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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

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