Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2016

Ellen Meiksins Wood: a political assessment

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was first getting a handle on the academic left, Wood’s articles on postmodernism were very useful to me. She co-edited a collection of articles published by Monthly Review in 1997 with John Bellamy Foster titled “In Defense of History” that was a frontal assault on Baudrillard, Lyotard at al. Now, looking back at the work, I can see how far I have distanced myself from that project.

One article is by Meera Nanda, an Indian physicist who was closely linked to Alan Sokal’s crusade against pomo obscurantism that I embraced at the time especially since I had a particular dislike for the bad writing that he spoofed in Social Text. However, a few years later I was shocked to discover that Nanda was an ardent defender of the Narmada Dam in India that would displace thousands of peasants and risk major ecological damage.

Another contributor was Kenan Malik, who was a member of Frank Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Party at the time and a contributor to their magazine Living Marxism. In 1996, a year before the Wood-Foster book came off the press, Malik wrote an article for LM titled “Dying Languages” that had this subheading: “It would be no loss if most of the world’s languages died out, argues Kenan Malik”. In keeping with the RCP’s vulgar Marxist belief that capitalism was a “revolutionary” bludgeon against what the Communist Manifesto called “all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations”, the article claimed that “Cultural homogenisation is something to be welcomed, not feared.” Did Wood or Foster have any idea how such homogenization takes place? For the American Indian, it took place at the leading edge of a whip in residential schools. Well, who knows. Maybe they had not bothered to look into Malik’s background. They were busy people, after all.

The susceptibility of Wood and Foster to this sort of stuff was very much a function of a drift in Marxism toward a knee-jerk reaction to anything with the slightest whiff of postmodernism, making it especially vulnerable to the RCP’s interventions on the left. Of course, nobody could possibly make the same mistake today since LM is long gone with the group having mutated into an openly libertarian think-tank funded in all likelihood by major corporations.

In 1997, after Wood had come on board, MR republished a Pluto book titled “Science and the Retreat from Reason” by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar. At the time I was so shocked by this that I contacted MR immediately to alert them to the fact that the authors were RCP members and that their book contained an attack on Rachel Carsons. Since it was too late to cancel the contract with Pluto, Foster was put in the awkward position of having to pan the book in MR. Now I don’t know if this all happened before Wood was in the driver’s seat but it should give you a sense of the disorientation that was widespread at the time.

People like John Bellamy Foster and Ellen Meiksins Wood live in a very rarified world, one circumscribed by Historical Materialism, NLR, Verso Press, the Left Forum and other institutions that tend to be isolated from criticism. If you don’t like an article in the New Left Review or Historical Materialism, that’s just too darned bad. The people who run such august institutions had to scale major hurdles before getting on their editorial boards so they must know what they are talking about. Right?

In terms of Woods’s contributions to Marxism, I imagine that her book “Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy” is probably worth reading at least on the basis of David McNally’s talk at a symposium on her life and work that was held at Birbeck College in England in conjunction with Verso’s republication of some of her books.

But most of the symposium that you can listen to here (as I did today) is devoted to her co-thinkers’ reflections on her major contribution to Marxist theory, the so-called separation of the political and the economic.

Listening to Robert Brenner, the first time I ever heard him speak actually, I was struck by how much Political Marxism is based on the sort of theorizing you can read in Althusser, G.A. Cohen, and other figures in the academy. Despite the assurances by just everybody there that Wood disdained academia and was trying to relate to activists, I doubt that anybody who slept in Zuccotti Park could have made heads or tails out of Brenner’s review of Wood’s ideas.

Brenner described her 1981 NLR article “The Separation of the Economic and the Political In Capitalism” as a kind of major statement of her views, something that had somehow eluded me over the years. It begins portentously: “The intention of Marxism is to provide a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it. This is not an empty slogan. It has—or ought to have—a very precise meaning. It means that Marxism seeks a particular kind of knowledge, one which is uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement and, at least implicitly, the points at which political action can most effectively intervene.”

Well, who can argue with that?

Much of Wood’s article is a critique of G.A. Cohen who she faults as an exponent of “base/superstructure” Marxism of the sort that was rife in Second International Marxism (Plekhanov, for example). Now, that is something I could buy into especially since my own reading of Cohen led me to the same conclusions. As opposed to Cohen’s dualism, Wood urged the need for a “new approach to Marxist theory” that attempts to bridge the discontinuities between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ by broadening the meaning of the ‘base’ itself. She writes: “The virtue of this ‘unitarian’ approach is that it attempts to restore some kind of social and historical content to the ‘economy’ and that, unlike both economistic and structuralist Marxisms, it recognizes and rejects what has been called the ‘fetishism’ of capitalist categories.”

I should add at this point that the reference to “structuralist Marxisms” is a jab at Althusser so if you want to be initiated into the Political Marxism fraternity, you’d better be up to speed on G.A. Cohen and Louis Althusser before you get your foot in the door.

Once she establishes the theoretical basis for Political Marxism, she gets down to brass tacks and explains how this approach can explain the difference between capitalism and the systems that preceded it. Unlike Cohen, who viewed capitalism as arising out of a natural tendency to revolutionize the means of production (a vulgar notion no doubt encouraged by having read the Communist Manifesto at too early and tender an age), Wood sees it as contingent and arising out of class struggle. The separation of the political and the economic distinguish capitalism from earlier forms of class domination. This statement encapsulates her approach and that of all the other members of the PM tribe. Once again from the 1981 NLR article:

Although the coercive force of the ‘political’ sphere is ultimately necessary to sustain private property and the power of appropriation, ‘economic’ need supplies the immediate compulsion that forces the worker to transfer surplus labour to the capitalist in order to gain access to the means of production. The labourer is, therefore, ‘free’, not in a relationship of dependence or servitude; the transfer of surplus labour and its appropriation by someone else are not conditioned by such an ‘extra-economic’ relationship. The forfeit of surplus labour is an immediate condition of production itself. Capitalism in these respects differs from precapitalist forms to the extent that the latter are characterized by ‘extra-economic’ modes of surplus extraction, political, legal, or military coercion, traditional bonds or duties, etc., which demand the transfer of surplus labour to a private lord or to the state by means of labour services, rent, tax, and so on.

To put it in plain language, she is saying that “extra-economic” modes of surplus extraction such as slavery, debt peonage, etc. are precapitalist. This means that when King Leopold dragooned the Congolese to become rubber tappers, he was presiding over a precapitalist society. But when the rubber made its way to Belgium to become automobile tires, it was within the sphere of capitalist property relations. I don’t think this makes much sense but that’s the analysis for better or for worse.

In Charles Post’s speech to the gathering, he referred to PM’s critics (but not me, I’m sure, who is beyond the pale) that harp on the persistence of the “extra-economic” in today’s world. If you’ve been following the furor over NYU’s use of what amounts to indentured servants in Dubai, you can hardly ignore it. Referring to South Africa’s pass laws, which obviously were key to the accumulation of capital, Post saw them as a kind of transition to full-scale capitalism:

This “partial proletarianization” required the “pass laws” that legally restricted geographic mobility of labor-power in order to ensure steady supplies of ‘cheap’ African labor power to capital.

A whole book could be written about the word “required” in the above sentence. Capitalism entailed massive unfree labor in its early stages because it was required to do so on account of its scarcity in the New World. American Indians had the ability to subsist in the “wilderness”—that is those who had not already been killed by the white man’s diseases—and those that were unable to do so were so ill suited to the tasks of tending to tobacco, sugar or cotton growing. Debt peonage, slavery, and other forms of “extra-economic” exploitation were essential to capital accumulation in the system’s infancy, even this remained difficult for someone like Wood to understand for her entire life.

Although the Political Marxists have an almost cult-like devotion to their cause, there are signs of indiscipline. In groups like the SWP, this could lead to expulsion. Fortunately, tenured professors who publish in NLR have no such worries including Benno Teschke who has grown concerned about some basic flaws in the Wood-Brenner methodology. He told the gathering that once there was “rigor” but now it seems more like “rigor mortis”. If you want to be spared listening to his talk, you might want to take a look at an article he wrote with Samuel Knafo, another speaker at the symposium. Titled “The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique“, it zeroes in on a tendency in PM to shirk the responsibility of engaging with history’s messy details that might be at odds with its “structural” purity (a bad case of Althusserian relapse?)

However, the path pioneered by Brenner and Wood would in turn create its own set of pitfalls. For the ability to ground concretely the analysis of capitalism in the study of social property relations gave incentives to the first generation of Political Marxists to stylize theoretically the implications of this historical work. Robert Brenner, in particular, formalised his conception of capitalism in the form of an ideal type (Brenner, 1986), which was in turn stereotyped in Wood’s distinction between pre-capitalist markets as an opportunity and capitalist markets as an imperative (Wood, 1994). In time, the elaboration of a more substantial conception of capitalism with its inner logic was to become a structural impediment to the original historicist aspirations of PM.

In plain language, Teschke and Knafo are saying that Wood and Brenner conceive of capitalism in almost Platonic terms, as a system that has the essence of resting on markets rather than “extra-economic” compulsion for the creation of surplus value. Well, I could have told them that twenty years ago at least but they wouldn’t have listened. That’s okay. The tide has finally turned as nearly each month a new book on slavery and capitalism rolls off the presses of some of America’s most distinguished academic presses.


  1. I don’t know. I don’t think that there was much class analysis in choosing someone like Kenan Malik for an anthology of articles supposedly defending revolutionary socialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

  2. Her first “big” book was “The Retreat From Class,” and she was often accused of being “rigidly orthodox Marxist” and “class reductionist.” C’mon now.

    Comment by jschulman — January 20, 2016 @ 5:32 am

  3. “She co-edited a collection of articles published by Monthly Review in 1997 with John Bellamy Foster titled “In Defense of History” that was a frontal assault on Baudrillard, Lyotard at al. Now, looking back at the work, I can see how far I have distanced myself from that project.”

    I’ve never agreed with the leftist assault upon Baudrillard. One can respect the fact that he correctly recognized the decline of the working class as it happened post-68, and that his 1970s works were significantly influenced by anthropologists like Levi-Strauss and Clastres. He was an incisive critic of the modernist dismissal of indigenous societies as superstitious and ignorant. He rightly considered modern science as akin to a religion when used to demean the values of these cultures, to demonstrate that they were an inferior form of human existence. He also understood that people were politically self-identifying as consumers as much or more than they did as workers.

    “Debt peonage, slavery, and other forms of “extra-economic” exploitation were essential to capital accumulation in the system’s infancy, even this remained difficult for someone like Wood to understand for her entire life.”

    Theodore Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” is a great elaboration on this subject, through the examples of Ulster and the Virginia colony.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 21, 2016 @ 5:33 am

  4. Louis, I don’t quite get your labeling of NLR as PM, given Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Leo Panitch, etc. And even Brenner’s contributions haven’t seen dogmatic to me regarding the recent booms and busts.

    Comment by David Green — January 21, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

  5. Sorry, but I did not label NLR as PM, only as elitist/academic.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 21, 2016 @ 6:51 pm

  6. I’ve written about Baudrillard. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/03/in-defense-of-grand-narratives/

    Comment by jschulman — January 22, 2016 @ 4:33 am

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