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New Left Review I/127, May-June 1981


Ellen Meiksins Wood

The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism

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. [*] 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.

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