Reply to Pollin

Rick Wolff

This article is from the September/October 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice and is available at

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This article is from the September/October 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

I won't engage Professor Pollin about whose views of Marx are truly "representative." Debate on who gets Marx right is mostly academic (in the bad sense) or sectarian. Resnick and I always identify ours as one interpretation among many engendered by Marx and Marxism. Let's rather recognize and debate alternative interpretations as to their theoretical and political contents and implications. We try to do that for the interpretation of class in terms of surplus.

Pollin misses why our work stresses the definition of class in surplus terms. We aim to remedy the inattention to the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus in most conventional class analyses, both Marxist and non-Marxist. Conventional analyses, including Pollin's publications, treat classes in terms of property (rich vs. poor) and power (rulers vs. ruled), with very little or no systematic attention to the production and distribution of surplus. We recognize—and our work examines—the relevance of property and power distributions, but precisely in their interactions with the ways societies organize their surpluses.

Pollin wants our agreement that if workers had property or power, exploitation would cease (note the focus on property and power now as if they alone determined the surplus). Such reasoning misses two of Marx's key points. The first is that the capitalist organization of the surplus itself contributes to capitalism's social distributions of property and power; those distributions are effects as well as (some of the many) causes of the social organization of the surplus. Marx's second point is that radically altering the social distribution of property and power does not necessarily (nor historically) eliminate capitalist exploitation. When he notes that the state sometimes owns and operates capitalist enterprises alongside, or instead of, private owners and operators, he clearly recognizes how changed distributions of property and power (from private to state) can coexist with capitalist exploitation in its surplus definition. We develop just this point in detail for the USSR in Resnick and Wolff, Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR (2002).

Pollin complains now that our book Knowledge and Class (1987) did not treat unemployment, underemployment, and especially the reserve army of the unemployed. But those were not the topics that book addressed then; they rather interest Pollin now. As to the relative importance to Marx of unemployment vs. the surplus, recall that Capital devotes one section out of eight in Volume 1 to the reserve army. He devotes most of the rest of Volume 1 to the production and appropriation of the surplus in capitalism; most of Volume 2 treats the circulation of capital in terms of the surplus; and most of Volume 3 analyzes how the capitalist surplus gets distributed to bankers, landlords, shareholders, merchants, and so on.

To focus on the production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus is not only to engage the central contributions of Marx's work. Our book and our work since also explicitly develop those arguments to provide insights for progressive thought and action now. For example, a surplus analysis focuses progressive action around wages not merely toward raising them, but toward challenging the legitimacy of (a) who appropriates the surplus, and (b) how the appropriators distribute the surplus. The point is to criticize the social effects of capitalist surplus appropriation and distribution, while advancing an alternative social organization of the surplus. We develop such a surplus analysis for a critical rethinking of left and labor union strategies in the United States in "Exploitation, Consumption, and the Uniqueness of U.S. Capitalism," (Historical Materialism 11:4 [2003]).

Pollin's concern with unemployment is Keynesian. Marxist goals go far beyond reducing unemployment; they are about changing the class structure of jobs, eradicating the capitalist organization of the surplus—exploitation—that makes jobs the problem, not the solution. Dissolving Marxism into Keynesianism undermines the specific difference of Marxism—its particular surplus-focused contribution to struggles for basic social change.

Pollin attacks us for "pushing progressives away from confronting major fundamental problems"—another overheated and facile accusation that the left hardly needs. Resnick and I offer analyses of the surplus hoping to strengthen struggles for equality and democracy. We think those struggles can be more successful in the future than they have been in the past if people include the social reorganization of the surplus as part of progressive agendas. Indeed, as our book on the USSR underscores, the achievement and durability of progressive changes toward equality, democracy, and better relationships among people and with the natural environment depend in part on changes in the social organization of the surplus: above all, on the elimination of exploitation.

Richard Wolff is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is co-author of Knowledge and Class: A Critique of Political Economy, Economics: Marxian vs. Neoclassical, Bringing It All Back Home: Class, Gender, and Power in the Modern Household, and Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR.