Read an excerpt of the new introduction to the 2021 “Understanding Marxism” hardcover edition

The 2021 hardcover edition of Understanding Marxism features a lengthy new introduction by author Richard D. Wolff. In the following excerpt, Prof Wolff shares some of his personal experiences with the suppression of Marxism in his own education.

“The Cold War suppression of Marxism in the US took many forms. Jobs and incomes were lost, forcing the afflicted into careers far removed from their educations and passions. Teachers, civil servants of all kinds, artists (writers, musicians, actors, etc.), union officials, and many others were deprived of positions of respect and influence in their communities. Some were arrested, imprisoned or deported. A carefully cultivated atmosphere emerged that taught millions to avoid and suspect even the most moderate of leftist speech, writing, etc. The Cold War deprived US residents of opportunities to learn from the Marxian tradition, including its debates and changes. Marxism’s already great influence around the world by 1945 should have been enough to justify keeping abreast of that tradition’s evolution. But so intense were campaigns to reverse the New Deal and extinguish the “red menace,” that suppression utterly blocked engagement. Criticism of capitalism became disloyalty; advocacy of a change toward socialism became treason. Hysterical defensiveness shut down open, honest debate over the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism versus socialism. Everything was reduced to an extreme, crude we-versus-them mentality.

My personal trajectory can illustrate some of these Cold War effects. Born in Ohio, I am a product of US schooling, including its “elite” universities: undergraduate at Harvard, master's in economics from Stanford, and PhD in economics from Yale. I spent 10 years of my life in those three institutions, two semesters per year. During those 20 semesters, concentrated mostly on history and economics, we studied the capitalist economic system 99 percent of the time. For 19 of those 20 semesters, our assignments included not one word of Marx nor of Marxist critics of capitalism. In one of the 20 semesters, Professor Paul A. Baran taught a course at Stanford that used Marx’s theories that we were assigned to read and discuss. As an isolated, exceptional academic, Baran confirmed explicitly what I had come to understand implicitly. So total (totalitarian) was the demonization of Marxism that even the intellectuals, in and out of academia, were afraid to go anywhere near it, to look at it, to read it, to think about it, to risk being thought of as “interested in” Marxism...

In choosing which of many such vignettes to relate here I cannot use some even now. I still need to protect individuals who use Marxism in their work — that is often widely praised and approved — by not mentioning their names in association with that use. So let me conclude these personal reflections with a story about my years as a Harvard undergraduate. I majored in history there and graduated magna cum laude (lots of A’s). I had met a Marxist scholar who lived in Cambridge, Fritz Pappenheim. He kindly spent many hours discussing and effectively tutoring me in Marxism, which I appreciated enormously. Nothing remotely similar was available at Harvard. When my courses at Harvard assigned term papers for students to prepare, I would discuss them with Fritz and ask his help in using the assignment to include research into what Marxists had written about specific topics I chose. He gave me bibliographies and answered questions that arose as I read through them. The papers I wrote and handed in often got not merely an A grade but comments about the “originality” of my approach, the “interesting connections” drawn between economic history and other histories, and so on. Fritz and I laughed often since we both knew that what I composed in my papers was a first, relatively crude and somewhat mechanical application of Marxism. I got A’s because my professors knew little or nothing about Marxism or its literature on the topics they assigned to us. In effect, they gave Marx the “A” by giving it to my paper. They just did not know they were doing so. Their studied ignorance of Marx was that total...

Marxism is worth understanding. It offers new directions for social development beyond and better than the capitalism we have. That is why Democracy at Work wrote and published this book, and why we have produced this new introduction for the hardcover edition. The positive reactions of readers have mounted far beyond our expectations. The demonstrated appetite to understand the Marxist tradition of thought and action prompted us to produce an eBook and now this hardcover edition. Our goal was, and remains, to explain and share our excitement about the ways in which Marxism helps us to critically rethink capitalism today.” 


Get your copy today. Professor Wolff generously donated his time and work to this book so that all sales revenue could go to support [email protected]


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  • Eric Halvarson
    published this page in Updates 2021-11-01 09:37:34 -0400
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