Ellen Meiksins Wood: The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism


Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942-2016) was a leading political theorist and one of the world's most influential historians. Her wide-ranging and original work, covering topics which range from examinations of Athenian democracy to contemporary American imperialism, has, alongside Robert Brenner, inaugurated the 'Political Marxist' approach to history. Political Marxism is founded upon a critique of the teleology and formalism of many forms of Marxism in an attempt at rehistoricising and repoliticising the Marxist project. The influence of Ellen's distinctive work can be seen across the social sciences and has influenced generations of scholars.

To celebrate her work, we are making available one of her most influential essays, "The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism", originally published in NLR 1/127 (1981).

The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism
by Ellen Meiksins Wood

The intention of Marxism is to provide a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it. This is not an empty slogan. It has—or ought to have—a very precise meaning. It means that Marxism seeks a particular kind of knowledge, one which is uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement and, at least implicitly, the points at which political action can most effectively intervene. This is not to say that the object of Marxist theory is to discover a ‘scientific’ programme or technique of political action. Rather, the purpose is to provide a mode of analysis especially well equipped to explore the terrain on which political action must take place. It can, however, be argued that Marxism since Marx has often lost sight of his theoretical project and its quintessentially political character. In particular, this is so to the extent that Marxists have, in various forms, perpetuated the rigid conceptual separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ which has served bourgeois ideology so well ever since the classical economists discovered the ‘economy’ in the abstract and began emptying capitalism of its social and political content.

Since, however, these conceptual devices do reflect—albeit in a distorting mirror—an historical reality specific to capitalism, a real differentiation of the ‘economy’, an attempt to rescue them from bourgeois ideology and make them illuminate more than they obscure might begin by reexamining the historical conditions that made such conceptions possible and plausible. The purpose of this reexamination would not be to explain away the ‘fragmentation’ of social life in capitalism, but to understand precisely what it is in the historical nature of capitalism that appears as a differentiation of ‘spheres’—in particular, the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’. It may be possible to interpret this historical ‘fragmentation’ in such a way that the ‘fetishism’ of capitalist categories can be overcome, but without obscuring the historical realities they reflect.

The differentiation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ is, of course, not simply a theoretical but a practical problem. There is perhaps no greater obstacle to socialist practice than the separation of economic and political struggles which has typified modern working class movements. If this obstacle were, as many revolutionary socialists have contemptuously suggested, merely the product of a misguided, ‘underdeveloped’, or ‘false’ consciousness on the part of the working class, it might be easier to overcome. The tenacity of working class ‘economism’, however, derives precisely from its correspondence to the realities of capitalism and the ways in which capitalist appropriation and exploitation actually do divide the arenas of economic and political action, and actually do transform certain essential political issues—struggles over domination and exploitation that historically have been inextricably bound up with political power—into distinctively ‘economic’ issues. This ‘structural’ separation may, indeed, be the most effective defense mechanism available to capital.

If, therefore, the object of Marxist theory is to shed light on the terrain of political action, it can neither ignore these historical realities nor ratify them by entrenching the separation of economics and politics that has served capitalism so well in theory and practice. Instead, it should explain precisely how and in what sense capitalism has driven a wedge between the economic and the political—how and in what sense essentially political issues like the disposition of powers to control production and appropriation, or the allocation of social labour and resources, have been cut off from the political arena and displaced to a separate ‘sphere’.

Karl Marx presented the world in its political aspect, not only in his explicitly political works but even in his most technical economic writings. His critique of political economy was, among other things, intended to reveal the political face of the economy which had been obscured by bourgeois political economists. The fundamental secret of capitalist production disclosed by Marx—the secret that political economy systematically concealed, making it finally incapable of accounting for capitalist accumulation—concerns the social relation and the disposition of power that obtains between the worker and the capitalist to whom he sells his labour-power. This secret has a corollary: that the disposition of power between the individual capitalist and worker has as its condition the political configuration of society as a whole—the balance of class forces and the powers of the state which permit the expropriation of the direct producer, the maintenance of absolute private property for the capitalist, and his control over production and appropriation. In volume 1 of Capital Marx works his way from the commodity form through surplus value to the ‘secret of primitive accumulation’, disclosing at last that the ‘starting point’ of capitalist production ‘. . . is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’, [1] a process of class struggle and bloody intervention by the state on behalf of the expropriating class. The very structure of the argument suggests that, for Marx, the ultimate secret of capitalist production is a politicalone. What distinguishes his analysis so radically from classical political economy is that it creates no sharp discontinuities between economic and political spheres; and he is able to trace the continuities because he treats the economy itself not as a network of disembodied forces but, like the political ‘sphere’, as a set of social relations.

This has not, however, been equally true of Marxism since Marx. In one form or another and in varying degrees, Marxists have generally adopted modes of analysis which, explicitly or implicitly, treat the economic ‘base’ and the legal, political, and ideological ‘superstructures’ which ‘reflect’ or ‘correspond’ to it as qualitatively different, more or less enclosed and ‘regionally’ separated spheres. This is most obviously true of orthodox base-superstructure theories. It is also true of their variants which speak of economic, political, and ideological ‘factors,’ ‘levels’ or ‘instances’, no matter how insistent they may be about the interaction of factors or instances, or about the remoteness of the ‘last instance’ in which the economic sphere finally determines the rest. Indeed, these formulations merely emphasize the spatial separation of spheres.

Other schools of Marxism have maintained the abstraction and enclosure of spheres in other ways—for example, by abstracting the economy or the circuit of capital in order to construct a technically sophisticated alternative to bourgeois economics, meeting it on its own ground (and going significantly further than Marx himself in this respect, without grounding the economic abstractions in historical and sociological analysis as he did). The social relations in which this economic mechanism is embedded—which indeed constitute it—are treated as somehow external. At best, a spatially separate political sphere may intervene in the economy, but the economy itself is evacuated of social content and is, as it were, depoliticized. In these respects, Marxist theory has perpetuated the very ideological practices that Marx was attacking—those practices that confirmed to the bourgeoisie the naturalness and eternity of capitalist productive relations.

Bourgeois political economy, according to Marx, universalizes capitalist relations of production precisely by analyzing production in abstraction from its specific social determinations. Marx’s approach differs from theirs precisely in his insistence that a productive system is made up of its specific social determinations—specific social relations, modes of property and domination, legal and political forms. This does not simply mean that the economic ‘base’ is reflected in and maintained by certain ‘superstructural’ institutions, but that the productive base itself exists in the shape of social, juridical, and political forms—in particular, forms of property and domination. Bourgeois political economists are able to demonstrate ‘the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations’ by divorcing the system of production from its specific social attributes. For Marx, production is ‘. . . not only a particular production . . . it is always a certain social body, a social subject, which is active in a greater or sparser totality of branches of production’. [2] Bourgeois political economy, in contrast, achieves its ideological purpose by dealing with society in the abstract, treating production as ‘. . . encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeoisrelations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded. This is the more or less conscious purpose of the whole proceeding.’ [3] While bourgeois economists may recognize that certain legal and political forms facilitate production, they do not treat them as organic constituents of a productive system. Thus they bring things that are organically related ‘. . . into an accidental relation, into a merely reflective connection.’ [4]

The distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘merely reflective’ connections is especially significant. It suggests that any application of the base/superstructure metaphor that stresses the separation and enclosure of spheres—however much it may insist on the connection of one to the other, even thereflection of one by the other—reproduces the mystifications of bourgeois ideology insofar as it fails to treat the productive sphere itself as defined by its social determinations and in effect deals with society ‘in the abstract’. The basic principle about the primacy of production, the very foundation of historical materialism, thus loses its critical edge and is assimilated to bourgeois ideology.

This is, of course, not to say that Marx saw no value in the approach of bourgeois political economy. On the contrary, he adopted its categories as his point of departure precisely because they expressed, not a universal truth, but a historical reality in capitalist society, at least a ‘real appearance’. The point was to decipher the real meaning of the ‘appearance’, and this required not the reproduction but the critical elaboration of bourgeois categories.

Desocializing the Material Base

Precisely these criticisms of political economy have recently been used in an important book by G. A. Cohen to support an argument against a social interpretation of materialism; and since his argument is in many respects the very antithesis of the one presented here, some comments may be useful.[5] It will, of course, be impossible to consider every step of Cohen’s dense and impressive argument; but there is one pivotal step which is indispensable to the argument and which sums up the major point at issue between our opposing interpretations of materialism. This is Cohen’s formulation of the distinction between the ‘material’ and the ‘social’. There are two major points in dispute: Cohen’s analytic distinction itself and the slippage by means of which an analytic distinction is allowed imperceptibly to become not only a dualism but an historically real separation and a causal relation.

Since Cohen’s object is to establish that historical materialism is a technological determinism, he must not only define the determinant ‘material substratum’ narrowly to include only technical forces of production but identify the material sphere with the ‘natural’, as something in principle separate and qualitatively different from the ‘social’ and ‘historical’. Even if, as he concedes, the ‘material’ never exists in history except ‘enveloped’ in social form, his causal argument obliges him in effect to treat the ‘material’ as if it were only externally related to the ‘social’ and as if it had a life of its own, subject to laws of motion different from ‘historical’ principles. Reduced to its simplest terms, his technological determinism means that the ‘natural’ impulses which propel the material sphere—the development of technical forces—prevail over, and in one way or another causally determine, the historical development of social forms. The premise is that there is a natural and perennial impulse, independent of social and historical conditions, grounded in human nature and rationality, toward the improvement of technological forces. [6] At any given stage of development, then, those social relations must emerge which will facilitate that improvement. In turn, there will come into being such legal and political forms as are required by these social relations. In short, Cohen offers us a ‘base/superstructure’ analysis (qualified by the proposition that ‘bases need superstructures’, which ought to be unexceptionable to all exponents of this mechanical metaphor) in which the relations of production themselves become ‘superstructural’ in their relation to the real ‘base’, the technical forces of production.

To establish the conceptual foundations for his causal propositions about forces and relations of production, Cohen cites the authority of Marx: ‘We are arguing that the familiar distinction between forces and relations of production is, in Marx, one of a set of contrasts between nature and society. Commentators have failed to remark how often he uses “material” as the antonym of “social” and of “formal”, how “natural” belongs with “material” against “social”, and how what is described as material also counts as the “content” of some form. (Other terms of the material vocabulary are “human”, “simple”, and “real”, while “historical” and “economic” consort with “social”.) The upshot of these oppositions and identifications is that the matter or content of society is nature, whose form is the social form.’ [7]

The argument turns on the identification of ‘material’ with ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ development in opposition to ‘social’ and ‘historical’; and for this definition of the ‘material’, Cohen relies on readings of Marx which are so dubious that his whole interpretation of historical materialism is put into question. The striking thing is that the passages from Marx which Cohen cites to support the ‘illuminating abstraction’ separating the ‘material’ from the ‘social’, or ‘material production’ from its ‘social features’—or, for example, the ‘underlying matter’ of capitalist production from the ‘capitalist economic form’—are precisely those in which Marx’s intention is to attack rather than defend this abstraction.

Cohen cites various passages from Capital and the Grundrisse which, in one form or another, refer to the ‘productive activity of human beings in general’, or ‘the process of production in general’ or material production ‘in the abstract’ [8] .

The distinction that here concerns Marx is not between ‘material’ and ‘social’ or between a ‘material process of production’ and a ‘social process of production’, but between production ‘as such’ or ‘in general’ and production as it actually exists, as a social process in socially and historically determinate forms. (Indeed, a similar contrast could be formulated between the ‘social process of production in general’ and the social process of production in historically determinate forms. [9] ) It is not, for example, a question of distinguishing the ‘capitalist form’ from its ‘underlying matter’ but ‘matter’ in capitalist form distinguished from ‘matter’ in the abstract.

Marx’s object is to criticize the mystifications of political economy which are achieved precisely by beginning with ‘material production in general’ and then proceeding to treat the process of producing capital abstractly as if it were the process of production as such. [10] It is in the nature of capitalism to make such mystifications particularly plausible because the production of the conditions of material life in capitalism is inseparable from the production of capital. For example, since commodity production is generalized, all production of use-values is at the same time and indistinguishably production of exchange-values. In the Grundrisse and Capital Marx unveils the false appearances of capitalist production by tracing the stages of mystification in the production of capital. In the Grundrisse, he suggests briefly that one might begin by identifying the elements which are ‘common’ or ‘general’ to all production; but this suggestion does little to support Cohen’s case, since, first, there is no reason to equate the ‘common’ or ‘general’ with the ‘material’ in opposition to the ‘social’; and, above all, because Marx rejects this procedure on the grounds that any propositions about ‘production in general’ will be rather empty and formal, even ‘trite’ or tautological, since the real content of these ‘common elements’ themselves depends precisely on their social determinations. [11]

The labour-process can, it is true, be reduced to ‘simple’ or ‘elementary’ or ‘common’ factors: the personal activity of man, the producer; a subject of work or material worked upon; instruments. Viewed in this way, however, as ‘solely a process between man and nature’, the labour-process is treated as if it were performed by an ‘abnormally isolated’ human being (the infamous Robinson Crusoe who, according to Marx, so often lurks behind the mystifications of political economy) instead of as it really is: a social process in which the relationship to nature is at the same time and inseparably a social relation. [12] The ‘simple’ elements that are common to all production—both ‘abnormally isolated’ (or imaginary) and social—are ‘elementary’ only in the abstract sense that all kinds of production must possess such elements in one form or another. The content, of these ‘elementary’ factors like that of ‘social’ factors, is socially and historically determined. Furthermore, Marx does not suggest that in normal forms of production, which entail ‘social assistance’, this social element is somehow less fundamental or even less ‘material’ than the ‘simple’ or ‘common’ elements. Nor does he imply that the simple elements in such cases have a causal priority over the social. Thus, when Marx himself isolates the ‘simple’ labour-process in volume 1 of Capital (only after analysing the commodity form), his object is not to separate the ‘simple’ elements of the labour-process from their social determinations or to establish the ‘primacy’ of these elements. He intends rather to explain how the particular nature of the capitalist labour-process, the particular nature of its ‘simple’ elements themselves, is inextricably bound up with the ‘social’ and ‘historical’ fact that the process of production in capitalism is at once a process of producing surplus-value and the capitalist relation itself.

Marx’s purpose, then, is to stress not the dualism of the ‘material’ and the ‘social’ but the definition of the material by the social; to define the material process of production not in opposition to the social process of production but as a social process; to focus attention not on ‘abstract matter’ but on the social form that gives it reality; to indicate not the usefulness but the emptiness of this abstraction; and insofar as he draws our attention to the abstraction of material production from its particular social form, he does so to stress not what the abstraction reveals but what it conceals. Cohen’s ‘illuminating abstraction’ is thus the very mystification Marx is attacking.

The purpose of Cohen’s conceptual framework is to support his argument for technological determinism. The strength of the conceptual foundation, then, must be judged by the weight of the argument it is able to bear. In the final analysis, Cohen’s propositions about the causal connections between forces and relations of production prove insubstantial. These propositions do not, as Cohen hastens to stress, entail any particular temporal sequence. Dynamic forces of production may break through the integument of social relations and compel them to change accordingly; or sluggish forces may by their very failure to develop compel social relations to change in order to encourage and accelerate technological progress. Indeed, Cohen’s formula can accommodate both cases in which, as Marx puts it, the forces of production are ‘petrified’ [13] (which may be the rule rather than the exception) and the radically unique case of capitalism, which is distinguished precisely by its drive constantly to revolutionize the forces of production. This flexibility makes it unnecessary to explain away awkward historical and anthropological evidence; but it leaves Cohen’s basic historical proposition rather empty and renders it of little use as an explanatory device. The proposition is, in effect, non-falsifiable. To the extent that it is true, it is trivial or tautological—as, perhaps, any historical ‘law’ of such generality must be.

In a sense, what Cohen’s technological determinism does is to repeat the error of the political economists: he generalizes the particular historical experience of capitalism by abstracting the laws of capitalist production from their specific social determinations. The drive to revolutionize the forces of production, which in capitalism is generated by a particular mode of surplus-extraction—the mechanism of surplus value—and by the social relation between capital and labour this implies, thus becomes a natural law implanted in human nature and enforced by the laws of reason. [14]

Cohen’s particular definition of the ‘material’ and its relation to the social thus makes it difficult to account for the evolution of capitalism and the distinctive effect that its social relations of production have had on technological development. Indeed—and even more fundamentally—his radical separation of the ‘material’ and the ‘social’ makes non-sense out of precisely those materialist laws of contradiction and historical transition which he invokes to support his case. If there is any meaning in the proposition that contradictions between forces and relations of production give impetus to historical movement, it is arguably only insofar as ‘forces’ are considered in their socialaspect. It is precisely because the ‘material’ and the ‘social’ are not, as it were, on two different planes of being that it makes sense to speak of ‘contradictions’ between them. For example, the critical contradiction in capitalism is not between narrowly defined technical forces and social relations, but between two potentially antagonistic social principles: the individualistic, even anti-social, form of capitalist property and the highly socialized form of capitalist production. The ‘material force’ most antagonistic to the social relations of capital is a united and class-conscious proletariat. Not even Cohen would maintain that the generation of this force is a mere reflex of technological development.

It is also worth noting that Marx and Engels go so far as to suggest that the very possibility of a separation and contradiction between forces and relations of production is dependent on specific social conditions. Such a separation becomes possible only when production and consumption, labour and enjoyment, ‘devolve on different individuals’ in the social division of labour. [15] A similar principle applies to the separation of ‘factors’—the economic, political, etc.—and their ‘relative autonomy.’ The ultimate foundation of these separations is the social division of labour which creates ‘new and independent spheres’ by assigning people to perform new and independent social functions. [16]

In short, the ‘material’ on which the structure of historical materialism rests is from the outset a ‘social’ and historical phenomenon. It can even be said that the essence of this materialism—in contrast, say, to the materialism of the political economists—is precisely that it socializes andhistoricizes the material base. There are, therefore, no radical disjunctures between ‘material’ and ‘social’, ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, ‘objective structures’ and historical specificities, which make it difficult to move from one to the other in theory and to move between theory and practice.

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[*] My thanks must go to several people who have read and criticized—often vehemently—this essay at various stages: Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Robert Brenner, Ralph Miliband, Neal Wood, Gregory Meiksins, Peter Meiksins, and my students at York University, Toronto, especially Frances Abele and George Comninel.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, Moscow vol. I, p. 668.

[2] Marx, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 86.

[3] Ibid., p. 87.

[4] Ibid., p. 88.

[5] G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, Oxford 1978.

[6] Cohen, pp. 152–3.

[7] Cohen, p. 98.

[8] For example, on p. 99 he cites Grundrisse, p. 304 and Capital III, p. 795 (Moscow, 1962. In the Moscow, 1971, edition, p. 815).

[9] See, for example, Capital III, Moscow 1971, p. 818.

[10] e.g., Grundrisse, pp. 85–88.

[11] loc. cit.

[12] Capital III, pp. 883–4.

[13] Capital I, p. 456–7.

[14] See Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalism”, NLR, 304, for a discussion of how capitalist relations of production uniquely demand the revolutionary transformation of productive forces.

[15] Marx and Engels, German Ideology in Collected Works, New York 1976, vol. 5, p. 45.

[16] Engels, Letter to Conrad Schmidt, October 27, 1890, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, p. 422.