From Socialist Review 208, May 1997.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
A Trumpet of Sedition
Ellen Meiksins Wood & Neal Wood
Pluto Press £9.99
The rise of capitalism shattered the social fabric of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. All classes were affected profoundly. Ellen Meiksins Wood and Neal Wood make an important point by placing their study of political theory in the context of the rise of capitalism. The economic struggles of artisans and peasants were reflected in theories, such as those of the Levellers, which sought to make government accountable to ‘the people’ (or at least to male heads of households). The evolution of the ideas of political democracy took place in part in response to the economic and social changes and dislocations caused by the development of capitalism. But, as the Woods conclude, subsequent history has shown ‘democracy in a purely political sense’ to be incapable of controlling capitalism.
There are problems, however, about the methods of the authors in presenting the political theories, and in explaining the great political upheavals of the 17th century associated with the rise of capitalism. They chose to structure their book around a succession of ‘great political thinkers’ – More, Hooker, Hobbes, Locke – rather than thematically around dominant ideas of the period.
Their approach does produce some significant insights. They reveal the importance of Thomas Smith’s definition of society in the 16th century as being composed of individual people rather than corporate entities, as in the traditional view, such as the peerage, the lawyers, the municipal governments. This leads to radical ideas in the 17th century based on the rights of the individual and that government should be founded on the consent of ‘the people’, who have the right to resist it if it betrays the purposes for which they entrusted it with power. The Woods show how Hobbes sought to counter the radicals’ ideas by adopting their starting point and then arguing that when the people agreed to the foundation of government they gave up their right to resist it subsequently. The authors bring out how Locke’s defence of private property, which appeared to take over radical ideas on limiting the amount any one individual could own, nevertheless turned into a justification for unlimited accumulation. In many ways the radicals set the agenda for political theory.
But the method adopted by the Woods means that, despite sections on the Levellers and Diggers, most of the book is history from above. It does not focus on the relationships between the theorising of an elite of thinkers and common ideas and assumptions among the mass of the people. And the objective of relating political theory to the rise of capitalism would be achieved more directly and fully by structuring the book thematically around ideas which may be linked to capitalism specifically, such as attitudes to the market, economic ‘improvement’, wage labour, and relations by contract.
The English Revolution of 1640–60 is central to the book. The Woods accept the view that ‘well before the civil war’ the ruling class – an aristocracy composed of great landlords – had ceased to be a feudal class, because it had become increasingly dependent for its wealth on the rents of capitalist farmers who employed wage labour to produce for a national market. They see the revolution as a conflict between the king and the ruling class.
There is inconsistency in their treatment of the state. On the one hand, they say that ‘monarchy and aristocracy were fundamentally united in joint control of state power’, but conflict occurred because Charles I infringed the role of his partner in state power. On the other hand, they divorce the aristocrats from the state and say that they became less tolerant of ‘a state that continued to act in the traditional ways of a feudal monarchy’, and conflict occurred because ‘the political development of the monarchical state lagged behind the economic development of the ruling class.’
But over large areas of the country the ruling class did not derive rents and dues from capitalist farms but from ‘traditional family subsistence farms’. The aristocracy was still substantially tied into a feudal state. The monarchy and its court served as a mechanism for redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to at least a quarter of the peers, who themselves paid little in taxes. Tithes were compulsory levies for the support of the clergy of the state church and they fell most heavily on the middling and poorer peasants. Since the Reformation, 30 to 40 percent of tithes had passed into the ownership of laymen, and thus many of the ruling class got a substantial part of their income from tithes, which meant appropriating by ‘extra-economic coercion the surplus labour of peasants’. Revolutionaries in the 1640s attacked the monarchy and aristocracy as parasitic, and tithes as forcing from the peasants the fruits of their labour. When it came to the civil war most of the ruling class supported the king.
Viewing the revolution in terms of the relations between the king and the aristocracy is history from the top downwards. Viewing the aristocracy as already a capitalist class before the revolution is too simple. It diverts attention from where capitalism was actual developing – among large farmers and elements in manufacturing – and how that relates to the revolution. And it leaves little room for assessing the ways in which the revolution actually did facilitate the development of capitalism.
The Woods provide lucid and enlightening analyses of some political theories, and also striking accounts of aspects of the rising of capitalism, but the two do not fit well together.
Last updated: 7.7.2012