Ellen Meiksins Wood: Some Personal Recollections

In my graduate class on Political Economy at the University of Oregon this term we are reading two books by Ellen Meiksins Wood: The Retreat from Class and Democracy Against Capitalism.  Tomorrow, when the class meets, I will have to inform the students of Ellen’s death on January 14.  I have been thinking about what I should tell them about Ellen and her work.  It brings back a lot of memories.

I met Ellen in Fall 1976 soon after arriving for graduate studies at York University in Toronto.  I immediately enrolled in her course “Symposium on Political Theory.”  I remember being struck by the fact that Ellen was surprisingly young and full of energy for such an accomplished scholar — one who radiated the radical awakening then taking place.  We proceeded to study political theory from the pre-Socratics to Marx, focusing on primary sources, while applying historical materialist methods of inquiry.  At that time Ellen was writing, together with her husband, Neal Wood, Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory (1978).  I had studied ancient political theory before, but never like this!  With the incorporation of class analysis the entire way in which thinkers like Plato and Aristotle were conventionally read was completely upended.  I still remember this book as the work that affected me most in all of Ellen’s writings.  But her knowledge did not stop with ancient political thought.  She was equally capable of guiding one through the labyrinth of early modern theorists, like Hobbes and Locke, and nineteenth century political economists, like Mill and Marx.

Ellen’s political and intellectual development was strongly influenced about this time by her encounter with the work of Robert Brenner, and his theory of the origins of capitalism.  This led to the rise of what came to be known as “political Marxism” of which Ellen was to become a major representative.  By the following year, when I took the course offered jointly by Ellen and Neal on “The History and Theory of the State,” she was on fire with new ideas.  This was to begin the most productive part of her career.  It was later that academic year that she started working on what was to be the essay that in many ways announced her arrival as a major thinker on the left, “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and ‘Political’ in Capitalism,” published in New Left Review in 1981.  The course with Ellen and Neal that year was to become legendary at York.  We began by discussing  political anthropology and the origins of the state, and went on to trace the historical development of the state all through Western history.  The backbone of our inquiry was formed by Perry Anderson’s two books, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, which together constituted an attempt at a kind of Marxian “universal history.”  In the midst of all of this, however, loomed forth, as a result of Ellen and Neal’s overarching interest at the time, the work of Brenner, which dominated over many of our discussions and debates.  The result was dizzying.  We were in a constant whirlpool of discussions, focusing on such living thinkers as E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson, Ralph Miliband, and Nicos Poulantzas, while theorizing the historical development of the capitalist state.

Ellen emerged in these years as one of the most powerful and distinctive defenders and developers of classical Marxism.  She synthesized in her analysis the humanist-historical Marxism of Thompson and Williams, the more historical-structuralist orientation of Anderson, and the political Marxism of Brenner.  In the late 1980s and 1990s she launched a number of defenses of Marxism against, at first, the post-structuralist post-Marxism of figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (in her Deutscher Prize-winning book, The Retreat from Class [1986]), and, later, the so-called “analytical Marxism” of G.A. Cohen, John Roemer, and Jon Elster.  The elegance of her style, combined with the power of her intellect, and her knowledge of history, made each of these truly devastating anti-critiques.

In the late 1980s I moved back to the Pacific coast of the United States and lost touch with Ellen for some time.  But I worked with her again during the years that she was coeditor of Monthly Review with Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, from 1997-2000.  Ellen and I coedited two books for Monthly Review Press: In Defense of History (1997) and Capitalism and the Information Age (with Robert W. McChesney, 1998).  Among Ellen’s significant contributions to MR during her period as coeditor was her critique of the loose conceptions of globalization floating about the left at the time, in which it was commonly supposed that the state would simply vanish — views that she effectively challenged.  This was to feed into her books The Origin of Capitalism (1999) and The Empire of Capital (2003).

Ellen went on to write a number of other important works, mainly on the social history of political theory from ancient times to the present.  But perhaps her most valuable book of all was her volume Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (1995).  Because here one sees the central theme of all of her work — the struggle of the demos against class inequality and capital.

Tomorrow when I inform the students in my class of Ellen’s death I will stress that we should respond by devoting ourselves with even greater appreciation to the study of her work, recognizing that it is one of the most important legacies of historical materialism in our time, and a lasting resource of hope in the struggle for humanity’s future.

Eugene, Oregon
January 18, 2016

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon.  He is the author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000), The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (with Fred Magdoff, 2009), The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (with Brett Clark and Richard York, 2010), The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (with Robert W. McChesney), and The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism: An Elaboration of Marxian Political Economy (New Edition, 2014), among many others.