In Memoriam Ellen Meiksins Wood 1942-2016 - The Uses and Abuses of ‘Civil Society’


We live in curious times. Just when intellectuals of the Left in the West have a rare opportunity to do something useful, if not actually world-historic, they – or large sections of them – are in full retreat. Just when reformers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are looking to Western capitalism for paradigms of economic and political success, many of us appear to be abdicating the traditional role of the Western left as critic of capitalism. Just when more than ever we need a Karl Marx to reveal the inner workings of the capitalist system, or a Friedrich Engels to expose its ugly realities ‘on the ground’, what we are getting is an army of ‘post-Marxists’ one of whose principal functions is apparently to conceptualize away the problem of capitalism... Despite the diversity of current theoretical trends on the left and their various means of conceptually dissolving capitalism, they often share one especially serviceable concept: ‘civil society’... However constructive its uses in defending human liberties against state oppression, or in marking out a terrain of social practices, institutions and relations neglected by the ‘old’ Marxist left, ‘civil society’ is now in danger of becoming an alibi for capitalism...