Book Review: Understanding Marxism

Understanding “Wolff-ism”: Prof. Richard Wolff’s Take on Karl Marx in New Text

The 2008 crisis of capitalism sparked and regenerated interest in alternatives to the capitalist system, which was on the verge of collapsing. This included revived interest in socialism, with one of the results being the propelling of an obscure leftwing academic into history’s headlights. With appearances on TV shows including Bill Moyers’ and Charlie Rose’s programs, “Economic Update” (heard in L.A. on KPFK) radio broadcasts and packed live speaking engagements, the financial disaster made Prof. Richard Wolff ready for his close up. “I’ve got to pinch myself; I’m having the time of my life,” a surprised Wolff said about suddenly being thrust into prime time.

As the Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, New York City observed, “It’s not me; it’s the message, which has remained the same.” Indeed, last August at the Left Coast Forum I moderated a panel to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth and much to my astonishment a standing room only crowd attended the “What is Marxism?” discussion that went into overtime at L.A. Trade-Tech College. So there is a growing appetite and hunger for an anti-capitalist analysis to explain what’s happening and for solutions.

To supply this growing demand Wolff has self-published an 80-plus page text that’s somewhere between being a book and a pamphlet entitled Understanding Marxism. Like his personal appearances in the media and his lectures, this new text makes a valuable contribution in critiquing capitalism and enlightening readers with the socialist alternative.

As Wolff has said: “If you want to understand an economy, not only from the point of view of people who love it, but also from the point of view of people who are critical and think we can do better, then you need to study Marxian economics as part of any serious attempt to understand what’s going on. Not to do it is to exclude yourself from the critical tradition.”

Of course, socialism and Marxism are multi-faceted, complicated concepts, theories, etc., and there are many different interpretations of what socialist thinkers like Marx believed. Around the 1980s the California-based Campaign for Economic Democracy estimated that there were scores of leftist tendencies and organizations offering a variety of conceptions as to what socialism was. Shortly before his death, I asked CED co-founder Tom Hayden exactly how many variants of socialist thought there were, and the former Chicago 7 defendant literally couldn’t remember if it was 60-something or 80-something. But the adherents of socialism include: social democrats, democratic socialists, Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists and of course Marxists of various strains.

Understanding Marxism provides the socialist gospel according to Wolff. He states that Marx was “formally trained in philosophy” and began his work life as “a professor of philosophy.” However, Wolff contends that Marx “quickly” became “an economist” – just as Wolff, who earned his B.A. from Harvard, a Master’s in economics from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, also is. So it’s not surprising that in his slim volume Wolff focuses on an economic aspect of Marxism, which he argues is the fulfillment of the “democracy” promised but unfulfilled by the bourgeois revolutions in countries like America in 1776 and France in 1789.

The heart of Wolff’s argument centers on what Marx called “surplus labor,” which is what employers appropriate above what they pay for wages, raw materials, machinery and the like in the production process. In simpler terms “surplus labor” can be understood to be the profit the bourgeoisie makes after deducting their expenses for the goods produced and once those commodities are sold.

Wolff maintains that the fact that productive workers are not compensated for the full amount and worth of their labor constitutes “exploitation.” At the risk of sounding like a reductionist, the professor’s particular interpretation of Marxism is based on the notion that the expropriators of the fruit of the labor created by the masses is accumulated by a tiny percentage of the population (what, post Occupy Wall Street, we’d today call “the 1%”), which controls what happens with that surplus labor. It is this relationship of production, Wolff insists, that has thwarted the democratic promises of the American, French and other bourgeois revolutions. This system of minority rule over ownership, with surplus labor serving mainly to enrich the capitalist class at the expense of the working class, is also the cause of the staggering inequality – epitomized by the fact that Disney’s CEO Robert Iger earns 1,400 times the salary of a typical employee of the company – that afflicts the world now.

For Wolff, socialism is the fulfillment of the dream of democracy, by making the producers not only the creators, but the masters of their surplus labor. How is it created? What is created? How is the surplus distributed? What are their products exchanged for? This would be done in a democratic way, with the workers voting on these cncerns, as democracy is extended way beyond voting for politicians and even ballot initiatives, to the factory floor, the office, etc.

As previously noted, just as Opus Dei and Liberation Theology both spring from Christianity, Marxism is very complex and subject to extremely different interpretations. For instance, as an economist Wolff concentrates on Marx’s economics, especially as expounded and developed by the “older Marx” in books such as 1867’s Das Kapital. But those of a more philosophical, per se, bent could instead stress the “younger Marx’s” theories on “alienation,” as expressed in works like 1844’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, as “socialist humanists” like Erich Fromm did.

So Marxists of different stripes may disagree with and take issue with some of the hypotheses of Wolff, whose version of Marxism could be called “Wolffism.” In his lectures and book Prof. Wolff focuses on the democratization of the workplace. The emphasis on the latter reminds me of the early 19th century utopian socialist François Marie Charles Fourier (whom Friedrich Engels called “one of the three great Utopians”) and his notion of “phalanxes” – models of cooperative labor. But socialism is more than a matter of workplace referendums, with workers at the point of production, where products are manufactured, running and benefiting from the enterprises they toil in.

Beyond this, how will the workers exercise their ownership of the means of production, unifying and harnessing the productive forces of these (literally) thousands of communally-owned collectives and cooperatives, on a national or even international level? There is little, if anything, about this in Understanding Marxism, although supporters of Soviet-style socialism would likely advocate some kind of centralized planning. For the 21st century, instead of unelected bureaucrats being in charge of the decision making process, the trick would be: How would the producers be empowered through participatory direct democracy to self-manage this planning on a broad societal scale themselves? And how would they coordinate production with the rest of the working class for the common good of all?

Wolff is correct when he notes in chapter VII of Understanding Marxism that, “Marx himself said and wrote little about the future of capitalism.” However, with his emphasis on democracy, the professor never once mentions a central tenet of Marxism: The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I suspect that given the specter of the “police state” connotations of various Stalinist societies, that Wolff did not want to muddy the waters of his democratic panacea of workers’ cooperatives by sullying and confusing this vision of democracy with the mention of the word “dictatorship.” But more militant interpreters of Marx, who are to the left of Wolff, might quote Marx who, after Europe’s 1848 workers’ uprisings, wrote in Neue Rheinische Zeitung:

“Every provisional state setup after a revolution requires a dictatorship, and an energetic dictatorship at that.”

But by “dictatorship” I believe Marx was referring to the exercising of majority rule, ensuring and enabling the dominance of, in today’s parlance, of the 99% over the 1%. As George Orwell pithily put it when describing radicalized Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War: “the working class was in the saddle.”

In order to place the workers in the saddle and, as Marx put it, “expropriate the expropriators,” a revolution is required, for the ruling class will never voluntarily give up their power, privilege and wealth and is the inevitable outcome of class struggle. The guillotine and Bastille – or credible threats of them – are the only things the Trumps and their ilk understand. Although Wolff references the American and French revolutions, when it comes to establishing socialism, in his text revolution is the act that dare not say its name. But for Marx it is a historical necessity. As he and Engels wrote in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: constitution of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

And that “overthrow” would be via insurrectionary and not electoral means: Marxism without revolution is like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes without the syrup. For anyone who deludes him/ herself into believing socialism can be achieved through elections without a revolution, I have two words for you: Salvador Allende. Plus I have a bridge in Brooklyn and swampland in the Okefenokee to sell to you.

Understanding Marxism also never addresses the subject of vanguard and/or other political parties for the workers. Nevertheless, while some Marxists of different persuasions may find the booklet to be limited in scope, like Wolff himself, it makes an important addition to our public discourse about the really pressing issues of the day. Understanding Marxism is a pro-proletarian primer to help the masses comprehend some of the basics of a complicated worldview, with Wolff identifying some of the capitalist system’s essential contradictions.

In addition to most of The Communist Manifesto, other works that concisely, cogently illuminate Marxism’s ABCs include Engels’ 1880 Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. And while this may surprise some, Stalin’s 1938 pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism is an easy to read work elucidating the building blocks of Marxist methodology. Like his predecessors, Prof. Richard Wolff puts his finger on elements of Marx’s theories that are relevant for understanding – and more importantly, changing – the contemporary world.

To read Understanding Marxism see: For more info:;;

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam Quiz: