The first part of this book is a magnificent re-statement of the relevance and usefulness of historical materialism as an analytical tool. Drawing much inspiration from the work of EP Thompson, Meiksins Wood critiques determinist and structural versions of Marxism. She emphasises instead how historical materialism provides a toolkit for social and historical analysis rather than a rigid straitjacket within which the evidence must be made to fit.
Meiksins Wood stresses the importance of class struggle as both a process and a relationship rather than as a structure. This colours the interaction between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ which is envisaged not as a rigid hierarchical relationship but as an interaction, something to be analysed in a specific historical conjuncture rather than assumed to fit a pattern.
In the second part, Meiksins Wood draws on her analysis of ancient democracy to contrast the modern concept of ‘formal’ democracy with ancient politics. The separation of economic from the political under capitalism means that modern democracy has been emptied of any ability to deliver emancipation. As a result radical thought has shifted onto the terrain of ‘identity’ politics, losing sight of a wider analysis of the impact of class. We can no longer see the
There are similarities here – although I’m sure Meiksins Wood would not agree – with some of Althusser’s writing in ‘Reading Capital’ which highlights how we fail to see the structure of society wrapped around the content. The rules of the game become invisible, and we are left with the assumption that capitalism is something which has been latent throughout history. In fact the rules are determined by the social relations within each epoch, and there is no teleological drive towards capitalism. There is only real history that can be analysed to unpick how capitalism arrived in the specific historical conjuncture. Democracy functions under capitalism because politics is no longer the mechanism through which surplus is extracted from the direct producers. Capitalism can therefore tolerate a broad degree of political freedom because the fundamental structure of society and appropriation will remain untouched.
I am also reminded (slightly tangentially) of a recent Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Whitworth Art gallery which showed us the structure around objects rather the objects themselves.
The book is essentially a collection of essays, with some work put in to make them feel like a cohesive whole. This isn’t always successful however, particularly in the second part which makes something of a break from the argument put forward in the first.
Despite this, it is a superb outline of how historical materialism can be used to analyse history. It also provides a philosophical underpinning to more modern thinking on the challenges for the left for example the work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in “Inventing the Future“.