Robert Paul Wolff eta sozialismoa

Sarrera gisa, ikus ondokoak:

Samuel Bowles eta Herbert Gintis: Marx-en balio teoriaz (Ikus bertako iruzkunak ere)

Robert Paul Wolff eta marxismoa




Today, I shall write about something deeply personal and, for me, very important, namely what lies at the root of the work I have done during my entire professional career.(…)

I began my professional career 71 years ago in what was then for someone interested in philosophy a quite conventional manner. (…)

As the years went by, I wrote books on anarchism, on the philosophy of education, on the philosophy of liberalism, on Kant’s ethical theory, on the formal structure of Marx’s economic theories, on the literary structure of Capital, on Afro-American studies, and always I was driven by the same need – to plunge deep into a difficult and sometimes even obscure tangle of theory, to understand it deeply and precisely, and then to explain it to my reader in a fashion that was completely devoid of jargon and made little or no reference to what other thinkers had found in the same material.

… I work by telling the story over and over again in my head to an imaginary audience, (…) Once the story is clear in my mind I can start to write. Then, characteristically, I start on page 1, tell the story for as many pages as it takes until I reached the end, have the resulting story nicely typed up, after which I submitted it to a publisher. (…)

(ii) A REPLY TO MY BIG SISTER (sozialismoaz)


(…) Let me briefly explain the source of my pessimism about the future of socialism. (…)

Marx was optimistic about the prospects for socialism not because he had a religious faith or was an incurable optimist but because he believed he saw structural developments within capitalism that were leading naturally to an evolution that would make socialism genuinely possible – not inevitable, not happening behind the backs of people as it were, but genuinely possible in the way that the fantasies of the Utopian Socialists were not.

Specifically, he believed that he was looking at six or more developments in mid-19th century capitalism that taken together constituted what he elsewhere described as the new order growing in the womb of the old. What were these developments?

First, Marx believed that capitalism would continue to drive out all pre-capitalist modes of production and spread across the entire world. Second, he believed that as this happened capitalist firms would grow larger and larger, become international in their organization and scope and operations, marginalizing or even destroying small local firms. Third, he believed that the cycle of booms and busts that had afflicted mid-19th century capitalism would continue and grow ever more violent and international in their scope. Fourth, he believed that governments in capitalist countries would be unable to control these booms and busts, that the vicious competition among capitalists would block them from taking the cooperative state actions that might serve to control the roller coaster movements of the economy or at least to modify them and make them manageable. Fifth, he believed that capitalism was eating away at and destroying the complex system of trades and crafts and transforming workers into a mass of semiskilled factory operatives whose common conditions of employment would foster and strengthen worker organization, first within single factories, then within entire industries, then within entire nations, and finally worldwide. And finally, sixth, he believed that capitalism was destroying traditional bonds of family, religion, ethnicity, race, and nationality, making it more and more likely that workers across nations and across the world would recognize their common interest and build bonds of fraternity that would strengthen their struggle against capitalists.

The effect of the working out of these structural changes, Marx was convinced, would lead on the one side to a worldwide economic crisis or crash and on the other side to the formation of a worldwide labor movement that would result finally in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by collective ownership of the means of production, which is to say by socialism.

Marx believed that this world historical transformation would not happen automatically, as it were, but would be the result, if it did happen, of tremendous effort and struggle by workers against powerful, wealthy, politically well entrenched capitalist forces, but because he believed that these tendencies were intrinsic to the evolution of capitalism and did not depend on the goodwill of enlightened capitalists or anything of that sort, he believed he was looking at a moment of transition from one system of social relations of production to another.

Marx was right about much of what he anticipated but, alas, he was also wrong about a good deal. He was obviously right about the tendency of capitalism to conquer the world, and he was equally correct that as it did so capitalist firms would grow to enormous size and power, of a sort that had never been seen before in the history of the world. He was also right that the ever greater booms and busts would lead to a worldwide crash, although I suspect he anticipated that it would come a bit earlier than in the end it did.

But Marx was wrong about three big things, and these three taken together have, in my judgment, undermined the real possibility of a transition to socialism.

The first thing he got wrong was his failure to anticipate that capitalists would find a way through the governments that they controlled to work together and manage the destructive fluctuations of the economy. In effect, he failed to anticipate Keynes.

The second thing Marx got wrong was his failure to anticipate that mature capitalism (what we old lefties in happier days used to call late capitalism) would develop a steeply pyramidal and apparently permanent structure of compensation and privileges among employees that would defeat efforts to achieve widespread worker solidarity. The shirts and suits in modern corporations, as we used to refer to them, are objectively all exploited workers but the reality of their actual lives is entirely different. There is very little that can form the basis for solidarity between a day laborer making $15 an hour and a white-collar worker making $40 or $50 an hour and neither of them has much subjectively in common with a middle manager making $150,000 a year, regardless of what an “objective” analysis tells us.

The third thing Marx got wrong was his failure to realize the persistence of religious, ethnic, regional, racial, and national self – identifications of the sort that stand in the way of genuine international worker solidarity.

For all these reasons, I am, as my sister correctly observed, deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a transition to genuine socialism. I am not for moment suggesting that we should give up on our endless efforts to make the conditions of working people better, but I would be lying if I denied that that struggle is easier when you believe that history is on your side.



I would like to respond to the comments of David Palmeter and “Marcel Proust” but I think they are too long to reproduce here so I will count on people who are interested to read them before reading this post. I agree with the thrust of both comments.

Let me begin by saying that the proper question is not “What will socialism look like when it arrives?” as though it were a foregone conclusion that something called “socialism” but rather “How should we organize an economy and society based on the collective ownership of the means of production?” now that such a state of affairs is for the first time structurally and organizationally possible. The word “socialism” is a placeholder, not an answer to a question, and as David Palmeter indicates in his comment, there are dangers to be guarded against as well as opportunities to be seized and questions to be answered.

Is it possible – or desirable – to maintain the explosive economic growth manifested by capitalism without private ownership of the means of production? What legal and political defenses can be designed to protect against tyranny or simply the inevitable desire of those in positions of collective leadership to protect and augment their influence? Can the freedom and independence of the press be maintained in some way other than private ownership of newspapers and television stations?  (Indeed, we might ask, is freedom and independence of the press maintained now by such private ownership?)

These are not rhetorical questions intended to close off discussion and leave us sadder but wiser with the conclusion that capitalism is the best we can do. They are genuine questions, answers for which would have to be developed and defended in an economic system grounded on collective ownership rather than private ownership of the means of production.

Would it be best to permit even very large accumulations of private wealth in the hands of those who themselves initiate innovations in production or distribution but then deny them the opportunity to pass ownership of that wealth to the heirs?

If I may raise in modern form an old question that troubled the Bolsheviks once they took power in Russia, can there be socialism in one country or would collective ownership of the means of production have to be a worldwide rearrangement of affairs?

I do not see these as questions that armchair critics like myself can answer after a bit of thought and study. Not even the wisest and most farseeing social observers in 16th century Europe could have anticipated the development of capitalism in sufficient detail to engage in anything remotely like social planning. The reason why I spend so much time emphasizing the tendencies now observable within capitalism and so little time speculating about ideal futures is that I think all of these questions can only be answered by the struggle and the effort of scores of millions of men and women working to make a better world for themselves and their children.

As for the comments of “Marcel Proust,” alas, I agree with them all too well. I have some confidence in my judgments only about the United States, where I can draw on eight decades of personal observation, and it is clear to me, as I have written on a variety of occasions, that four centuries of slavery and its aftermath have so darkened and distorted our collective social life that for scores of millions of men and women these days the desperate effort to preserve some measure of their white supremacy takes precedence over any consideration of economic justice.

A long time ago, in my writings and public speeches, I argued repeatedly that the secret to remaining politically committed and engaged was to find some way of fighting that one enjoys so that one would continue doing it even when the bands were not playing, the banners were not flying, and the folk singers were not singing our songs. Now that I am not too far from my 90th year, I am compelled to acknowledge that as good advice for my grandchildren because the fight for social justice will still be going on when they are my age.



Before I respond to a number of interesting comments, I feel the need to say something about several terrible things now taking place in the world, even though I have neither special insight nor any particular information to contribute regarding them. It just seems odd not to acknowledge their occurrence. The first is the truly awful spread of the virus in India, the second largest nation on earth. The second is the Israeli attacks on the huge sprawling open-air prison that they have been maintaining for decades in Gaza. My heart weeps for the first and my blood boils at the second. There is really nothing more I can say.

Let me now respond to three quite different comments that have been offered by readers of my most recent blog posts.

First with regard to my repeated invocation of the name of Karl Marx. Nothing I have said depends essentially on the use of his name or of such terms as “Marxism” or “Marxist.” I am afraid that invoking that name was simply a red herring, whatever a red herring is. One need not invoke the name of Charles Darwin to talk about evolution or the name of Albert Einstein to talk about general relativity, although simple piety might suggest an appropriate nod in that direction, and since the name “Marx” has become freighted (or fraught, to use the old past participle) with a great overlay of associations both positive and negative, let me write these comments without further reference to the 19th century German émigré.

Second, and rather more importantly, why do I talk again and again about collective ownership of the means of production rather than about the many other issues that have been the focus of progressive or even revolutionary struggle in the past century, issues such as women’s liberation, black liberation, or gay liberation? The reason is simple but, in my judgment, exceedingly important. Each of these struggles, to which I have made tiny but deliberate contributions, is an effort to eliminate what might be called imperfections in capitalism. When women in large numbers enter the workforce as paid employees, they increase the supply of labor and thereby drive down wages, which, I believe, is why capitalists have not resisted this very important rectification of an old and unjust inequality. Instead of having to pay men what used to be called a “family wage” employers can reduce wages, counting on each household to send two or more earners into the labor force. The struggle to make women full participants in capitalism has been a liberation for countless scores of millions of women but in no way a threat to capital’s domination of the economy. The black liberation struggle has, especially in the United States, deep and complex roots in the history of slavery but in the end it accomplishes the same removal of an imperfection in the labor market. That is why, when cases come before the Supreme Court concerning such things as affirmative action admissions policies in colleges and universities, large corporations file amicus briefs supporting, not opposing, those policies. The gay liberation struggle, in which I have a very personal interest because my younger son is a proud gay man, in the same way offers no threat to the private ownership and control of the means of production. But any call for collective ownership of the means of production constitutes a threat to capitalism and is, in my judgment, for that reason a proposal of an entirely different nature.

If the ranks of billionaires, of corporate executives, of judges, of generals, and of other leading lights in modern economies perfectly reflected the distribution of women or people of color or LGBTQ individuals in society, it would no doubt open up avenues of advancement to people who are now closed off from such positions but it would make no fundamental difference in the nature of the modern world.

Finally, let me say something, or rather acknowledge how little I have to offer, about how one could organize a society based on collective ownership of the means of production without that society falling into tyranny or hierarchical authoritarianism. Please note that this question, when raised, seems implicitly to suggest that this problem has been solved for capitalism but poses a threat in a society based on the collective ownership of the means of production.  However, it would be a truly blind and Pollyanna-ish foolishness for anyone reflecting on the last hundred years of world events to make such a suggestion. As Gandhi is reputed to have said when asked what he thought about Western democracy, “it would be a good idea.”

To an extent that is not generally acknowledged, free and fair elections, impartial courts and justice, a free press and communications and all of the other blessings of modern democracy depend essentially on the fact that none of these indispensable and enormously valuable institutional arrangements poses any threat to the private ownership of the means of production. If it were to do so – if political parties were genuinely to win political power on programs of taking away ownership and control of the means of production from private individuals and vesting them in the collectivity – we might see a rapid and disastrous end of such things as free and fair elections or an impartial judiciary or a free press.

But this does not offer any guidance about how to make so fundamental a change in the organization of our society without risking tyranny – well-meaning tyranny, no doubt, but tyranny nonetheless. As I say, I have very little to offer along these lines but perhaps tomorrow I will try my hand at making some suggestions.

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