The Narrow Horizon of Richard Wolff’s “Socialism”


by Seth Weiss
A specter haunts the Democratic Party: it takes the form of “socialism.” For the first time in a decade of measurement, a recent Gallup poll found that Democrats have a more positive view of “socialism” than they do of “capitalism.” In an opinion piece in the Huffington Post, Richard Wolff bemoans the focus on European-style social democracy that marks this latest resurrection of “socialism.” Wolff, perhaps the most well-known Marxist thinker in the U.S. today, contends that “we need to think bigger,” arguing that “socialists need to fight for economic change — not just another version of capitalism.”

Wolff, however, is remarkably unable to advance an alternative to capital. As we shall see, Wolff focuses intently on the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value, but he largely overlooks the sine qua non of capitalist society: the production of value and surplus-value.

Wolff is also unable to advance an emancipatory vision grounded in the independent movement and self-development of today’s multiracial and multiethnic working class. And there is a danger that Wolff’s project, given its narrow economism, may dovetail with current left strategies that downplay race and gender relations in an effort to propel a left-populist agenda.

In his opinion piece, Wolff advances an “interpretation of socialism” that, he claims, “involve[s] a fundamental change in the structure of our economy,” one that would “completely undo our current system’s division of people into categories of employee and employer.”[1] To get a better sense of what Wolff is advocating, it is worth quoting from his article at length:

Those who support this interpretation [of socialism] point to Marx’s explanation of capitalism. He wrote that under capitalism, workers ― who make up the vast majority ― produce surpluses. This refers to the value left over after producing goods or services once the costs of production and the amounts needed to sustain the producers are taken into account. In other words, the profit.

Under capitalism, this surplus is immediately taken by the employer, who uses it to reinforce a system where they dominate economically, politically and culturally.

For those who believe socialism means structural change, this relationship would be replaced by a democratic community of people who would produce goods or services. This same community would then collectively own the surplus it produced and democratically decide how to use it. In other words, this scenario involves dismantling the employer/employee relationship.


Just Another Version of Capitalism

What Wolff proposes here does not in itself constitute an alternative to capitalism. There is also no good reason to believe that it would offer a path to a new society, or that it would improve workers’ lives. Nor would Wolff’s proposal offer immunity from the periodic and often devastating economic crises and downturns that beset us. In fact, what Wolff purports to reject — measures that represent “just another version of capitalism” — is precisely what he prescribes here.


The problem is that Wolff rarely ventures beyond the realm of distribution to confront capitalism’s underlying production relations. In fact, what Wolff is advocating, what he projects as “socialism,” would leave the underlying basis of domination in capitalist society — value production — completely intact. A truly “fundamental change” demands more than a redistribution of surplus-value, even if workers have control over that redistribution. Instead, it demands uprooting value production itself.

To make this clear, some discussion of Marx’s value theory is needed. In Marx’s presentation in Capital, the magnitude of the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of “socially necessary labor-time” that is required for its reproduction.[2] This means that a commodity’s value is not determined by the actual amount of labor-time involved in its production; instead, it is determined by an average, which is shaped by global productivity. This also means that labor-time in excess of what is socially necessary for the production of a commodity simply does not count in our society, as it doesn’t create value. For instance, a worker may spend ten hours producing an article, but if the socially necessary labor time needed for its production is half of that, five hours, as far as the world market is concerned this worker has only labored for five hours. Socially necessary labor-time forms a benchmark, held in place through the coercive force of competition, that all workers must measure up to. As such, in order for a firm to remain competitive and avoid bankruptcy, its workers must be able to meet this standard.[3]

If the “employer/employee relationship” was dismantled, as Wolff proposes, and workers were in a position to make investment decisions themselves, they would still face all of the present-day constraints imposed by value production. Say, for instance, that workers in one firm decide that they want to invest in better healthcare, rather than in the latest labor-saving technology. What happens if other firms in their industry invest in the new technology? And what happens if, as a consequence of these other firms’ investment decisions, the socially necessary labor-time required for the production of the commodities that all of these workers manufacture falls? The workers who choose not to invest in the new technology may have better healthcare but no jobs, if their production costs have become too high for their firm to remain competitive in the marketplace. Absent state intervention or monopoly conditions, no firm can sustain selling its products at prices that reflect a labor time required in production that is greater than the social average.

Underlying Wolff’s focus on overcoming the “employer/employee relationship” is a mistaken assumption, common in many quarters of the left: the belief that if workers were in charge, if they were the ones making investment decisions, rather than rapacious and predatory capitalists, then they would be free to do things like raise wages and reduce work hours, provide quality healthcare, create safe working conditions, or produce in an ecologically sustainable manner. However, peoples’ intentions, good or bad, matter little when they are dominated by abstract forces, like socially necessary labor time, that operate independently of their will. Value production is characterized by a constant compulsion, maintained through competitive pressure, to maximize production while minimizing production costs. As long as this is the case, as long as such economic compulsion remains in play, material production stands, fundamentally, outside of the control of human beings. This is the case regardless of whether those in a position to make investment decisions are the employers or the employees — or, as in Wolff’s conception, worker-owners.


Worker Ownership Doesn’t Uproot the “Employer/Employee Relationship”

In his Huffington Post piece, Wolff points to worker-run co-operatives, especially the famed Mondragón co-operative in Spain’s Basque region, as a concrete example of what he proposes. However, the experience of Mondragón is not nearly as rosy as Wolff would like us to believe. Sharryn Kasmir’s study of Mondragón in the 1990s found that “[w]orker-owners are not shielded from the forces of the world-market.” She notes Mondragón’s introduction, in parallel with trends in the global economy at the time, of “just-in-time” production and efficiency consultants, as well as the hiring of temporary workers. In a comparative study of one co-operative firm within Mondragón and a private firm in the same region, Kasmir found that:

…workers in both firms confront the same strains of industrial production: shift work, the assembly line, routinization of tasks, and ever-increasing productivity. Workplace democracy or worker ownership does not ameliorate these daily pressures.[4]

In a more recent piece, Kasmir explores Mondragón’s employment of low-wage labor in China and Poland. She cites a study of eleven Mondragón subsidiaries at the Kunshan Industrial Park near Shanghai that found low pay (€1.5 per hour), long hours (six days per week at eleven hours per day to earn overtime), and harsh working conditions. Kasmir notes that “job security, community-based economy, and formal workplace democracy in the Basque Country rest on exploitation and insecurity elsewhere.” Note that Mondragón’s co-operative members voted in favor of the exploitation of low-wage labor in China — this puts the lie to claims that worker-owners are free to make more humane investment decisions than conventional capitalists.

The employment of sweatshop labor abroad also belies Wolff’s contention that co-operatives like Mondragón show the path to uprooting the “employer/employee relationship.” And so too does the co-operative’s employment of temporary workers at home in the Basque region. The employment of temporary workers offers co-operative members a shield from the vicissitudes of the market, allowing members to maintain their jobs in periods of recession while temporary workers are let go (presumably leaving the regional government to provide them with unemployment insurance). Mondragón, it should be noted, was not immune from the Global Recession. One of Mondragon’s flagship firms, Fagor Electrodomésticos, which manufactured home appliances, declared bankruptcy in 2013 in the wake of the crisis, which hit Spain’s housing market hard and along with it the market for home goods. Kasmir notes that members were transferred to other firms in the co-operative or given early retirement, but Fagor’s temporary workers and 3,500 employees in the firm’s international subsidiaries had no such safeguards.

As is evident in the passage quoted above from his Huffington Post piece, Wolff conflates his conception of “socialism” with that of Marx. However, Marx advanced an entirely different conception. Describing what he calls the lower phase of socialism or communism — he used the terms interchangeably — Marx writes:

Within the co-operative society based on the common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value [emphasis in original] of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in a indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour.

What Marx is describing here, in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, is a society in which value production has been transcended. The last clause in this passage is key: in the lower phase of socialism, individual labor exists directly as a part of society’s total labor. This means that any one person’s hour of labor would be counted as equal to any other person’s hour of labor. As such, workers would no longer be dominated by an abstract temporality, socially necessary labor-time, that operates behind their backs. Further, what Marx describes as the fetish character of the commodity in Capital has disappeared, as the labor employed in the production of commodities no longer appears as a material quality possessed by them. Workers are no longer dominated by the products of their own hands. And material production is now governed by the producers themselves, rather than by autonomous forces that function independently of their will.

In Marx’s view, it is too early in this lower phase of socialism for society to inscribe upon its banners “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs.” This would demand a profound development of both productivity and the human individual. Nonetheless, this lower phase would constitute a genuine liberation, as it spells the end of value production.[5]


Myopic/Truncated “Class” Reductionism vs. Marx’s Humanism

Wolff has been advancing a vision centered on worker-run co-operatives and the democratic distribution of surplus-value for a considerable time now, including in response to the economic crisis of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street protests.[6] However, the narrow horizon of Wolff’s project — his singular focus on co-operatives and workers’ control over the surplus — is particularly hard to ignore in the present period. Given contemporary developments — Trumpism’s resurgent white nationalism, misogyny, and authoritarianism — Wolff’s conception appears particularly myopic and truncated. His emphasis on uprooting the “employer/employee relationship” (putting aside that what he proposes is insufficient to uproot capitalism) overlooks gender and race relations and stands removed from contemporary struggles like the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter.

There is a danger that such a reductive conception may dovetail with current left strategies that downplay and ignore race and gender relations in the interest of winning over the “white working class” to a left populism. The latter is a fool’s errand: it has become increasingly clear, particularly after Charlottesville, that Trump’s victory was not a response to economic suffering engendered by neoliberalism or globalization, as the advocates of left-populist strategies maintain, but rather the resurgence of an entrenched white-nationalism that infects the American body politic. The left-populist gambit, aimed at appeasing Trump’s base rather than dealing white-supremacism a decisive defeat, represents a dangerous form of accommodation by the left to Trump and Trumpism. Such left strategies may facilitate the further spread of racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, by leaving these ills unchecked, and thereby binding workers more firmly to forces of reaction. This threatens both the possibility for genuine solidarity across race and gender lines and the self-development and self-activity of the working class.[7]

While Wolff is silent on resurgent racism and misogyny in his Huffington Post piece, he does have a recent article in Common Dreams, an online leftist publication, that takes up the issue of race in relation to capitalism. Wolff invokes W. E. B. DuBois, noting that he urged “African-Americans to embrace anti-capitalism” and “socialists to embrace anti-racism.” Similarly, Wolff calls for a “partnership between anti-capitalism and anti-racism within social movements and in public discourse.”

Yet Wolff doesn’t detail what the anti-racism he calls for would entail, and it appears to stand aside and separate from his economic project — a measure intended, perhaps, to win over people of color and anti-racist activists to his project, but not something integral to his vision. In fact, racism itself appears epiphenomenal to capitalism in his account here (e.g., as a “smokescreen…barely masking capitalism’s ongoing failure”). What’s more, while DuBois stressed, in The Souls of Black Folk, “the spiritual strivings” of African Americans for freedom, what Wolff projects as socialism is unmoored from any such humanist conception.

In marked contrast, Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence is premised on transcending alienation in all of its guises — not the capital-relation alone. Marx maintained that socialism or “communism as such is not the goal of human development,” and he posited “human power which is an end in itself” as the “true realm of freedom.”[8] Such a view is predicated on the development of genuinely new human relations in production, and throughout all of society. As such, Marx pointed to the state of gender relations as an index of social progress, stressing that the “relation of man to woman” reveals the “whole level of development” of humanity. Cognizant that class relations in the U.S. are mediated by race, Marx also stressed, with respect to the American Civil War, that white labor would never be free as long as black labor remained branded.[9]

Wolff’s project is grounded in a theoretical conception — what he terms “class-qua-surplus analysis” — that centers on a society’s “class structure,” as determined by its organization of the production and distribution of surplus-labor.[10] Marx, however, focused on the mode of production, conceptualizing social classes and the distribution of surplus-labor as derivative categories that flow from the mode of production and its associated production relations. He never claimed his theory of surplus-value as an original contribution. It was, if undeveloped, present in Ricardian theory. Marx did, however, claim the two-fold character of labor — abstract and concrete — as an original contribution. This discovery, like all the key categories of Capital, rests on Marx’s humanism: while classical political economy focused on things (profit, rent, money, etc.), Marx focused on the worker and her degradation in the labor process.[11] The hallmark of a society founded on abstract labor — the labor that creates value — is an inversion of subject and object, the domination of humans by the products of our own labor.[12]

For some time now, the left has been caught between the Scylla of economic reductionism and the Charybdis of a politics of identity that is no less reductive. Today’s new movements — like the Resistance, #Me Too, and Black Lives Matter — pose a challenge to the left to transcend this duality in both theory and practice. Marx’s humanist vision, predicated on the free and full development of the individual, may help us chart a course around such hazards.

Contra Wolff, what Marx mapped is not a “class-qua-surplus” theory or an economic program, but rather a philosophy of human liberation rooted in the independent movement and self-development of the masses. Wolff is right in saying that “we need to think bigger” than social democratic reformism, but we also need to think bigger than Wolff.



[1] Wolff’s conceptualization of “socialism” obscures as much as it reveals. Quite correctly, Wolff describes Scandinavian social democracy as a “form of capitalism” and as “state capitalism.” But, at the same time, he also identifies it as an “interpretation of socialism,” placing it under the rubric of what he terms “state-focused socialism,” along with the Soviet Union. Wolff is unable to reconcile how such formations can be both “socialist” and “capitalist” (or “state capitalist”).

[2] “Socially necessary labour-time is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society” (Capital, Volume I. New York: Penguin, 1979, p. 129).

[3] For a discussion of Marx’s concept of socially necessary labor-time as “an active [emphasis in original] norm that regulates production,” see Andrew Kliman and Ted McGlone, “The Duality of Labor” in Alan Freeman (ed.), et al., The New Value Controversy and the Foundations of Economics. Massachusetts: Edward Elgar, 2004, pp. 144-146. See also Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1958 discussion in Marxism and Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press Morningside Edition, 1982, p. 105.

[4] Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996, p. 194. Kasmir attributes this myth to researchers who have listened to co-operative managers and public relations staff, rather than to Mondragón’s workers (p. 193).

[5] On Marx’s conception of an alternative to capital in his Gotha Critique, see Andrew Kliman, “The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the Critique of the Gotha Program.”

[6] On Wolff’s response to Occupy, see my “Wolff on Wall Street.”

[7] For a detailed critique of today’s left populism and left accommodation to Trumpism, see Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s 2018 Perspectives, especially the last section of Part I, “Varieties of ‘Leftist’ Accommodation to Trumpism, and the Marxist-Humanist Alternative;” Part III on “The Economic Mythology of the Left-Populist Alternative to Neoliberalism;” and Part V on “Combating White Nationalism: Lessons from Marx.” Part V, in particular, provides a detailed treatment of Trumpism as a manifestation of an abiding white-nationalism and a critique of the contention that Trump’s 2016 victory was a response to economic distress (including purported middle-class income stagnation) generated by neoliberal policies and financialization.

[8] Raya Dunayevskaya quotes these two passages, from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and Volume III of Capital, respectively, stressing Marx’s “sharp distinction between economic solutions … and creative human relationships” in Philosophy and Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press Morningside Edition, 1989, p. 5.

[9] For an analysis of Marx’s writing on the Civil War in the context of today’s resurgent white nationalism, see Part V of Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s 2018 Perspectives, “Combating White Nationalism: Lessons from Marx.”

[10] Wolff’s “Concepts of Class” offers a recent presentation of his “class-qua-surplus” theory.

[11] My discussion here draws freely on Dunayevskaya’s presentation in Chapter 7, “The Humanism and Dialectic of Capital, Volume I, 1867 to 1883,” in Marxism & Freedom. For an additional discussion, which stresses Marx’s humanism as providing the “force and direction” of Marx’s Capital, see Dunayevskaya’s “Marx’s Humanism Today” in Erich Fromm (ed.) Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Anchor Press, 1966, pp. 68-83.

[12] An inversion of subject and object, as Martin Luther King noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is also a hallmark of racial oppression: it “substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” Dunayevskaya quotes this passage from King’s 1963 letter in her Philosophy and Revolution (p. 339, n. 59). Through a direct engagement with Marx’s humanist philosophy, Dunayevskaya advanced a unique conception of the dialectic of race and class in the U.S. See her American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, in which Dunayevskaya contends that the “Achilles heel [of American civilization] is enclosed not in the ‘general’ class struggle, but in the specifics of the ‘additive’ of color in these class struggles [emphases in original]. Precisely because of this the theory of liberation must be as comprehensive as when Marx first unfurled the banner of Humanism” (p. 26).



1 Comment

  1. I’ve stumbled on your essay whilst writing an essay on Wolff and his followers. I totally agree. Your essays is strengthened when considering that Wolff is inspired by Althusser. Especially Wolffs misunderstanding of “surplus value”, of “value” itself is based on Althusser. Another point is that Wolffs Utopia equals Proudhon’s Utopia. We all know what Marx had to say about that. It is no therefore no coindidence, that Wolff neglects racism and feminism, as Deborah Kelsh has pointed out decades ago: Proudhons antifeminism speaks for itself. Thank You! This essay was a great help!

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