Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, November 28, 2010

CREDO

The latest issue of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS has an interesting piece by Mark Lilla on Glenn Beck, taking off from a review of five books by or about Beck. Lilla spends some time on the speech Beck gave at the rally he organized in Washington, pointing out some surprising passages in it. Here is the url. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/dec/09/beck-revelation/

The piece is enjoyable, full of shrewd and snarky comments, just the sort of stuff someone on the left would want to read about the terrible Beck. But then I began thinking: Suppose someone offered me the opportunity to address a big crowd on the Washington mall, and asked me to state, simply and clearly, what I believe -- not what I think is wrong with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle or Mitch McConnell or any of the other Republican horrors, but positively, affirmatively, to say Credo -- this I believe. Could I do it? Or would I almost immediately descend into particular criticisms of this or that governmental policy? Would I be reduced to offering a laundry list of bills I want the next Congress to pass? What, in fact, do those of us on the left actually believe?

It doesn't have to be original. Indeed, it would be much better if it were not. After all, as Kant responded when it was pointed out that the Categorical Imperative was little more than the Golden Rule, How could you possibly expect originality in the fundamental principle of morality?

So, after turning the question over in my mind for a day or two, here is my first attempt at a statement of what I believe. It is short [uncharacteristic for me, I know], and has not a word in it that can be called original. But it really is what I believe. Whether anyone else in American believes it I leave to others to ascertain.

We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

THE FIRST TIME AS TRAGEDY, THE SECOND AS FARCE

Marx begins THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS NAPOLEON with the famous line: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Recent revelations in the Afghanistan fiasco demonstrate once more the prescience of the great Karl.

We now learn that the much touted "negotiations" between the Americans and a "senior Taliban leader" have actually been going on for three months between General Petreaus and a Pakistani shopkeeper who, as a reward for his charade, has apparently carted off well in excess of $100,000. No satirist, of however dark a mind, could have invented this. Not even the great Mel Brooks, auteur of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and SPACEBALLS, would have dared to venture onto the big screen with so absurd a story line. General Petreaus is revealed as an utter fool, and President Obama is made ridiculous. Why have we not managed to capture Usama Ben Laden? Because we cannot tell the difference between an enemy general and a self-promoting shopkeeper. Petreaus has apparently been relying on a nifty bit of space age gadgetry called the "Handheld Interagency Detection Equipment," or HIDE, which, it was thought, would instantaneously identify authentic Taliban senior officials. [I am really not making this up. I have neither the imagination nor the stomach for such an act of creativity. I am simply repeating what is now widely acknowledged on the web to be the simple state of play within the American High Command.]

It is for clowns like these that American men and women are dying or being maimed. It is for this that hundreds of billions of dollars we do not have are being spent. There is no rage adequate to the criminality of this God-forsaken policy. This is Obama's fault -- not Bush's, not Cheney's, not the fault of Gates or Petreaus or Clinton or Holbrooke. Anyone could see, even from a great distance, that this policy was doomed to fail, and many of us said so well before Obama made his decision to escalate the war. The blood of the Americans [and of the Afghans] is on his hands.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

DRAGGED KICKING AND SCREAMING INTO THE 21ST CENTURY

Well, I have taken the plunge and obtained a webcam, which I have installed. I have downloaded Skype, and tomorrow, I and my daughter in law will have a trial run. If I can make it work, I will be able to see and talk to my grandchildren, Samuel and Athena, in San Francisco. My son, Tobias, opines that in all probability a sizable proportion of Skype conversations are between grandparents and grandchildren. Pretty cool. The Best Buy Geek Squad was prepared to come and do the installation, but it would have cost hundreds, so I did it myself. I am feeling inordinately proud of myself.

On another tack entirely, I see that Bristol Palin came in third in Dancing With the Stars [a show I have never managed to watch]. That and the revelation that Rush Limbaugh is a drug-addicted deeply closeted gay man pretty much took my mind off the bad stuff happening on the Korean peninsula. I am seventy-six now, and I was sixteen when the Korean War started!

I am still struggling with the pictures from the safari, but promise to post some with accompanying travelogue soon.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

MORE ON ONLINE ORGANIZING

I just read a long NATION piece online that criticizes a rather dismissive denial of the effectiveness of internet and such like tools for progressive organizing. I think it explores in detail many of the ideas I was rather preliminarily trying to sketch in a previous blog post. Read it and perhaps we can discuss it. Here is the url. I cannot figure out how to make it clickable [I know, I know, you have told me before], so just cut it and paste it into your command line.

http://www.thenation.com/article/156447/what-malcolm-gladwell-missed-about-online-organizing-and-creating-big-change

Monday, November 22, 2010

YOUTHFUL FOLLIES

My father was a high school biology teacher, and later, a high school principal. The high point of his career was the publication of a high school biology text that he co-authored with Elsbeth Krober, at one time the Chair of the biology department in which he taught. ADVENTURES WITH LIVING THINGS appeared when I was four, and so, as you can imagine, I grew up learning from it what little biology I managed to master. It was a good book, ahead of its time in the teaching of such controversial subjects as evolution, and my father was justly proud of it.

In that odd way the mind has, one fact, of all the facts in the book, stuck in my mind -- the human cell has forty-eight chromosomes, twenty-four pairs, including the XY pair in the case of males or XX in the case of females. Forty years or so later, I happened to be reading idly through a magazine article when I came upon the statement that the human cell has forty-six chromosomes -- twenty-three pairs. Stunned, and feeling rather betrayed, I called my father to ask him what was up. "Yes," he said, "it is forty-six, not forty-eight."

It seems that in the early days of Cytology, scientists prepared cells to be examined under a microscope by staining them. The stain fixed the cell, stopping its degeneration, and also brought out significant structural features in relief, so that they could be seen with the relatively weak microscopes then in use. This was long before electron microscopy, of course. Apparently the stain used to fix human cells affected them in such a way as to make it look as though there was an extra pair of chromosomes. Enlightened, but not appeased, I privately mourned the loss of the one fixed point in my personal scientific firmament.

I thought about this yesterday when reading a NY TIMES story about the demotion of Pluto from the status of planet. Pluto was the last of the planets to be discovered, and its status was always a bit iffy, but my youth was graced by trips to the Planetarium in Manhattan where, in the lobby, one could see a magnificent orrery [wonderful word, that], with nine planets rotating at the correct speeds and inclinations around a fixed sun -- visible proof that Copernicus had been right. Apparently, if the article is to be believed, a great many people are suffering the same nostalgia and withdrawal symptoms about the demotion of Pluto that I felt, privately, for that evanescent twenty-fourth pair of chromosomes.

What occasions these sad reflections is the struggle I have been having in recent weeks to sustain my commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the Obama administration. I gave my heart, if not my mind, to Obama [and also a very great deal of my cash], believing fervently that he was my one chance to see America turn decisively to the left before my time on this earth was up. I was well aware of his unwise decision to champion the war in Afghanistan, and I did not really imagine that he was, in my understanding of the term, a man of the left. Indeed, I knew that if he were, he could not possibly get elected by the American people as they are now constituted. But I did honestly believe that he would bring into his administration a large number of progressive men and women committed to many of the things to which I am committed.

There have been good moments, impressive victories. The health care bill, with all its faults, was an historic achievement, and the financial regulatory bill, with Elizabeth Warren in place, is a major step in the right direction. As for gay rights, I actually believe he has done quite well in the face of Republican hostility, and his handling of DODT has been masterful, in my judgment.

But the deep flaw in Obama's domestic politics has been has deliberate and clearly well-thought out decision to put the economic affairs of the nation in the hands of the likes of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. I am very much afraid that Paul Krugman is correct. Obama is essentially conservative in his economic orientation, and nothing that has happened in the past two years has changed that.

Where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me supporting him against his enemies, because the Republican Party has become a nightmare. As I have written on this blog, America has become a Banana Republic, with a super-rich elite, a very comfortable upper middle class [of which I am a part], and a growing mass of increasingly impoverished and unprotected men and women with neither job security nor a secure old age. This has become a hateful country, in which the man who is likely to chair the Congressional Committee principally responsible for environmental policy is actually quote as saying that climate change will not happen because God promised Noah that there would not be a second flood. This is beyond humorous, or silly, or absurd. It is criminal.

I genuinely do not know what I shall do about maintaining this blog and commenting daily on the passing scene. It horrifies me so much that I lack the strength to confront it. Perhaps when I recover from the flu that has flattened me since I returned from Africa, I shall feel a revival of my spirits.

It was bad enough when they took away that twenty-fourth pair of chromosomes, and demoted Pluto. It is genuinely hard once again to find myself, so soon, in opposition to the regime in power.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THIRD PARTIES

As I prepare to go up to Rochester, NY [well, actually, it is 3:30 a.m., and I have just gotten off the phone with a Time Warner Cable techie who got me back on line, but us old guys get up a lot in the middle of the night], let me respond briefly on MurfMensch's comment about third parties. [Where do you folks get your internet names from?!] Briefly, he/she suggests taking seriously the idea of forming third parties, taking our lead from the familiar European and Asian model.

There is no question that third parties can exercise influence on policy, even though they cannot hope to win general elections, so long as some form of voting is adopted that gives such parties representation either at the Federal or State level. But the obstacles are enormous in America, as I am sure everyone understands. To win some sort of proportional representation at the national level would require a Constitutional amendment, which is just out of the question. State elections are governed by state law, a more feasible option. Each state has its own laws, so one would need a great deal of local expertise, which is tailored made for a movement organized on the internet. Could a left wing third party win a local election, or even a Congressional election? I don't know, but the existence of such a party would force the major parties to adjust in one way or another. There are, of course, several good examples of viable third parties at the state level, in New York and elsewhere.

The major problem all political parties face in the United States is generating the turnout of their supporters. Could an uncompromising leftwing third party with a serious agenda pull into the voting booths the supporters who polls show are out there? Very possibly.

I must say, I like the idea of starting a discussion in which it is not incumbent upon me to have all the answers -- unusual, for me, but rather relaxing. Let's keep talking about this and other ideas, and see where they take us.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SOME PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS - BEAR WITH ME

Well, Time Warner Cable went down for a day, denying me both telephone and internet access, but I am back. My time on safari had an odd effect on me. It distanced me emotionally from the immediacy of the political twenty-four hour news cycle, with the result that I feel the need to gain some perspective. Over the next week or so [I am away Wednesday and Thursday], I am going to try to start thinking about how those of us on the left might begin in wholly new ways to change the direction of American politics.

As I see it, there are two fundamental problems that we must address: The huge and accelerating gap between the wealth and income of the favored one percent or so and the deteriorating situation of the lower sixty or seventy percent; and the imperial foreign policy of the United States. There are many, many other issues that are very important [including one personally dear to my heart, namely the rights of gay and lesbian Americans], but the wealth/income gap and the imperial foreign policy loom over everything else.

Several commentators have called my hopes for a revival of unionism sentimantal or romantic, and to some extent I think they are right. There are many structural reasons why labor unionism is not going to be the engine of progressive social change that it once was, and I will talk about them later, but clearly the day is passed when large organizations of working men and women could shape American politics.

The coalition of social groups that gave Obama his electoral victory is not now prepared to join forces to attack either the wealth/income gap or the imperial foreign policy, but I do not think either of those projects is incompatible with the world view of those social groups.

There is one thing we on the left have going for us, and it is very important. The structure of social networking now being created on the internet makes it feasible to imagine that scores of millions of Americans could be united into a powerful political force without the expenditure of large amounts of money, and without the necessity of taking control of local governmental and political structures.

That said, real change can, I believe, only come through the exercising of electoral power. Neither violent revolutionary action nor spontaneous street theater is going to accomplish much, though at times the latter may have some news value.

Odd as it may seem, the means for radical social change are already in existence. The public opinion polls I have seen indicate that people with roughly a progressive orientation are actually in the majority. Now, it has always been extraordinarily difficult to mobilize people who share a point of view but lack passion about it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Internet can serve as a medium for overcoming that problem.

I have in mind a bottom up horizontal structure of organization, not a top down vertical structure.

Ok, enough for the moment. I welcome suggestions, reactions, and discussion. It seems fanciful to suppose that a movement of such importance could start with the blog of an aging philosopher, but there are probably a thousand other blogs already talkingn in the same fashion.

At the very least, it is better than despair.

Monday, November 15, 2010

OUT OF AFRICA

Susie and I returned home from our Kenyan safari after a trip that seemed to go on forever. It started, idyllically, on the Maasai Mara plain, at a luxurious lodge, where we enjoyed one last view of the endless herds of Wildebeest and Zebra preparing for their migration south to the Serengeti. A small plane landed on a dirt strip, loaded us up, and took us to Nairobi, where we spent eight hours in a "day room" at a luxury hotel in downtown Nairobi. It will give you some idea of the hotel if I tell you that liveried servants greet you with hot towels. The hotel has both a Karen Blixen room and a Baden-Powell room, and is named the Stanley! A midnight flight to Heathrow was followed by a seven hour layover in the airport, and then by an eight and a half hour flight to Raleigh-Durham. American lost one of our bags, but returned it the next day. I got home totally whacked out, and sick besides [I seem to be recovering.]

On Wednesday, I fly to Rochester to give the keynote address at St John Fisher College's annual Philosophy Day [God bless the Catholic Church, the only major institution that still believes in philosophy, it seems.] So it is going to be a while before I solve the riddle of transferring the pictures I took to my computer and then integrating them into a narrative of our safari.

I thought I would be blessedly isolated from the disaster that is called American politics, but I did not reckon with T-Mobile. As we walked up a trail on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, at 8000 feet or so, one of our group was checking New York TIMES headlines. So it was that I learned we had lost the House and held the Senate. I will comment on all of that a bit later.

To my great delight, I discovered that while I was gone, some of you continued to post fascinating comments, which suggests to me that this blog has become a space in which people can exchange views, not simply read mine and comment on them. The safari had the effect of distancing me from the immediacy of electoral politics, and I do not feel an urgent need to plunge back into them, so perhaps I can try to follow JaneyG's lead and at least try to imagine something we on the left can do to begin the re-creation of a radical politics.

And now, I must go to the Post Office and collect all the catalogues that have been accumulating, together, it is to be hoped, with some donations to USSAS.

Wait until you hear about the cheetah that walked right up to our van!