‘Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renais-sance to Enlightenment’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Liberty and Property is the second volume in Ellen Wood’s endeavour to trace what is loosely, though problematically, termed ‘western political thought’ by situating its greatest exponents within the sweep of a broader historical development. The current volume takes in, among others, Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Grotius, Spinoza, the Levellers, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

Liberty and Property picks up the thread in the mid to late fifteenth century with an analysis of the Italian city states, the large urban concentrations of trade and commerce which had begun to develop in the North of the country several centuries before. Wood notes how these city states possessed, from a certain perspective, an exceptional character, for across the Italian panorama pockets of urban life had survived the collapse of the Roman Empire in a way they hadn’t elsewhere. In addition, social relations in much of the Italian countryside tended to preserve a free peasantry rather than the serfdom which was ubiquitous in Western Europe more broadly. Such factors resulted in a specialised historical configuration in which there were ‘more or less autonomous city states, governed by urban elites … exercising what has been described as a collective lordship over the surrounding countryside, the contado’. (34)

But despite the uniqueness of these structural features, the city states did not depart significantly from the fundamental economic modes of ‘feudal’ economy, for though there was a pronounced accentuation of commerce and trade, this was not underpinned by a market imperative which necessitated cost effective production and an ancillary investment in productive technique. Rather, the development of wealth by the Italian city states was premised on ‘extra-economic’ factors which lay outside the immediate realities of production and exchange – ‘political power, monopoly privileges, sophisticated financial techniques, and military force’. (35) Even in a city state like Florence where great textile making factories emerge demonstrating a heavy investment in production, nevertheless, Wood contends, such investment was still very much dependent on ‘extra-economic’ factors.

In fact, despite their semblance of modernity, Wood goes as far as to categorise the republics of the early renaissance as ‘an urban and commercial feudalism’. (42) Because the city states were dependent on the exploitation of European territories more broadly, specifically the ‘fragmented governances of European feudalism’ (41) which were themselves decaying as a result of famine, crises and plague; because the city states were locked into a symbiotic relationship of this sort, and furthermore, were pressured into wars with one another in order to secure trading privileges – for all of this, they were, in the late fifteenth century, particularly vulnerable to the rise of the European absolutist monarchies.

Wood seeks the tenor of Machiavelli’s work here. Machiavelli’s thought, she argues, should not be understood as a prelude to the modern nation state. When, in the conclusion to The Prince, he calls for the liberation of Italy from the ‘barbarians’ (cited 41) it is not that he is half way toward theorising a modern national identity, but instead, through the adoption of a sophisticated and often ruthless real politik, he is attempting to ensure the survival of the individual city state – a military republic governed by a commercial aristocracy and premised on an earlier economic mode – over and against a newer historical form; that of post feudal absolutism. His concept of republican autonomy, despite resonating the contemporary ear with its modernity, nevertheless depends on an analysis which draws heavily on the Roman Republic in particular, in as much as there the republican form of government was clearly seen ‘to produce a more effective fighting force’ (50) and it was this which remained Machiavelli’s ultimate concern. Wood offers an incisive analysis on the way Machiavelli adapted and expanded the ancients’ model of government (especially Polybius) which tended to recognise three principal forms: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. She is able to synthesise all these concerns with a deft and articulate unfolding of Machiavelli’s personal history, from his rise to prominence in the restored Florentine Republic to his imprisonment, torture and exile when the Medici returned.

The section on the Spanish empire proves equally fascinating. Wood provides a concise overview of the history which led to the colonial ‘golden age’ under the unifiers of Castile and Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand, and their Habsburg successors. But Wood is at pains to point out how the empire ‘on which the sun never set’ was nevertheless governed from a Spanish state which retained only ‘a tenuous national identity’ (86). When the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united, each ‘brought to the union its internal jurisdictional conflicts among parcelized sovereignties, corporate, local and regional.’ (86)

Spain was, therefore, fundamentally an empire before it became a ‘proper’ nation state ‘and that distinctive reality is clearly reflected in Spanish thought’. (89) The question of sovereignty became one of a complex of competing interests, from the class of warlords which had emerged in Castile battling the Moors during the time of the medieval ‘reconquista’, to the more traditional and well-heeled feudalism of Catalonia (within Aragon) which curtailed the power of the royal authority. In addition all these tensions were refracted through the prism of empire which generated some quite startling ideological results.

Bartolome de Las Casas, for instance, would, during the Vallidolid debate of 1550-1, argue radically and eloquently against the ecomienda system of labour in the Americas which reduced the indigenous populations to the condition of slaves (although they weren’t formally considered property). Las Casas, going against the grain, argued that the ‘Indians were rational beings with a complex civilisation’. (93)

Francisco Vitori a supplemented this view in his lectures at the University of Salamanca – On the Indians and the Law of War – where he too made the case to concede both humanity and rationality to the Indians. But again, despite the fact that these arguments bear a resemblance to later enlightenment notions of individual natural rights, Wood points out that they had ‘medieval roots … already well established by the sixteenth century’ (94) and, perhaps more importantly, they mediated explicitly certain tendencies which were integrated within the overall nexus of socio-political power relations.

Vitoria’s assertion of Indian autonomy, for instance, was an expression of his pro-monarchy sympathies; in establishing the legitimacy of the Indians as rational creatures with the concomitant right to own property, he was as well undermining the power basis of the ecomienda and, vicariously, the Adelentados – the class of military governors who had themselves come to present as an obstacle to royal hegemony. In a similar vein Las Casas’ views on the autonomy of indigenous Latin Americans discovered a powerful advocate in Pope Paul III who issued a papal bull proclaiming that ‘Indians are truly men’ (cited 93). The surprising nature of such a radical edict delivered by the reactionary power in Rome represented, in no small part, a response to the rise of the Spanish empire and the spectre of Charles V who was a Habsburg as well as Holy Roman Emperor – and the figure of most threat to the Papal power, thereby.

The rigorous examination of the competing and interlocking political-economic tendencies is typical of Wood, and is carried across to her account of the Dutch Republic. Here she envisages a similar paradigm to the one she laid out in her account of the Italian City states where ‘urban patriciates extracted great wealth from commercial activities’ but where the conditions for their success depended ‘less on competitive production than on “extra-economic” advantage, up to and including military force’. (113) Again Wood argues that the particular notions of emancipation which arose at the time of the Dutch Revolt and its aftermath must be understood first and foremost by locating them in the context of what she has previously termed ‘urban feudalism’, its relation to the countryside, and the geo-political situation in Europe more broadly.

For example, struggles between the Stadtholder (the (sometimes) hereditary state leader of a given province) and civic elites throw up conceptions of freedom which were inevitably coloured by the dynamic of their conflict, but which also responded to political developments internationally. For instance, William I of Orange, who was the Stadtholder in Holland among other regions, argued for ‘the freedom of the provinces in the manner of medieval corporations asserting their autonomy; but he also defended the freedom of the people from enslavement by the Spanish Monarchy’. (118) For this, he became one of the radical leaders of the revolt, however the opponents of the House of Orange would later conceive their own notions of ‘true freedom’ which meant ‘asserting republican liberty against monarchical forces’. (118) In other words, Wood points out, ‘there was, in the Republic, no simple opposition between an anti-democratic monarchy and a more democratic republicanism’. (118) Rather, events were fluid and dynamic, political relations were constantly undermined and renewed, and the concept of republicanism itself often entailed the dominance of ‘wealthy civic elites … at the expense of popular elements’. (118)

Such contradictions would crystallise in the person of perhaps the greatest intellectual representative of the Dutch Republic – Hugo Grotius. Wood examines in particular his major works, De Jure Belili ac Pacis and Mare Leberum. The latter offers an ingenious defence of what Wood has already located as the fundamental mode of appropriation – those ‘extra economic’ strategies – which underwrite an essentially urban and commercial feudalism. Mare Liberum was, we should note, written in the context of the appropriation by the Dutch of a Portuguese freight ship laden with treasure.

The act itself was, without doubt, bald piracy but Grotius justifies it through the versatile elaboration of a theory of property whereby land, which was capable of transformation into property through human labour, was therefore ‘susceptible to political jurisdiction’. (127) The sea, on the other hand, was not capable of being acted upon and transformed in this manner. Hence, according to Grotius, any principles of jurisdiction cease to obtain and were, in fact, vanquished by the (more permissive) principle of ‘self- preservation … the first and fundamental law of nature’. (126) One of the many strengths of Wood’s approach is that she remains attuned to the tension between natural and positive law which provides a steady motif running through the theorists she examines.

The last two main chapters describe French absolutism and the English revolution. It feels natural that they should stand side by side in as much as each throws the other into relief. In her French history, Wood focuses in particular on Jean Bodin, Montchretien, Montesquieu and Rousseau. There is much of interest here – her account of Rousseau is particularly eloquent and provides an effective rescue of that thinker from the charge that he provided an adumbration of the politics of totalitarianism. In fact, argues Wood, Rousseau began from a fundamentally benign vision of human nature. Rousseau, in describing human beings in the state of nature, references a natural ‘love of self’ (amour de soi). But, in contradistinction to Hobbes, he didn’t assume that such a desire for self-preservation automatically implied conflict with others. Rather, according to Rousseau, it was the development of the social institution of private property which genuinely encouraged ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’. Wood quotes sections of Rousseau which, almost unnervingly, seem to presage Marx: ‘What a strange and fatal condition – where accumulated riches facilitate still greater riches, but where men with none can acquire none; where the good man knows no way out of his misery’. (cited 192)

In terms of its political make-up, in pre-revolutionary France Wood concentrates on the tension between the feudal aristocracy and absolutist monarchy. Nothing remarkable in that, mind you, but what is unique is her emphasis on the sheer degree of separation between the two powers and her subsequent sense that the theorisation of the rights of the individual (pre-Rousseau) is not so much the result of the struggle between the individual against the monarchy but rather the result of a feudal comprehension of right filtered through the ‘individual’ corporation or estate; or to put it another way, the theorisation of right at this point is, ultimately, a product of the tensions between absolutism and aristocracy rather than any genuine upsurge from the forces below, even if the masses were, in this or that moment, pulled into the political vortex.

Wood contrasts this with the English case where, according to her, a uniquely and qualitatively different form of property relations had emerged in the English countryside. Now Hobbes, as Wood concedes, was the theorist of absolutism par excellence. But what is interesting about Hobbes’ defence of absolutism is its basis in a fundamental egalitarianism. Hobbes premises his reactionary defence of the monarchy on the most radical ideology which owes much to the Levellers. The Levellers advocated the notion that ‘the people were sovereign’ (233) but in an entirely different way from the other European discourses where sovereignty of the ‘the people’, argues Wood, tended to be conceptualised in and through the feudal structures of corporations, guilds etc.

In the English case notion of people’s sovereignty found its genesis in a unique historical blend, for the feudal aristocracy and the monarchy had in the past maintained, for the main part, a less antagonistic and more mutually beneficial relationship, which was expressed through the creation of the common law, for instance. The English monarch in the mid-17th century was, therefore, faced by a resistance constituted not so much by a host of fragmented feudal jurisdictions (as in the French case) but rather a ‘unitary and representative legislative body’ (252); this higher level of social cohesion meant, in turn, that notions of right ceased to be lodged in various corporate bodies but rather ‘the rights of persons’ took precedence over the ‘rights of office’. (252)

This was manifest even in the defence of absolutism which Hobbes mounts, and Wood, in her analysis, wryly teases out the thinker’s dialectical slyness: ‘Hobbes makes use of the proposition that the multitude is a collection of individuals rather than a corporate entity … to deprive the multitude of its political personality … every man possesses certain rights by nature, but he cannot enjoy his natural rights without effectively giving them up to a sovereign power’. (247) The chapter on the English revolution concludes with a considered account of ‘Improvement’ theory and particularly the way John Locke would draw upon it in the development of his theory of property.

As a whole Liberty and Property is an interesting and worthwhile book bearing all the hallmarks of the author’s customary intellectual charisma and sweeping, graceful prose. Nevertheless I think the project itself is hampered and reduced by the burden of its central, and ultimately untenable, thesis: that the Italian city states and the Dutch Republic constitute a form of commercial feudalism driven by a mercantilism which almost exclusively rests on ‘extra-economic’ means of appropriation. Wood’s position here is a more extreme version of the Brenner thesis which itself harkens back, at least in part, to Eric Hobsbawm’s conviction that Dutch commerce represented a ‘feudal business economy’ marked by a corresponding lack of development in productive capability.

This strain of thought has been widely criticised – most recently, and to great effect, by Marxist scholar Pepijn Brandon (2011, 118) who points out that by the fifteen and sixteenth centuries there were substantial pockets in the Netherlands where ‘land had accumulated into the hands of wealthy tenant-farmers, who employed fully proletarianised wage-labourers in market-orientated cattle breeding and grain cultivation’.

The details of this debate are far beyond the scope of a book review, but it does seem to me that Wood is somewhat myopic in her inflexible separation between the capitalism which develops in the English countryside and economic trends in Europe more broadly. As a result her interpretations of various thinkers sometimes verge on the mechanical; the immanent, though combined and uneven development of property relations on a Europe-wide scale is eschewed in favour of an external, structural analysis of the relationship between, say, a given absolute monarchy and its feudal antagonists, with the result that thought is sometimes too hastily conscripted into serving an immediately political function. Nevertheless Liberty and Property is a provocative and interesting book which contributes a great deal to on-going debate. 

2 November 2012


  • Brandon, Pepijn 2011 Marxism and the “Dutch Miracle”: The Dutch Republic and the Transition-Debate Historical Materialism vol. 19 no. 3, pp. 106–146.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.