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Wednesday, August 29, 2012


An old friend, Steve Garrard, has invited me to speak in his seminar at Williams College in October, in my new-found role as a "public intellectual."  [I am not exactly sure what a private intellectual would be -- presumably someone who never open acknowledges an obsessive interest in ideas.]  Since I will be speaking to undergraduates, who began to take notice of the larger world of politics some time during George W. Bush's second term, I plan to draw on my vast experience as an old person to give them advice about how to remain politically engaged not just for a season or for a Congressional term but for an entire life.

As I was turning over in my mind just which stories to tell [I am, as readers of this blog will have learned, a compulsive story teller], Enver Motala's tribute to Neville Alexander popped up in my email in-box.  It is posted on my blog, just after this entry.  Although I never had the good fortune to meet Neville Alexander, save perhaps for a fleeting moment, if my memory serves me correctly, I was of course well aware of him during the entire quarter century of my deep involvement with South Africa, an involvement that I have described in detail in the second volume of my Memoir.  South Africa has produced an extraordinary number of truly admirable men and women who fought for freedom and socialism during the long night of Apartheid.  It is why I fell in love with the country when I first visited it in 1986, and have remained committed to its people ever since.

There have been countless men and women over much of the past two centuries who have devoted their lives to the struggle for freedom and socialism -- some of them truly admirable, some very much less so.  What strikes me most powerfully about the South Africans I have known is how many of them are genuinely honorable men and women.  I have in mind not just such world figures as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu [and Mohandas Gandhi, whose career started, one sometimes forgets, in Natal Province in South Africa], but other less well-known people, including my friend Enver Motala. 

It is a great economic strength of capitalism that it has no time for, indeed no conception of, honor.  Relationships in the public world are regulated solely by calculations of profitability.  To refuse to do business with a man simply because he is a scoundrel is economically disadvantageous.  To turn down a deal offered by a woman who previously betrayed her business associates risks losing profit.  That is why it is simply impossible in contemporary society for someone permanently to disgrace himself or herself and henceforward to by excluded from the society of decent people.  With the death of honor goes the disappearance of shame as an emotion capable of stifling ambition. 

It is in such a world that men and women like Neville Alexander stand out as exemplars of the honorable life.  I shall not talk about this at Williams.  I fear the students listening to me would be unable to make any sense of such observations.  But it is very much on my mind as I approach the end of my life and look back, wondering whether I have managed to live in a way that I can, in retrospect, respect.



Amato said...

Just to let you know, I think your calculation is a little off. I'm a couple years older than most folks currently undergraduates and my first real political memories come Clinton's reelection bid.

Also, I can't help but remind you of Steve Biko, who stands out to me as typifying honor and dignity in the face of struggle.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

About Steve Biko, I agree with you completely. As for my calculation: I figure like this -- undergraduates arrive at college or university when they are seventeen or eighteen, typically. Most of them, if they pay attention to politics at all, started to do so when they were, let us say, twelve or thirteen, which means four to six years ago. Hence, George W. Bush's second term. Of course there are those who started paying attetion in some way when they were even younger, but not all that many, in my experience.

LFC said...

I'm curious: What is the subject of the seminar that your friend Steve Garrard teaches? I presume it has something to do with politics... but that still leaves a wide range of possibilities.

P. J. Grath said...

Why would you NOT mention honorable men and women as exemplars? Not a whole lecture on that, but more than passing mention. Might be what the students will most remember in later years. One can hope.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am supposed to give a public talk as a "public intellectual" and also appear in Garrard's class, where we will be talking about Mannheim and ideology and stuff. In the seminar, the students are invited to ask me anything.

P. J., I take your point, and I plan, as part of my talk, to allude to a number of men and women who have lived lives of commitment, year in and year out. It is always hard for me to judge what an undergraduate audience will relate to and what will simply leave them cold. We shall see.

Murfmensch said...

When will you be at Williams? I am not too far away from there. I would try to get some students over to see you.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I will be at Williams on October 23 and 24th. The more the merrier!

Murfmensch said...

I would stress one thing. I find that many, many, people think that the action is somewhere else. "If only I were in New York or London or Chiapas or Caracas or on Television..."

That's not true. Find an organization that makes sense and build it. If you are in the middle of nowhere, then the organization needs you to make a presence.

Another piece of advice-- get some experience, then think about building something new.