The principal theme of the book is the fundamental problem of Marxist studies: the development of a theory of history that is an "epistemological reflection of materialist historical thought" and from which a rigorous methodology can evolve. In particular, Schmidt advances a view of history that reaffirms the reality and value of the actual content of historical experience.
In the first half of the book, Schmidt returns to the historical texts of Hegel and Marx, and presents an original and suggestive account of Marx's appropriation of Hegel, and most importantly, of the concept of "dialectical mediation" of logic and history. These sections focus on the perennial opposition of "logic," "theory," "system", and (more recently) "structure," on the one hand, and "history-as-narrative" on the other, and argue that holding with only one side of this opposition—either structure without history or history without structure—is unfaithful to Marx and also makes for inadequate history.
The final half of the book presents the opposing sides of the current debate between the two most influential streams of Marxist theory—structuralism vs. critical theory—and enters the debate by outlining the critical-theoretic arguments against the structuralists and what Schmidt sees as the modern loss of the sense of history and historical consciousness, as well as by appropriating for Marxist historiography what is of value in structuralism. This debate is given concrete form through the discussion of the writings of the French structuralist Louis Althusser and of the dialectically contradictory outlook of Antonio Gramsci.