Richard Wolff calls himself a Marxist. And though he doesn’t offer any definitions, he focuses on the phenomenon which he calls “exploitation.” And “exploitation” means that the employer gets a “profit” while the employee does not. There would be no “exploitation” if the employees shared equally in the “profit.” And he thinks this is possible only if the workers jointly owned the enterprise.
If this is “Marxism,” it is a severe truncation of what Marx wrote. Marx major work “Capitalism” is subtitled “A Critique of Capitalist Production.” It is, in the main, an economic analysis of how capitalistic businesses work, and why if they run unregulated (laissez-faire), they will self- destruct.
And although Wolff is right about capitalist “exploitation” and the fact that the employer reaps a profit, Wolff does not seem to concern himself with how this kind of “exploitation” is possible, even though under capitalism worker-owned enterprises are possible.
A fuller understanding of Marx, requires taking into account also how capitalistic mode of production is possible and how historically it came about. This is explained by Marx in the 8th part of Capital: “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” especially Chapter 26: “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation,” where it is written: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.”
The simple truth is that by the conqueror’s law (which morphs into a centralized government) people are barred from a free access to subsistence land, and, following the period of the Black Death, there were instituted laws controlling employment and forbidding vagabondage, i.e., it was forbidden to be without work if you did not possess land. Sort of catch-22: you did not have to work for someone if you had land, but you couldn’t get land without working for someone. But even if you did have land, you had to pay rent or taxes, or both.
Marx believed that it was the technology which accounted for the various forms of production, and gave rise to different forms of political organizations (= the alleged thesis of historical materialism). But according to one critic, Rudolf Stammler in his Wirtschaft und Recht nach der materialistischen Geschichtsausffassung (1896), Marx inverted the reality: “the social relations of production cannot exist outside a definite system of legal rules.” [Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology & Social Philosophy (1956), edited by T. B. Bottomore, in his “Introduction,” p. 33.]
My answer to Wolff striving for worker-controlled industries is that this can be achieved without resorting to a law such as that all factories are to be worker-controlled. If — by a different law — everyone is given a right to free subsistence land, then any entrepreneur will be able to secure workers only if he pays them something equivalent or better than they would get from working on their subsistence land. In other words, the worker would have better bargaining power resulting in a minimization or even a disappearance of profits.
Remember what Franz Oppenheimer wrote in, The State:
“For as long as man has ample opportunity to take up unoccupied land, “no one,” says Turgot, “would think of entering the service of another;” we may add, “at least for wages, which are not apt to be higher than the earnings of an independent peasant working an unmortgaged and sufficiently large property;” while mortgaging is not possible as long as land is yet free for the working or taking, as free as air and water.” p. 9-10