- Richard Wolffemeritus professor of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and visiting professor at New School University. He hosts a weekly program on WBAI 99.5-FM called Economic Update every Saturday at 12 p.m. ET. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.
In this extended interview with Richard Wolff, he discusses how his parents fled Hitler and immigrated to the United States from Germany during World War II, and their influence on his worldview. “I grew up convinced that understanding the political and economic environment I lived in was an urgent matter that had to be done, and made me a little different from many of my fellow kids in school who didn’t have that sense of the urgency of understanding how the world worked to be able to navigate an unstable and often dangerous world,” Wolff says. The man The New York Times has called “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist” also talks about Marx’s influence on his work. “Over the last 40 years in America, it’s a sort of a sad comment, but if you’re interested in Marxism, then people look at you as if you either are a Marxist, or worse, some sort of caricature of a Marxist,” Wolff notes. “So I always have said I use Marxist theory, I find it very insightful, I think it’s a shame that other people don’t have it, and I think it’s made me a better economist when it comes to writing and teaching than I would have been without that. And I think that would be the same for my colleagues, and that it’s a deficiency of theirs that the education didn’t do it.” Wolff also examines lessons from communist countries and economies over the years, including China.
See Richard Wolff’s interview on Monday, March 25th: A People’s Revolt in Cyprus: Richard Wolff on Protests Against EU Plan to Seize Bank Savings
See more from this Richard Wolff interview: Capitalism in Crisis: Richard Wolff Urges End to Austerity, New Jobs Program, Democratizing Work
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Our guest is Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor at New School University, has a show on WBAI in New York every Saturday at noon, author of a number of books. His latest is Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Go to our website at democracynow.org to hear our hour conversation with Richard Wolff. But I just want to ask you, for this web exclusive, Richard, to talk about your life, where you were born.
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I was born in Youngstown, Ohio. My father was pushing a wheelbarrow in the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel factory. He and my mother were immigrants from Europe, running basically away from World War II and European fascism, were welcomed here in the United States. And that was one of the first jobs he got, in a steel factory, even though he had been a lawyer in Europe. No one recognized his law degree.
AMY GOODMAN: Where in Europe?
RICHARD WOLFF: In Köln, in Cologne, and sort of—he was born in Metz in France, which is in the Alsace-Lorraine on the border of France and Germany, where you basically have to learn both languages, and you’re half in one culture and half in the other. But most of his activity was done on the German side. Technically he was a French citizen. And my mother was born in Berlin, so she was a real German. And so they came here and—
AMY GOODMAN: Fleeing Hitler.
RICHARD WOLFF: Fleeing Hitler, got this job in Youngstown, Ohio, had a child—me. And I grew up in a household speaking French and German until they put me into kindergarten—a German word, “kindergarten”—and I had to learn English.
AMY GOODMAN: So, English is your third language.
RICHARD WOLFF: Is my third language. And luckily, my parents were determined that I hold on to my two other languages, and so I became fluent in French and German, which has been a wonderful blessing for me all my adult life.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet you have a kind of New York accent. Where did that come from?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, we lived in Ohio, Missouri and Colorado in my first five years, my formative life, very much Midwestern American. And then my father got a job in the New York area. But when he came as an immigrant, he was told it was too dangerous to live in New York, so he settled in a place called New Rochelle. It’s a suburb about a half-an-hour outside of New York. And that’s where I basically went to public school and grew up.
AMY GOODMAN: How did your parents’ worldview influence you?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I think the most important thing that they taught me was that, A, everything you expect about how the world works probably will be changed in your life, that unexpected things happen, often tragic things happen, and being flexible, being aware of a whole range of different things that happen in the world, is not just a good idea as a thinking person, but it’s crucial to your survival. So, for me, I grew up convinced that understanding the political and economic environment I lived in was an urgent matter that had to be done, and made me a little different from many of my fellow kids in school who didn’t have that sense of the urgency of understanding how the world worked to be able to navigate an unstable and often dangerous world. That was a very important lesson for me.
AMY GOODMAN: And your father’s influences in school back in Europe?
RICHARD WOLFF: He was a product of Europe’s education. So, for example, when I was young, he was scandalized that the New Rochelle high school, where I went to school, a public school, didn’t offer Greek as a language, because in his idea you can’t be an educated person unless you read Greek and Latin, because so many of the great founding works of Western civilization are in those languages. So I was always made aware of the shortcomings of my education. And indeed, my father, even as a kid, had me reading Plato and Aristotle, in English, by then, in order to be a broadly educated, philosophically grounded young person. So, I got a pretty intense tutorial alongside of my schooling.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did the Frankfurt School come into this? And what is that?
RICHARD WOLFF: My father, as a young man, befriended a fellow named Max Horkheimer, a very famous German thinker. In the Germany of the 1920s, if you were left of center, there was no place for you in the German universities. It’s a little bit like that in Germany for the last few years again. But in the 1920s, it meant that if you were a critical thinker, if you were critical about capitalism, if you were critical about modern culture, you either had to forgo an academic life or career, or you had to find one of a handful of little institutions that existed next door to a university but not really part of it.
The most famous of these in the city—the German city of Frankfurt was associated with the University of Frankfurt but not part of the university. So it got the name the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. And that’s where intellectuals, including people like Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, people who have since become quite famous even in the United States among intellectual circles, they all were professors there or researchers there, because they couldn’t get a university job.
And my father was part of that for a few years before Hitler’s arrival, who disbanded all of that and made most of them come to the United States, where indeed one of the things they did when they came to New York was start a new university called the New School. So, ironically, my father—
AMY GOODMAN: For Social Research.
RICHARD WOLFF: My father taught at the New School. I teach at the New School. And my son Max, who I think you know, also teaches at the New School.
AMY GOODMAN: Max Fraad Wolff—
RICHARD WOLFF: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —also an economist.
RICHARD WOLFF: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times has called you “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist.” Can you talk about Marx’s influence on you?
RICHARD WOLFF: Sure. I’m a product of the elite top of the American university system. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate. Then I went to Stanford in California to get my master’s degree. And then I went to Yale to get my Ph.D. So, by the normal standards of this profession, I’m the elite product of these institutions.
I was always struck that as I went through these schools, studying history, politics, economics, sociology—the things that intrigued me—I was never required to read one word of Karl Marx. And I remember telling that to my father, who looked in stunned disbelief at the very possibility that an educated person going to such august universities would not be required to at least read people who are critical of the society, simply as a notion of proper education. So with a father like that, it wasn’t so surprising that I went and found ways that individuals who were on the faculty sometime could, out of the classroom, teach me, take me through the great classics of critical literature, whether it was Marx and Engels themselves or Antonio Gramsci or George Lukács or all of the other—Rosa Luxemburg, the great thinkers of the critical perspective. So, I got excited about learning that on my own.
Then I discovered that these people are full of interesting insights about our society, and I should have been asked to read them. And the more I read it, the more I realized that I wanted to be an economist, but one who had a toolbox not only with the conventional stuff that I was learning in my university classes, but also with the nonconventional stuff. And, you know, over the last 40 years in America, it’s a sort of a sad comment, but if you’re interested in Marxism, then people look at you as if you either are a Marxist, or worse, some sort of caricature of a Marxist. So I always have said I use Marxist theory, I find it very insightful, I think it’s a shame that other people don’t have it, and I think it’s made me a better economist when it comes to writing and teaching than I would have been without that. And I think that would be the same for my colleagues, and that it’s a deficiency of theirs that the education didn’t do it.
I use a metaphor to get it across. If you wanted to understand the family down the street that had mommy and poppy and two children, and you wanted to really understand that family, and you knew that one child thought it was the greatest family the world had ever seen and the other child thought it was a psychologically dysfunctional group of people, what would you do? Would you talk to only one child, or would you talk to two? Clearly, you’d make up your own mind. You’d draw your own conclusions. But why in the world wouldn’t you speak to both of them, if you wanted to understand the family? Capitalism, our system, is the same. It has the people who celebrate and love it—and I, by all means, think you ought to read what they have to say. But you also have a large group of people who are very critical, and it is self-destructive of your own understanding not to expose yourself to what they have to say.
I would even go so far as to say one of the reasons this crisis we’re in now is as bad as it is and is lasting as long as it does, despite everyone’s prediction we wouldn’t have this again, is precisely because the people in charge of doing something about it, Republicans and Democrats alike, have no clue about the long, critical literature. Had they studied it, they would have been aware of the flaws and the faults in the system, would have been thinking about how to fix and improve upon them. We’d be in better shape to manage the crisis of capitalism if we hadn’t blinded ourself to the whole critical tradition, the chief of which is Marxian theory.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the Democrats and the Republicans. What about the media and how it’s covered your work?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, I have to be careful there. For the—for 40 years, up until around 2010, the media dealt with me as if I were a strange, odd, marginal character. I would be invited to interviews, and the host or hostess would say, “Today we have one of those,” with big eyes. And the next thing would be: “Aren’t I a wonderfully liberal, open-minded host or hostess to have one of those on my program.” By that time, the audience had effectively been inoculated against whatever I would say.
All of that changed in the last two years. Suddenly, I am on the radio, on television. My work gets published left and right. My story hasn’t changed that much, but the audience, the American people, have changed. And whatever people say and think about the tea party and all that that represents on the right-wing end of the spectrum, I can tell you from my personal life that the openness, the interest, the sympathy for what I have to say—not always agreement with me, by all means—but the openness is extraordinary and bespeaks big changes happening below the radar in the consciousness of the American people and gives me lots of hope and lots of optimism about what’s possible here.
AMY GOODMAN: Why hope, when you see the wealth concentrated more than it’s ever been in history?
RICHARD WOLFF: The wealth is concentrated more. That’s bad. But the awareness, the resentment, the notion this is not tolerable, that’s also developing at the other end of the spectrum. That’s where my hope is coming from. I see people willing to talk about it, willing to face it, willing to question our economic system, interested in critical perspectives because they’re puzzling it out themselves. That’s where my hope comes from.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, if Marx were treasury secretary instead of Timothy Geithner, what would he have done differently?
RICHARD WOLFF: I think he would have said the banking sector, the financial sector, upon which this economy now depends, has performed so badly, we couldn’t possibly rely on them going forward. There’d be no such things as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan. That would be taken over by a public agency, transparent and open so that all of us who depend on them can see what they’re doing and can monitor and control and change, as needed.
The second thing, he would have created a public employment. If the private sector cannot employ people, and if our economy depends on employment, well, for God’s sake, have the government come in and do it. And the resources are there. The money is there. You just need to go and get it. If the government of Cyprus could take the extreme of snatching people’s cash out of their bank accounts, then the American government could simply raise the tax rates on wealthy people and on corporations to what they were in the 1950s and '60s, and use it to put Americans back to work. It's the logical thing to do. It’s what we did as a nation. It’s long overdue. And I think that’s what would happen.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you get the buy-in of the American people to do that?
RICHARD WOLFF: By telling them that the American dream, which they now know is slipping away, which they can no longer afford—they can’t borrow anymore, because they’re at the limit, and their wages are going down, not up—to say to them, “You can fundamentally change your prospects in this economy if you make these changes. And if you don’t, you are on a long-term trajectory of decline.”
American corporations have made the decision, over the last 30 years, they’re moving out of the United States. When I meet with large corporations, which I still do, they speak about the United States as a “mature” economy. That’s a very dangerous word, as we all should know. “Mature” means it isn’t growing fast anymore. The future for corporations who want to grow is elsewhere. That’s why they’re producing more goods and services abroad. That’s why not only manufacturing but service sector is going abroad. The projection for the United States is a long period of decline. And the model? Great Britain.
So, if you want to change that, you’re going to have to make basic changes of the sort that Marx was talking about 150 years ago, not that we have to do what he said—that would be childish and silly—but we have to take advantage of the initial insights he made possible, so that we can develop them to change where things are going.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Wolff, why do corporations want to talk to you?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, you know, unlike so many folks in the United States, the people who run large corporations often know that they need unorthodox views. They have their own staff to get what’s in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every day. They don’t need more of that. They get that. What they need are other perspectives, because they know that in those other perspectives are insights and nuggets they don’t want to be without. And that’s what they say. They bring me in to talk to them, and they say, “We want that other perspective.”
AMY GOODMAN: And why do you want to talk to them?
RICHARD WOLFF: Well, my hope is that there are good folks even at the highest levels of our—I don’t believe in personal—the folks are all doing bad things as bad people. I’m a critic of the system, not of the individual. I think you have to change the system, because if you don’t, even when you get rid of the bad individuals, the next ones are subject to the same systems of rewards and incentives and end up doing the same. So, my hope is I can persuade even some of them that this system is what has to change. And if they’re good Americans and they care about the larger society, which some of them do, they will find those arguments persuasive.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to those who say, “Look what Marxism did to the Soviet Union”?
RICHARD WOLFF: I say to them, in the name of wonderful things, the world is full of examples of horrible things being done. In the name of the Muslim religion, horrible things are done. In the name of the Christian or the Jewish religions, horrible things have been done, whether it’s the Inquisition or it’s the intifada or wherever we look, there are plenty of examples. Marxism is not exempt from that. In the name of Marxism, awful things have been done. And Marxists could be, and I have been, right in the forefront of saying, “Hey, you used Marxism to justify something that I don’t believe is consistent with it and, in any case, is unjustified.” I think we have to learn from the mistakes—serious ones—of the Soviet Union, of the People’s Republic of China, and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: What were those mistakes?
RICHARD WOLFF: The biggest mistake, in my judgment, was thinking you could have a new world by simply changing who owns the means of production, from private to public, and how you distribute goods, from markets to planning. Whatever the virtues and defects, that doesn’t change life on the ground, the change in the daily work activity of people. That’s why I focus so much on changing the enterprise, because in the Soviet Union the joke was, the day after the revolution, we still went to work at 8:00, worked our tails off, produced a profit, a “surplus,” they called it, which was taken by a bunch of bureaucrats, whereas before it was taken by a bunch of board of directors. Where are we in the story? We’re still the drudges doing the work.
So, for me, the democratization of enterprise, creating co-ops, is a way to make the revolution in the daily—anchor it in the daily life. Give the workers themselves the control over what they produce, and make the government dependent on them, so we don’t have them dependent on the government, which in a sense is the basic critique of what happened in Russia and China. So I think you use Marxian analysis to critique even those experiments using Marxism that you think went astray.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think the U.S. has to learn from China?
RICHARD WOLFF: If you have an economy that you want to grow quickly, from poverty to wealth, you’re going to have to make very difficult decisions and manage your economy. You cannot allow millions of people to be unemployed, who want and need to work, side by side with vast resources, tools and equipment sitting idle. That’s what we have. A rich society like ours tolerates that.
But if you’re poor like China, and you want to develop, you don’t permit that to happen. How you go about maximizing the use of your people and your—that’s the key question. Do you do it democratically? Do you do it in a participatory fashion? They’re not very good on that. That’s where they need to be criticized. But in using their resources to advance the people, it’s stunning what they’ve achieved, and we have to learn that lesson. So we learn from what they accomplished, and we learn from where they failed, so we get the best of both.
What we do in this country is write off everything they did, as if it’s one colossal mess, and therefore we miss out. I mean, the reality is, in the last 20 years, the country that has grown the fastest, year in and year out, is the People’s Republic of China. And there’s no way around that. That has to be dealt with, not because we copy them in some slavish manner and pick up all their flaws and all their horrors. Of course not. We want to learn from their mistakes and what we don’t like, but we also have to learn from what they’ve achieved.
In America, when I talk to people about the Soviet experience, they think of everybody as the Soviet Union, something that disappears in 1989 and collapses Eastern Europe with it. That’s true. That’s what happened there. But that’s not what happened in China. So, China is a communist nation—at least that’s how we talk about it—that has a record of growth that is the envy of the world. That has to be dealt with. We can’t pretend we don’t see it and then imagine it isn’t there. It’s like a little child puts their finger in front of their eyes and thinks there’s nothing there because they’ve covered their eyes. We can’t do that. And I think, to learn from their mistakes, you have to face also their achievements.
AMY GOODMAN: And to those in this country who say China is growing because of cheap wages?
RICHARD WOLFF: Crucial. That’s part of the story, absolutely. China is growing because of cheap wages. China is growing because of vast capital inflow from multinational American corporations—a little fact that Americans don’t seem to know. The majority, more than 50 percent, of the goods from China that come into the United States are produced by subsidiaries of American corporations. We call them Chinese, which is true in terms of where they were made, by Chinese workers, but they’re American goods by companies who fired their American labor force, hired the Chinese, and they did it because their wages are cheap, absolutely. That has to be dealt with. What does that mean? China’s cities are among the most polluted in the world. That has to be faced, too. That’s a catastrophe. It’s as if the Chinese feel they have to reproduce the kinds of polluted cities that Paris and London once were, when Dickens and Zola wrote their famous novels about the horrific conditions. You know, we have a kind of a capitalism that laid waste to the nature in Europe and of North America and is now doing the same in the Third World. All of that should stop. But in order to have that stop, the criticisms of capitalism have to be aired, have to be discussed, so that they become part of the policies.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Richard Wolff, who would you say is more hopeful: your parents, who fled fascism and Hitler in Europe, or you?
RICHARD WOLFF: I think me. I think one of the blessings I got growing up in the United States was I didn’t go through a holocaust. I didn’t go through a world war. The wars that the—World War II, that the United States certainly participated in, it had the best of a horrible situation—namely, the war was someplace else. Other than Pearl Harbor, there was nothing here. If you were French or German or Russian or Italian, you know, your whole society was laid waste physically, in terms of your people. So, I’ve had an easier life than my parents, and I haven’t had those kinds of traumas that they did. I think, therefore, that I’m in a better position to see the positive possibilities, and I’ve always been optimistic about what’s possible in the United States, and never more so than I am today. I was active in the 1960s, but the openness to a criticism, the openness to a change at the fundamental level of the United States is clearer to me now than it ever was in the 1960s. And that gives me a lot of hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Wolff, I want to thank you for being with us. Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor now at New School University in New York. He has written a number of books. His latest book is called Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.