On the Social Origins and Social Future of Our Species

- Charles Posa McFadden

Ellen Wood's two volume history on the origins of western political thought is a landmark piece of scholarship and a testimony to the enduring influence and efficacy of Karl Marx's dialectical and materialist world view.1 As much as any contemporary social scientist, Wood has applied Marx's dialectical and materialist conceptions of history to her study of the evolution of western political thought. She begins with the materialist assumption of science that what we study exists independent of our thought about it. That is, our ideas about our subjects of study become scientific theories only when confirmed by thorough and detailed empirical study and analysis. Hers is a consummate example of scholarship focussed on a specialized topic for the better part of a lifetime.2

Her starting point also includes the dialectical assumptions that the subjects of study be examined in their motion and interaction with each other. This includes the identification of opposing tendencies and the recognition of their essential unity. In Wood's study of the evolution of political ideas in western political thought, common examples are her identification of the class composition of the societies she studies and of the changing relationships between these classes as a means of understanding history and identifying the origins and influence of various political ideas. Readers may find particularly useful her definition of capitalism and her argument that capitalism originated in sixteenth century England and not in the other locations and prior periods which her study encompasses. Without going into further detail here (I encourage the reader to do that by studying her original work), I only wish to state my opinion here that her Marxist dialectical approach is a source of powerful insights into the history she studies, worth the attention of all interested in the time and places she studies.

Her studies, nevertheless, fall within the tradition of a so-called "western" history. There are good reasons for challenging the prominence of that tradition. In the first place, as Ellen Wood would be among the first to acknowledge, there is no "western" history in the sense of a history in both space and time that can be studied in isolation from the interactions with those peoples whose histories include the time before or the space outside the presumed "western" sphere. Even more important today is the argument that our future – if we are to have one as a species – lies outside the boundaries of "western" history. Our sphere must be the Earth in its entirety and must include that 95% or larger part of our history which lies before and hopefully will lie beyond "western" or "eastern" histories.

In particular, our history of the people of Earth will necessarily give its largest place to what has hitherto been marginalized as "indigenous" history. Our common culture will be identified as indigenous culture – in the past and in the future. Our "dark ages" will be the short period in those locations in which slavery, feudalism and capitalism dominated.

Defining a distinctly western form of democracy (or science or education or other feature of our social existence for that matter) and tracing its origins no further back than the ruling class compromise of an Athenian city-state is thus limiting in several respects. It ignores at least 95% of the prior history of humankind and our common inheritance from that history. It arbitrarily defines a "western" spacio-temporal boundary which does not and cannot exist on an earth populated by people who have a common place of origin (in Africa) and are thus able at the very least to trade and otherwise interact periodically with their neighbours. It ignores our common inheritance in favour of a limited focus on the comparatively brief history of slavery, feudalism and now capitalism, in other words that part which has been recorded primarily by the spokespersons for the slave, feudal and capitalist ruling classes.

A study of democracy (or for that matter, science or education) that looks back no further than the Athenian ruling class compromise and extends no further than the capitalist constrained democracies of the present, is a limited study, a limited perspective on humankind's social history. It is only by looking outside these parameters that we will come to recognize the limitations of class society and see these as an aberrant epoch in human history. When we do so, I believe we will all seek to recover our common indigenous heritage, recognize our good fortune in having amongst us living descendants of that heritage who have bravely withstood the barbarian onslaught. We will recognize our need for their help and example in finding the path to harmony with the Earth and each other, to realizing the eternal goal maintained by people through the millennia of slavery, serfdom and wage slavery of a just, fully democratic (economically and socially) sustainable society.


1 Ellen Meiksins Wood (2011, Verso) Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages and Ellen Meiksins Wood (2012, Verso) Liberty & Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment.

2 A review of some common examples of scientific theories might be helpful here. In the case of the evolution (history) of living things, a single theory (Darwin’s theory of natural selection) applies to the entire realm of living things. In some other cases in the natural sciences, accepted theoretical generalizations are applicable only to more narrowly defined realms. In the realm of matter, for example, Newtonian mechanics applies to matter of significantly greater mass than an atom moving at speeds significantly less than the speed of light, whereas Einsteinian relativity theory and quantum theory apply beyond these limits. In the social sciences, consensus about theoretical generalization is more difficult to achieve, impeded by differences in class perspective. Nevertheless, social scientists who follow in the tradition of Marx believe that distinct theories of the functioning of society are needed to predict and explain the behaviour of fundamentally distinct forms of society, such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Parenthetically, the reader is entitled to speculate about the expected characteristics of a system beyond capitalism – even, following such dubious sources of social science as the neoliberal politicians Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, denying the possibility of such an alternative. Those who follow Marx's theory, however, expect such a society to be characterized by the common ownership of the resources and tools needed by people and their democratic management by the associated producers, thus a classless society. Unfortunately, in this author's view, no such attempts have yet been successful. Marx's prediction is thus untested and therefore unconfirmed, although logically persuasive.

Welcome!

This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New

NEW & REVISED

Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them

OPINION

Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement

REVIEWS

Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.

US CORNER

William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class

CANADA CORNER

George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP

RECOMMENDED

Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018

FEATURED WORK

ECONOMICS

1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism

HISTORY

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems

LABOR

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.