Marxist economist Richard Wolff draws overflow crowds


LOS ANGELES -- "I've got to pinch myself; I'm having the time of my life," proclaimed Prof. Richard Wolff, as a standing-room-only throng of 550 mobbed the musicians union hall in Hollywood. The Jan. 18 appearance was co-presented by Pacifica Radio's KPFK and Like the estimated 650 listeners at a church in Berkeley on Jan. 15, they flocked to hear the unapologetically self-avowed "Marxian economist" who has long toiled in the obscurity of academia and left circles. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1942, Wolff holds a B.A. from Harvard, a Master's from Stanford, and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale. He's a UMass Amherst professor emeritus and visiting professor in international affairs at the New School University.

"It's not me; it's the message, which has remained the same," Wolff said modestly, as his critique of capitalism has propelled him into the limelight with repeat TV appearances with Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose, plus much other media coverage. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, as the contradictions and collapse of a capitalist system no longer able to deliver the goods become blatantly obvious, Wolff is finding increasingly receptive audiences. Wolff stresses not the "dictatorship of the proletariat," but "democratization of the workplace" as an alternative to capitalism's failure.

During his Hollywood address, Wolff said: "The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth. Workers have no say over decisions affecting them. If you really gave a damn about democracy the workplace would be the first place to institute it. ... But the government goes to war to bring democracy to Iraq."

Wolff calls workplace democratization the alternative to top-down Stalinist command models, wherein workers may have owned, but did not run, industries. "The main traditions of socialism and communism devoted themselves to changing the ownership of the means of production from private to social or national, and going from markets as a means of distribution to state planning," he said. "This has little or nothing to say about the organization of the enterprise itself. That was a major mistake and missing element that did a lot to undermine what traditional socialism did achieve."

Wolff argues that if workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated self-managed enterprises they wouldn't vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many. The Progressive magazine asked Wolff why business leaders favor austerity. Doesn't it reduce demand for their products, and thus lower their potential profits? The author of "Capitalism Hits the Fan" replied:

"The question is good. ... The more successful capitalists are in cutting their wage costs, the less money workers will have to buy back what those same capitalists produce. It's a contradiction in how this system works. Sure, businesses would like lots of purchases. But the only way to deal with a depressed economy that gets it in a position to have more purchases would be to tax the rich who are hoarding their money and not spending it in an economic downturn, and move that money into the hands of the middle and lower classes, because ... they'll spend it as fast as they get it. That would solve the problem of demand, but only at the expense of the rich and corporations.

"Here's where globalization comes in. U.S. businesses favor austerity here because they want to decrease the power of labor, save on labor costs, not to be taxed, and they see a way to pull that off by shifting the sales of their products from the U.S.'s depressed, austerity-riddled economy to the exploding economies of Brazil, China, India, and so on. ... The U.S. is being reconfigured to become more of an export-focused economy; that's explicit to Obama policy and a way of managing demand when austerity crunches your own working class's income."

What is the 21st century relevancy of 19th century economist Karl Marx? Wolff replied:

"If you think capitalism is a system that has major flaws, such as a recurring business cycle like the one we've been in since 2007, and that it produces ever widening gaps between rich and poor, then you've answered the question about Marxian economics. ... You need to study Marxian economics as part of any serious attempt to understand what's going on. Not to do it is to exclude yourself from the critical tradition."

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  • heard you on Bill Moyers and saw and heard you recently at Peace Action in New Jersey

    thank god you are finally getting some audiences

    my organization Progressive Democrats of America need more of you

    see Mimi Kennedy in California and their economic justice people in PA

    Posted by Mary Ellen Marino, 05/11/2015 10:59am (9 months ago)

  • Progressives are not followers; they are more like wild lions, Conservatives are like obedient sheep. Guess which one is easier to herd.

    Occupy has, long since the tents in the park, become a viable political understanding and perspective. I understand this now and will never be the same. I am Occupy now and this has nothing to do with what other people think or do.

    The economy is out of control and facing the contradictions that it is built upon. Ready yourselves... The reality of the situation will prove even to the sheep that it is time to move beyond capitalism, banks, student loans, debt, expensive healthcare and yes exploitative "job market.

    Look towards Bitcoin, Democratically run worker Cooperatives, Free Online Universities, Distributed Manufacturing, Universal healthcare, state banks, local currency, sharing economies, Eminent Domain to Reclaim housing and factories, Etc... As these were and continue to be the fruits of Occupy!

    Mr Wolff has contributed much to this whole movement.

    Posted by Russell Spears, 02/12/2014 8:27am (2 years ago)

  • The overflow crowds hearing Wolff, the election of a member of “Socialist Action” to the Seattle City Council, and the steady flow of inquiries directed to the Communist party web site are all evidence that there is a growing rejection of the disaster that is capitalism, and that labels like Marxist, Socialist, Communist are no longer an obstacle for millions of Americans.

    However, there a great differences in ideology and in practice amongst those who reject capitalism. Wolff's emphasis on democracy in the workplace, as reported in the article and developed on Wolff's web sites, can play an important part in any solution. In my view, Wolff's emphasis on the organization of productive enterprises into democratic worker cooperatives tends to downplay the class nature of the entire society, the political and economic domination of the capitalist class, and the importance of class struggle in political life as well as at work. For a fuller critique of Wolff's approach in his 2008 work “Capitalism Hits the Fan,” see my review at

    Nonetheless, Wolff, along with other Marxist and capitalist economists, challenge the mainstream acceptance of capitalism as the only possible organization of modern human society. The article concludes with Wolff's very apt statement, “If you think capitalism is a system that has major flaws... and that it produces ever widening gaps between rich and poor …You need to study Marxian economics as part of any serious attempt to understand what's going on.” Good advice for economists (including mainstream economists) as well as anyone trying to find solutions today.

    Posted by Art Perlo, 02/07/2014 9:46am (2 years ago)

  • Capitalism uses the concept of “individual liberty” to facilitate the system of capitalism. Social control requires that the system never be at fault, and that the individual always be at fault. Emphasizing individual liberty allows the system of capitalism to both blame the individual over lack of success and endorse the “individual liberty” of corporations to maximize profits. Emphasizing individual liberty also enables the diversity of false damaging religion, and it doesn’t take long for economics and religion to become inextricably intertwined in falsehood, exploitation, and damage. Traditionally, a system of social control is necessary for human tribalism, because all human tribalism is militaristic and religious, i.e. all human tribalism produces ubiquitous “church-state systems”, including American democracy. All human tribalism produces “conservative” (traditional, fundamentalist) interpretations of militarism, religion, politics, economics, and culture. Clearly, American market-driven individual liberty produces a virulent strain of militaristic and religious growth-oriented human tribalism. Unfortunately, you can’t fix the evolutionary biology of militaristic and religious growth-oriented human tribalism with economics; you must fix it with a scientific definition of liberty that designs systems-based social and environmental sustainability. “Bottom-up” natural selection produced the problem; it will require a “top-down” cognitive effort through artificial selection to fix the human condition.

    Posted by Mike Foss, 02/06/2014 5:51pm (2 years ago)

  • Certainly, no truth seekers-even, maybe especially, when it comes to the legacy of Marx/Engels or Lenin and Du Bois, would want to exclude themselves from "the critical tradition".
    In modern industry and science, perhaps Marx and Engels, Lenin and Du Bois made the best of that tradition.
    Today, we can appreciate Richard Wolff and his new found popularity- in his recognition of the tradition and legacy of Marx/Engels.
    However, there is an implication in his answers here that Leninism did not understand that finance capitalism was not neutral, nor a non-factor in the struggle and demise of the Soviet Union, as it starved, intervened and encircled the Soviets. Fourteen countries, we know, participated in this effort of isolation and support of White or reactionary forces there.
    Social theorists like W. E. B. Du Bois(with of course Lenin) recognized and made public this all-out attack on Leninism by imperialism and its agents-this, which was bound to have both short term and long term affects. This is not to dismiss the internal strain and murderous errors of the Soviets or its government, but to put in context its fact, along with the White(and Black) forces within young Leninist Russia, which arrayed internal reactionaries against Lenin, his workers and peasants, and socialism.
    This complex of internal and external forces, which should make us hesitate to dismiss or reduce historical problems of the Soviets to "ownership without democracy"(materialist hold that there can be no real democracy without ownership- as opposed to there can be no ownership without democracy).
    There is much lip service to "..what traditional socialism did achieve(but no specifics, perhaps to imply that it achieved virtually nothing, also implying that Marxism/Leninism has been refuted-when the direct opposite is true).
    For approaching 200 years, there have been no serious refutations of, Marxism, Du Boisism,(which undefined here, is a growing force) or Leninism, in their scientific, positive, empiricism.
    However, that the Soviet State outlived racist South African apartheid, for instance, and a new South Africa lives with its South African Communist Party, thanks to leaders like Nelson Mandela, along with a new Cuba, with its respective Communist Party, thanks to leaders like Fidel and Raul Castro, offering new beacons of hope for humanity and its workers, and the whole of humanity, partially because of the Soviet era, is a fact( not to mention the explosion in literacy, culture, health and school in Soviet Russia and its indelible residuals there).
    The same relative truth applies, in its unique way, to Vietnam and China.
    These are inescapable issues in the assessment of 19th century, Marx and Engels, 19th and 20th century Du Bois and Lenin.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/06/2014 1:37pm (2 years ago)

  • I usually like Richard Wolff but here he is merely co-opting with the "Liberals" and the "Labor Aristocracy". The purpose of the Proletariat, acquiring the means of production, was to eliminate "the profit class". In terms of what is referred to as "economics", Marxism is grounded to the earth as any sort of organized plan for humanity must be since it is the source of all human sustenance. The "New" economics is based on "profit maximization" for the profit class. So inherent in the latter is the capitalist imperative of "exclusion" and thus is anti-community and pro individualist; the latter is generally grounded on Keynes statement "in the long run we're dead" which devolves to deplete earth, buy it sell it party and then we die. In the mean time, the growth and "prosperity" makes the masses malleable and less apt to revolt - e.g., the CIA and the Christian Democrats in post war Italy. The better choice for the transition is to have the USA government, for example, guarantee and provide clean water, good food, adequate shelter and fuel to every citizen. This simple gesture of Justice could be marketed as reparations for the capitalists depletion of agricultural land for factories and barracks style neighborhoods for imported labor who in turn were utterly deprived of all means for self sufficiency. The private sector in their symbiotic relationship with the US government owes it to US.

    Posted by blazintommyd, 02/04/2014 5:06pm (2 years ago)

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