Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood had a towering intellect
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Barely five feet tall but considered an intellectual giant, Marxist scholar and political science professor Ellen Meiksins Wood was instrumental in making Toronto’s York University a centre for the radical critique of social and political thought toward the end of the 20th century.
In the late 1960s, Prof. Meiksins Wood was recruited from the United States along with her husband and fellow political scientist Neal Wood. York University gave them teaching positions at a time when the institution was fast becoming a destination for important figures on the intellectual left. Students across Canada were clamouring for more radical perspectives and the new generation of Marxist scholars was drawn to York by the opportunity to build programs at a new university.
Prof. Meiksins Wood, who died of cancer in Ottawa on Jan. 14 at the age of 73, distinguished herself as one of the major political theorists of her generation.
Rejecting the notion that capitalism was the inevitable outcome of economic processes that had always existed, she instead zeroed in on capitalism’s historical specificity. In The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (1994) and The Origin of Capitalism (1999), she traced capitalism’s origins to the 16th-century English countryside, when the interests of the landed aristocracy were advanced at the expense of the peasant classes.
Her position built upon the pioneering work of the American historian Robert Brenner, fuelling what came to be known as the “Brenner Debate.” Prof. Meiksins Wood extended and developed Prof. Brenner’s analysis by focusing on the central role of the market in emerging economic systems. The market was a coercive institution that dominated both workers and capitalists, argued Prof. Meiksins Wood, and as long as production derived from market competition, class antagonism would persist.
Prof. Meiksins Wood was also the left’s foremost theorist of democracy and its history, according to her former student David McNally, now a political science professor at York.
Running through her work is the idea that democracy must always be fought for and secured from below, that it comes about through resistance and popular insurgency and is never conferred from above by benevolent legislators.
In Retreat from Class (1986) and Democracy Against Capitalism (1995), Prof. Meiksins Wood defended historical materialism against post-Marxist critiques, before undertaking a large-scale study of political thought from antiquity to the modern day. The first two volumes, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2008) and Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment (2012), were published by Verso; the third volume was still in preparation.
llen Meiksins was born in New York on April 12, 1942. She spent her early years on West 177th Street in Washington Heights and in nearby J. Hood Wright Park. Her parents, Gregory and Bella, were active in the Jewish labour movement in Europe; they left Latvia as political refugees during the inter-war years and settled in New York. Gregory held a PhD in political science and worked as a United Nations interpreter. Bella, who had worked in refugee relief in Europe, became a social worker in New York, and moved to Los Angeles, with Ellen, after she remarried.
Educated in Connecticut, Switzerland and Los Angeles, Ellen Meiksins attended Beverly Hills High, earned an undergraduate degree in Slavic languages from the University of California, Berkeley in 1962 and a PhD in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1970. While still finishing her PhD, she moved to Toronto in 1967 with her first husband, Neal Wood, who had been offered a faculty position in political science at York’s Keele Street campus. Ellen, already a promising scholar in her own right, was hired to teach at York’s Glendon campus.
At York, the pair founded the Graduate Program in Social and Political Thought. Both believed strongly that social and political theory needed to be placed in historical context. Studying the social situations in which theorists lived and worked improved our understanding of what the theorists meant. This approach infused their teaching and writing, including Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Social Context (1978), which they co-authored.
The duo co-taught an interdisciplinary graduate seminar, The Theory and Practice of the State in Historical Perspective, a social history of political thought that ranged over much of human history. It was launched in 1977-78 and quickly became legendary.
Frances Abele, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, was one of Prof. Meiksins Wood’s graduate students, from 1976 to 1983. She remembers leaving each week’s seminar “abuzz with intellectual energy and new ideas.” Even as a young scholar, Prof. Meiksins Wood was a powerfully talented intellectual and a wonderful teacher: clear, logical, imaginative, rigorous, determined, focused on the topic at hand and quick to expose sloppy thinking.
She also relished contention and was one of the most rewarding people to disagree with. In addition to the legendary seminar, George Comninel did a reading course as a master’s student in the late 1970s with Prof. Meiksins Wood on Marx’s Grundrisse and the three volumes of Capital.
Now a political science professor at York, Prof. Comninel grew up in the same neighbourhood as his teacher, and their weekly meetings recalled the New York environment in which they were raised: The departmental secretary described their sessions as the times “when George and Ellen get together to yell at each other.” Faculty up and down the corridor closed their doors as the two worked their way through the texts, only to discover that they read Marx in exactly the same way.
An extraordinarily influential teacher, Prof. Meiksins Wood left behind a loyal group of former students influenced by her social-historical approach to theoretical analysis. Many went on to have distinguished careers of their own, inspired by her teaching, her willingness to devote time and attention to their work, and her relentless pursuit of clarity in the service of social justice.
Linked to the academic left in North America and in Europe, Prof. Meiksins Wood served on the editorial board of the British journal New Left Review from 1984 to 1993 and the socialist magazine Monthly Review from 1997 to 2000. Prof. Meiksins Wood not only took part in debates about world events, neoliberalism and the rise of postmodernism, producing important books and major articles, but helped to shape them.
Prof. Meiksins Wood wrote nine books, co-wrote two with Prof. Wood and co-edited three collections. She was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 1996.
Like Hannah Arendt before her, Prof. Meiksins Wood was an important female scholar in a male-dominated field whose work didn’t focus on feminism. Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalization at the University of Hertfordshire, explains in a Monthly Review essay that at a time when “more and more women were entering academic life, it was still extraordinarily rare in the field of political economy for a woman to be recognised and respected as a towering intellect with a grasp of the whole – and not just someone who writes about gender. In fact it is hard to think of anyone since Rosa Luxemburg who achieved this status on the academic left.”
Her brother, Peter Meiksins, professor of sociology and vice-provost at Cleveland State University, knew a different side of her. Ellen loved music, especially Bach, and learned to play the cello and the piano as a child. She taught herself to play the oboe during her time in Toronto and played chamber music with other amateur musicians. Prof. Comninel learned over the years not to call his friend and colleague during major tennis tournaments or Blue Jays games.
Prof. Meiksins Wood was fond of the English countryside and spent many hours walking on Dartmoor, in Devon, and in other areas. When Prof. Meiksins Wood became involved with the London-based New Left Review, she and her husband spent many months there each year, eventually buying a home. When they retired from York, they divided their time between Toronto and London until Prof. Wood’s death in 2003.
Often overlooked in the focus on Prof. Meiksins Wood’s radical politics and theoretical grounding, notes Jonathan Sas, director of research at the Broadbent Institute, is that, unlike many Marxists, she supported the NDP and the British Labour party, and did not see herself as above or divorced from practical politics. “She could write stinging critiques of the drive for accumulation, but be a voice against Tony Blair and for a more progressive candidate in a non-radical party like Labour,” Mr. Sas explains.
Prof. Meiksins Wood and Ed Broadbent had first met as young faculty members at York in the late 1960s but went on to have divergent careers. When they were both widowed after long and very good marriages, their acquaintance deepened. Mr. Broadbent, the classical social democrat, and Prof. Meiksins Wood, iconoclastic, myth-busting thinker of the radical left, respected and engaged with one another, discussing and debating social democracy, capitalism’s inequalities and social organization.
While their views were different enough to fuel debate, they shared an ethical commitment to a higher form of society and believed deeply in the transformative side of social change. The couple married in 2014.
Prof. Meiksins Wood leaves her husband, Mr. Broadbent, and her brothers, Peter Meiksins of Cleveland and Robert Meiksins of Milwaukee.
This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.