A Tribute to Neal Wood

It has been ten years since the passing of Professor Neal Wood, a distinguished historian of political thought from York University. I never had the privilege of meeting Neal Wood, as he had retired by the time I came to York. I have, however, learned alot from his work, and my own work owes a large debt of gratitude to his scholarship.

The Social History of Political Thought

Wood’s work bucked a number of trends in the scholarship being produced in the history of political thought from the 1960s to to the turn of the century. On the one hand, he insisted, against the esoteric textualist approach of the followers of Leo Strauss, on the need to historicize the works of political thought in order to have a proper understanding of their meaning. For him, political thought was not abstract philosophy that primarily dealt with the timeless issues of politics. Political theorists were not ‘disinterested philosophers’ who were above the fray of partisan politics. Rather, political theory emerged out of a context of crisis and was directly related to the politics of its own time, often espousing reactionary ‘reform’ or revolutionary change. Yet at the same time, Wood resisted the drift toward turning the history of political thought into an exercise in intellectual history. Beginning with Peter Laslett and carrying on in the works of JGA Pocock, John Dunn and Quentin Skinner, a historical approach that has come to be known as the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ – named after the fact that these historians came out of Cambridge University – emphasized the need to situate political thought within its broader intellectual context. This required moving away from canonical thinkers and studying the ways in which secondary political writers framed the parameters of the political debates which would serve to motivate the development of the classic texts of political thought.

What I always found impressive about Wood’s work was the erudition he brought to the topic. On the one hand, he displayed a remarkable capacity to synthesis a vast amount of secondary historical material in his work. A single endnote often contained references to up to ten different historical texts pertaining to whatever context was being discussed. This was no top down intellectual history, where the context is confined to the ideas promulgated by members of the elite. This was solid social, political and economic history being integrated into the context that was considered to be the basis for historical interpretation. The amount of work going into framing the context was truly impressive.

Yet, this commitment to a ‘materialist’ approach to historical context never relegated the textual interpretation to second place. Wood subjected the classical works of political thought to intense scrutiny; and the analysis did not stop at the ‘greatest hits’. Correspondence, policy papers, works that would not attain the status of ‘political philosophy’ were all examined in order to get a sense of the development of a political theorist’s work. In the case of his work on John Locke, the contents of his library were also enumerated, because after all, these kinds of details matter. The kind of esoteric ‘reading between the lines’ technique of the Straussian just didn’t was with Wood; but neither did C. B. Macpherson’s attempt to resolve the tensions within a theorist’s work through the importation of unstated ‘social assumptions’. At the end of the day, what was important for Wood was the establishment of the empirical links between a political theorist’s work and the broader social and intellectual context within which he lived and wrote.

At the same time, however, there were key differences in the way that Wood approched the history of political thought and they way it was approached by the proponents of the Cambridge School. For Pocock and Skinner, political thought tended to be viewed as a linguistic exercise; the history of political thought was the history of discursive innovations and the development and transformation of political languages. What is absent from their work is an appreciation of the way that political theory is related to political institutions and social relations of power and exploitation. For Wood, on the other hand, this is the whole point of political thought. The history of political thought is about who rules and who is ruled:  it is political. This is why it is so important to examine the history of political thought from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

I’ve long felt that Neal Wood’s work has been unduly ignored by historians of political thought. This is a shame really, because his work brings out the politics of the history of political thought in ways that the works of other historians of political thought do not. As a Marxist, his work is deemed to be too class based and materialist for the intellectual historians; but ironically, due to his interest in the history of pre-modern – and indeed ‘pre-capitalist’ – political thought, his work was often not picked up by Marxist scholars, who were much more interested in conventional Marxist accounts that equated the development of capitalism with the advent of the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ (which was something of which Wood remained critical).

Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory: Athens and Rome

Wood’s first book length study in the history of political thought was co-authored with his wife and long-time collaborator, Ellen Meiksins Wood. The book was called Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory and situated the political thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle within the context of the class politics of Athenian democracy. This book revolutionized the way I looked at ‘classical political philosophy’. As a student who was not particularly interested in the history of political thought, let alone the political thought of Ancient Greece, this book turned everything I thought I knew about ancient political thought on its head. Having been disappointed with Plato’s Republic when I first read it (it did not live up to my expectations of great political theory) Wood’s book is what sparked my interest in ancient Greek political thought in the first place. Ancient Greek political philosophy had often been presented as its originators themselves portrayed it: a dispassionate and rationally oriented quest for the truth. Plato himself did much to define philosphy as a question for absolute truths in a world of appearance and opinion. Scholars tended to take this depiction of political philosophy at face value and uncritically accepted Plato’s characterization of sophism as an intellectual enterprise designed to make the weak argument strong.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Wood situates Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in the context a revolutionary democracy riven by class conflict that pit reactionary oligarchs against ‘levelling’ democrats. It’s a provocative and refreshing take on the development of political philosophy in the ancient world. As the title suggests, Wood characterizes the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as conservative attempts to reform politics in the interest of an aristocratic landed class that had been in social and political decline as a result of the radical redistribution of power that occurred under the democracy.

Wood’s second book on the ancient world was Cicero’s Social and Political Thought. This book really filled a gap in the literature because Cicero had long since been demoted in status as a political theorist. As ‘political theory’ as a subdiscipline became increasingly focused on philosophical sophistication and innovation, Cicero was increasingly considered to be derivative of the Greeks. But this not only overlooked the interesting ways in which he integrated Greek political thought into the Roman political experience, it neglected to appreciate the importance of the Roman political tradition in Western political thought. Wood’s book set out to rectify this neglect. Contemporary proponents of ‘republicanism’ would be better served by familiarizing themselves with Wood’s interpretation of Cicero. What we get is something quite a bit different than the ardent defender of ‘liberty’ depicted in the republican literature (in fact, much of the republican literature does not adequately deal with the Roman case from which it draws inspiration). Wood’s Cicero is an intelligent and earnest conservative who is a vehement opponent of the kinds of populist reformers like the Gracchi, and an ardent defender of private property. In fact, while republicans like to invoke Cicero as an originator of a political tradition that they consider to be fundamentally distinct from liberalism, we see in Wood’s interpretation the source material for the development of a liberal conservatism in the eighteenth century. This is not to say that Wood depicts Cicero as a precious liberal; rather, there are elements of Cicero’s thought, such as his ‘enlightened individualism’ and his conception of natural law that would inspire a the ‘liberal’ conservatism of Edmund Burke and the conservative liberalism of Friedrich von Hayek.

Agrarian Capitalism and Early Modern Political Thought

Most of Wood’s books deal with the history of political thought in early modern England. In The Foundations of Political Economy, Wood looks at the development of a distinctly economic conception of the state being articulated in the sixteenth century, particularly in the context of the beginning of the enclosure movement. Reformers like the Commonwealthmen sought to use the state to alleviate the social and economic problems associated with the development of ‘agrarian capitalism’. Sir Thomas Smith is singled out as the first English thinker who begins to conceptualize the ‘economy’ as a distinctive sphere that operates on its own dynamic, autonomous from political interference. As such, we begin to see how the development of capitalism has an impact on the development of what would later be called ‘political economy.’

This interest in the relationship between English political thought and agrarian capitalism would be carried over into the seventeenth century as well. Again with his wife as co-author, Wood would produce A Trumpet of Sedition, a provocative introduction to almost two centuries of English political thought, beginning with Sir Thomas More and concluding with Locke. The book would contain the Wood’s unique interpretations of numerous political theorists and political events. In particular, the political idea of the Levellers and the political theory. As for the Levellers, they are presented as radical democrats who, in the context of the famous debate at Putney Church, put forward a conception of the franchise that comes close to that of full manhood suffrage. Just as importantly, they put forward their claims in the language of natural, provoking a response from the more conservative army Grandees that emphases the dangers this poses for social ‘levelling’. In the context of democracy, natural rights can be used to over turn the existing distribution of property.

The debate highlights most of the issues that would occupy John Locke later in the century. Wood wrote two books on John Locke, one looking at his underlying philosophy and another looking at the relationship between his political and economic ideas and the development of agrarian capitalism. Wood’s book on Locke is a substantive reply to the attempt by the Cambridge School historians – in this case, James Tully – to sweep aside the social interpretation of John Locke. This is no restatement of Macpherson’s thesis of ‘possessive individualism’; while there are affinities between Macpherson’s interpretation and that of Wood’s, Wood’s is more firmly rooted in the kind of empirical analysis that is the hallmark of hist approach to social contextualization. Perhaps as a result, Wood’s book has been largely ignored by the intellectual historian, preferring instead to prop up Macpherson as their whipping boy against Marxism.

Tyranny in America

Wood’s final book, published a year after his passing, was the aptly named Tyranny in America. In print four years before the onset of the crisis of finance capital, the book was less of a history of political thought than it was a scathing indictment on the vast disparaties of wealth opening up in American society. Part Tom Paine, part anti-Tocqueville, Tyranny in America pulled no punches, and depicted a venal socio-economic system in decline, resulting in the emergence of a new form of tyranny:  the tyranny of the market. Sheldon Wolin would make similar claims years later in his Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism. Wood’s last book was not cloaked in academic jargon, as is the case with so much contemporary ‘critical theory.’  Like all of his work, it was written in clear prose and rooted in solid empirical research, a testament to what he called in Reflections on Political Theory the ‘old fashioned’ tradition of the empirically oriented Enlightenment project, that aimed at attacking the ‘obscurantism and nihilism’ that characterizes so much academic post-modernism. It was also a testament to a belief that underpinned all of his work: that the political theorist, far from being detached and distinterested, is firmly engaged in the politics of his or her own time.


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