Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942–2016)

Ellen Meiksins Wood breathed life into Marxist political theory.

I came to Ellen Meiksins Wood’s work late in life. I had known about her for years; she was a good friend of my friend Karen Orren, the UCLA political scientist, who was constantly urging me to read Wood’s work. But I only finally did that two years ago, at the suggestion of, I think it was, Paul Heideman.

I read The Origin of Capitalism. It was one of those “Aha!” moments. Wood was an extraordinarily rigorous and imaginative thinker, someone who breathed life into Marxist political theory and made it speak — not to just to me but to many others — at multiple levels: historical, theoretical, political. She ranged fearlessly across the canon, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary social theory, undaunted by specialist claims or turf-conscious fussiness. She insisted that we look to all sorts of social and economic contexts, thereby broadening our sense of what a context is.

She actually had a theory of capitalism and what distinguished it from other social forms: that it was not merely commercial exchange, that it did not evolve out of a natural penchant for barter and trade, that it was not a creation of urban markets. Hers was a political theory of capitalism: capitalism was created through acts of force and was maintained as a mode of force (albeit, a mode of force that was exercised primarily through the economy).

She was also a remarkably clear writer: unpretentious, jargon-free, straightforward. Just last week, I had started reading Citizens to Lords, and I’d been slowly accumulating a list of questions that I hoped to ask her one day on the off chance that we might meet in person. Now she’s gone. The work continues.