Ellen Meiksins Wood died on January 14.
Ms. Wood was a prolific academic, writing many books and articles from a Marxist perspective. Among her peers, her work on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the advocacy of so-called “political Marxism,” and her views on Ancient modes of production are remembered.
With a broader audience, she will be remembered for her staunch defense of classical Marxism at a time of full retreat.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of Western Marxism—both Party-based and otherwise—lost its way. Disillusionment and despair held sway. In academic circles, a period of “rethinking” Marxism grew like a virus. The fundamentals of classical Marxism were challenged by the supposed rigor of rational choice theory on one hand and the wildly wielded scalpel of post-modernism on the other.
Rational choice theory announced ominously that the Marxist foundation was not and could not be built on the basis of homo economicus, a result that was both obvious and welcome to any serious student of Marx. Nonetheless, so-called “Analytical Marxism” took a toll.
A wave of epistemological relativism penetrated Western political thought from its pretentious and esoteric perch in European-- especially French-- universities. The idea that we could not defend any foundation for our world views apart from our own subjective and uniquely shaped perspective took hold. The fact that thinkers formerly associated with Marxism promulgated these views carried considerable weight in the English-speaking world. The unity that Marxism had striven to achieve between workers and other oppressed groups was shattered into a multitude of self-reflecting identities by the post-modern turn. Students and budding intellectuals hurled the epithet of “reductionism” at every effort to reveal underlying structures or processes.
The expansion of world markets to previously market-adverse economies dramatically boosted trade and investment to new levels. Theorists dubbed this quantitative burst “globalization” and hastily heralded it as a new stage of capitalism. Some went further, counting it as a harbinger of a world with transnational corporations overruling the governance of historically constructed states.
Indeed, it was an ugly time. Nonsense abounded.
The intellectual climate fed a similar floundering of the activist left in the nineties. Socialism, as a societal vision, was diluted into a regimen of “social markets” or receded behind the allure of anarchism and spontaneity. The fuzzy, unfocussed anti-globalization movement replaced anti-imperialism as the organizing principle of the left. A nostalgic yearning for the supposed golden era of post-World War Two prosperity and a thread-bare safety net substituted for the quest for full social justice—“revolution” was retired.
It was in this context that Ellen Meiksins Wood declared war on the navel-gazers, the timid, and the opportunists abandoning Marxism. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing Western ideological Great Plague, she exposed the “new,” eviscerated Marxism in her Retreat from Class (1986). Reflecting upon it years later in a new introduction, she wrote:
People have, in their various ways, moved on, in ways that have very little to do with Marxism, or even socialism, except to repudiate it. It seems clear that Post-Marxism was just a short pit-stop on the way to anti-Marxism. The Retreat from Class (1998)
She carried out much of her struggle against traitors, slackers, and opportunists in the pages of Monthly Review while serving as co-editor with Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff from 1997 to 2000.
Her stinging attacks on the globalization thesis (‘Globalization’ or ‘globaloney’?), along with the equally biting polemics by Doug Henwood, were aimed at anyone who would dare to defend it: “…globalization…is the heaviest ideological albatross around the neck of the left today.” (MR, February 1997)
Wood saw the global dominance of markets not as a defeat, but as an opportunity for the left:
Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… So maybe it’s time for the left to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a defeat for us but also as an opportunity—and that, of course above all means a new opportunity for that unfashionable thing called class struggle. (Back to Marx, MR, June, 1997)
The recurring theme in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s writings was the centrality of class struggle. Against the tide of New Leftism, neo-Marxism, post-Marxism, post-modernism, and other wooly, confused departures from Marxism, she saw the working class as the essential agent for change.
When Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward engaged her on the pages of Monthly Review (January, 1998), challenging her “nostalgia for the working-class formations of the industrial era” and asserting that “We are all social democrats now,” she responded sharply:
‘There are no social-democrats now.’ People are waking up to the fact that social democracy is not a viable option. For those who have tended to identify social democracy with socialism, there seems to be no other alternative to capitalism—in fact no alternative to the more inhumane, neoliberal forms of capitalism. So the loss of social democracy is for them indeed an awesome one. It is for them a more cataclysmic and perhaps even final loss than for those who, while certainly supporting the welfare state or any amelioration of capitalism’s destructive consequences, have always doubted the long term sustainability of capitalism “with a human face.” Those who used to place all their hopes in social democracy are inclined to explain their awesome loss not by conceding that a humane capitalism was never sustainable in the long term but by invoking some massive epochal shift which had destroyed what used to be, but no longer is, a real possibility.
In answer to the then fashionable skepticism toward the socialist project, Ms. Wood asserted that the naysayers could offer nothing beyond “a better and maybe more humane management of ‘flexible’ capitalism,” an insight that presages by nearly two decades the principled refusal of Greek Communists today to join SYRIZA in the management of capitalism.
Lest anyone believe that Wood harbored any illusions about reformism apart from the goal of socialism, she offered the following thoughts to a 1999 forum in South Africa which included participants from the ANC, COSATU, and the South African Communist Party:
My main point is that there can be struggles and objectives short of a socialist transformation, but there can’t be such a thing as a Third Way. There really is no middle ground between capitalism and socialism.
That’s not a paradox. It simply means that all oppositional struggles… should be informed by one basic perception: the 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… 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 the job that can be done at all. (MR, September, 1999)
No doubt events have played the largest role in washing away much of the ideological fashions that enjoyed such popularity with the Western left in the 1990s. Endless wars, exploding inequality, and an epochal economic crisis make what appeared to be learned assessments and ominous projections appear little more than naïve.
We should not forget, however, how important it was to have a few courageous voices defend principle against the current, to stand firm while others were in full retreat.
Ellen Meiksins Wood was one.