I was extraordinarily saddened to hear last night of the death of Ellen Meiksins Wood and it took me a while to work out why. After all, I hardly knew her. We met a couple of times and I can recall in some detail only one conversation with her (in a taxi in New York). And I haven’t read nearly enough of her writing – though enough to recognise her brilliance, acuity and principle.
It is so often in retrospect that one realises someone’s importance – too late to tell them about it. There is a Welsh song about a harpist in the Vale of Llangollen who dies a lonely death ‘without a morsel to eat or a drop of water’ but then, when the news of his death gets out, his mourners bring enough food and drink to the funeral feast to have kept him alive. Ellen was not lacking in love and appreciation, I am happy to know, but I still wish I’d sent her a fan letter.
Why was she so important to me? First, and most obviously she was a shining, original political economist, combining an over-arching grasp of the theoretical landscape with the intellectual confidence to address the big questions directly, without feeling she had to tiptoe along in the footsteps of everybody else since Marx who had inquired into them, nodding politely or scowling, as appropriate, at each of them before venturing her own conclusions. (Which is not to say she was not well-read or scholarly). Second, she was a woman. During a period 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 Luxembourg who achieved this status on the academic left. The third remarkable thing about her that was personally important for me was her milieu.
The two aspects of this that I had first-hand contact with were the School of Political Science at York University in Toronto, where she inspired several generations of students and Monthly Review, which she edited for a while. I am wondering now how much of a coincidence it was that these were the two places where I first gained some recognition as serious political economist.
During a period when most critical theory was drowned in the tsunami of post-modernism that swept through universities more or less in parallel with the tsunami of neoliberalism that swept through the world economy from the 1980s on, they kept alive a tradition of serious, thoughtful, grounded, historical materialist theory that was open and unsectarian, and carried out not for the sake of academic plaudits but as part of a serious political project: to understand the world with the aim of helping change it without trying to preach to working people, dictate their strategies, chide them for their inadequacies or substitute for their leadership. This was achieved by multiple means, including Leo Panitch’s inspirational editorship of Socialist Register, and a stream of clever PhD students, generating a critical mass of Marxist scholarship that was large enough to renew itself – too many names to list here.
I felt welcomed and understood in these mileux as never before. For decades I had thought maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody’s interested, maybe what I’m saying is just too obvious to be worth noting. And suddenly I felt recognised. Wow! somebody actually got it! Maybe it really is worth persevering with some writing. Maybe I do have something to contribute.
But as I reflect on it now, I wonder to what extent this recognition was only possible because of Ellen. Nobody who knew her work could possibly have put her in the box marked ‘women’s issues’. So, perhaps even without being conscious of it, her colleagues must have just taken it for granted that women can be political economists too. And I was the beneficiary of that.
So thanks, Ellen. May your work be long remembered and celebrated. May others follow where you led. May your insights be understood. And may your politics be vindicated some day in a better world.