You are here

Understanding Socialism

R. Burke

Richard D. Wolff is a name familiar to readers and viewers of alternative media. His articles are published on sites such as Truthout and Truthdig. Wolff has also appeared many times on Pacifica’s Democracy Now! Program, recently debating liberal economist Paul Krugman on the meaning of socialism. He also hosts the show Economic Update. Wolf has a knack for explaining left-wing economics for laypeople. His newest book, Understanding Socialism, provides a lucid, and easy to read introduction to the question of what socialism really is.

Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has taught at Yale and the City College of the City University of New York. Currently he is a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University.

Understanding Socialism begins with the historical background of the socialist movement. One of the strengths of his treatment of the subject is his recognition that socialism has had different meanings and multiple interpretations throughout its history. These meanings have changed and developed over time, and continue to do so up to the present time.

According to Wolff: “Socialism is a kind of yearning for a better life than what capitalism permits for most people. Socialist yearnings are as old as capitalism itself, because they are its products. Where and when capitalism’s problems and failings have accumulated criticism and critics, socialist voices have risen.” He makes clear that: “Socialists in 19th-century Europe generally embraced the key slogans of the French and American revolutions: liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy. What distressed and activated them was that actually existing capitalisms had failed to achieve those ideals.”

During the 20th century two competing definitions of socialism arose. One was that of the “actually existing socialisms” in countries such as the USSR and China. Such societies emphasized public ownership of the means of production and economic planning by the state. The other type, often called ‘social democracy’ mostly left workplaces in the hands of private ownership while allowing for some public ownership. The emphasis here was on controlling the economy through regulations and taxation, creating a welfare state, redistributing income, and protecting labor rights. This kind of socialism flourished in the countries of Western Europe. With the fall of the USSR after 1989 both kinds of socialism became discredited as capitalist triumphalism took hold in the 1990’s.

For Wolff the key to a new understanding of socialism rests on the recognition that the rejection of the employer/employee relationship in favor of a cooperative model is central. He points out that in previous societies such as slave, or feudal societies, as well as under capitalism, public forms of ownership coexisted with private ones. The question of public versus private ownership is not sufficient to define the differences between these societies, but rather the modes of production, and the kind of social relationships that these were based on.

Applying this understanding to his analysis of “actually existing socialisms” such as those of the USSR or China, he points out that in neither case was the employer/employee relationship abolished, but rather retained. As a result private owners were simply replaced by the state. In Wolff’s view these were in reality state capitalist rather than truly socialist. He points out that up until the time of Stalin this understanding was widely held, including by Lenin himself, who applied the state capitalist label to the Soviet Union, arguing in his later works that the development of cooperatives was necessary to transform it into a socialist society. This changed when Stalin declared the USSR to have achieved “socialism in one country.” Supporters of capitalism, eager to discredit socialism, eagerly agreed.

Historically the socialist movement was undermined by two historical factors. The first was fascism, in which an authoritarian state took control of economic and political life in order to maintain capitalism. Faced with the threat of powerful socialist movements within their countries fascist movements were supported by the capitalist class in order to maintain their dominance. Under fascist regimes the power of the state was used to crush socialists, eventually leading to the Second World War, and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

The second historical factor that led to the undermining of the socialist movement was the Cold War, and its accompanying anti-communism. Socialism was equated with Stalin’s USSR by supporters of capitalism. The anti-communist fervor was used to further weaken socialist movements in which the struggle between the US, and the Soviet Union was presented as a conflict between democracy and dictatorship.

Wolff asserts that the future of socialism is tied to an emphasis on worker’s cooperatives, where employees democratically decide how the enterprise is to be run rather than working to enrich owners, and taking orders from unelected managers. “Such an economy will need to work out, for instance, the best proportion of planned versus market distributions, and private versus public workplace ownership, as well as determine the specific structure of laws and regulations.” He also recognizes that there needs to be a democratic relationship between workplaces and the communities in which they are located. “Decisions reached inside democratized workplaces by their workers must be shared with, and co-determined by, democratic decisions of customers and affected localities and regions. Such co-determination would also need to agree upon rules for developing, enforcing, and adjudicating disputes and disagreements. A system of checks and balances among workplaces, residential communities, and consumers would need to be constructed.”

Richard D. Wolff’s Understanding Socialism outlines a new understanding of socialism that departs from the approaches of both communism, and social democracy. He considers the emphasis on cooperatives to provide an effective political strategy, given that the enemies of socialism have tended to focus on its statist tendencies. “Those enemies are not prepared, at least not yet, to defend against a socialism defined instead in terms of workplace democratization and employee ownership. This unpreparedness gives socialists a strategic advantage. This new socialism also provides a solid basis on which socialists can critically appreciate and go beyond the old socialist tradition.” As younger generations are confronted with the spectacle of a neoliberal capitalism in increasing crisis, and the environmental catastrophes that it is provoking, Professor Wolff’s new book will provide a welcome signpost towards another possible world-system.

Understanding Socialism

By Richard D. Wolff

ISBN: 978-0-578-22734-4

Democracy at Work, New York, 2019

138 pages


Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis.