Prof. Richard Wolff: “Socialism represents the critical demand to extend democracy into the economic sphere”

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Richard Wolff2

Prof. Richard Wolff. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You have done a very important work throughout these years and you wrote among other things this remarkable book New Departures in Marxian Theory that you co-signed with your colleague Stephen Resnick. In your opinion, is there not a need for a revolutionary interpretation of Marxism far off the beaten track?

Prof. Richard Wolff: Marx and Marxism were themselves overdetermined (in Althusser’s sense) by their social conjunctures. So too will be the next revolutionary interpretation(s) of Marxism. The current global crisis of capitalism, built on its global collapse of 2008-2009, plus the criticisms by Marxists of (1) the rise and fall of the USSR and (2) other early experiments in constructing « socialisms » will together produce those next revolutionary interpretations. On this let me direct you and your readers to two works: S. Resnick and R. Wolff, Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR (Routledge, 2002) and also R. Wolff, Understanding Marxism (2019).

How can we build today a workers’ movement capable of fighting big capital in the most effective way?

From the perspective of the US, our two top priorities are (1) organizing the left (which is large and deep but utterly disorganized), and (2) developing a clearly focused set of social goals and strategy  that does not mimic the strategic mantra of the past (i.e. socialize means of production and replace markets with planning) because their severe incompleteness makes them inadequate to the task.

You wrote Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism. In your opinion, why did the Occupy movement fail? Why does the American left have difficulty to be a framing force of the working class?

The Occupy movement did not persist but it also did not fail. Its success lay in showing millions of US leftists that they were not isolated, alone, etc. but were rather part of a large segment of US society and that a clearly anti-capitalist political definition could win over millions of US citizens and voters. With Occupy, there could have been no Bernie Sanders in 2016. Occupy failed to persist and grow because it celebrated the US left’s lack of organization rather than seeing it as a problem and offering a solution.

You wrote the very powerful book Capitalism hits the fanIn your opinion, why does capitalism survive only through crises and why is it not reformable? Why does the capitalist system generate permanent crises? What about alternatives to this dying system?

In the aftermath of capitalism’s largest/worst crisis to date (the Great Depression of the 1930s) a mass uprising occurred in the US led by a coalition of labor unions (CIO), two socialist parties and one communist party. It included reformist and revolutionary components. The reformist wing won with the result that FDR’s « New Deal » governed the US across the Depression. Capitalism was reformed. Since the 1940s, a reformed capitalism reversed the process and removed or reduced every one of the New Deal reforms. There lies a crucial lesson. If reforms leave intact the position of capitalists at the head of corporations, the recipients of the social surplus, they can and will use that position and that surplus to undo past reforms and block future reforms. The conclusion that is being drawn by more people everyday now is that reforms had their chance, have the resulting empirical history for us to see, so that revolutionary transformation becomes the necessity to secure reforms as well as move society forward in new ways. By revolutionary transformation I mean the democratization of workplaces (factories, offices and stores).

Donald Trump developed the « America first » concept. How do you analyze this concept? In your opinion, is it just an electoral slogan? Moreover, Trump is running for re-election. What is your analysis of the assessment of his presidency?

Trump found some support among capitalists and much more support among middle income white Americans for America First, so he adopted that slogan to collect and organize support for his 2016 victory and for his regime since. It is an electoral slogan but one he can and will have to drop (in practice if not in rhetoric) because pursuing it literally and systematically will produce such opposition among capitalists that his regime will be threatened. Already, the domestic opposition his policies have produced make his re-election increasingly problematic.

You developed the concept Democracy at work. Can you explain this to our readers?

The bourgeois revolutions brought at least the forms of democracy to the political sphere (government) in modern societies. Socialism represents the critical demand to extend democracy into the economic sphere meaning above all the workplaces (factory, office, store). All workers must become the collective employer of each worker as an individual. Each individual has assigned tasks within the workplace’s division of labor (tasks that can be rotated among individuals) but is also assigned a constituent role (one worker/one vote) in the direction, design, etc. All major enterprise decisions would then be made democratically (majority rules).

You are a committed intellectual and supported Jill Stein as President in 2015. Do not you think that climate-related themes, such as fires in the Amazon and devastating hurricanes, etc., should be a priority in the fight against capitalism?

I support the Green Party as an important alternative to the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties since they both support unequivocally and uncritically the US capitalist system. I supported Sanders’ efforts for parallel reasons during 2016. The badly disorganized US left has not yet found the organizational means and forms to gather a counter-hegemonic formation adequate to the social change that needs to happen in the US. I work toward that end with all the social forces moving in that direction, trying to solve that organizational problem. Of course, climate change is a priority object among others on such a left’s agenda.

The 1% that monopolizes the main wealth has never benefited as much as today while capitalism is in crisis. How do you explain this?

Concentrated wealth – especially when it recognizes no limits to its expansion – is the other side of capitalist crisis. That was true in the past and is now true again. It is yet another example of why Marx stressed the need not to lose sight of Hegel’s dialectics when we criticize what he and others did with it.

The continuous imperialist wars benefit the big capitalists and the military-industrial complex. It is always the same ones who benefit. Is there not a need for a global front to counter imperialism and capitalism?

Indeed, but for that to happen requires a negotiated solidarity of the victims and critics of capitalist imperialism, a coalition among victims and critics in the colonized/imperialized populations and in the populations of the imperialist nations. And that in turn requires deep, continuous political/ideological work on both sides of the coalition.

The US elections will be held next year in the United States. Why, faced with the candidates of the richest, is there not a candidate who defends the interests of the underprivileged classes?

As far as that is now possible (and that is further than the US has seen since the late 1940s) such defenders are present in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Whatever happens to them as individual candidates, they have already shifted political discourse in the US to the left in ways that already benefit the left’s growth and development.

You have developed a very interesting new approach to political economy with your colleague Stephen Resnick. Can you explain to our readers why you felt the need to move on to something else by developing an innovative approach?

Simply, while we were both deeply impressed by and respectful of the enormous achievements of Marxism and socialism from 1850 to 1970 (spreading across the globe as capitalism’s critical shadow), we also believed its failures and then the implosion of the USSR were major impediments to achieving the new society that was variously envisioned in the French, American, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. We saw the power of Marx’s analytics and wanted to apply them to explain what was missing from the early experiments in socialist society-building (USSR, PRC, etc.) that could explain their failures and those impediments. Our Marxist critique of workplace organization flowed from those concerns.

Do you not think that the economic sciences as they are studied today offer neither perspectives nor alternatives and only serve the interest of big capital?

Modern economics in both its neoclassical and Keynesian variants is based on, depends on, and serves to reproduce the capitalist system. Smith and Ricardo said so proudly. Nowadays, positivist pretense that economics is a « value-neutral » social « science » precludes mainstream economists from any comparable admissions. Steve Resnick and I produced an economics textbook used in schools across the US that carefully and systematically compares neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian economics to teach students how to distinguish their contents and implications. A very complete answer to this questions is available in that book: R. Wolff and S. Resnick, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2016).

Most experts appear in the mass media juggling numbers and pursuing one goal: reforming capitalism. Do not you think that the economy is something more serious than a matter of numbers and that it’s time to move on from this deadly capitalist system?

Yes, but it is more a matter of how you understand and how you use numbers that makes the key difference….in short the perspective and values that govern your work.

 In your opinion, isn’t it essential to reread Marx so that the working class throughout the world can organize itself effectively against big capital?

Yes it is essential. One can learn from the economists who love capitalism, but one can learn as well from the economists who do not. The greatest mistake is to imagine one can learn from only one kind. And that is true about every possible object of thinking and learning.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen


Who is Prof. Richard Wolff?

Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, New York City.

Earlier he taught economics at Yale University (1967-1969) and at the City College of the City University of New York (1969-1973). In 1994, he was a Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Paris (France), la Sorbonne. Wolff was also regular lecturer at the Brecht Forum in New York City.

Over the last twenty five years, in collaboration with his colleague, Stephen Resnick, he has developed a new approach to political economy. While it retains and systematically elaborates the Marxist notion of class as surplus labor, it rejects the economic determinism typical of most schools of economics and usually associated with Marxism as well. This new approach appears in several books co-authored by Resnick and Wolff and numerous articles by them separately and together. Common to all of Professor Wolff’s work are two central components. The first is the introduction of class, in its elaborated surplus labor definition, as a new « entry point » of social analysis. The second is the concept of overdetermination as the logic of an analytic project that is consistently non-determinist. Professor Wolff was also among the founders in 1988 of the new academic association, Association of Economic and Social Analysis (AESA), and its quarterly journal Rethinking Marxism.

Since 2005, Professor Wolff has written many shorter analytical pieces focused chiefly although not only on the emerging and then exploding global capitalist crisis. He regularly published such shorter analytical pieces on the website of the Monthly Review magazine and occasionally in many other publications, both print and electronic. The wide circulation of the shorter pieces coupled with the deepening crisis brought many invitations to present work in public forums.

Especially since 2008, Professor Wolff has given many public lectures at colleges and universities (Notre Dame, University of Missouri, Washington College, Franklin and Marshall College, New York University, etc.) to community and trade union meetings, in high schools, etc. He also maintains an extensive schedule of media interviews (on many independent radio stations such as KPFA in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York, National Public Radio stations, the Real News Network, the Thom Hartmann show, and so on). He has spoken at Occupations and local high schools, churches, and monthly at the Brecht Forum in New York.

Professor Wolff’s public speaking engagements and media interviews usually focus on one or more of the following topics: The Current Economic Crisis: Origins and Consequences ; Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism ; The Current Economic Crisis and Globalization ; Economic Crisis and Socialist Strategy ; The Difference Among Economic Theories (Neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian) ; The History of the Marxian Theoretical Tradition ;The Contemporary Relevance and Unique Insights of Marxian economics ; A Class Analysis of the Rise and Fall of the USSR.

Professor Wolff’s weekly show, Economic Update with Richard D. Wolff, is syndicated on over 70 radio stations nationwide and available for broadcast on Free Speech TV.

Professor Wolff wrote several books including: Understanding Marxism (2018) ; Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens: Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown (2016) ; Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (2012) ; Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism (2012) ; Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian (2012) ; Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (2009) ; New Departures in Marxian Theory (2006) ; Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical (1987) ; Rethinking Marxism (1985) ; Economics of Colonialism: Britain and Kenya, 1870-1930 (1974).

Richard Wolff’s official website

Published in American Herald Tribune September 21, 2019:

Published in French in Palestine Solidarité:

In Dr. Richard Wolff’s blog:

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