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Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942 – 2016). A Tribute.

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Ellen Meiksins Wood, the wife of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, has died of cancer at the couple’s Ottawa home at the age of 73.


She was a noted intellectual figure on the international left, whose studies of class, politics and political ideas influenced several generations of thinkers and activists.

Wood’s 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 intervention in debates, conducted through the pages of New Left Review, and the Socialist Register,  that took place in the wake of Eric Hobsbawm’s famous polemic, The Forward March of Labour halted? (Marxism Today 1978 – expanded in book form with replies from supporters and critics in 1981).

Many left intellectuals not only backed Hobsbawm’s view that the material importance of class institutions in shaping politics was declining with the drop in numbers in the industrial working class, 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’ a more complex and open site of democratic assembly to the alleged ‘monolithic’ vision of politics embodied in the traditional labour movement. In a diffuse way this was associated with the once fashionable idea that “a “post-modern” society dissolved reality in ‘simulacra’. Others claimed it  meant the end of “grand narratives” – or more bluntly, that the ideas of socialism and the Left was splintering so quickly that only a fragmented series of ‘critical’ responses were possible against neo-liberal regimes of ‘governance’.

Wood argued for the importance of class in shaping not just political interests but the potential constituency of  radical socialist politics. Fights over power were at the centre of Marxism and these were part and parcel with disputes over exploitation and the appropriation of the social surplus. 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 formation of a new hegemonic strategy based on  relations of “equivalence” between various democratic demands ignored the basic facts about class and power. Like her comrade Ralph Miliband Wood saw socialism as an effort to bring together people around the central issues of exploitation and oppression in democratic organisations that could shape politics. This had historically been the result of conscious action, and this kind of collective work was needed more than even against a very real and growing grand narrative – the institutionalisation of neo-liberal economics and government assaults on working people, and the unemployed – in building a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

Political Marxism.

In academic as well as left-wing activist  circles Wood became known for her “political Marxist” approach to history. This focused on the issue of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and social property relations and the way this shaped the politics of early modern states.  The Pristine Culture of Capitalism 1992  was a summary of this approach. British merchants and agricultural  capitalists has actively determined the administrative Parliamentary forms, from Cromwell’s republic to the Glorious Revolution – the restoration of the Monarchy.

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). In the early days of the Second New Left they had asserted  that the so-called ‘archaic’ British state was a reflection of a an equally ‘pre-modern’ capitalism dominated not by these forces by an aristocratic surrogates for the bourgeoisie. Nairn and Anderson claimed that the ‘supine’ bourgeoisie – who abdicated political rule to the ‘aristocracy’. Their domination of UK politics  left deep traces right until the present. For this strand of New leftists the failure of the a resolute bourgeoisie to assume real power been mimicked by a “supine” working class. In later writings Anderson talked of the need for a new wave of democratic modernisation to bring the country into line with the ‘second’ bourgeois revolution of modernity.

Wood, by contrast, pointed out, had a developed capitalism, indeed it was the most ‘modern’ form of capitalism. Its state form was related to its early advance, and its allegedly old-fashioned trappings – from the Monarchy downwards – had not thwarted capitalist expansion but arisen in relation to needs of its own bourgeoisie. The labour movement had developed in struggle with these forces, not in deference to them.

In some respects this response is not unlike E.P.Thompson’s defence of the labour movement. But Wood went deeper into the mechanisms of markets and state formation. She illustrated the feeble empirical basis of the claims about UK archaism. Britain is hardly alone in having a Monarchy to begin with, and the notion that there is something specifically modern in any state-type evaporates when one looks at studies of the varieties of administrative and government forms. France, for example, remains profoundly marked by its own past ‘feudal’ administrative forms. The USA Constitution is a relic from the 18th century. On all the essential points present-day Britain was no more, no less, ‘modern’ than anywhere else in Europe or in any contemporary capitalist state. Indeed it was for long a template for bourgeois democracy. In particular Wood attacked the claims of Tom Nairn that in some fashion Ukania (his ‘funny’ word for the United Kingdom, modelled on the novelist ( 1880 – 1942) Robert Musil’s term for the Austro-Hungrian empire, Kakania – shit land) owed its economic difficulties to its constitution.  Economic problems  arose at root from the general contradictions of capitalist accumulation, in a specific form. The problems of British democracy were due to its capitalist character , not to the issues Nairn-Anderson dreamt up about its sonderweg.

Brenner thesis.

More widely Wood is known, in developing these writings, as an advocate of a version of the ‘Brenner thesis’ (after Robert Brenner’s article, Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe“1978). The creation of market relations in British agriculture were considered to be the foundation of modern capitalism. The essential condition was separation from non-market access to the means of subsistence, the means of self-reproduction. Wood argued that it was the capitalist transformation of agriculture, followed by the rise of merchant class expanding these forms through international trade, created the ground of Western capitalism.  It was also responsible for the distinctive state forms that emerged in Britain.

In the Agrarian Origins of Capitalism (1998) Wood summarised her views,

The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. First, 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 to the total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe), was also becoming the hub of a developing national market.

The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was English agriculture, which was unique in several ways. The English ruling class was distinctive in two major and related respects: on the one hand, as part of an increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a centralizing monarchy, they did not possess to the same degree as their Continental counterparts the more or less autonomous “extra-economic” powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus labor from direct producers. On the other hand, 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. What they lacked in “extra-economic” powers of surplus extraction they more than made up for by their increasing “economic” powers.

Wood’s political stand was firmly within the Marxist ambit. In 1999 she stated (The Politics of Capitalism) ,

…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, but, more particularly, it’s not a job that can be done at all.

The broader  focus on the links between capitalism and state forms continued in her study Empire of Capital (2003). This analysed how the “empire of capital” (rather than the vague ‘globalisation’ or the rhizome of Hardt and Negri’s  ‘Empire’) shapes the  modern world 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  were ambitious attempts to narrate and analyse Western political thought in the light of class categories.

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.

Remembering Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Ellen Meiksins Wood — Her Importance to Me. by Ursula Huws (Monthly Review). 

Written by Andrew Coates

January 15, 2016 at 1:09 pm

14 Responses

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  1. A great loss: an important Marxist thinker whose emphasis on the primacy of class and class struggle will be sorely missed at this time of identity politics and reactionary “anti-imperialism.”

    Jim Denham

    January 15, 2016 at 3:25 pm

  2. I concentrated on the areas of her work I know – well enough in fact to write this without referring to my own copies (though I have now checked them).

    But as you say Jim, I think she had some insights into the politics of ‘anti-imperialism’ to offer as well.

    Andrew Coates

    January 15, 2016 at 5:17 pm

  3. Have re-blogged at Shiraz Socialist

    Jim Denham

    January 15, 2016 at 5:50 pm

  4. A nice tribute. But Brenner is ROBERT Brenner, not PAUL Brenner.


    January 15, 2016 at 6:01 pm

  5. Thanks – I know his work less thoroughly then hers!

    Incidentally reading through The Pristine Culture of Capitalism this afternoon I found myself wondering why – apart from the obvious fact that New Left Review was important to her at the time (and I am all too aware of how that all ended…..) why somebody of her intellectual depth took Tom Nairn seriously. She devotes quite a few pages to him.

    Nairn is a pamphleteer, little more.

    His long support for the pro-business Scottish National Party indicates that he was never a real critic of capitalism – only its ‘Ukania’ form. The break up of Britain – Nairn’s best known mongered phrase – was meant to ‘free’ Alba, not to lead to socialism.

    Nairn has been a life-time opponent of the labour movement and socialism.

    Andrew Coates

    January 15, 2016 at 6:29 pm

  6. Clive Bradley’s review of her ‘Democracy Against Capitalism’: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/462

    Jim Denham

    January 15, 2016 at 9:21 pm

  7. I first learned of her while she was a co-editor of Monthly Review. That didn’t end well either.


    January 15, 2016 at 11:54 pm

  8. For our German readers who have not already seen this: Marxistische Historikerin und Ex-Herausgeberin der »Monthly Review« im Alter von 73 Jahren gestorben.


    French readers: Ellen Meiksins Wood, née en 1942 à New York et décédée le 14 janvier 2016, est une historienne marxiste américaine. Ses travaux se rattachent au courant du marxisme politique (dont font également partie Robert Brenner, George Comninel, Benno Teschke, Charlie Post):


    Andrew Coates

    January 16, 2016 at 10:44 am

  9. Jim I agree with much of the review of ‘Democracy Against Capitalism‘. In fact I absorbed the book thoroughly enough to take extensive notes on it.

    Two main points:

    Firstly, ” Essentially, it is a detailed defence of the historical theory of EP Thompson (against Anderson and Althusserians)”.

    Personally however I find much of use in Althusser’s ideas as developed and substantially transformed by Poulantzas for political – not broader historical – analysis.

    I do not think that Poulantzas’ L’État, le pouvoir, le socialisme (1978) – a book I’ve read several times – is ‘formalist’. It describes states in terms of a “condensation” of class relations, that is shaped by class conflicts. This is a potentially historically rich approach, looking at the way politics really works out rather than categorising it abstractly.

    Secndly in wider political terms Poulantzas was also an advocate of socialist democracy, combining the kind of expanded social power – “social control” – from the workplace, the community, to representative national institutions, that Wood advocated.

    I therefore consider that Thompson’s claim that the Althusserians consider workers as “mere carriers of the structures of a corrupt ideology.” not only bizarre but fundamentally misjudged.

    Perry Anderson pointed out in Arguments within English Marxism (1980) that in fact the Althusserians shared with Thompson a so-called ‘centrist’ politics – linking parliamentary and direct democracy, or a left Eurocommunism.

    This kind of democratic socialism is, I’d say, one that bridges Wood and a lot of other democratic Marxists – including myself. That is democracy is much wider than present-day Parliamentary forms – perhaps a point that does not need making when you think out it.

    In this respect Clive Bradley signals that the assertions about Athenian democracy as a citizen state play an important role in Wood’s book.

    However, I can’t help thinking that the “liberty of the ancients” is not something that can be easily introduced into the liberty of the moderns.

    Andrew Coates

    January 16, 2016 at 11:08 am

  10. Interesting points, Andrew: I’m still mulling them over …

    Meanwhile here’s another appreciation: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/ellen-wood-obituary-chibber-retreat-from-class-origins-of-capitalism-marxist/

    Jim Denham

    January 16, 2016 at 12:49 pm

  11. In regards to parliamentary democracy and soviet democracy — I personally support neither. Parliamentary democracy is a form of the capitalist state and can’t be inherited into a socialist society and soviet democracy is far less “direct” than people seem to think it is. It’s councils electing councils that elect more councils and by the time you get to the “supreme soviet” you’ve got something quite indirect, and how can the right of recall possibly function? Plus as usually described it’s got a real syndicalist bent — people elect workplace delegates to the councils. How does that help break down the division between mental and physical labor?

    Extrapolating from Marx’s “The Civil War in France” I’m for this:

    • The highest political power will be a single popular assembly composed of delegates who are elected and recallable at any time. Pay of delegates will be no greater than the average skilled worker. Elections will be frequent. Judges will also be electable and recallable.
    • All political parties which operate peacefully will be legal. One party or coalition of parties may replace another peacefully. Political minorities will have the right and be given the opportunity to become majorities.
    • Elections will be publicly financed.
    • Local organs of government will have a wide degree of autonomy.
    • The principle of openness in political affairs will be guaranteed (no state secrets).
    • No censorship of media. There will be the right to publicly communicate on all topics.
    • As long as the armed forces exist, their rank-and-file members should have freedom of political speech and the right to organize in political parties and trade unions.

    That’s as much as we need say in a non-revolutionary moment.


    January 17, 2016 at 5:05 am

  12. Have you read any Abensour js?

    Very interesting in precisely the areas you mention.

    This is a a key book of his, Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Movement. By: Miguel Abensour (2011).

    I have only just finished reading this book, though for reasons too obvious to go into this is the version I have, La Démocratie contre l’État : Marx et le moment machiavélien, Paris, Le Félin, 2004.

    Andrew Coates

    January 17, 2016 at 1:31 pm

  13. I haven’t read Abensour, but I’ve seen that book mentioned before. If I can find an affordable copy (or library copy) I’ll give it a read.


    January 18, 2016 at 9:54 pm

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