Ellen Meiksin Wood

Ellen Meiksin Wood

As I walked down Torrington Place towards the Birkbeck College campus in eager anticipation of a very special symposium, I was suddenly struck by the immediacy of the crowds surrounding the Bloomsbury campuses in preparation for that day’s student protest against the attack on the rights to education for all. The current Tory government’s fanatical pursuit of austerity politics – in which the dominant, de-politicised metaphor of the ‘household budget’ – is being challenged head-on by students, a frustrated and angry global citizenry, as well as the recent resurgence of left-wing politics within the Labour Party itself. And it is because of these diverse social forces that the empty rhetoric of austerity economics is being shifted back onto the terrain of political contestation.

What better scene to encounter as I entered the modest size room hosting a celebration of the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood, who has stood out for her deft and powerful mix between academic historian and political activist. As one of Wood’s long-time friends and academic colleagues, Robert Brenner, noted in his opening remarks, Wood’s unique approach to the history of political theory engenders a rich social context in which the gritty world of politics always “shines through”. For Wood, there is never a neutral set of ideas articulated outside of the specific social context – every political idea, in effect, is an idea about political struggle.

Jointly organized by Birkbeck College, the Political Marxism Research Group at Sussex University, and Verso Books, the symposium gathered the leading academics in the field of ‘political Marxism’ to explore the potentials and limits of one of the most recognized branches of contemporary Marxist theory today. This approach to historical materialism, which emphasizes the structural role of social-property relations and the open-ended agency of class conflict, was originally formulated by Robert Brenner within the long-standing debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Although it was the French Marxist historian Guy Bois who originally coined the term ‘political Marxism’ (PM) as a derogatory label against Brenner’s approach, it was Wood who later went on to embrace the handle in an effort to illuminate the specifically political aspect of all social systems and their developmental dynamics.

With the day’s program divided between two thematic halves – history and politics – the first presentation after Brenner’s warm-hearted introduction was Benno Teschke, a long-standing political Marxist in the field of International Relations. Teschke’s contribution was particularly interesting, however, as it represented the culmination of a gnawing suspicion that has developed through is most recent work. As he put it, there is a deep “tension between theory and history’” in the PM school. On the one hand, the role of class struggle as an explanation for historical change was supposed to offer a non-teleological account of social transformation, in which the unintended consequences of actors’ choices would produce the preconditions for change. On the other, the theory of social-property relations establishes a structural framework for understanding the pressures people face under specific property regimes. For Teschke, Wood’s earlier work was characterized by the former, only to shift to the latter as time went on. He therefore urged a return to an agency-centric approach that takes the strategic innovations taken by social actors as the main pivot of analysis.

Though this is an intriguing perspective, it begs the question, as Brenner retorted, of what we are supposed to make of large, macro-level patterns whose very presence cry out for systematic explanation. The question comes back to how well history lines up with theory; as he put it, one can’t predict that Henry Ford will introduce the assembly line, but one can deduce certain dynamics that emerge from mass production.

This was followed by Maïa Pal’s contribution on the legal foundations of state-formation and empire building in the early modern period. As Pal explained, PM helps to open up the social origins of legal regimes, and the specific foundations between ‘jurisdiction’ (as de facto sovereignty) and ‘sovereignty’ (as a de jure centralized sovereign power). Though the details and implications of Pal’s contribution deserves a much fuller engagement, it was a refreshing addition to the usually narrower discussion on ‘social-property relations’, in so far as social relations of production are unthinkable without, and indeed often heavily shaped by, politico-legal institutional complexes.

The second half of the conference focused on the theme of ‘politics’, with Samuel Knafo explicating what I found to be a fascinating contribution. In re-emphasising the influence of E.P. Thompson on the development of Wood’s thought, Knafo underscored the importance of agency in social analysis, the ways in which people perceive and conceive of their conditions of existence, and the struggles they undertake in order to change these cultural conditions. As he asked, “What does it mean to say certain things in a certain social context?” This is a highly fertile line of questioning that in my view PM would do very well to address.

I was slightly less taken, however, with Charles Post’s contribution. Though a seasoned PM scholar whose book, The American Road to Capitalism, is by now a standard text in the field, I couldn’t quite pick out the salience of his talk. In summarily rejecting the post-structuralist/post-modernist schools of thought as “idealist crap”, he similarly ruled out any substantive impact of state policy on the development of capitalism. Yet it is one thing to point out the recurring nature of capitalist crises (occurring independently of the intention of agents), and quite another to claim from this that the “dynamics of profitability” ultimately limits the actions of state managers “and not vice versa”.

The final paper of the day from David McNally examined Wood’s historical analysis of ancient Greece, and the manner in which the struggles for freedom among the peasantry radically transformed the form and practice of democracy in Athens. The importance of Wood’s analysis, McNally argued, was in exposing the myth of liberal claims to inheritance of the Greek demos. Rather, peasant struggles in Greece had embodied discourses surrounding the dignity of labour, which itself conferred rights of inclusion in the form of equal rights among citizens. With the rise of representative democracy during the liberal epoch we find the completion of the liberal myth that stakes its claim as the demos of the modern world, all the while maintaining the separation of the popular masses from taking decisions into their own hands: i.e., the substitution of ‘representation’ for ‘participation’.

With such a roster of panelists, as well as a host of penetrating questions from the audience, I can hardly do justice in this short blog to the wide ranging and thought provoking debate that took place that day (though a full audio recording of the event is available here). What I did strike me, however, was what I perceived as a general tendency towards a bifurcation within the PM school. With the agency-centric approaches of Teschke, Knafo and McNally contrasted with the structuralist model-building of Brenner and Post, I wonder whether or not the perennial antagonism between structure and agency was creating an artificial separation within political Marxism itself, and theoretical tradition that was specifically geared towards highlighting the falsity of separations within social systems and modes of thought. I do however think that the type of work suggested by Maïa Pal and Sam Knafo offers at least a first step towards bringing agents and structures into closer dialogue, through concrete historical sociologies of political, cultural and legal institutional formations.

Academic quibbles aside, the various topics covered and debates that emerged from them all drew out, and indeed celebrated, the explicitly political and emancipatory emphases in the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood. Whatever one might think of the political Marxist tradition, and Wood’s work in particular, this symposium undoubtedly contributed towards helping us re-consider how ordinary people not only think about the world, but attempt to change it.

Rowan Lubbock is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.