Marxism After Marx: Richard Wolff, Class Analysis, Epistemology, and Value Theory
In the last several years, Professor Richard Wolff has been propelled into the heart of leftist content online. Wolff’s accessible public persona and well-grounded knowledge of Marxist theory has made him one of the most renowned left-wing academics on the internet, and beyond. But as the left has grown in recent years, some have begun to view Wolff’s presentations as reductive, or even insufficient. Some cite Wolff’s famed endorsement of co-operatives and union organizing as indications that the Marxist professor is not Marxist at all, that he is forming Marxist concepts, or that he is flat-out wrong about many of his common talking points.
This attitude towards Wolff comes primarily from his role as an online figure. His videos on socialism, capitalism, economic history, and workers’ co-operatives are heavily circulated and widely discussed. In recent years, Wolff has even penned a number of “beginner’s” books covering the topics he is most known for explaining in videos. It is this cross-section of Richard Wolff as an online educator that leads some to accuse him of being nothing more than a social democrat.
Wolff’s public image has grown to obscure his earlier, more academic efforts. Those who are familiar with Wolff as a charismatic and perhaps even populist online personality may not even be aware of the literature Wolff contributed to in past decades. Regardless of how one might feel about the professor’s present-day activities, his older publications offer intriguing insights into Marxist theory.
Wolff has authored a great number of works, the contents of which are too voluminous to consider in a single video. Thus, what we will address here is the underlying basis of Wolff’s reading of Marx and turn to a few examples of Wolff’s theoretical works to better understand how this reading constitutes an original contribution to Marxism. Before we begin, however, we ought to recognize that, like many scholars, Wolff seldom worked alone. Of all his close associates, the most significant was Stephen Resnick. Resnick and Wolff produced many influential works together and, perhaps most notably, founded Rethinking Marxism, a peer-reviewed academic journal. Many of the ideas that we will work through today ought to be equally attributed to Resnick.
If we were to isolate the single most critical influence on Wolff’s works, it would undoubtedly be the Althusserian school of Marxism. Many of Wolff’s theoretical inquiries rest on key contributions made by Althusser in Marxist philosophy. For the purposes of this discussion, we cannot address all of these contributions. The concept we will emphasize the most is “overdetermination.” Overdetermination is a central feature of Althusser’s reading of Marx. Althusser himself borrowed the term from Freud and Lacan, reworked it using his understanding of Mao and Spinoza, and applied it more broadly to Marxist epistemology. In the simplest framing, overdetermination asserts that all social processes make up a complex totality, one in which each of these processes defines and is defined by all other processes. Importantly, overdetermination is not simply a model of multicausality. Wolff, Callari, and Roberts (1984) explain the distinction as such:
Marx employed a pointedly anti-essentialist strategy in theorizing the capitalist social formation. Each social process, including the class process, is seen by Marx as the product (outcome of the interaction) of all other processes in the social formation. This view does not simply treat each process as influenced by every other process, as in notions of ‘multiple causality.’ It is the different and stronger formulation that each process is constituted as nothing other than the intersection of all the influences exerted by all the other (similarly constituted) processes (p.120).
In other words, the dynamics and shape of class as a social process can only be understood through the position and relation of class processes to all other processes in the social totality. Thus, when we say the “condensation” of interacting processes is overdetermined, when we speak of an eruptive political event, for instance, we mean that it is the product of a complex and interconnected causal network.
Let’s look again to Wolff, this time with Resnick, in their book New Departures in Marxian Theory (2006):
The two key concepts for Althusser in his critical attack were overdetermination — counterposed to determination — and complex contradictions — counterposed to simple contradictions. He borrowed and adapted overdetermination from Freud (and perhaps Lukács) precisely to define an alternative to determinist analyses of all sorts in social theory and in epistemology. Whereas those analyses presumed a notion of causation in which some entities determine others, Althusser insisted that no social entity was ever determined by one or a subset of other social entities. Rather, each and every entity within society was always presumed to be determined by the effects of all the other entities at once. Stated otherwise, each entity was the product of the interaction of all the others. It was overdetermined by all those others, rather than being determined by any one or a subset of them.
Indeed, each entity’s existence is nothing other than the combined effects of all the others in the social totality. As such, each entity is the site of the different effectivities of all other social entities. An individual is the site, for example, of the effects of class, parents, jobs, religions, politics, literature, biology, etc. So, too, is an enterprise, a literary text, or a political party. As such sites, each entity contains different effects that push and pull it in all directions with varying force. In this precise sense, Althusser refers to the contradictions within every entity as complex; they emanate from the influences exerted by all other entities (p.71).
Consequently, Wolff and Resnick define a process as “an entity existing in [constant] change.” The fluidity and heterogeneity of such a model have a notable impact on methodology. Investigations taking into consideration the complex social totality and its moving parts arrive at necessarily unique evaluations of individual elements within the totality. If we understand events and processes as constituent and reactive components of a “living” whole, we free ourselves from the arbitrariness of determinist logic. The world need not be crammed into a preconceived conceptual mechanism, no matter how appealing or self-confident that mechanism may be.
Wolff and his colleagues also adopt from Althusser an understanding of Marxist epistemology which follows from the Spinozist tradition. In philosophy, one of the fundamental questions concerns knowledge: what is knowledge? How do we acquire it? What is its relation to the real world? It goes without saying that over the centuries there has been a countless array of answers to these epistemological questions. Thinkers have offered both dualist and monist approaches, in all their varieties. Generally speaking, dualists argue that the world of thought and the “real” world are metaphysically distinct. Monists, on the other hand, purport that there is only one world, though the contents of it vary from argument to argument.
Spinoza presented a somewhat unique approach to this inquiry, suggesting that there is only one substance, within which both thought and the material exist. In this way, thought and material are still distinct “attributes” (as Spinoza called them), but they exist in the same real world. From this it follows that knowledge of the world is a part of the very world it seeks to understand. Althusser carried this epistemological framework from Spinoza into Marx, which Wolff and his co-thinkers adopted as well.
Wolff and Resnick (1982a) stay true to this understanding. For them, Marxist epistemology does not see an essential distinction between the “real” and knowledge of the real, and thereby rejects the definition of knowledge as a means to extract the essence of the real. Wolff and Resnick suggest that the “theoretical aspect of social reality” is a “constituent aspect” of the real. It is part of the social reality as are the economic, political, or cultural aspects. Moreover, these aspects “constitute and determine” each other, leading the authors to contend that “The thinking process is the site of (is completely constituted by) the influences and determinations emanating from all the other processes comprising the social totality” (p.37). This posits that theoretical practice is overdetermined by all other practices (political, economic, cultural, etc.). Our means of developing and refining theories are therefore structured by external circumstances such as political environments and economic systems.
Wolff and Resnick also borrow from Althusser the notion that each theory’s validation paradigms are internally derived and necessarily connected to the theory’s epistemology (p.38). In other words, how physics validates its knowledges is unique to physics as a science and distinct from how the science of economics (if such a thing yet exists) goes about validating its knowledges.
Each knowledge or science is thus a process in which a particular conceptual response to the environment continually extends, elaborates, and revises its conceptual apparatus according to the ever-changing determinations of its environment. This response involves the construction of new concepts, the rejection of others, and the systematic ordering of the growing body of such concepts (p.42).
Wolff and Resnick’s words here clearly refer to Althusser’s outline of theoretical practice in his essay “On the Materialist Dialectic” (1963). Althusser illustrates a vivid “labor process” in which “raw materials” of thought are “worked on” with the implementation of “theoretical means of production” to produce new knowledge. Knowledge production is therefore an iterative and transformative exercise, in which concepts are actively worked on. As with every production process, the production of knowledge is embedded in a particular social structure which has significant effects on the way the process unfolds.
Wolff and Resnick add that “Marxian theory affirms the relativity of truths to their respective overdetermined theoretical frameworks, while at the same time taking up a clear, partisan attitude toward these truths.” “The unifying task of Marxist theory” is therefore “the elaboration of the overdetermined and contradictory class structure and dynamic of the social totality.” With this in mind, Wolff and Resnick label class as the “conceptual entry point” for the Marxist analysis of the social totality.
One manifestation of Wolff’s Althusserian interpretation of Marx is the concept of class, which departs from previous Marxist formulations. Class is defined by Wolff and Resnick (1982b) as a process of extracting surplus labor and a process of distributing extracted surplus labor. “We call the extraction process the fundamental class process and the distribution process the subsumed class process. Fundamental and subsumed class processes in conjunction with the infinity of non-class processes constitute the social life of human beings” (p.54). They go on to define subsumed class processes in the following manner:
The individuals who perform economic, political, and cultural processes necessary for surplus labor extraction are called subsumed classes. They are subsumed to the fundamental extracting class. Since by definition subsumed classes neither perform necessary and surplus labor nor extract surplus labor, they must receive a distributed share of the already extracted surplus labor for providing the conditions of existence of that fundamental class of extractors (p. 55).
This framework allows Wolff and Resnick to argue that capitalists do not need to exist as a single extractor-class entity.
The illustration implies that the capitalist fundamental class process can exist even if the individuals extracting surplus value do not themselves own, supervise, or purchase capital. Different individuals, capital-lenders, and managers may occupy subsumed class positions and perform these processes in a variety of forms. Alternatively, one individual may occupy all the different class positions, including the fundamental one (p.56).
Such a conception of class dynamics is precisely what led Wolff and his colleagues to contend that certain socialist countries of the past preserved a fundamentally capitalist set of class processes, no matter their significant progressive roles in history. Whether or not one agrees with such an assessment, the implications of Wolff’s “class processes” are nevertheless valuable. They compel us to investigate economic forces as something more than the relationships between categories of agents. For instance, the addition of subsumed classes demonstrates the critical importance of the non-economic elements of social formations and their roles in the reproduction of economic systems.
Wolff’s interpretation of Marx’s value theory is similarly based on the overdetermination of social processes. In a paper written with Bruce Roberts and Antonino Callari (1984), Wolff rejects the so-called transformation problem. In the broadest sense, the transformation problem recognizes a supposed theoretical inconsistency in Marx’s value theory. The questions surrounding the academic debate on this point mostly deal with the relationship of values to prices. By what manner does the value of a commodity relate to its price on the market? And consequently, on a macro level, what is the relationship between total surplus-value and total profit?
Critics and proponents of Marx have suggested that Marx’s value system is separate from Marx’s price system — in effect, that there are two concurrent systems at play. For some, the question of how the value of a commodity, which is based (purportedly) on labor input, corresponds to a particular market price has yielded the simple answer that the value system is largely irrelevant. Others have attempted to salvage the relationship between the two systems. Certain scholars, like Fred Moseley and Andrew Kliman have argued that the supposed transformation problem stems from a misreading of Marx: Marx’s value theory has always been a single system, in which values and prices play different conceptual and economic roles.
Wolff, Callari, and Roberts contend that “[…] Marx conceptualized value as overdetermined by all the conditions of existence of the capitalist production and appropriation of surplus value, including circulation as a determining element for value […] For Marx […] the analysis of circulation was indispensable for the determination of these ‘socially necessary’ magnitudes of labor-time” (p.121).
Marx understood that values and prices do not coincide. However, as Wolff et al. contend, Marx makes no distinction between value and price in Volume I:
The social necessity of labor in production is never simply identical to its technical necessity, just as the form of value in exchange is never simply identical to value itself, yet Marx initially assumes both as a means to focus on class relations in production. For Marx, it was crucial to discuss the class relation and develop the notion of what it is that is distributed via circulation (commodities containing unpaid labor-time) as the necessary prior step to the problem of how a capitalist distribution of those commodities takes place. The Volume I assumptions were in turn necessary to accomplish this prior step (p.124).
In essence, Volume I assumes away, for the sake of argument and analysis, the existence of market forces. In Volume I, Marx collapses any distinction between values and prices. This is done by Marx in order to focus on the process of surplus-value production. Any consideration of how value-form, the form that the value of a commodity takes in exchange, might diverge from its value as a unit of socially necessary labor input, is put on hold.
This has led many, especially those who have not thoroughly investigated the passages of Volume III, to believe that Marx’s value theory runs into a self-ascribed contradiction. Even before Marx, it was established by political economists that the rate of profit across industries tends to equalize. This is because capital has a tendency to flow from low profit areas to high profit areas. Over time, these flows of capital even out any difference in profit rates across industries.
Given this tendency for the equalization of the rate of profit, how can Marx’s value theory, which supposedly rests on labor inputs, still hold? If we look at the table below, we note that capitals of the same size will yield different value rates of profit based on the ratio of constant capital to variable capital. The less labor is tied into the production process, the smaller the rate of profit.
This table is what we would expect from Volume I, where prices and markets are nowhere to be found. But it is exactly because capitalism as a mode of production involves circulation, and therefore markets and prices, that Marx shifts his analysis in Volume III.
Once circulation and distribution of surplus-value come into play in Volume III, Marx introduces the “prices of production.” Prices of production (PP) are the sum of the cost of production of a commodity (K) in a given industry and the profit (𝚷) in that industry.
PP = K + 𝚷
By definition, when we speak of an average rate of profit, we are speaking about social aggregates — about a more complex totality. The average rate of profit is derived by dividing the total sum of surplus-value produced in the economy by the total capital invested in the economy. In our case, $240 / ($480 + $240) yields an average profit rate of 0.33. We can see that this rate is different from the individual rates listed in the table.
Knowing that prices of production are the incorporation of this average profit rate into the determination of price profit, we get a rather different table:
Here we see that the profit rates are equalized, in accordance with the assumption about cross-industry capital flows. Profit (𝚷) is thus calculated as the average rate of profit multiplied by the total capital invested in each industry [𝚷 = R(C + V)]. Since we are examining instances of capitals of the same size but with differing capital/labor ratios, we know that both industries, regardless of the capital composition, will yield the same profit in price terms. The prices of production will therefore also be the same.
What has happened in this shift from Volume I to Volume III? The total capital invested, and its ratios, have remained the same. With the equalization of the rate of profit, we have seen what Marx described as a “distribution of surplus-value.” The total amount of surplus value produced in this cycle has not changed — but in realizing their profits on the competitive market, the capitalists have re-allocated the surplus value amongst themselves. Capitalist I made up some ground in spite of having had a lower value rate of profit, while the reverse is true for Capitalist II.
This distribution of surplus-value demonstrates Marx’s attention to capitalism on a broad social scale. Contained within this process is the assumption of markets, circulation of capital, and a dynamic flow of surplus-value.
For Wolff et. al., the price of production, as a new form of value and a “constitutive element of the capitalist economy,” plays a direct role in the determination of “the abstract labor-time ‘socially-necessary’ to reproduce the commodity.” Because Marx insists on incorporating the factors socially necessary to reproduce the commodity “as a product of capital,” the specific conditions of capitalist circulation must be taken into account. The price of production is precisely a reflection of circulation, of the market forces that produce an equalisation of the rate of profit.
[…] the form of value in exchange is then a constituent element in determining the magnitude of commodity value […] In effect, both quantities (value-form and value) are transformed. Where commodity exchange-values are transformed into production prices via market exchange of equivalents, this transformation must include those commodities purchased as elements of constant capital. Their prices of production are then incorporated into the value of newly produced output, since those production prices express the labor-time now socially necessary to produce that output (p.126).
If this is an information overload, don’t be concerned. We have skipped several very integral contextual steps for the sake of brevity and demonstration. This is not meant to be a walkthrough of Marx’s value theory (though that video will come soon). Let’s read a couple more passages from Wolff and then attempt a crude summary of the argument.
Marx constructs each concept from and by means of the other. Marx’s theoretical commitment to overdetermination, as discussed above, gives rise to a particular methodological approach: the step-by-step development of the interdependence between value and value-form (p.127).
This conceptual interdependence is broadly an effect of the way Marx conceives the capitalist economy: as a network of class relations within which both production and circulation processes jointly and interactively condition the quantitative outcomes which result. Thus, in the mathematics of transformation (the construction of a particular outcome by imposing an equalized distribution between industries), both spheres contribute to the determination of both values and production prices. Value and value-form are different concepts, but they do not have different basic determinants (p.128).
What can we understand from all this? Wolff and his co-authors reject the notion of two systems in Marx’s value theory. There is not a world of values and a world of prices, connected, disjointed, or somewhere in between. Rather, the system is a complex whole, in which value and prices are overdetermined and therefore can only be defined through the interconnective processes that reproduce them. Commodity value is indeed determined, in part, by labor input. The total surplus-value created in production on a social scale is then “distributed” via the competitive forces of the market, which impose the equalization of profit rates. Prices of production are consequently determined by an average rate of profit. In Marx’s conceptual framework, prices of production presuppose the full circulatory and distributive dynamics of a capitalist economy. These prices, however, affect future sequences of production. The prices of production of constant capital, i.e. raw materials, tools, machinery, etc., co-determine the value of the next set of commodities.
Ultimately, Wolff’s interpretation of Marx’s value theory is only possible using overdetermination as an underlying principle. It is only by perceiving values and prices as constituent components of the same set of processes that Wolff is able to dissolve any necessity for transforming the former into the latter.
Marx built his conceptual scaffolding in progressive transformations of established concepts. As these concepts were worked on through the three volumes of Capital, their very nature and relationship to the whole model was reconstructed. This important dynamic is overlooked by many readers of Marx who assume the world of Volume I represents a value system while the world of Volume III represents a price system. Treating the first volume as a conceptual system and the final volume as “the real” system, many such interpretations are unable to identify the intentional theoretical transformations Marx made. The result is a disaggregated reading of Marx, which finds itself mired in the impossible task of reconciling the confusion it itself creates.
We may have bit off more than we can chew. Without a comfortable knowledge of the contexts in which Wolff produced his most notable works, we may feel a little disoriented. The only remedy for this type of disorientation is further reading. In our cursory glance of Wolff’s contributions, we have at the very least established a number of valuable directions for future investigations. Whether or not we agree with Wolff’s formulation of class as a process, or his adoption of Althusserian epistemology, one point remains clear: watching Richard Wolff’s lectures on YouTube or watching the professor debate Destiny is an experience entirely separate from reading Knowledge and Class or New Departures in Marxian Theory.
The purpose of this video is to demonstrate that Wolff’s academic work contains valuable contributions that are completely missed in his day-to-day online lectures. Whether this disjunction is produced by design or due to an actual shift in the professor’s political positions, the fact remains that the books and articles Wolff produced as a scholar ought to be revisited with adequate attention.
Sources and Further Reading
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (1979). The theory of transitional conjunctures and the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe. Review of Radical Political Economics, 11(3), 3–22.
Resnick, S. A., & Wolff, R. D. (1982a). Marxist epistemology: The critique of economic determinism. Social Text, (6), 31–72.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (1982b). A Reformulation of Marxian theory and historical analysis. The Journal of Economic History, 42(1), 53–59.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (1992). Everythingism, or better still, overdetermination. New Left Review, 124–124.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2001). Empire and class analysis. Rethinking Marxism, 13(3–4), 61–69.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2004). Dialectics and class in Marxian economics: David Harvey and beyond. New School Economic Review, 1(1).
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2006). New departures in Marxian theory. Routledge.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2010). The economic crisis: A Marxian interpretation. Rethinking Marxism, 22(2), 170–186.
Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. (2013a). On overdetermination and Althusser: Our response to Silverman and Park. Rethinking Marxism, 25(3), 341–349.
Resnick, S. A., & Wolff, R. D. (2013b). Marxism. Rethinking Marxism, 25(2), 152–162.
Wolff, R. D., Callari, A., & Roberts, B. (1984). A Marxian Alternative to the Traditional” Transformation Problem”. Review of Radical Political Economics, 16(2–3), 115–135.
Wolff, R. D., Roberts, B., & Callari, A. (1982). Marx’s (not Ricardo’s)‘transformation problem’: a radical reconceptualization. History of Political Economy, 14(4), 564–582