Economic Update: The Marxist Tradition

[S13 E14] New

Direct Download

In this week’s Economic Update, Prof. Wolff discusses the history and diversity of Marxist theories and practices that comprise the Marxist tradition. Wolff also explores why Marxism draws renewed interest globally now. Finally, a detailed examination shows how some basic insights from Marx's work are especially relevant to victims and critics of today's capitalism and especially to those who seek transition to another, better system. 

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

Today's program, in its entirety, is devoted to Marxism. The works of Karl Marx, the tradition he inspired that has led to many other people around the world developing his way of thinking, has led to many practical experiments, trying to apply this way of thinking to making a better world. I'm going to talk about it because some of you have kindly asked me to explain where I get the approach to events happening in the world that you hear me talk about on this program. How do I come to my analyses? Where do I get my inspiration? What is the approach I take? Well, I thought it might be interesting for you to know, (a) where the inspiration comes from, and (b) how exactly that inspiration works to give me the approach that you hear and see me articulate in the various platforms that I have. So let me begin.

Is Karl Marx an influence on my work? Absolutely. Couldn't be otherwise. Karl Marx, in a way, has an influence on everybody's work, those who follow and like what he has to say, and those who react badly and try to refute, or overcome, what he had to say. Marx is a part of the modern world. Is Marx the only influence on me? Of course not. I couldn't do that even if I tried to, or imagined I could. Many other scholars, writers, thinkers, friends, relatives, have influenced the way I think. I don't want to reduce it all to Marx, that would be inaccurate and silly. But Marx is not excluded, and that may be the key thing here: I take Marx seriously. I think he had very important insights to teach us. And I certainly make use of those in the work that I do, in the approach I have, in the arguments I try to present to you.

I thought of an analogy. If you're interested in psychology, in the question of why individual people react to the world the way they do, interact with their lovers, their boyfriends, their parents, their children, the way they do, well, then you look at a certain tradition of thinking called psychology. And it's not just thinking, it's experiments, made by psychologists trying to figure out what makes us tick as individuals, what shapes our psychology. Well, if you're going to study that and try to really learn it, to apply it to your own life, to those of your friends and neighbors around you, or to the larger world, one of the thinkers you encounter real quickly is Sigmund Freud. Is he the only one who ever talked about this? No. Is he the only one influencing anybody these days? No, there are too many others who have followed, or started around the time of Freud, and they, too, have shaped modern notions of psychology. But it would be crazy, and I mean that in the literal sense, to study psychology and not avail yourself of the enormously important insights that Sigmund Freud, a giant in that field, developed. No one who does psychology would proudly say in a room, "I avoided any contact with Sigmund Freud. I carefully avoided reading or thinking about it." That would signal a person who had a personality disorder, or a mental block, or something else that isn't positive.

Well, for me, anyone who wants to understand society, and proudly says they have nothing to do with Marxism, is a person I am not going to spend a whole lot of time with, because that is ignorance masked as some sort of politics. But it isn't politics, it's just plain ignorance. You're not smarter because you've ignored the insights of one of the giants in the field, and I'll come back to that.

So, I made sure not to be ignorant. I spent time studying Marxism. And one of the first things I discovered, which anyone who does this seriously will discover as well, and it's a way of knowing whether anyone you're talking to about Marxism has, in fact, been serious about it. Marx died in 1883, 140 years ago, right? And what do we know? We know that in the 140 years since he died, his ideas, his works, have been translated into every language on the face of this planet. They have intermingled in, shaped, and interacted with every culture, every continent, people in different conditions of economics, and politics, and culture.

Anything, any group of ideas, that expands that fast, that far, across so many different ways of living, will, of course, generate different interpretations. People in different circumstances can read the same book and come away with a very different set of insights, because every reading of any text is an interaction between the words on the page and everything each reader brings to reading those words. So, the first thing you learn is that Marxism is a tradition of many different interpretations of Marx's words, and therefore, of society. Because if you understand Marx differently, and then you apply what you've learned, but you understand it differently, then the outcomes are different theories and different assessments, which imposes on anyone with a serious knowledge having to say, "I have this interpretation. I recognize others have different interpretations." And the tradition is the sum, if you like, the collection, of these different interpretations.

Why then do I have to say all of this? Because Marxism, in many parts of the world, is now considered to be a set of ideas, a set of practices, that is over historically, it's not relevant anymore. Most of the people who think that associate Marxism with what happened in the Soviet Union in its Revolution of 1917, and the 70 years of its history thereafter, and with other parts of Eastern Europe that were allied with the Soviet Union after World War II. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, and all of those socialist countries - that was their name for what they were - changed, went back to capitalism, if you like, it was thought, "Oh, well, they're the ones who talked about Marxism, so if those countries are not into that anymore, well then, I guess Marxism is over."

That's wrong, folks. There's no nice way to say that. It's just wrong. It's a mistake, in some cases, a perfectly honest mistake. It misunderstands the difference between a global tradition, and one or two experiments in making that tradition real, in applying it to society. Lenin, Trotsky, the others who led the Soviet Revolution, were Marxists. They understood themselves to be followers, interpreters, and appliers, of what Marx had taught them. Again, only Marx? Of course not. If you read Lenin, he'll tell you all about all the other influences on him, and Trotsky, and the others, likewise. But they were deeply influenced by Marx. They made an experiment. It lasted from 1917 to 1989. Not bad for an experiment, but it did disappear.

But that doesn't mean that the tradition is not relevant. If you went in that direction, you wouldn't understand, and would misunderstand, all of human history. The transition from feudalism to capitalism had many experiments before it became a generalized capitalist world. People tried to change and make experiments to do without kings for a long time that didn't work out real well. The king survived until, at a certain point, they didn't survive anymore, and monarchism disappeared. Experiments to go beyond capitalism will likewise take their time, go their way, before enough people learn enough lessons to make the transition stick. That's been the story of human history to this point. There's no reason to imagine that capitalism will be exempt.

And then there are those who, wishfully thinking, imagine that Marxism had disappeared with the end of the Soviet Union. That only reminds me of Mark Twain, who wrote that famous letter to the editor of the newspaper in Connecticut, in Hartford, when he read in the morning paper an obituary for himself. And he wrote a very simple letter to the editor, and it went like this: "Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated. Mark Twain." Well, the reports of the demise of Marxism are likewise greatly exaggerated. Let me explain, briefly.

There are now two reasons why Marxism is being more and more returned to, revived, redeveloped, celebrated. Two big reasons. There are many, but two big ones. One, the most successful economic growth of the last 35 years has happened in the People's Republic of China. They have grown their economy from 2 to 3 times faster than the United States for 30 to 40 years. That has been the goal of most countries in the world, that is, to become un-poor, to become economically developed countries, to be, in short, as successful in economic growth as the People's Republic of China. And the folks who lead the People's Republic of China are members of the Communist Party. And their inspiration, they tell us, is from Marx. And they refer to their society as "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Anyone in the world who wants to stop being in a poor country, which is where most of the people in the world live, looks to China and says, "Wow, there's a model." And that should surprise no one.

Let me remind you of the great economist who started the discipline of economics, Adam Smith, a British professor of religion, as it happened. Adam Smith entitled his breaking book, the great book of his career, The Wealth of Nations, and the basic argument in that book was that capitalism is what made England richer than other countries at that time. That's exactly the argument why Marxism is of interest to people, because the People's Republic of China has a better growth record in the last 30 years than any other country in the world. Just as Adam Smith built on what happened in England, Marxists are building on what happened in China.

And the second reason is that capitalism around the world is everywhere in trouble. Different kinds of trouble, different degrees of trouble. The British economy is a disaster story. The American economy, very mixed in many, many ways. Some people are getting very wealthy, huge numbers of people are not. And that's a big problem of capitalism, among many others. And, as people try to figure out why is capitalism exhibiting so many unattractive qualities, they are led back to the critical tradition. Who has been critical of capitalism? And the most developed, the most global, the most... geniuses, in many ways, contributing to any theoretical tradition, have been those who have built the Marxian tradition. So, the criticism of capitalism takes people back to Marxism.

We've come to the end of the first half of today's show. In the second half, I'm going to show you, concretely, how that Marxian tradition can, and does, inform politics today. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update, devoted, as you now know, to the subject of Marxism, the tradition, and how and why I make use of it in order to present to you, week after week, the analyses you hear and see on this program. So let me turn to the concrete ways that Marxism offers us insights, valuable here and now.

I begin with what I believe, my interpretation, and remember what I said in the first half of today's show about the different interpretations that coexist within Marxism. In my interpretation, perhaps the most central concept in Marx's work is the concept of the surplus, and I want to, therefore, begin by explaining this surplus, and then showing you how it helps you understand society.

If you go back far enough in the history of the human community, you will quickly discover that at some points, way back when, human beings, like most other animals, spent most of their time, nearly all of their time, running around trying to survive. Finding enough food. Finding shelter. Finding ways to keep their bodies warm in the cold. They had to work all the time to survive any of the time. And as I said, most animals, likewise, have done so, and still do. But human beings have a brain, and one of the things that the brain does is something other animals have not yet, in most cases, been able to do. It's one of the distinguishing things about human beings. They try to figure out ways to be more effective in interacting with nature to produce the goods and services they need. So, for example, instead of spending two hours climbing up and down the apple tree to get the apples, an enterprising man, woman, at some point, figured out that if you get a large stick and you hit the bottom of the apple tree, in an hour you can collect those that fall down. You can collect as many as it used to take two hours to do.

In the language of economics, human beings discovered how to become more productive. And it's very simple what that means. To get more output for the same amount of time of effort, or, to get the same amount of output with less effort. Either way, the relationship between the effort, the labor, human beings do, and the product, food, clothing, shelter, or whatever, changes over time. And the minute human beings become more productive, an opportunity opens up for them, Marx teaches us, that didn't exist before. And here's how to express it: If you are able to produce more in the same amount of time, or to use less time to produce the same amount as you did before, it becomes possible for you to have - here we go now - free time. You can call it "leisure," you can call it whatever you want. But if you need an hour less than you used to, to produce what you need to survive, you can take an hour off and you'll survive, because in one less hour of labor, you are still able to produce as much as you did before.

So, one way human beings can take advantage of rising productivity is with leisure. But there is, of course, a choice. You could decide not to have any leisure, to keep working just as long as you did, just as hard as you did before, but then you would get the benefit of more output, more than you need to survive, extra. You might even call that "wealth." You can produce output you don't need to consume. Marx explains to us, every society makes a decision, if it's productive. And we now have thousands of years of growing productivity. So, if you look at the United States today, I'd be surprised if 40% of our people are needed to produce what 100% of us consume. That's how productive we've become. 2% of our workers work on the land, but they produce enough food for 100% of us. So, we have become productive.

Now, the question is, are we going to take it in the form of leisure, or are we going to take it in the form of wealth? And the answer is, almost all societies do both. They take some leisure, and they accumulate some wealth. Early in our history as a human species, we did that collectively. We all got together, and we all had some time off, and we all enjoyed some wealth that we could accumulate. But in the last few thousands of years, we didn't do it collectively. We did it in three basic forms: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. And what those three systems have in common, Marx taught us, is that they said, "Yeah, there'll be leisure. And yeah, there'll be wealth. But they will be collected for a very small proportion of the people. They - this small group - they'll get the leisure, and they'll get the wealth. The rest of you, we don't care how productive you are. The more you produce, the more leisure and wealth for the minority that gets it." In slavery, the slaves keep working as hard as ever whether they become more productive or not. Who gets more leisure and wealth? The masters. The masters are 2-3% of the population, the slaves, everybody else. In feudalism, the serfs do all the labor, productive or not, and whatever leisure and wealth can be accumulated is enjoyed by the lords.

And now, Marx's big achievement. He said, in capitalism, it's the same. The workers work with more machines, and are, therefore, more productive, or fewer machines, it doesn't matter. The capitalists, the employers, will be pushing the workers to produce more and more, working as hard as ever. And the productivity, the gains of productivity, will take the form of leisure for the employer class and wealth for the employer class.

And that's how capitalism works, said Marx. It is an exploitative system, like slavery and feudalism. It's different. You can't own anybody in capitalism. You don't swear loyalty to your employer the way a surf did to the lord. There are differences, but not on everything. And on this question of using the growing productivity of the people for the greater leisure and wealth of a tiny minority, that they all have in common, and that is not sustainable. People, in the end, won't tolerate it. That's why we don't have slavery anymore. That's why we don't have feudalism anymore. And that's why Marx thought capitalism wouldn't be here with us that much longer, either. And, as far as he was concerned, that was good news.

Let me show you the same thing in the immediate life of a worker and his, or her, or their, boss, so you see where the Marxist theory takes us. Imagine yourself sitting in front of a potential employer discussing the job you hope you'll get from that employer. And you go through a whole lot of stuff about the job and then you get to the dicey part. "How much are you going to pay me?" you ask your prospective employer. Let's assume he tells you $25 an hour. Well, Marx says, you know, even if you can't bring it into your own head to see it, to face it, to admit it, to say it to someone else, you know what that means. Every hour that you work there, your labor, added to that of all the other people, gives the employer that much more to sell. That's why he's hiring you. You either make it better, or you make more of it, of whatever the company makes. And you know that if the employer takes the extra you help to produce and sells it, he has to get more than $25 for the extra you produce per hour because, otherwise, there's no point in hiring you. If all he got was $25 more per hour of your labor and then he had to turn around and give it to you, there's nothing in it for him. He's not gonna do it.

In other words - here we go - you have to produce for an employer a surplus. You have to do more in the way of creating value for your employer then he gives you in the wages he pays you. In other words - here it comes, folks - he rips you off. Not because he's not a nice guy, and not because he's greedy, which he may or may not be. It's because it's how the system works. If he doesn't make a profit out of you, he doesn't hire you. You know why? Because he uses that profit, in part, to struggle competitively with all the other capitalists who are doing to their workers pretty much the same. And they struggle as to how much they can get out of their workers, how much of the rising productivity of the workers can the employer snatch to win his battle with other employers that are doing the same thing.

You would understand much more about this society if you saw that as the conflict that shakes it. And the conflict is everywhere. That's why in every job, whether you see it and face it or not, the employer is always looking for ways to pay you less, to move the job overseas where you can pay a worker less, to replace you with a machine if that costs him less, to bring in a cheap worker, a female, an immigrant, a child. Child labor was the way it was done for centuries. It's awful, the endless struggle.

It's also terribly inefficient. We've organized the production of goods and services with a core of a conflict, a horrible conflict that leads to sabotage, to lockouts, to strikes, to discriminations of every kind. We've created an absurd system founded on a conflict-ridden economic foundation. And capitalism, by always making that surplus, whether it's leisure or wealth, in the hands of a small number of people, creates what we are all living through: ever widening inequality. And that makes the people without envious, bitter, resentful, to the people who have. That frightens the people who have, who make sure they control the politics so the people who don't have, the majority, don't use their majority to take back from the minority the leisure and the wealth they have gathered into their own hands. It's a system of endless struggle and conflict, not efficiency.

Why am I telling you all this? Because so many of our problems come out of these conflicts, these tensions. Our personal problems, as well as our social problems. Our strikes, our bitternesses, our angers, whether they take the form of finding a scapegoat to blame it all on or not. The message of Marx is that your problems come out of a fundamentally inadequate, unacceptable, capitalist economic system that gives to a minority the surplus that the majority has produced. That inequality, that injustice, at the core of this society, constantly erupts. Now here, now there. Now in this situation, now in that one. The message? Marxists argue that the problems we face in our society, many of them, many of the most important, cannot and will not be solved so long as you allow any economic system - slavery, feudalism, or capitalism - that is so unjust in its foundation. Taking that to heart changes your political life forever. Learning the lessons of it is part of learning how to think creatively about a society that needs change more than ever.

Thank you for your attention. I hope that your understanding that the Marxism that I make use of is something that will lead you to look further into it yourself. And, as always, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Scott McCampbell

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracyatwork.info. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Want to join the volunteer transcription team? Go to the following link to learn more:

Economic Update with Richard D. Wolff is a Democracy at Work production. We make it a point to provide the show free of ads. Please consider supporting our work. Learn about all the ways to support our work on our Donate page, and help us spread Prof. Wolff's message to a larger audience. Every donation counts! A special thank you to our devoted monthly donors (via both our website and Patreon) whose recurring contributions enable us to plan for the future.

Find quick and easy access to past episodes of Economic Update, including transcripts, on our EU Episode List page.

SUBSCRIBE: EU Podcast | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | SpotifyiHeartRADIO


Follow us ONLINE:




Instagram:  https://instagram.com/democracyatwrk

DailyMotion:  https://www.dailymotion.com/democracyatwrk

Shop our CO-OP made MERCH:  https://democracy-at-work-shop.myshopify.com/

Want to help us translate and transcribe our videos? Learn about joining our translation team: http://bit.ly/

NEW 2021 Hardcover edition of “Understanding Marxism,” with a new, lengthy introduction by Richard Wolff is now available at: https://www.lulu.com

“Marxism always was the critical shadow of capitalism. Their interactions changed them both. Now Marxism is once again stepping into the light as capitalism shakes from its own excesses and confronts decline.”

Check out all of d@w’s books: "The Sickness is the System," "Understanding Socialism," by Richard D. Wolff, and “Stuck Nation” by Bob Hennelly http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/democracyatwork

Customized by

Longleaf Digital