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On Contact: Understanding socialism with Richard Wolff

Chris Hedges talks to economist Richard Wolff about his new book ‘Understanding Socialism’. Wolff explains how in the socialist dream, work is something that we should want to engage in, that means something to us, that brings us into relationships with other people that we value, that make us better people as we interact with them; “it’s a transformation of life.”

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the battle between capitalism and socialism with the economist, Rick Wolff.

RW: There’s an idea of how we ought to be in the workplace, in our relations with one another as we produce the goods and services we need.  And it’s supposed to be in the socialist dream--let me put it this way.  Work is something we should be wanting to engage in, something that means something to us, something that brings us into relationships with other people that we value, that make us better people as we interact with them.  Those are real needs human beings have that capitalism completely rejects in the name of profit.  It is going to tell you what to do, how to do, when to do it.  The irony that when you’re done with work on your way home, you pass a place that says “happy hour” as if to underscore that the other hours, aren’t. 

CH: Socialism is about establishing collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, or as Karl Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”  The economic theory of socialism was formulated in response to the abuse of workers, including children, who toiled up to 16 hours a day in brutal, unsanitary, poorly paid, and often dangerous factories at the inception of the Industrial Revolution.  Socialism has since been used to describe a variety of ideologies, including the Soviet Union’s system of state capitalism, which is often at odds with socialism’s original aims.  Socialist programs, whether under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or in European social democracies, have long co-existed with capitalism, administered, and paid for through heavy state regulation, the breaking up of monopolies and taxation.  Social Security and Medicare are examples of socialist programs which have broad popular support in the United States, as does the British National Health Service, or France’s nationwide child care program.  The economist Rick Wolff, who joins me in the studio, examines the nature of socialism and what a socialist society might look like, in his new book, “Understanding Socialism.”  So let’s begin from the beginning, which you do, that socialism is formulated in response to a naked, unregulated, brutal capitalism.  Dickens wrote about it quite well as did Marx.

RW: Yeah.  It is, as I like to say, capitalism’s critical shadow.  And you can no more get rid of the criticism that socialism represents, then you can get rid of your shadow, which is why I like the metaphor.  It’s the product of capitalism.  Its goal has always been to allow the expression of those who lose in this capitalist system, which it insists are the majority, and to criticize a system that would enable the minority to have the wealth and power that it aggregates to itself.

CH: You talk about the destruction of feudalism, the rise of capitalism.  But in the book, you quite correctly point out that “Capitalism installed monarchies inside individual workplaces, even as monarchies outside workplaces were rejected.  Kings mostly disappeared, but inside each workplace, the owners of their designated Boards of Directors assumed kinglike powers.  Capitalism proclaimed democracy outside workplaces where people resided, but banned it from inside workplaces and now, of course, has banned democracy outside as well.”  But go ahead.

RW: Yeah.  I think that that’s the stark reality that I, as an American, have always felt, that this proclamation that we are a democratic society eliminated or excluded the workplace where most adults spend most of their lives.  I mean, if you think of your average day, five days out of the week, you go to work, you get dressed and prepared in the morning.  You then go to work, you try to recover at the end of the day.  Work--the workplace shapes you and we don’t have--we don’t let people have one person, one vote or anything remotely like it.

CH: But you’re not even--if you work within a corporate structure, as I did with The New York Times, you’re not even allowed to express political opinions that are not pre-approved by the corporate hierarchy as I found out about the invade--the call, my denunciation of the calls to invade Iraq, although I’d been the Middle East Bureau Chief for The New York Times.

RW: Yeah.  And I think the grossest example is that you have to live with the results.  A tiny group of people, the owner, the manager, the board of directors, can decide to close the factory, move the factory, change the office, produce something else, follow different rules.  You live as the result, you have to live with the results, but you have no control, no input, nothing to say except to go along--it’s the opposite of everything democracy has ever meant.  So, what do you call a society which proclaims democracy but in fact, in the workplace where most adults spend most of their life, excludes it in principle and in law?  For me, that’s one of the greatest indictments of capitalism imaginable and is therefore a staple of the socialist criticism.

CH: I want to--you talk a lot about China and the Soviet Union, and I don’t think I want to focus too much on that, but I do want to raise what you raise in the book, the Paris Commune, 1870, because it’s an important historical example.  What, it’s a hundred days?

RW: Right.

CH: Right.  Very important in terms of the Bolsheviks and Lenins studying what happened.

RW: Exactly.

CH: It was crushed by the French…

RW: Military.

CH: …aristocracy.  It--that made an alliance with the Prussians.

RW: Right.  Who have just defeated them in a war.

CH: Who have just defeated them in a war and--I mean, kind of dwarfing anything Petain, Vichy did in terms of the French selling out their own.  Blanche, the great theorist, is locked up because they’re terrified he’ll get to Paris and is too much of a leader.  But talk about--because it is--it is one of--perhaps the first example, isn’t it, in history of an attempt to build a socialist system.

RW: Absolutely.  The Paris Commune of--very underestimated for its importance.  It was.  It came, it was in that the 19th century, the culmination of the effort of socialists not only to make a criticism of capitalism in their writings, in their speakings, but to build organizations that could contest for state power for political power.  And the Paris Commune is the first time, in Europe at least, that the working class overthrows the existing bourgeois society, which had just lost the war with the Prussians and established the workers controlled city in the city of Paris.  Extraordinary experiment.  All kinds of collective decision-making, very reminiscent if you study the day-to-day of Occupy Wall Street in its own kind of way and then it’s crushed by the return--the use of the army that had lost to Prussia to come in and destroy their own people, massive killing of people in the famous Place des Vosges wall where they shot the commune…

CH: This is in the cemetery.

RW: They’re very famous and they exported many of them to New Caledonia in the Pacific.  I mean, Grotesque repression.  Now it was therefore, and this is so important, the greatest success and a terrible defeat.  It’s not either or, it’s both.  And the critique that was made first by Marx by himself.

CH: Yeah.  That’s right.  He wrote a book on it.

RW: He wrote a book about that to try to assess.  And his argument in the book is wonderful.  If we, the Marxists, the socialists, if we don’t make an analysis of what went wrong, then the only analysis that will be out there is by those who are enemies.  And so he did it.  Lenin then took that lesson and the Russian Revolution of 1917 was filled with strategic and tactical decisions based on what had been learned from the defeat and they did better the second time.

CH: Well, they celebrated as soon as they made a hundred days.

RW: Exactly.

CH: But just in a--in a nutshell, tell us what Marx’s argument was.  What were the lessons?

RW: There were two or three.  The biggest problem was that you had to reinvent the institutions of a post-capitalist society.  You could not use the state the way it was organized because it had served and accommodated capitalism.  And if you really wanted to go beyond it, you had to make fundamental changes.  Number two, you couldn’t handle finance in the old way either.  The banking system, the allowance of the bank to somehow continue issuing money was a big mistake.  And maybe the most profound one was you had to have a state that reinforced and institutionalized the popular power that the--that the commune represented.  You could not assume it would take care of itself.  You could not assume that it would persist somehow by its own momentum.  The state had to become the servant, really, of what the people had done.  And those things, were never accomplished, it was too hard to survive, but they had to learn at least a lesson of what had to be done.

CH: So this gets in to the early 20th century and the debate between Bernstein, who talked about socialism as working within the electoral system, within the framework of capitalism, and Rosa Luxemburg who said that as soon as socialism rose within the capitalist system to achieve some kind of political power, the capitalists would crush it.  This is, of course, exactly how Swedish socialist programs, the capitalist class went in and crushed it, Sweden in the 1970s had a socialist.  Talk about that, this debate between reform versus revolution.

RW: Well, I think the best way to get at it is to see that all socialists kind of agreed on something, that capturing the state was a crucial step to getting beyond capitalism, that capitalists had developed the state that protected them, that enforced their rules and regulations as it has done to this day.  And so socialists got the idea, if we can capture the state, we take away the enforcer for capitalism and we can transform it into the facilitator of a transition to socialism.  The only debate then was how do you do that?  And on one hand, you had the careful cautious ones, Bernstein in Germany, we do it by voting.  We are the majority.  The working class is the majority.  The employer class is the minority.  Okay.  Universal suffrage, that’s what we’re gonna do.  The alternative was you’re naive.  The capitalist system will use its monopoly of force, its wealth, its political controls, and frustrate you at every turn.  You’re going to play their game on their rules, they’re going to win.  So the revolution, the break, the refusal to abide by their rules is the alternative.  And so Rosa Luxemburg and later Lenin and the others were on the side of revolution versus reform, which was the language of the parliamentary approach.  In a way, that issue was then fought out by socialists in country after country.  In Russia, the revolutionaries won, the reformists lost.  In the New Deal in the United States, the other way around.  The revolutionaries were pushed aside and a reformist program under Roosevelt with the CIO and all of that, with socialists and communists along with them, chose the reformist route.  The question is what were the results?  And the irony of it is in both cases, you ended up with states, whether they were the Swedish social democratic variety or the communist varieties of Russia and China who didn’t learn that first lesson of Marx’s that the state has to be subordinate to the impulse from below, to formalize it, to express it, but not to become, once again, a dominant group that represses.  This understanding that capturing the state was always to be a means, not the end, was lost.  And the focus on the state still act as a kind of horrific limit on what socialists do…

CH: Well, this is--Lenin reverts--we should be clear under severe military and economic pressure to a system of state capitalism, i.e. the capitalist class is replaced by the state which Stalin then adopts as socialism which even I think Lenin would argue it never--it is not.

RW: Right.  Lenin, you know, deserves credit in a way he never gets.  He made a famous speech before he had his…

CH: Stroke.

RW: His stroke and was basically out of the picture.  He said at a meeting, an open public meeting, what we have done--this is two or three years after 1917, what we have done is establish state capitalism.  The working class has done that and I’m proud of it.  But now, he says, we have to do what the revolution intended.  We have to go.  And then Stalin comes along and says, “What are you talking about?  We’ve achieved it.”  In a sense, he says we’re done precisely in the way that Lenin said no, no, we have a big step to take.  And this fetishization, if I can say so, of the state has haunted socialists ever since as they talk like this notion that the issue is private versus state rather than a different society.

CH: We’ll come back to that.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about socialism with the economist, Rick Wolff.

CH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about socialism with the economist, Rick Wolff.  So, I want--this is not in the book, but I want to raise it as an issue.  Sheldon Wolin articulates it, and that is the notion of inverted totalitarianism.  And Wolin’s argument is that it’s not traditional totalitarianism.  You write about fascism in here as building often an uneasy alliance with the capitalist class.

RW: That’s right.

CH: This is what happened in Nazi Germany.  It’s what happened in Italy.  Yes, they saw the Nazis or they saw Mussolini as buffoonish, but they were so frightened of socialism, it’s why Gramsci goes to prison, that they will make this alliance in the same way the capitalist class has made an alliance with Trump and Johnson, and other buffoonish figures, very similar to the 1930s.  But Wolin argues that our system is different in that profit is the primary driver of all relationships, whereas under fascism, it--there wasn’t this kind of economic rationality.  A small example would be it’s the end of the war, the train system is erupted by Allied bombing, and instead of ferrying munitions to the retreating Eastern Front, they’re shipping Jews to Auschwitz.  And that gets to what you do write about here.  This--I don’t know what you would call it, corporate socialism.  So you have the crash of 2008, the neoliberal ideologues have been arguing through the second-rate thinkers like Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and others, Ayn Rand, which should have been a tip-off that these guys were idiots, that, you know, government, that Reagan line government is not the solution, government is the problem.  And then you write, “2008 happens, financial fraud, deregulation, burst bubbles, which is cyclical in capitalism.”  And you said, “The once-proud mega banks and other mega corporations suddenly stopped bashing governments as wasteful, inefficient, burdens on the private sectors back.  Instead, their private jets took them to global capitals where they begged to be bailed out by trillions of dollars or Euros of government money.  Given the corporation’s political power, the government responded.  They financed huge bailouts with massive additional government debts.  Once done, the government’s decided to rein in the exploding debts by imposing austerity, at least slowing, if not reducing, government spending, and borrowing, public employment pensions and public services became major targets for cuts.”  Is Wolin right?  Is this a slightly different historical model?

RW: Yeah, it’s probably a little bit different, partly because in each country there are unique differences based on that country’s history, its religion, the power of nationalism, and all the rest.  But I guess my tilting is more in the direction of the commonality than of the differences, that what you have here is now a fundamental resolution of a fundamental problem capitalism always have.  The employers are a minority, the employees are the majority.  That’s a fundamental problem.  You can’t sustain the dominance of the minority unless it has--this was Gramsci’s great insight, some way to create an alliance, a coalition, some hegemony with other groups because by themselves, they can’t.

CH: Which, for Gramsci, was the manipulation of culture?

RW: Absolutely.  Religion, culture, writing, music, all of it.

CH: And let me just--Rick.  Because it’s an important point, which it is part of the equation and that’s nationalism.  So, you had--was it a socialist majority in the Bundestag in Germany?

RW: Right.

CH: On the eve of World War I, Luxemburg was part of that along with Liebknecht.  And two, Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s, and Lenin’s horror.  The Trump of nationalism, you know, in the guise of patriotism which ended up, of course, decimated millions of men in the working class, one, and that gets, when you mentioned Gramsci.  Talk about that factor because it’s a potent weapon in the hand of the capitalist class.

RW: To this moment?

CH: To this moment

RW: All right.  Let’s take the German example.  Kaiser Wilhelm, the leader of Germany at that time, an emperor.  That’s what Kaiser in Germany means.

CH: And a buffoon in his own right.

RW: And a buffoon in his own right.  Goes on the radio, because he didn’t have TV then, goes on the radio and says in German, [SPEAKS GERMAN] “I don’t recognize socialists.” [SPEAKS GERMAN] “I recognize only Germans.” In other words, please, socialists, vote the credits without which you can’t fight a war without the money in the name of the nation, of the well-being of the nation.  And then he begins to denounce foreigners, anybody who isn’t German.  Half the working class, half the Socialist Party, or more, votes for it.  They capitulate.  They become nationalists.  They don’t call themselves natural socialists yet but 10 years later they will.

CH: But the Socialist Party, I think only Luxemburg and Liebknecht voted against it.

RW: There were a few--no, there were a few more.

CH: Maybe a few more but not many.

RW: It was small because they were caught up in this nationalist current.  Now, those people who fought against it prevailed.  They went to jail.  They were jailed.  Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and the others, they came out at the end of the war having basically the message, “We told you so.”

CH: Yeah.

RW: And they became very powerful.  But I don’t think I’m stretching historical analogy to suggest what do you think we have now?  We have a capitalism that once again plunged the world into economic distress in 2008, and what do we got?  A new Trump who says the danger isn’t capitalism and its crash.  No, it’s these poor Central Americans who are trying to come over the border from Texas.  It’s the nasty foreign companies that are cheating us, or countries that are cheating in trade.  The foreigner is doing us in, let’s all get excited about defeating the foreigner.  Boris Johnson plays exactly the same role relative to Europe.  And the working-class, wanting resolution to its real suffering, seeing the left having no real concrete program, goes with this craziness even half knowing that it’s a dead end.

CH: I mean, just as a historical footnote, they did triumph but both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were assassinated.

RW: Uh-huh.  Yes.

CH: So…

RW: Yes.  They were caught up by the right wing.  That’s right.  And that’s--that also has a cautionary tell.

CH: What--and it does because Freikorps was created by the socialist government, which was the antecedent to the Nazi Party, which is the fundamental lesson is that when pushed, the capitalist class, even the “socialist element” within the capital class, will always side with the fascists.

RW: They were terrified.  The socialists Scheidemann and Ebert, the two leaders of the Socialist Party that took power at the end of World War I, were terrified that they would lose the working class having been deceived into a war that decimated them.  That they would go with Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

CH: Which they did.  I mean Liebknecht…

RW: Many of them did.

CH: They rose up in Germany.  I mean…

RW: Yeah.  Because as happened in Munich, as happened in Berlin, as happened in Budapest, they were socialist revolutions replicated on the Russian model that began to have real traction and that terrified the people running those societies.

CH: Let’s talk about the nature of socialism, understanding socialism, there’s a--you have a chapter called “What is Socialism.”  You say, “It’s a yearning for people living in a capitalist economic system, whether private or state capitalism--capitalist to do better than what the--that capitalism permits and enables.  And by doing better,” you say, “having work that is more socially meaningful, less physically, and environmentally destructive, more secure in delivering an adequate income for yourself and your family,

another is having lifelong education leader, civic freedoms.”  Talk about the nature of a socialist society and how it’s organized.

RW: Okay, let me preface it by saying, yes, there’s a utopian element.  There’s an idea of how we ought to be in the workplace, in our relations with one another as we produce the goods and services we need.  And it’s supposed to be in the socialist dream.  Let me put it this way.  Work is something we should be wanting to engage in, something that means something to us, something that brings us into relationships with other people that we value, that make us better people as we interact with them.  Those are real needs human beings have that capitalism completely rejects.  In the name of profit, it is going to tell you what to do, how to do, when to do it, the irony that when you’re done with work on your way home you pass a place that says “happy hour” as if to underscore that the other hours aren’t.  You know, all of that, socialism is much more than this or that detail.  It’s a transformation of life.  It’s like a family that is having serious problems but that can think through we could relate to one another in a different way which would be better for all of us.

CH: But it’s about overthrowing the capitalist monarchy.

RW: That’s inside.

CH: Which you’re right.  And giving power to the worker.

RW: That’s right.  And saying we are all in this together, all of us in this workplace, this office, this factory, this store, and we’re going to make the workplace a beautiful, sustaining, meaningful experience.  We are not, as in capitalism, to be told, no, it’s ugly, it’s unresponsive, it’s mean, and it’s narrow, but your reward is you could go to the mall when you’re done and buy things.

CH: But we should be clear that capitalism, as a system or consumerism, the consumer society, has, as its goal, the creation of anxiety, the creation of alienation, the creation of insecurity, which is what drives the consumer culture.  You buy the product, you buy the experience to deal with the very alienation and anxiety and insecurity that a capitalist system creates by design.

RW: Right.  And you--and consumerism is the fantastic invention to say if you’re miserable in your work life, don’t look to solve it by changing the work life.  Look to solve it by consumer, by buying the products that profit the very person who’s making your work flight--work life so awful.  It’s a fantastic--it’s like nationalism.

CH: Well, but…

RW: It takes you away from your problem to scapegoat somebody else.

CH: But those products and experiences give you a very short-lived happiness…

RW: High.  Yes.

CH: …or high, and then you plunge right back where you were.

RW: Right back in.  That’s right.  And feel the same loss, the same emptiness that then drives you to buy some more.  The old jokes that we make, that, you know, life is a game.  The person who wins has the most stuff in the garage when you die, you know, the craziness of it.

CH: We just have a minute left.  But in that minute, if you can, how are we going to get there?

RW: We’re going to get there for the same two ways we always did.  We’re going to get there, A, by capitalism driving more and more people to see what it is and reject it on the one hand.  And on the other, having the courage for people who see it to stand up and say I see the emperor has no clothes, unprepared to say to my fellow men and women, “Come on, we can do better than this system.”  You know, human beings got beyond slavery.  They got beyond feudalism.  There is no reason to think we can’t get beyond capitalism, too.  And socialism, in all of its complexes, with its warts and all, is where we have to go to solve that problem to do better than what we have.

CH: And we are, as Gramsci would say, in an interregnum because the reigning ideology, like the old divine right of kings, neoliberalism, has lost all of its credibility which is why critics, such as us, are being increasingly marginalized within the media landscape because the ruling elites don’t have a counterargument left.

RW: They don’t have much, and they know that between the failures they keep imposing, we look better and better so that suddenly, even in this country that had the 75 years of repression of the left, the socialist impulse is rising and is all around and frightening the people who run this society.

CH: Great.  Thanks, Rick.  That was economist and author Rick Wolff talking about his new book, “Understanding Socialism.”  Great.  Thanks.

RW: Good one.