Ellen Meiksins Wood has delivered a sweeping broadside against the idea that Rational Choice Marxism (rcm) might hoist a standard around which the intellectual forces of the left could rally.footnote1 Many of her arguments regarding the limitations of rcm I accept (indeed, some of them I have voiced myself), others I reject, and yet others seem directed against a target I cannot recognize in myself, or any of the other writers whom Wood despatches with such unrelenting hostility.

Much of what I will say records the conclusions of a more detailed study into the agenda raised by Wood, forthcoming in Social Division.footnote2 In the course of writing the book, I have moved somewhat from the position I argued in the 1986 nlr article Wood begins by attacking, but I have not been taken over in the manner she ends up predicting: by a ‘contradictory amalgam’ of super-rationalist rcm with post-structuralist irrationalism marked by ‘political voluntarism, where rhetoric and discourse are the agencies of social change, and a cynical defeatism, where every radical programme of change is doomed to failure’.footnote3 Quite the reverse; I have found, sometimes to my pleasant surprise, that analytical Marxist theory is considerably stronger than I had previously thought, and that while rational-choice forms of micro-explanation remain an indispensable point of reference for radical social theory, they can and should be supplemented by other kinds and levels of social explanation. It is unclear whether this sort of adaptation would be congenial to Wood for, although the adaptation is motivated by many of the kinds of criticisms she levels against rcm, she nowhere in her article indicates what her alternative theory to rcm would be. The closest she gets to a statement of any alternative lies in her remark that ‘the most distinctive feature of historical materialism...is...a focus (such as that which characterizes the most complete and systematic of Marx’s own works, his actual practice in the critique of political economy and the analysis of capitalism) on the specificity of every mode of production, its endogenous logic of process, its own laws of motion, its characteristic crises—to use Brenner’s formula, its own rules of reproduction.’footnote4 I find it particularly odd that Wood should recruit Brenner in this way to the defence of the good and the true against the horrors of rcm, when, as I shall shortly explain, Brenner is himself one of the foremost exponents of the rational-choice approach to historical explanation.

To begin with, though, I am happy to second Wood’s complaint that rational-choice explanation suffers from the limitation that it does not explain what it treats as a presupposition of its explanations. And since the presuppositions often include (1) the preferences of the actor, and (2) the social context in which the actor acts, rationalchoice explanation often does not explain either the preferences or the social context of the actor.footnote5

But I deny this means that rational-choice explanations explain nothing. Wood’s criticism along these lines on pp. 48–9 smacks of everythingism. Everythingism is an unfortunate strain of Marxian thought which seems to hold, roughly, that you need a complete explanation of something before you can have any explanation of something. Thus ‘the compulsions of capital accumulation cannot be derived simply from the “optimizing strategies” of a rational individual with capital assets. These compulsions cannot be explained without reference to the competitive pressures of the capitalist market, indeed the whole historically constituted social structure which has made individuals in capitalist society uniquely dependent on the market for the conditions of their self-reproduction and hence subject to the imperatives of competition and accumulation.’footnote6 No doubt Wood’s point would stand, if one were aiming for an utterly exhaustive explanation of the compulsive phenomena in question, but to require such a complete explanation is to require something that is virtually impossible to obtain—either for rcm or any other kind of social theory, ‘conventional historical materialism’ included. In practice, we all get along as best we can—one bit of explanation at a time.

I tried to tackle this problem, no doubt very imperfectly, by taking a lead from Engels and distinguishing general theories from special theories. Special theories take for granted preferences and/or social contexts, whereas general theories attempt to explain preferences and/ or social contexts.footnote7 It should be clear that general explanations are inherently more difficult to achieve than special explanations, and also that rational-choice is adapted mostly to the requirements of special explanation.footnote8 Whether one judges the contribution of rational-choice explanation harshly or kindly will therefore tend to depend on whether you require your theory to explain either (1) the preferences of actors and/or the social context in which actors act, or (2) the actors’ actions, given their preferences and social contexts of action. The verdict in this judgement will inevitably vary from application to application. Since historical materialism is often concerned with the consequences of the fact that ‘mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing’, I do not regard the failure to explain the preferences people have regarding the provision of such items as a serious handicap of the theory.footnote9 I believe, and argue at greater length in the book, that this is not the case with preferences, for example, of a racist or sexist character. I consequently regard as useful but rather limited all the special theories of discrimination which presuppose the existence of such preferences.footnote10

Now turn to the question of the social context within which rational action occurs (on the basis of unmysterious preferences for comfort, survival and so on). As far as Marxist theory is concerned, the relevant background context is supplied by property relations. So a Marxian special theory will take for granted a certain regime of property relations, and ask what interaction occurs given the property relations. A general theory will take on the more ambitious task of explaining the existence of the given type of property relation.

Does Wood reject this way of carving up the domain of Marxian theories? I am not sure. In the quotation cited above she speaks highly of the aim to analyse ‘the specificity of every mode of production, its endogenous logic of process, its own laws of motion, its characteristic crises.’ This seems to be just the recipe for a special theory of each mode of production as I have recommended (a ‘logic of process’ given certain social relations). Indeed, she goes so far as to say this is ‘the distinctive feature of historical materialism’, which might be taken to imply that historical materialism should not dabble in general theories at all. On the other hand, she seems to reject Roemer’s special theory of capitalism on grounds that would rule out most attempts to create special theories for any mode of production: ‘The essential feature of [his] theory is its focus on what Roemer calls “property relations”. What he means by “property relations” is the distribution of assets or endowments, not the social relations of production and appropriation as Marxism commonly understands them.’ Roemer’s is ‘a conception in which the analytic starting point is inequality or the ‘unequal distribution of assets’ instead of a (historically constituted) social relation between appropriators and producers.’footnote11