Marxism loses a passionate champion

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Alex Callinicos looks back with warm memories, not only at the life of Ellen Meiksins Wood, who died last month, but on her early identification of, and critique of, 'Post Marxism' and her critical contribution to the development of the controversial analysis of 'Political Marxism'.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, who died in January at the age of 73, was one of the outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the past generation. She combined a rigorous commitment to theoretical clarity with a profound political passion. These qualities were very evident in the intervention that first brought her to broader attention, The Retreat from Class, first published in 1986.

Here she took aim at what came to be known as “Post-Marxism” as it first took shape. She targeted a group of left wing intellectuals — among them Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Gareth Stedman Jones — who, having strongly identified with Marxism at the height of the movements of the 1960s, were now moving rightwards. Denouncing what Laclau and Mouffe called “classism”, they argued that society was not structured by social production and class antagonism, but was in fact a fragmented plurality of different discourses and practices. The left, they concluded, should forget about socialism and strive instead for a more democratic version of existing society.

This wasn’t a purely academic argument. Against the background of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the organised working class in Britain, it reinforced the drive by Neil Kinnock’s leadership to push the Labour Party along the path that led to Tony Blair. Wood’s book, published in the wake of the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, lucidly dismantled the Post-Marxists’ arguments, making a vigorous case for a Marxism that was simultaneously non-reductive and radical. It was awarded the Deutscher Memorial Prize.

The Retreat from Class was representative of her larger achievement in a couple of ways. First, although Canadian and for many years teaching political theory at York University in Toronto, Wood made an important contribution to the British Marxist left. She spent a lot of time in London and had many friends here.

Secondly, she identified the French Communist philosopher Louis Althusser as a main source of the collapse into Post-Marxism. By trying to reconcile Marxism with the various philosophical currents in 1960s Paris that sought to assimilate language and society and treat subjects as the effects of social structures, Althusser had opened the door to Post-Marxism. Like Chris Harman in the International Socialist tradition, Wood saw rejecting Althusser as essential to sustaining Marxism’s critical and revolutionary force. She sided with the great historian Edward Thompson in championing a humanist version of Marxism. But another historian provided Wood with her key theoretical reference point. Beginning with “The Separation of the Economic and Political under Capitalism” (1981), she highlighted the theoretical importance of Robert Brenner’s work.

Brenner advanced two widely debated theses on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. First, the class struggle between lord and peasant in late mediaeval and early modern Europe played the decisive role in determining where capitalism first came to prevail in Europe. Secondly, in this case — England — the key transformations took place, not in the towns or the sphere of international trade, as historians and economists had tended previously to assume, but in the countryside, with the emergence of capitalist relations in agriculture.

One of Brenner’s critics, the French Marxist historian Guy Bois, described his position as “political Marxism”, “a voluntarist vision of history in which the class struggle is divorced from all other contingencies”. Wood, however, embraced this label, arguing that it represented a break with versions of Marxism that reduced history to the development of the productive forces.

She identified Political Marxism with two ideas. The first is that it’s necessary carefully to analyse the nature of the property relations prevailing in a particular society — roughly speaking what other Marxists call the social relations of production, the forms of economic control over the means of production and labour power that give rise to different sets of class relations. Wood was critical of both mainstream and Marxist historians for being insufficiently discriminating in noticing the differences in the property relations prevailing in societies.

Secondly, Wood stressed the specificity of capitalism, which she argued has a very different logic from other economic systems. In particular, following Brenner, she insisted capitalism can’t be identified with the prevalence of the market. Markets existed in many precapitalist societies, where they didn’t shape production. Capitalism is distinguished by the fact that both capitalists and workers can only successfully reproduce themselves by competing effectively on the market. This forces capitalist firms constantly to reduce their costs of production by investing in technical innovations that raise the productivity of labour.

One conclusion Wood drew was that Marxists tend to project the very particular structure of capitalism onto human history at large. Thus the development of the productive forces is not, as her fellow Canadian philosopher G A Cohen argued, the driving force of history but is specific to capitalism. Moreover, capitalism is characterised by a systematic separation of the economic from the political. In precapitalist societies exploitation depended on “extra-economic coercion” — for example, political and judicial power that feudal lords exercised over their peasants.

In capitalism, by contrast, what Wood, following Brenner, called the workers’ “market dependence” leads them to sell their labour power to capital and thereby to submit to exploitation. Consequently, economic and political relations can be institutionally separated from each other in a way that would have been impossible earlier.

On this basis, Wood and those she influenced — her intellectual brilliance and her qualities as a teacher drew a distinct school around her — argued not just that capitalism is special, but that there isn’t much of it around. So Wood denied that the Italian city states or early modern Holland were capitalist. The decisive change came with the emergence of agrarian capitalism in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The old regime based on “extra-economic coercion” hung around for a long time. Thus Political Marxists deny that the Great French Revolution of 1789-94 was a bourgeois revolution, arguing that capitalist property relations came to prevail in France only much later.

This is a powerful re-imagining of historical materialism. Of course, there’s plenty to argue about. Marxists as different as Chris Harman and Jairus Banaji have insisted on the centrality of merchants and the world economy to the development of modern capitalism. And Political Marxists’ tendency to treat state involvement in the economy as a sign of the persistence of precapitalist property relations based on “extra-economic coercion” sits ill with the very active role of the state in contemporary capitalism.

But this kind of disagreement seems secondary when set against Wood’s originality and productivity. As a scholar she combined analytical stringency and historical erudition — qualities that she displayed in a very impressive range of works. Perhaps my favourite is Peasant-Citizen and Slave, where Wood criticised traditional Marxist interpretations of classical antiquity as based on slavery, offered an original account of the social foundations of the Athenian city state, and named great philosophers such as Plato as the class enemies of ancient democracy.

The same qualities are to be found in her unfinished history of Western political thought, of which two volumes, From Citizens to Lords, and Property and Liberty, appeared. Trained as a political philosopher, Wood was on home ground here, but this terrain — particularly in the second volume on early modern thought — is also occupied by the writings of the influential intellectual historian Quentin Skinner. Skinner is famous for insisting that theoretical texts must be understood in the context of the political dialogues to which they were a contribution.

Wood practises a much more radical contextualism than Skinner’s essential idealist approach, where the context is constituted mainly by discourses and “language situations”. Her “social history of political thought” understands the context in a materialist but also much more differentiated way. She uses the sharp tools forged in developing her Marxist understanding of property relations to slice through the lumpy categories used by mainstream historians — “modernity”, “republicanism”, and “the Enlightenment”. Thus, for example, she refuses to see political thinkers as responding to the rise of an undifferentiated “commercial society”, and insists, for example, on the different paths taken by absolutist France and capitalist England.

One may sometimes protest that these discriminations — grounded in Wood’s Political Marxist interpretation of the rise of capitalism — are too sharp, setting developments in different European societies too far apart from one another. But one can still admire the historical depth and analytical lucidity with which the argument is conducted.

Wood insists that “the social history of political thought raises questions about how the political sphere itself is constituted by social processes, relations, conflicts and struggles outside the political space”. Nowhere is this more evident than in the brilliant chapter on the English Revolution, where the Levellers’ arguments for popular-democratic change are shown to be setting the questions that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to answer in a way favourable to emerging capitalism.

Elsewhere the skills on display in these books were put to more directly political use — for example in Wood’s essay on “The Uses and Abuses of Civil Society”, where she deconstructed one of the key concepts of contemporary liberal ideology, and in Empire of Capital, published in 2003, the year of Iraq.

Let me end on a personal note. Ellen and I clashed a few times in print, on various theoretical issues. She once called me her “sternest critic”. But a few years ago we spent the evening together in the home of Martin Deutscher, son of Isaac and Tamara. Severely disabled, Martin lived out his life in his parents’ old flat, surrounded by their books, papers and pictures. He invited Ellen and me there to share a Chinese takeaway.

The main thing I took away from that strange, rather melancholy scene was a very strong sense of her kindness, patience, warmth and humanity. On the way back on the Tube, we agreed that the evening was a reminder of all we had in common. And that is how I will remember her.

Links to some of Ellen Wood’s writings are here: