Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Sixty odd years ago, when I was a young philosopher "coming up," as we said in those days, there was an argument circulating among philosophers of art imported from Gestalt Psychology.  Since I was then totally uninterested in the philosophy of art [which was generally looked down upon by real philosophers, who wrote everything with a backwards E], I cannot now recall what the technical term for the argument was, but the idea was simple enough.  Psychologists had discovered that when you show a drawing to a subject in which a bit of a line has been left out, the subject feels an "objective demand" to fill the missing line in.  For example, you could show the subject a circle from which a small arc was missing and the subject would pick up a pencil and complete the circle.  You get the idea.  This fact was used by some aestheticians to demonstrate that judgments of beauty are objective, and not just "subjectively universal," as Kant had said in the Third Critique.  [Don't ask me how they got from the filled-in circle to that conclusion.  As I say, philosophy of art was not my thing.]

I thought of that old argument this morning as I filled in the last number of a "difficult level" on-line Sudoku puzzle and sat back waiting for the raucous cheers of approval programmed into the game.  I am a compulsive crossword and puzzle solver.  I do the NY TIMES puzzle every day of the week [Friday is the hardest, Thursday is always quirky and imaginative, Sunday is not hard but very big and therefore time-consuming.]  Then I do both Ken Ken puzzles [although I will in all honesty admit that sometimes I screw up the 6x6.]  When Susie and I travel, we pre-board the airplane because Susie uses a wheelchair in airports.  As soon as we are seated and my briefcase has been shoved under the seat in front of me, I pull out the Airline magazine and look for the puzzles.  The crossword, if it has not been defiled by a previous traveler, is my first stop.  Now, the crossword puzzles in Airline magazines are dead easy, and not really any fun at all to do.  But I feel a compulsion [an "objective demand"] to fill them in, preferably before the instruction comes to lock the tray tables and secure seatbelts.

When I have completed a puzzle, no matter how easy, I feel a rush of satisfaction [a secretion of endorphins?] accompanied by the faintest sense that a voice in my head is saying "good boy."  Since the filling in of a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku matrix is a perfectly pointless accomplishment, it is difficult to see why  this should be so, but I figure the first rule of blogging is absolute self-revelatory honesty [or a plausible simulacrum of same], so there you have it.

Come to think of it, a good deal of life is the filling up of empty spaces [stomach, brain, whatever], none of which ever seems to stay filled for very long, so maybe the long arc of evolution has prepared us for crossword puzzles.  I find that somehow rather comforting.  Now to tackle the TIMES puzzle, an easy one, alas, since this is only Tuesday.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Jeremie Jenkins asks whether I have any information on the admit/reject statistics for the doctoral program in Philosophy at Harvard during the time [now long past!] when I earned my doctorate there.  The simple answer is, No.  There are several members of the Department who nod in at my blog from time to time, and perhaps one of them has actual knowledge that he is willing to share with us.  While we wait, let me offer my impressions and recollections.

I had no sense whatsoever in those days that the Department paid any attention collectively to the relationship between the number of applicants they admitted and the number of jobs available in the profession.  During the brief time that I was a member of the Department and took part in the meetings at which admissions decisions were made [i.e., 1958-1961], I heard no such concern expressed.  The debates were over which applicants deserved admissions and which would receive the rather scarce financial aid, all of which was allocated purely on the basis of merit rather than need.  And not all that rationally either, I might add.  One year, a student who had earned a summa in the Harvard Department applied.  He was ranked rather lower than an applicant from a small mid-Western college who had stellar grades and recommendations from professors who said he was the best student they had ever seen.  I protested.  Summas in those days were exceedingly rare -- I had only earned a "Magna cum laude with highest honors," the next rank down.  "Surely," I said, "someone to whom you yourselves gave a summa must be better than someone none of whose teachers we have ever heard of."  "Ah," my colleagues and former professors replied, "but it was not a strong summa."  Sure enough, this wunderkind dropped out after one semester, while his unfortunate competitor went on to earn a fine degree [but not to become the next van Quine, to be sure.]

I think, but I can not be sure, that the Department concerned itself solely with the promise of the student .  When I applied, I made a careful calculation and wrote on my application that I needed an absolute minimum of $1500 as a scholarship in order to make ends meet [this included tuition, by the way -- things were a tad different in those days.]  The Department offered me admission and a scholarship of $1475.  I took this to be a not so subtle way of saying that they did not want me, but I foxed them and accepted.

The year that I was awarded the degree [and went into the Army -- 1957] twelve of us in all got doctorates from the Department, an unusually large number.  I think we all got jobs [though, to be sure, mine was courtesy of the President of the United States.  One really did receive a letter from the President that began, "Greeting.  You have been ordered to report for induction ..."  Not "Greetings."  I imagine there had been a budget cut.]

Then the expansion of higher education took place, resulting in the multiplication of university campuses, and the Viet Nam War, resulting in a flood of men into higher ed avoiding the draft.  At first, the number of teaching jobs exploded, and graduate students were being offered tenure-track positions before they were ABD.  Then the expansion stopped, the Army went professional, and departments began to worry about how many of their students they could place in jobs.  By then, I had tenure [first at Columbia, then at UMass], and the issue was, for me, as they saying went, academic."


Thank you one and all for the birthday wishes.  It warms an old philosopher's heart.

Today I enter the annual twenty day period when Susie and I are the same age.  She was born on January 16th, 1933 and has, for as long as I have known her, been a year older than I.  This age difference cannot be an accident.  My father's father, Barnet Wolff, the co-founder of the Brooklyn branch of the Socialist Party, was a year younger than his wife, Ella.  And his oldest son Walter, my father, was a year younger than my mother, Lotte.  What is more, Barnet fell in love with Ella when he was a teenager.  My father fell in love with my mother when he was a teenager.  And I fell in love with Susie when I was fourteen [although in my case, it took me another thirty-nine years to persuade her to marry me.]  How on earth do these things get passed on from generation to generation?  I honestly do not know.  There are also striking psychodynamic similarities in the three relationships, a fact I discovered late in life when I inherited and edited the vast cache of love letters exchanged by my grandparents and my parents.

Susie and I celebrated my birthday yesterday by going to see the new movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game.  It is a very powerful movie, but deeply upsetting.  When it ended, I sat in my seat and wept uncontrollably for some minutes, something I have not done in many, many years.

Saturday, December 27, 2014


I gave my granddaughter, Athena, a pair of boots for Christmas.  Here she is, modeling them.  I think she is six and a half going on thirteen.


Well, another year has slipped away, and I am today officially one year older.  This is, numerologically speaking, an interesting birthday.  My age is now a perfect square of a perfect square.  This is not the first time I have reached such a milestone.  The first such occasion was when I turned 1, for 1 is of course 1 squared and squared again.  Although I am blessed with an excellent memory, especially of things that happened to me a long time ago, I confess that I have no recollection at all of my first birthday.  I was living then with my parents and my big sister, Barbara, in Sunnyside, a neighborhood in the Borough of Queens just across the East River from Manhattan.   It would be another year and a half before I was enrolled in the Sunnyside Progressive School, a red diaper operation of which I do in fact have memories, detailed in the first chapter of my Autobiography.

My next encounter with this numerological milestone was in 1949, when I turned sixteen [2 squared and squared again].  I recall that moment quite well, for I was waiting anxiously to see whether I would be admitted to Swarthmore College, where Barbara was already doing brilliantly as a Sophomore.  In those days, only 5% of each age cohort earned a Bachelor's degree, and getting into college was not very difficult.  I had applied to Swarthmore and Harvard, with Queens College my "backup school," but I did not want to go to Harvard because they required students to wear a tie and jacket to every meal, even breakfast, and I did not even own a tie and jacket .  Besides, they had no girls [I had somehow overlooked the presence of Radcliffe.]  But I made the mistake of telling the Swarthmore Admissions Office that I was in full-scale psychotherapy, which was a real deal-breaker from their point of view.  However, they were not willing to consign me to Queens, so they told me that if Harvard turned me down, they would admit me.  But Harvard did not turn me down, so off I went the following September to Cambridge, Mass.  [This was no great accomplishment on my part, by the way.  My year, roughly two thousand young men applied to Harvard, sixteen hundred or so were admitted, and twelve hundred and fifty showed up to form the class of '54.  It was much easier to get into Harvard than it is now to be admitted to UMass.]

And with that, a lifetime passed in a numerologically unremarkable fashion, until today.  My age is once again a perfect square of a perfect square -- eighty-one.  I think I had better enjoy this moment while I can, because despite being in good health, I think I am unlikely to reach the next way station -- 256 -- not to speak of the one after that -- 625.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Lolling about idling away Christmas Day, I stumbled on a a screening of the Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which I watched again with the greatest pleasure.  The most famous version is of course the 1940 Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson vehicle, but immortal as those two are in Hollywood Heaven, that film cannot hold a candle to the 2005 re-make.  I think the single feature of the 2005 film that I like the most [aside from the Bennett-Darcy love story, of course, for which I am a total sucker] is the success of the Director, Joe Wright, in capturing the class distinctions without which the story makes no sense.

The Bennetts and Darcy are both members of the landed gentry, to be sure, but they are worlds apart in wealth and status.  As represented by Wright, Darcy lives in Pemberly, an authentic Stately Home of England, complete with elaborate grounds, ornamental fountains, and a hall filled with marble scultpures [including one of Darcy himself.]  The Bennetts live in a modest house with several non-liveried servants and pigs and cattle wandering freely in the yard just outside the front door.

The two families occupy the same social milieu, as evidenced by the way they greet one another and the fact that it is at least conceivable that they should intermarry.  But Darcy's dismay at the "unsuitability" of a marital alliance with the Bennetts depends completely for its cinematic plausibility on the immediate visual distance between their two households.   In the 1940 version, Greer Garson is so elegantly dressed and installed in a house of such manifest wealth that Olivier's prejudice against the Bennetts is incomprehensible.

It also helps that there is some real on-screen barely contained heat between Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen.  Judi Densch is splendid, as always, in the rather undemanding role of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but Tom Hollander is not nearly servile and creepy enough as Mr. Collins.


Magpie, thank you.  Perhaps when I am ninety, I will have mastered as much of the web as my granddaughter, Athena, knew when she was two.  I guess that explains why the moderator who introduced Sam spoke first in Spanish.  I thought it was just a Santa Fe thing.

Jerry Fresia raises a very interesting question with his comment about the distinction between wealth and capital.  Wealth is stuff -- land, or at least control over it, dibs on water holes [very important in the society of the !Kung of the Sahara], food, clothing, shelter, tools, weapons, art works, machinery, raw materials, mines and the ore in them, and so forth.  Capital is wealth that can be invested to employ labor , produce commodities, and make a profit.  In order for something to be capital, a complex structure of social relations of production and distribution must be in place.  Hence, the exclusive access to females of child-bearing age in a community of primates [one of Sam's examples of unequal distribution of wealth early on] may by some extended sense of the term be denominated wealth, but it cannot be called capital.  Nor can control over land, or piles of weapons, or even the right to demand the labor services of peasants farming the land one controls.  Indeed, piles of gold coins do not constitute capital in a society that does not have the social structure required for commodity production.

Piketty seems to understand the distinction, but he says at various points in his book that he is not going to try to draw that distinction because he is completely dependent on data sets, such as tax records and inheritance records, in which the distinction is not made.   It seems to me that you can fault him for having undertaken the research program at all if he could not guarantee to maintain the distinction in his results, but I am not powerfully persuaded by that argument.  I guess I think like an historian who is forced to work with whatever posterity has left for us, even though it may not be what we would have preferred in the way of data.  [I stumbled on an op ed essay by Joseph Stiglitz, whom I very much admire -- I have lost the link, alas -- in which he argues that a good deal of the dramatic increase in wealth by the richest members of our society is a form of appropriation of rents rather than an accumulation of investible capital that could be employed to expand the economy.]

Now, since Sam wants to talk about patterns of inequality going back two million years [!!!], he cannot be talking about capital, because by no stretch of the imagination can the unequal accumulations of wealth in pastoral or hunter-gatherer or feudal societies be called capital accumulation.

It may be, of course, that I am just getting into the mood for my UNC course, which starts in only twelve days [yikes], but it does seem to me that Marx had a better grasp on these matters than many who have succeeded him, for all that his analytic methods were primitive and his data now quite dated. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Since it is Christmas Eve, I thought I would attempt a blog post both mean-spirited and ill-advised, to get in the mood for a big family gathering to which Susie and I are going later today.  This post is occasioned by my having recently watched, on-line, a lecture that my old friend Sam Bowles gave at the Santa Fe Institute almost six years ago on "The Dynamics of Wealth Inequality."  The lecture is almost ninety minutes long, complete with a good many illustrations, graphs, charts, and equations, all projected on the board behind him.  In the format I watched, the whole thing was reproduced in a very small square on my computer screen, so that I had a great deal of difficulty making out the charts, not to speak of the equations.

The mean-spiritedness of my comments consists principally in the negative tone I shall adopt in talking about Sam's lecture.  My comments are ill-advised because I have not read the book that Sam was then promising would be forthcoming, and I could not even really see very clearly what was on the charts and tables.  Furthermore, Sam is a super-smart man.  Indeed, when I make up little lists in my head of the smartest people I have ever met [something other philosophers as well are given to doing, I imagine], Sam is always on that list, along with Willard van Orman Quine, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and one or two others.  So making critical remarks about a lecture indistinctly reproduced on my computer, without either reading the lecture and subsequent publications or talking with Sam about my doubts, is just plain foolhardy, especially inasmuch as the subject of the lecture is in Sam's wheelhouse, not mine.  I suppose I could just hope he never sees these remarks, but the Internet being what it is these days, he will probably read them within thirty seconds of my posting them, after which, since he is incredibly nice as well as super smart, he may refrain from writing a blistering reply that castigates me as a horse's ass.  Maybe this was not such a good idea.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

In the lecture, Sam [drawing on the work of twenty or thirty collaborators whom he repeatedly thanks for their contributions to the effort] attempts a very broad overview of primate wealth inequality in the past one million years, give or take an eon.  The clever idea behind the lecture is Sam's suggestion that what we find when we look at wealth inequality over the entire history of the human species is a curve that is the inversion of the Kuznets curve.  [By the way, Sam studied with Kuznets, as he tells us at the beginning of the lecture].  For those of you who do not recognize the reference, Simon Kuznets was a Harvard economist who in 1955 argued that in agricultural economies, there is low inequality of wealth, in developing industrial economies inequality rises, and then at a certain point in advanced capitalist economies the inequality begins to decline, so that inequality plotted against time has the shape of an inverted U-shaped curve.  Those of you who read my extended review of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century will recall that Piketty rather sharply criticized Kuznets for confusing a temporary post-World War Two decline in wealth inequality, reversed not long after Kuznets published his claim, with a long-run tendency intrinsic to mature capitalist economies. 

Sam suggests [complete with a diagram, of course] that the great apes had a very unequal society -- the alpha males get to do most of the reproducing.  Then maybe 100,000 years ago, homo sapiens sapiens [a.k.a. man] appears on the scene and starts hunting and gathering across the African savannah.  Hunter-gatherer societies are extremely egalitarian, Sam says, referencing some of his collaborators who have spent years among modern-day supposed hunter-gatherers.  About ten to twelve thousand years ago, the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals [the so-called Neolithic Revolution, although Sam does not use that term in his lecture] started a long period of rising inequality, leading to slavery, empires, feudalism, capitalism, and all.  So plotting inequality against time, we get the inversion of a Kuznets curve -- i.e., a U-shaped curve of high inequality [among apes], declining inequality among early humans, and then rising inequality for the past ten thousand years.  Sam asks the question:  will the curve turn down again?  [Not surprisingly, he thinks it will, in an information age.]

All of this is tricked out with macro-economic equations, statistical regressions, and all manner of the fancy stuff that is part of the modern economist's tool kit [if I may adapt a term from the cultural anthropology about "primitive" peoples.]

As I listened to Sam's lecture, I found myself gritting my teeth at one really bad faux pas after another.  The mistakes that made me cringe were, so far as I could see, mostly ancillary to Sam's central thesis.  What is more, they were so dumb that I could not believe Sam was saying these things.  If I knew they were wrong, then Sam either did also or else could have learned up the relevant material in less time than it is taking me to peck out these sentences.  I mean, Sam really is smart.  So I kept asking myself, What is going on?  It wasn't that he was talking to a general audience.  The audience appeared to be folks at the Santa Fe Institute, which is a pretty high-powered research operation [and besides, there is no need to say wrong things even to a general audience.]    This really troubled me for a couple of days, until I finally came to the conclusion that Sam actually did not care at all about all that stuff about great apes and hunter-gatherers and the rest.  It was, in the immortal words of Pooh Bah, speaking to the Mikado in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of the same name, "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

What precisely am I talking about?  Well, the first gaffe, early in the lecture, was Sam talking about humans as "descended" from gorillas.  But humans are not descended from gorillas.  Humans and gorillas [and chimpanzees and bonobos] share a common ancestor.  We and gorillas are descended from the same ancestor.

So what? you may ask.  So what? indeed.  The point is that it is wrong, and Sam would have known that if he had actually spent any time at all reading up on and thinking about the matter before putting it in his lecture.

The second gaffe really does make a difference, especially since Sam graced it with an elaborate rectangular diagram, to which he repeatedly referred.  Sam was talking about inheritance of wealth inequality,  and genetic inheritance, he said, is one way in which that inequality is transmitted.  Sam put up a rectangular diagram, with "genotype" on the left and "phenotype" on the right.  Then, using a term which has a very precise meaning in evolutionary molecular biology, he described the genotype as being "expressed" in the phenotype.  The example he used of a phenotype was "being a good hunter."  He then actually reported on the results of a survey he did of his collaborators, who were asked to estimate how much difference in wealth accumulation would result from [these are his words] "a one percent improvement in the hunting ability" of the son of a hunter.  With manifest pleasure, Sam told us that the estimates by his experts, who had lived for years among their hunter-gatherer peoples, was strikingly similar.

When I heard Sam talk about the genotype being "expressed" in hunting ability my head almost exploded.  This is so utterly wrong, it is inconceivable to me that Sam could not know how wrong it is.  When a gene is "expressed," the result is not hunting ability.  It is a molecule of a protein.  The production of that protein, along with vast numbers of other things, may indeed result in a change in the observable phenotype of a mature organism [it may also result in changes that are not very readily observable, of course.]  There is no gene for being a good hunter.  There is no suite of genes for being a good hunter.  There may be a suite of genes whose expression results in a certain degree of hand-eye coordination in the organism.  Whether that makes the organism a better hunter depends on many, many things -- too many to list easily.

The first mistake, about us and the gorillas, may have been a slip of the tongue.  But this one is really, really big.  I don't care what sorts of statistics Sam collects.  The fundamental rule here remains what it was in the early days of the invention of computers and programming:  garbage in, garbage out. 

What is missing here?  Dare I say it?  History, real history, is missing.  Ideology is missing.  And good, solid biology is missing.  So far as I could see [this is where Sam will probably tell me I am just full of it], all of Sam's effort went into writing the equations and building the models, and no effort at all went into really thinking about the "illustrative" examples and the interpretations of the equations.

Now, maybe I am just totally wrong, missing the point, off base.  I would really like it if someone would take the trouble to watch the lecture, the link to which is in the first paragraph of this post, and tell me whether I have just got Sam all wrong.  I would like to think I have, because Sam is really really smart, and also really really nice.  [In my Freshman class at Harvard was a young man who was super smart, super nice, and also very good looking.  We all thought it just wasn't fair.  Sam is also really good-looking, but I don't hold all of that against him, honest.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The U. S. Senate seat now held by Elizabeth Warren is, of course, Ted Kennedy's old seat.  But did you know that that seat was previously held by John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Chales Sumner, Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, among others?  That is a brief history of America right there.


Well, the shortest day of the year is behind us;  good riddance.  Now we can all luxuriate in those extra few seconds of daylight each day as we slowly creep past the vernal equinox toward the summer solstice, which this year, as in years past, I shall spend in Paris celebrating fete de la musique.

This is a good time to look back at the year in blogging [since I am totally out of things of significance to say.]  Google, always on the job, tells me that this is my four hundred and eleventh post of the year.  Some posts have been long and other short, but that is probably about 200,000 words, give or take, which is the equivalent of two good size books.  Good grief.  No wonder even the faithful don't read everything I write.   I think I am giving logorrhea a bad name.

I have reached that age when half century anniversaries present themselves as occasions for celebration and reminiscence.  Nineteen sixty-four was most notable in my life as the year in which I achieved that desideratum of all aspiring academics -- tenure.  In my case, it came with an Associate Professorship in the Philosophy Department of Columbia University.  I was thirty, and thought [mistakenly] that I would be spending the rest of my career on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall.  Little did I know.

Having achieved tenure, I responded by publishing almost nothing, thereby confirming the worst fears of appointment committees.  My sole publication in 1964 was a six page review in the JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY of a fine book on Kant's Metaphysics of Morals by a real Kant scholar [not like me], Mary Gregor.  Her book, Laws of Freedom, told me a good deal about one of Kant's less well known works, which I had read but of which I had taken very little notice.  Next year is a tad better.

I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time this year blogging about economics, what with the extended review of Thomas Piketty's book and the exchange with several Marxists.  Inasmuch as my course at UNC on Marx starts two weeks from tomorrow, I imagine there will be a good deal more of that in the coming year.  I shall try not to be too tiresome.

On a lighter note, just today I discovered that on, I can binge-watch a new series that went up today entitled Mozart in the Jungle.  It is a soap opera about classical musicians in New York City, focusing on an oboist.  Judging from the first episode, which I have already watched [you need Amazon Prime to get it], it is a delightful mixture of classical music, sex, drugs, ambition, and clashing egos, with the always lovely Bernadette Peters as the Chair of the orchestra committee.   I mean, how much better than that can you get?

Well, so much for number 411.  I suppose tomorrow I must say something about all the really awful things happening in the world.  A blogger's work is never done.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


I left thirty-seven years in a reliably blue state, on a campus where even the stodgy conservatives were left-wing Democrats, to move to North Carolina, a red state trending purple, for the promise of hot summers and manageable winters which Susie would be able to navigate with her MS.

What I got was a purple state trending deep red, and this morning, SNOW.


Friday, December 19, 2014


Well, I seem to have achieved lift-off in this blog.  Which is to say, when one person posts a comment raising a question, another answers it before I have a chance.  Now I can just sit back and take credit for the whole shebang.

In response to my post on relative exploitation, Jerry Fresia and Chris had the following colloquy:

Chris:  I'm just trying to make sense of the argument, because I've had a hunch for a few years that theories of exploitation that see exploitation as a form of thievery are going to run into trouble.

Jerry:  Your phrase [i.e., mine,  not Chris's], "some individuals are both exploited and exploiters," seems troublesome to me, in many cases, given that the concept "exploiters" suggest an active, if not, conscious role. Might "passive exploitation" or "passive beneficiary of exploitation" (depending on the circumstances) be more appropriate than "relative exploitation?" I'm thinking of white semi-skilled workers who are exploited, have a tough time making ends meet, and who are clueless about any of this.

Chris:  Jerry, exploitation cannot involve a conscious role, under Marx's terms, since the majority of capitalists are not conscious of the fact that surplus value comes from production, and unnecessary labor time. As Marx shows, they think their surplus value comes from thrift, selling dear, and overall cunning, they are often overlooking the fact that it comes from the working class.

It being a slow Friday as we approach the weekend before Christmas, I thought I might weigh in.  The question Chris and Jerry raise calls for a rather complex response [and what is the point of being an eighty year old professional philosopher if you give simple answers to questions?]

The term "exploitation" as employed by Marx is deliberately and complicatedly ironic, as is everything he says about capitalism.  Recall that Marx, on the biographical evidence available to us as well as on the evidence of his writings, was someone who prized strength in men [and weakness in women, but never mind that for the moment].  Like Nietzsche, he viewed moral condemnations as the feeble responses of the weak to world-historical evils.  [Remember that Nietzsche compared Christ on the cross to bait wriggling on a hook to catch gullible souls.]  Marx is not, in the modern sense, a moralist.  He does not pronounce on what is good and what is evil.  Instead, as a strong man would, he simply states how things are.  And of course, he argues that the laws of motion of capitalist society are moving capitalism inexorably toward its overthrow and replacement by socialism.  This, he says, will happen not because weak-kneed moralizers pronounce capitalism to be immoral, but because capital will be driven by the forces of competition to centralize, to over-produce, and in an attempt to improve productivity, will bring together workers in factories in precisely the way that will facilitate their becoming -- as later students of Marx would put it -- a class for itself as well as in itself.

The morality of each age, Marx declares, like its religion, philosophy, art, and politics, is a reflection of the underlying structure of social relations of production.  Bourgeois morality is no exception [John  Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding.]   Now, by the fundamental tenets of bourgeois morality, the Prime Directive or Categorical Imperative of the market [choose your poison] is Give equals for equals.  And that is precisely, on average, what capitalists do.  They pay the fair market value for their inputs, and sell their outputs at the fair market value.  [To be sure, some of them cheat, but Marx quite properly sets them to one side when he is propounding his economic theory, for all that he details the skullduggery of factory owners in the great chapter ten of Capital.]   The full value of the day's labor-power purchased by the factory owner from the worker is the cost of its reproduction, which is to say the labor value of the food, clothing, and other necessaries that the worker must consume in order to be ready to do another day's work.  And that is exactly what the factory owner pays [or so Marx assumes, for purposes of analysis, in the early chapters of Volume One.]  How then can the capitalist exit from each cycle of production and distribution with a profit? 

The technical term for extracting more value from a factor input than is contained within it is "exploitation."  Where then, Marx asks [ironically, as though he did not already know the answer], can the capitalist find an input into production whose consumption in the production process actually bestows more value on the output than is contained in the input?  Well, Marx says, in one of the great passages of classical [or neo-classical for that matter] Political Economy, "Moneybags must be so lucky" as to find such a commodity, and find it he does in labor-power. 


This exploitation is not a consequence of any moral failing on the part of the capitalist.   Indeed, he could not do otherwise and still survive in the cutthroat competitive environment of the capitalist marketplace.  He is not reprehensible, by bourgeois moral standards.  Quite to the contrary, he is to be praised and honored for his fair dealing, as indeed he is by the universities that award him honorary degrees, the churches that make him a vestryman, the art museums that woo his patronage, and the governments that bestow upon him their Medals of Freedom or even offer him high positions in  the halls of power.  To say otherwise is to trouble deaf heaven with our bootless cries.

Does this mean that Marx did not in fact care about the deep, institutional evil of exploitation?  OF COURSE NOT!!!  Only someone would suppose that who had what my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, would have called a one-dimensional mind.  If you are truly incapable of appreciating the deep, bitter irony of Marx's discourse, then at least compare him to an Old Testament prophet, not to a gutless, weak-kneed moralizer who can think of nothing more devastating  to do when confronted the evil of the world than utter the philosophical equivalent of tsk tsk. 

If indeed the structure of the working class has evolved in such a fashion as to exhibit relative exploitation, recognizing this important fact has nothing at all to do with handing out moral demerits.  Rather, the recognition of the fact, if indeed it is a fact, is a pre-condition to formulating a new strategy for transformation that acknowledges the obstacles to the forging of class solidarity.


Thursday, December 18, 2014


The subject of today's disquisition is relative exploitation.  This is not the taking advantage of your cousin, as you might imagine.  The term was invented by Marxists trying to make sense of something that Marx got wrong.  Recall that when Marx wrote in the early and middle nineteenth century, he believed that he was looking at two complementary developments in the evolution of capitalism that would, in their interaction, eventually lead to a socialist revolution.   

The first development was the progressive merger of many small capitals into larger and larger firms.  Competition, Marx was convinced, would lead large capitalist firms to drive smaller capitalist firms to the wall.  Although the story of the last century is complex, Marx's intuition was essentially correct.  We live now in a world dominated by enormous multi-national corporations whose accumulations of capital dwarf even that of small nations.

Marx was also convinced that the displacement of traditional crafts first by the gathering of craftsmen into manufactories and then by the substitution of machinery for hand-crafting ["manu-facturing"] would progressively reduce the working class to a mass of easily substitutable semi-skilled workers who could with relatively little difficulty be shifted from one line of machine-tending to another as the forces of competition and supply and demand dictated.  There is no doubt that this process was under way when Marx was writing, and as Harry Braverman documents in a classic study, Labor and Monopoly Capital, the process continued well into the twentieth century.

However, the evolution of the working class has proceeded in a manner not anticipated by Marx.  What we find now in the capitalist world is stable, entrenched hierarchies of wage-and-salary earning workers whose work experiences, compensation, and life chances are so varied that nothing remotely resembling working-class solidarity has been able to develop and grow.  From a purely formal perspective, both the men and women who work on the loading-dock or the assembly line and the middle managers in suits who occupy the corner offices are wage-earning employees who do not owe their positions to ownership or control of the means of production, and who must sell their labor to live.

The labor force of a modern capitalist nation is segmented in a number of ways, by gender, by race, by age, and by educational credentials, none of which, not even the last of these, is directly related to their ability to do their jobs.  This segmentation of the work force is used by capital to intensify and solidify exploitation.   Examples abound:  the systematic paying of lower wages to women in comparable jobs;  the collaboration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century between white workers and employers to exclude black workers from industrial jobs, which gave the white workers protection from competition by black workers and enabled employers to pay those white workers lower wages;  the elaborately hierarchical system of education credentials that effectively excludes large segments of the working class from access to less physical wearing and better paying jobs.  And, perhaps most important of all, advances in transportation, shipping, and the scheduling of supplies for production that makes possible systematic outsourcing of jobs to any area of the world in which wages are low.

All of this raises a question that could not easily or naturally be posed within the theoretical confines of Marx's analysis of capitalism, viz, Does it make sense to speak of some well-paid employees in a corporate hierarchy as being both exploited by the owners of capital and also exploiters of those below them in the wage hierarchy?  In short, can we make sense of the notion of relative exploitation?

One way to think of relative exploitation is as an extension of Marx's claim that a variety of social or economic fragments -- land-owners, financiers, middlemen, bankers -- receive transfers of the surplus-labor extracted from the workers in the production process and realized as surplus-value in the market.  If profit is the monetary manifestation of this surplus value, and if some portion of that profit ends up in the pockets of persons who are not themselves owners of capital, then perhaps some of the high wages paid to corporate executives [not to speak of university professors] should be understood not as the cost of reproducing their labor-power but as a share of the surplus value extracted from less well-paid workers.

Does this mean that those in the middle or upper reaches of the wage hierarchy are not exploited, but are only exploiters, like the capitalists?  No, some modern Marxian analysts argue.  There is a structure of relative exploitation, more complex than Marx imagined, within which some individuals are only exploited [low wage workers], some individuals are both exploited and exploiters [high wage workers whose wages are secured and protected by the segmentation of the labor force,] and some individuals are exploiters only [owners of capital or those whom effectively control capital and use that control to direct some portion of the profits into their pockets.]

A classic analysis of this idea of relative exploitation, by my old friends and UMass colleagues Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, can be found in their 1977 article "The Marxian Theory of Value and Heterogeneous Labour: A Critique and Reformulation", Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1(2), pp. 173-192.  [A warning.  The math is somewhat formidable for us novices.]
I shall try to find time to go into this in my course next semester.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


The Huffington Post reports that the United States is moving to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.  This is clearly a direct consequence of the Cuba Protest Rally that Nadav Safran and I co-chaired at Harvard on April 26, 1961, nine days after the ill-begotten Bay of Pigs invasion authorized by John F. Kennedy and stage-managed by the C. I. A.  It is not often that private citizens like me are able to alter the course of world events, and I must say it feels good. 


Well, physical therapy didn't help;  Naproxin didn't help;  an arm strap didn't help;  Rolfing didn't help.  So I am just going to go back to typing with both forefingers and play through the pain, as they say in football.  Four weeks from now, I will get a cortisone injection under ultrasound.  If that doesn't work, I may try aroma therapy [not really -- that was a feeble attempt at humor.]  Time to return to the blog.

Let me thank all of you who posted thoughtful reactions to my meditation on privilege and luck.  I found the comments insightful and very interesting.  A few responses.

To Michael, it is certainly true that systematic anti-Semitic prejudice has almost evaporated in much of American life during my adulthood.  Growing up in a nominally Jewish family, I experienced very little of it directly or overtly, at least so far  as I knew [lord knows, there were enough other reasons to find me objectionable, so any rejections I suffered may have been over-determined, as they say in Althusserian circles.]  My casual impression is that anti-Semitism persisted a good deal longer in the business world and the world of public affairs [it played an important role, I believe, in Roosevelt's failure to do much of anything to save Jews from the Holocaust.]

I have already responded to Derek and Magpie, both of whom contributed very thoughtful comments.  It is quite obviously the case that all of us who live in a wealthy first-world country benefit enormously from this fact, and if we were born here, we can claim no credit at all for our good fortune.  The hundreds of millions of men, women, and children who live in desperate poverty in this world are all, I would think, less fortunate than the least fortunate of us here in America, or than in Europe and large parts of Asia and Latin America.  There are really only two ways to respond to this fact.  The first is literally to obey Christ's injunction to "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me."[[Matthew 19:21]  The other is to accept the privileged life that chance has given one, and find ways consonant with that privilege to make the lives of others better.  This used to be called noblesse oblige, and in America, it is frowned upon as implying a claim of superiority.  But facts are facts, and if you never have to worry about whether you have enough to eat, wearing pre-torn designer jeans and affecting a common touch does not alter the realities.

Monday, December 15, 2014


on saturday, susie and i watched kentucky whip the unc tarheels in an away game.   on the sidelines, coaching kentucky, was john calipari, who began his coaching career at umass.  john looked pudgier than i remembered him, but otherwise unchanged.  for the last twenty-one years that i taught at umass, susie and i lived in a beautiful house that we had built in pelham, a tiny town just west of amherst.  we lived on a country lane, buffam road, and if you walked about a mile further out on buffam, you passed the modest ranch house where calipari lived.

umass is nothing much as a basketball school, but for a few glory years in there when calipari was coaching marcus camby, the team flourished, and even went to the final four one year.  until then, umass amherst, the flagship campus of the state university system, had benefited from the state legislature's benign neglect.  only one member of the entire legislature had actually gone to the state university, and inasmuch as our campus was eighty miles west of boston surrounded by asparagus fields, the legislature took no notice of us.  this caused some problems when there was a state budget crisis and the state university was the first agency cut, but all in all, it was just as well that they never noticed we had the best marxist economics department in the country.

then calipari and camby came to town, and suddenly state senators and reps were calling the chancellor for complimentary game tickets.  after a bit, camby and calipari both went to the nba and things calmed down.

i did not go down the road very often past the calipari house -- i was swimming for my morning exercise in those days -- but susie walked that way nearly every day, and got to know all the people along her route.

The outcome of the game on saturday was more or less foreordained, since kentucky is ranked number one and unc is a distant twenty-first.  it was a trifle unfair.  i mean, one of their players is seven feet tall.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


one of the many curious characteristics of human beings is that we find it easier to bear adversity when we discover that others are similarly afflicted, especially so when what is besetting us has a name.  i am at the moment suffering from two minor afflictions, one physical and the other spiritual, each of which has been given a title, and somehow, that fact makes them bearable.  the physical problem is the persistent pain in my left arm, which, i am told by the doctors whom i have consulted, is called 'tennis elbow.'  [never mind that i do not play tennis, and would use my right arm if i did.  when i objected to the label, one doctor replied breezily, 'oh, ninety percent of the people who come to see us with tennis elbow don't play tennis.']  inasmuch as the specialist who  will give me an injection of cortisone under ultra-sound cannot see me until january 13th, i plan tomorrow to call a 'rolfer' [at the suggestion of my son ] to see whether he can help.

the spiritual problem is a general eeyore-like gloominess that comes over me each year as christmas approaches and displaces my customary tigger-ishness.  i associate this with the end of the academic year and the approach of the holidays with their interminable three-day weekends, but in all likelihood i am reacting in a primordial manner to the shortening of the daylight hours, which reach their nadir with the winter solstice, roughly on december 21st.  i think i was well into my seventies before i discovered that this affliction too has a name -- 'seasonal affective disorder,' or s.a.d.  how comforting that discovery was.  the mere fact of the name, i feel, gives me leave to wallow in my funk, cosseting myself with chocolate ice cream from the parlor across the street, or lying slugabed until five-thirty or even six in the morning.

this year, my s.a.d. has been made more intense by such unrelated matters as the mid-term defeats and the release of the congressional report on official united states torture.  last night, as i lay awake, kept from sleep by the physical pain and kept from pleasant daydreams by my spiritual distress, i distracted myself by composing in my head a lengthy meditation on an odd fact about my life that has long posed for me a puzzle.  this blog post, even more self-referential than is my custom, is a report of that meditation.

the puzzle quite simply is this:  how am i to think about the fact that neither i nor my immediate family, for almost a century, has been adversely affected in our personal lives by the flood of terrible things that have happened to our country and that our country has chosen deliberately to do?  needless to say , i am grateful that we have been spared, but our immunity gives to those evils, for me, a hypothetical or merely conceptual character, as though i were contemplating the problems of some alternative world.  since i have for much of my adult life been a passionately engaged ideologue, it seems to me, how shall i say it, inappropriate that none of the evils against  which i have railed have affected me personally.  the incongruity is made all the worse by my embrace of karl marx's scorn for what he and engels called 'utopian socialism,' the speculations about better societies ungrounded in the realities of this one.

my father was too young to be called to serve in the first world war, and too old to serve in the second.  indeed, only one person in my extended family, a very distant cousin named joe singer, spent any time in uniform before i enlisted in the massachusetts national guard in 1957.  [joe sat out the war on a weather station in burma, and as a little boy, i contributed to the war effort by writing v-mail letters to him.]  my father went to work as a substitute teacher in the new york city school system upon receiving his master's degree from columbia, and from that time, roughly 1924, until his retirement from that same school system in the late sixties his employment was never in doubt.  because he came from a socialist family, he never invested in the stock market, a fact of which he was very proud, so the crash of '29 did not touch him.  i was born in 1933, in the depths of the great depression, but nothing in the circumstances of my family suggested that the country was being torn apart by drought and unemployment, by economic misery more severe than it had ever known.  my own working life as a college professor coincided with a period in american history during which tenure was secure and virtually unbreakable.  tenure is a recent phenomenon in academia, a post-world war two phenomenon really, and it is now under an assault that will probably destroy it at all but the elite rich private institutions.  but from 1964, when i was hired as a tenured associate professor at columbia university, until 2008, when i retired from a tenured professorship at the university of massachusetts, my employment was absolutely secure, regardless of how far i strayed from the field in which i had earned my doctorate or how controversial were the views i expressed.  in america, only independent wealth or ordination in the roman catholic church offer comparable security.

the raging inflation of the 1970's, which wreaked havoc with many lives, served simply to reduce the real economic burden of my mortgage, and inasmuch as my salary more or less kept pace with the official consumer price index, the net effect on my financial status was positive.  the great recession of the past six years has indeed reduced the market value of the condominium in which i now live, but since i plan to stay here until i die, and my sons are both quite successful on their own, that paper loss will merely reduce somewhat their inheritance when i die.

i am white, not black, so i have been personally untouched by the deeply rooted systemic racial discrimination and oppression on which this country is built [save to benefit silently and invisibly from it, of course.]  although i am nominally jewish, i entered the academy just as the long-established discrimination against jews subsided. 

in short, i and my family have lived charmed lives in a world awash in ugliness.  since there is a voice in my head that is constantly challenging me to justify myself -- have i worked hard enough, have i done what i ought to help those less fortunate than myself, what have i done lately -- i cannot honestly say that this completely unearned good fortune gives me great comfort.  but it is a fact.

those of my actions that others might view as supererogatory have in truth been more self- than other-regarding.  i spoke out against nuclear weapons because i enjoyed the attention it brought me.  i raised money for students in south africa because it flattered me to be received so warmly when i traveled there to meet the students who had received the scholarships.  there were some who were so foolish as to imagine that i left the philosophy department at umass to join the afro-american studies department out of some moral conviction, but the simple truth is that i, like most philosophers, care more about sheer intelligence than anything else, and when i noticed that the members of the afro-am department were, on average, smarter than the members of the philosophy department, the decision was a no-brainer.

it was about at this time that the acetaminophen finally eased the elbow pain, and i drifted off to sleep. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


it is with a heavy heart that i undertake to comment on the release of the congressional report on official united states torture of those captured in the course of the second iraq war.  the report and subsequent commentary make clear that this was explicit state policy, initiated by the president and vice-president and carried out, apparently without significant objection, by members of the government and private contractors, including professional psychologists.  the report indicates that the torture resulted in no useful information.  What is perhaps noteworthy or unusual about this state-authorized torture is that it was carried out on u.s. soil by americans, rather than by foreign governments to whom prisoners had been sent to be tortured under 'rendition' arrangements.  senior members of congress were informed of the torture as it happened, and defended it, kept it secret, and protected those who carried it out.

there are important lessons to be learned from this episode, none of which, i think, will result in any substantive change in american torture practices.

1.  contrary to oft-repeated statements by public commentators who claim to be shocked and appalled by the revelations, this is in fact who we are as a nation.  it is who we have been since the nation was founded on the labor of enslaved africans.  vastly larger numbers of americans than non-americans have been tortured in the past four hundred years by and with the complete legal approval first of the separate colonies and then of the states and the federal government. 

2.  the actions of the united states government were in violation of u.s. law and treaties signed by the united states government.  everyone involved is patently guilty of major crimes. 

3.  no one will be indicted, tried, convicted, or punished for those crimes.

4.  by its refusal to hold anyone legally accountable for the torture, or even to fire people still in government employ who were involved in the torture, president obama and the obama administration make themselves complicit in the actions of their predecessors.

5.  no one will pay any political price for having participated in the torture, or for having failed to prosecute those who did.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


i was surfing the web looking for info on the new ridley scott movie EXODUS GODS AND KINGS and i came on this sentence about the classic cecil b demille movie.  'It’s difficult to underestimate its influence on popular religious/biblical consciousness.'

i just love this sort of statement, variations on which crop up all the time in serious political tv commentary.  what it says literally, if you just read it, is something like this:  'no matter how low you make your estimate of the influence of that movie, you probably will be overestimating its influence, because IT IS DIFFICULT TO UNDERESTIMATE ITS INFLUENCE ON POPULAR RELIGIOUS/BIBLICAL CONSCIOUSNESS.'  to borrow a phrase from julia roberts in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, its influence is lower than pond scum.

there is a good deal of 'innocent merriment,' in the words of the mikado, to be had from sheer stupidity.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


a week ago, i reported that I was reading THE ARRIVAL OF THE FITTEST, by andreas wagner, a fascinating book about evolutionary biology recommended by my big sister barbara.  in my slow, steady way i have now finished the book, and in this relatively brief post i am going to try to say just enough to persuade you to read it.

even though the book is intended as a popularization, it is quite demanding for someone [like me] who is not already fully conversant with microbiology and evolutionary genetics.  Let me try to state the central idea as simply and clearly as i can.

organisms evolve by changes in their genotypes -- which is to say, changes of a single gene at a time[there are other changes, but i am desperately trying toi keep this simple].  these in turn alter what the organism can do.  can it metabolize sucrose?  or fructose? or ethanol? or acetate?  All of this shapes the way that genes are 'expressed,' which means which of them are turned on to produce proteins, which block the expression of other genes, in what environment, in what sequence, and so forth.  these changes in the genotype produce changes in the organism's phenotype -- how it is shaped, what it can do as an organism, what parts it has and what they can do.  natural selection, or selection of the fittest, now determines which of these changes survive and flourish, and which result in the death of the organism and hence do not get passed on.  if a change to the genotype of a simple bacterium like e. coli enables the individual bacterium with the change to metabolize fructose, and if that bacterium happens to be in a fructose rich environment [like a bit of rotting pear], then it will survive and reproduce, passing on the changed genotype to its descendants.  by this process, one gene at a time, primordial slime evolves into rick santorum [not such a reach, as it happens.]

my sister, who vetted this for obvious mistakes, made the following comment:  "You employ a usage that is essentially universal, among experts as well as science writers, namely imputing agency to genes. I am not suggesting you change this. I just thought you should be aware of it. A "gene," that is to say the DNA in the genome, doesn't DO anything. It is just a code that specifies the order of amino acids in a protein (or alternatively, the order of nucleotides in an RNA molecule. Many of the regulatory molecules are RNA, not protein). Almost all the time, using this shorthand is perfectly reasonable, but it lies at the heart of the newspaper language that talks about genes for homosexuality, or aggression, or infidelity or whatever anyone likes. There are no such things!!! Even the gene for cystic fibrosis doesn't do anything. It codes for a protein that is essential for a specific process (I think it is uptake of mucus in the lung or something like that) and when the protein is made incorrectly the process doesn't work, and symptoms ensue. But it is WAY too awkward to say things like that all the time, so everyone talks about the gene for cystic fibrosis."

continuing with my exposition, 
there is a problem, a very big problem, one that, i confess, i had never thought about until reading wagner's book.  the development of a more fitting phenotypic change, one that will make the organism better able to survive and reproduce, will typically involve a series of changes to the genotype.  a number of molecules may have to be altered or swapped or dropped out of the genotype to get from the old phenotype to the better adapted new one.  and in nature, there is of course no intelligence guiding this process, no purpose, no pre-identified goal [now i shall develop an eye because with an eye i can avoid predators more successfully].  it might, let us say, require six changes to the genotype to produce what turns out to be a better adapted phenotype.  but the changes to the genotype are utterly random.  some result from copying errors when the dna replicates itself.  some result from gamma rays [or something] hitting a strand of dna and knocking out a gene.  some result from one organism actually inserting some new genetic material into another organism's dna [this apparently happens quite a lot to microbes and other tiny critters;  not so much to elephants.]

since all this is unplanned and not guided by any telos, we can compare it, as wagner brilliantly does, to a random walk through a digital library of all the logically possible genotypes.  we, looking at the process in retrospect, may say that the organism was 'seeking' the new genotype that will result in a phenotype better fitted to survive, but of course it was not. 

now comes the kicker.  suppose the genome of an e. coli strain enables it to metabolize sucrose.  if it drops on a piece of rotting pear, rich in fructose, it might do much better if it were to randomly go through the six changes needed to enable it to morph into a strain of e.coli that can metabolize fructose.  but if the first of those changes, happening randomly, makes it unfit anymore to metabolize sucrose, then it will die out before it can go through enough random changes to reach the better adapted ability to metabolize fructose.  and this problem, quite obviously, is not peculiar to e.coli and sucrose, but arises in the case of every single evolutionary change to the genome of any organism.

well, you might say, given millions of critters and billions of year, one of them will hit on the right combination by chance, survive, flourish, and pass it on.  alas, not so simple.  wagner does some elementary but startling calculations that show that the number of genomes is vastly greater than the number of hydrogen atoms in the universe!  There has barely been enough time since the earth was formed for primordial slime to evolve into slightly less primordial slime, let alone into rick santorum.

UNLESS one at a time changes to an organism's genome are not by and large fatal, but permit the organism to continue to function in the old way.  if, as wagner puts it, the organism is robust, if it can survive and function despite a number of genomic changes, then perhaps it can, by a random 'walk,' make its way to the new genome that translates into a phenotype better fitted to survive.

combining some very elegant computer simulations and calculations with the vast amount of laboratory experimental work that has been done on many different species by tens of thousands of research scientists, wagner has been able to ascertain that there is an astonishing degree of robustness in the organisms studied.  what is more [this involves more technical detail than i am capable of summarizing easily], the 'neighborhoods' into which an organism will wander randomly by genomic change, one gene at a time, are sufficiently diverse genomically that the probability is not bad of an organism stumbling, as it were, on a promising new genome.

well, i am sure you can see that like wile e. coyote, i am now way over the edge of the cliff with nothing underneath me, so before i fall down splat on the ground, to be crushed by an ACME safe landing on top of me, i will quit.

if you want a charming, fascinating, important read, try THE ARRIVAL OF THE FITTEST by andreas wagner.



Tuesday, December 9, 2014


ok.  i write deep thoughts about marx and almost nobody notices.  i allude to an old jewish joke and receive floods of e-mails from folks who want to tell me their version.  i think woody allen and henny youngman were on to something.  borscht, anyone.

Monday, December 8, 2014


since there was a certain amount of interest in the course i shall be teaching next semester on marx, i thought folks might like to see the syllabus, now that i have made it up.  i have no idea whether i can get through all of this in one semester.  one notable feature of the syllabus is the rather embarassing fact that there are only two authors assigned:  marx and me.  it recalls an old jewish joke that i have totally forgotten save for the punch line.  the line is delivered by someone standing in the square at vatican city looking up at the balcony where the pope is standing with a visitor.  the observer asks, who is that up on the balcony with pincus.

Philosophy 454
                                           Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism
                                                                 Spring 2015
                                                      Instructor:  Robert Paul Wolff
                                                        Wednesdays 1:00 - 3:30 p.m.

I.  Brief Course Description:  An integrated economic, historical, philosophical, sociological, and literary interpretation of Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx.

2.  Required Reading

a)   Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, translated by Aveling and Moore, Dover Publications:
       ISBN-10: 0486477487
       ISBN-13: 978-0486477480
        [There are other translations, but I shall be referring repeatedly by page to this one, so I urge you to use it.]

 b)   The Portable Karl Marx, ed. by Eugene Kamenka  Penguin Books
      ISBN-10: 014015096X
      ISBN-13: 978-0140150964

c)   Robert Paul Wolff, Understanding Marx, Princeton University Press
            Kindle edition, available from

d)   Robert Paul Wolff, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, University of Massachusetts Press
            Kindle edition, available from

3.  Suggested Reading

a)   Robert Paul Wolff    "The Future of Socialism"  available online, but also to be distributed.
b)   Robert Paul Wolff     "A Critique and Reconstruction of Marx's Labor Theory of Value"
             available on line, but also to be distributed.  As this essay contains some difficult
             mathematics, it is not absolutely required reading.

            Bring your copies of the assigned readings to class, as I shall on occasion be referring to specific passages.

3.  Required Written Work

a)   A ten page paper, due in class on Wednesday, March 4, 2015
b)   A fifteen to twenty page paper due in class on the day set by the university for the final examination.

Papers must be submitted in hard copy [out of respect for the Instructor's great age.]  There may be brief technical problem sets from time to time as seems appropriate.  They will not affect a student's final grade and may be completed cooperatively with other students [or anyone else, for that matter.]

4.   Contact Information

            My e-mail address is  I also have a UNC e-mail address, but I never check it, so don't use it.
            My  blog is at  Accessible via the blog is my archive where you will find the two essays cited above and much, much more.  Feel free to visit and to comment.
            As I am only teaching this one course, I shall not be holding regular office hours, but I would be delighted to meet with you at our mutual convenience for any purpose whatsoever.  Just speak to me in class and set up a meeting or e-mail or call me.

5.   General Class Information

            Auditors are welcome, and are invited to participate in the class, so long as registered students have first crack at questions and comments.  Do not be intimidated by my apparent inability to stop talking.  I welcome questions, comments, arguments, and the like.

6.   Important Notice

            Everything having to do with Karl Marx is highly controversial in the world in which we live.  As you might imagine, I have very strong views about Marx.  Otherwise I would not have written two books and a number of articles about him. 


Week by Week Schedule of Reading Assignments.

It is essential to the success of the course that everyone complete the reading assigned BEFORE the session indicated.

January 7:         Introduction to the course.   No assigned reading, obviously.
January 14:      Kamenka, pp. 131-146;  pp. 203-241
January 21:       The same, continued.  Begin reading Understanding Marx
January 28:       Understanding Marx, pp. 3-88
February 4:       The same, continued.
February 11:     Capital, Chapter One, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky
February 18:     The same, continued.
February 25:     Capital,  pp. 84-176
March 4:          Capital,  pp. 177-304
March 18:        Understanding Marx,  pp. 89-178
March 25:        Capital,  pp. 179-335
April 1: Capital,  pp. 336-507
April 8: Capital,  pp. 508-648
April 15:           Capital,  pp. 649 -- 774
April 22:           "Critique and Reconstruction of Marx's Labor Theory of Value."