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Giddens and Historical Materialism

Giddens and Historical Materialism

Paul Bagguley

In this paper I examine a recent critique of historical materialism by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens and the
alternative theory of history developed by him. This is contained in his recent book A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. It is the most recent in a series of
prolific writings developing a theQry of structuration which
claims to overcome a host of sins, including functionalism
and the division between actionist and structuralist sociologies .

I point to a number of problems in his work, and
especially in his alternative ‘structuralist’ theory of history
. Firstly, it is argued that Giddens’s view of Marxism is
little more than a gross caricature of historical materialism, and involves a narrow conceptualisation of evolutionary theories of social change. Secondly, his methodology of
bracketing agency, while analysing the structural aspects
of social change, produces a vulgar structuralist account of
the processes of social change. Thirdly, his theory implicitly involves an eclectic account of adaptive mechanisms
that propel social change at various levels. Finally, it is
argued that Giddens’s differences from Marxism are, on certain crucial issues, merely terminological, and that the
major difference concerns the way in which he focuses on
international systems of societies, what he calls ‘intersocietal systems’, as important sources of social change.

A central theme of the paper is the conception of evolutionary theories of social change, what is precisely wrong
with them, and whether or not Marxism necessarily involves
such a theory. Giddens’s work on historical materialism has
already been extensively criticised by the North American
Marxist Erik Wright . His response to Giddens is heavily
based on the work of G.A. Cohen . His critique of
Giddens is inadequate in a number of respects. Several
important elements ‘in Giddens’s argument are not dealt
with, especially the relationship between agency and structure, and the relations between societies at the intersocietal systems level. Furthermore, Wright employs an inadequate conception of historical materialism as being
merely -an evolutionary typology .

For these reasons it is important to assess Wright’s
contribution when looking at Giddens’s critique of Marxism.

It is apparent that ‘orthodox’ historical materialist
interpretations of Marxism have a strong evolutionist element. It is held that the distinctive theoretical core of
Manusm consists of a view of all human history as being
the adaptation of social relations to the development of
the forces of production . A central problem with such
an interpretation, as with many other social evolutionary
theories of social change quite alien to Marxism, is that it
involves teleological explanations in terms of some struc18

tural adaptive mechanism . This problem has been elegantly expressed in a more general vein as follows:

A doctrine or theory is said to be teleological if
it explains the existence of some phenomenon by
asserting that it is necessary in order to bring
about some consequence; more specifically, teleological theories are said to explain one thing by
showing that it has beneficial consequences for
another. The principal objection to this is that
the explanation treats an effect as a cause.

This, in Percy Cohen’s opinion, teleological explanations expressed in this form are simply illogical. It is
important to stress that the teleological explanations I amcriticising make claims for their explanatory· power by reference to some structural mechanism, and not by reference
to the knowledgeability and intentionality of human agency
. On the contrary, in social evolutionary theories of
social change, ‘orthodox’ Marxism included, human agency
and consciousness are explained by reference to the teleological process of structural adaptation .

The central critical thrust of this paper is to show how
Giddens, through his methodology of bracketing agency
while analysing structure, the most significant point overlooked by critics such as Wright, is led to develop a structuralist theory of history. Here the explanatory powef’

apparently lies in a structural adaptive process which has
no explicit role for human agency despite Giddens’s claims
to the contrary.

Giddens’s alternative to historical materialism
Giddens summarises his broad theoretical position on social
change in the following way:

The approach upon which this book is based recognises that there are both endogenous and exogenous sources of change in human societies •••
but that neither has generalised primacy over the
other. In some circumstances, influences emanating from ‘outside’ a society can entirely wreck or
even eradicate that society; in other instances,
there are strongly marked endogenous sources of
societal transformation.

In contrast to this view, Giddens argues that evolutionary theories of social change suffer from four major problems. Firstly, they are ignorant of agents’ knowledgeability of society. Secondly, they conceive of social change as
a series of stages. Thirdly, societies are conceptualised as
‘isolated’ entities which contain their own immanent forces
of social change. Finally, these immanent forces are seen

to bring about the adaptation of the societies concerned to
their material environment . This critique is directed
at all evolutionary theories of social change, but Giddens
directs it particularly at historical materialism which he
characterises in the following way:

••• that a measure of the level of development
achieved by any given society can be derived
from how ‘advanced’ it is in terms of its capability of controlling the material environment- in
terms, in other words, of the level of development of the productive forces ••• (and) ••• the
heavy concentration ••• upon social development
as an ‘adaptive’ process, where ‘adaptation’ is
conceived of in an almost mechanical fashion.

On the basis of this interpretation, historical materialism does indeed seem to suffer from the above problems.

However, it is a very particular and one-sided interpretation of historical materialism, and one to which not all
Marxists would subscribe . To this ‘orthodox’ interpretation of historical materialism Giddens proposes a very
complex but eclectic alternative which revolves around a
typology of societies within which he calls ‘inter-societal
systems’. These are systems of societies which are in ‘contact’ with each other in social, economic and/or military

Inter-societal systems

Tribal sOcieti3

Class-divided societies
Tr ibal societies


Capitalist societies ~
Class-divided societies
Tribal societies



and fragmentary
Imper ial wor Id
Early capitalist
wor Id econom y
world economy


, Class.:divided
r Triba~oci.;lies


At the bottom of the diagram the broken lines around
the class-divided and tribal societies indicate their impending destruction by capitalist and state-socialist societies.

The central logic to this ordering of both societies and
inter-societal systems is the concept of time-space distanciation.

The structuration of all social systems occurs in
time-space, but also ‘brackets’ time-space relations; every social system in some way ‘stretches’

across time and space. Time-space distanciation
refers to the modes in which such ‘stretching’

takes place ••• how social systems are ’embedded’

in time and space.

The understanding of this obscure but crucial concept
is clarified enormously if we look at some specific examples of its use. In tribal societies time-space distanciation is relatively low in comparison to class-divided societies, where, in turn, the level of time-space distanciation
is low relative to capitalist and state-socialist societies.

Social relations in tribal societies stretch across relatively
small geographical areas in comparison to contemporary
capitalism. In tribal societies consciousness of time is

closely related to legitimation through religion and tradition on the one hand, and the phases of the life cycle in
relation to kinship organisation on the other. Giddens contrasts such societies sharply with contemporary capitalism
where social relations stretch through considerably greater
areas of geographical space. Furthermore, the commodification of time and space in capitalist societies produces,
according to Giddens, a ‘reified’ consciousness of time and
space .

Giddens then goes on to relate time-space distanciation
to the concepts of allocative resources and authoritative
resources. Allocative resources are embedded in economic
institutions, and authoritative resources are embedded in
political institutions. Both correspond to distinct forms of
power and domination. Allocative resources consist of
natural resources, means of production and produced goods,
the control over which gives economic domination through
the ownership of property, Authoritative resources consist
of the organisation of social time-space, relations between
human beings in relation to the production and reproduction
of the human body, and the possibilities of self development and expression. The control over these features of
human life gives rise to the various forms of political
power and structures of specifically political domination.

Giddens keeps power and domination conceptually distinct
in a generic sense, where power is involved in all social
interaction but draws upon and reproduces structural relations of domination. Thus, the distinction that Giddens
makes between allocative and authoritative resources
broadly corresponds to the ‘base and superstructure’ distinction in classical Marxism .

The combination of whether authoritative or allocative
resources are the primary structuring principles of a society together with the level of time-space distanciation provides the criteria for the categorisation of societies. In
tribal societies time-space distanciation is low and authoritative resources (tradition and kinship relations) the primary structuring features. Class-divided societies have distinctly higher levels of time-space distanciation, but
authoritative resources remain the major structuring principle. Both capitalist and state-socialist societies have the
highest levels of time-space distanciation. However, in capitalism allocative resources are the primary structuring
principle, whereas in state-socialist societies authoritative
resources become most important again . In this
scheme, at the level of individual societies, social change
has a dual quality with the bases for social change of the
endogenous forms lying in either authoritative or allocative
resources. Thus, at this level Giddens’s approach apparently
differs from classical historical materialism by according
causal primacy in the long run neither to allocative
resources (the economic base) nor to authoritative
resources (the superstructures). However, an interesting
aspect of Giddens’s analysis is his attempt to theorise the
relations between societies in the intersocietal systems as
providing the exogenous sources of social change. Here a
further set of neologisms has to be dealt with. Firstly,
there are episodes, which are ‘processes of social change
that have a definite direction and form, and in which definite structural transformations occur’ .

In this context there are also ‘episodic characterisations’, and these refer to the typical forms that the directions and types of episode take. Episodes apparently
involve the transition from one type of society to another,
but not the transition from one type of intersocietal system
to another. The form and directionality of episodes is given
by the conjuncture in which they occur. The most crucial
features of these conjunctures are: what type of society is
involved, when the episode is occurring in terms of world
history, and, apparently most importantly, the society’s
place in the intersocietal system concerned. This place in
the intersocietal system is referred to in terms of what
Giddens calls ‘time-space edges’. These are
••• the forms of contact – and often interdependence – between different structural types of
society. These are edges of potential or actual
social transformation, the often unstable inter19

sections between different modes of societal
organisa tion.

The whole uneasy relationship between endogenous and
exogenous sources of social change is summarised by
Giddens within the concept of ‘world time’.

To acknowledge ‘world time’ is to recognise the
influence of changing forms of intersocietal system upon episodic transitions. An episodic transition that occurs in one historical conjuncture
may have quite a different form, and quite different consequences, to an apparently similar
episode in another conjuncture.

There are a number of serious problems with this
approach. I shall look at it initially in terms of the problems that Giddens perceives in evolutionary theories of

Some problems with Giddens’s alternative

to historical

Firstly, there is the issue of the agents’ knowledgeability
of their societies. Giddens’s claim that his theory does
account for the knowledgeability and agency of the subjects in the societies concerned simply does not stand up to
close scrutiny. He advances an interesting analysis of the
agents’ experiences of social change in terms of the
changes in meaning and consciousness of time and space,
the commodification of time and space with the development of capitalism and the rise of nationalism. But the role
of subjects’ knowledge about society, and more importantly,
the role of their agency and political struggle in social
change is nowhere to be seen.

••• the commodified world that capitalism has
created has stripped away a massive variety of
institutions, skills and forms of human experience, many of which are irretrievably lost ••• for
in the world that capitalism has originated, time
is no longer understood as the medium of Being,
and the gearing of daily life into comprehended
tradition is replaced by the empty routines of
everyday life. On the other hand, the whole of
humani ty now lies in the shadow of possible

In this analysis it would seem that people are no more
than the ‘cultural dopes’ of the ‘structuralist’ theorists
that Giddens is so fond of criticising. Here people are condemned to suffer the experience of the ‘dehumanising’ consequences of the inexorable and uncontrollable structural
processes of capitalist development. At this level of
Giddens’s view of the world there are no resistances or
social struggles, and there is no indication of how past
struggles helped reshape and fashion present-day social
structures and how these form today’s bases of resistance
and arenas of political struggle. To grasp this problem
accurately, a detour through Giddens’s social ontology and
broader methodology is required. Briefly, his ontology
)attempts to overcome the traditional division in social analysis between the analysis of ‘structures’ and the analysis
of human agency. This is achieved through an interesting
abstract theory of structuration and the ‘duality of
structure’ •
Interaction is constituted by and in the conduct
of subjects; structuration, as the reproduction of
practices, refers abstractly to the dynamic process whereby structures come into being. By the
duality of structure I mean that social structures
are both constituted by human agency, and yet at
the same time are the very medium of this constitution.

Giddens has spent many years developing this, by now,
very influential position in both Marxist and non-Marxist
social theory. It is explicitly a development of certain


themes in Marx’s Grundrisse, and it also has close connections with the recent work of Roy Bhaskar . However,
this theoretical work is, to all intents and purposes, undone
in the few sentences outlining the methodology for its use.

Social systems are produced as transactions
between agents, and can be analysed as such on
the level of strategic conduct. This is ‘methodological’ in the sense that institutional analysis is
bracketed, although structural elements necessarily enter into the characterisation of action, as
modalities drawn upon to produce interaction.

Institutional analysis on the other hand,
brackets action, concentrating upon modalities as
the media of the reproduction of social systems.

But this is also purely a methodological bracketing, which is no more defensible than the first if
we neglect the essential importance of the conception of the duality of structure.

It seems to me that, when analysing particular social
events, e.g. social change, this move of bracketing either
structure or action does involve neglecting the duality of
structure. The theoretical analyses developed in terms of
this methodological bracketing cannot deal with the issue
of the causal interaction of agency (either of individual or_
collective subjects), with the enabling/constraining features
of structures in the production of social events. Furthermore, it fails to specify which aspect should be bracketed
for particular analyses or explanations. It seems that we
can have two distinct and perhaps incompatible explanations of the same social phenomena in Giddens’s framework
– a causal/structuralist one and a hermeneutic/actionist
one. In the context of his theory of social change Giddens
is concentrating on ‘institutional analysis’. Thus, the
agency of particular subjects, for example classes or other
political forces, in social change remains un theorised. On
the issue of .accounting for the knowledgeability of actors,
Giddens simply ignores it at this level, referring the reader
to the abstract conception of the duality of structure. His
more ‘concrete’ theories therefore retain maflY of the problems of conventional structuralist analyses.


Moving on to the next two characteristics of evolutionlry’ theory, Giddens argues, quite plausibly, that they treat
societies as isolated entities with their own immanent
forces of social change, and that these societies are seen
as moving through a series of stages. Now this seems to me
to be an artificially narrow specification of the characteristics of evolutionary theory. I would like to argue that the
central core of any evolutionary theory need only consist
of the following: that a social entity, which shall be the
unit of analysis, moves through a series of stages by virtue
of its own immanent forces of adaptation. The environment
in which the social entity adapts may be social and/or material in form. The knowledgeability or the agency of human
subjects play no active role within the analysis. The adaptation of the social entity concerned is a structural process,
and not the product of intentional human agency in any
straightforward sense.

An important point here is that the unit of analysis
could be an individual society or a group of societies. If we
accept this quite reasonable point, then the possibilities for
evolutionary theories broaden considerably. It is now clear
that Giddens only considers very specific social evolutionary theories, especially classical historical materialism,
rather than the features of such theories in general.

Although Giddens may not accept my characterisation of
evolutionary theory, it is now clear that his anti-evolution-


ist theory of social change is in fact a form of eclectic

In Giddens’.s approach there appear to be two levels or
units of analysis. The first is at the level of individual
societies, and the second at the level of intersocietal systems, with the intersocietal systems level in some sense
being dominant over those of the individual societies. Despi te his claim that endogenous and exogenous bases for
social change are equally important for individual societies,
Giddens’s account of the role of ‘world time’ in episodic
transitions indicates that the relations between individual
societies within specific intersocietal systems is most
important. The immanent forces of social change within
intersocietal systems, that is, their evolutionary or adaptive logie, consist of the ‘time-space edges’ between societies which have different levels of time-space distanciation. In the analysis that Giddens presents those societies with the highest levels of time-space distanciation
tend to destroy the ‘lower’ ones. Thus, the adaptive logic
involved is the adaptation of the ‘lower’ societies to the
intersocietal system dominated by those societies with the
highest levels of time-space distanciation. If the weak societies do not fit in or adapt to the needs of the most
powerful societies, then they are destroyed .

It is interesting to note that Giddens derives the concept of inter-societal system from Wallerstein’s discussion
of the ‘world capitalist economy’ and successive world economic systems. Here Giddens points out that the economic
systems involved have only recently become truly global in
form and so he re-names them ‘inter-societal systems’ ,
hardly a point of fundamental theoretical significance!

Another point that he makes against Wallerstein is that
political, and especially military, relations between societies are equally as important as economic ones . Here
Giddens’s position comes close to that of the nineteenthcentury sociologist Herbert Spencer. He argued that wars
between societies had played a role in social evolution
~imilar to that of the struggle for the survival of the fittest in the natural world . In addition, Spencer was at
pains to stress the complex inter-play of endogenous and
exogenous sources of social change in social evolution:

Again, if each society grew and unfolded itself
without the intrusion of additional factors, interpretation would be relatively easy; but the complicated processes of development are frequently
re-complicated by changes in the sets of factors.

Now the size of the social aggregate is all at
once increased or decreased by annexation or by
loss of territory; and now the average character
of its units is altered by the coming in of
another race as conquerors or slaves; while, as a
further effect of this event, new social relations
are super imposed on the old. In many cases the
repeated over-runnings of societies by one
another, the minglings of people and institutions,
the breakings up and re-aggregations ••• destroy
~he continuity of normal processes •••

In his discussions of inter-societal systems and timespace edges, Giddens does not seem to be adding anything
to what Spencer had to say on these matters. What is surprising is that he has no explicit discussion of these passages of Spencer’s. Furthermore, all of this highlights
Giddens’s very eclectic mode of theorising.

Returning to the problem of time-space distanciation,
Giddens is quite explicit at times in referring to it as a
concept to account for the simple/complex typology, that
the forces of social change are endogenous and the evolutionary scales of social evolutionary theory. For Giddens
time-space distantiation is to replace all of these concepts:

… I wish to introduce the notion of time-space
distanciation to analyse some of the phenomena
with which evolutionary theorists have been concerned ••• it is obvious that societies differ
greatly in terms of the extent of time-space
‘stretches’ which they span; and we can ask how
this comes about…. The nexus of relations – pol-

itical, economic or military – in which a society
exists with others is usually integral to the very
nature of that society
Position on an
evolutionary’scale becomes replaced by distance
or proximity in time-space.

At this stage it should be clear that Giddens’s nonevolutionary theory of social change does in fact involve
some strongly evolutionist features. Firstly, through his
methodological principle of bracketing human agency he
effectively develops explanations of social change which
focus on structural processes and relations rather than the
knowledgeability and agency of human subjects. Secondly,
he does clearly identify stages of both societies and intersocietal systems. These are ordered primarily in terms of
time-space distantiation, but also in terms of the relations
between allocative an,d authritative resources within individual societies. Finally, the movement of inter-societal
systems through the stages that Giddens identifies is propelled by the adaptive relations between societies of different levels of time-space distanciation – what Giddens
calls time-space edges.

These are, I believe, the major flaws in Giddens’s analysis. I now turn to Erik Wright’s contribution which criticises Giddens from a perspective highly indebted to G.A.

;Cohen’s defence of a functionalist interpretation of hist::’

orical materialism. Wright focuses on the secondary issues
of time-space distanciation and the relations between allocative and authoritative resources, rather than the central
problem of Giddens’sdualistic methodology. Wright’s contribution also helps us to illuminate the relationship between
Giddens’s work and some tendencies of orthodox Marxism.

Wright’s critique of Giddens
Essentially Wright’s argument is that Giddens’s alternative
to historical materialism does not differ from the views of
many contemporary Marxists. In Wright’s view the major
difference lies in Giddens’s causally plural theory of social
change in contrast to the mono-causal explanations of orthodox historical materialism. Even so, Wright argues that
these differences leave orthodox historical materialism with
greater explanatory power than Giddens’s alternative.

Wright casts this in terms of Marxism’s claim that a general theory of history is possible, in contrast to Giddens’s
claim that such a theory is not possible. Wright’s critique
of Giddens covers a series of issues including the nature of
functionalist explanations and class-reductionism, but here I
shall restrict my discussion to the issues of the typology of
societies and evolutionism .

In reconstructing Giddens’s argument, Wright places
great emphasis on the notion of time-space distanciation,
and the distinction that Giddens makes between classdivided and class societies according to the primacy of
control over authoritative or allocative resources. He
makes a pertinent point here by asking why should the control over authoritative resources be the dominant structural
principle of class-divided societies.

As he points out, it is clear from Giddens’s own argument that it is the nature of the economy, principally property relations, that determines the primacy of the control
over authoritative resources in class-divided societies; the
relation between forms of control over allocative and authoritative resources is explained by Giddens himself with
reference to the organisation of allocative resources .

In this case, as in that of class, in Giddens’s recent work
his disagreements with Marxism are primarily terminological
and not theoretical or explanatory, although Giddens himself does not recognise this .

Wright’s discussion of evolutionary theory is more
extensive and contentious. He criticises Giddens’s view of
evolutionary theory on three main points. Firstly, although
Giddens is correct to reject teleological evolutionary
theory, he argues he is wrong to characterise all evolutionary theory as necessarily teleological. Secondly, when a
correct characterisation of evolutionary theory is given, it

is not flawed in the way Giddens claims. Thirdly, Giddens’s
theory of time-space distanciation and episodic characterisations is a form of non-teleological evolutionary theory as
Wright characterises it. Primarily, then, Wright disagrees
with Giddens’s claim that all evolutionary theories are
teleological in that they suppose societies develop towards
some end state of increasing adaptation to environmental
or material conditions .

In contrast to this, Wright proposes the’ following characterisation of evolutionary theory. Firstly, a[l evolutionary
theory should involve a typology of societies which potentially has some directionality to it and is capable of being,
-ordered in a non-arbitrary way. Secondly, the forms of
society are ordered in such a way that the probability of
staying at one level is greater than that of regressing in
the typology. Thirdly, there is a positive possibility of moving from one level in the typology to a higher level, the
implication being that there is some process giving directionality to social change .

In Wright’s reconstruction of Giddens’s argument the
general logic of social change is given by the level of
time-space distanciation in terms of people’s ability to control allocative and authoritative resources in space and
over time for use in power relations. For Wright, increases
in the control both of allocative resources and of authoritative resources implies a development in the forces of
production. In these terms there is a positive probability in
Giddens’s analysis for an increase in time-space distanciation. Thus in Wright’s representation of Giddens’s views
there is a dual logic to social change; firstly, through the
autonomous development of time-space distanciation in relative to allocative resources (the economic structure). Secondly, there is the autonomous development of time-space
distanciation of authoritative resources {the non-economic
political and ideological structures}. In Wright’s reading of
Giddens the dynamics of social change are rooted simultaneously in the development of the economic and of the
political structures with no causal primacy of one over the
other. The relations concerned are always conjuncturally
specific and contingent. But while this theoretical position
is clearly opposed to the orthodox Marxist position that the
economic structure has causal primacy in the long run,
nothing of Giddens’s actual argument contradicts such a
view. Indeed it is central to Wright’s argument that it may
be seen to be compatible with it .

Wright goes on to make the claim that there is a more
general social interest in developing allocative resources
rather than authoritative resources. The evolution of all
societies is explained for him by the general human interest
in developing the productivity of labour to reduce human
toil. He questions whether there is a general interest in
developing authoritative resources, and rejects the possibility of a competitive greed for power as a serious generalisation. He concludes that it is more likely that increased
control over authoritative resources increases control over
allocative resources; that is, it reinforces property
relations .

Commentary on Wright’s discussion
To begin with, I would like to point out two serious lacunae in Wright’s presentation of Giddens’s arguments. Firstly,
Wright does not consider Giddens’s view that a serious
problem with evolutionary theories of social change is that
they do not take account of the actions and knowledgeability of human agents. Furthermore, Wright does not consider
Giddens’s general methodology of bracketing agency whilst
explaining social change in terms of an ‘institutional’ or
structural analysis. I see this as a major problem with
Giddens’s critique of evolutionary theories, especially
orthodox historical materialism, as treating societies as isolated entities. Consequently, Wright does not deal with
Giddens’s treatment of social change at two levels – societies and inter-societal systems – with the latter being
most important. Thus in Wright’s discussion the most impor22


tant problems of the relations between different societal
forms, and the implications of these relations for the directionality of change in inter-societal systems fail to be considered at all.

Furthermore, Wright’s list of the essential characteristics of evolutionary theories of social change is so broad
and general as to be meaningless. If we take his view
seriously, evolutionary theories cease to be theories at all,
as he specifies no explanatory mechanisms of social change
that evolutionary theories should have if they are not to
remain merely heuristic typologies. His conception of a
general social interest in reducing human toil is hardly a
serious candidate as an explanatory mechanism. On the
contrary, most evolutionary theories of social change seem
to involve some structural process of ‘adaptation’ .

Despite these reservations, two important implications
of Wright’s argument seem broadly correct and worth pursuing further. Firstly, I think that Wright has demonstrated
beyond all doubt that what Giddens refers to as the level
of development of time-space distanciation crucially depends on a certain prior level of development of what Marxists traditionally refer to as the forces of production. Just
to illustrate the point, consider the following example from

••• even relatively rudimentary forms of agriculture necessitate advance planning of a regularised
character. Irrigation agriculture ••• both demands
and makes possible a greater co-ordination of
time-space relations…. The time-space distanciation made possible by writing (and in modern
times, by mechanical printing) is much greater ••••
Writing seems everywhere to have originated as a
direct mode of storage: as a means of recording
information relevant to the administration of
societies of an increasing scale.

The information and knowledge involved in these societies at the level of authoritative resources can only be
stored and transmitted, and indeed need only be used in
that way, when the forms of economic prodtJction make it
necessary and technology makes it possible. This at the
very least seems clear from Giddens’s analysis despite his
earlier disclaimer that ‘ ••• storage capacity is much more
important to the production of “surplus” than technological
change in the instruments of production’ .

The second point follows on from this. When we look at
the level of time-space distanciation in the context of the
relations between different societal forms, those societies
with the highest level of time-space distanciation are usually ‘dominant’ and tend to destroy the lower forms of
society in the intersocietal system concerned. Each system, therefore, has a higher overall level of time-space
distanciation implying a higher general level of development of the forces of production. The struggle to survive
in a hostile intersocietal system provides the impetus for
each society to further develop its forces of production
What is clear from all this is that the level of timespace distanciation actually depends very largely on the
level of development of the forces of production, while the
level of time-space distanciation is a crucial causal factor
in changes in both allocative and authoritative resources.

So, despite Giddens’s initial arguments that authoritative
and aJJocative resources are both autonomous sources of
social change, in his more concrete explanations the nature
pf the organisation of authoritative resources ~ conceived
in terms of the nature of the organisation of allocative

It is clear that many of the problems with Giddens’s theory
of social change are similar to some of the problems he
finds in conventional evolutionary theories of social
change, such as orthodox historical materialism. These include ignoring agents’ knowledgeability of society, seeing



societies as moving through a series of stages, and involving certain adaptive mechanisms. This results primarily
from Giddens’s methodology of bracketing ‘agency’ whilst
pursuing a purely structural account of social change.

Wright’s critique of Giddens, whilst useful in demystifying much of the irrelevant terminology, fails to give an
accurate characterisation of evolutionary theory – he reduces it to mere typology. His account does not deal with
the problems of agency and structure, eclecticism nor the
role of inter-societal systems in Giddens’s theory. His response to Giddens merely reasserts orthodox historical
materialism. And it depends far too heavily on the work of
G.A. Cohen. Wright rather simply and undialectically
counterposes orthodox Marxism’s mono-causal explanations
to Giddens’s supposedly causally plural explanations. Finally, he uses a trans-historical conception of human rationality where it seems that the improvement of the productivity of labour is always in the general human interest.

Such ideas today have rather dangerous implications, given
that the technology involved in improving the productivity
of labour is having increasingly deleterious effects on the
natural environment, and recent developments in the labour
productivity of killing other people puts us all at risk.

Giddens’s relationship to Marxism is a complex one due
to his very eclectic mode of theorising. Many sophisticated
Marxists would be in sympathy with his account of the
ever-expanding commodification of time and space in capitalist social relations, the commodification of labour-time
and generalised commodity exchange being the basis for
Marx’s theory of the capitalist economy and class relations.

Here Giddens is providing an analysis which is only a simplified interpretation of Marx, and where the terminology is

.the only significant difference.

His theory of social change, however, involves a -significant debt to Wallerstein on the one hand, and an unacknowledged debt to Spencer on the other. Furthermore,
Giddens has a considerable affinity to orthodox historical

The forces/relations of production dialectic is
not a miraculous device that somehow holds the
answer to disclosing the underlying sources of
social change in general. Nor can the contradictory character of social formations be understood
in these terms – except in the case of capitalism.

The forces/relations of production dialectic, I
shall argue, has peculiar reference to capitalism
as a type of society.

‘Such a claim is quite surpnsmg given that he characterised this ‘dialectic’ in terms of some process of adapta.tion to the environment in a mechanical fashion through
the development of the forces of production . In the
light of this claim, the transitions of intersocietal systems
that he identifies from imperial world systems through the
early capitalist world economy to the contemporary capitalist world economy, i.e. those transitions where capitalist
societies become dominant, can be understood in terms of
this crude ‘dialectic’ .

Above aB, Giddens is an eclectic theorist, and it is this
eclecticism, together with the methodology of bracketing
agency or structure, that is the basis of the problems in his
work, and which critics such as Wright have totally overlooked.





The following books are representative of the development of
Giddens’s work over the past dozen or so years: Giddens, A., The
Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, Hutchinson, London, 1973;
New Rules of Sociological Method, Hutchinson, London, 1976; Central
Problems in Social Theory, Macmillan, London, 1979; A Contemporary
Critique of Historical Materialism, Macmillan, London, 1981.

A book developing the recent themes of his work, provisionally
entitled Between Capitali~m and Socialism, is due for publication in

For a critical exposition of the basic ideas of the recently developed
‘structurationist’ school in social theory see: Urry, J., ‘Duality of
Structure: Some Critical Issues’, in Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.

1, No. 2, Autumn 1982, pp. 100-106. Basically, they claim a necessary
dialectical relation between agency and structure, Where agency produces and reproduces structure, but yet structures form the media of
this reproduction. So agency is not reducible to the effects of structures, nor are structures simply produced by agency.

Wright, E.O., ‘Giddens’s Critique of Marxism’, New Left Review 138,
March-April 1983, pp. 11-35.

Cohen, G.A., Kart Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Clarendon
Press, Oxford, 1978. Also see the discussions by A. Levine and E.O.

Wright, ‘Rationality and Class Struggle’, New Left Review 123,
September-October 1980, pp. 47-68, and Sayers, S., ‘Marxism and the
Dialectical Method: A Critique of G.A. Cohen’, Radical Philosophy
36, Spring 1984, pp. 4-13.

See the sections below on Wright’s contribution.

This is the ‘vulgar’ or ‘mechanical’ Marxism of the Second International which Lukacs and Gramsci were engaged in criticising in
their different ways.

Throughout this paper I shall be referring to social evolutionary
theories, not biological evolutionary theory.

Cohen, P.S., Modern Social Theory, Heinemann, London, 1968, p. 47.

Logically speaking, it is possible to construe the Marxist concept of
labour as a teleological mechanism; that is, that human social labour
takes particular forms because of the need to produce certain things,
e.g. food. However, this involves rational human intentionality, unlike
evolutionary theories of social Change, which refer to teleological




mechanisms which operate regardless of people’s consciousness.

Indeed, at times it is implied that such mechanisms. actually give rise
to consciousness.

For general discussions of various forms of theories of social evolution see for example the following: Sahlins, M.D. et al (eds.), Evolution and Culture, University of Michigan Press, 1960; Nisbet, R.A.,
Social Change and History, Oxford, University Press, 1969; and Hirst,
P.Q., Social Evolution and Sociological Categories, George Allen &:

Unwin, 1976.

Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, pp.


Ibid., pp. 20-21 and 90-91.

Ibid., p. 82. G”lddens also recognises other ‘versions’ of historical materialism (see Giddens, A., Central Problems in Social Theory, pp.

150-55), but it is not clear why he focuses on this one in particular,
other than the fact that it is easy to criticise. In my view it is certainly not characteristic of recent Marxist theorising.

Within the ‘classical’ Marxist tradition, Lukacs and Gramsci have reputations for opposing it.

This diagram is from Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, p. 168.

Ibid., pp. 4-5.

Ibid., pp. 91-97, 133 and 149.

Ibid., pp. 51-52 and 61-63.

Ibid., pp. 157-69.

Ibid., p. 23.

Ibid., p. 23.

Ibid., p. 24
Ibid., pp. 251-52.

Giddens, A., New Rules of Sociological Method, p. 121.

The relevant quote from the Grundrisse is: ‘The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it,
and its only subjects are the individuals, but in mutual relationships,
which they equally reproduce and produce anew.’ (Marx, K., Grundrisse, Penguin, London, 1973, p.l72). The work of Bhaskar on these
issues is in his book The Possibility of Naturalism, Harvester,
Hassocks, 1979.


26 Giddens, A., Central Problems in Social Theory, p. 95.

27 See especially: Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical
Materialism, pp. 166-69.

28 Ibid., p. 168.

29 Ibid., p. 168.

30 Spencer, H., Principles of Sociology (edited by S. Andreski), 1969, pp.


31 Ibid., p. 179.

32 Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, pp.


33 Wright, E.O., ‘Giddens’s Critique of Marxism’.

34 See for example Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical
Materialism, pp. 94-95, where he argues that more complex forms of

agriculture ‘demand’ developments in authoritative resources.

Wright, E.O., ‘Giddens’s Critique of Marxism’, p. 21.

Ibid., p. 25.

Ibid., p. 2~.

Ibid., pp. 12-15 and 18-20.

Ibid., pp. 32-34.

See the discussion above in the introduction.

Giddens, A., A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, pp.


42 Ibid., p. 94.

43 Ibid., p. 89.

44 Ibid., p. 82.

,~5 Ibid., p. 168.


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