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Friday, December 27, 2013


On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the first of what would be four terms as President of the United States.  Several weeks later I was conceived and forty weeks or so after that, on December 27, 1933, I was born.  Today is thus my eightieth birthday, a milestone of no importance whatsoever to the world at large but deserving of some commemoration on this blog.

I have lived through all four presidential terms of Roosevelt, as well as those of Harry S. Truman, Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Milhous Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. [born Leslie Lynch King, Jr.], James Earl Carter, Ronald Wilson Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton, George Walker Bush, and Barack Hussein Obama. 

I have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Viet Nam War, Watergate, the disgrace and resignation of Nixon, the Reagan reaction, the Clinton triangulation, the Bush disaster, 9-11, the Afghanistan War, both Iraq Wars, the crash of 2009, and the Obama victories.  I have lived through the Moscow Show Trials, the Spanish Civil War, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement, the Green Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the Tea Party excrescence.

I first heard Elvis Presley on a radio in the barracks in Fort Dix; I watched Sputnik soar overhead at five a.m. while standing on the parade ground; I saw the Beatles' Hard Day's Night in a theater off Trafalgar Square.  I have debated nuclear policy with Herman Kahn in Boston, and taken tea with Bertrand Russell in Surrey.  I have had an honorary degree conferred on me at the University of the Western Cape by Desmond Tutu.

During a career lasting half a century, I taught university courses in Philosophy, History, Political Science, Economics, and Afro-American Studies, and more than five thousand young men and women passed through my classes.  I have written or edited more than thirty books, twenty-one of which have been published in the old-fashioned way, the rest as e-books online, and my books have appeared in translation in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Catalan, Greek, Croatian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian.  The English language versions of my books have sold over one million copies, but if I am remembered at all after I die, it will be for an eighty page essay I wrote in 1965 for enough money to cover a month of psychoanalyst's bills, and published in 1970 as a slender volume called in Defense of Anarchism. 

I have been married twice, the first time for twenty-three years to Cynthia Griffin, the second time for twenty-six years and counting to Susan Shaeffer Gould.  I have fathered two sons, one a brilliant Chess Grandmaster and Hedge Fund manager, the other a renowned legal scholar and the leading gay rights legal theorist in America.  My first son has given me two grandchildren, Samuel Emerson and Athena Emily.

I have undergone general anaesthesia thirteen times --first at the age of four weeks, most recently two years ago, and yet, withal, I am healthy and vigorous, walking four miles every morning summer and winter. With luck, I shall see ninety.  With great good fortune, I shall join the select company of the new centenarians.

I have visited South Africa more than thirty times and have raised enough money to enable sixteen hundred young Black men and women to attend historically Black universities in that beautiful land.  This is my onion, as Grushenka would say, and if I can remember not to kick, it may serve to pull me out of Purgatory.  I was arrested once, in an anti-apartheid demonstration at Harvard, but no merit attaches to that, for I did it mostly to win favor with my teenage sons.

I have seen Lawrence Olivier, Jose Ferrar, John Guilgud, Margaret Leighton, Siobhan McKenna, Jason Robards, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwick, Edith Evans, and Charles Boyer live on stage, and I have appeared in the pit chorus of a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy.  As a boy I sang madrigals; as a man I have played the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  Though those who know me now would not credit it, I was a pretty fair social dancer back in the forties and early fifties.  I have watched two lions copulating in Botswana and was faced down by an irritated mother elephant in South Africa.  I have buried three cats and a standard poodle, with sorrow and regret.

In eighty years I have learned that socialism will not come to America in my lifetime, but that the arguments for it are no less strong now than when I was a boy.  I have learned that it is harder to change the world in one small way than it is to think about changing the world in many large ways.  I have learned that friendship is more important than ideology, and that comradeship, not a priori reasoning, is the foundation of moral choice.

In the beautiful words of Erik H. Erikson, An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history.  It was given to me to pursue the cycle of my life in this segment of history.  It has been neither the best of times nor the worst of times, but it has been my time.




Marinus Ferreira said...

Happy birthday! And many happy returns.

Jerry Fresia said...

Dear Fast Eddy,

Here's a list of recent positive developments that ought to make your birthday a bit more satisfying:

Further, as we all know, developments such as these don't just emerge one day out of thin air, but follow from the day in and day out resistance to forces of evil by countless individuals, like yourself and the people whom you have inspired, across decades.

The one accomplishment that is missing from your list is your capacity to meld art and politics, aesthetics and scholarship, beauty and justice into a seamless whole - a rare accomplishment, indeed, if not the most important.

So, yes, birthday wishes, but more, congratulations.

Tim said...

A very happy birthday to you! What an inspirational blogpost to read. Would that we should all have such long lives, full of such accomplishments and experiences. Enjoy your birthday.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

And here's to socialism in the next 80 years!

GTChristie said...

That's a good score. Many happy returns to you, sir.

Chris said...

Happy Birthday comrade!

Nick said...

Happy birthday! And many more to come.

Turkle said...

Happy birthday to you, Professor. Thank you for sharing your wry wit and deepest observations with us. I have found your posts on Marx's irony, your introduction to Kant, and your introduction to Marcuse all extremely helpful and enjoyable. You have inspired me to read the Critique again after so many years! Not to mention that your life itself is an inspiration.

Here's wishing you good luck and good health. I look forward to reading your 90th birthday post!

Lounger said...

Happy Birthday and congratulations. I look forward to your blog posts as you look forward to poppy seed muffins. You are informative, provocative and inspiring.
Thank you

levinebar said...

We look to you to show the way to a vigorous 120. The first 80 have been inspiring.

Matt said...

Congratulations, Professor Wolff! (even though I'm acquaintances with, and a past semi-colleague with, your son Tobias- I even shared a taxi w/ him just a couple of weeks ago, I don't know that more familiarity is appropriate.) It sounds like a great run, and I've very much enjoyed the blog.

This bit made me feel my only tinge on nastalgia:

"I watched Sputnik soar overhead at five a.m. while standing on the parade ground"

When I was a boy, I'd sleep in my back yard and often be able to see satellites cross the sky. (In Russian, "sputnic" means 'fellow traveler'. I've always found that nice.) Now, alas, it's impossible to see them, at least where I live and even where I grew up, due to light pollution. It's an unfortunate thing for kids today.

Chris said...

Happy birthday, professor. It's been a considerable pleasure following your blog these last four years or so.

Magpie said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

A happy birthday.

My best wishes for many more (and I am being quite self-interested here).

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Happy Birthday! Seems that you've done real good with those years. --alb

Chris said...

"I have learned that friendship is more important than ideology, and that comradeship, not a priori reasoning, is the foundation of moral choice."

Wouldn't this necessarily change your thesis and conclusions in In Defense of Anarchism?