[May 2022] New
Marxism: From Critique of Capitalism to Alternative System [May 2022]
with Richard D. Wolff
Co-sponsored by Democracy at Work, Left Forum & Judson Memorial Church
In this lecture, Prof. Wolff will discuss the following:
- Rising US labor militancy: Amazon to Grinnell College
- Housing and stock market: bubbles and bursts
- French left unity: a model for the world?
- McConnell, GOP serve lenders, crush students with debt
Transcript has been edited for clarity
Welcome friends and thank you for joining me for another Global Capitalism Live Economic Update. This evening we have two parts. In the opening part, I'll do four short pieces of analysis on issues in the news and in the second half of this evening's program we're going to take a longer and deeper dive into Marx and Marxism and what has happened to it over its history. The fifth of May was the anniversary of Karl Marx's birth. His influence is very powerful across the intervening centuries and I want to bring it up to date because, in part, many of you have asked me to do exactly that.
So let's begin with the short—what we call short takes—the first one many of you already know about—the rising militancy of the American working class. It is remarkable, you all know or I think, many of you do, of the great breakthrough win of the Amazon workers (over a thousand of them) at a Staten Island, New York, Amazon shipping and warehousing center. Christopher Smalls has worked with us a little bit, on the Economic Update show we produce, to explain the sources and the implications of that victory. Indeed, since then, with the victory behind him, he has been interviewed on many mass media interview programs and invited to the White House—which is either a sign that the White House understands what's going on—or that its desperation for votes is taking it into areas before unavailable.
Then there's another example or two I want to bring to your attention, partly because it shows how powerful this renewal of the labor militancy movement really is in the United States—how widespread it is—but also to drive home that something historic is shifting. Starbucks is also a place well known in this country for the national chain…the international chain of coffee shops that it operates but also for the tone deafness of its CEO and its very ham-fisted response to the mostly successful efforts to organize, to unionize Starbucks coffee shops. Not only is this proceeding very, very well—far better than anyone foresaw—but the mistake of the leadership of Starbucks (after some of the union leaders were invited to the White House) was to chastise the White House for not having brought along the executives of Starbucks to be there when the president and other leaders spoke to the workers…as if, somehow, the none so well-hidden idea that in this country corporations own the government—which has been the case for a long time—as if somehow this entitled the CEO to chastise his servant, the president, for meeting in a way that the CEO didn’t approve. It is a sign of change that this is now open.
Here's the last example…I have many I could have presented if we had more time…but this one is unusual and I want to drive it home. Iowa, a state right in the middle of the United States, has a famous four-year liberal arts college known as Grinnell College—well-reputed…very high records of achievement with its students and so on. Like many colleges they solve economic difficulties of the college by offering students (who have difficulty paying for the college) on-campus jobs. Many of the students (either to supplement their loans or to escape at least some of the borrowing) take these jobs and the university takes advantage, in most cases like this, by paying these workers poorly and making their lives difficult…as a way of saving money.
This was the case in Grinnell as well but the difference was the students were upset with it and they made an interesting decision. Unlike other students who have on occasion tried to organize—this the dining room here or the library staff over there—they made a different effort because the times are different. They made an effort to organize across the entire college—all the student workers [who were] being paid poorly [and] being treated poorly. They said, “Let’s have a union, so that our work is recognized…our status as workers is recognized. If we're going to be workers as well as students well then—we want to be treated appropriately as workers—as well as being treated appropriately as students.” They went through the procedures and a couple of weeks ago they had a vote and the students at Grinnell (to the surprise particularly of the leadership of that university) voted in favor of the union. But that's not as important as what the vote was—the vote for unionization by the students was 327 in favor [and] 6 against. That is a sign of a change in the mentality and the attitudes. Capitalism has pushed conditions in this country to a point where the backlash is beginning to accumulate.
My second short take for today has to do with the housing market and the stock market. For those of you that don't pay attention to these particular markets here in the United States, let me tell you that in recent years they have been zooming upwards. So much so that a very scary word has come to be widely used to describe what's happened—a bubble—a housing bubble and a stock market bubble. This word bubble is used when someone's judgment is that the prices have risen so far, so fast that it's not sustainable and that the minute the mood changes (for whatever reason) you're going to see a crash…a collapse…a movement down— as frighteningly overdone as the movement up was. Housing prices have gone nuts in this country over the last two years—not just the price of a home if you own it, but also the price of an apartment if you rent it.
Yet, what we're about to see is a population that cannot afford these prices—that is the gap between affordability—how much income you have—and the price of your home has gotten wider and wider. The reason we measure that is because you reach a point…a tipping point if you like…where a majority of the people can no longer afford and what that means is that you're on the edge of a cliff as people start to be unable to afford it. Well then, suddenly the houses have to be sold because these people can't keep up their mortgage or the house has to be abandoned because they're fleeing their obligations to pay…or the apartment has to be abandoned. And we are having this happen when? At the same time that the government has ended the ban on eviction so that the landlords are now in a position not only to raise the rents as they’ve been doing but to evict those who cannot pay. We are looking at a potential tsunami of homelessness in this country and we already have a serious problem of homelessness in this country.
And finally the Federal Reserve, to try to cope with the inflation generally, is raising interest rates. The mortgage rate in this country has shot up in the last month and a half meaning that the price of the house and the home is higher than ever and the borrowing cost to buy it is higher than ever. Either one of those alone could crash the housing market—the two together at the same time? Watch out.
And now the stock market…between November of 2021 and May of 2022…the largest stock market in this country, the NASDAQ market, dropped by 25 percent. That’s not a crash coming…that's not a burst to the bubble coming…that is the bubble bursting. The stock market has had remarkable drops across the month of April and it's continuing in the month of May. This is a very serious problem. Either the housing market or the stock market with crashes will have extraordinary fallout effect across the system—not just the United States but globally.
The notion that the economy of the United States is strong (which is what our leaders tell us) [and] is recovering from the crash and pandemic of 2020 and 2021—this is one of the great examples of wishful thinking that I can think of in world history. My advice to all of you—be very careful…be very cautious. The gap between fantasy and reality in economics is reaching frightening proportions.
My next update…my short uptake…has to do with something coming from France, an example of political unity on the left that I think demands and deserves much more attention than it got. In the aftermath of the presidential elections…two of them that took place in France in April, (the way the French system works [is] many parties contest for the position of president) you had…I don't know…eight, nine. ten different parties. Just as a matter of side interest—the French of course want to have freedom of choice. They like to have a lot of choice when they vote for their leadership—particularly their president. We here in America, of course, are different. We don't value freedom of choice. Well perhaps we do when we go to the supermarket or the drugstore and are thinking about purchasing toothpaste. Then we would like the 10 or 20 varieties of color and shape and advertising claims that distinguish one from the other but when it comes to politics two is quite enough. Hard enough to keep many of them [the parties] separate one from the other so we don't have that…but [in France] they do and so their presidential election has two rounds. The first round—all candidates contest and in the second round, the two highest vote getters out of the first round go at it again and the winner of that [round] is then elected president.
Well I want to tell you about the left in France. The left was represented in the first round by four political parties. The largest is called France Unbowed—their leader, a man whose name I believe you're going to be hearing much more of—Jean Luc Mélenchon is his name. He got 22 percent of the vote in the first round. In other words, more than one out of five French people voted for this French political leader who is staunchly anti-capitalist. His belief is that France can do better than capitalism.
The other three parties on the left, also contesting for president were the French Socialist Party, the French Communist Party and the French Green Party. If you put together the percentage of the votes that were gotten by all four…if they had been able to get together and back one candidate—it would have had to be Mr. Mélenchon because he gets much more than any of the other three [parties]—and then, the combined vote of those four left parties was larger than the vote for the sitting president (Mr. Macron) and the election would have been between Mélenchon on the left and Mr. Macron on the right. But, because they [the left] were divided, none of them entered the second round. The second round was between the sitting president—who by the way had gotten 28 percent of the vote in the first round—and the right wing challenger, Marine Le Pen.
Why am I telling you this? Because in the first week of May, the four parties managed to finally recognize that their division was making them all lose the real economic and political power that they in fact represent—and that if they got together they could do things in a unified way…far beyond what they could achieve being separate. The divisions on the left—which have hobbled it in so many countries—have now, at least as a major first step, been overcome. The four parties—France Unbowed, France's Socialist party, France’s Communist party and France's Green party will all get together and field one candidate in the parliamentary election which comes up next month in June. Their goal is to win in the parliament enough power to thwart—to block—Mr. Macron from his right wing agenda and, if possible, move forward on a unified left agenda.
For those who think that the left can never unify…can never overcome the divisions that have indeed hobbled it…France, right now, is offering a very important counter example.
My fourth and final short take has to do with this perennial issue—student loan debts…student debts from going to college. The stimulation for this was a comment made by Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican party in the Senate, who said (typical of him) that he was totally against all of this and with deep insight, he criticized the effort to relieve student debt on two grounds. One that it was socialism to relieve debts and number two that a lot of these people who want their debts relieved are rich kids who go to fancy Ivy League schools.
Now both those statements are wrong—factually wrong and silly and only reflect badly on Mr. McConnell and clearly, given his history, he doesn't need more than he already has that does that for him. But I want to respond because other people are parroting these kinds of arguments. Relieving debts (Mr. McConnell might want to learn) is something that has the approval (and I'm going to pick this carefully because I want to reach Mr. McConnell's followers)…[debt relief] has a grounding in, among other places, the Bible. Leviticus 25, the Old Testament, is a place many people have gone to over the centuries to show that there it is stated that God himself wishes there to be what some have called periodic jubilees.
The idea—which is very old, predates the Bible and exists in many cultures—that periodically inequality should be undone in a community…debts forgiven, loans rearranged and land redivided so that we kind of all start again on an equal footing. And, that yes—while we were experiencing different results—we could enjoy them—but at a certain point they shouldn't harden into a perpetuation of inequality. We should undo it. Take our destiny in our hands and forgive—among other things—our debts. The idea that the forgiveness of debt is socialism not only misunderstands socialism—no major socialist has ever advocated that as a particularly core idea in or for socialism—but it also is the ignorance of not knowing the Christian or biblical tradition that Mr McConnell [and] so many others like him invoke every chance they get… when and if an extra vote might be gotten by doing so.
And now let's turn to the second rationale. Don’t relieve student debt because there are Ivy Leaguers from comfortable families who might have their debts [forgiven]. Really, I find this a remarkable…a really remarkable argument…coming from a republican who was a leader of the effort of Donald Trump's administration to cut taxes on corporations in December of 2017. This was one of the largest tax cuts ever given to corporations. One of the largest tax cuts ever given to the richest people in this country. At no time did Mr. McConnell or any other leading republican suggest that the tax cuts shouldn't be given to just anybody.
For example, a corporation that had been making record profits in the last five years obviously didn't need a tax cut. If it didn't need one, it shouldn't get one—but nothing like that was ever said. All the tax cuts were distributed to all the companies who obviously didn't need it. But when it comes to forgiving the students—need—should suddenly be in the forefront of Mr. McConnell's mind. Only by counting on people not thinking or being aware (even of the most basic realities) could the kind of nonsense spewing out of McConnell’s mouth solicit anything other than raucous ridicule which is what [is] deserved. What's the reality behind it?
The reality behind it which sadly is also affecting Mr. Biden, who promised student debt relief and hasn't delivered it…the reality is this—the biggest banks in the United States and the major other lenders—they know that there are masses, millions, tens of millions, in fact, in this country hundreds of millions of Americans who are in debt. Mortgage debt, car payment debt, credit card debt and student debt [are] the four horsemen of the debt apocalypse. They don't want to relieve anybody's debt. They want to squeeze every last dollar of repayment out and that's why they're against opening the door even a little crack. Don't even give the students something. Don't even give them a little of what they owe—don't give them any relief at all—squeeze them…squeeze them. That's why they're against it and that's why the politicians—who depend on those big banks and the other lenders—are so hesitant to do what all 45 million Americans carrying student debt have been begging them to do. Not a pretty picture. You live in it and I live in it and that's the reality.
A moment, if I can, before we go into our major conversation about Marx and Marxism— GCLEU, that is the name of our evening. Global Capitalism Live Economic Update is produced by Democracy at Work. It's a non-profit, small donor-funded media project. We are now celebrating our 10th year anniversary producing critical system analysis and visions of a more equitable and democratic world.
Today I want to highlight the first book of several that we have published—it's one I wrote called Understanding Marxism and it is, in a way, a companion to the very discussion we're about to have for the rest of this evening's talk. It talks about why Marx is more relevant than ever now. Why understanding Marxism—its achievements, its failures—is a valuable way to plan and to understand what we have to do now in our society to make it better. It’s available as a paperback, an e-book, an audio book and now also a hardcover book with a new introduction. Just go to our website, democracyatwork.info/books and you can learn more about all of our books—how to order them and all the rest that you might want to know.
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All right, let me turn then to Marx and Marxism. You have asked me to talk about this—I have done so. I've written that book but I also want to talk in a way—right up to date now—about why and how Marxism is relevant and is something that I think of as a resource for all of us to draw on. To draw what we need to do and do better…what we need to avoid, what we need to adjust—it’s a cornucopia of useful insights. The society that refuses to look at them is a society that hobbles its own development.
So Marx, born May 5th 1818, remains with us. It's a remarkable story. This German-born thinker, who lived most of his adult life in London, England, did a lot of his intellectual work writing in English (as a major journalist covering the American Civil War for an English London newspaper and for a New York newspaper as well), has had an incredible growth.
It's one of the great stories of the spread of an idea. He died in 1883 so we're talking 140 years since he finished his work. During that time, his ideas have spread into every country on the face of this earth. In a time that is historically very short—140 years—those ideas appeal to people from Iceland to South Africa from Peru to Malaysia to China to Canada. I could go on. You all know in every one of those countries there are Marxist magazines and Marxist publishing houses—Marxist political parties in many of them. Marxist fill in the blank…there are whole governments that refer to themselves as Marxist-inspired including the government of the largest country on this planet—the People’s Republic of China. So the spread and the influence is spectacular.
Obviously, I cannot summarize this because any set of ideas that spreads that quickly and that geographically diversified will be interpreted in different ways by the societies into which those ideas arrive. Different history, different culture, different religion means you interpret whatever part of Marx's work you encounter in your own inimitable way. That's why the Marxian tradition is rich and diverse and if I had more time, I'd work with you to make sure you never allow again someone who either likes it or doesn't like (it really doesn't matter) to tell you that Marxism is…there is no Marxism is…because Marxism is too big and too diverse. If you want to learn about Marxism—you’re going to have to discover and learn about the different interpretations and different traditions that govern this remarkable historical phenomena.
Having said all that, let me try anyway to give you an overview of past and present. Marx begins (and this is extremely important) in his own time, the 19th century that he lived across, the time of the American Civil War, right in the middle of his life, growing up in Germany but living most of his adult life in Britain. He argues that capitalism is the problem. Marx doesn't write a book about socialism, he doesn't write a book about communism—he barely writes anything about that. He didn't believe in looking into the future and speculating on what might happen. The world was constantly surprising everybody and Marx knew it and accepted it. What he said he could do and should do was analyze the system that he felt was holding back human progress and that system was capitalism…settling in all around him in Germany and already established in England where he then lived. So that's what he did and he reached the conclusion that capitalism was a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. You may be surprised to learn he was very clear on what he thought the strengths were—technological, dynamic change for example. Creating a real world market for example…these were things that capitalism was producing which in the long run he felt were positive. But, he also felt that capitalism had very severe weaknesses and flaws—and that those were going to eventually drive people in capitalism to do what earlier systems had driven their people to do. [Marx’s idea was] mainly to develop the idea that we can do better than the system we've had and to fight to make that change and to get rid of the old system for a new one. Village economies gave way to whole national economies. Slavery gave way in Europe, for example, to feudalism. Feudalism gave way to capitalism. The slaves eventually made slavery’s continuation impossible like the serfs did for feudalism.
Marx set himself the task of asking who would do that for capitalism…who will be the agent…the engine to move society forward. His answer was the working class. His answer was the employees—not out of some romantic notion but as a very hard-nosed kind of analysis—that the way this system works—it'll take time and there will be every effort to slow or block the process but sooner or later the harsh reality of capitalism will lead the mass of people who do the work—the employees—to say that their salvation, their needs can only be met (or will best be met) by a change of system—which is really what Marx’s contribution was. For him, capitalism was unequal, unstable and unjust. It didn't reward people according to their needs or their hard work. It didn't reward people with anything like equality.
The revolutionary slogans that brought capitalism into the world…in the French Revolution…the American Revolution and others—they were all about liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy but the actual capitalism we got didn't have any of those. No liberty. You can't have liberty if you're starving. You can't have liberty if you have to go to work nine to five, six days a week. Nine to five…it took generations of workers to get the working day down to nine to five. Early capitalism was mostly 12 to 14 hours a day.
When Marx analyzed it, you know what he looked at? Sort of interesting…he looked at the workplace…at the factory, the office, the store and he noticed that in those situations were the roots—the core cause—of capitalism's inequality, instability and injustice in the very details of production…what Marx devoted himself to in Volume 1 of Capital, his major life work that he published in 1867. He looks at that workplace and he says,“Here’s what's going on” and you all know this even if you never read a word of Marx—he says, “Here’s what's going on. A tiny number of people, the owner of the business…maybe the partnership that runs it…maybe if it's a corporation, the board of directors…10-15 people…they make all the key decisions. They decide what's to be produced how it's to be produced, where it's to be produced and what is done with the output that all the workers help to produce. But all the workers are excluded from making the decisions—they have to live with the results. They have to do the work or else they’re fired and their lives are wrecked. They're not free—they don't have much liberty. They have to come to work but all the key decisions are made by a tiny group of people that are in no way accountable to the mass of the employees.”
There's no democracy in the workplace and Marx lays that out and then he finishes it. He says to us (and I'm going to paraphrase now) think about the basic deal between the employer and the employee. The employee comes and says, “I want a job.” The employer says, “I got one.” The employee says, “Give me the details.” The employer provides them. Then they get to that crucial question. Employee: “How much am I going to get paid?” Employer: “Let's see, would $20 an hour work out?” and let’s suppose this employee wants that. After all, in the United States the minimum wage is 7 dollars and a quarter as I speak to you and 20 dollars is three times the minimum wage (just about). The employee agrees and Marx says this is the “Aha” moment because what has to be understood is that when that worker gives the employer an hour of his or her labor—that is an hour of his or her mental and physical effort to produce whatever that employer sells. “Here’s what we know”—says Marx to us—teaching us—“the only way the employer is going to give that worker 20 dollars for an hour of that worker’s mental and physical effort is if that effort yields more for the capitalist to sell—for the employer to sell—than it cost him to hire that worker. The extra hour I'll give you 20—but—I've got to have more than 20 worth of extra output when it comes time to sell what you've helped to produce. Because the difference between what I pay you and what I get from your labor—that's my profit and that's what I'm in business for and if that isn't enough—I'm not going to hire you.” So the worker gets back what he, she needs to reproduce himself. The capitalist, the employer gets back the profit each worker's labor helps to contribute. That's why the workers are perpetually barely making ends meet and deep in debt and the employers get richer and richer as they succeed in playing the capitalist game.
So Marx's conclusion was clear—this system has to be changed. This system—and right at the core—in the workplace we have got to stop an arrangement in which a mass of people work hard to enable a very small number of people to control everything and to amass the riches that labor together achieves. If we don't change that system, we will be looking at inequality, instability and injustice forever. That's why the system has to be changed.
Very similar to the logic of slaves saying: “Look, look, look we're not going to successfully escape the horrible conditions we're in—even if we can persuade a master to give us a better diet, to give us a better set of clothing, give us a better place to sleep. What we can persuade him to give us, he can also take away.” Why? because he's the master and we're the slave. The only way to finally get out of this impossible, unjust, unfair situation is to stop a system that divides people into masters and slaves. Marx says, “We’re going to have to do something like that here in capitalism also. Stop some of us from being employers and others the employee.”
If the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery, then a future amendment will have to abolish employment. This is an arrangement that has produced many more problems than we as a system are able to solve.
So the early years of the life of Marx—with one exception—was a life in which the development of his ideas, what we have come to call Marxism, and the tradition of critical thinking was overwhelmingly (with one exception) a critique of capitalism. What was the one exception? It happened in 1871. So roughly, 125 years ago…it happened only for a few weeks and it happened in the city of Paris, France. It has been known ever since by the name it took, the Paris Commune. In the midst of a war that the French lost to the Germans, the people of Paris suffering through the loss of the war turned on the government that had lost the war and said, “We’ve no confidence in you. We are not allowing you to run the capital city of this country, Paris. We're taking it over in the name of the majority—the working people of Paris—who will now govern themselves. We're not going to allow the king…we're not going to allow the prime minister…we're not going to allow the whole apparatus. We're going to run [it].” And they did.
Marx himself—even though he was across the English Channel in London—had people that were close to him working very closely in the leadership of the Paris Commune. It was the first time that a Marxist group had a new task. It wasn't the task of criticizing capitalism—that they had been doing and doing a very good job—but for the first time they were now in charge. Granted, it was only a city and granted, it was only a few weeks, but it meant that something new was happening to Marxism.
Now let’s fast forward and go to 1917 and even earlier in Germany…end of the 19th century…beginning of the 20th…two important things happen that further this transition so that Marxism (which continues to be a critical tradition looking at capitalism critically) is now becoming also—along side of that, kind of two tracks—a movement of new social construction. A new way of organizing society—a new way of being. You might call it an alternative to capitalism, not just a critique of it. In 1917, the Russian Revolution—capitalism is overthrown by a group of Marxists who announce, “We're going to set up an alternative.” There it is.
Marxists, many of whom were outstanding critics of capitalism, had been writing for years some of the seminal works in that field but suddenly, they're in charge of a government. In Germany, which almost had such a revolution…they didn’t—but they did something similar—they built a powerful new political party—the SPD. In German, Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands (Socialist Party of Germany). It became the second biggest party by the end of the 19th century. It had achieved real power and it was contesting to become the state apparatus.
Very close to the time the Russians made their revolution and seized power in 1917—about a year or year and a half later—the collapse of the German army at the end of World War I (when they lost the war) meant that somebody had to take power in Germany to sign the surrender—to sign the documents of the end of the war. The two gentlemen who did that, Ebert and Scheidemann by name, were officials of the Socialist Party of Germany. It had taken over—in the aftermath of a defeat—the government. What we now call the Weimar Republic—that enormously democratic experiment in governance in the 1920s in Germany—was in part organized, led and inspired by socialists.
So the debate became—Okay, now, we as Marxists, (because the Socialist party of Germany had been founded in part by Marx, by Marx's family members and was committed to Marxism as the theory of how to reorganize society) the Germans did it through the ballot box…the Russians did it through violent revolution…The debates in Marxism became: Which is the right way to go? Which is the better way to go? Is one preferred to the other? and so on. The government became a kind of focus for marxists. The very idea of the state as having an enormous political and economic power became central to the Marxist tradition. Why? Because they were in charge of the government—they had seized the government and they had thought—this is what they said to each other—that winning the government by revolution or by election would then give us the means—the government—with which to carry through a more far-reaching transformation.
This idea just got stronger and stronger in the subsequent decades partly because capitalism crashed. The worst crash of global capitalism so far in its history (1929-1940) During this crash capitalism looked for all the world like it was over…like it was falling apart and everywhere government was called in to rescue what was left of capitalism. That was what John Maynard Keynes in England thought he was doing—figuring out how to save capitalism—basically, from itself.
After World War II, the third world, the former colonies of capitalism broke away. India, Africa…all over…set up new governments and they thought right away—We need the government to achieve our number one goal and that's called economic development. So, wherever you looked—inside Marxism—outside Marxism—the state was the vehicle, the agent that was going to solve the problem. Wow, this focus on the state was a phase of socialism and of Marxism but it suffered two results (that we're now living through)…this focus on the state.
The first one was that a strong state could and did save capitalism from the ultimate collapse it came so close to in the 1930s. In other words, a strong state (even one captured by people who wanted to use it to do more) could frustrate that goal [of ending capitalism]. The state instead of being a mechanism to go beyond capitalism could reverse and become a mechanism to reinforce and stabilize capitalism. That is what Keynes wanted and that is what Keynesian economics in the decades after World War II mostly achieved. It did that in the advanced part of the world and it did it in the third world where strong governments turned out not to be the vehicle to go beyond capitalism but to actually be the mechanism whereby capitalists in Western Europe, North America and Japan could solidify their hold on the colonial countries but without operating a colonial government. Cut a deal with the new strong government in every African, Latin American, Asian [country] and you can get the deals done that you need done without appearing for it all to be happening in London or Paris or Rome or New York.
Then, looking at the Soviet Union, it became clear that there was another problem with this focus on the government…that even if the government did help you get beyond capitalism it might get you to a place that wasn’t the socialism or the communism you had hoped for…It could get you to a horrible dictatorship government a Stalinism, if you like, and so socialists had to bite the bullet. They had to face the fact that the focus on the government had been overdone—not just overdone by those who were critical of capitalism but overdone by everybody…third-world people looking for development, Soviet people looking for transition to socialism and everybody else. And so, a period starting around the 1980s-1990s—accelerated by the implosion of the USSR—a process of self-criticism within Marxism took place and that's where we are today.
But, I want to be clear about what that means— it means that Marxism has, in a way, gone through a difficult detour. The detour of the over-development of the state, the focus on the state, the inadequate attention to what has to be in place if the state is even going to do what you had hoped and expected it to do. But the state by itself isn't the solution—So then…What is?
The return to Marx…is the effort to answer that question and by return to Marx, I mean to return to what I spoke to you about a few moments ago. The focus by Marx, in Volume One particularly of Capital, on the specifics of the organization of the workplace—the factory, the office, the store—to begin to say look, that's what Marx saw as the core. And yet that wasn't the focus of that period of time when both Marxists and non-Marxists overstated what the state could do, would do, should do. Those moments, starting at the end of the 19th century and running through most of the 20th—those moments in diverse parts of the world did not pay attention to the organization of the workplace.
Mostly they took that as given somehow—by modern technology or simply natural—that there somehow had to be a small number of people who made all the decisions. An employer on the one hand— employees—the majority—on the other. That this was somehow an unavoidable, necessary, unsurpassable way of organizing work. This was a terrible mistake—because it meant that you got rid of the private employer if you were a socialist and substituted a state official but you left the employer-employee relationship there. You just changed who [was the employer].
You know who else made the similar mistake? Those third-world countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, they got rid of the colonial master who ran their enterprises and they instead got people from their own community—people with their same religion, with their same skin color, with their same colonial background. They changed who was the employer—they didn't understand any better than the socialists in Russia understood that changing who the employer is…is not enough. It gives the state the power but that power is shaped by the core institution of employer and employee and that continues whether the employer is private or [a] state official.
So the new Marxism—the one that I am quite confident now will become the Marxism of the 21st century—will be different from the one inherited from the 19th and 20th [centuries]. It will, in a step forward, include going back to Marx's focus at the micro level…his focus on a transformation of the workplace…what we call the democratization of the workplace… so that the workplace is a place where democracy is installed. The democracy that we installed—limited though it is—in our political sphere, you know, when we got rid of the kings, when we got rid of the absolute rulers—the czars, the emperors and all of them. We said, “We’re not going to have this…we're not going to have a government in which you leave it to your son or your daughter. Uh-uh, the government is to be democratized. We’re all going to vote—all of us—old, young, white, black, male, female. Sooner or later—universal suffrage—we're all going to vote and you're going to have to answer to us every year, every two years, whatever it is.”
We democratized our politics. We got rid—sometimes literally—of the kings and queens but (as I like to say sometimes to my students) the kings and queens were clever. They realized that their days were over but that they might survive if they change their outfit, change their name—there might be a place where they could go and hide and still be the king. We all know now where they went and how they hid. We call them now by their new name CEO. They're the little wannabe kings inside each corporation dictating to everybody the way a king used to…and the answer of modern Marxism will be—Watch out CEO!— because what befell the kings in the past is what's in store for you—in a future that might be much closer than you think.
The rising criticism of capitalism around the world—the fact as we spoke about at the beginning of this evening that labor militancy is on the rise at Amazon, at Starbucks, at Grinnell College and countless other places—these are all signs that there is a change coming. Marxism with its attempt to understand both what was strong about the critique of capitalism and where it made a mistake, where it was weak, where it has to learn from its mistake, the over emphasis on the state. The state will have a role to play. We will need coordination in big societies with large numbers of people. But, the collectivization, the co-operativization—the democratization of the workplace that replaces top-down hierarchical capitalist workplaces with democratic horizontal workplaces—they will still need to be coordinated. Whether we call that coordination the state or not, time will tell. This is not a proposal that there be no state but it is a proposal to ratchet way down the importance, the focus, the concentration on the state that has been so central to the past of Marxism.
But nothing could further support the proposition that lay behind planning this evening's conversation about Marx. Nothing was more important in promoting that and provoking that than realizing that the project Marx began—like other powerful projects—will go through steps forward, steps backward—that cannot be avoided. But, what can be done is to learn from both the achievements and the failures so that the next steps are that much better.
Marx's original work—focusing us on the workplace organization—tells us what we need to do now…the critique of capitalism…but that critique focused…on the organization of the enterprise. And the solution to capitalism, again, focused on the democratization of that enterprise. That’s a strategy. That's a focus. That is an approach to what the critique of capitalism means and what the solution is that not only has all that I've tried to argue to recommend it but that also will be delivered over the years to come to populations in the United States and beyond…who will be in a way learning something new because the socialism they have been worked so hard to reject is the socialism of the state. That's not where Marxism is taking socialism now. Which means we have a message for which the ideological indoctrination of the mass of people is little in the way of a defense. When Mitch McConnell has to call socialism the relief of debts as generations of Christians have celebrated as jubilee, you're already witnessing the inability to come to terms with the world and the attempt to use the language of the old Cold War as if it were still with us. That is a mistake of the greatest importance, ideologically of the greatest importance to the history of the United States.
All right, folks. We've come to the end of this evening's program and I want to ask you all as a kind of closure—to thank you for joining us—to stay up to date with all the work that Democracy at Work is doing by joining our mailing list. The easiest way to do that is to go to our website democracyatwork.info where that will be an easy thing to do and allow us to keep in closer contact with you. For your attention, thank you.
Transcript by Barbara Bartlett
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Check out the NEW 2021 Hardcover edition of “Understanding Marxism,” with a new, lengthy introduction by Richard Wolff! Visit: 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.”
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