Young Democratic Socialists: Interview With Professor Richard Wolff


YDS National Organizer Betsy Avila recently sat down withRichard Wolff, Professor of Economics and visiting professor at The New School in New York. Professor Richard Wolff has published several books including Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism and Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Wolff has recently appeared as the featured guest on Moyers & Company and Real Time with Bill Maher.

My name is Betsy and I’m the National Organizer with Young Democratic Socialists. We are the student section of Democratic Socialists of America, a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting democratic socialism in the United States through education and activism. Thank you so much for agreeing to appear on The Activist. I am here to ask you a couple of questions regarding socialism in the United States to be made available on our blog.

Great, that’s fine. Thank you for having me.

I’ll start with a question about a study I know you're very familiar with: the Pew Research Center Study on favorability towards socialism. This study found that 49% of young people between the ages of 18-29 view socialism in a favorable light. Why do you think this generation's feelings towards capitalism are shifting? 

Well, let me say quickly first, I’ve spent a majority of my life as a college professor, so I’m constantly in touch with youth. As a visiting professor at The New School, my classes are filled with young students. It's crystal clear to me that young people, particularly today, are anti-capitalist on a scale I have not seen in half a century. They're anti-capitalist because they know something is very wrong with what's happening in society. That is, when they look around at the pinched economic conditions of their parents, or they notice the absurd amount of debt that they as young people - college students particularly - are accumulating, and they view this in conjunction with a poor job outlook. And all this plays into their outlook towards their future: you know you can't form relationships the way you once could because you're in “economic danger-zones” all the time. Suppose children enter the picture? How are you going to do all of that? Young people - and this is still parallel for older people - are starting to notice that there are too many things in too much difficulty. It's the reality of American life that has created an openness to alternatives. So now, you have a sizable part of the youth population realizing that there's something wrong with the whole picture.

But I want to add that what the Pew Research Center did was faulty in not understanding that you could have come up with a lot better questions than "capitalism vs. socialism," because it gives the impression that people have a clear understanding of two alternative systems and are making a choice between them as if they were deciding between "vanilla or chocolate." They don't know vanilla. They know chocolate, and they know that chocolate doesn't taste good anymore, and so they think "okay, let's do vanilla." But it's not because they like vanilla, it's not because they understand it. They aren't familiar with vanilla. As soon as you try to get into any substantive conversation about Socialism you discover really quickly that they don't understand it. But being anti-capitalist is still a long way from being socialist - those two things are not necessarily the same.

What do you feel those who viewed it as favorable understand "socialism" to be?

At this point, they understand it to be "not capitalism." For most young people, that’s as far as they understand it. It's maybe nicer, softer, friendlier, maybe more likely to help them out. When you push their understanding a little further, it tends to be more about the role of the government. The government takes a bigger role. It protects working people. It protects corporations and the rich but also average people. You hear that kind of talk. It's mainly about the government.

And you know, when I hear this I get sad, because that's not what I understand the alternative to Capitalism to be. That definition reveals a lack of awareness of the reality that the government is already a massive force in modern capitalism, and always has been. It falls into the trap of the tragic history of how capitalism and socialism came to be differentiated by so many people…as if the difference between the two meant that the former refers to “private, individual enterprise,” and the latter refers to “government-controlled enterprise.” For me, because I teach Marxism, that differentiation is certainly not primarily what Marx had in mind. The state running the economy is not what the alternative to capitalism is, so then I begin to realize, oh boy, is our work cut out for us. And it creates a real danger here that the lack of a clear alternative might eventually turn people off.

What is the danger in not presenting today’s generation with a clear definition of Socialism?

Even if young people consider themselves anti-capitalist, if they can’t see where else we can go, they may become resigned to capitalism. Their efforts to say "I don't want that" alone can't produce a clear notion of what the alternative should be. That's one danger of it.

The larger danger is someone will come along with a definition of the "socialist alternative" that will make my hair stand on end. You know, the history of Socialism, like the history of Capitalism, is full of examples where good ideas were taken in awful directions to justify awful things. And that's a real danger. Those of us on the left would be naive not to understand that. We would be naive not to know that, while we do have an enormous opportunity ahead of us, there’s a danger that other people will come with a "solution." If we don’t have others around there to counter their presence with equally attractive ideas, it can draw the disaffected from capitalism in directions that you will find very upsetting.

What other responses to anti-capitalism are present today?

In a peculiar way, the Tea Party already is that. A lot of the people in the Tea Party movement that I have encountered are in fact anti-capitalist. They don't say that, however. And the reason they don't say it is because they're getting a lot of money from lots of capitalists who want them not to think it or say it. Most of them understand that. They’re respectful about that, because they need that money and they need that support. But the Tea Party includes a lot of people who think of big business as just as evil as big government. It's allowable for them to say "big government is awful" so they say that. But half of what's in their mind is that big government and big business is awful. They don’t dare say the second one, but they certainly believe it

(laugh) So, you avoid going to Tea Party events?

Yes, but to tell you the truth, I have been advised by folks close to me to change and to start going because there certainly are people in the Tea Party movement very sympathetic to what I have to say. They invite me to come to meetings. They go to my website where the word "Marxist" is written all over...but they don't care. They like enough what I do, they want to hear it's a very fluid situation. But I think about going because that’s part of our job on the left, and as Socialists to educate people about socialism. And that gets us into the conversation of what Socialism is, and I have very strong views on that subject. And I work very hard in particular directions to make a case about what I think Socialism was, and what I think Socialism has to be in the 21st Century. And they're different. And it's my way, as a lifetime of being an educator in the United States, of summing up what I’ve learned.

Let’s go there. What do you understand socialism to be, how should we define it? What is its future?

Well, I know that the “popular” way of defining Socialism has got to be stopped. It’s got to be pushed away in order to redefine Socialism for the 21st Century. I happen to be one of those who think that the 19th and 20th centuries were times of enormous advance for Socialism. So I'm not some Monday-morning quarterback that says "you know, all socialist governments are all full of crap, and it didn't work." Not at all.

I mean, let's be real clear on the basic history. Marx writes in the middle of the 19th century. He's one of dozens of German emigrants who tried to make political changes in Germany who were then punished by the government, in the then-usual way of punishment, which was exile. They didn't put people in jail, they didn't kill them, they made them leave. So Marx leaves, ends up in London, like a lot of refugees in those years, then writes his books and writes his articles. Then he died in 1883. But over the next 150 years, Socialism becomes a major movement in every country on the face of the earth. Every country to this day has socialist parties, socialist newspapers, trade unions and university departments that teach lessons based on Marx’ central ideas.

That is an amazing spread over a very short amount of time.

That’s an amazing growth. No matter what you may say and no matter what your criticisms are, socialism as a movement could’ve done a hell of a lot worse than what it has become in the world. This is not to take away from its weaknesses and its flaws, but it is to point out that in the historical perspective this is a more rapid spread across the planet than Christianity. Or any of the other mass consciousness movements for that matter. It’s always taken centuries to do that. Socialism is right up there, if not at the top, as a contender for #1 mass movement with regards to the historical speed and spread that it has achieved thus far. You can go to any country in the world, and say and ask "hello, I’m a visiting socialist. Are there some meetings or some associations where i can go?" And most people can tell you where they are. "Walk down there, go talk to these people, here's a bunch of students at this college…” and so on. That’s an amazing achievement.

In regards to the future of socialism, I think certain dead ends were arrived at towards the end of the 20th century that signal to us on the left that Socialism has to shift gears. It has to redefine itself, not in ways that are black and white relative to what it was, but to shift the focus to fit today’s current environment. And let me be stark with you: if we don't do that, then socialism will die. However, if we can be smart about it and shift the focus, socialism can win. And by win, I mean it can displace and replace capitalism. In other words, the risks moving forward in redefining socialism are enormous, but the rewards are equally enormous.

You mentioned “dead-ends.” What kinds of dead ends did socialism meet in the 20th century?

Some of it regards perception. Traditional socialism, that which began in the second half of the 19th century and across the 20th, emphasized two fundamental differences between capitalism and socialism on the other. Capitalism meant private enterprise and markets. The organization of the enterprise would be a private affair run by capitalists, individuals, who for whatever reason have the money to start and develop a business which hired workers. And capitalism was the freedom to do that. Private enterprise came to be celebrated as the greatest possible achievement of the human race. The alternative - socialism - was government enterprise. Over time, socialism came to mean "no markets." It was simplified to mean, "government planning." So Socialism is government enterprise and planning, whereas Capitalism is private enterprise and markets. And that's the great struggle. When you have revolutions, Russia in 1917, or China in 1949, or any of the others, here's what they do: they take over private enterprises, in large numbers, and make them government enterprises. The state takes over, but, likewise, they don't destroy the market. Russia had a market, China always had a market. The notion that socialists don't allow markets is just ignorance but it is rooted in the oversimplified difference between capitalism and socialism that became “the accepted wisdom” about how capitalism and socialism differed.

It is true that in socialist societies the government controls the market, manipulates the market, administers the market and doesn't give it the pride of place. The government says that if a market mechanism would mean that 10% of our people don't have enough food to eat, it would rightfully step in and say we aren't going to allow that, and we’re going to make sure that enough food is distributed to those people so they can survive and function. And we'll

manipulate the market to get that result; we’re not going to live with the results of an unregulated market. And that was a very effective idea. It said to people, if you don't like the results of capitalism, defined as private enterprise and markets, here's something you can do: fight like hell, join a Socialist party, campaign to win an election - or if that is blocked - make a revolution.

So an over-simplified perception of what socialism was emerged?

Yes, and it also trained capitalism in how to oppose Socialism. Remember, capitalists are very frightened by all this. They don't want the government to tell them what to do. They're very fearful that taxes will take money from them and give it to the people, and all that. So over time they've cultivated a very sophisticated critique that begins by cultivating a stunning suspicion and hatred for government. “The government is honing in on your private life, the government is intruding on your freedom.” The government becomes this great bug-a-boo for you to be scared about. “The government is your enemy, the government is the root of all evil.” It's very clever. Because if you can demonize the government while socialists keep saying, “lets have the government do it,” people respond by saying “are you socialists nuts?”

So the capitalists responded to the very success of socialism by demonizing the government. Using the Soviet Union as an example, capitalists can now say, “You see? Socialism is just government and authoritarianism gone mad.” And that works pretty well. You’ve now terrorized the American working class, that however much you don’t like capitalism, socialism is worse.

And it's very, very important that today’s caricature of socialism as all about government power be understood as the response from Capitalism. How do you survive to defeat socialism when it has been this successful in spread and popularity? You've got to undercut the very message they bring. You have to remind people that government officials are corrupt, are crooked, steal everything, are the way, all of that's true. The joke is, it's capitalism that makes politicians do that. And then the capitalists have a wonderful one-two punch in their narrative. First, they make the state slavishly subordinate to them, and then direct the anger of the people against the state. So every American president glides into office saying "I'm not a politician like all the others. I'm something new, I'm something different." And he gets into power because he's going to be new, and by the end of his term everybody hates his guts because he's shown himself to be what they all were: subordinate to capitalism and capitalists.

How can we combat this characterization and other misconceptions about socialism?

First, don’t be taken in by the tried, old arguments. Ask this question: did those arguments and the tactics that spread them work to eradicate socialism, as it was hoped they would do? No, they failed at that. Which I think is very important to remember.

My view is this: lets not continue perpetuating the story that socialism is government ownership, operation and regulation of enterprise, and lets not stress planning over markets. Let's muddy those waters. I don't want to have a debate over more or less government - as a socialist, I don’t find that terribly exciting. I don't want to have a debate with my colleagues about more or less government or about the relationship between planning and market. I want to focus instead on how we organize the enterprises that produce the goods and services on which we depend. I want to talk about how we organize the workplaces and work processes that absorb most of our adult lifetimes and energies.

If you say to me, that this idea, this focus, was always lurking in the background of socialism, you're right, but I don’t want it to lurk in the background anymore. We need to put it front and center: If you want an economy that serves the people, then you have to put the people in charge.

How can we emphasize the relationship between democracy and socialism?

We need to point out capitalism leaves the key roles in the economy in the hands of a tiny number of people: major shareholders, and the boards of directors of corporations that those major shareholders select. That's .0001% of the population, and they decide what gets produced, how it gets produced, where it gets produced, and what is done with the profits. That is undemocratic, and that is capitalism. The capitalist way is a top-down, hierarchical, undemocratic arrangement of workplaces and work processes. Socialism is the antithesis of that. Socialism means the democratic control of the enterprise by all of the workers in it.

To illustrate, I can articulate a socialism that has an origin in our history, and in fact a relationship to a movement that exists all over the world: workers’ cooperatives. Organizations and businesses where workers produce the profits and also determine what they do with the profits they produce. In a workers (sometimes also called a producers) co-op, your job includes not only following orders, but designing and giving orders. You labor at a particular job, but you are also an equal part of what runs and directs the enterprise. What could be more democratic than that? It changes the quality of your life. It literally changes the quality of who you are as a person because you are now going to be changed by the new demands of your job. Let me give you three examples.

First example: let's suppose there's a factory in Cincinnati that's got 400 people, and the decision that has to be made is "do we shut the factory down in Cincinnati and reopen it in Shanghai?" If the board of directors decides, and they’re the ones who decide in capitalism, they realize that in Cincinnati they pay workers $24 an hour in labor, but in China it would be $2.50 an hour. They think, “we will make a fortune in profits there,” so they close the factory and they leave. That's the way capitalism works. Now suppose the workers democratically made the decision. Do you think the 500 workers in Cincinnati would vote to kill their jobs, in addition to the revenue to their community that comes from that factory? Not a chance.

Second example: Suppose there is a new technology in an industry that may increase profits, but it pollutes the air and water. If there is a board of directors sitting a thousand miles away from a factory, what do they care if the new technology pollutes the air and water? “If the worker doesn't like it, he's free to leave!” The workers might have a different outlook on it. “Yes, it brings in more profits, but it's going to pollute the water and the air that we breathe, our children breathe.” Will they sometimes still go for the higher profit? Probably, but the point is, they are far more likely to forgo the extra profit, because it's better than getting sick and going to the doctor and risking the health of our kids, and all that. Reorganizing the workplace is a step forward in protecting our environment.

Third example: If the workers were involved in a democratic decision of what to do with the profits, well here is something they might think of. “A lot of people would love to work here, but they can't, because they have young children. Why don't we have a proper day care center right next to the factory,office, or store, so that a mother - because it's the women of course who are still given most of that responsibility - or a father can bring their kid, and can go see their kid during the day, during breaks?” And you’d have quality day care that you had helped to design because you helped choose the nurse, and so on.

It sounds like situations in which workers are going to be more invested in their company and their jobs.

Exactly. When you redefine socialism as "the socialization of the workplace," and that's identical to the democratization of the workplace, you now have a concrete concept of democracy within socialism- or if you like, democratic socialism - that I think can attract and electrify the American people.

Additionally, now you're not in a position of defending the government, which is a no-win proposition especially in our culture. When redefining socialism, this focus on the workplace organization is where you have to go. This is a way to redefine Socialism in a way that will appeal to the American people, which will avoid a century of anti-socialist rhetoric around the demonization of the government. But it still allows us, as we are called upon, to talk about why there are benefits of having the government regulate and control enterprise: when the government ultimately depends on the workers because inside real worker coops it is the workers who collectively control the profits from which government draws the taxes it needs to function.

But I want to also add and emphasize: I am not saying that to transform the enterprise is some sort of magic bullet, that if we only developed worker co-ops, everything else will fall into line and we'll be okay. That would be childish and simple-minded. That's not what I'm saying. There are ways to talk about the failures of markets - which we should still do. A collective control of the economy through a controlled government can be beneficial, but not if it's done by a government that is fundamentally controlled and dependent on private capitalist enterprise. We will have more faith in a government when it is ultimately dependent on collective workers. Remember: if the workers run the enterprise, they're the ones paying the taxes, they're the ones that control the surplus. They are the ones who will have to agree to pay taxes out of those profits to fund the government.

To the point of emphasizing democracy within socialism, I want to finish off by pointing out: where do you, as an American spend most of your adult life? It's at work. 5 out of 7 days a week, you go to work. The best 8 hours of each day, you're working. Indeed, the rest of the day, yes, you're getting up, you're brushing your teeth, you're combing your hair, you're getting dressed, and you transport yourself to work, then you do all that in reverse at the end of the day. But when you add it up, your life is built around work. Here comes the punchline: if democracy is a value for you, democracy should be at the workplace, first and foremost. What kind of democratic society is it that says we have a democratic political arrangement when you vote, which ends up being once a year for 5 minutes? But you don't have democracy everyday where you work. This is nuts. If you don't have democracy in the economy, it will be nearly nonexistent in politics. It's not going to be real. Because you can't have a democratic political system built on an undemocratic economic foundation.

Professor, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really appreciative of your time.

My pleasure, thank you.

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