Richard Wolff on the history of capitalism & socialism

when we talk about politics and we talk about economics a major part of it is these labels how would you define the terms Marxist socialist and communist do you embrace those terms or do you think that maybe they're antiquated just over all what what's your thoughts on those labels well the problem is neither that they're vague they aren't or that they're antiquated I don't think so either the problem with the labels is that they mean different things to different people and you always get to difficulty when any two people use the same word but to be something very different even common words take the word love if you're a young man or woman you use that word with another young man or woman you better be very careful to figure out whether you both mean the same thing either one of you – the other one because if you mean different things all kinds of consequence is good and bad can flow that doesn't mean you don't use the word love it because you have to if you're aware of your surroundings pay some attention to the fact that different people need different things so let me explain at least what I mean by terms like Marxism socialism communism so forth and the way to do that like with most interesting questions is to look at the history capitalism which is the system that socialist communist and Marxist react to starts around the 17th and 18th century in England before that there have been little episodes you might say of capitalism but until the 18th century in England it didn't really become the dominant prevailing system across Europe for example for the previous thousand years a system called feudalism had been the dominant system but once it catches hold and kind of becomes dominant in England it spreads from there to the rest of Europe and from there to the rest of the world so that we today live in the global system that is predominantly capitalist and when that transition happened in the 17th and 18th century the transition from the feudalism that has existed before to the capitalism that replaced it we had a number of kind of revolutionary breakthroughs some of them were in the realm of thought people like Adam Smith and David Ricardo sounded modern economics and they did so at the time when capitalism was coming into its dominant period and they were boosters they were enthusiastic capitalism was great they weren't by the way uncritical they had critical things to say but by and large they thought that capitalism was an enormous advance for the human race and they celebrated it every economic system has had people who celebrate it that's part of the way things work but it's equally true that every system has also produced sooner or later and it's usually sooner people who are critical and smithing Ricardo who wrote at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the 19th century were followed but roughly by 50 years by another thinker Karl Marx who was a close student of Smith and Ricardo he must writing showing how closely he had read all of their work appraised 'fl he was of what he had learned from Smith Ricardo so he held it helped him understand capitalism which he was interested in doing but he came to a different conclusion and that's partly because it was 50 years later they were at the beginning of capitalism's dominance where as marks coming 50 years later reached his intellectual maturity at a time when capitalism was pretty well settled the middle of the 19th century it's a kind of time when capitalism is the dominant system but here's the problem in the enthusiasm of overthrowing feudalism and bringing in capitalism that was celebrated by Adam Smith and celebrated by David Ricardo there were also some heady political transformations the most famous of which were the French Revolution in 1789 and the American Revolution a few years before that and those revolutions which were against feudalism the frenched overthrew and destroyed French feudalism and the United States broke away from the British futile isms of King George the third to set up a capitalist economy here which is what the French did there and the enthusiasm of the people who made these revolutions took the following form we are going to institute capitalism because capitalism will bring with it liberty equality fraternity by the way those were the three slogans of the French Revolution and democracy which was the slogan of the American Revolution in other words the enthusiasts and the proponents of capitalism loved it not only because it was a better economic system they certainly believed that but also because it would bring again liberty equality fraternity Brotherhood and democracy coming 50 years later basically Marx looks around says ok we certainly got capitalism it's everywhere around us and grow but when it comes to liberty equality fraternity and democracy we don't have it in Marx's judgment capitalism had betrayed its own promises capitalism had failed to deliver the liberty equality and democracy and Brotherhood it had promised and for Marxist was not something he needed to show if you read any novel by Charles Dickens you'll see it within the first 10 pages so he took that is obvious so he sent himself the task of explaining what happened he loved the slogans of liberty equality fraternity and democracy he endorsed them wholeheartedly all his lives but he wanted to explain what was it that blocked or proved to be the obstacle that capitalism couldn't overcome which explains why it couldn't deliver what it had promised in the way of liberty equality fraternity and democracy and the conclusion he reached required him to become a very close student of capitalism which he was to write up his analysis of capitalism which he did and to use that analysis to reached a conclusion and the conclusion was that capitalism failed to achieve what it had promised because inside capitalism itself are unavoidable obstacles problems for capitalism were not external to it it didn't fail to deliver on its promises because somebody else or some force outside of itself intervened capitalism was unable to realize those promises because inside capitalism are the mechanisms that prevent liberty equality fraternity and democracy from ever being realized so Marx becomes the critic now he's just writing in London where he spent most of his adult life writing all this out is that if that's at the end of the story we wouldn't be talking about it now but it was Marx's work got picked up by all kinds of other people who weren't happy with how capitalism was evolving it turns out that there were millions and millions of those people they formed trade unions because they were dissatisfied with the wages capitalism paid they formed political parties because they were dissatisfied with the politics that capitalism organized and they turned to Marx as the theorist as the writer as the person who had written down and to express what was wrong with capitalism and they used that to kind of inform their strategies as trade unions their strategies as political parties and the name they took and this is for historical reasons was socialism throughout the entire 19th century the movement that was critical of capitalism it had a number of different names but the name that became dominant was socialism and the thinker associated with that who became dominant he wasn't the only one but his work became dominant was Marxism so in the 19th century he would basically say socialism was the major movement of criticism capitalism it was a set of people and activities who believed fundamentally that the human race could organize itself better than capitalism did and they thought they could do that and the theorists they used to make their cases was the work of Karl Marx and over the 19th century and even more the 20th Marxism and socialism spread from its origins in Europe to every corner of the world in fact it's one of the most startlingly successful global movements in the history of the human race however until 1917 Marxism as a theory and socialism as a political movement were critical of capitalism but had not yet achieved political power at the end of World War one in 1917 1918 one country on the planet namely Russia which has lost World War one it was on the losing side of that war and subsidies subsequently thrown into a lot of suffering and chaos because of that a lot of the World War one was fought on Russian soil the destruction was cataclysmic in the aftermath of losing that war a revolution broke out in Russia against capitalism and it was led by self-conscious Marxists people who would study the Marxist literature who are part of the global socialist movement and they they took over the government in a revolution in 1970 there immediately broke out in a civil war between those who liked the revolution and those who hated it the civil war lasted from 1918 to 1922 in the end it pitted the Red Army they liked the revolution against the white army which didn't the Red Army won and the White Army lost the white army lost despite the intervention of four countries who sent troops to work with the white army to overthrow the revolution I mentioned this now because American history taught in America leaves little details like this out the four countries that sent troops were Japan France Britain and the United States that's right the United States sent troops to put down the Soviet Revolution the Soviet Union never sent troops to the United States to do anything who has the right to be afraid of whom always struck me as a funny kind of argument for Americans to make in any case with the Russian Revolution in 1917 socialists and Marxist around the world were confronted with something new for the first time some of them had actually won political power they had pulled off a revolution and despite bad odds they had prevailed when the dust cleared and the last foreign soldier left and civil war was over the Socialists led by a man named Lenin were in charge they had won and they were now the new government of the country that renamed itself the USSR the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and all socialists around the world kind of had a problem did they like this did they like what they saw going on were they to line up behind the Russians because they said these guys must know what duty because they won or were they critics and just like capitalism has always had the people who love it and the people who criticize it the Soviet Union from the day it began had the people who loved it and the people who were critical of it but who are all socialists they just some of them thought that what the Russians were doing was spot on and the others thought it was a big mistake and so the socialist movement split half of them became admirers and followers of the Soviet Union and the other half held on to their socialism that didn't want capitalism but they didn't think that the Soviet Union was the way to go and the ones who decided to follow the Soviet Union decided not only to split from the others but to change their names and they took the name communist that's when the communist parties of the world began in nineteen 19 1920 1921 so for me watching and looking at all of this I would say to people today that the single most powerful tendency or the single most powerful body of critical literature of capitalism is not system it's not the only creditors capitalism not at all but in terms of its influence in terms of the number of people across the world who contributed to developed it it is the biggest tradition but of course any tradition that spreads in a hundred and fifty years across every country and culture of Asia Africa Europe it's going to be interpreted in many different ways that's why if you talk about Marxism you cannot talk about it in the singular because to talk about Marxism in the singular means you either don't understand that there are radically different interpretations or you don't want the person you're talking to to understand it and neither of those positions is justified so for example the Soviet Union was a supporter of a particular interpretation of Marxism that lots of other Marxists didn't agree with if you're going to talk about Marxism you have to distinguish the Soviet version which was taken up by the communist parties from the non Soviet versions in the plural that were taken up either by just groups of intellectuals or maybe some political parties or maybe even some other governments but you can't act as if it were all the same you

  1. Excellent video. It is very important to distinguish between different Marxisms. Only the ill informed or liars merely wishing to make trouble expound otherwise.

  2. Marxism is responsible for the death and enslavement and impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people.

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