Renewing Historical Materialism

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Nancy Holmstrom

Democracy Against Capitalism
By Ellen Meiksins Wood
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995,
300 pages, $18.95 paperback.

ELLEN MEIKSINS WOOD’S Democracy Against Capitalism is a terrific book that deserves to become a classic of our political tendency — what Hal Draper called “socialism-from-below.” Wood provides a brilliant explication and defense of the key theoretical concepts relevant to socialism, understood to be the most radical social and economic democracy.

While the defeat of Stalinism might seem to make disagreements on the left about the meaning of Marxism less urgent, today the worldwide triumph of capitalism means not only social and economic barbarism, but worldwide ecological disaster. The struggle against capitalism will continue as long as capitalism does, and sharpened ideological
weapons are more essential than ever.

Yet it is a striking paradox, as Wood reiterates throughout, that just when capitalism is achieving worldwide domination, theoretical tendencies abound on the left that render this fact unimportant, incomprehensible or even invisible.

Post-modernist hostility to any notion of system, structure, and “grand narratives” make it impossible to comprehend capitalism as a system with specific laws or to comprehend its totalizing character; the emphasis on fragmentation, heterogeneity, and particularity make only the most local resistances possible. Clearly, something must be wrong with theoretical tendencies that would so disarm us. And Wood proceeds to show us just what is wrong.

Though rich in historical and sociological scholarship, ranging from ancient Greece to feudalism to the present, from Max Weber to Louis Althusser to Post-modernists, this is not primarily an academic work. Like all her work, especially The Retreat from Class, it is a political book whose theoretical explorations aim to provide weapons for ideological struggle against capitalism. Her style is polemical at times, and those who don’t love the book will probably hate it.

The book is divided into two parts; Part I is entitled “Historical Materialism and the Specificity of Capitalsm,” Part II “Democracy Against Capitalism.” While readers of Against the Current would probably find Part II most relevant, the crucial point that ties the two together is the absolute centrality of productive relations, i.e. of class, for understanding Marxist theory and guiding its politics.

The kernel of historical materialism, in Wood’s view, is the idea that each mode of production has specific relations of production, which give the system its specific logic. The relations of production definitive of capitalism are such that for the first time in history, a ruling class can rule without monopolizing political power. Hence democracy, of a socially weak form, is characteristic of capitalism.

Historical Materialism and Capitalism

Wood’s interpretation of historical materialism has been pejoratively labeled “Political Marxism,” but she is happy to appropriate the label. For she argues that Marx revealed what had been concealed by economists, that the essence of capitalist production is political in that it rests on the relations of power between those who own the means of production and those who do not.

Political Marxism presents relations of production “in their political aspect, that aspect in which they are actually contested, as relations of domination . . . as the power to organize and govern production and appropriation . . . the object of this theoretical stance is practical, to illuminate the terrain of struggle by viewing modes of production not as abstract structures but as they actually confront people who must act in relation to them.” (25)

Thus Wood’s stress (and Marx’s) on politics and class struggle in historical explanation is not counterposed to a stress on the mode of production or the economic, but rather intends to reveal how deeply social and political these are. Wood aims to restore this insight to the center of historical and social analyses where it belongs.

Most historians and social scientists have missed this point. Wood suggests that one important source of the prevalent defeatist sense that nothing other than capitalism is possible, is the idea that capitalism has always existed, which she shows to be implicit in many theories of history. Weber, for example, uses “the Protestant ethic” to explain the origins of capitalism, but unless a society is already a generalized market society and workers are already subordinated to capital, this ethic will not lead to the productivity and profit maximization characteristic of capitalism. So Weber’s explanation begs the question of how capitalism comes into existence.

Some Marxist theories of history make the same mistake. For example, John Roemer assumes that capitalism already existed “as an option” within feudalism, thereby, like Weber, begging the question of how capitalism came into being. In contrast to such theories, Wood cites approvingly Robert Brenner’s work as stressing the specificity of each mode of production and looking to explain the transition to capitalism in terms of the dynamics, contradictions and struggles within pre-capitalist relations of production.

Brenner’s work helps to fill in the details of what Wood — following Marx — stresses is the crucial condition necessary for capitalism: the divorce of the actual producers from their conditions of reproduction, an historical transformation that is simultaneously economic, social and political.

Another source of error in interpreting historical materialism lies in hanging too heavy a theoretical load on the metaphor of “base and superstructure,” which Wood says was always more trouble than it was worth because it suggests separate self-enclosed spheres. This was worsened by Stalinist mechanical, usually technological, determinism.

The standard alternative to mechanical determinist interpretations, however, was a vague humanism. E.P. Thompson’s work is often portrayed as an example of the latter, but Wood sees him as her kind of Political Marxist. Wood argues that Thompson’s work transcends these false dualisms, demonstrating that the economic is irreducibly social and political, consisting of human relations of exploitation and appropriation. [Thompson is most famous for The Making of the English Working Class, whose profound impact on a radical generation is recalled in tributes by Michael Lowy and Barbara Winslow, ATC 48, January-February 1994 — ed.]

Against Thompson’s critics, such as Althusser, G.A. Cohen and Perry Anderson, Wood shows how his work consistently addresses the Marxist problem of how to give credence to both the logic of modes of production, and to human agency within the conditions set by those logics. The critics, she charges, are essentially ahistorical: They see no alternative to structural necessity except contingency, whereas Thompson sees “historical determinations, structured processes with human agencies.” (78)

An example of Thompson’s subtle analyses of historical processes is his account of how what he calls “class situations” can exist and be determinative, even when mature classes and class institutions are not present, and how, in the name of old customs, class resistance can be carried out.

Turning to Thompson’s critics, Wood offers a devastating analysis of Louis Althusser’s work, which presents itself as an ingenious resolution of the conflict between a rigid base/superstructure model on the one hand, and vague human agency on the other. But in fact, Wood argues, Althusserians achieved this resolution “by a certain amount of conceptual trickery; for while a rigid de<->terminism prevailed in the realm of social structure, it turned out that this realm belonged for all practical purposes to the sphere of pure theory, while the real empirical world — albeit of little interest to most Althusserian theorists — remained (all explicit denunciations of contingency notwithstanding) effectively contingent and irreducibly particular.” (50)

Disappointment with Althusserian Marxism was one impetus, she suggests, to the move away from Marxism altogether into Post-Modernism.

Wood criticizes Gerald A. Cohen’s influential interpretation of Marx’s theory of history (in Karl Marx’s Theory of History — a Defense), as a technological determinist theory which once again makes the laws of capitalism into universal laws of history. The problem with such a universal theory is that it cannot account for capitalism’s unique drive to develop the productive forces and its expansionism, which Marx and Engels described so prophetically in The Communist Manifesto 150 years ago as capitalism’s transformation of the world in its own image.

Giving up transhistorical interpretations of historical materialism might seem to be a loss for Marxism, but Wood insists that it is not. For if capitalism with its own specific logic only came into existence at a particular point in history due to a particular confluence of historical causes, then it is also possible it will be superseded.
The socialist project should be seen as the reappropriation of the means of production by the direct producers.

The Demos versus `We, the People’

The specificity of capitalism that Wood stresses in her interpretation of historical materialism is also the basis of her analysis of democracy and how it came to be associated with capitalism. On the mainstream account of the history of democracy, it originated in Athens but then disappeared from the historical stage until its victory in capitalism.

Radicals have often pointed out the limitations of capitalist democracy and that of ancient Greece. But Wood adds a new and fascinating perspective on this radical critique. Although it is important to expose idealizations of Athenian democracy by showing how many people were excluded from participation, notably slaves and women of all classes, what is striking, Wood argues, is whom it included. The literal meaning of the Greek word “democracy” is “rule by the people,” and “the people” (“demos”) was specifically understood to include people who worked with their hands.

Drawing on her book Peasant, Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy, she explains that the peasant-citizen of Athens produced an unprecedented historical formation, one which had the profound social implication of some balance of power between rich and poor. This was understood both by supporters of democracy and their opponents, like Plato and Aristotle.

The modern concept of democracy, on the other hand, had its origin in a very different period and struggle, that of feudal lords against the monarchy. The freedom they fought for was not freedom from masters, but rather the freedom of masters “to dispose of their property and servants at will.”

Parliamentary rule, with its principles of limited government and separation of powers, excluded from citizenship everyone who did not own property. Hence it was rule by a highly privileged elite who supposedly represented the people as a whole, and was clearly understood to be opposed to democracy.

By the time of the American Revolution democracy could no longer be opposed explicitly — but it could be redefined. The American innovation of “representative democracy” was explained by Alexander Hamilton: “The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by the people of each class, is altogether visionary . . . We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of these classes of the community.” (215)

Hence the root meaning of “democracy” was transformed into its exact opposite! Nevertheless, despite bitter opposition, political participation was extended first to all free white men, then to all men and finally to all citizens. But this inclusion, Wood explains, was possible only because of capitalism’s unique separation of the
“economic” and the “political.”

Capitalism is defined by private ownership of the means of production/subsistence, which gives most people no choice but to sell their labor power. Surplus extraction occurs through the market, rather than the state as it does in all other class societies. These relations of ownership and non-ownership — simultaneously economic, social and political — are the basis of the power of capitalists.

Therefore, for the first time in history citizenship could be extended to all, without compromising the economic power of the ruling class — but the significance of this citizenship was greatly restricted. Democracy
became more formal than substantial, with a citizenry of atomized individuals.

Oftentimes “democracy” is used today to mean not rule by the people (however limited “the people” or what they get to rule over), but as synonymous with liberalism — i.e. guaranteed constitutional and procedural rights<197>or even implicitly with capitalism, as in reports of the extension of “democracy” in former Soviet bloc countries. Thus the alleged triumph of democracy comes at the expense of its core social meaning.

Civil Society and The Politics of Identity

The conservative hostility to government as oppressive is echoed by some on the left who celebrate “civil society.” The general rejection of statist conceptions of socialism in the wake of Stalinism’s collapse is certainly an advance. Wood argues, however, that current accounts of civil society that present it as a sphere of freedom versus
the coercion of the state are one-sided idealizations.

In fact, she suggests, one way of understanding the uniqueness of the modern social form of civil society is to say that the coercive power of the state has been privatized: Private property, class exploitation and market imperatives do what the state used to do. In Wood’s powerful words: “No ancient despot could have hoped to penetrate the personal lives of his subjects — their life chances, choices, preferences, opinions and relationships — in the same comprehensive and minute detail, not only in the workplace but in every corner of their lives.” (254-5)

Crucial here again to Wood’s analysis is capitalism’s separation of the economic and the political.

The politics usually associated with a focus on civil society is what’s come to be known as “identity politics” [in which a matrix of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. rather than social relations is seen as determining who people are and how they are likely to act<197>ed.] Wood is frustrated with the overwhelming focus on identity politics so prevalent today because, whether in its progressive or reactionary form, it precludes the kind of unified struggle necessary to defeat global capitalism.

“Identity politics” even seems to make the oppression of capitalism invisible or irrelevant since the sufferings caused by capitalism are based on class, rather than these identities. Even capitalism itself, with its unifying totality (of surplus value extraction), becomes invisible as the social world is disaggregated into particular,
seemingly separate, realities, with class being just one more “identity.” Again, something is wrong with theories that so disarm us.

Though the politics of identity claims to be more inclusive than what it sees as the reductionist politics of class, in fact Wood shows that the catch-all category of “identity” cannot accommodate the unique character of class, for this reason: Class differences are defined by relations of power and inequality, while sexual and ethnic cultural differences are not. While it makes sense to say that the latter differences deserve recognition and validation, class differences should not be recognized and validated, but abolished!

Defending Marxism against the frequent criticism that it “privileges” (i.e. gives central and special importance to) class over sex, race, and other forms of oppression, Wood argues that the privileging is causal, not moral.

A mode of production analysis can help to explain how non-class forms of oppression arise and increase or decrease in importance. Take racism, for example. Though ethnic conflicts are ancient, the most vicious kind of racism is a modern phenomenon. Slavery in the ancient world was largely recognized to be conventional (e.g. arising from military defeat), whereas modern slavery was justified by pseudo-scientific theories of the natural superiority of the white race.

Asking what it was about capitalism that created this ideological need, Wood suggests it lies in the contradiction between the bourgeois ideology of free and equal individuals and the importance for early capitalism of colonial oppression and slavery.

Or consider sexism: While women continue to be oppressed compared to men, the development of capitalism has tended to weaken patriarchal relations. In feu<->dal<->ism, on the other hand, because the family was the unit of production and surplus was extracted forcibly by the state, the head of the family was forced to play the role of overseer within the family, while outside the family, males had the monopoly on armed violence.

These conditions reinforced patriarchal relations. By contrast, compare a similarly dependent family of producers but in a different mode of production — capitalism — where the male had no such role outside the family: the slave family in the American South, which was characterized by unusually egalitarian relations.

Thus while undeniably there are many non-class forms of oppression which are not reducible to class, and many other institutions of civil society other than the economy, these are neither separate from the dominant relations of production, nor do they have the same determinative power.

It is at least conceivable, moreover, that non-class oppression could be ended, yet capitalism endure. Therefore a vision of human liberation requires a theory and practice of a more universal form than current identity politics provides.

It is imperative, however, that socialists not go back to a pre-New Left understanding of a universal politics, one which suppressed differences and subordinated all forms of oppression other than class. Some rejections of “identity politics,” Todd Gitlin’s for example, amount to rejections of all independent movements against non-class oppression, like the Black, gay and women’s movement, which are sweepingly mischaracterized as separatist and essentialist.

Although I wish Wood had made the strategic implications of her analysis more explicit, nothing in her analysis entails this class-reductionist position; indeed she describes struggles against non-class forms of oppression as “vitally important.” These movements have provided new imagination and energy and have deepened the Marxist critique of capitalism and the vision of human liberation.

Even economic oppression usually has differential effects according to one’s racial and sexual identity. A crucial challenge facing socialists today is how to integrate interests arising from non-class forms of oppression with socialist politics. This will enrich the socialist project — and is crucial to the success of both, since there is little chance of building a mass socialist movement today without taking very seriously issues of race, gender and sexuality.

The metaphor of a rainbow is often employed for such an inclusive politics, but this suggests pluralism. Another metaphor, suggested by our late comrade Peter Dawidowicz, is that of a jazz group which plays together with a common theme but gives individual musicians an opportunity to improvise with their different instruments, backed
up by the rest of the group.

A philosopher friend, who used to be a Communist, once described Wood’s work to me dismissively as “the same old stuff.” “The question,” he said, “is whether it’s true.” But that “same old stuff” had different, even antithetical, interpretations from the beginning, once prompting Marx himself to say “I am not a Marxist.”

The “enduring curse of Stalinism,” in Daniel Singer’s words, is that it has destroyed any alternative vision of socialism. But as struggles against capitalism’s worldwide hegemony inevitably develop, the questions of how to comprehend it and what an alternative might be will inevitably arise.

Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism offers a sophisticated interpretation and defense of the core concepts of the best theory yet devised of that system. The vision of socialism as the most radical democracy was always a minority understanding, but it was Marx’s vision and it has appeared again and again throughout history. Ellen Wood has made a most valuable contribution to the struggle to realize that vision.

ATC 68, May-June 1997