Ellen Meiksins Wood was born in New York City on 12 April 1942 into a family of politically active Latvian Jews who had recently arrived in the US as refugees.
She studied Slavic languages at the University of California, Berkeley (1962) and went on to graduate studies in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Although she gained a PhD from UCLA in 1970, she had already moved to Canada and a series of positions leading to a professorship at York University, where she taught political science from 1967 to 1996.
Interviewed by New Socialist Magazine in 1996, Professor Wood was asked about the future of Marxism “in a climate in which we’re told that socialism is dead [and] that there is no alternative to the market”.
“If there’s no alternative to capitalism,” she replied, “we’re in very big trouble”, since “the capitalist system” amounted to “the sacrifice of people and nature to profit” and no longer possessed “the kind of room for manoeuvre that it had in the relatively short period of post-war prosperity”.
As a tool of analysis, she “continue[d] to believe that historical materialism is the best foundation for an understanding of the society in which we live and therefore also the best guide in our search for a better one”.
Although very wide-ranging in her interests, such convictions underlay all Professor Wood’s major writings. The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism (1986), which won the Deutscher Memorial Prize, took to task a number of left-wing thinkers who had tried to move away from Marxism and a central focus on class. It also represented an attempt to forge a style of radical politics appropriate to the era of Margaret Thatcher, the miners’ strike and the early developments that led to the creation of New Labour.
In later works, Professor Wood applied a similar approach to much of human history.
Peasant-Citizen and Slave (1997) offered a bold new interpretation of “the foundations of Athenian democracy”. The Origin of Capitalism (1999) and Empire of Capital (2003) proved equally ambitious and stimulating. She also managed to complete two out of three volumes of an even more comprehensive work: Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2008) and Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment (2012).
Professor Wood died of cancer on 14 January and is survived by her second husband, Ed Broadbent.