What's Standing In The Way Of Socialism? Four Leftist Economists Answer

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‟Capital globalized, but workers still organized along national lines.

As more and more people, especially young ones, prefer socialism over capitalism, the pertinent question becomes: what (economic) obstacles are standing in socialism's way? We have asked four eminent, leftist economists for an answer; David Ruccio, Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik and Andrew Kliman. And ask you to join the discussion.

The "red scare" - the widespread fear of socialists and communists in the West during the Cold War - seems to be over, or at least weakening. Something unimaginable a decade or two ago, today, self-proclaimed socialist politicians - Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jeremy Corbyn - have become household names. Actors Jim Carrey and Cynthia Nixon are saying "yes" to socialism. Religious leaders are expressing their discontent with the prevailing capitalist system, from pope Francis to the Dalai Lama ("I am marxist", the latter admitted). In the US, a small majority of young people (18-31) now have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism, Gallup Poll shows.

Whatever socialism means for each of the above is an interesting question. It may mean something very different to Jeremy Corbyn than it does to the Dalai Lama. An interesting question, for another time.

With general support for 'socialism' increasing, the following pertinent question also arises: What is standing in socialism's way? As this media project is mostly focussed on economic issues, we, the editors of Socialist Economist, were especially interested in the economic obstacles to socialism. Hence, the question became:

What economic obstacles is the Left facing in the 21st Century? 

To stimulate an open and undogmatic dialogue on this question, we decided to ask four eminent leftist economists for an answer to this question, using around 200 words each - David Ruccio, Johanna Bockman, Prabhat Patnaik and Andrew Kliman. You can read their answers below.

We hope you will join and support this dialogue: share this article online, by retweeting or sharing it on facebook. But most importantly, contribute your own views: in the comment section at the bottom of this article or as a reply to our twitter- or facebookposts.

P.S.: Next week, the same four economists will answer the question: 'How can the Left use economics as a tool in the 21st Century?'

‟The decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism.

About the author (click)
Dr. David F. Ruccio is a renowned marxian economist, professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 1982. He is also a member of the Higgins Labor Studies Program and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He blogstweets, and contributes to the journal Rethinking Marxism (which he edited for twelve years), Real World Economics Review and Democracy at Work. On twitter: @Dfruccio
The spectacular failures of capitalism in the United States have provided fertile ground for a renewed interest in socialism. These include the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression, the lopsided nature of the current recovery, and a decades-old trend of obscene and still-rising inequality. In addition, the increasing indebtedness associated with higher education, the high cost and limited access to healthcare, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left working-class Americans, especially young workers, with gnawing financial insecurity — and growing support for socialism. However, the U.S. Left currently faces two main economic obstacles: the decline in labor unions and an attempt to regulate capitalism. During the postwar Golden Age, union representation peaked at almost 35%. Now, it is down to 11.1% — and only 6.6% in the private sector. At least in part as a result, the Left has shifted its focus more to regulating capitalism, often by invoking a nostalgia for manufacturing and using the theoretical lens of Keynesian economics, and moving away from criticizing capitalism, especially its class dimensions (particularly the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed, as Marxists and other socialists understand them).

‟The decline of economic cooperation among socialist countries, movements, and other groups since the 1980s.

About the author (click)
Johanna K. Bockman is Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Affairs at George Mason University and works in economic sociology, urban sociology, sociology of globalization, and East European Studies. On twitter: @DCSociologyWrd6.
The decline of economic cooperation among socialist countries, movements, and other groups since the 1980s has been one of the main economic obstacles facing the Left today. Scholars and popular writers often assume that globalization is synonymous with neoliberal capitalism, free markets, and free trade, while Keynesianism, developmentalism, structuralism, and socialism are assumed to be national and state-centered. Yet, starting from the 1960s, groups like the Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) worked to forge a global economy based not on hierarchical relationships organized by corporations but rather on horizontal relationships of solidarity. The worldwide debt crisis of the 1980s undermined this economic globalization.

Economic integration of socialist countries, movements, and other groups through free trade, anti-colonial banking, and multinational production would enable countries to delink from the current system and relink to another system. Through the reappropriation of free trade and these other institutions for socialist globalization, countries like Greece might leave the European Union not for nationalist isolation but to make real changes that would help its economy and other economies with which it is in solidarity. Local and regional solidarity economies might also find new allies and resources through such globalization.

‟Capital globalized, but workers still organized along national lines.

About the author (click)
Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His books include Accumulation and Stability Under Capitalism (1997), The Value of Money (2009), and Re-envisioning Socialism (2011). Find his blog posts at IDEAs here. 
Globalization under the hegemony of international finance capital, which characterizes the current, neo-liberal phase of capitalism, has brought distress to the working people everywhere; but paradoxically challenging neo-liberal capitalism has become more difficult, for many reasons.

First, inter-imperialist wars which Lenin had anticipated are no longer on the agenda as they disrupt the movement of globalized capital. The Left therefore cannot, as earlier, lead society against war.

Second, with capital globalized, but workers still organized along national lines, there is a weakening of unions, and of working class resistance generally. Privatization of public enterprises has contributed to this (since unionization is always greater in the public than in the private sector), as has the increase in the relative size of the “reserve army of labour” everywhere. The weakening of unions weakens the Left.

Thirdly, the Left has an ambiguous attitude towards globalization. Since capitalist globalization cannot be immediately substituted by socialist globalization, the overcoming of it can only be at the national level. For it to succeed, some delinking from globalization, through capital and trade controls, would become necessary. Many in the Left fear this, since they see it as a retreat to “nationalism” that is “reactionary”. This scepticism paralyzes the Left.

‟Instead of struggling against capitalism, many leftists struggle for power within capitalism.

About the author (click)
Andrew Kliman is a professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, author of many books on marxian economics (full CV here) and known for defending Marx's labor theory against claims of inconsistency from mainstream economics (see his book Reclaiming Marx's "Capital": A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2006)).
Ithink there are both external and internal obstacles. The foremost external one is that a substantial segment of the capitalist class — in the US, Russia, and elsewhere — has decided to turn against liberal democracy and whip up pro-fascist sentiment, in order to protect its wealth and privileges. As David Frum, a conservative political pundit, has argued, Donald Trump came to power because wealthy interests, afraid that “the poor might pillage the rich,” helped to energize the racist, authoritarian, and misogynistic “Trump base.”

The foremost internal obstacle is the naïve belief that leftists can turn capitalism into something it’s not. So instead of struggling against capitalism, many leftists struggle for power within capitalism. They think that, by imposing radical redistribution of income and wealth, they can both improve working people’s lives and make capitalism function better. This ignores the obvious, overriding fact that capitalism is a profit-driven system. What’s good for the system — as distinct from the majority of people living under it — is high profits, not low profits. They also naïvely believe that government regulation will do wonders, even though the failure of Keynesian theory and policy during the massive economic crisis of the 1970s showed that passing laws does not overcome the economic laws that actually govern capitalism.

Related: All authors have published on SE before. Find their articles by clicking on their names: David F. Ruccio, Johanna BockmanPrabhat Patnaik, Andrew Kliman

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  1. Hello. I am not a student of Economics so i have nothing to say on the core theory of Economics. The main challenge in country like India to take out Economics from the intellectual seminars and explain to the common people. Where Politics and Economics is two diffirent things altogather and Economists have to task to explain to the public how the politics is driven by the economics worldwide and issue of the one country is related to the others. At this juncture I want to read the idea of Prabhat Patnaik and and Johana Bockman togather. Our oppresser are united and peoples are divided. We have to build not not only the political solidarity worldwide but the exchange of economic idea and solidarity. We have to break the old notion and create something out of the box inspite of thinking about the theory or its perfection.

    For Example we can create alternative parallel means of production. We have to create locally owned enterprises for our uses so we can break the chain of the MNCs. Some kind of collaboration inter and intra country would be also a great idea. Practically I am engage with similar kind of thing. We have created a company for Handloom and producing good handloom relatively chap as well. Company is owned by three peoples later the ownership would be transferred to a Trust. Right now we are saying 'Salary would be individual and profit Collective' We have start such kind of initiative worldwide owned by local groups. A close coordination between them would promote exchange of goods and money and idea. We have to develop an ecosystem an independent one which is not linked to the present one.

  2. This is about the opinion that capitalism cannot be turned into something else. Well Socialist Country like China has become something other than Socialist. Many Social Democratic Scandinavian countries are some thing other than Capitalist. Pure forms do not work now. Prabhat Patnaik being an Indian could have talked about the mixed economy. It could have worked but for the Licence Raj. So State Socialism will not work. The puzzling this is the lack of imagination among Socialists and their refusal to let go of outdated arsenal that belongs to the museum of history.


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