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Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Volume Three Chapter Two

I had accumulated so many frequent flyer miles during my repeated trips to North Carolina that we flew to London free. After taking a fast train to Edinburgh, we rented a car and set out on a honeymoon trip around the British Isles. It was a trip right out of the tourist books. We visited Loch Ness [no monster]. We toured the Isle of Skye [lots of one lane roads there -- I mean, one lane, period, with little turnoffs every so often in case you meet someone coming the other way]. We drove down to Wales, where I bought some cashmere sweaters. I found my way to a pre-booked hotel in Bristol [stumbled on a spectacular Greek restaurant]. Then we flew home.

Our house was nowhere near finished, and this created a problem. Susie had two pets: a big, friendly black standard poodle named Jacques, and her cat. But I had been completely unable to find someone who would rent us an apartment short term in Amherst if we insisted on bringing our pets. Don Grose promised us that we would be in the house before Christmas, so that meant we had to find somewhere to stay for four months.

The only thing I could think of was to rent a trailer and park it on the construction site. We owned the land, so no one could say no. Don Grose was clearly not amused. The last thing he wanted was the client on site twenty-four seven, watching every move his workmen made. But he could not refuse, so we flew back to Chapel Hill, rented a U-Haul trailer, loaded it with Susie's clothes and her scores of plants, including a ten foot tall cactus, and drove north to our building site in Pelham. The trailer I had rented was no luxury double wide. It had a sleeping area no bigger than the bed, a tiny kitchen, a sitting area, and a bathroom attached to a tank that had to be pumped out once a week. We ran an electric line from the building site, and even managed to get the phone company to pull a line in from the street to give us service. Then we settled in with Jacques and kitty.

We were two fifty-somethings with four grown sons and four failed marriages between us, but we felt like kids, and the whole thing was an adventure. Susie cooked dinners on the tiny stove. I took charge of having the sewage tank emptied periodically. I drove into Amherst to teach, and we wandered over every day to see how they were coming with our house. It was just as well we were there. One day, after the workmen had left, we lifted the corner of a tarpaulin and discovered that someone had delivered the wrong siding. We managed to alert Don to the mistake before the men started nailing it up. In a way, it was a typical Pioneer Valley operation. The site boss was a big young man named John Sackrey whose mother had started the Valley Women's Center, a focus of early Northampton radical feminism.

As an outgrowth of my South African trip and protest participation, I had gotten myself on the Board of HRAAA. The Board meetings were always telephone conference calls, and I can still see myself crouching over the phone in the trailer sitting area trying to hear what people were saying. TheBoard of Overseers write-in campaign was showing some signs of success. In addition to Gay Seidman, we also managed to elect the distinguished Duke University historian of South Carolinian slavery, Peter Wood. But of course, Harvard was obdurate. I don't think the Corporation was pro-apartheid. I just think they didn't like anyone telling them what to do with their huge endowment.

Among the people I had met during my South African adventure was Mark Orkin, a Johannesburg based sociologist who was working for a research organization. Mark organized a conference on sanctions against South Africa, and invited me to give a paper. I jumped at the chance, even though I knew precious little about the subject, and on November 3rd, after putting Jacques and Kitty in a kennel, Susie and I flew off to Harare, Zinbabwe [it was, of course, out of the question to hold the conference in South Africa itself.] No sooner did we arrive in Harare than we learned that the Zimbabwean government had withdrawn its permission to hold the conference in their country. At the last minute, we arranged to transfer the conference to the gambling resort, Sun City, in Gabarone, Botswana. Using my American Express credit card, I bought tickets for a bunch of folks and off we flew. For the next several days, while Susie disported herself at the pool and in the casino, I sat at a square table and talked sanctions.

One of the things I love about South Africa is that it is really a rather small country with a tiny elite. I have been a professor in American universities for fifty years, and in that time, I have never met a single person from the U. S. Department of Education, nor even from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Education. The only member of the House of Representatives I have met is John Olver, and that is just because he sold me some land. I was a Harvard classmate of Teddy Kennedy, but I never met him, either as an undergraduate or after he became a senator. In South Africa, on the other hand, I have met Two Ministers of Education, many of the Rectors of the universities, and all manner of people who played a significant role in the liberation movement,. The people gathered at that table were, or became, major players in the transformation of South Africa into a democratic state.

Seated next to me for most of the conference was Tom Lodge, a thin, dour Wits historian who is the leading chronicler of the African National Congress. He played Eeyore to my Tigger. Alec Erwin, later Minister of Public Enterprises, and a leading theoretician of transformation, was there, as was Jakes Gerwel, who became the first non-White Rector of a South African university and went on to serve as Mandela's right hand man in the first post-apartheid government. Hillary Joffe, later a well-known journalist, was there, and so was John Dugard, then a Professor of International Law but later a distinguished Judge. My contribution to the conference, and the volume that came out of it, was forgettable; the experience was, for me, anything but.

Since we had come ten thousand miles for those few days, Susie and I had made plans to continue on to South Africa. Once again, we stayed with Debra and Berendt in Melville. Debra rounded up a Wits archeologist who took us all to Makapansgat, a famous site one hundred miles north of Pretoria. The entire Makapan valley is filled with digs from which valuable bones and artifacts have been recovered, but the cave called Makapansgat is of special interest because until the nineteenth century, it had been uninterruptedly inhabited for more than twenty thousand years. The walls and cave floor had of course been elaborated excavated, so we had to be careful walking through the site. As we were about to leave, I saw a microlith half projecting from one of the cave walls. It was a tiny arrowhead, perhaps many millennia old. When no one was looking, I put out my hand, plucked it from the wall, and put it in my pocket. I do hope the statute of limitations has run on illegally importing archeological artifacts into the United States.

Even though on my first visit I had been to Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria, Durban, Bophutatswana, Lebowa, and Gazenkulu, I had not yet been to South Africa's most beautiful city, Cape Town, so when the Philosophy Department of the University of Cape Town invited me to give a talk, I jumped at the chance. Susie and I flew down for a quick visit. Susie, who has all her life been a dedicated botanist and gardener, very much wanted to visit the Botanical Gardens of Cape Town, so she went off to see it while I gave my talk. The Department was rather strange, I must say. The premier scholarly effort then under way by one of the senior members was a collection of jokes and anecdotes contributed by famous philosophers from around the world. Quine had contributed a joke, as I recall. When the time came for my talk, the Chair of the Department rose to introduce me. As he launched into an effusive welcome, everyone in the room froze. He apparently thought I was Richard Rorty. I must say, he had some very nice things to say about Dick, whom I had known, as the saying goes, since before he became Richard Rorty. It was a little hard to figure out just exactly what to say when my turn came, so I just launched into my talk.

Susie was as taken with South Africa as I had been, and on the long trip home, we agreed to return soon. We even saw a West End performance of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as we passed through London on our way back to the States. We were eager to see whether Don and his crew had made any progress on our house, but when we got to our trailer, I found that I had a more pressing problem. There had been an early November cold snap, not that unusual in rural New England, and the slender pipes in the trailer were frozen solid. Unless I could get them unfrozen, we would have no toilet, so I climbed under the trailer with Susie's hairdryer, an extension cord out one window, and blew hot air on them until they let loose.

Six days after we got home, all four of our sons -- Patrick and Tobias, Lawrence and Jon -- came to visit us and take part in a celebratory Thanksgiving dinner at the Old Deerfield Inn. They arrived at different times from different corners of America, and as each one entered our little home, he said the same thing: "YOU LIVE HERE?" We had quite gotten used to the trailer, and were a bit offended that they could not see its charm, but it occurred to me that although we felt like a couple of kids, we were, after all, their fifty-five year old parents.

Don Grose had promised that we would be in our new house by Christmas, and so we were, but only just. On December 23, 1987, we abandoned the trailer that had been the first home of our married life, and moved grandly into our splendid new house. At first, we tended to crouch defensively in one corner of a room, as though we did not believe that there was so much space, but little by little we ventured into the living room, the den, the sun-lit glass enclosed breakfast room, and even up to the second floor. In no time at all, we had appropriated the space as our own.

The recounting of the happy events of that time has momentarily driven from my memory the fact that I was then about to publish another little book, the second volume of what I still hoped would be a trilogy on the thought of Karl Marx. In the Spring of '86, while my first marriage was coming to an end, I had delivered a series of three public lectures at UMass, the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Lectures. In those lectures, I finally came to grips with a question that had fascinated and puzzled me from my first encounter with Das Kapital: Why had Marx chosen to write what he himself conceived as his greatest work in a language and style utterly different from any that had previously been adopted either by economists or by philosophers? The language of Capital is highly inflected, shot through with witty ironies and literary allusions. Commentators, especially those from England, have tended to view the language of Marx's hauptwerk as a sign of incapacity on his part, as though the author of The Communist Manifesto could not say it straight when he wanted to. I thought otherwise.

I took the title of my lectures from a wonderful passage in the chapter on "The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power." The original English translation, overseen by Engels himself, perfectly captures the mocking tone of the original:

"In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags [Geldbesitzer], must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power." The original has Geldbesitzer twice, first where Aveling and Moore render it as "Moneybags" and second where they give the more literal "possessor of money." But even "possessor of money" misses the dead metaphor in the original. The image conjured up by the German is, or ought to be, of someone sitting atop a pile of money, and "Moneybags" captures that sense perfectly.

I have always believed that these lectures, published in 1988 by the University of Massachusetts Press under the title Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, are pound for pound, word for word, the best thing I have ever written, but the world seems to have a very different view. The book went unnoticed, unreviewed [save for a very lovely review by George Scialabba in, of all places, The Village Voice], and unsold. All these years later, UMass Press has yet to unload a thousand copies. My little book, in the immortal words of David Hume [who was, after all, talking about the greatest work of philosophy ever written in the English language], "fell still-born from the presses."

Since these are my memoirs, I should like, one last time, to take a moment to explain what I was doing in those lectures, before they are consigned to "the dust heap of history." Some of Marx's work is a conscious debate with, critique of, and extension of the Classical Political Economy of the Physiocrats, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. My first book on Marx, Understanding Marx, had explicated that debate in an attempt to identify what was new, revolutionary, and defensible in Marx's economic theories. But unlike his predecessors, Marx believed that capitalist economy and society is deeply mystified, concealing its true exploitative nature beneath a surface appearance of tranquil, unproblematic equal exchange in a marketplace supposedly, but not actually, cleansed of the superstitions and mystifications of feudalism and Christianity. Since Marx believed that all of us are embedded in those mystifications, suffering from what, in another context, would be called false consciousness, he sought some way simultaneously to give voice to and to debunk the ideologies of the capitalist market. The epiphany of which I spoke earlier in these Memoirs was the realization that the extraordinary language of the opening chapters of Capital is Marx's deliberate attempt to accomplish this task.

I concluded that a full and deep grasp of the insights of Capital would require, at one and the same time, an engagement with the formal economic theory of the Classical Political Economy tradition and an understanding of the psychology of mystification and a literary analysis of Marx's language. If Marx is right that the social reality of capitalism is thus complicatedly multi-dimensional, then some way would have to be found to read the irony into the equations and the equations into the irony. Moneybags was my attempt to complete the second stage of the process that I had begun in Understanding Marx.

The quirks of my mind being what they are, I sought to show this idea rather than to explain it, by voicing in my lectures something of the irony and humor that I had found in Capital. In the third lecture, which is, I believe, the first successful attempt actually to explain the famously obscure disquisition on "the relative form and the equivalent form of value" that mystifies the readers of Chapter One, I chose to begin with an old Jewish joke about Mrs. Feinschmeck's blintzes. I think it is fair to say that no one who has ever read my book [and that cannot be many people] has ever understood the deep and complicated purpose behind that apparently facetious literary choice.

So be it. UMass Press did a lovely job designing the little book, with a splendid Daumier caricature of a top hatted banker counting his money on the cover. If the writing of this Memoir accomplishes nothing else, perhaps it will send a curious reader or two to that neglected book.


Noumena said...

At least one :-)

Robert Vienneau said...

I've read Moneybags Must be so Lucky.Unfortunately, I bought it in a used book store. I think it successfully problematizes what might seem natural: that under capitalism, any commodity can be traded for any commodity through the medium of money.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Robert, I am delighted that you have read Moneybags, and have mixed feelings about the fact that you bought it second hand. On the one hand, I am always thrilled when I find my books in a second hand book store. On the other hand, I always think to myself, "How could anyone have sold it! Didn't they like it?"

Sigh. How vain we authors are.

JP said...

Very interesting. You do seem to have met a cast of the then (and now) movers and shakers.

I will pip Marinus by pointing out that Sun City is not in Botswana, but is in what was, at the time, the 'homeland' of Bophutatswana. This region is today part of the North West Province of SA.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No,no, JP. Sun City was [is?] a chain. There was [is?] one in Gabarone,Botswana, and in Bophutatswana, and elsewhere as well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But Google says that in Botswana it is called the Sun Hotel.

JP said...

Oh, I think I get it now. Sun International is a hotel chain, Sun city is a specific resort owned by the same guy.

Anyway, any and all stories about the local movers and shakers that you met would be appreciated, even if in comments.

Charles said...

You can add me to the list of readers who will be acquiring and reading Moneybags Must be so Lucky.

I have a question about your study of Marx. You stated earlier in your memoirs that you read Kant primarily in translation. I'm wondering if you read Marx in the same way. It sounds like the insights that you gained into the structure of the argument in Capital was supported or inspired by the importance of Marx's use of 'Geldbesitzer', which isn't translated into English consistently. I'm wondering if perhaps you were reading Marx in German rather than English. If so, did you think that it was either more important or more valuable to read him in this way than Kant?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Charles, I read Marx in English, as I did Kant, but I checked many things in the German [as I did with Kant]. I also read a number of the letters between Marx and Engels in the original, which was their peculiar German mixed with phrases and words from English and French. Long ago, after the end of WW II, the East Germans started published the complete works of Marx and Engels, volume by volume, with typical Germanic footnoting and scholarship. But because this was a Communist regime, they sold it cheaply, so that the workers could afford it. I had a standing order at Blackwell's in London, and for 3 or 4 dollars each, I would receive these gorgeous volumes as they were published. The set runs to 30 or more volumes, and it all sits on the shelves of my Paris apartment, where I am writing these words. Later on, a beautiful English translation of the complete works was published, and I have that too, in my Chapel Hill, North Carolina apartment.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Whoops. I just counted. My Marx Engels set runs to 46 volumes! No, I have not read all of it. [But I have read a good deal of it, actually. Even his doctoral dissertation, which is pretty dull.]

Buck said...

Have you ever read "The Folkloe of Capitalism" by Thurman Arnold of Roosevelt era fame? The book was a best seller in the 1930's but is rarely mentioned today. I'm not familiar with your book but Arnold's book seems to share some similarities to your description of Marx's work.

Buck said...

Pardon my misspelling. The title of the book is The FOLKLORE of Capitalism".