Ellen Meiskins Wood (1942-2016): a Marxist who put class centre

Author: 

Andrew Coates

Ellen Meiksins Wood, who has died aged 73, was a noted intellectual figure on the international left who influenced several generations of thinkers and activists.

Born in New York as Ellen Meiksins one year after her parents, Latvian Jews active in the Bund, arrived as political refugees, Wood studied in California before establishing herself as an academic in Canada, based at York University in Toronto.

Her writings were thought-provoking and luminous.

She first came to a wide left audience with The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism (1986). This was a collection of her interventions in debates, conducted through the pages of New Left Review and Socialist Register, that took place in the wake of Eric Hobsbawm’s famous 1978 polemic in Marxism Today, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’

Many left intellectuals not only backed Hobsbawm’s view that the material strength of class institutions would inevitably decline, but extended this to question the relationship between class and politics itself. “Post-Marxists” began to argue that a plurality of “democratic struggles” and social movements would replace the central place of the labour movement in politics. Some contrasted “civil society” as a more complex and open site of democratic assembly to the alleged “monolithic” vision of politics embodied in the traditional labour movement. Others claimed it meant the end of “grand narratives” — and that the ideas of socialism were splintering so quickly that only a fragmented series of “critical” responses to neo-liberalism were possible.

Wood eloquently defended the centrality of class as a potential constituency of radical socialist politics. The “new social movements”, the women’s movement, the rising ecological movement, campaigns for racial and sexual equality, were interlaced with class conflicts. Democracy could not be abstracted from these relations. To appeal, as writers such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe did, to the “equivalence” between various democratic demands ignored the basic facts about class and power. Wood saw socialism as an effort to bring together people around the central issues of exploitation and oppression in democratic organisations which could shape politics.

This kind of conscious collective work was needed more than ever against a very real and growing grand narrative — the institutionalisation of neo-liberal economics and government assaults on working people and the unemployed, as part of a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

In academic circles Wood became known for her “political Marxist” approach to history. This focused in part on the issue of the transition to capitalism from feudalism and other pre-capitalist societies, and the way this shaped the politics of early modern states. The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (1992) was a summary of this approach, looking at British history after the dominance of agrarian capitalism was established in the 17th century.

These writings were also directed against the views of Perry Anderson (editor of New Left Review) and Tom Nairn (today best known for his Scottish nationalism). They had asserted that the so-called “archaic” British state was a reflection of a “pre-modern” capitalism dominated by aristocratic surrogates for the bourgeoisie. Nairn and Anderson claimed that a “supine” bourgeoisie abdicated political rule to the “aristocracy”. Their domination of UK politics left deep traces right until the present. For this strand of leftists the failure of a resolute bourgeoisie to assume real power been mimicked by a “supine” working class. In later writings Anderson argued for a new wave of democratic modernisation to bring the country into line with bourgeois modernity.

Wood, by contrast, pointed out that Britain’s state form was related to its early capitalist advance, and that its allegedly old-fashioned trappings — from the monarchy downwards — had not thwarted capitalist expansion but arisen in relation to the needs of the British bourgeoisie. The labour movement had developed in struggle with these forces, not simply in deference to them.

In some respects this response is not unlike E P Thompson’s defence of the labour movement. Wood went deeper and illustrated the feeble empirical basis of claims about the UK’s “archaism”. Britain is hardly alone in having a monarchy, and the notion that there is something specifically modern in any state-type evaporates when you look at various countries. France, for example, remains profoundly marked by its past “feudal” administrative forms. The US constitution is a relic from the 18th century. On all the essential points present-day Britain was no less “modern”. Indeed it was for a long time a template for bourgeois democracy. Wood attacked claims that the UK owed its economic difficulties to its constitution. Its economic problems arose at root from the contradictions of capitalism. The problems of British democracy were due to its capitalist character, not the issues Nairn-Anderson dreamt up.

Wood was also known as an advocate of a version of the “Brenner thesis”, after American Marxist Robert Brenner’s 1978 article, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’. The creation of market-driven, wage-based relations in British agriculture was considered the foundation of modern capitalism. Wood argued that it was the capitalist transformation of agriculture, followed by the rise of a merchant class expanding these forms through international trade, which initiated international capitalism.

In an article ‘The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism’ (1998) Wood summarised her views. The distinctive political centralisation of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. Already in the 16th century, England had an impressive network of roads and water transport that unified the nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming disproportionately large in relation to other English towns and the total population (and eventually the largest city in Europe), also became the hub of a developing national market.

The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was England’s agriculture. The country’s agrarian ruling class was distinctive in two major and related respects: first, as part of an increasingly centralized state, they did not possess to the same degree as their continental counterparts the juridically-based “extra-economic” powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus value from direct producers. However, they developed increased “economic” powers.

Land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion of land. This concentrated landownership meant that English landlords were able to use their property in new and distinctive ways — increasingly, leasing land to capitalist tenant farmers employing wage labour.

The focus on relationships between capitalism and state forms continued in her Empire of Capital (2003). This analysed through historical contrasts how the “empire of capital” (what is sometimes called the “imperialism of free trade”) shapes a modern world of multiple independent states through “accumulation, commodification, profit maximization, and competition”. Wood’s later works, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2008) and Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment (2012) were ambitious attempts to narrate and analyse Western political thought through the lens of class categories.

Although she was an academic, Wood’s own political stance, firmly within the Marxist ambit, was forthrightly stated. As she put it in 1999: “…all oppositional struggles — both day-to-day struggles to improve the conditions of life and work, and struggles for real social change — should be informed by one basic perception: that class struggle can’t, either by its presence or by its absence, eliminate the contradictions in the capitalist system, even though it can ultimately eliminate the system itself. This means struggling for every possible gain within capitalism, without falling into the hopeless trap of believing that the left can do a better job of managing capitalism. Managing capitalism is not the job of socialists...”

Wood had a profound influence on countless people. She was a democratic Marxist, a feminist, a perceptive writer and a force for good. Homage to her memory.


Abridged from the concluding chapter of The Retreat from Class: a New “True” Socialism (1986)

Work on this book coincided almost exactly with the duration of the 1984-5 miners’ strike in Britain, and this conclusion was completed shortly after the workers’ return to the pits without an agreement.

By the time this book is published, the strike will be history — but it will indeed be history, because the strike represents one of the most important episodes of the British labour movement in the twentieth century... It goes without saying that this was a time when the question of class politics intruded itself more insistently than ever…

No doubt there are people whose belief in the non-correspondence of politics and class will have been deeply shaken by these events and who will feel obliged to think again; but so far the most remarkable results have been the pronouncements from [the New True Socialists, “post-Marxist” academics] that the the strike has sounded the death knell of class politics...

The supreme irony is that, while many on the left have been busy announcing the death of class politics and denying the “privileged” position of the working class in the struggle for socialism, the Conservative government has been conducting a policy whose first — and last — premise is that an organised working class represents the greatest threat to capitalism. If the “New Right” in Britain has a single over-riding characteristic, it is a perception of the world in terms of the class opposition between capital and labour and a willingness to prosecute class war with no holds barred. Among the decisive moments in the creation of this newly militant class consciousness and spirit of determination were the [victorious] miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974… The 1984-5 miners’ strike was the fruit of this obsession and its most notable product to date ...

Instead of joining battle in the ideological arena of class, the NTS have to all intents and purposes been swallowed up in [Thatcherite] mystification. [In their “left” “discourse”] the principal adversary is an ideological bogey-man called “Thatcherism”. This ghostly being — which has thoroughly mesmerised the NTS — apparently has no material foundation and must be conjured away by incantations of “populist” discourse, a “democratic” discourse often laced with large doses of patriotism and jingoism to charm the “people” away from the Thatcherite magic…

The [miners’] strike has demonstrated — as the labour movement has done so often before — how “merely economic” class struggles, even when their objectives are limited, have a unique capacity to alter the political terrain and to unmask and confront the structure of capitalist power, the state, the law, the police, as no other force can do. It has demonstrated how the experience of “economic” struggles nourishes consciousness… how it teaches new skills and reveals hidden resources; how it fosters new attitudes, relationships, solidarities, and modes of organisation; and how it expands the horizons of struggle, repeatedly breaking through the barriers between the “economic” sphere and the political…

There has never been a time when organised labour has not, in one form or another, challenged capital, even if in some countries at various times there have been moments of quiescence. Often, it has been in the limited form of pressing for terms and conditions of work better suited to the interests of the workers and less to the imperatives of capital accumulation, but repeatedly the battle has moved to the wider political front.

What is especially remarkable about the history of working-class struggle is, in fact, not how seldom the working class, in pursuit of its “narrow” material interests, has created political forces with a socialist impulse, but on the contrary, how often workers have returned to professedly socialist movements in the face of repeated betrayals — from Blum to Mitterrand, from Attlee through Wilson to Callaghan. And we should not underestimate the number of instances in which the capitalist order as a whole has been powerfully challenged by workers’ movements, even if the challenge has ultimately failed – as in Italy or Germany after the First World War.

Our judgement of the oppositional impulse in the labour movement, and its socialist potential, cannot be based on the view that the only significant challenge to capitalism will be the last and successful one…

No one can seriously maintain that any other social movement has ever challenged the power of capital as has the working class, even with its often severely limited objectives and its woefully inadequate modes of organisation. It should, however, be added that, for all its limitations and institutional conservatism, the labour movement has more consistently than any other social collectivity stood on the sides of the various causes which the left regards as valuable and progressive — not only causes that have directly to do with the material interests of labour, but those that pertain to “universal human goods”, peace, democracy, and a “caring society”. This is, on the whole, true even in the “worst case”, the United States.

If working-class movements still have much to learn about the full dimensions of human emancipation, and if they have yet to create forms of organisation adequate to the task, there has been no historically identifiable social force that has even come close to their record of emancipatory struggles, either in the breadth of their visions, the comprehensiveness of the liberation they have sought, or in their degree of success ...

This does not mean that the working class is immediately available as a political organisation ready-made to carry out the struggle for socialism. It simply means that the organisational and political efforts of socialists will most fruitfully be devoted to unifying the working class and serving its interests, while the boundaries of class struggle are pushed forward… unless the class interests of the working class themselves direct them into political struggle and to the transformation of the mode of production, the socialist project must remain an empty and utopian aspiration. This does not mean that socialism is inevitable, only that it will come about in this way or not at all...

The Marxist conception of the working class as a “collective agent” presupposes that the object of political struggle is not the seizure of power (let alone the attainment of office), whether by election or putsch, but rather the abolition of class. The taking of power is no doubt a necessary step in the transformation of society, but it is an instrument, not itself the object, of class struggle. The issue, then, is not simply the relative merits of electoralism and extra-parliamentary struggle… The conduct of electoral politics, even when its goals are limited, must always be guided by the objectives of socialism and the final abolition of class…

There are many lessons to be learned from the thousands of working-class struggles that have taken place in Britain and elsewhere. Above all they have shown that, while the task is long and difficult, the material of socialism is there in the interests, solidarities, and strategic capacities of the working class. In their victories and even in their defeats these struggles have shown us what might be accomplished if the labour movement had a political instrument ready to do its job, the tremendous goals which might be achieved if all the isolated and particular struggles for “universal human goods” were unified not simply by the phantoms of “discourse” or by the superficial bonds of electoral expediency but by the politics of class.


More on Ellen Meiksins Wood

Our review of The Retreat from Class at the time it was published, by Martin Thomas, is here.

Clive Bradley's notes on her 1995 book Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, which further develops many of the same as well as other themes key to her thinking, is here.

Janet Burstall and Tony Brown review a range of Wood's writings in the 1980s and 1990s here.