Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 14, 2018


It is clearly pointless to wait patiently until the political world settles down before turning to the composition of an essay I have been contemplating.  Every day, indeed every hour, brings a revelation more provocative and worthy of commentary than its predecessor.  So, I have turned off MSNBC and repaired to my computer keyboard, where I shall now spend a quiet hour hunting and pecking.

Let us suppose, arguendo, that we yearn for fundamental changes in America, for an end to its extreme inequality of wealth and income, to its imperial foreign policy, to its brutal treatment of women, African-Americans, gay and lesbian persons, and the poor.  Suppose that we are not content simply to restore some of the elements of the social safety net that have been frayed or destroyed, welcome though that would be.  Suppose, dare I say it, that we hold, in a secret place in our hearts, the dream of collective ownership of the means of production.  How might such a transformation of America come about?

There are, as I see it, three possible avenues to such a future:  violent extra-legal revolution, an electoral transformation, or the natural inner maturing, within the current economic order, of new social relationships of production that result in an immanent transformation of capitalism into socialism.

Successful society-transforming violent revolution is, in this country at this time, an old leftie’s wet dream.  Seriously, revolution?  When there are three hundred million guns in private hands, most of them owned and coddled by the opponents of significant change?  I doubt it.

As for the inner natural maturing of new social relations of production, that is in fact happening, as Marx predicted, but I am skeptical that it will lead to the overthrow of capitalism, for reasons I have detailed in my paper The Future of Socialism, available at via the link at the top of this blog page.

Which leaves an electoral transformation.  Let us recall that we have a presidential, not a parliamentary, form of government.  For well-known reasons, which my fingers are not nimble enough to spell out in detail unless someone really wants an explanation, this means that ideologically homogeneous minority parties rarely are able to achieve much legislatively, save in rather special circumstances, such as those that obtained in New York State, for example.  Power comes from gaining leverage within one of the two major parties, which in turn means that a movement must elect Representatives or Senators [or, in rare cases, a President] who share and are responsive to the concerns and demands of the movement.

Now, it does not follow from this that only electoral politics has any chance of changing the country.  Not at all.  A movement outside the two parties – a Civil Rights Movement, a Women’s Liberation Movement, a Gay Liberation Movement, an Occupy Wall Street Movement, a Poor People’s Movement, can change the political landscape and apply irresistible pressure on ambitious candidates leading them to alter their positions and even their votes in Congress in an effort to win re-election.  The key here is, as everyone understands, the astonishingly low turnouts even in Presidential elections.  One-vote-one-person winner-take-all elections give no structural expression to intensity of preference, but intensity of preference shapes turnout, which in turn determines elections.

Nor is it at all necessary or even desirable for everyone to do the same thing.  A centrist Democrat working to re-elect Joe Manchin or Heidi Heidkamp and an Occupy Wall Street activist putting her body on the line in front of the home office of a multi-national corporation are both, in their very different ways, contributing to the painfully slow process of turning the enormous, bulky ship of state in a new direction.  No bill redistributing income can pass the Senate unless the Democrats have at least fifty-one votes in the upper chamber, and no bill redistributing income will ever be sent over from the House to the Senate for debate unless millions, or rather tens of millions, of Americans march in the streets demanding such legislation and vowing not to vote for candidates for the House who do not sponsor and vote for such legislation.  Simply to say this is to recognize the height of the mountain we have to climb.

One final observation before my two forefingers give out.  Contrary to the nonsense written by Op Ed columnists and repeated by Cable News commentators, people on the far left are not at all less prone to compromise than people positioned roughly where the political landscape changes from blue to red.  If we imagine the political spectrum laid out in the familiar left/right fashion we inherited from the French Revolution, legislators on the far left are quite as prepared to compromise with legislators on the left or even the center left as legislators a tad to the left of the middle are to compromise with legislators somewhat to their right.  But because these latter are  compromising with legislators of the other party, they are held up as saints of political virtue, even though the actual range of their compromise may be narrow than that of their far left colleagues.


LFC said...

On a quick read, I think I mostly agree with this. Electoral politics as one strategy, but not the only one, to promote change makes sense. I'd add: the need to pick good candidates, don't write off whole sections of the country, recognize that a uniform national message imposed from the DNC down is unlikely to be a good thing (it never really happens anyway), and pay attention to local races where the infrastructure of a coalition tends to get built and maintained over time. Plus pay attention to redistricting/gerrymandering and fight efforts at vote suppression (restrictive voter ID laws etc).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

All essential steps, absolutely.

s. wallerstein said...

You're leaving out the 300 million guns in the hands of opponents of social change.

The opponents of social change have never let socialism come to power peacefully: look at what happened to Allende in Chile. Unless you believe in American exceptionalism and I don't, it can happen in the good old U.S.A.

Let's say that the far left begins to win some congressional seats. Rightwing death squads form, with the connivance of local police and financed by rightwing business groups and begin to assassinate leftwing legislators and activists. Armed self-defense groups form in African-American communities to protect themselves. There is bloodshed on both sides.

The mainstream Democrats and the New York Times call for the army to intervene to prevent further bloodshed and "extremism from both sides". The army intervenes as well as the police and the FBI, treating the rightwing death squads with great gentleness and the leftwing self-defense groups, especially those in African-American communities, with great violence. Lots of leftwing activists are jailed and tortured on false charges and
"anti-extremist" legislation is passed, cheered on by the New York Times and other similar media and applied much more harshly against the left.

I could go, but you all get the point.

Anonymous said...

How might such a transformation of America come about?

That's a mighty good question. I must confess I have no equivalently good answer. Perhaps I am just trying to justify my own failure, but I don't think one such answer is possible, at least not in the abstract terms the question was formulated.

The apparent implication of that, however, is not that such transformation is impossible. The problem the far left would have to solve would be harder than the one the far right would confront in a similar situation, but it wouldn't be altogether different. And just last year, if memory serves, the consensus was that a Fascist take over of the American government was all but imminent.

I just wonder what a Soviet citizen, back in the 1980s, would have thought.

Jerry Fresia said...


I think it is important to add into the mix of factors the power of the national security state, which has carried out secret military operations unknown to and often subversive of the policies articulated by elected officials within executive branch - throughout most of the 20th century and it has only gotten worse during the past few decades.

Jerry Brown said...

Your list of factors that might change things does not include a labor movement. Is that an oversight or is there a reason for that?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

One can but hope. In my youth, a vibrant labor movement was our hope. Who knows?

Matt said...

The opponents of social change have never let socialism come to power peacefully:

The Labour party in the UK in 1945 seems like a counter-example. It has obviously not had the long-term success that its leaders at that time would have liked, but it wasn't removed by force, and made many long-standing changes to the country, most for the good.

s. wallerstein said...


I have lots of respect for the Labor Party in 1945, but they do not represent socialism as Professor Wolff defines it above (and I agree with his definition): "collective ownership of the means of production".

By the way, Bernie Sanders, in spite of the fact that he calls himself a "socialist", does not represent socialism as we define it here either.

Matt said...

Well, the labour party in '45 started the process of nationalizing large parts of the economy, and succeeded in doing that. They started the NHS. Now, if you define "represent socialism" to mean that _all_ "means of production" must be nationalized immediately, or put a particular definition on "collective ownership", then you can deny this, but it was both the official goal of the Labour Party in 1945, and one that they made significant progress towards. They then lost at the ballot box. What they were proposing, and what they did, was nothing at all like what Sanders was proposing or what he would have done. See, for a nice, brief, discussion, here:

s. wallerstein said...



I don't know enough about what we might call "British political sociology" to discuss intelligently why Labour was able to achieve what they did.

By the way, the Allende government in Chile did not try to nationalize or even aim to nationalize all the means of production immediately either, but they awoke an incredible backlash not only in the rich, but also in the middle and lower middle classes (the corner grocery story owners, etc.).

My impression of the U.S. is that the huge mass of Junior Clinton Eastwoods, fanatically anti-communists and anti-socialists, armed with assault rifles, racists and anti-immigrant, will react violently to any suggestion of socialism. The super-rich will finance them and will move their money to off-shore tax havens, thus producing a capital flight.

How did the Labour Party avoid a massive capital flight when they came to power?

RobinM said...

First, a partly facetious response to s. wallesrstein’s query about capital flight from Britain when the Labour government came in in 1945: there was almost none left to flee; most of it had already fallen into the hands of Americans [see, e.g., Gabriel Kolko’s “The Politics of War,” where he discusses the American economic war on Britain as part of the US’s multi-faceted grand strategy during WW Two].

That aside, as one who benefitted enormously from the Labour Party’s health and, especially, educational policies—not only free, but financially supported education through university—I have always been very grateful for that. But I also came to be critical of the fact that Labour did not really challenge the managerial methods and ideology it inherited from the pre-War, pre-Labour era. As I understand, it did the same in the industries—e.g., coal, steel, railways—it nationalised, leaving, if you like, powerful traces of class domination still buried within these institutions. In the case of education, it also did not really challenge what the purpose and content of education should be about. One consequence of that is that quite a number of those who benefitted from Labour’s educational policies went on to assume that they had bootstrapped themselves into a new social status, that they were people of superior attainments who deserved their social and cultural privileges. I imagine it will be understood that the ‘left behind’ phenomenon, something not unknown among certain groups in the US, was one consequence of that.