Q&A: Marxist Economist Encourages Students to Question the Norm

by The New York Times Magazine as “America’s
most prominent Marxist economist,” Richard D. Wolff has been a strong advocate
for Marxist alternatives to American capitalism. As a former professor at Yale University,
New York University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and current visiting professor at The New School in New
York City, Wolff has been an activist for Marxism and an advocate for criticism
of mainstream capitalist conceptions of economics. 

In this interview with Julian Jacobs, he assesses Marxism’s relevance in the 21st century, describes why it is necessary to have this alternative
perspective and discusses what students at American colleges can do to promote
a ‘more balanced’ educational experience.

Julian Jacobs: Is Marxism relevant today, and if so, what aspects of it?

Richard D. Wolff: The short, sweet answer to this question is: “Yes, of
course.” To briefly explain why [it’s necessary to] consider that the discipline of economics, of
which Marxist economics is a part, [economics] is roughly 250-300 years old. Adam Smith and
David Ricardo, who wrote from the end of the 18th to the beginning of 19th
century, are usually thought of as the founders of economics. But they were
also celebrants or enthusiasts. In other words, they analyzed the capitalist
system that was coming into dominance in England at the time, replacing the
previous system of feudalism. They thought the emerging dominance of capitalism
was a great thing for the human race and a great thing for economic wellbeing.
They thought it would bring with it advances in human freedom, and so they
celebrated the system that they analyzed.

Karl Marx, who also spent most of his
adult life in London as an exile from his native Germany, writes some 20-30
years after the work of David Ricardo. He is very respectful of both Adam Smith
and David Ricardo yet also critical. The difference between Marx and Smith and
Ricardo is that because Marx came 20-30 years later, he could see how the
capitalism that Smith and Ricardo had celebrated was actually turning out. By
Marx’s time, the capitalism that reached dominance in England had spread to
France and the low countries and was moving further east. Marx looked around
and said, “Capitalism is, in important ways, better than the feudalism it
replaced.” In that Marx agreed with Smith and Ricardo, but on two further
points he disagreed.

First, for Marx, capitalism was also a
disaster for the majority of people in a variety of ways. Second, capitalism
contains within itself the seeds of its own passage in time. Marx concluded
that the world can, and should, do better than capitalism. He undertook to
analyze the capitalist system in order to expose its flaws and contradictions, why
it had within it the seeds of its own disappearance, and, finally, how and why
the human race could do better. To summarize: Marxian economics is the critical
approach, the analysis of capitalism that is critical of it.

  The metaphor I use is this: Suppose you
wanted to understand a family that lived up the street from you – mother, father,
and two kids – and you know that one of the children thought it was the
greatest family ever, while the other child thought of it as a psychologically
dysfunctional disaster. If you wanted to understand that family, would you
speak to only one of these two children, or would you think it appropriate for
you to interview both of them, and then make up your mind? It’s the same in
economics. To understand the capitalist economies and economics prevalent today
you need to examine the analyses and insights developed by the people who
celebrate capitalism and likewise those developed by capitalism’s critics. The
basic tradition of economics has always wrestled with and included both those

That was even true in considerable
parts of the United States up until the Cold War right after World War II. With
the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s embrace of Marxism and Marx made them taboo
topics in the United States. You either denounced them or ignored them. To
express an interest in Marx’s or Marxism’s critical perspectives was made
equivalent to being somehow disloyal, treasonous, or very bad. What resulted were
dogmatic refusals to teach, to explore, to expose students to capitalism’s
chief criticism – Marxism – coupled with teaching them only the perspective
that thinks capitalism is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was a sad
chapter in ideological self-censorship, rampant in most American universities
for the last half-century into the present. 

It did and does no credit to
American universities to be so one- sided and frightened of looking at a
critical perspective. As an American citizen I find it somewhere between
ridiculous and embarrassing that so many academics give so little attention to
critical perspectives such as Marx’s. There are some exceptions, universities
and colleges around the country that don’t do that, that buck the trend of
uncritical conformity.

The other reason I would say it’s important to
study Marxian economics is that there are serious people using the Marxian
economic apparatus around the world today, in every single country on Earth.
There are Marxist newspapers, Marxist journals, and Marxist trade unions. The
government of the largest country on the face of the earth, China, says that
Marxian theory guides them. Likewise, a recent election in Greece brought to
power a government whose economic advisers are much influenced by Marx and
Marxism. Across the world many people are deeply influenced by Marx and

Those who don’t like Marxism often pretend that people who are
interested and influenced by Marxism don’t exist, but its not a pretense that
should be taken seriously, since it’s simply false. It is a wish that is
governing their thinking. But it is also very dangerous to cultivate, as we do
in the United States, people and leaders who imagine that their celebratory
theory of capitalist economies is the only theory that exists and the only economic
approach that students should learn about. That way leads to the most narrow-minded
kind of mentality.

JJ: As someone who has advocated the need for a Marxist
presence at American colleges and universities, what are some of the issues
that you’ve encountered in your career as a champion of this change? 

RW: Well, for my academic career as a professor of
economics here in the United States all my life, it’s  been a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’ve been
able to access and teach at Yale University, which is where I got my P.H.D.
Then I taught at the City University of New York, then I taught at University
of Massachusetts at Amherst, and now I’m a visiting professor at the New School
University in New York City. So I’ve been able to teach economics, and I can
assure you that the economics I’ve always taught shows Marx’s influence. My
approach builds not only on the traditions of Adam Smith and David Ricardo,
from whom I have learned, but also from Karl Marx. I will not, as long as I’m
able, participate in the lopsided ideologically narrow-minded exclusion of

On the other hand, I’m not naive. I
know that most of the students that I’ve encountered have been hesitant once
they understand that there are Marxian theories in a particular argument or an
article they’ve been assigned to read; they get nervous. They have an
instinctual understanding, conscious or otherwise, that getting interested in
that stuff, pursuing it and taking it seriously, may cause some difficulties
for them: maybe a difficulty with a future employer, maybe a raised eyebrow
from your roommate, maybe a worried look from your mother. But there’s a deep
understanding that there’s something taboo here.

Getting interested in Marxism carries
that, and it has of course worked to make students less receptive to what it is
I have to say than they might otherwise have been. But I would say, at the same
time, that all of that has now been radically altered. Starting in 2009, this
country’s economic system (capitalism) became dysfunctional. We had the worst
economic downturn since the Great Depression. We’re not out of it yet, not by a
long shot. The growing inequality inside the United States is so gross, that
even the normal press has to report on it, at least sometimes, and its becoming
more and more difficult for more and more people to function in this society.
Yours is the first generation of students to get a B.A. carrying tens of
thousands of dollars of debt, this has never been the situation in the United
States before and there are hundreds of other signs. 

So what has happened,
slowly and steadily, is there’s a growing number of people, who are themselves,
through their own personal life experience, becoming critics of the capitalist
system that is presenting them with so many difficulties and so many obstacles
and so many injustices, that when I come along with a critical perspective on
capitalism, a new world has recently opened up for me. I have more audiences
now than I can possibly address. In the last three years, I’ve done more public
speaking in this country than in the previous 40, and that’s a result of the
new critical common sense about capitalism. People are beginning to rediscover
the problems with this economic system. There are weaknesses, failures, and
flaws in capitalism. So it becomes perfectly reasonable to ask the question,
“Might we do better with a change of economic system?”

I like to tell my audiences that Americans
are proud of their public debates about their school system, their
transportation system, their energy system, and so on. We even debate whether
marriage is an institution for gay as well as heterosexual people. We ask questions
about basic systems in society, which is a healthy thing to do, because if you
want your system to work, if you want to make it work better, then you have to
be open to finding and exposing its flaws as the basis for then fixing it.
There’s been one exception: we don’t debate our economic system. That’s because
we’re laboring under this silly taboo. This is childish, and its bad because if
you don’t criticize the system, you allow its bad tendencies to go unchecked. We’re
living in a society that is now experiencing the inequalities of income and
wealth, the corruption of the political system, and all the results of this
system that might have been dealt with a lot better had we allowed ourselves to
have the kind of national debate about capitalism. Still, I’m very gratified to
say that the last four or five years have resulted in a change and new interest
in the critical perspective that I offer.

JJ: You mentioned that you’ve been receiving speaking
engagements at a more dramatic rate. Given recent developments in Marxism’s
popularity, the gross income inequality that you described (both domestically
and globally), and the observable examples of modern Marxism present in the
recent elections in Greece, are you optimistic about the future of Marxism? At
the very least, do you see a greater global pushback against capitalism?

RW: Absolutely. But there I have to admit, Marx himself
pointed out in a clever interview he once gave to a British newspaper that all
he was doing was what had happened to every economic system in the history of
the human race; slavery, feudalism, and every economic system that we’ve had as
a human race has evolved over time and eventually died. And across its
lifetime, it had people who loved it and wrote about it in that way, and people
who were critical about it and wrote about it in that way. 

Marx said of
himself, ‘I’m just the person who grows up in capitalism and looks at it and
sees the inequalities and sees the problems, and so I’ve become the critic,’ -and
here comes the punch line – ‘Nothing better assures the future of a critical
perspective on capitalism than the continuation of capitalism itself,’ because
capitalism is a complicated, mixed bag of things, and it’s going to provoke and
train its critics just as much as it provokes and trains those who like it.
That’s part of the complexity of life, and Marx was very confident that critics
like him would be part of what capitalism produces. It’s a little bit like
thinking of Marxism as a shadow, we don’t know how to get rid of a shadow. If
you’re going to stand in the light, there’s going to be a shadow. In an
economic system like capitalism you’re going to have its critics and once you
stumble, like we are since 2008 as a system, and when you provoke extreme
inequalities and everything like that, its hardly surprising that the critical
perspective has a renaissance. 

The last time Marxian economics boomed in the
United States was as a result of the Great Depression in the 1930s, which was
another collapse of capitalism. So, yes, I think that the difficulties of
capitalism today are as profound and as far-reaching as any I have seen in my
lifetime, and therefore, yes, I am quite confident that critical perspectives,
Marxism among them, have a pretty good future. And I would say that the election
in Greece earlier this year and the prospects for a very similar political move
in Spain later this year are signs that you’d have to be blind to not see.

JJ: Are there elements of the American experience, history
and culture that could become mechanisms for a different and new economic

RW: I think it’s already here. And I think I can point to
many examples right off the bat. In the United States, we have had, for many
decades, a kind of alternative banking system. That is a banking system that is
not premised on profit maximization in the manner of a typical capitalist
corporation, that is not a “free enterprise”, but is rather a very collectively
organized, collectively run, mutual benefit arrangement of the sort that
socialists like. We call these things Credit Unions. All over the United
States, millions of Americans do their banking not at a commercial bank, but at
a Credit Union, because Credit Unions can issue checking accounts, have saving
accounts, issue credit cards, and do all the things that a commercial,
capitalist, profit-motivated bank does without being such a bank. They are
mutual support societies. People at a work place put their money into the
Credit Union. If and when they need a loan, they pull a loan out of the Credit
Union. It’s really a collection of workers in an industry who have a collective
money operation that substitutes for a bank. 

This has been going on for many
decades. The private banks have tried to squelch this movement, to kill it off,
to squeeze it down. They have failed because masses of Americans want it. I’ll
give you a second example. In the state of North Dakota, not known for being
radical back 100 years ago. In 1916, they set up a public bank. That’s right,
not a private enterprise, a public bank called the Bank of North Dakota. And
the job of that bank works as follows: all the money paid into the state of
North Dakota, all the taxes that are paid, all the fishing licenses, all the
driving licenses, all the money that comes into the state of North Dakota is
deposited by the state into the state bank. In every one of the other 49 states
in the United States, the money flowing into a state is deposited into a
private bank, usually one of the big ones like Bank of America or Wells Fargo.
In North Dakota, the farmers and the small business owners of North Dakota –
the workers 100 years ago – didn’t want to work with private banks. They didn’t
trust them, they didn’t like them, and they wanted their own bank. They wanted
to be sure that their money went into a bank that would lend to North Dakotans,
and not have that money flow to New York or Chicago or wherever big money
center banks were based. So they created a public bank, owned and operated by
the government of North Dakota. 

And here was the interesting thing – whatever
profits were earned by the Bank of North Dakota were simply put back by that
bank into the treasury of the state of North Dakota, making it possible for
North Dakota to tax its people less because it was picking up the money that
was a bank profit. And what was the profit from? Lending out North Dakotans’
deposits to other North Dakotans. So this was what you might call a win-win-win
situation for the people of North Dakota to set up a community-owned public,
non-profit, non-capitalist bank. Again, the private banks of the United States
tried, over and over again, to get rid of that. 

They hated the precedent, they
hated the symbolism, they hated what they called ‘socialism’, and in that
conservative, rural state of North Dakota, all the efforts of the private banks
in the United States failed and the Bank of North Dakota remains, as I’m
speaking to you, a public bank that competes with private banks. And this has
been going on with both republicans and democrats in the governor’s mansion in
that state. None of them have dared to turn against that bank because the
people of North Dakota would have bounced them out of office in the next
election. So there is a clear sign of support in the American population for
things which, even when they’re called ‘socialist’, and even at a time when
that is a bad word politically, simply mean more to people than any of that,
and they hold on to it. 

The other big example I’ll give you is what we call
co-ops. All over the United States, there are cooperative enterprises that
don’t work like a conventional capitalist business. They’re not out there
maximizing their profits, they’re rather out there providing food at a better
price to a community that shops at a food co-op, or they are a business in which
the workers own and operate the enterprise. They don’t have shareholders, they
don’t have a management, they manage themselves. These are very key parts of
Marx’s idea of a system that can work better than capitalism, and there are
already tens of thousands of them that Americans are currently shopping in. 

those co-ops are, in a sense, training grounds. Getting people to understand:
you can run a business without shareholders, you can run a business where you
govern yourself rather than have a board of directors telling you what to do,
that this is a viable arrangement. It exists not only in the United States, but
also in many other countries. Both Spain and Italy, for example, have huge
worker co-op sectors of their economy, much larger than we have in the United

So there are plenty of models that have
been successful and are bases for moving society beyond capitalism, and these
are foundations growing within capitalism. Nor is that surprising, because that
is how feudalism collapsed at the end of the 18th century in Europe, and paved
the way for capitalism. In European feudalism’s last 200 years, capitalist
enterprises here and there had grown up inside feudalism. When there were
enough of them, they became self-conscious enough to begin to make it explicit
that they wanted a social transition to a fully capitalist system. Something
like that is probably already underway here.

JJ: You consider a Marxist approach to economics and social life a
viable one, however most Americans probably would not. So how is American
political and cultural life a reflection of their inability to explore ideas of
Marxism and what are the effects of not doing so?

RW: First of all, you have a political system in which you
make it impossible for anything other than the two major parties (democrats and
republicans), to function in the political sphere. You make it excruciatingly
difficult for third parties, let alone fourth and fifth parties, to grow up.
You put endless obstacles in their way. Europeans, in contrast, believe that
those obstacles stifle democracy and so sharply reduce those obstacles.

Meanwhile, the two major parties will
reach the understanding with one another that they will play musical chairs
with the government. So, for a few years we’ll have a Republican, and then for
a few years we’ll have a Democrat, and then for a few more years we’ll have a
Republican. For most people, this doesn’t matter very much, which is one reason
why more than half the American people don’t even bother to vote at all, since there’s
really little point in terms of what’s going to happen to their lives. They’re
choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, between Republican and Democrat.
And that also has made it very easy for the people who run this society by
contributing huge amounts of money only to those two parties and never to
anyone else, to make sure (A) that nobody else can break into this part of the political
monopoly, and (B) to make the two parties so dependent on the money that they
get that they wouldn’t dare say ‘Boo!’ to the business community and its
wealthy leaders and owners. 

That’s why interest in Marxian alternatives is not
something you find among Republicans and Democrats. They know where their bread
is buttered. It’s buttered by all the big companies and wealthy individuals
that give them the overwhelming bulk of their money.

They’re not going to talk to Marxists
if they don’t have to, because that would tarnish, diminish, or put a question
mark around their loyalty to maintaining the comfortable status quo that we
have in this country from the point of view of big businesses. So the changes
will have to come from elsewhere, and the elsewhere is complicated. I think
it’ll come through students, people like you, that may hopefully be curious
enough, and determined enough, to ask questions, to find out for yourself, and
not just fall into line doing what you’re told.

I think the mass of Americans
are falling further and further behind the super-rich, who keep parading in
front of them like provocateurs on the television so they can all see the
enormous wealth that they can’t get, and this produces the very criticism, the
very anger, the very alienation from capitalism that will fuel an interest in
critical perspectives and in alternatives. We’ve been afraid for fifty years to
allow a criticism of capitalism to be uttered. You can open the pages of the
congressional record of the debates in the House of Representatives of the
Senate, and I defy you to find a debate in which even one senator or
representative criticizes capitalism and reaches the conclusion: “No, we can do
better, and here’s what we ought to be doing.” You just don’t find it because
it has been, as I say, a taboo.

And here’s another way change may
happen. The Republican and Democratic parties are the places where almost
everybody interested in politics ends up. The problem is that all those people
who end up in those two parties have very different needs and desires. When the
society begins to fall apart, which I think we are well into, you’re going to
see more and more tensions inside those parties threatening to break up the
coalitions. You can already see it: those people we tend to call Tea Party
folks are very angry at the Republican party leadership, challenge it, depose
it when they can. Its become harder for the Republican party to hold itself
together. The same is happening in the Democratic party, where many younger
people, influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement and things like that, are
becoming mighty displeased with the way it has been run. 

In 2008, when Obama
first ran, tens of thousands of young people, including many of my students,
spent their weekends campaigning for him. He was the new leader, the new hope.
Eight years later and I don’t have a single student who has a good word to say
about him. Students express more or less disappointment, shaking their heads
and saying, “What happened here?” Their feelings mount up and then they explode
one day, even if its a little thing that makes them explode. They experience a
long accumulated set of thoughts, ideas, and feelings that bubble up.

A famous leader once said, “In politics
you have to recognize that for decades, nothing seems to happen. And then in a
few weeks, decades happen”. I thought that was very smart, that’s the way
social history gets made. Suddenly, everything blows up, but once you look
closely below the surface, it turns out that it wasn’t sudden. The seeds of
whatever blows up in a few weeks were building and accumulating for months and
years before.

JJ: You mentioned that you think a good part of future
movements towards alternative approaches to economics and social life would be
coming from students. What advice can you give to students that are in the
pursuit of these sorts of alternatives, both in the process of identifying what
these alternatives are and in the process of actually advocating them?


RW: I can give you two parts to that answer. Don’t
hesitate to follow your own judgment when you feel as though your education is
incomplete, is one-sided, is biased. Whatever words you find comfortable in
your own thinking and in your own mouth, don’t hesitate to act on it. Confront
your teachers by saying, “Look, we’re happy with what you’re teaching us, but
it’s not all there is, it’s not enough, and a curriculum that’s lopsided like
this is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable as an educational experience, its
unacceptable as pedagogic process, its fundamentally unacceptable.”

 I don’t
know if you’re aware, but two years ago now the students in the Introductory
Economics class at Harvard University were being taught by a real
dyed-in-the-wool conservative economist (Gregory Mankiw). He believes
absolutely in the rightness of his celebratory capitalist perspective and shows
little problem with the absence of significant Marxian economics from US
academic life. A huge proportion of the students walked out of his class, and
had wisely summoned the press so that Harvard couldn’t hush-hush the whole
experience. Some reporters did their job and asked the students, “Gee, that’s a
pretty sharp thing to do, why did you walk out of Professor Mankiw’s class?”
And the students answered pretty much what I just said to you: ‘we have nothing
against what he’s teaching us, but he’s pretending that that’s all there is to
economics, and while we don’t know much about the alternatives, we know there
are alternatives, and we haven’t heard a good reason why we ought to be
excluded from being presented with those, learning those, and then being
allowed to decide, as mature students, what we think and where we want to go.’

had no answer for that, because it really isn’t smart to say that he knows what’s
right and therefore doesn’t need to teach alternatives. If he said those
things, it would put him in hotter water, so people like him tend to start
spouting nonsense in the hope that reporters lose interest and go away. By the
way, there are movements all around the world in the last three years, some of
which I have been involved in, where students, at university level
particularly, are forming new organizations and are breaking away. There was a
conference here in New York last fall called “Rethinking Economics”. A whole
raft of people, including me, gave talks there to a big assembly of students,
from The New School where I teach, from Columbia University, from New York
University, and from other New York City institutions, all brought together
because they knew that the level of education they were getting in economics
was very one-sided. So that’s one way you can make change. 

The other way is to
take advantage of the people who do Marxian economics and can speak clearly
about the subject; they can teach if you help create the conditions for them to
do that. You can then hear them out, you can make up your own mind, whether you
find it persuasive or not, that’s fine, but they’re there. The question is
whether or not all of the students who have these views, who have these
questions and want a proper education, are willing to go out there and push for it. 

This article was revised March 14 to include portions of the phone interview not published in the March 13 print edition.     

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