By Zoltan Zigedy
January 16, 2017
Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood posed a provocative question: Has capitalism really changed dramatically or has much of the left lost its way?
Wood, who died last year, was one of an ever-shrinking group of university-centered intellectuals who take Marxism seriously and seek to apply it to contemporary issues. While there is no shortage of ex-Marxists, neo-Marxists, or re-thinkers of Marxism in academe, few dare to deviate from the career-enhancing practice of searching for and exposing the “flaws” in Marxism. Not surprisingly, when these “friends of Marx” are through picking over the bones of the old Moor and his theories, there is little left beyond lukewarm liberalism.
But Wood was an exception; her work demonstrates a critical engagement with and deep appreciation of Marx’s method, specifically the historical-materialist analysis.
Writing in Monthly Review in October of 1998 (Capitalist Change and Generational Shifts), Wood reflected on the battle that she and others waged against two intellectual trends that had seeped into the foundations of political activism, particularly in the US. At the time, much of the academic left— the radical academic left— had scorned two pillars of Marxism: the centrality of class and the concept of imperialism. Two new ideas were promulgated to fill the void left by that rejection: postmodernism and globalization.
Both were slippery concepts that enjoyed broad usage well before any advocate actually supplied anything close to a coherent meaning. Yet they sounded radical and fresh; two attributes particularly well suited to a left determined to forge an ideology set apart from twentieth-century Communism.
Wood wrote extensively, in many books and articles, challenging the intellectual credibility of the postmodern turn and the globalization thesis. She critically engaged the anti-scientific, extremely pessimistic, self-absorbed, and identity-centered features of postmodernism. And she challenged the notion that the late twentieth-century leap in global trade signaled a new epoch of border-erasure and shifting sovereignty.
For Marx and those who understand Marx, human actions and dispositions have both a logic and a history; and the two combine to provide explanation in the social sciences. History— without exposure of the underlying processes— is merely the retelling of events. Logic— apart from historical anchors— is simply idle metaphysical speculation. Of course, the material of historical explanation is real people, their actions, and their ideas. This method of Marx (commonly called historical materialism) is the method favored by Ellen Meiksins Wood.
For those on the left who embrace postmodernism and the globalization thesis, the world has, in their eyes, changed dramatically. Capitalism, in the late twentieth century, transforms into a bleak, totalizing phenomenon, ruled and regulated in every conceivable way by markets. Markets reign over the economy, politics, the humanities, culture, and the far reaches of personal lives. There are no borders, no restraints on the reach of markets. Capital shifts instantly from one favorable corner of the world to another, even more favorable corner. To many on the left, this picture of capitalism shatters deeply held verities. This wave of market intensification brings, in its wake, relentless privatization, the weakening of labor, and crushing pressure on workers’ standard of living. Understandably, this powerful expression of capitalist power can be the cause for some pessimism and tactical regrouping.
But why, Wood pondered, did these perceived changes call for a retreat from Marxism? Why did the marketization and commodification of virtually all social relations and material things press so many to minimize class relations and retreat into a multitude of socially constructed identities?
After all, Wood noted, the predation of capitalism into every crack and crevice of human existence is precisely what Marxism predicts. As early as 1848, Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”1 Surely it should be no surprise, then, that the voracious appetite of markets identified by Marx in 1848 was as intense or even more intense in the late twentieth century. So why were Wood’s contemporaries seeking new explanations beyond class analysis and imperialism? Why, if it is in the very logic of capitalism to totalize market relations, do the theorists of postmodernism and globalization see a qualitative “rupture” in the system’s development?
Wood, conversely, sees a continuing process where others see epochal change— the stage of postmodernity and globalization. Like anyone who had grasped the political economy of Marx, she found the capitalism of the late twentieth century to be entirely in step with the logic and historical trajectory of that system. In other words, there was no compelling need to posit a supra-class analysis (postmodernism) or a new stage of capitalist development (globalization) when capitalism is doing exactly what capitalism does.
While Wood defied fashion with her rejection of these “respectable” academic schools, her argument was nonetheless a compelling defense of classical Marxist analysis.
But her Marxist instincts call forth another question, a pertinent question: What are the considerations that spurred the Western left to counterpose postmodernism and the globalization thesis to class analysis and the theory of imperialism? What was it that seduced so much of the left away from classical Marxism toward an alternative explanation?
A Proper Marxist Explanation: Seduced by the “Golden Age”
Marxism-Leninism requires more than a refutation of anti-Marxist positions. A competent historical-materialist— Ellen Meiksins Wood, in this case— looks for the conditions that explain the ascendency and acceptance of ideas like “postmodernism” and “globalization” within academic circles and beyond. What, she asks, were the processes— material and ideological— that spawned these outlooks? Why were they destined to become popular, especially with the US left?
Wood offers a provocative and intriguing answer, an answer that she locates in the experiences of the entire generation of theorists and activists who shaped the late twentieth-century thinking of the US left. Unlike those growing up in the Depression era who championed Marxism, the left’s leaders and thinkers of the late twentieth century “grew up in what some people call the ‘golden age’ of capitalism”.2 The experience of capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries in the first three decades after the war was that of unprecedented employment, rising living standards, class mobility, educational opportunities, and relative equality for the majority.3 Most of the college educated, relatively privileged generation that rose to guide the left in the later part of the twentieth century were exposed to a kinder, gentler capitalism. Their most radical moments in the 1960s were devoted to reforming capitalism. While their movements were anti-racist and anti-imperialist, they were not, for the most part, anti-capitalist. Consequently, the prevalent revolutionary vision of socialism was, in reality, “humane” capitalism:
So it would not be unreasonable to say that they were, in a sense, closet Keynesians or unconscious social democrats… At any rate, I think it is probably true that the highest aspirations of many radicals of my generation, if they thought in these terms at all, was some more humane and democratic kind of capitalism— without racism and without imperialism but still basically capitalist… So what I’m talking about here is the story of a historic disappointment.
It was the disappointment occasioned by the crash of post-war illusions, coupled with the policy flight from Keynesianism and the decline of labor, that created the hospitable climate for the ideas of postmodernism and globalization. In truth, they were not merely a retreat from Marxism, class, anti-imperialism, or the other ideas associated with real socialism, but an accommodation with the ravages of the untempered, ruthless capitalism that superseded the “golden age.”
Backing away from the pivotal role of classes, postmodernism embraces a multiplicity of other social identities, delinking them from their intersection with class. With class removed from its central place in social analysis, identities were freed from their differing roles in the dynamics of capitalism. The notion of the centrality of some groups, some identities in forging greater unity, in moving toward a greater goal was lost in the competition between various group interests.
As a result, for example, the hurdles that African American women face as working class African American women command the same measure of opposition as the glass-ceiling faced by upper-class white women managers. The struggle for participation in bourgeois institutions like the military or marriage is of equal urgency with the fight against police killings of Black youth. The influence of postmodern relativism, the denial of “overarching narratives,” is reflected in the diffusion of causes and movements in the US left today. This has become the age of the specialized activist and not the socialist partisan, the reformist, or the revolutionary.
The widespread acceptance of the globalization concept constitutes a similar retreat from the critique of capitalism embedded in the concept of anti-imperialism. Where anti-imperialists locate the engine of global aggression and exploitation in the logic of capitalism itself, anti-globalization advocates see unequal trade relations and military adventure either as a contingent, correctable aberration from benign capitalism, or they see collective and united international capital inevitably overwhelming national popular movements. The former breeds the illusions of reformism and fosters the nostalgia for an earlier, “humane” capitalism. The latter spawns a resignation and accommodation with a capitalism too powerful to contest— total victory is impossible, only little battles can be won.
In response to her contemporaries who never committed to anything beyond the “Marxism” of social democracy or the confines of New Deal liberalism, who long for a return to the “golden age” without its most egregious flaws, Wood offers the following insightful suppositions:
[S]oppose instead that, though you always supported the welfare state and all the major victories achieved by popular struggles within the capitalist system, you always doubted the long term sustainability of capitalism with a human face. Suppose you always doubted the capacity of capitalism to sustain a really democratic and humane social order. Suppose you always thought that social democracy was a short and passing moment in the history of capitalism, that it was not the end result of capitalist progress but that it depended upon on very specific and transitory historical conditions. Suppose you always believed that capitalist imperatives of accumulation and profit-maximization place very strict limits on democracy, social justice, environmental health, and so on. Current developments might then look to you not like a major change in the logic of capitalism but exactly like the logic of capitalism as it has always been. Of course you would recognize many changes during the process of capitalist development, but you would have less reason to think of recent developments as a great historic rupture.
Today, over eighteen years after Wood’s essay was published, much of the left continues to believe that social democracy is more than “a short and passing moment in the history of capitalism.” Far too many continue to put their faith in the latest iteration or mutation of social democracy— SYRIZA, PODEMOS, Five Star Movement, reformed Democratic Party, etc. Unlike the generation that matured during or in the aftermath of the Great Depression, far too many in our left overestimate the resilience of capitalism and place hope in its capacity to be reformed. The unique and perhaps unrepeatable experience of the immediate post-war period in the US and Europe, the “humane” capitalism that found its full expression in the period before the early 1970s, is certainly an important and critical factor in shaping the widespread and persistent allergy to authentic Marxism (and Leninism) and revolutionary socialism.
But are there other decisive factors?
And for the Rest of the Story
Wood correctly argues that the “collapse of Communism” could not be the principal cause of the US/European left’s retreat from Marxism, since that retirement began well before the demise of Soviet and Eastern European socialism. But she underestimates how the “specter” of Communism— more accurately anti-Communism—plays a role in shaping the misdirection of the left, especially the US left. The “golden age” was, to a great extent, a product of the Cold War premium. Labor peace and gains in living standards were secured in the post-war period because they were elements in the competition between capitalism and Communism. The purges of Communism and class-struggle unionism in the US were made acceptable by promising that accommodation to the anti-Communist reign of terror would be rewarded with a rising standard of living, employment, housing and other opportunities. At the same time, a broad campaign demonizing Communism foreclosed on Marxist ideas of every stripe.
Wood correctly fixes the seduction of social democracy as an important cause of the failure of classical Marxism to take root with New Left ideologues and other radicals of the 1960s. She perceptively underscores the material advantages— affordable education, upper mobility, economic stability, etc.— enjoyed during capitalism’s “golden age” as a subjective factor in constructing the illusion of imperfect, but reformable capitalism. She plausibly links the experience of relatively benign capitalism with advocating a social democratic interpretation of Marxism, an interpretation that nourished alternatives to the centrality of class and the role of imperialism. And, most impressively, she constructs a credible account of how the harsh conclusion of the idyllic “golden age” of benign capitalism dashed the hopes of a generation seeking to tame rather than destroy capitalism.
But she fails to press the explanation beyond the matter of relative prosperity. A fuller explanation emerges when the political context, especially in the US, is more thoroughly examined.
The destructive effects of the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s touched every aspect of US society in its day and for subsequent generations. The after-effects of establishing a state religion of anti-Communism cannot be overestimated.
Since the purges of Communists and the stifling of class-struggle unionism, and the demonizing of popular front tolerance in the US, a new generation of activists stepped forward determined to shape a new leftism, distant from the stigma of Communism. With the thaw in domestic repression beginning in the early 1960s, radical politics resurfaced from this bleak political landscape. Activism focused on racial segregation in the Southern US and an escalating war in Southeast Asia. Students energized these movements and academics and public intellectuals embraced the task of constructing a new ideology. The post-Mccarthyism leftists sought a third way, hoping to situate their politics between Cold War liberalism and Communism.
With the post-war recovery, the restoration of a substantial middle strata, and the ubiquitous penetration of US culture, a similar radicalism emerged in Europe, aiming at a place between social democracy and Communism. This new European radicalism also took its strongest roots in the universities and with the youth.
The common thread was the dream of an anti-Communist radicalism without fealty to the centers of power, a goal that proved far easier to conjure than to reach.
In the ensuing years, the US and European New Left located itself between the two dominant ideological poles of capitalism and the world Communist Parties. New left thinking was to condemn both ideologies. The strategy was to sidestep the charge (and stigmas) of Communism while mounting a serious critique of capitalism, a goal that usually resulted in an accommodation with capitalism or a foray into cultish ultra-leftism. Since intense Cold War competition left little space for anything but social democracy, New Left activists generally arrived at that destination.
The late 1960s became the apotheosis for the radicals who chose this third way. Mass eruptions in the US and in Western Europe (eg. urban risings, anti-war demonstrations, and student revolts) signaled a new revolutionary moment to many, a moment affirming the central role of youth and minorities rather than classical Marxism’s assignment of that role to the working class. And in the East, Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia proved to be grist for the anti-Communist mill.
Disenchantment followed the failure of “revolution,” the inability to craft an anti-capitalist movement from “American values.” The united anti-racist movement shattered and spawned numerous “identity” movements. The fight against US aggression followed the same path, morphing into multiple human rights causes. “Pick and choose” activism replaced the united struggle for a new society aiming at universal economic justice and authentic democracy. In its stead, the left gave up collective revolutionary effort for a supermarket of injustices. Postmodernism only provided the intellectual legitimacy of left parochialism with its rejection of “overarching narratives,” a concession that affirms that the fortresses of capitalism and bourgeois democracy are beyond breach.
In Ellen Meiksin Wood’s words:
They may call it globalization or postmodernity, but it is really capitalism that seems to have been born for them in 1972, or thereabouts, and brought all their hopes to an end. The constant in the trajectory of the US post-war left is the virus of anti-Communism. Few challenged the cleansing from political life of Marxism or sympathy for Marxism in the early years after the war. Accordingly, new strains of left or radical activism that emerged in response to the capitalist system’s more glaring sins were careful to distance themselves from Communism and associate with perfecting “American” values. The decades of ideological soul searching, shifting causes, quietism or adventurism ensued thanks to fear of class-based revolutionary Marxism. Today, the failings of the US left, its ineffectuality, can be traced back to the courtship with a utopian radical democracy divorced from revolutionary Marxism, a divorce forced upon political, public and intellectual life in the US by rabid, uncompromising anti-Communism. The generation that grew up with that legacy behind it never succeeded in escaping from its numbing effects. Two decades after Ellen Meiksin Wood’s essay, in spite of a global economic collapse and a decade of stagnant growth, in spite of endless wars, the US left has yet to put that legacy behind it. It remains a collection of disconnected, isolated activisms posing no threat to the grand “narrative” of capitalism.
1Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers (1971), P. 12.
2 It is important to note how Wood’s account anticipates the work of Thomas Piketty nearly 15 years later. In Capital, Piketty demonstrates that the period immediately after World War II (les trente glorieuses) constituted an aberration in the history of global capitalist inequality. Similarly, Wood argues in 1998 that the experiences of the aberrant “golden age” of capitalism shaped the thinking of influential intellectuals and leaders, deflecting that thinking from a full critique of capitalism. Others are beginning to correctly see the early post-war period as an historical anomaly. See, for example, Marc Levinson, An Extraordinary Time (2016) and Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016). 3Of course, this “golden age” did not include everyone, notably women, minorities or the poor.