Ellen Meiksins Wood, 1942-2016

Last week, the great Marxist scholar and historian of political thought, Ellen Meiksins Wood, passed away. Wood was a major influence on my intellectual development, both in terms of how I conceptualize capitalism, but also in how I interpret the history of political thought. She was the author of a phenomenally wide range of books: from ancient Greek political thought, to the origin of capitalism, and much else in between.

In 2008, she published the first volume in what was intended to be a three volume set on her historical materialist interpretation of the canon of Western political thought. The project itself was initially the idea of her late partner, Neal Wood, who passed away in 2003. I remember picking up my copy while vacationing in Vienna and was keen to use it for my teaching. Wood’s work on ancient Greece remains, in my opinion, some of her best work and has significantly informed my understanding of ancient Athenian democracy; an interpretation that informs my critique of contemporary republican political thought.

In 2011, I published an extended review of the first volume of the series, From Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, for the journal Historical Materialism. I have reproduced it below in honour of the memory of Ellen Wood. And I encourage anyone who is interested in capitalism, socialism and the history of political thought to introduce themselves to her many books.


State-formation and social-property relations

With the linguistic turn in the 1960s, intellectual currents within the history of political thought began to move away from the traditional presumption that the development of political theory constituted a transhistorical dialogue based on the perennial problems of politics in order to focus on the significance of historically specific discursive contexts for understanding the history of political thought.1 The work of Cambridge-school historians such as Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock represented an explicit rejection of both the teleological studies of the Whig-era and the more philosophically-oriented studies of the postwar-period that premised their surveys either on the belief that politics – and therefore political theorising – represented a series of perennial and unchanging problems of the human condition, or that histories of political thought were organised around a series of ‘stable vocabularies’ that remained constant over time.2 Under the rubric of ‘Cambridge’, political theory became incorporated into a history of contested political languages that related political theory to traditions of discourse and the contingent political controversies of the theorist’s own historical context.3 The purpose was to understand the history of political thought on its own terms without engaging in the anachronistic exercise of presuming that the classics had anything to say about our own contemporary problems and predicaments.

In her bold and innovative survey of ancient and medieval political theory, Ellen Meiksins Wood employs a much more radical approach to the question of historical contextualisation than that of the Cambridge historians. Working within the tradition of historical materialism, Wood employs what she refers to as a ‘social history’ approach to political theory, an approach to contextualisation that differs significantly from the dominant linguistic approaches employed by the Cambridge-school historians, in the sense that it is the social context of social-property relations and the specific social struggles that emerge within these contexts that is the starting point of any history of political thought.4

The question of historical context is not simply a matter of sketching out a general socio- economic backdrop within which political theorists conceive their doctrines and write their treatises. This approach is implicit even in the works of some of the Cambridge-school historians who expressly eschew the utility of social contextualisation. In his Machiavellian Moment, Pocock’s narrative of the persistence of classical republicanism occurs within the early-modern transition from traditional ‘agrarian’ society to a modern ‘commercial society’. This important dichotomy runs through much of the civic-humanist inspired republican revival that has informed Anglo-American historiography. More recently, Brian Nelson, in The Making of the Modern State, has treated the history of political thought as a grand narrative, concerned with articulating a theory of the modern state that is the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie. As the subtitle of his book implies, this tends to be cast as a teleological development, and the bourgeoisie continues to ‘rise’, yet never seems to arrive. At the same time, Nelson recognises that the bourgeoisie ‘supported whatever was in their economic interest’; thus, whether ‘supporting the centralizing monarchs of England and France, or the city-states of Italy and Germany, the emerging middle classes were able to assert their independence from the nobility.’5 From Wood’s perspective, portmanteau- contexts such as the development of ‘commercial society’ or the ‘rise of the bourgeoisie’ do more to level the significant differences that exist between social contexts than illuminate our understanding of the works of specific theorists.

But neither is this act of contextualisation the same as treating political thought as merely a ‘reflection’ of social-property relations; nor is it a matter of reducing political theory to the ‘class-position’ of a particular political theorist, thereby treating classical political theorists as ideological spokespersons – or ‘prize-fighters’ – for their respective social classes. Such a critique has consistently been levelled at Marxist interpretations of the history of political thought – in various different ways – by mainstream-scholars, enabling them to dismiss Marxism as being more concerned with what political theorists tell us about the society in which they live, as opposed to engaging in an ‘autonomous’ study of political ideas. In The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, John Dunn tells us that, while ‘the objects of [Marxists’] study is plainly the history of political theory, its products are scarcely in themselves contributions to understanding that history’.6 Similarly, it is in this regard that Quentin Skinner argues that Marxists have insisted that the ‘principles professed in political life are commonly the merest rationalizations of quite different motives and impulses’, and that ‘it follows from this that such principles have no causal role in political life, and scarcely even need to figure in consequence in explanations of political behaviour’.7 In a similar vein, Conal  Condren rejects  Marxist interpretations  of political  thought because they presuppose ‘a prior ideology and set of power relations which are taken to be reflected in language, mystified and masked by it’.8 Lastly, Pocock claims that, if the historian of political thought is a Marxist, ‘he declared that “ideas” were a mere reflection of social reality’.9

Whether or not these critiques are fair is a matter of debate. What is certain, however, is that they have long been a staple of anti-Marxist scholarship and have been levelled against Wood. One recent reviewer has written:

Despite avowals to the contrary, there are traces of a tendency to read opinions off class position, with brilliantly original thinkers such as Augustine coming perilously close to being labelled as mere apologists for domination, while Ockham’s thought is considered to reflect English individuality, itself merely a result of a strong property regime and a strong state.10

Yet, there remains a crucial distinction between reading ‘opinions off class position’ and relating the meaning of political theory to the specific development of social-property relations and state-formation in different social contexts.  To suggest that Augustine presented an ideological defence of the Roman Empire is not the same as claiming that, because Augustine was a member of the dominant class, we can take his political theory to not only reflect his class-interests, but also represent the class-interests of the Roman aristocracy as a whole. Nor is relating the individualism of Ockham to the peculiar development of English individualism (that finds its way into virtually all political theory by the sixteenth century) an act of class-reductionism.

Wood’s approach to socio-historical contextualisation rests on a particular interpretation of historical development that differs from a number of influential Marxist approaches to historical periodisation that characterise European development in terms of a succession of modes of production: beginning with the ancient slave-mode of production, through the feudal mode of production and ultimately culminating in the development of capitalism. In particular, Wood’s historical materialism is defined through a critical engagement with Perry Anderson’s attempt to explain European development as a succession of slave, feudal and capitalist modes of production.11 Those familiar with Wood’s work will know that hers is a Marxism that not only rejects this Marxist understanding of European historical development, but also problematises the more economistic and reductionist Marxist understanding of a ‘mode of production’ defined in terms of the causal relationship between the economic base of society and the political ‘superstructure’, as well as the traditional Marxist emphasis on the contradictions between the forces and relations of production as the catalyst for social transition.12 They will also be aware that Wood has been a vociferous critic of traditional Marxist interpretations of capitalist transition that seek to explain capitalist development in terms of an urban bourgeoisie rising up in opposition to a parasitic, rural aristocracy.13

Rather, Wood’s approach to historical context emphasises the dynamic interplay between social-property relations and the historical processes of state-formation. Social-property relations are characterised not only by the ways in which a surplus is extracted from the direct producers in society by a class of appropriators, it also comprises the tenuous relationships within the class of appropriators and their relationship to the development of ‘the state’. Thus, the lines of conflict and contestation that frame the broader social context of the development of political theory not only pits the ruling class against the threats it faces ‘from below’, but also the threats it faces from within the ruling class – particularly in regard to access to lucrative state-offices and/or the potential competition from the state as an agent of surplus-extraction in its own right. Indeed, Wood argues that the specificity of the ‘West’ is to be found, not in the development of some form of transhistorical rationality, but, rather, in a specific differentiation between property and state – a differentiation that was absent in the more sophisticated civilisations of the East – that sees property become the specific dominium of a class of private individuals outside the jurisdiction of the state itself. The development of European societies – and by extension, European political theory – is distinct from developments in the East, not by virtue of the absence of private property in the latter, but by virtue of the absence of a similar differentiation of state and property. In concrete terms, this means that while in the civilisations of the East, the division between ruler and ruled largely corresponded to the division between appropriators and producers, no such correspondence existed in the societies that eventually developed in the West (i.e., Greece and Rome) – and it is this difference that plays an important rôle in creating the particular dynamic of conflict that frames the context for the rise of political theory as an intellectual endeavour oriented to interrogating the relationship between ruler and ruled in a highly sophisticated and analytical manner:

The ambiguous relation between ruling class and state gave Western political theory certain unique characteristics. Even while propertied classes could never ignore the threat from below, and even while they depended on the state to sustain their property and economic power, the tensions in their relations with the state placed a special premium on their own autonomous powers, their rights against the state, and also on conceptions of liberty – which were often indistinguishable from notions of aristocratic privilege asserted against the state. So challenges to authority could come from two directions: from resistance by subordinate classes to oppression by their overlords, and from the overlords themselves as they faced intrusions by the state. This helped to keep alive the habit of interrogating the most basic principles of authority, legitimacy and the obligation to obey, even at moments when social and political hierarchies were at their most rigid. (p. 25.)14

Despite this differentiation between state, class and private property that is specific to ‘the West’, the ways in which the class of private appropriators exploit the direct producers of society, and the way in which they relate to the state, and the way in which they maintain their own cohesion as a class, differs from one social context to the next. Thus, that which unifies Europe as a coherent social context within which to study the history of political theory is not enough to understand the specificity of, say, Athenian political theory in relation to Roman or Renaissance-Italian political theory. Thus, the emphasis on the specificity of social-property relations is carried over into the study of various societies within the European context as well – both in the geographical and the historical sense. We are therefore left with a very sophisticated approach to contextualisation, which at one and the same time emphasises the specificity of distinctive societies within a larger European context that is itself differentiated from those of the non-European world.


From polis to republic to empire

From this starting point, Wood takes the reader through a brilliant and bold interpretation of the invention of political theorising within the context of the Greek polis  that is characterised, not as a manifestation of the slave-mode of production typical of traditional Marxist renderings of the ancient-Greek context, but rather as a radical – if not revolutionary – democracy characterised by a political association of direct producers, in which the peasant-citizen plays a crucial rôle, against an appropriating class of declining landlords. By characterising the context of Athenian democracy in such a way, Wood is rejecting conventional Marxist interpretations of ‘antiquity’ as a ‘slave-mode of production’, in which the predominant line of social conflict revolves around the antagonisms between a class of slaves – engaged largely in production – and a citizen-body of slave-owners.15

By downplaying the operative rôle of slavery as the dynamic of class-struggle in ancient Greece, Wood seeks to illuminate the ways in which struggles within the community of Athenian citizens develop along class-lines. Thus, the primary pole of conflict is that which pits ‘free producers’ (peasants and artisans) against an increasingly besieged class of landed aristocrats. The tensions within the democratic community of Athens – a community where a socially stratified citizenry met as political equals – compelled the philosophical defenders of the declining aristocratic order to elaborate sophisticated rationalisations of élite-rule against the ideological defenders of the democracy. To put it another way, with the development of the polis and the community of citizens it represented, the relationship between rulers and ruled and between producers and appropriators characteristic of Mycenaean Greece – not to mention the bureaucratic state-civilisations of the East – broke down. Anti-democratic and aristocratic political theorists had to accommodate their ideas to the realities of the polis, thereby resulting in the development of political philosophy as an extension of the anti-Sophistic natural philosophy of Socrates. Even the more extreme political theory of Plato, with its abstract construction of a social division between rulers and ruled that corresponds to a division between those who produce and ‘those who are fed’, requires the existence of the polis as the primary unit of association. Plato’s radicalism resides not in his elaboration of some form of early communism (which The Republic clearly is not), but, rather, in the subversion of the ethos of the polis in the attempt to eradicate politics and establish the rule of philosophy.16

Readers of Wood’s earlier work on Greece will be familiar with much of the argument about the polis and the Socratic philosophers.17 To the Greeks, the most significant conceptual distinction was that between the polis and the oikos. As Aristotle argued in The Politics, the ‘political’ was confined to the polis, which was a form of human association that was characterised by relations of equality between equal citizens. Crucial to this definition is the conception of equality between citizens within the political community. Regardless of Aristotle’s own aristocratic preferences, such a conception of the polis was ultimately compatible with the exclusive democracies of Athens and Rhodes. In contrast to this, the oikos – or household – was comprised by a number of non-political relationships between unequals: the patriarchal relationship between man and wife, the paternalistic relationship between father and son, and the despotic relationship between master and slave. Aristotelian political thought sought ways of accommodating the relationships of inequality inherent in the oikos with the relationships of equality inherent in the polis by differentiating between functional rôles that the ‘parts’ and the ‘conditions’ of the body politic play in maintaining the socio-political order.

Citizens to Lords builds on Wood’s earlier work by delving deeper into pre-Socratic natural philosophy as well as the development of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy of the Hellenic period. With the Macedonian invasion, and the subsequent rise of Alexander the Great, we begin to see a significant shift away from the established boundaries of Athenian political philosophy. The polis is superseded by the cosmopolis of Alexander. This development will provide a vital link between Athens and Rome, and lay the foundations for the development of Roman imperial political thought that substitutes exclusive rights of citizenship with a universal subjection to imperial authority.18  Herein lie the roots of the conflict between imperial universalism and republican particularism – a conflict between competing ideologies that are united only in their shared contempt for classical democracy.

Wood’s treatment of Rome is of equal significance to that of Greece for a number of reasons. First, in most standard histories of political thought published after WWII, Rome is often either glossed over or neglected, due to the failure of Rome to produce any ‘great’ or ‘innovative’ thinkers.19 Thus, despite the significance of Rome to the history of European state-formation (not to mention political theorising), its absence from the traditional histories of political thought needs to be corrected. Secondly, conventional histories of political thought are often conceptualised around a qualitative break between modernity and antiquity, in which the latter is comprised of the Greco-Roman world in ways that downplay the important differences between the two contexts.20 On closer examination, we begin to see the dramatic differences between Athens and Rome, to the extent that Roman conceptions of citizenship and liberty, as well as the institutional arrangements of the Roman constitution, have more in common with later developments of the early-modern period than with the realities of ancient Greece.21 Thirdly, recent attempts to revisit Rome and re-integrate it into the broader tradition of Western-European political thought have done so through the lens of a ‘republicanism’ concerned with excavating notions of ‘neo- Roman liberty’ that, ironically, do little to engage with the actual history of the Roman- republican era.22 As such, a more substantive understanding of the nature of Roman society, Roman law and Roman political thought can provide us with a critical perspective from which to evaluate the current republican revival in political theory.

The differences between Athens and Rome are important in their own right; yet, they assume a greater significance when we understand the influence that Rome has had on the later development of political thought in European history.23 Far from representing an analogous source of ‘positive liberty’, the case of the Roman Republic represents a highly dynamic ‘mixed constitution’, combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into an elaborate façade that masked the concentration of aristocratic power within a Roman Senate. The significance of the Roman case resides less in the Roman contribution to political philosophy (which tended to come from Romanised Greeks) than it does in the creation of Roman law and the republic’s articulation of a form of citizenship that diluted popular power and acted as an alternative to Athenian democracy.24 Whilst Athenian citizenship cut across class-lines, thereby creating a political community in which citizens of unequal socio-economic backgrounds came together as political equals, Roman citizenship institutionalised the socio-economic inequalities of status and class in ways that were inspirational to later political theorists. We are familiar with the exclusive basis of Athenian citizenship: metics, women and slaves were all excluded from membership in the demos. But, even within a more inclusive conception of ‘the people’, characteristic of Rome, liberty did not necessarily imply an equality of political rights. For example, Cicero – that most famous proponent of Roman liberty – could argue for the libertas of the Roman people while believing that the dignitas of the great requires an unequal distribution of political and economic rights. In other words, Cicero’s conception of libertas was limited to a more abstract juridical equality that entitled all Roman citizens, regardless of rank or class, to an equal access to Roman law; but it did not follow that all citizens enjoyed equal political rights in terms of an equality of voting rights (and therefore, the power to determine the content of that law). Thus, a res publica, for Cicero, envisioned a hierarchical society in which political rights are monopolised by a landed aristocracy, yet this does not prevent him from championing the libertas of the Roman people as a community.25

The institutionalisation of this inequality could not have occurred without the development of Roman law. Most significant among these innovations were the distinctions drawn between a public and private sphere, and the development of a clearly-defined realm of private property. Wood writes:

The Athenians, as we saw, managed the conflicts between peasants and landlords, ‘mass’ and ‘elite’, largely on the political plane. The effect of their democratic reforms was gradually to dilute legal or status distinctions among free Athenians in the common identity of citizenship. The Romans to some extent also pursued the political course, and the citizen body also included both rich and poor; but, while property increasingly trumped heritage, even status distinctions among citizens, notably between patricians and plebeians, continued to play a role, with patricians enjoying privileged status and disproportionate representation in assemblies. The Romans did, to be sure, devise political institutions and procedures to regulate relations between different types of citizen – such as the particularly distinctive office of the tribune. But, while influenced at first by Greek law, the Romans constructed a much more elaborate legal apparatus, relying more than the Greeks on the law to manage transactions between mass and elite, between propertied classes and less prosperous citizens. Social relations between these groups were in large part played out not in the public domain of political life but in the sphere of private law – a distinctively Roman category; and the regulation of property would constitute by far the largest part of Rome’s civil law. (p. 121.)

This differentiation between public and private spheres, along with the development of the rights of private property, enabled the ruling class to relegate conflicts between citizens of different classes to the private sphere through the medium of private law. Such a phenomena was alien to the Greeks, for whom conflicts between citizens of different classes ultimately spilled over into the public sphere of the popular assemblies.26 In Rome, by contrast, substantive inequalities in both spheres coexisted with a limited status of equality embodied in a hierarchical notion of citizenship. While Rome was no more stable than Athens, the constitutional and legal infrastructure established by the Roman ruling class, along with the divisions that existed between Roman peasants and the urban plebeians, enabled them to retain their oligarchic power in the presence of the popular façade of republican government.

From Wood’s perspective, if modern liberal democracies owe anything to antiquity for their development, it is to Rome – not Athens – that we must turn our attention. While democracy is a Greek invention, it is the Roman case – with its mixed constitution that masks oligarchic power, its inclusive citizenship that stresses formal legal equality over substantive social equality, to its differentiation between a public and private sphere, where class-conflicts are confined to the latter through the development of private law, and to well-developed relations of private property that clearly differentiate between imperium (rule) and dominium (ownership) – that is more instructive to understanding the development of modern liberal democracy.27


Imperial decline and European Feudalisms

The imperial crisis of the third century resulted not only in a substantive military- bureaucratic revolution, but also the conversion of the Empire to Christianity under the rule of the Emperor Constantine. With this conversion, Christianity underwent its transformation from a small Jewish sect to an ideology of empire, largely due to the works of the later Stoics, St Paul, and, finally, Augustine. While the conversion to Christianity coincided with the Eastward drift of imperial power, the ‘sources of Western Christian dualism may be found in social and cultural conditions. . . . of the Roman property regime and the distinctive public/private dichotomy it engendered’ (p. 147). Roman conceptions of dominium and imperium – property and state – played a crucial rôle in the development of Western Christianity and its relationship to state-power. Paul’s injunction to ‘render under Caesar’ represented the acceptance and co-existence of the competing centres of power and authority that would shape the development of politics and political thought in the medieval period:

Pauline Christianity, in other words, effected an adaptation of universalism analogous to the changes in Stoic doctrine, which blunted its egalitarian implications and its potential challenge to existing authorities, making the doctrine more congenial to Roman elites. It might be said that, like the Roman stoics, Paul – who was familiar with and influenced by Stoic philosophy – achieved this effect by reintroducing a kind of dualism that allowed a separation between, on the one hand, the moral or spiritual sphere, in which the cosmic logos dictated a universal equality, and, on the other hand, the material world in which social inequalities and even slavery prevailed and political authority was entitled to impose an absolute and universal obedience, just as masters could compel their slaves. (pp. 150–1.)

Upon the collapse of the imperial state, and the subsequent fragmentation of political power amongst competing warlords, it was the Church that maintained the imperial structures, hierarchies and institutions. And it is the collapse of this centralised public authority and the exacerbation of the competing claims of jurisdiction between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire that constitutes the context of medieval political thought.28 This competition, however, is situated within a broader social context of feudalism, which Wood defines in terms of the ‘parcellisation of sovereignty’, usually in the hands of competing lords who have managed to appropriate limited public powers in the wake of the collapse of the Carolingian state.29 In this feudal context, the fusion of public power with private appropriation is perhaps most apparent, resulting in the interpenetration of relations of political and juridical status with the powers of exploitation and surplus- extraction and the eclipse of any well-defined public authority:

To put it another way, the public or civic sphere completely disappeared. This was so not only in the sense that the state apparatus effectively disintegrated but also in the sense that public assemblies in which free men could participate, of a kind that survived throughout the Carolingian realm, no longer existed. Clear distinctions between free men and slaves gave way to a complex continuum of dependent conditions. The category of ‘free’ man effectively disappeared in the former Frankish empire, where even owners of free land might be subject to seigneurial jurisdiction and feudal obligations, while the concept of slavery was overtaken by a spectrum of dependence, in relations between lords and ‘their’ men. (pp. 171–2.)

However, an important point of differentiation is made between Continental and English feudalisms, with the latter coexisting with a centralised state augmented by the Norman Conquest. This distinction is significant in both enabling us to understand the differences between English and Continental medieval political theory, but also for understanding the significant variations in socio-economic and political development that will be elaborated upon in the second volume.30 Continental feudalism, including that of France and the ‘quasi-feudalism’ of the autonomous Italian communes, is characterised by a particular fusion of public power with the power of private appropriation that expressed itself in overlapping claims to property and legal jurisdiction. From this perspective, the development of Italian ‘republicanism’ in the late-medieval period did not represent a fundamental change in the social constitution of political and economic power. While Continental medieval political thought was primarily concerned with the conflict between competing claims of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire to political authority, it was rarely concerned with addressing the source of factionalism and political disunity – the parcellisation of sovereignty characteristic of feudal social relations.

Within this context of parcellised sovereignty, medieval political thought developed largely as an expression of the competing claims of imperium and dominium that took for granted the dependent status of the producing classes. As such, medieval political thought was pre-occupied with identifying the locus of political and legal authority. What medieval political thought did not attempt to do, was to revive the civic relationship that existed between classes characteristic of the ancient Greek polis.

Medieval political theory involved a particularly complex relation to the legacy of classical antiquity. It was complicated not only by relations between secular and ecclesiastical authority but also by the ever-changing scope of secular state power and ever-present tensions between the processes of state centralization and the forces of parcellization. The legacy of empire, together with its classical inheritance, continued to structure the parcellized sovereignty of feudalism, both in practice and in theory. It survived both in the theological doctrines of Christian universalism and in the institutional hierarchy of the Church; but these were always in tension with the particularities of plural kingdoms, lordly jurisdiction and autonomous corporations of various kinds. At the same time, political philosophy had to adapt to the absence of a neatly defined political terrain, not a civic community such as the polis but a particularly convoluted network of secular and ecclesiastical institutions, together with the unity of property and jurisdiction. (p. 200.)

In contrast to republican interpretations that attribute to him the revitalisation of a civic sphere of politics, Marsilius of Padua does nothing to challenge the feudal parcellisation of sovereignty characteristic of the Italian city-states, and his conception of communal autonomy is better suited, not to republican self-government based on active citizenship, but, rather, on incorporating communal autonomy into imperial rule.31 For Marsilius, the corporation of citizens is ‘represented and governed by a ruling part (pars principans), which may consist of many, few or even one’; and he ‘always qualifies his references to the universal body of citizens with “or its prevailing part” (valentior pars, sometimes translated as the “weightier part”), which apparently can be very limited in numbers’. As a result, not only ‘the power to elect (or depose) the ruling or executive part but even the legislative function and the ultimate power of consent could, then, reside in a very small number’ (pp. 220–1).

The development of English medieval political thought – particularly that of William of Ockham – reveals a significant point of departure between the processes of Continental and English state-formation. Whereas Continental medieval political thought started out from the premises of corporate representation and competing jurisdiction, Ockham’s political thought is premised on a kind of methodological individualism that corresponds to the realities of English feudalism: notably development of the status of ‘freeman’ under the auspices of common law. These differences – corporatism versus individualism – proved crucial in determining the character of the doctrines of popular sovereignty that emerge in the early-modern period; they determine whether popular sovereignty resides in the individual – as in the case of English political thought – or in the colleges and other corporate bodies characteristic of Continental feudalism.

Wood concludes her study, not with the decline of medieval scholasticism and the rise of Renaissance-humanism, but, rather, with the onset of the crisis of feudalism that is largely dated during the last half of the fourteenth century. Given her emphasis on the social – as opposed to the intellectual – contexts of political theory, it seems appropriate that the second volume will begin amidst the backdrop of the divergent processes of state-formation that constitute the early-modern period of European history. For this second volume, we can anticipate the development of political thought against the background of at least three distinctive social contexts: the development of English political thought within the context of an emerging agrarian-capitalist society, constituted by a ‘multitude of free men’, and the formation of a centralised state taking the form of King, Lords and Commons; the development of French political thought within a largely feudal society, comprised of ‘colleges and corporate bodies’ and constituted by the contradictions of an absolutist state defined by the countervailing tendencies of ‘parcellised sovereignty’; and the Renaissance revival of antiquity amidst the autonomous, quasi-feudal communal city-states of the Italian peninsula, each struggling for survival in a new configuration of absolutist geopolitics.



If there is a weakness to Wood’s book, it is both the downplaying of the kind of detailed textual exegesis that is standard fare in the history of political thought as well as the more discursive contextualisation that is typical of the Cambridge-school. Wood recognises this, noting that critics and readers may think that such a social-history approach ‘places too much emphasis on grand structural themes at the expense of a more exhaustive textual reading’ of the canon, yet leaves it open for others to engage in the kinds of interpretation that results in ‘more minute and detailed reading’ (p. 16). On the one hand, this seems perfectly reasonable, for no interpretive approach can accomplish everything, and Wood’s intention is to reveal the way a Marxist social history can illuminate our understanding of the canon. On the other hand, it does nothing to force the proponents of the Cambridge school to acknowledge the contribution that Wood makes to the history of  political thought. Given the predominance of the Cambridge-school approach to contextualisation, and the marginalisation of Marxist interpretations on the grounds outlined – rightly or wrongly – by Dunn at the outset of this essay, and reasserted by West in his hostile review of Wood’s work, there is a pressing need to meet the Cambridge school on its own terrain. This will be particularly important in the next volume, due to the fact that both Skinner and Pocock have done much to re-frame the way in which historians view the intellectual developments of the early-modern period. In particular, the ‘republican paradigm’, be it in the form of Skinner’s neo-Roman liberty or Pocock’s Aristotelian-inspired civic humanism, has supplanted the old bourgeois paradigm as the hegemonic interpretation of the early- modern period. In terms of the ancient and medieval periods, however, it is hoped that Wood’s book will provide the groundwork for future research within the Marxist interpretation of the history of political thought.



  1. The ‘histories’ of political thought produced by Leo Strauss and his acolytes emphasised the history of esoteric writing that was political philosophy and identified the crisis of modernity with the betrayal of ancient wisdom (see Strauss 1953 and Strauss and Cropsey (eds.) 1963). Sheldon Wolin’s magisterial work Politics and Vision was founded on the belief that the history of political thought – defined as the development of the concept of ‘the political’ – was the most effective means of ‘exposing the nature of our present predicaments’, which he considered to be the decline of ‘the political’ resulting from the rise of an individualistic liberalism (see Wolin 2004, xxiii).
  2. Pocock 1975; Skinner Also, see Skinner’s extensive incursions into the methodological debates of the discipline in Skinner 2002.
  3. Burns (ed.) 1988; Burns and Goldie (eds.) 1994; Rowe, Schofield, Harrison and Lane (eds.) 2000; Goldie and Wolker (eds.).
  4. The term ‘social history of political theory’ was first used by Neal Wood in Wood 1978 (see also Wood 2002). Other attempts at a ‘social history’ approach to the history of political thought have been For example, J.S. McClelland, in his survey of political thought, states that his initial intention to examine the history of political thought ‘from the bottom up’ was unsustainable, thereby rendering the book ‘old fashioned’ and largely text-centred (McClelland 1996, p. ix).
  5. Nelson 2006, p. 147.
  6. West 2009, p. 915. West goes on to remark: ‘Specialists will assuredly disapprove of this book for the most part, and they could be forgiven for ignoring it. After all, it generally ignores them.’ (West 2009, p. 916.)
  7. Dunn 1996, 24. Dunn is referring to C.B. Macpherson, Christopher Hill and Lucien Goldmann.
  8. Skinner does not cite any Marxist scholarship in this passage, but it is presumed that he is referring to the work of B. Macpherson, whom he references in his bibliography (Skinner 1974, p. 291).
  9. Condren 1994, 8.
  10. Pocock 1972.
  11. West 2009, 915. West goes on to remark: ‘Specialists will assuredly disapprove of this book for the most part, and they could be forgiven for ignoring it. After all, it generally ignores them.’ (West 2009, p. 916.)
  12. See Anderson 1974a and Of course, Anderson’s is merely one (albeit highly influential) interpretation of one of Marx’s schemata of historical development: compare, for instance, Wickham 1994. For an insightful discussion of the various approaches to the historical periodisation of ‘modes of production’, see Blackledge 2006. For a useful discussion on the conceptual issues at stake in the debates regarding historical materialism, see Rigby 1988.
  13. In particular, Wood criticises the technological determinism of Cohen 1978: see Wood For a critique, see Callinicos 1990.
  14. Wood 1991 and 2002.
  15. For an interpretation that downplays the social differences between East and West in antiquity, and the implications for classical political thought, see Springborg
  16. de S Croix 1981; Anderson 1974b.This is a significantly different interpretation of the implications of Stoic and Christianised- Roman political thought than that put forward by Patricia Springborg, who argues that it was through the embrace of Christianity during the imperial era that the foundation for a universal
  17. This interpretation is radically at odds with those who believe that Platonic philosophy (and Greek political theory in general) represents the elevation of ‘the political’ over other forms of
  18. Wood 1988; Wood and Wood 1978.
  19. This is a significantly different interpretation of the implications of Stoic and Christianised- Roman political thought than that put forward by Patricia Springborg, who argues that it was through the embrace of Christianity during the imperial era that the foundation for a universal conception of individual freedom was developed. ‘It is ironical, but true, that the Hellenistic and Roman Empires, and not the league of Greek city states or the Roman Republic, were responsible for the greatest number of democratic foundations, giving to municipalities which had long lived under autocracy democratic freedoms, which the Romans referred to as “the freedom of the Greeks”.’ (Springborg 2001, p. 857.)Skinner 1998; Skinner 2008. Skinner is careful to define the tradition that he seeks to examine as ‘neo-Roman liberty’, which allows him to focus solely on Roman-inspired writers of the early-modern English period. Philip Pettit, however, is more insistent on the Roman origins of what he considers to be a progressive notion of liberty that is concerned with ‘non-domination’. Pettit, however, engages in no significant discussion of the Roman context; nor does he engage with the work of Roman-republican writers such as Cicero (Pettit 1997). Similarly, Maurizio Viroli, inspired by both Pettit and Skinner, conveniently omits Rome from his narrative of
  20. In S. McClelland’s survey of Western political thought, pagan Rome is treated in a mere twenty pages, reserving most of his commentary for Augustine and other Christianised Romans (McClelland 1996). David Boucher’s edited text skips over pre-Augustinian Rome entirely (Boucher (ed.) 2009). The general neglect of Rome in the history of political thought is, however, a relatively current phenomenon. Histories written prior to WWII and the establishment of ‘political theory’ as a sub-discipline in political science tended to cover a wider range of political thinkers due to the absence of a pro-philosophical bias in determining what constitutes political ‘theory’.
  21. Indeed, some surveys of Western political thought (as distinct from surveys of modern political thought) simply begin with either Machiavelli or Hobbes, implying that Machiavelli’s alleged ‘discovery’ of the autonomy of the political, and Hobbes’s rejection of antiquity, are key to understanding ‘modern’ political
  22. Early recognition of these differences can be found in Wolin 2004 and Wirszubski 1950.
  23. Skinner 1998; Skinner Skinner is careful to define the tradition that he seeks to examine as ‘neo-Roman liberty’, which allows him to focus solely on Roman-inspired writers of the early-modern English period. Philip Pettit, however, is more insistent on the Roman origins of what he considers to be a progressive notion of liberty that is concerned with ‘non-domination’. Pettit, however, engages in no significant discussion of the Roman context; nor does he engage with the work of Roman-republican writers such as Cicero (Pettit 1997). Similarly, Maurizio Viroli, inspired by both Pettit and Skinner, conveniently omits Rome from his narrative ofrepublicanism (all the while selectively including Cicero when it is convenient), preferring to begin his history with Machiavelli (Viroli 2001).
  24. See Roberts
  25. In The Republic, Cicero clearly states the case for a ‘popular’ government (a res publica) in contrast to the kind of democracies that existed in Athens and Rhodes.
  26. Wood 1988. Janet Coleman writes: ‘This is what Rome discovered, a useful kind of compromise concerning irreconcilable approaches to status. This is the agreement that defines the ‘state’ as an association in justice: equality before the law but not to equal things. Scipio insists that men of the highest and lowest honour must exist in every ‘state’ and hence treating them equally cannot be fair. But treating everyone equally before the law is the minimum to which everyone, with his different view of status, can accept.’ (Coleman 1999, p. 279.)
  27. Indeed, the Greeks did not have a well-developed distinction between a ‘public’ sphere and a ‘private’ sphere; merely a polis comprised of equality, and an oikos characterised by inequality.
  28. ‘The partnership of dominium and imperium, then, sums up both the distinction between public and private and the alliance of property and state that was so distinctively ’ (Wood 2008, pp. 124–5.).
  29. This is a significantly different position from that presented by Wolin, who argues that it is the institutionalisation of the Church – rather than its competition with secular authorities – that rescues the ‘concept of the political’ from extinction during the medieval period (Wolin 2004).
  30. The term ‘parcellisation of sovereignty’, was coined by Perry Anderson (Anderson 1974a, 19).
  31. This important point of differentiation is absent from Skinner’s two volumes on the Renaissance and Reformation, and remains perhaps the most important difference between Wood’s social-history approach and Skinner’s intellectual-history approach.
  32. Coleman 2000. For Marsilius of Padua as a republican theorist contributing to early democratic political thought, see Held 2006.


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—— 1974b, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, London: New Left Books.

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—— 1975, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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—— 2002, Visions of Politics: on Method, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— 2008, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Strauss, Leo 1953, Natural Right and History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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——  2001,  ‘Republicanism,  Freedom  from  Domination  and  the  Cambridge  Contextual Historians’, Political Studies, 49, 5: 851–76.

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—— 1991, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: An Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, London: Verso.

—— 1995, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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—— 1988, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press.

—— 2002, Reflections on Political Theory: A Voice of Reason from the Past, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


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