Economic Update: Understanding Marxism

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[S9 E21]

This special edition of "Economic Update" is devoted to Understanding Marxism, the title of a short new book just published by Democracy at Work. Today's program, like the book, explains Marxism's systemic insights into capitalism now. We discuss Marxism's basic criticisms of capitalism and also its complex relationship to socialism. Finally, we offer a survey of the last century of Marxism's huge, diverse influences on modern economics, politics and culture around the world.

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Prof Wolff's self-described "highly incomplete" survey from the 2nd half:
  • In Austria: Hilferding, Adler brothers interacting with Freud
  • In Russia: Lenin, Trostky, Gorky, Eisenstein
  • In Germany: Kautsky, Luxemburg, Brecht, Frankfurt school (Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno) Einstein
  • In Hungary: Lukacs and the critique of consciousness
  • In Italy: Gramsci and the critique of culture
  • In France: Surrealists, Sartre, Althusser, Derrida, Levi-Strauss
  • In the UK: great economists Joan Robinson, Maurice Dobb
  • Beyond Europe (connected to its anti-imperialism)
    • US: Sweezy in economics, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in labor organizing, Jameson in literature and criticism, Lewontin in biology, Cornel West and WEB DuBois in philosophy and racism, Chris Hedges,
    • China: Mao and so many others
    • Asia: Nazim Hikmet, the Dutt family in India, Ho Cho Minh in Vietnam
    • Africa: Fanon in the north, ANC in the South, Nkrumah and Cabral in the middle
    • South America: Rodney and Williams on slavery, Castro and Guevara and Zapatistas, Mexico’s muralists (Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros, Frida Kahlo), Pablo Neruda



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: jobs, incomes debts, you know the story. I'm your host Richard Wolff. I've been a professor of economics all my life and that is what brought me to bringing these updates to you each week.

Before jumping into today's program, I wanted to mention with a touch of pride that we have released a new book, and by “we” I mean Democracy at Work. It's our first book project, so we're especially proud. The book is entitled Understanding Marxism, and we've decided to also use today's program to explain why such a book at this time and why you might be interested in reading it yourself. So, let me begin. This book Understanding Marxism aims to be a short, accessible introduction to what has become a major global tradition of thought and action. In the words of Marxists, a tradition of theory and also practice. It's written partly because people are more interested in socialism these days than they have been for decades. There's a renewal of interest, and there's a renewal of interest by both students and working people kind of at the same time, and this book aims to be useful to both groups in giving them a glimpse into this remarkable tradition.

Now, let me begin by reminding everyone that Marx died in 1883, so it's roughly a hundred and fifty years since he died and since his work began its process of moving across the world. Since that time—a hundred and fifty years, which is kind of short in history—the Marxian tradition has settled into every corner of the world. There are Marxist parties, Marxist unions, Marxist intellectuals, Marxist journals, Marxist newspapers, and yes, Marxist governments scattered around the world. The development of Marxism is uneven. In some cases, it surges forward then it fades. Often when it fades, the people who don't like it imagine it's disappeared only to reappear once again because it's a kind of shadow of capitalism. It's capitalism's most profound criticism, and so it lasts and revitalizes itself much as capitalism does. It's kind of the shadow. And anything that spreads around the world that quickly to so many different cultures will of course produce different interpretations. No one should ever tell you that Marxism is such-and-such, because it is a contested idea—Marx's writings or literature—that people interpret and understand in different ways much as the socialist tradition is a tradition of people who mean very different things by that term. The same applies to Marxism. So I want in a way in this book to introduce you, to give you an overview both of the broad socialist tradition which is a tradition critical of capitalism—thinking that capitalism is something that needs improvement to be as polite about it as I can—and then Marxism which takes the idea a bit further and thinks improvement isn't quite what's needed; we need a better and a different system. Marxists have been in the forefront of saying that, so let's get into what Marxism is so that we can understand it.

The way I find it interesting to do that is to draw a parallel—a historical parallel—to an earlier time when there was another system that produced critics. We call that system slavery, a system in which some people—a minority—were masters and other people—a majority—were slaves. The slaves did all the work. The slaves were literally the property of the masters who made them do the work, and when the work was done, everything that those slaves produced belonged to the masters as indeed the slaves themselves did, and then the masters would do what seemed reasonable. They'd give a portion of the food, clothing, and shelter those slaves had produced back to the slaves so they could survive and be slaves tomorrow and next week and next month so that this system could survive.
Well, as you might imagine there were critics of slavery, particularly among the slaves, which shouldn't come as a major surprise. You might think of the critics of slavery the way in modern times socialists are critics of capitalism. But, among these socialists who were critics of capitalism, just as among the critics of slavery, there were disagreements. So, for example some of the critics of slavery were angry that slaves had particular kinds of suffering imposed on them. Their families were separated, children were taken from parents, husbands and wives were separated because they were property and could be sold by their masters pretty much at the master’s will. Then there were other people who were horrified that the diets given to the slaves were inadequate, that the clothing and the housing was inadequate. These people were critical of slavery in the sense that they wanted the slaves to be treated better. In the United States for example in the whole first half of the 19th century when slavery was actively criticized particularly in parts of the United States other than the south but even in the south, there were those who wanted an improvement in the conditions of the slaves. They were critics of slavery who wanted improvement. You might parallel them with socialists who think that capitalism needs to improve the conditions of working people—pay them, higher wages, give them better benefits, provide them with a pension as they get old, take care of their medical needs through a medical insurance program. “Improve the conditions of the workers” is what socialists say about capitalism just like “improve the conditions of slaves” was what critics of slavery had to say.

But, then in slavery there were people who went much further. For them, the horror of slavery was not merely and not even primarily that slaves weren't well treated. For these critics, the problem was slavery itself. “One human being” they said, “shouldn't be the property of another.” For them, the solution to the problems of slavery was called abolition. They called themselves and were called by others abolitionists because their analysis said that the difficulties faced by slaves, the suffering of the slaves had fundamentally a cause in the nature of the system—the master slave system—and that the solution for the problem of the slave majority was transition to a new and different system in which one human being could not ever be the property of another. And here comes the parallel with Marxism. Marxism’s analysis—starting with Marx himself and developed since—was an analysis that said that the problems of capitalism—wages being too low, inequality being too high, unemployment being a problem that oppresses and frightens and is an ominous presence to almost everyone in a capitalist system—these kinds of problems are not going to be solved by improving the conditions of the workers. Because if that's all you do, the Marxist argue then you're forever worried that the employers, the people who run the system, the capitalist equivalent of the masters inside slavery will take back whatever improvement you win, and that the solution therefore is abolition of capitalism—moving to another system in parallel to how abolition was the final solving of the slavery problem in for example the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln.

Okay, so Marxism is the notion that we need system change. That capitalism is a system that has fundamental flaws, that those flaws show up in the difficult conditions imposed on the majority of people—the employees—as opposed to the employer class, and that Marxism names those flaws much as the abolitionists in slavery named the fundamental flaw of this system as being what happens if you make a human being into a piece of property like a donkey or a tractor or something else.

The Marxist argument was that capitalism visits on people three fundamentally intolerable conditions. Number one: an endless production of inequality. Marx has a famous line in which he writes “capitalism is indeed a system that produces and reproduces great wealth, but it unfortunately is a system that produces great wealth at one pole and great poverty at another. It is as efficient in producing one as it is in producing the other. “The poor will always be with us” may have been an idea concocted long before capitalism, but capitalism is trapped in a way of producing inequality that is socially antagonistic, disruptive, and fundamentally unfair.

The second criticism Marxism levies against capitalism is that it is intolerably unstable. Wherever capitalism settles—every four to seven years—it has a quote-unquote “recession” or “depression” or “economic downturn”—lots of phrases for something that happens so often. Suddenly people who need a job to produce goods and services we need to consume are thrown out of work, businesses die, people suffer unemployment—which of course is immediately shared with their families and their communities. Sometimes these are short and shallow, but often these downturns cut deep and last a long time like the great one of the 1930s called the Great Depression or the one we've been living with since 2008 called the Great Recession. An economic system that unstable is an economic system that literally screams out, at least to Marxists, as being something that we can do better than. That is a system that we can and should criticize and that we should replace with one that does not permit large numbers of people to be thrown out of work when they need the jobs and we need the goods and services they can produce, and if we don't need those goods and services then let's give those people a job with shorter hours so that they have the leisure without being unemployed which is where the suffering begins.

The final argument of the Marxists is that a system that creates great inequality and then imposes suffering through its instability is a system that is therefore unjust because the greatest sufferers in all the ups and downs of capitalism are the bottom half or the bottom two-thirds of the population. They're the last hired. They're the first fired. They are the ones with the low income. They're the ones who take it on the chin. So that the argument of the Marxist is we can do better. History hasn't stopped with capitalism. If capitalism was an improvement—which Marxists generally believe—over the slavery and the feudalism that existed beforehand, it also can be improved upon, and nobody should be allowed to shut down the conversation that Marxists insist on—that we can, we should, we need to do better, to find a system that works better.

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Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. We've been talking about this new book that I wrote, and that Democracy at Work has published as its first book project. It's called Understanding Marxism. Having given an overview in the first half of today's show, here's what I want to do in the second half: I want to encourage you to learn about, to read, to think about the Marxian tradition because of the insights it's had, because of the insights its followers have achieved. And in order to help persuade you to do that, I wanted to do a brief, bold, and highly incomplete survey of what Marxism has done already in the way of shaping modern culture, influencing modern ways of thought. It’s a much more pervasive and deeply ingrained way of thinking than many people recognize, and to that end I want to do this brief survey. Some of the names I'm going to mention to you are known very well, others are almost unknown. It's the breadth, the depth, the range of people whose work is influenced by Marxism that I want to underscore. And I'm going do this by geography and by history.

One of the first places that took up Marx's work with great excitement—and that might be understandable since Marx was originally a German—was in Austria—a German-speaking part of the world—in Vienna. And there were interesting people. Rudolf Hilferding, one of the great theorists of finance; the first one to systematically subject finance capitalism to a thoroughgoing analysis. His work has been influential in the last hundred years after he wrote it. Rudolf Hilferding, he worked together with others. The Adler brothers, who developed the whole strain of Marxist thinking called Austro-Marxism, and they did it at the turn of the 19th century in Vienna where there was a very close collection of intellectuals who picked up this Marxian thinking. They didn't agree with all of it, but they were shaped by it. And I might mention just one, so you get a sense of how Marxism has percolated through our system. Sigmund Freud was active in Vienna at that time and these intellectual circles overlapped with him as they did with Rudolf Carnap, with a whole new school of philosophy.

In Russia, it's a little bit better known. Marxists were very important, got real excited about Marx's work within 10-15 years after Marx died. Here's four names just I could pick out of many. Two you know real well: Lenin—the first leader of the Marxist revolution in Russia—Trotsky—his close ally and friend. The two of them, Lenin and Trotsky, being giants in their own writings, taking Marxism further but also being practitioners of the revolution to carry a system of capitalism into a new and different system—at least to make the effort. But here are two other Russians who were deeply influenced by Marxism: Maxim Gorky, perhaps the greatest novelist of the revolutionary time in Russia who produced a kind of working people's novel that has had influence across the world. And here's another named Sergei Eisenstein, the developer of the modern movie, the modern film, the modern cinema. His influence on all movies and cinema since is of the profoundest sort. He too, heavily influenced by Marxism.

Back in Germany—the generation that comes after Marx—Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg. Let me say a word about Rosa Luxemburg. She became the greatest woman Marxist of her time. She brought questions of Marxism to the condition of women, but she also brought them to some of the most profound analyses of capitalist economics that we have to this day. You will find her statues and her name on many of the squares in the middle of Berlin to this day as the Germans honor the extraordinary contribution she made before she was assassinated by right-wing military in 1919. Here's another name: Berthold Brecht, the greatest dramatist, arguably, of the 20th century; a Marxist who developed new styles of theater, how to write plays, how to present them, how to make them grab an audience. Likewise, in Germany, a group—the Frankfurt School—Marxists associated with the University of Frankfurt in that big city in Germany. Here's three names: Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse who eventually came to the United States, and Theodor Adorno, also affected by Marxism in Germany growing up. A natural scientist who came to America and became quite famous, Albert Einstein, who, in 1949, wrote a very famous article called “The Need for Socialism”—an idea he got from his influence from Marxism. Then in Hungary, Georg Lukács and the critique of modern consciousness—how a capitalist economy shapes the way people think about themselves and their close friends and their intimate relationships.

In Italy, a spectacular Marxist achievement in the work of Antonio Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party—the great enemy of the fascists who took over in Italy. He developed a critique of culture in his prison notebooks—because he was imprisoned by the fascists—that has shaped modern culture ever since.

In France, we have an enormous influence on Marxism. The entire surrealist tradition—Andre Breton, Rene Magritte—all the great names of surrealism one way or another directly or indirectly shaped by Marxism which they were students of. Names that you do know: Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the greatest philosopher of mid-century French thinking, the developer of existentialism and many other strains of modern thought. Louis Althusser, Jacque Derrida, Levi Strauss—for those of you who follow the social sciences, these Marxists have been giants in shaping most of them one way or another.

In England, there were great economists who were Marxists. Probably the most important—no, I'll take that back, not “probably”—the most important woman economist of the 20th century, a professor of economics at Cambridge University in Britain, Joan Robinson. She was one who taught my generation of young students of economics how there could be a Marxist approach. And her colleague at Cambridge Maurice Dobb wrote books that have trained an entire generation of Marxist economists to help understand what's going on in capitalism.

And of course, Europe is not the only place since Marxism spread all over the world. Here in the United States, we had important Marxist Paul Sweezy coming out of Harvard where he learned from Joseph Schumpeter, his teacher, what the importance of the Marxist tradition was. And he taught again a generation of young economists how to appreciate the insights of Karl Marx. Or a famous labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who took the work of Marx and made herself one of the great leaders of the labor movement in twentieth-century United States. Frederick Jameson, still teaching at Duke University in the American South bringing a Marxist criticism to literature. Richard Lewontin, biology professor at Harvard who tried to bring the Marxist insights into the natural sciences. W. E B. Du Bois, the leading intellectual of African-American culture in the 20th century and a close student of Marxism. Cornel West, who might well be considered the next the inheritor of the Du Bois or the W. E. B. Du Bois tradition—mixing together his philosophic interests, his theological interests, and his critique of racism. Our friend Chris Hedges who frequently appears on this program and is a major spokesman for Marxist-influenced thinking.

And of course, in China where the tradition of Mao—you know, all of its permutations—is also a testimony to how the Marxian tradition extends beyond the Europe where it was born. In Asia, the Dutt family in India; Nâzim Hikmet, one of the great poets in Turkey; Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Just to pick a few of the people whose lives and work and massive influence on their countries and the world are also in part debts to the Marxian tradition.

Africa too, from Frantz Fanon in the north analyzing capitalist imperialism and how it impacts the mentality—the literal brain work—of the people subjected to it; all the way down to the southern tip, the African National Congress in the South, in South Africa where Marxists were leaders in that movement and throughout the struggles against apartheid; and finally to the middle of Africa where people as different as Kwame Nkrumah the leader of independent Ghana and Amilcar Cabral, a Marxist intellectual in the center of Africa made their contributions.

And onto South America where Walter Rodney and Eric Williams produced the greatest analyses of slavery and the slave trade that we still have. Eugene Genovese picked up on that here in the United States and developed his signature analyses of American slavery. In Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, the influence of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, of the Zapatistas in Mexico, politically not only their thinking but also their practice. Marxism is a mixture of theory and practice. And let me end with a couple of artists, groups of artists. In Chile, Pablo Neruda, one of the great poets of an attempt to understand people's suffering through the lens of a Marxist mentality which he freely and openly acknowledged. And perhaps the greatest painters that Mexico ever produced—its muralists—the incredible collection of Diego Rivera or Roscoe Siqueiros and the better-known Frida Kahlo who together produced murals and paintings that have put Mexico in a remarkable position as stimulating and inspiring a whole tradition of art.

Look, folks, as capitalism encounters ever greater criticism and opposition, the search for alternatives and for a better world will open minds to socialism and from there to Marxism. From the socialism that wants to improve, overcome the suffering of people under capitalism to a Marxism that argues that system change is the necessary solution. Marxism has been there for a hundred and fifty years. It's not going away. It has its ups and downs, but like Mark Twain said when he read an obituary of him in the newspaper, “Predictions of my death have been quite exaggerated” and so it has been with Marxism. It’s a tradition that has moved some of the greatest minds of the last hundred and fifty years. It has shaped our history far more than those who don't know it are willing to acknowledge or admit, and that's why we wrote this book. That's why we're proud to have produced this book called Understanding Marxism. It's an attempt to give an overview, an insight. it's a short book designed to be accessible, and we are proud to make it available. It's easy to get. Once again, it's called Understanding Marxism. I'm the author. Democracy at Work has produced it and the easiest way for you to find out about this is to simply go to and look for either my name “Richard Wolff” or the title Understanding Marxism. Thank you very much for your attention. and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Eric Fleischmann

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 Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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