from the wreckage, so to speak. What Giddens adopts is the emphasis on the dynamic nature of capitalism and how class exploitation plays a key role in the power relations in capitalism.

Giddens advances a number of critiques of Marxism, which concern almost every central aspect of it. Of particular significance is, I think, what he says about how Marx’ understanding of power is too limited, essentially because it only seriously considers the role of allocative power/resources — power over things. That neglects authoritative resources, which provides power over people. Marx’ analysis shows us how capitalist class exploitation involves a fusion of allocative and authorative resources, through a rather specific set of structural principles. Giddens says that what’s characteristic of the exploitative relationship is that power over things becomes power over people.

Generally, though, when Giddens discusses class, exploitation and capitalism, he could be mistaken for a Marxist. Part of this probably reflects the heterogeneity of Marxism; Tom Bottomore once wrote that the theoretical differences within Marxism might be as large as the theoretical differences among other strands of social theory. I’m guessing you could find people who identify as Marxists and agree with most of what’s said in CCHM. But once his broader analysis of modernity is taken into account, the differences become more pronounced.

Already in Capitalism and modern social theory (1971), Giddens announced his project of wanting to give social theory a major overhaul, in order to free it from its 19th century shackles and provide a theory more up to the challenges of the 20th century. This involved a rethinking of both the fundamental ontological and methodological suppositions of sociology — which resulted in the theory of structuration — and of the understanding of the origin, nature and prospects of modernity. CCHM was his first major step in this direction. In Consequences of Modernity, he underlined how capitalism is only one major structural dimension of modernity, the other being surveillance, military power and industrialism.

But the project of analysing modernity mutated along the way — arguably to the extent it became unrecognisable. In CCHM, Giddens took the analysis of capitalism from Marxism, developed it further and left the rest of the theory behind. Giddens announced that the second volume of A contemporary critique…  would deal with the transition from capitalism to socialism and the properties of socialist society. That’s not the second volume he actually published, which instead became The Nation State and Violence.

The third volume was announced to be called Between capitalism and socialism. By the time it actually appeared, a lot had changed both in the context and with Giddens (style of) thinking: in 1994, he published the much maligned Beyond Left and Right. In BLR, Giddens seems to have lost basically all interest in the kind of critique of capitalism he advocated in 1981 as well as his faith in any version of the socialist ideas — even Scandinavian-style social democracy.


In CCHM he indicated that capitalism was at the core of modernity, even if modernity could not be _equated_ with capitalism. In Beyond Left and Right, class and exploitation is peripheral to his analysis, even if he still pays lip service to the centrality of capitalism and its class structure.

There’s been a bit of a U curve in the interest in Marxism since the CCHM was published: It was written in a period when Marxism was a central force in social theory, a situation that had fundamentally changed when the second edition appeared in 1995. At that time, Marxism was broadly viewed as passé and occupied only a niche in social theory. But then the crisis of 2008 brought Marxist ideas back, which also means that A contemporary critique of historical materialism (CCHM) is more relevant today than it might have seemed to be in the 1990s or the early 2000s.

Central to this revival of Marxism is the notion that the dynamic of capitalism involves exploitation and generates class divisions that will only deepen. Giddens shows in CCHM how important lessons may be learned from Marx without adopting all the peculiar philosophy of history. It seems to me that the project Giddens was pursuing up until, say, the mid-1980s – a methodologically sound critical sociology of modernity – is every bit as relevant now as it was then. So we should return to the writings Giddens made at the height of his powers, to see how they may help us develop a sociology of modern societies that might avoid the severe defeatism that underlied his later work.

[1] This is a slightly edited version of a Twitter thread of mine.

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