Ellen Mieksins Wood and Marxist historiography 

I wanted to throw a few words into a post on the themes identified in the title because I’ve had a few problems with Wood’s various works on the fallacies of vulgar stagism in Marxian historiography that I’ve not seen flagged in any of the usual places. Even with only the smattering of Marx and Engels I’ve been picking through over the past while, there’s a fair bit that doesn’t quite wash for me, and I’d like to thrash it out over the course of the next few paragraphs. I do so in the hopes that someone more invested in the factional disputes between various schools of Marxian historiography, the Swezys, Hiltons and Polyanis, will take a more systematic and lengthy perspective.

The terms of Wood’s argument, as I see it in The Origin of Capitalism, as well as the essays collected in both Democracy Against Capitalism andThe Pristine Culture of Capitalism,is to challenge the idea that capitalism’s emergence is related to cities, the bourgeoisie, the expansion of markets and industrialisation. This vision, whereby feudal modes of production are swept away by a rising, urban-based bourgeois class, did not, from the perspective of Perry Anderson, happen as extensively in England and it did not therefore pave the way for the sort of purging of feudal remnants that one can see in other jurisdictions, such as France. Wood reverses the schema, revising the centrality ascribed to the industrial revolution, arguing the changes which the first stage of the industrial revolution were ‘in any case modest’ (what about the second one?) and that in identifying capitalism’s starting point, we need to begin with agrarian workers in England, whose unique relationship to the means of subsistence, enclosure and landlords inculcated what she refers to as capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’. In this sense, both Marx, and his subsequent readers, have attributed too much centrality to the power of capitalism to eradicate feudalism and construct something wholly new. Wood argues that the writings in which Marx describes this process are ‘heavily dependent upon the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and contrasts sharply with Marx’s mature critiques of political economy’. What this older materialism looked like, where the new materialism originated from in respect to the old, the social function these played, or how it all relates to the polemics Marx was then directing against the idealism of the young Hegelians, is passed over, and in so doing I think Wood abides by a reading of Marx that one finds in a lot of literary criticism, wherein there is disproportionate emphasis given to disparate, metaphorically charged passages in The Communist Manifesto which allow for allow for the free elaboration of idealistic concepts.

Capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’, from Wood’s perspective, represent a movement away from coercive methods of surplus value extraction under feudalism, to a sequence of market incentives, whereby landlords could begin to depend on the expanding productive capacities of their tenants. With regard to the definition of capitalism, I am a bit more convinced by Marx’s writings on surplus value, and the idea that markets are non-coercive or can incentivise people to be more productive via competition seems to me to cede ground to right-wing notions of markets as egalitarian technologies, I certainly wouldn’t attribute an expanding productive capacity to capitalism in itself. In citing evidence of pre-capitalistic markets, Wood refers to the processes of ‘buying cheap and selling dear’ in fragmented markets, as if this was somehow a neutral undertaking, as if fragmentary markets doesn’t often act as a means of augmenting the extraction of surplus value. On a final literary-critical note, ‘laws of motion’ seems to me to be a peculiar metaphor to utilise, since its a naturalising one, comparing capitalism to the laws of physics, which capitalism does not have, becuase its an historical configuration.

Wood’s project therefore seems to orientate itself around the extraction of an essentialised capitalism from its associations with the bourgeoisie and the city. This tendency to take capitalism apart from historical phenomena it was, in fairness coterminous with, such as landlords extracting rent, leads to Wood talking about international trade, shipping, trading posts, settlements, monopolies, militaries and trading privileges as ‘extra-economic’. For Wood, capitalist economies are particular to their national and domestic contexts and therefore the plundering of South American silver is not ‘capitalist’. I do sort of wonder about the worth of trying to find a category to give a name to exploitation which can be isolated from the fact of imperial dispossession.

I hope that the limitations of this perspective would be obvious, but in case they aren’t, I’ve placed an extended quotation from a letter Marx wrote to the Russian magazine Otecestvenniye Zapisky 1877below, wherein Marx talks about someone who has generalised his theory of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe to a broader context. I base my scepticism with regard to broad sweeping accounts of historical development which seek to isolate phenomena primarily on these two paragraphs:

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)

Given Wood’s focus on Britain, it is perhaps not surprising that Wood doensn’t have much time for Marxists who criticise the Eurocentric nature of Marxist historiography. These historians, who are unnamed, receieve cursory dismissals along the lines of ‘they think we’re all racist’ and are then being accused of themselves being responsible for the phenomenon they wish to critique. There’s a bit more of this Spiked-type reasoning in her texts whereby a lack of sourcing means ‘the Left’ is being said a lot, and thereby encompassing, as it usually does, the far left, revisionists,bourgeois academics, and Blairites, which means you get sentiments along the lines of ‘Marxists don’t understand that public services are actually good’, and I think a bit more attention to context would be required here. This tendency to not name names means that in general the provocativeness of Wood’s ideas seem to exist in an inverse relationship to the amount of evidence she seems to be able to marshall in support of them, in for instance arguing that the plantation projects were market endeavours (they were state subsidised to varying degrees), that Ireland took on an empirical ideal in the British imagination, that revolutionary movements of the twentieth century are far less revolutionary than the French revolution was, or inverting the polarity of nineteenth/twentieth century cultural production, whereby the former is outward looking futurism, while the second is a nostalgic medievalism. This last one I’m writing part of my thesis on, and I would’ve liked a bit more discussion on how Wood situates this perspective relative to anyone notable who has written on it. Sleights of hand will crop up whereby ‘some Marxist historians associate capitalism with cities’, will suddenly become all Marxist historians have very fervently argued that all cities are fundamentally capitalist, and one begins to get the sense that the text is a lengthy buffetting around of various orders of strawmen.

In the final chapter of The Origin of Capitalism we have some more amorphous critics who have all told us that capitalism is bringing an end to the nation state. The state’s continued existence, Wood argues, lies in capitalism’s dependence on ‘supports’. Uniquely, as a mode of production we are told, capitalism requires stability, and it finds this support in the nation state. This is also why militarism is dying out, because coercive measures are no longer used anymore because bombs can’t create the sort of stability capitalism needs in order to exist. This is I think symptomatic of the difficulties with Wood’s approach, in locating capitalism as something which has ‘gone wrong’, rather than something integral to the coercive nature of private property. Compare the centrality the philosopher John Locke recieves in justifying landlordism, without just considering landlordism as a fairly substantial force for itself. For a text so concerned with Marxian historiography, it is oddly short on actual class-based analysis.

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