Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a visiting professor in the Graduate Programs in International Affairs at the New School University in New York City. In this interview, Wolff discusses how the revolutions that overthrew feudalism laid the foundations for our current crisis of capitalism, why historical models of socialism put into practice failed, and what lessons we can learn from them in creating a new socialism.
Vaios Triantafyllou: Do you believe that there is a cure for capitalism from within? Is this something that we should be looking for merely in the short term, or is it possible in the long term, as well?
Richard Wolff: I don’t know where else a cure would come from other than within. Capitalism has become the dominant economic system in the world we live in. This is the culmination of several centuries, from the 17th century, when it begins to dominate in Great Britain and spreads from there to Western Europe, and North America, Japan, and the rest of the world. Karl Marx understood that very nicely in Das Kapital, and elsewhere too, where he writes about how capitalism is the kind of system that has to become worldwide. The very logic of accumulation, competition and so on, will make it become the world system.
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
Marx saw that in the middle of the 19th century. Now we have achieved that a century later, through the colonial period and all the rest. So, if there is going to be a change, and if it’s going to be on this planet, then it will come from capitalism itself. And that shouldn’t discourage anyone because that’s how these changes have always come.
Feudalism collapsed in on itself; slavery likewise. Even when slavery or feudalism was overthrown by something that was geographically distant, it was still part of a system that was weakened by its own internal contradictions. So, the very ability of “outsiders” to make much of a difference is always dependent on the internal strength and cohesion of the system.
Right now, I look at the capitalisms in the world, and I see basically two, or maybe you can say three of them. I see one part of the capitalist world declining quickly with all the usual problems that go with it. I see another part of global capitalism still rising, still on the ascendancy. Then I see a third part that is neither the one nor the other. It sits there, trying to figure out which way to go, with whom to ally.
The first group would be Western Europe, North America and Japan. There, capitalism is declining. The second is China, India, Brazil and a few other places where capitalism is growing. Then, you have the rest of the world, what we used to call the “Third World.” They don’t know what to do or with whom to ally; which side to associate their own economic growth with, and obviously would feel better being like China, India and all the rest, but they still have a lot of problems. It’s not clear that they will be able to climb out of their long-term secondary status in the world, and of course, the best example of that would be Africa.
I wouldn’t know how to answer “short term” and “long term.” I’m a cautious person, so the easiest answer would be that the potential for change is in the long term. But, because of the difficulties in Western Europe, North America and Japan, and because you can never predict these things in terms of when exactly they happen, I would not exclude at all the possibility of a serious crisis of capitalism even in the short run.
When we talk about a transition to socialism or a socialist economy, do you believe that it is important to draw blueprints in our effort to achieve such a transition? More importantly, do you believe that developing such blueprints constitute a moral justification for militantly fighting for socialism (keeping in mind that when most people talk about socialism, what they have in mind is pretty vaguely defined)? Or do you believe that the existing oppression and exploitation justify militantly fighting for even vaguely defined alternatives?
I would pose it slightly differently, and I hope it’s ok with you if I do that. Let’s take the collapse of feudalism in the European context: 18th- and 17th-century revolutions in England, 18th-century revolutions in France and the United States, and so on.
Number one: These were revolutions against a feudalism that had become intolerable. So, my assumption is, until given a reason to think otherwise, the end of capitalism also has to be seen, first and foremost, as intolerable in the growing hearts of the society — never all of the society, but parts of it, enough parts of it that there is an accumulation of power sufficient to rebel, to refuse to accept the continuation of capitalism. So that’s how I expect to see the transition begin.
Number two: If you look at the lessons from the transitions from slavery, feudalism and so on, and other examples, you will see that in no case did the people all share anything remotely like a blueprint — a clear, defined notion of what exactly they were going to put in place of the system they were rejecting, the system they were overthrowing, and so on.
I just want to make one point here: We should keep in mind that our scope is to transition to a system that has a certain degree of central planning associated with it.
Again, using the transition from feudalism to capitalism — and I use that because that’s the one we know the most about — let’s take the French Revolution…. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, the great slogan of the revolution, you might add that the Americans added democracy. So, we have liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy as what they thought they were producing and putting in place of feudalism, which they associated with autocracy, aristocracy, religion and so forth.
These are all big, broad ideas. They are not blueprints of any kind…. I don’t think that the people who revolted against feudalism had a clear blueprint. I don’t even think they agreed on these broad categories. So, for example, there were forces in the revolutions against feudalism that wanted to establish a society of small, independent, self-employed proprietors. The image that comes from, say thinkers like John Locke in England, or Thomas Jefferson in the United States. But there were others who had no such idea, who thought already in terms of a much more modern notion of a small number of employers and a large number of employees, for whom self-employment was not at all what they understood to be the goal. Indeed, in many of the societies, in England, in France, in the United States, after the revolution, they got rid of feudalism. A tremendous battle broke out quickly between those who wanted a society of self-employed farmers, merchants and crafts people, versus those who wanted the more modern notion of employer-employee as being different people.
That had to be fought out, and in each country, it was resolved in different ways. The French had always protected a huge self-employment sector, whereas the United States has ruthlessly destroyed those people and substituted ever-larger conglomerations of a board of directors of 15 people and an employee number that goes over a million — that kind of system. So, I think that what happens in each society is you have a variety of general ideas that come together in a coalition that does not agree about those ideas, but does agree on the intolerability of what exists. So, they get together, they become strong enough to break down, to tear down, to destroy what exists, and then they begin to find out among themselves which of their different images is going to be the basic principle of the next society. Then they go about constructing what they think will emerge from it.
Lastly, in the case of capitalism, it very quickly (at least in historical time) became clear that the revolutions against capitalism in France, England and the United States, and so on could not deliver on their promises. Marx sees the French Revolution, he looks around and he says, “Well we have achieved capitalism in the place of feudalism, but I don’t see liberty, equality, fraternity or democracy,” and I think that was Marx’s great insight: that the capitalist system that was brought about in a revolution against feudalism had made promises about what its leaders thought capitalism was associated with — that is liberty, equality and all that — but all these promises had been betrayed.
Marx’s project, in a way, is to explain why capitalism failed to deliver on very broad images of ideas that sincerely animated the people who made the capitalist revolution. Marx concludes in the end that the employer-employee relationship of capitalism was not the end of slavery and feudalism, it’s just the changed form of the same small number of people controlling the vast apparatus of production.
Don’t you think that it’s important to bring proposals for alternatives to the table to be discussed?
It’s fine to bring proposals as long as we don’t get lost in the details of proposals about the future. We are not able to foresee those conditions. We cannot imagine, in many cases, what they would be. Yes, by all means, let’s discuss what we would like this future to look like, as long as we remember what it is we are doing. I do not take seriously, and you and I may disagree about this, the demand for blueprints. The reason for that is, in my experience here in the United States — and things may be different in Europe or in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world — the demand for blueprints comes from people who are either enemies of socialism or deeply skeptical. It is my experience that their desire is to find some problem with, or some incompleteness of, or some inconsistency in this blueprint, not in order to debate how that problem could be solved, but to use it as an excuse not to take the project as a whole seriously. So, you understand my hesitation.
Having said that, let me try and quickly answer what I think we need to do. I think much of the experience of socialism, in the last century-and-a-half that we have had as a movement, has been focused way too excessively on what I will call the macro level of society: around questions of what the state is and does; around questions of property, whether it will be socialized or private; and on questions on the system of distribution, both of resources and products. Should that distribution be planned, typically by the state, or should it be left to the quid pro quo exchanges of a market system of one kind or another?
Those, I accept, are important questions. It’s not that I reject all of that, but this over-focus on these questions was at the expense of socialism inadequately focusing on the micro level. On exactly how you organize the factory, the office, the store. How do you organize the enterprise, and how do you organize the household where people live, where they do their household activities? Because socialism relatively neglected the micro level, the household and particularly the enterprise, you developed a lopsided socialism. You developed in people the notion that somehow you didn’t have to worry about the micro level. It would either take care of itself, or would be swept up in the transition to socialism at the macro level, and that, I think, history has shown us did not work. In fact, in the case of Soviet Union, I would argue the opposite worked. It was the failure to transform the enterprise and to transform the household that, in the end, made it impossible for the socialist “macro” aspect of the economy to even survive long enough to address the micro level.
So, what do I mean — very concretely — if socialism means anything, at least the socialism that I read in the works of Marx and the leading Marxists since him, is after all for me the most developed analytical tradition that’s useful in this area. It’s not the only one, but it is the most developed one. For me, there has to be an end to the traditional trichotomy of slavery, feudalism and capitalism. In each of those systems, a small number of people appropriate as they wish, the surplus produced by a large number of people. Masters appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by slaves; feudal lords appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by surfs; and capitalist employers appropriate and distribute the surplus produced by employees. For me, socialism has to be the negation of all of that. The only way I can understand that is to transform enterprises, factories, offices and stores such that all the workers involved in them together, collectively, produce a surplus which they themselves distribute. They decide collectively what to do with the surplus they have all produced. They are not exploited because they don’t give that surplus to a different group of people who decide in their own interests what to do with it.
So for me, that’s the transformation of the workplace. The micro-level institutionalization of the socialism that is adequate as a partner to the macro-property arrangements, market versus planned, role of the state and all of the rest of it. I would apply the same analysis to the household, because, in effect, it is an enterprise too. Inside the household, the food is cooked and made into a meal; dirty rooms are made into clean rooms; dirty laundry is cleaned and made clean; injuries are attended to by people in the family; children are cared for, etc.; and that, too, has to be transformed from the hierarchical, patriarchal institutions of the past to a much more egalitarian, collectively decided institutionalization of the present.
Lastly, I believe the Soviet brand of socialism — and … the other efforts, Chinese, Cuban, Eastern European, Vietnamese, and so on — were all handled similarly in the fact that they inadequately attended to the transformation of the household and the transformation of the enterprise. Because of that, they did not give to the base of society the power that comes from controlling the economic engine of society. They didn’t give the mass of people the power to control the engine at the base. That helped to enable a powerful state, originally conceived of to serve the people, to use its power not only to serve them, but also to control them and to exploit them just as the capitalists had, so that when you got rid of the private owners of the means of production and state officials replaced them, the workers still came to work each day and produced the surplus, only it was now incorporated by those state officials rather than a board of directors, and that is not adequate for a socialist transition.
So, I would argue that when I advocate for what comes beyond capitalism, it is a state planning apparatus; it is a socialized ownership model, more or less, but it is one that has to be anchored by, has to be accountable to a transformed micro level in the enterprise and the household to keep it honest, to keep it democratic. Always remember that the ultimate power in a capitalist society is with the capitalists, and if it’s going to be fundamentally different in a socialist society, then we have to trust that this power is, in the end, in the hands of working people who collectively own and operate their production. That, for me, is a lesson that any socialist needs to learn and needs to apply that comes from some of the difficult experiences of the first wave of socialists from 1917, from 1949, from Russia to China, and so on. We, too, have to learn from those experiences, from what they achieved, for sure, but also where they failed, likewise. I think this approach exceeds the imbalance between the macro and the micro, and has a solution for that imbalance by a transition to the micro level in more specificity, more concreteness, about where we are going in socialism than the people who demand blueprints have any right to expect.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.