Notes on Ellen Meiksins Wood's "Democracy Against Capitalism"

Submitted by martin on 30 November, 2002 - 7:30

Some notes on Ellen Meiksins Wood, 'Democracy Against Capitalism'
By Clive Bradley

The work of Ellen Meiksins Wood (EMW from now on) has come up several times in these debates. As one of the most trenchant Marxist critics of 'post-modernism' and all its associated nonsense, she is an important thinker, and all her work I've read is readable and stimulating. I don't propose here to review much of it - I have neither the time nor the ability to cover it all, for one thing because it would require expert historical knowledge I make no pretence to having. (Consequently I won't be saying too much about her thesis regarding the bourgeois democratic revolution in Britain). Instead, I intend to focus on one of her most important books, 'Democracy Against Capitalism'.(Cambridge 1995). I'll try to summarise the argument, suggest some problematic areas, and conclude with some comments about how her argument relates (or doesn't) to the debate we've been having about the 'federal republic'.

Inevitably, as a summary, what I say here will be crude, but I hope not false. The first part of the book is essentially about two things, one of which relates to the argument in the second half about democracy, the second less so. Capitalism, EMW argues, is a unique social system because it revolutionises the means of production in way that no previous society did (or indeed, previous modes of production may have 'petrified' them). It is also unique in the separation it creates between 'economic' and 'political' spheres. Pre-capitalist class societies require, for the extraction of surplus from the direct producers, 'extra economic' means, such as the direct coercive power of the state. Capitalism, on the other hand, is based on the apparent formal equality of bourgeois and proletarian: surplus value is extracted through the hidden mechanism of the exchange of labour power for wages (whereas a serf can see and touch the 'surplus' handed over to the lord). From this different form of surplus extraction comes the separate spheres of economics and politics in capitalism. EMW sees this as basic to the 'critique of capitalism', and of course it is.

The other argument is less relevant to the overall discussion here, so I'll deal with it only briefly. Essentially, it is a detailed defence of the historical theory of EP Thompson (against Anderson and Althusserians), or at least of her own take on his work. This concerns the limited use of the 'base/superstructure' metaphor, the failings of technological determinism, and Thompson's dynamic and historical conception of 'class' (of an English working class that was 'present at its own making') against 'structuralist' concepts. There's one aspect of all this which is relevant to our debate, so I'll come back to it later; otherwise, I'll leave that there - except to say that I agree with EMW.

The most original and interesting part of the book is an extended study of the difference between 'democracy' as it was understood and existed in ancient Athens, and as it has developed in the modern capitalist world. In classical Athens, democracy meant, literally, rule by the 'demos', the people - directly through a popular assembly of citizens. EMW contests the idea that Athens was, primarily, a 'slave mode of production'. There were slaves; but the dominant form of production was peasant and artisan, and these citizens were, collectively, the state. The Athenian 'polis' was, therefore, a unique historical phenomenon, in that there was no extra-economic coercion in the extraction of surplus: there was a complete fusion of the direct producers and the state.

Modern 'democracy' traces its lineage through Magna Carta, 1688, and so on - and EMW points how instructive this historical orthodoxy is: rather than popular movements from below (Diggers, Chartists, etc), modern democratic institutions are seen as the product of the historical victories of lords over the monarchy, of property owners against the people. Even the American constitution is based on a radically different concept of democracy to the ancient Athenian one. 'Representative' democracy would have been alien to an Athenian; but it is central to modern 'democracy', and the core of the idea is to take power away from the 'demos', to separate out those with political power from the masses (and, from the outset, to define 'representatives' as 'social betters'). Where Athenian democracy was the fusion of the citizen and the state (and economics and politics), modern democracy is, in a sense, the opposite. If the essential feature of capitalism is the separation of politics and economy, its democratic forms echo this perfectly - the formal legal equalities of modern democracy by definition don't touch the inequalities of social and economic power.

In the western tradition, democracy has been reduced to 'liberalism' - to the parliamentary system, and to legal individual rights. But 'liberal democracy' is not 'democracy' in its original and literal meaning at all. The left needs to assert this proper meaning of democracy - direct popular power - against capitalism. Capitalism can accommodate a range of liberal rights and 'freedoms' (even racial and sexual emancipation, EMW argues, at least in principle); but it cannot accommodate democracy, properly understood, at all.

There is much that is interesting and persuasive in her account. In this framework, the struggle for democracy is not simply a parallel, still less subordinate, aspect of some more properly socialist struggle, or just campaigns for this or that civil liberty, but essential and central to the socialist project. Meiksins Wood admits that she raises more questions than she answers; I want to explore a few possible questions.

She does not, of course, argue against 'representative' democracy. But she does not address the obvious objection to any attempt to use ancient Athens as any sort of model, inspiration (or even merely suggestive historical point of departure), which is that the Athenian polis was rather small and unpopulated compared to a modern state. Delegation is a necessary function of any modern democratic system. I don't think she would deny this; but the precise political relevance of the Athenian model is never spelled out - and since the whole question of democracy is at least in some regard a debate about institutional forms, this seems an odd omission.

It relates to the second odd omission, which is that there is no discussion of the substantial Marxist literature on alternative democratic state forms, from Marx on the Paris Commune, through Lenin's 'State and Revolution', to the wide range of historical examples of workers' council type bodies (including, for example, Hungary in 1956, and Poland in 1980). Such historical examples put some flesh on the bones of any discussion about democracy, surely. Moreover, they raise interesting and important questions - strategic questions (like, just to take one more or less at random: the Hungarian revolution formed workers' councils, but it also demanded a parliament. What is the relationship between these demands - how should socialists relate to them? Is the Bolshevik approach to the Constituent Assembly a model, or not? Etc) The distinction EMW makes between 'liberalism' and 'democracy' is, for sure, a valid and suggestive one. Another of her books, 'The Origin of Capitalism' (she covers some of the argument in the first half of this one, too), goes in more detail into the question of the 'bourgeois democratic revolution'. But I think she makes too much of the anti-democratic content of modern 'democracy' beginning with the American war of independence, which, she argues, crucially 'redefined' democracy so as not to mean popular rule. For sure, the bourgeois advocates of democracy, in America and shortly afterwards in France, wanted freedom, fundamentally, for themselves, freedom to trade, freedom for non-'feudal' property, rights for themselves not simply divinely-appointed kings and aristocrats, etc. But I think the democratic impulse was stronger than this implies.

Western capitalist civilisation emerged in a period in which this democratic impulse was at work at all levels of society. In a profound sense, the whole of the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, beginning with Copernicus through to Darwin, was a democratising process - undermining the entrenched powers of the older society, redefining humanity's place in the universe and establishing 'reason' as the overriding principle, from which flowed the preoccupation with the 'rights of man', and so on. The French revolution, animated by these ideals, whatever the limitations of its ideology regarding 'democracy' and 'freedom', unleashed this democratising impulse across Europe - from universal suffrage to the emancipation of the Jews to the very idea of the republic. EMW is right, I'm sure, that it's significant that these revolutionaries saw the Roman republic as their model, not Athenian democracy. But these democratic notions informed the new, explicitly socialist and communist movements which emerged in the wake of the French revolution. It is surely significant that these movements emerged then - in the context of the Enlightenment and the French revolution - and not before. Marxism itself, in all sorts of ways, is the inheritor of this democratic tradition.

It was, of course, a tradition shot through with contradictions. Kenan Malik, in his interesting book 'The Meaning of Race', traces how the Enlightenment project of human equality faced the contradiction of class inequality. Its solution, he argues, was the concept of 'race'. Initially, race was used to describe lower classes, and only later became identified with skin colour. On the basis of this, scientific racism emerged, justifying the biological inferiority of 'races'. Key to Malik's argument, though, and it seems to me he's right, is that you can't understand this process - understand the contradictions which propelled it - unless you understand the genuinely democratic, egalitarian aspect to the 'Enlightenment project' in the first place. Of course it is true that the bourgeoisie, from very early on if not the outset, had an ambiguous and contradictory relationship to the democratic impulse which revolutions bring with them. But the communist movement emerged from the historical processes thus unleashed. What distinguished Marx from the start of being a 'Marxist' was the merging of the young working class and communist movement with the traditions of revolutionary democracy, and we should beware of cutting Marxism adrift from this historical background. Almost immediately - straight after the 1848 revolutions, or even after June 1848 in Paris - Marx and Engels recognised the undemocratic role of the bourgeoisie. But the principles and demands which were animating the revolutions themselves, including the working class and broadly 'plebian' components, were properly democratic, even if they were not on the Athenian model. EMW's critique of the redefined democracy of the modern era seems to me to ignore this, to reduce the modern meaning of 'democracy' to its most 'right-wing' and anti-democratic versions.

The more general argument, though, that a thoroughgoing democracy which means more than just parliamentary government, and involves genuine social control, is utterly incompatible with capitalism, and so at its deepest level capitalism is an undemocratic system - all that is important, and cogently put. I wonder, however, exactly what it's got to do with the debate we have been having about the 'federal republic' and the more general struggle for democracy.

Plainly, what attracts EMW to ancient Athens is its character as a citizen-state; that the direct producers (peasants and artisans) themselves exercised political power (and that in terms of political power, were equal to larger landowners). Its 'literal' democracy is in contrast to the separation of 'citizen' from real social power under capitalism. Her argument is fundamentally about the different forms of democracy which would be needed to exercise power in a socialist society - it's an argument about abolishing the distinction between politics and economics, about the popular exercise of power over the whole of society. In capitalism, she argues, the economy is itself a form of political coercion (because the market rules us). Human liberation means freeing ourselves from this form of rule.

She is, of course, also in favour of the defence and extension of democracy in a more limited and everyday sense; but her fundamental argument is, in a sense, a way of talking about socialism, not a programme for a different constitutional arrangement under capitalism. A debate about a 'federal republic' (with or without quotes from Marx and Lenin) inhabits a different conceptual universe from the one in this book. Similarly, it needs to be said - and here I return briefly to the first part of the book - the relevance of 'anti-economism'. EMW's defence of EP Thompson's concept of class is an argument for a subtle, dynamic understanding of class consciousness, and is dismissive of people who think they have received wisdom. She quotes Thompson rejecting 'that contempt of the people, of their hopelessly corrupted state, of their vulgarity and credulity by comparison with an educated minority,' and 'a formalist Marxism [he means the Althusserians] which makes the whole people, including the whole working class, mere carriers of the structures of a corrupt ideology.' (EMW, p106). This isn't far off a celebration of 'spontaneity', and certainly doesn't read like a stricture against 'economism'.

In sum: there are some stimulating ideas in this book, though it begs equally stimulating questions. Her argument about the two traditions ('two souls'?) of democracy is distinct and original, though the more general critique of capitalism (the separation of 'economic' and 'political') is only recapitulating familiar ideas (no less important for that, of course). I know there are other areas of her thought I haven't gone into here which are informing this debate. But re-reading my original article on Jack Conrad, and the article itself which I reviewed, I can see little reason to change anything in light of Ellen Meiksins Wood. The CPGB's attempt to enrol her in the fight against economism seems to me somewhat misplaced.

Clive Bradley Nov 26


Submitted by Clive on Wed, 12/04/2002 - 09:14

These are some supplementary notes on Ellen Meiksins Wood's book 'The Origin of Capitalism'. I said in my review of 'Democracy Against Capitalism' that I didn't feel qualified to judge some of the historical questions she raises, since at least to some degree they depend on detailed knowledge outside my competence. Still, it's worth trying to summarise her argument and offer some tentative thoughts.

Wood argues there is a tendency in non-Marxist, and even in much Marxist, analysis to treat capitalism as natural, as simply the working-through of inherent human qualities present in all societies, and the historical emergence of capitalism as the mere evolution of pre-capitalist types of market. In particular, regarding the emergence of capitalism from feudalism, she attacks the 'commercialisation model', according to which capitalism was already present in feudal cities, and as the market spread was gradually able to outgrow feudal fetters until eventually 'bourgeois revolution' caused a qualitative breakthrough. Early modern colonialism (the conquest of what became Latin America, etc) is seen as merely the means whereby large amounts of wealth were amassed which could feed capitalist industrial development when the time came; the commercial empires of Spain, Portugal, the Dutch are assimilated to capitalism, whereas in fact they were not capitalist at all.

These analyses are at fault for several reasons. First, they assume what needs to be explained. The historical specificity of capitalism is much more remarkable than these theories suppose: to treat capitalism as a sort of ever-present promise which will seize its chance as soon as it can makes a mystery of most of human history. Why did capitalism emerge when it did and not before? Collapsing capitalism into 'the market' robs us of a serious analysis of capitalism, and treats it, in effect, as natural (in Adam Smith's words, natural human 'truck, barter and exchange'). Capitalism is special because the market becomes an imperative, determining all spheres of life, and therefore imposing a constant need to increase labour productivity. Through this process, the separation between 'economic' and 'political' occurs (discussed in my previous article): rather than through the direct force of the state, surplus is extracted from the direct producers (the working class) by the economic mechanism of the market (the exchange of labour power for wages).

Factually, also, therefore, the 'commercialisation model' misses the point. The assumption of capitalism gradually building up in the cities (hence the term 'bourgeois') is false (Wood criticises the conflation of 'capitalist' with 'bourgeois' in general). In fact there were 'two ways out of feudalism'. One was the absolutist state, which involved 'politically constituted' property; the other was capitalism. But capitalist transition occurred in one place, and in the first instance one place only - the English countryside. This was not merely, as many accounts have it, that peasants were deprived of land making them available to be wage-labourers: the forms of property themselves were transformed. In essence, feudal relations became subject - in a class struggle in which classes fought for their own immediate interests - to market imperatives. Once the market imperatives took hold, capitalism began. In time, it swept everything before it - because its imperative to increase labour productivity made it immensely more powerful and competitive than its rivals.

There was no such thing as 'bourgeois revolution', either in England or elsewhere, if by this is meant 'capitalist revolution'. Capitalist transition was the result of the emerging dominance of market imperatives; revolutions (like the French) may well have been led by 'the bourgeosie', but only in the sense that these were not capitalists at all. This part of the argument relates to the discussion on democracy in my earlier article: Wood argues that the Enlightenment was not simply to do with the emergence of capitalism, but reflected 'non-capitalist' ideologies. I think the point here is that while the capitalist property owners and their ideologues had a limited and self-interested concept of democracy, there were other democratic advocates around whose championing of the ideals of universal human emancipation can't be reduced to the 'needs' of the capitalist class. The democracy of the French and other revolutions was not because they were 'bourgeois revolutions'; rather, it was the result of the fact that they were not.

Wood's thesis is explicitly linked to the work of the American Marxist Robert Brenner (who is linked, as a matter of interest, to the 'Solidarity' group/Against the Current in the USA - one of the latter day 'bureaucratic collectivist' tendencies). In a previous life I was familiar with some of Brenner's work. Wood's argument here is in part a logical conclusion from Brenner's critique, in the 1970s, of 'neo-Smithian Marxism'. In an influential article, he extensively criticised the dominant neo-Marxist theories of 'underdevelopment' associated with Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, which accounted for the global rich/poor divide by a process in which the metropolis/core sucked surplus from the satellites/periphery. Brenner argued that this theory equated 'capitalism' with 'the market' after the manner of Adam Smith, not Marx. A properly Marxist (and genuinely explanatory, therefore) theory would reinstate class struggle, and in particular an understanding of capitalism as centred on the wage relation. Underdevelopment theory, like its parent, more general 'dependency' theory, tended towards economic nationalist solutions to the poverty of the 'periphery'. Brenner's focus suggested an internationalist, socialist answer.

The concern with the specificity of capitalism, and with class struggle as the motor for historical change (rather than globally-defined 'economic' processes), is clearly visible in the account of the origin of capitalism offered here by Wood. I think Brenner and his 'tradition' focuses another issue, too. The separation, in capitalism, of the 'economic' and 'political' spheres is of course a fairly basic Marxist concept, central in a sense to the theory of surplus value itself (it is what distinguishes surplus value from pre-capitalist forms of surplus). But in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism it takes on a new, or sharper, significance. The extraction of surplus in the USSR was plainly 'extra-economic', requiring an immense state apparatus to achieve it. This issue is at the heart of disagreements over 'bureaucratic collectivism' and 'state capitalism'.

It seems to me that the political implications of Wood's argument are harder to define that she thinks they are. The main argument, throughout, is derived from her general theoretical priority, which is to assert the historical specificity of capitalism - '... capitalism is not a natural and inevitable consequence of human nature... It is a late and localised product of very specific historical conditions' (p 193) - and on that basis offer a more defined and coherent socialist critique. Somewhat frustratingly, she does not spell out very specific political consequences. Moreover, the terms of the debate in which she sees herself writing is entirely in the academic arena: she does not deal with her argument's implications for an understanding of Marx's politics, still less the politics of later Marxists. Her general arguments are a trenchant critique of anti-Marxist 'market triumphalism' on the one hand and 'post-modernist' refusals to deal in meta-narratives on the other. But a range of more specific conclusions, I think, could be drawn.

Her historical account is persuasive up to a point - and as I have said, I don't know enough about European history in the period she is dealing with (the fifteenth century or so to the eighteenth) to comment in detail. But there is something counter-intuitive about much of it. (Counter-intuitive theories are not necessarily wrong, of course - look at quantum mechanics).

Capitalism emerged after a period in which powerful trade empires had dominated the world, in which huge sums of 'merchant capital' had been amassed. (She does not use the term 'merchant capital' at all, nor discuss it, though it is hardly an obscure category in Marxist theory, including theories of global capitalist development. In one such theory, that of Geoffrey Kay, it is the central concept which accounts for the backwardness of the 'third world'). Taking an overview of world history, that the period preceding modern capitalism was the period involving the conquest of the Americas, etc, does not seem accidental - as if the really important developments were taking place elsewhere.

Her entire argument is constructed around the claim that to accept any version of the 'commercialisation model' - the emphasis on the growth of trade prior to the emergence of industrial capital - is to naturalise capitalism, and assume what should be explained. I'm not sure this is true, though. If the emergence of capitalism is regarded as some kind of teleological inevitability (which is the view she is opposing), and history is 'read forwards' with each step seen as the unfolding of an immanent process, it is true. But why can't it simply be said that this is 'how it happened' - not that it could not have happened any other way, or that modern capitalist society was a fully-grown chicken in the egg of the Renaissance; but that this was the completely un-teleological process by which modern capitalism emerged? It does not seem to me that there is anything in such an approach which automatically 'naturalises' capitalism. The Dutch commercial empire, or imperial Spain, were not the same as ancient Phoenicia, or Carthage, or Rome - which were also 'commercial empires' to some degree at least. To assimilate more recent commercial empires to some category of 'commercial empire' would be just as ahistorical. 'Trade', in a Smithian framework, is a natural human tendency. But there is trade and trade. (As there is slavery and slavery, etc). In her concern to identity the uniqueness of capitalism, I think Wood might be in danger of conflating other distinct phenomena.

There is a kind of relentless logic to Wood's argument that makes me constantly want to say 'hold on'. Even on the separation of politics and economics, this is so. Is it true that 'actually existing capitalism' achieves this separation? Most capitalist societies throughout the history of capitalism have required pretty intensive state coercion to guarantee the extraction of surplus value. This is not quite the same as non-capitalist forms of surplus appropriation; and Wood does recognise the need for state coercion, which she sees as the result of capitalism's contradictions. (I think what she means is that capitalism necessarily generates resistance, so of course the ruling class needs repression). But I worry that the basic 'model' of 'normal' or average capitalism which she takes for granted is that of advanced capitalism, with more-or-less bourgeois democratic systems in place - where the economic/political distinction is quite clear. What about, say, Chile after 1973, though, or Nazi Germany?

She deals directly with a point I made in my previous article, about the Enlightenment and the democratic impulses of the 'bourgeois revolution', arguing, as I have indicated, that much of the Enlightenment was not 'capitalist' at all. It seems to me extremely dubious to try to separate out different aspects of Enlightenment thought - as though the properly capitalist ideologues of England are much different to the non-capitalist French. In reality, for example, Voltaire's lover, the remarkable Emily du Chatelet, translated Newton into French - and Voltaire himself saw his critique of the French aristocracy as the application of Newtonian science to society. Wood ultimately accepts that this separation can't really be achieved. But she seems to me to miss a more general point - perhaps it's the same point I've made above. Looked at with, so to speak, more distance, there is an obvious cumulative development in the history of ideas in Europe. I don't think Marxists have attempted to reduce this intellectual history directly to the 'needs of capitalist development' or the interests of the capitalist class (or if they have, they shouldn't). Indeed, it is Wood who seems to be trying to make this kind of reduction.

But why should we try to understand the Enlightenment directly in this way? There is, as some Marxists used to like to say, a certain ('relative') autonomy to the history of ideas. But modern society is enormously informed by the ideas generated throughout the Enlightenment - ideas which the participants in the French revolution, for example, certainly believed themselves to be influenced by, and which Marx, for example, was clearly influenced by and in a certain sense the inheritor of. I think there is a tendency to a kind of reductionism in Wood's approach to these questions (something which, in other areas, such as class, she is firmly opposed to).

Finally, then, on this question of revolution. You can dismiss the idea of the French revolution (or by implication many others since) as 'bourgeois' in the sense that they helped the development of, paved the way for, or whatever, capitalist development. But these revolutions, nevertheless, took place. What, then, are we to call them? The relationship between 'bourgeois revolution' and the bourgeoisie itself, or capitalist development itself, has always been, I think, more schematic in Marxist theory than Wood suggests. But plainly, revolutions result, directly or indirectly, in new constellations of political power or class rule. In broad historical perspective, the French revolution was surely more than merely a transfer of political power - it surely represented something new - hugely, irreversibly new - in human history. 'Bourgeois revolution' is an attempt to encapsulate that significance. To abandon it in favour of 'democratic revolution' (which seems to be the argument of the RDG and the CPGB - correct me if I've misunderstood), without a defining class character, does not seem to me a way forward.