Richard D. Wolff was born on April 1, 1942 in Youngstown, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard College in 1963, a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 1964, a master’s degree in history from Yale in 1967, and PhD in economics from Yale in 1969. Wolff’s doctoral dissertation was published in 1974 as The Economics of Colonialism: Britain and Kenya. He is also the author and co-author of several other books, including Capitalism Hits the Fan; Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism; Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism (written with David Barsamian); and Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian (written with Stephen Resnick). The New York Times Magazine has described Wolff as “probably America’s most prominent Marxist economist.”
Over the course of his professional career, Wolff taught economics at Yale University from 1967-69, at City College in New York from 1969-73, and at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst from 1973-2008. He later became Professor of Economics Emeritus at Amherst, and he also taught regularly at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan.
Wolff was one of the founders of the New Haven, Connecticut chapter of the Green Party, under whose banner he ran for mayor of that city in 1985.
In 1988 Wolff co-founded the Association of Economic and Social Analysis, which produces a quarterly journal titled Rethinking Marxism. He still sits on that publication’s advisory board, along with such notables as Cornel West and Frederic Jameson. A former colleague on the same advisory board was the late Manning Marable.
Wolff’s economic philosophy seeks to develop “a new approach to political economy,” one that “retains and systematically elaborates the Marxist notion of class as surplus labor” but “rejects the economic determinism typical of most schools of economics and usually associated with Marxism as well.” In his public speeches and statements, Wolff frequently emphasizes his belief that the American Left must organize itself into a party that is more radical than the Democrats if it is to have any hope of “defeat[ing] the current program of corporations and the rich that aims to return the U.S. to the unequal income and wealth distributions of the late nineteenth century.”
In October 2009, Wolff wrote that capitalism is replete with a number of “inherent” fatal flaws, most notably its “unstoppable,” recurring “tendency to crisis.” Between 2007 and 2013 he repeatedly blamed capitalism for the U.S. economic recession and the weak recovery that followed, and he was generally critical of “austerity” proposals advocating fiscal responsibility by government. Wolff stated, among other things, that “by blocking realization of a decent, livable wage for all workers, the system [had] generated its own deep crisis.” That crisis, said Wolff, had political as well as economic ramifications, as it “produced a resurgent right in the tea parties” who “blamed the crisis on poor people abusing credit, immigrants abusing U.S. law and institutions, and governmental economic interventions.” In short, Wolff charged, “the right sought to use the crisis to advance the classic capitalist agenda of maximizing wealth, income and freedoms for the corporate elites and the richest 1 percent to 10 percent of individuals.”
In July 2013 Wolff wrote that because of capitalism’s built-in inequities, “the mass of Americans earn too little” while “the richest 10 percent and the large corporations hoard unprecedented amounts that they do not invest.” He told Bill Moyers in a 2013 interview that “for the majority of people, capitalism is not delivering the goods.”
Opposed to hierarchical corporate structures where employers have more power and earn more money than their workers, Wolff in 2013 suggested that “we ought to have stores, factories and offices in which all the people who have to live with the results of what happens to that enterprise participate in deciding how it works.” “The disparity between secretaries’ pay packages and those of ‘professionals,’” he said, was an illogical and unjustifiable consequence of capitalist societies’ misguided “systems of beliefs, expectations, and assumptions about how the world works and ought to work.” “If and when secretaries stopped accepting the cultural rationales for their situation,” Wolff added, “they could ally with other workers [who are] similarly unjustly treated to change the whole system.”
Wolff admired and supported the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged in 2011, calling it “an important first new step to recreate a mass movement with the power to fundamentally challenge U.S. capitalism.” In his estimation, “a new, more or less socialist left” was “slowly emerging” in the U.S. because “those who suffer” had gradually come to understand that their pain was “caused by the deep irrationality of capitalism” and its corrosive “wealth and income inequalities.” These people’s attention, says Wolff, “will sooner or later rise from a focus on fixing the system to fundamentally changing it”—at which point “the rediscovery of the rich accumulated theoretical and practical tradition of socialism resumes,” and “Marx and Marxism are rediscovered.”
Wolff also advocates a universal, government-run healthcare structure, which he believes would lower healthcare costs overall because a “government company … doesn’t have to make a profit and can provide therefore services at a lower price.”
In addition to his aforementioned activities, Wolff has served as: (a) the host of Economic Update, a weekly one-hour radio program on New York’s WBAI, which is part of Pacifica Radio; (b) a board member of the Left Forum, along with such notables as Stanley Aronowitzand Frances Fox Piven; and (c) a leading member of the Online University of the Left, a Marxist “Left Unity” project initiated in 2012 by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and organized by Carl Davidson.