Via Economic Policy Journal

Richard D. Wolff

By Robert Wenzel

A debate took place last month at the SoHo Forum.

The proposition before the debaters was “Socialism is preferable to capitalism as an economic system that promotes freedom, equality, and prosperity.”

Arguing in the affirmative was Richard D. Wolff,  the preeminent American Marxian economist. He is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York. Opposing was Gene Epstein, the former economics editor of Barron’s Magazine.

The debate itself wasn’t that interesting. Wolff is a skilled communicator and drove the debate off in different directions he wanted it to go.

But what struck me is how much Wolff had to yield to defend his socialist/communist position. (He used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably.)

Indeed, he gave up so much that little was left of what we know of as communism/socialism.

Consider this from his opening remarks:

We have a benefit socialists do today. We have some experiments that were made in
the 20th century Russia, China, Cuba and so on and we learned from those experiments what works and what doesn’t, what should be pursued, and what should be set aside.

And then he basically throws socialism under the bus and introduces a new concept, “new socialism.”:

And so the new socialism…socialism is a refocusing of itself. It’s not interested so much in the state doing things that achieved rapid rates of economic growth. True enough but it also left too much power in the hands of too few people and that has to be addressed and dealt with which socialists have been doing. 

And the new focus, a new focus of socialism, is to do something at the workplace that was never done, to go beyond capitalism in the organization of the workplace to democratize the workplace, to make where we spend most of our adult lives at work a place where democracy reigns. Where all the people who work in an enterprise participate in making the decisions of what to produce how to produce where to produce and what to do with the profits. Enter a democrat eyes workplace, that’s the new direction of socialism. That’s where socialism will be in 21st century that we are now entering. It’s a new and a different socialism, it has learned from its own earlier experiences and experiment.

And so it appears that Wolff has thrown out the entire concept of the centrally planned economy and instead is now calling for a new socialism that appears to be little more than worker-owned business co-operatives.

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Epstein during the debate spotted this and stated more than once something along the lines, “Well go ahead, go launch your democratically run businesses. There is nothing stopping you in the current capitalist system.”

And if democracy is the all-knowing fountain of wisdom, the god of the machine, well then what if everyone in a jurisdiction gets together and votes for free markets?

But aside from taking apart what Wolff calls the new socialism, and there is a lot more that could be taken apart here, the focus must be on how much of old school socialism Wolff seems to have abandoned.

I mean Wolff is a very sharp cookie. He has a BA in history from Harvard, an MA in economics from Stanford University and an MA in history from Yale University and a PhD in economics from Yale University. And he is by far the best, most skilled Marxist communicator I have come across.

If he is giving up what most of us think of as socialism/communism, and in its place, he’s promoting some kind of kumbaya universal workers’ co-ops, then socialism/communism is on the run at the highest intellectual levels and this is a very good and important thing.

Long live Richard Wolff!