It was hard to read Ellen Wood’s article ‘Rational Choice Marxism: Is the Game Worth the Candle?’ without mixed feelings.footnote1 The general thrust of her critique is undoubtedly correct: in the hands of Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski et al., the attempt to reinterpret historical materialism along methodological-individualist lines has deprived the theory of much of its specificity and substance. She is also right to set Rational Choice Marxism (rcm) alongside post-structuralism as the two main intellectual tendencies which, in the past decade or so, have provided the reaction against Marxism with a ‘left’ guise. Wood sought, however, not merely to demolish rcm, but to do so in part by demonstrating the existence of another, better version of historical materialism. And here the difficulties begin. For while I share most of her criticisms of rcm (indeed, I’ve made quite a few of them myselffootnote2), her own account of what is distinctive to, and worth defending in, Marxism seems to me seriously inadequate.
This account emerges most clearly where Wood discusses putative candidates for a rcm theory of history (pp. 59–75). She regards it as a tacit acknowledgement of the inadequacy of rcm theories of exploitation and class such as that constructed by Roemer that they should require supplementation by some separate account of the sources of historical change. Two such accounts are considered by Roemer in his book Free to Lose. One, G.A. Cohen’s restatement of orthodox historical materialism, is indeed compatible with Roemer’s static models; but the reason why this is so, namely that the development of the productive forces provides an ‘exogenous cause’ of social change, is indicative of the sense in which Cohen’s is not a proper theory of history, since it invokes to explain social transformations, not the properties internal to the mode of production in question, but rather a ‘transhistorical rationality’ which leads human beings in conditions of scarcity to improve their methods of labour (pp. 69–71). Wood looks with much more favour on the other candidate, provided by the work of Robert Brenner, but argues both that his account of the transition
This is by no means the first time that Wood has used Brenner’s work to distinguish her alternative reading of historical materialism from Cohen’s. Indeed, at one point she adopted for this reading the label given to Brenner’s work by one of his Marxist critics, Guy Bois, namely ‘political Marxism’. Bois elaborates: ‘It amounts to a voluntarist vision of history in which the class struggle is divorced from all objective contingencies, and, in the first place, from such laws of development as may be peculiar to a specific mode of production.’footnote3 Wood rejects the charge of voluntarism, but takes Marx himself to say that ‘capitalism is unique in its drive to revolutionize the productive forces, while other modes of production have tended to conserve existing forces’ (p. 70 n. 47). The ‘explanatory force’ of the development of the productive forces is subject to ‘severe limits’; to understand social change we must look instead ‘in the direction of class struggle as the operative principle of historical movement’.footnote4 Thus the main sense in which historical explanation draws on features intrinsic to particular social systems seems to be that it identifies the specific form of surplus-extraction, thereby providing the context of the class struggles which provide the motor of change; as, for example, Brenner does when he argues that the breakthrough to agrarian capitalism in England depended on the specific outcome there of the Europe-wide struggles between lord and peasant at the end of the Middle Ages.footnote5
This is a version of Marxism that it is hard not to have great reservations about. In part, these reservations stem from difficulties specific to Brenner’s account of the rise of agrarian capitalism. His writing has undoubtedly provided a valuable corrective to those accounts of the transition to capitalism which, from Pirenne and Sweezy to Braudel and Wallerstein, have accorded prime importance to the expansion of the world market.footnote6 Brenner is, moreover, right to stress the crucial role played by the emergence in England of a distinctively
But it is not simply doubts about the historical claims advanced by Brenner (or, perhaps better, by those influenced by him) which give one pause when confronted with Wood’s employment of his work to construct ‘political Marxism’. Historical materialism explains social transformations as the outcome of two mechanisms: first, the structural contradictions that arise between the development of the productive forces and the prevailing production relations; and secondly,