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Richard Wolff on Capitalism and Socialism: An Interview with C. J. Polychroniou

1.  In a paper you co-authored nearly twenty years ago with Stephen Resnick for a co-edited book of mine, you highlighted the fact that here was a time when it was thought that societies can follow “one of two mutually exclusive forms. The first form, capitalism, is usually defined in terms of three key components: markets (determining prices and wages), private ownership of the means of production (including labor power), and, thus wage labor. The second, communism (or socialism), is generally defined as the absence of the same three components.” Ever since, you have been a leading advocate of the idea that these variables do not distinguish capitalism from socialism or communism, relying on a particular Marxist class analysis approach. Let’s start by asking you to highlight your understanding of class processes and class analysis.

16-17-1-thumb-largeIn my analysis, capitalist and socialist are adjectives referring to class processes. The class processes are different from – other than – the processes that comprise ownership of property and also different from the processes of market exchanges, including the exchange between wages and labor power. Class processes are defined precisely as the producing, receiving, and distributing of surplus labor. It is these processes together that comprise a class structure. Thus, my approach differs from the traditional debates over capitalism and socialism by focusing attention upon a different variable that others choose to make the distinction between the systems. In my approach, capitalism and socialism or communism refer to the issue of class structure, the particular form of the processes of producing, receiving, and distributing surplus labor. Class processes so defined are interactive and interdependent with, but also irreducibly different from such nonclass processes as ownership (private, collective, or state), distribution (markets, command allocation, custom), and power (distribution of authority among individuals, levels of government, and so on).

2.If it is not wage labor, markets, and private property that determine capitalist class processes, what exactly is capitalism?

Crucial to my argument about systems is that there is no necessary or mechanical linkage between any of these factors and the presence of a particular form of the class process. It is not wage labor, markets, private property, parliamentary democracy, natural resource availability, or any other one or a subset of factors that are the key or essential determinants of, say, capitalist class processes. It is, rather, the ensemble of conditions, the totality of all the factors that interact and thereby generate the particular form of the class processes. So capitalism is that particular class process, i.e. organization of the surplus, in which those who produce the surplus are different people from those who appropriate and then socially distribute that surplus with the goal of reproducing that capitalist class process. In this way, capitalism is like feudalism and slavery. What differentiates capitalism from feudalism and slavery is the relationship between the surplus producers and appropriators. In capitalism, there is a contractual relationship (unlike ownership, as in slavery, or the personal relation of serfdom, as in feudalism) between surplus producer and appropriator via the wage system. But to push the argument to a logical extreme, if capitalist class processes can coexist in a society without wage labor, without markets and without private property, can this society still be called capitalist? The answer that flows from the definition I am advancing is, yes, if we can demonstrate that all the other social factors (other than wage labor, markets, and private property) impacting on its particular organization of the production, receipt, and distribution of surplus labor have overdetermined a capitalist form.

3. This is to say, then, that who predominates in state, economy and society, which has been the position of various socialists and communists, from Lenin to Lange and Sweezy, is not what differentiates capitalism from socialism?

Yes, exactly. What differentiates a systems is, as Marx showed, “how the surplus is pumped out of the producers.” If the surplus producers themselves collectively (i) determine the size of the surplus they produce, (ii) appropriate it, and (iii) distribute it socially, then you have socialism or communism as clearly differentiated from capitalism in which the surplus producers are precisely excluded from making that determination or that appropriation or that distribution.

4.From the perspective of Marxian class analysis you employ, what was the nature of Soviet economy and society?

I think it’s beyond contention that the system in the USSR did not generally arrange for the workers themselves to appropriate and distribute their surpluses. As such, the Soviet system did not end capitalism. They did change its form. Instead of private capitalism (appropriators chosen by shareholders and holding no state positions), they instituted state capitalism (state officials functioned as surplus appropriators). Lenin acknowledged that, hoping that state capitalism might serve as a step on the road to socialism. Except for a short time on collective farms in the 1930s and 1940s, a socialist or communist class structure was not widespread in the history of the USSR.

There is a major theme in Marx’s work that uses a careful specification of what it calls necessary and surplus labor to differentiate among economic systems. Briefly, this theme holds that in all human societies, some members work to transform nature into the objects of human needs and desire. These members do necessary work – the quantity of work required to secure whatever standard of living they demand – yet, they also do more work than that. This additional quantity of work is what Marx calls their surplus labor. In Marx’s definition of surplus labor, exploitation (defined precisely as any situation in which the producers of the surplus are different people from its appropriators) does not occur only in a capitalist system. It can occur in other systems that Marx only briefly and tentatively distinguished from capitalism, especially slavery and feudalism. And it did occur in the Soviet Union for the reasons already outlined with regard to the appropriation and distribution of surplus labor. The full details of this argument are available in S. Resnick and R. Wolff, Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR (New York: Routledge, 2002).

5.Socialism and direct participatory democracy seem to be intertwined in your analyses of future social orders. Some critics might point out that this view carries the implication that humans are totally capable of pushing aside their selfish nature, which is to say that the future of socialism depends indeed on a “new man.” How would you respond to this charge?

The shortest answer to this question is that the “nature” of human beings is a socially overdetermined, evolving quality. Capitalism shapes various forms of behavior which are conditioned and determined by the contradictory demands placed upon them by economic and social components of the system. The evolution of human nature to now is what   produces growing demands for social change beyond capitalism. The change to socialism will in turn further develop human beings and their “nature.”

6. Many on the Left suggest that the crisis facing advanced capitalism today is life- threatening to the system.  Yet, profits for major corporations, banks and other financial institutions are at an all time high while the standard of living for the average workers is shrinking and the scourge of long-term unemployment constantly grows. What kind of a capitalist crisis is this?

Capitalism has always sought to turn its internal contradictions and periodic crises to its own advantage, to turn, as Mao said, bad things into good things. The current crisis since 2007 has provided capitalists with opportunities they have seized.  In the US, for example, financial and other mega-corporations rushed to mobilize massive government assistance to save them from collapse.  Clear to all, that rush mocked the previous era’s glib contrast of the private sector as efficient and the public sector as useless or worse.  No political gridlock prevented the government from swiftly and nearly unanimously providing those mega-corporations with trillions in loans, guarantees, investments, and other forms of stimulus spending.

In the meantime, the system has stopped delivering “goods to the people.”  Millions of people throughout Europe and the United States are condemned to the repeated ravages of lost jobs, job benefits, and job security plus foreclosed homes and bleak job prospects for their children.  The personal, family, and economic costs of the failure to deal with capitalist crises are staggering. Over 20 million of Americans today are without a job, millions more limited to part-time jobs.  Similar situations exist in Europe, and much worse in parts of southern Europe. As example of the kind of capitalist crisis we are facing, according to the US Federal Reserve System, roughly 20 percent of the economy’s tools, equipment, factory, office, and store space, and raw materials stand idle. This capitalist system deprives us all of the output and wealth that could be produced if the people denied jobs were combined with the idled means of production.

The capitalist crisis has also provided, in dialectical fashion, opportunities for anti-capitalists, but they have only begun to seize them.Many of today’s radicals largely avoid the language, concepts, and imagery associated with earlier forms of anti-capitalism: traditional socialism, the USSR, China, and the marginalized, often sectarian, groups who remain identified with those forms. Various sorts of anarchism and unorthodox Marxisms (old and new) have surfaced and found followings on the left.  These diverse movements have formulated critiques of the crisis focused on its roots in capitalism, but they have not yet coalesced into or with political, enduring, and self-consciously anti-capitalist organizations.

7.What examples from around the world would you say point to the future of socialism?

In countless countries, including Greece, there is a fast-growing anti-capitalist consciousness and anti-capitalist components of social protest. This consciousness raising is extremely important, notwithstanding the frustration that it has not yet been matched, in most countries, by more developed organization. In the US,  for so long the bastion of uncritical celebration of capitalism, the level of anti-capitalist criticism is greater than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Around the world, movements to replace capitalist organizations of the surplus with collective (socialist, communist) organizations of the surplus are growing. So far these are largely dispersed and small (with crucial exceptions such as Mondragon in Spain), but their growth and the growing focus on worker coops are yet another expression of growing anti-capitalist consciousness. As for Mondragon,it isthe world’s largest and perhaps most successful example of Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises, competing effectively with conventional capitalist enterprises. Begun in 1956 with six workers organized into a cooperative enterprise by a Spanish priest, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) now employs over 100,000 workers, is the largest corporation in the Basque part of Spain and the tenth largest corporation in all of Spain. It has extensive research and development labs generating new ways to produce new products and maintains its own university to train its workers and interested others in all the ways of running and building democratically cooperative enterprises. MCC is thus a remarkable testimony to the contemporary viability and strength of non-capitalist production systems. It is one of the proliferating models of an alternative to capitalist economics and politics.


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