Ellen Meiksins Wood, Theorist of Capitalism and Class Struggle, R.I.P. 2016

by cominsitu

“Class struggle is the nucleus of Marxism. This is so in two inseparable senses: it is class struggle that for Marxism explains the dynamic of history, and it is the abolition of classes, the obverse or end-product of class struggle, that is the ultimate objective of the revolutionary process. The particular importance for Marxism of the working class in capitalist society is that this is the only class whose own class interests require, and whose own conditions make possible, the abolition of class itself. The inseparable unity of this view of history and this revolutionary objective is what above all distinguishes Marxism from other conceptions of social transformation, and without it there is no Marxism. These propositions may seem so obvious as to be trivial; yet it can be argued that the history of Marxism in the twentieth century has been marked by a gradual shift away from these principles. The perspectives of Marxism have increasingly come to be dominated by the struggle for power. Where the achievement of political power was originally conceived by Marxism as an aspect or instrument of class struggle, whose object is its own abolition, class struggle has increasingly tended to appear as a means toward the achievement of political power-and sometimes not even as a primary or essential means.  – Marxism without Class Struggle, EMW

For millennia, human beings have provided for their material needs by working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in agriculture they have been divided into classes, between those who worked the land and those who appropriated the labor of others. That division between appropriators and producers has taken many forms in different times and places, but one general characteristic they have had in common is that the direct producers have typically been peasants. These peasant producers have remained in possession of the means of production, specifically land. As in all pre-capitalist societies, these producers have had direct access to the means of their own reproduction. This has meant that when their surplus labor has been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what Marx called “extra-economic” means—that is, by means of direct coercion, exercised by landlords and/or states employing superior force, privileged access to military, judicial, and political power.

Here, then, is the most basic difference between all pre-capitalist societies and capitalism. It has nothing to do with whether production is urban or rural and everything to do with the particular property relations between producers and appropriators, whether in industry or agriculture. Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely “economic” means. Because direct producers in a fully developed capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction, even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their labor-power in exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers’ surplus labor without direct coercion.

This unique relation between producers and appropriators is, of course, mediated by the “market.” Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive and unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labor are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. Just as workers depend on the market to sell their labor-power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labor-power, as well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling the goods or services produced by the workers. This market-dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but as the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction. The emergence of the market as a determinant of social reproduction presupposed its penetration into the production of life’s most basic necessity, food.

This unique system of market-dependence entails some very distinctive “laws of motion,” specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can, and must, constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form—constantly accumulating, constantly searching out new markets, constantly imposing its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on human beings and the natural environment.

Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes are, how different they are from other social forms which have dominated most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question-begging assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be liberated from unnatural constraints. The question of its origins, then, can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by appropriators in noncapitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed “time out of mind” and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and the relations between them, came to be so market dependent?  – The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism, EMW


Ellen Meiksins Wood Democracy against Capitalism Renewing Historical Materialism 1995

Ellen Meiksins Wood The Retreat from Class A New True Socialism Verso Classics 1999







The Ellen Meiksins Wood Reader 2012


Collection of Essays

Monthly review articles



(2012). ‘Capitalism’  in Ben Fine and Alfred Saad-Filho with the assistance of Marco Boffo (eds). The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics. Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 34-39

(2012). Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment. London: Verso.

(2010). ‘Happy Campers’ Book Review of Why Not Socialism? by G.A. Cohen, London Review of Books, 32(2), 28 January, pp. 26-7

(2009). ‘Peasants and the Market Imperative: The Origins of Capitalism,‘ in A. Haroon Akram- Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay (eds), Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, rural transformation and the Agrarian Question, Routledge: London and New York, pp. 37-56.

(2008). Citizens to Lords. A Social History of Western Political Thought From Antiquity to the Middle Ages. London and New York: Verso.

(2008). ‘Historical Materialism in “Forms which Precede Capitalist Production”‘ in Marcello Musto (ed.) Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later. Oxon and New York: Routledge. pp. 79-92

(2008). ‘Why It Matters’ Book Review of Hobbes and Republican Liberty by Quentin Skinner,London Review of Books, 30(18), 25th September, pp. 3-6

(2007). ‘A Reply to Critics‘ [part of symposium on Empire of Capital], Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 15(3), pp. 143-170

(2006). ‘Logics of Power: A Convervsation with David Harvey‘, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 14(4), 9-34

(2006). ‘Democracy as Ideology of Empire’, in Colin Mooers (ed.)  The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 9-23

(2005). ‘Globalisation and the State: Where Is the Power of Capital?’ in Saad-Filho, Alfred (ed.).Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction. London: Pluto Press. pp. 127-141

(2003). ‘A Manifesto for Global Capitalism‘, in Gopal Balakrishnan (ed.) Debating Empire. London and New York: Verso.

(2003). Empire of Capital. London and New York: Verso.

(2002). ‘Class, race, and capitalism,’ in Diane E. Davis (ed.). Political Power and Social Theory. Vol. 15. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.275-284

(2002). ‘Infinite War‘, Historical Materialism, 10(1), pp. 7-27.

(2002). ‘Contraditions: Only in Capitalism?‘ in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds) The Socialist Register 2002: A World of Contradictions. London: Merlin Press.

(2002 [1999]). The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View. London and New York: Verso.

(2002). ‘The Question of Market Dependence‘, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2 (1), pp. 50-87

(2002). ‘Global capital, national states‘ in Rupert M. et H. Smith, Historical Materialism and Globalization. London and New York : Routledge. pp. 17-39

(2000). ‘Capitalism or Enlightenment?’, History of Political Thought, 21 (3), pp. 405–26.

(1999). ‘The Politics of Capitalism’, Monthly Review, 51(4)

(1999). ‘Unhappy Families: Global Capitalism in a World of Nation-States’,Monthly Review 51 (3), pp. 1–12.

(1999). ‘Horizontal Relations: A Note on Brenner’s Heresy‘, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 4(1), pp. 171-9

with John Bellamy Foster (eds) (1997). In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda. Michigan: Monthly Review Press.

(1997). ‘What is the Post-Modern Agenda?’, in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (eds). in In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda. Michigan: Monthly Review Press. pp. 1-16

(1997). ‘Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?’, Review of International Political Economy 4, 3, pp. 539–61.

(1997). ‘Labour, the State and Class Struggle‘, Monthly Review, 49(3).

(1997). ‘Back to Marx‘, Monthly Review, 49(2).

(1997). ‘The Non-History of Capitalism‘, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, 1(1), pp. 5-21

(1996). ‘Capitalism, Merchants and Bourgeois Revolution: Reflections on the Brenner Debate and its Sequel’, International Review of Social History, 41, pp. 209–32.

(1995). Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(1995). ‘A Chronology of the New Left and its Successors, Or: Who’s Old-fashioned Now?’ in Leo Panitch, John Saville and Ellen Meiksins Wood (eds). Socialist Register 1995: Why Not Capitalism? London: Merlin Press. pp. 22-49

(1994). ‘From Opportunity to Imperative: The History of the Market’, Monthly Review, 46 (3).

(1992). ‘Custom against Capitalism‘, New Left Review I/195, September-October, pp. 21-28

(1991). The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: An Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States. London and New York: Verso.

(1990). ‘Explaining Everything or Nothing?‘, New Left Review, I/184, November-December, pp. 116-128

(1990). ‘The Uses and Abuses of “Civil Society”‘ in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds) The Socialist Register, Vol. 26, pp. 60-84

(1989). ‘Rational-Choice Marxism: is the game worth the Candle?‘, New Left Review, I/177, September-October, pp. 41-88

(1988). ‘Capitalism and Human Emancipation‘, New Left Review, I/167, January-February, pp. 3-20

(1988). Peasant-Citizen and Slave. London and New York: Verso.

(1986). The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism. London and New York: Verso.

with Neal Wood (1986). ‘Socrates and Democracy‘, Political Theory, 14(1), February, 55-82

(1984). ‘Marxism and the Course of History‘, New Left Review, I/147, pp. 95-107

(1983). ‘Marxism without Class Struggle‘, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds) The Socialist Register, Vol. 20, pp. 239-271

(1983). ‘Agricultural Slavery in Classical Athens’, American Journal of Ancient History, 8(1), pp. 1-47

(1982). ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.P. Thompson and his Critics‘, Studies in Political Economy, Vol 9

(1981). ‘The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism‘, New Left Review, I/127.

(1978). ‘C.B. MacPherson: Liberalism, And The Task Of Socialist Political Theory‘, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds) The Socialist Register. Vol. 15, pp. 215-240

with Neal Wood (1978). Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

with Neal Wood (1977). A Trumpet of Sedition. Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism 1509-1688. New York: New York University Press.

(1972). Mind and Politics: An Approach to the Meaning of Liberal and Socialist Individualism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.