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Friday, August 17, 2012


Richard Marshall, who runs something called, asked me to reply to a number of questions, for his ezine.  On the off chance that someone might be interested in my replies, here are the questions and answers.  I hope that by scooping him, as it were, I am not causing trouble, but that is the way of the web, is it not?

I have tried very hard to resist the temptation to become one of those bloviators who can be counted on to have an opinion about anything, instantaneously, regardless of whether he or she has ever given it a moment's thought prior to the question. [Indeed, that is one of the reasons why I left Columbia in '71, when I was becoming a recognized New York intellectual, and "rusticated" in western mass.]

So, I am going to start by replying to the questions about which I actually have something to say. later on, I will think about addressing the other ones. Where I really have nothing valuable to say, I will admit as much and move on. OK?

Here goes:

Robert Paul Wolff

1. You?ve been a philosopher for a long
time. Looking at the philosophy scene at the moment, what are the big changes that you notice from when you started out? Is it better now or worse as a field of study do you think?

I have paid very little attention to the current philosophical scene for a very long time -- not in maybe forty years -- so I really do not know. What I have seen, from time to time, does not impress me as very interesting, but then the field of academic philosophy does not much interest me now.

2. In that time you have met with many of
the great and famous philosophical figures of this period. Who are the people that have most impressed you ? either in terms of their philosophical contributions or as people?

C. I. Lewis, W. v. O. Quine, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Marcuse. I really liked Bob Nozick, but was not much impressed with his political philosophy, for all that he was very bright. I didn't much like Jack Rawls, as many people have commented.

3. Connected with these changes is the role
of the University. You say that when you were starting out it was the golden
age for being an academic, but that things have soured. Can you say a little
about how you view the assault on the university?

This is a subject on which many people have commented. For a variety of reasons, some of which [The Cold War, for example, which I could have done without], the period from 1950 to roughly 1980 or a bit later was a true golden age for serious academic intellectual activity -- solid tenure, good pay, freedom from most intrusions on intellectual freedom, expanding job opportunities, ease of publication -- what was not to like? Progressively, tenure is being weakened, part time and non tenure track academics now make up most of the professoriate, jobs are hard to come by, publication is more difficult, academic administration has been more and more transformed by a corporation model of governance, and so forth. It is worth remembering that things were pretty bad before WW II. These years really have been a happy interval, and current trends suggest that the good times will not come back any time soon. It is interesting to compare us with Great Britain, where the golden age was the period until maybe 1960 or a bit later. Now, British higher education is a shambles.

4. You?ve written about the ideal of the
university: what is your ideal and is it now at all a possibility?

I did write about this, and indeed I then blogged about it. I think I will take a pass, and not try to repeat what I have already published.

5. You note that the Occupy movement has
been a phenomenon that has managed to change the terms of public debate,
although it has so far not translated into policy shift. How significant do you think this has been as a signal that there are still grounds for optimism?

So long as we are alive there are grounds for optimism, so long as we DO something and don't just comment -- to paraphrase Marx's great last thesis on Feuerbach. It is extraordinary how quickly, and with how little in the way of resources or support, the Occupy movement totally changed the terms of public discussion in America. The rhetorical device of the 1% and the 99%, despite its factual inaccuracy, was simply brilliant, and has taken hold, I think irreversibly.

6. Are the uprisings in North Africa dubbed the ?Arab Spring? equally important to you?

This is a good example of a question about which I have absolutely no real knowwledge or expertise -- I have never visited any of those countries, and speak none of the languages at all, and it is only chutzpah and a sense of entitlement that would lead me to offer opinions.

7. You are famously a political anarchist.
Can you say what you mean by this?

Not only can I, I have. I can sum up my anarchism in one sentence: There is not, and cannot be, a morally de jure legitimate state. The book that made me famous is barely 80 pages long, and most of that is not really a part of the central argument. I wrote it in three weeks 47 years ago, and published it in book form 42 years ago, and since then no one has ever offered a single objection that holds water, for all that many have tried. I am, one might say, the little boy who cried, "The king has no clothes on!" and since in fact the king does have no clothes on, any rational and unbiased person can see that I am right. It is a little weird to have made a career out of an observation that a child could have made.

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8. You?re a figure of the left, but arguments
against state authority are being used at the moment to attack things like
medicare in the USA and the National Health Service in the UK. Some say: isn?t
this a problem with anarchism, that small state, small government ideas ultimately
drive reactionary forces? You admire the NHS to the point where you even might revise your Anglophobia, but it is more a socialist than anarchist
institution isn?t it?

Sigh. This is a tangle, and I am not sure I want to spend a great deal of time untangling it. My anarchism is simply a thesis about the individual's moral obligagtion to obey the commands of the state SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY ARE THE COMMANDS OF THE STATE. I am not someone who thinks that small illegitimate governments are better than large illegitimate governments. I am a Marxist precisely in the sense that I agree with him that capitalism rests on exploitation. Any arguments that turn on the supposed superiority of the several states to the federal government in American strike me as absurd on their face.

9. You?ve some striking views on Ayn Rand,
who is now dangerously topical given the appointment of Paul Ryan as Mitt
Romney?s running mate., a hypocritical man who inherited his millions from
Federal contracts. There?s also been a fuss about the Stanford Encyclopedia of > philosophy presenting Rand as a serious philosopher. What does this tell us about the state of US politics and academia?

Not much we didn't already know. That is the same academia populated by economists who take Milton Friedman seriously and gave him a Nobel prize, if I recall correctly.

10. Economically you?re a Marxist. Has the collapse of the Soviet Union made it easier to express genuine Marxist economic > views now than it was back in the sixties, or is it just differently > problematic? And why does a radical left seem so weak in the USA?

That is several more or less unrelated questions. It has been quite a while since anyone was willing to take Marx's ideas seriously in the United States, and that unwillingness pre-dates the break up of the Soviet Union. It is quite easy to express Marxist economic views in the United States. It is just that not many people listen to you when you do. The absence of a strong radical left in the United States has been a subject for speculation for more than a hundred years. A good deal has been said about it, much of it probably correct.

11. A criticism of Marxism made by Ernest
Gellner was that it was poor at discussing power. Because ownership of the
means of productivity was supposed to drive everything, once everyone
joint-owned these means, the state would have no point and would wither. This
seems a mistake. Doesn?t your anarchist politics coupled with Marxist economics make the same mistake?

Ernest was right about that. It is formulaic and simple-minded to ask a question that assumes that there are units called "anarchism" and "Marxist economics" that do or do not fit together like a child's building blocks. Asked in this way, such questions cannot be answered intelligently, so I shall not try.

12. What made you investigate the literary structure of ?Capital??

The answer to this is rather complex. In the late 70's and 80's I undertook a very extensive and deep study of Marx's writings, that involved not only reading very large amounts of his collected works, including the very early works and the letters, but also making a serious study of mathematical economics and the world-wide mathematical reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories. My original intention was to write a trilogy of books, only two of which I ever actually wrote. Very early on, I was mesmerized by Marx's language in Volume One of CAPITAL, which was utterly unlike the language of his predecessors -- Smith, Ricardo, the Physiocrats, and so forth. I had an intuition that the reason for the highly inflected literary language was Marx's conviction that the complexity of bourgeois society and economy could only be captured by such language [the fetishism of commodites, mystification, and all that]. The result was a book consisting of three lectures, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, which is, I think, pound for pound, the best thing I have ever written, and possibly the most brilliantr thing anyone has written about Marx [I am 78, so I get to say things like this.] But the world thought otherwise. In David Hume's words, speaking of his own immortal TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, my book "fell stillborn from the presses." Oh well. I will always have Paris.

13. Do you see Rawls as a kind of Marxist?

Not at all. he is a bourgeois apologist for late capitalism with a human face.

14. Elizabeth Anderson has recently written
a great book showing that racism is the great American unresolved problem. You?ve
examined this issue as well. How do you understand this evil and are there any
grounds for optimism?

Well, I wrote a book about this, and I have not read her book, so I will take a pass.

15. Obama, Clinton and Blair alongside the Bush's are pushing more right wing politics than Nixon ever did. This seems like a terrible situation. Does this suggest that it was politically wrong to attack Nixon and that if Nobel Peace Prizes should be given back, Obama should be handing his back before Kissinger. This is madness! You describe yourself as an optimist, despite the crazies. Where might we look to find hope?

Come on. be serious.

16. And finally, are there five books you
could recommend to the readers here at 3ammagazine(other than your own of
course which we?ll all be dashing out to read straight after this) that will
give us further insights into your philosophical world?

Oh lord, I don't know. CAPITAL, THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, Paul Goodman's uproarious novel, EMPIRE CITY, Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, the Bible. They may not give anyone insight into my philosophical world [whatever that is], but I can guarantee that you won't waste your time reading them.

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