U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Reflections on the Marxist Concept of Social-Property Relations

We learned this week of the sad news of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s passing. (Corey Robin posted an elegant tribute to Wood at Crooked Timber).

Encountering Wood’s books was very meaningful to me, offering a powerful initial exposure to major debates in Marxist historiography. Over time, I have come to think about history and about the Marxist legacy in a manner quite different from that advocated by Wood––indeed, in a manner of which she would have strongly disapproved, a game not worth the candle––and so I feel awkward about writing very much more about her (very significant and important) contributions at the moment.

Instead, I would like to sketch out some thoughts I have had recently about a category that served as a foundation for so much of Wood’s writing: “social-property relations.” I haven’t done a thorough review of the term’s origins, but I think that it is rooted in Marx’s mature reflections on political economy (particularly the feverish notes of the Grundrisse), was elaborated upon in the writing of Maurice Dobb, and then clarified in the work of Robert Brenner.

The simplest definition of “social-property relations” would explain that in class societies (following the advent of the state form), the organization of exploitation––the extraction of surplus––rests on the legal determination of who may own certain kinds of things (such as land and tools and factories) and who may not. There is nothing static or automatic about “social-property relations”: ordering terms and legitimating conceits must be regularly renewed, a process that often involves (from the bottom up) violent protest against a given system’s brutality and (from the top down) violent suppression of egalitarian agitation. From time to time, out of certain such battles new modes of production (or, if one prefers, modes of exploitation) are born.

Historians of these transitions (including Wood and many researchers influenced by Wood) have found the concept of “social-property relations” to be indispensable. The shift from feudalism to capitalism, for example––no longer explicable in terms of technological revolutions or the ideological effects of Protestantism––must be explained by a breakdown of an existing order of intelligibility regarding sovereignty, possession, and the accrued rights to compel others’ labor and the rise of a new political economic logic (one that, as Wood always insisted, few inhabitants of the old regime would have voted for had they been given the choice).

Fundamentally, the category of “social-property relations” matters to historical materialists because it helps to rehabilitate the Marxist notion of historical development as a sequence of class struggles. Many Marxist stories of class struggle are so teleologically pre-determined or pitched at such a height of abstraction that they cease to be “history” and begin to seem like holy writ. By foregrounding “social-property relations,” Wood and others linked to the project of Political Marxism fought doggedly to restore to class struggle its properly human scale and to reopen vital questions of development and transformation that more vulgar strains of historiography sought to seal shut.

In the weeks to come, I hope to sketch out some ideas about the complexities and difficulties inherent in the notion of “social-property relations”: ideas rooted in psychoanalytic, phenomenological, and deconstructionist theories of capitalism, the law, and the constitution of both property and the social. This will, no doubt, be work markedly unfaithful to the position articulated by Wood (and to which I owe so many intellectual debts). But I hope that it will nevertheless stay true, in however attenuated a sense, to Wood’s insistence that one must never assume what needs to be explained.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt: Thanks for this. What I like the most about your post is your explanation of WHY we (might) need the analytical tool of “social-property relation.”

    I confess to having had no knowledge Ellen Meiksins Wood, or her work, before her passing. As such, I’ve really appreciated the obits, reflections, and explanatory pieces like this one, regarding why she should have mattered more to those of us who care about the history of capitalism (and its alternatives). – TL

  2. Welcome back Kurt, I missed your posts, especially those where you bring your deep knowledge of Marxism into play. Looking forward to the next comments!

  3. Thanks so much, Tim and Kahlil. Looking very forward to conversation with you as this series of essays come together (and I hope you will let me know if I veer into pure craziness).

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