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Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Classstruggle, who has posted many lengthy comments on this blog, some running to several comment spaces, posted a brief comment to my post titled “Keeping My Hand In” that troubled me greatly, and I should like to respond, even though to do so is in a way rather bad-tempered of me.  He [?] said, regarding my report that I had sent copies of the Meditations, the Monadology, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s First Critique to a student I am mentoring, “I may have a PDF copy of some of these texts (not that I have read them or care to really). But if I can be of any help, you just let me know.”

That was a very generous thing for him [?] to do, and yet here I am caviling at the parenthetical aside.

That aside is such a profoundly unMarxian thing to say that I had to respond.  I think I am safe in assuming that classstruggle holds Marx in the very highest esteem.  And yet, Marx was one of the most widely and deeply educated people in Western civilization of the past three or four centuries at the very least.  He gobbled up books the way the Cookie Monster gobbles up cookies.  I cannot even begin to imagine how he managed to read as much as he did.  And this was not mere obsession or a demented notion of a good education.  Marx used ideas, quotations, suggestions, facts, and arguments from an unimaginably broad array of written sources, in at least seven different languages and a dozen disciplines.   Those of us who find inspiration and guidance in the thousands of pages Marx wrote ought, it seems to me, to learn from his practice.  We ought to read the great literature of our culture, from antiquity onward.  We ought to read widely in history, in sociology, in the sciences, and yes, in the  neo-classical economics we claim to disdain.  Let us follow Marx’s own practice, and embrace the famous saying of the poet Terence, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Now, I am sure that classstruggle has many pressing obligations that might keep him [?] from reading Hume’s Treatise or Kant’s Critique, but I would urge that he allow himself [?] to feel some passing regret at the missed opportunity.


Acastos said...


You are a wonderful teacher - a teacher in the truest and best sense of the word.

First, you recognize potential and seek to foster and nurture it, going so far as to provide the tools as well as the means and opportunity to use them.

Then your response to classstruggle is genuinely pedagogical too. You recognize the bad attitude, but instead of dismissing or sneering you inspire.

As a college professor by title, I am humbled and awed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am deeply touched by your praise. I aspire to no higher calling than that of teacher.

K.Reader said...

The first entry I read on your blog was some information on a, as far as I remember, PhD student who sent her texts regularly to you although she was no longer your student. I liked that immensely. Once a dedicated teacher - always a dedicated teacher! It made come back to your blog! According to his/her comments classstruggle has read a lot - why not Hume, Kant ...? Strange!

Jerry Fresia said...

Absolutely brilliant and inspiring. Bravo!

In defense of classstruggle, he/she was just being flip. Half the comments
I write, I wish I never did after about 10 seconds.

classtruggle said...

Not an ungracious comment at all. You have gently warned me about this before. But you know, they may be valuable for some (usually philosophy heads) for me and communists and socialists in general, they have nothing to do with the workers' movement so we pay little attention to them. You are one of the few exceptions unless you can name me socialists and communists that have taken the time to read these texts.

These texts may be interesting (and Marxology too) but I think in the final analysis, there are too many urgent issues calling for analysis, of the Marxist sort -- ie., critical, that make the pursuit of obscure or exoteric texts (Marxists ones included) begin to look contradictory to what Marx was trying to do and encourage others to do as well.

Chris said...

"You are one of the few exceptions unless you can name me socialists and communists that have taken the time to read these texts."

I've taken the time to read all the texts Wolff has mentioned. And I consider myself a socialist and Marxist.

Most of the Marxists I know have too. Well, some of them skip Kant's critique of pure reason, but still.

Anonymous Coward said...

Understanding Marx involves reconstructing his philosophical context, a central part of which is German Idealism. This includes the aporiai and antinomies, inherited from Kantian critical philosophy, that Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were attempting to resolve.

I'm going to venture out on an interpretive limb about another connection with Kantian moral philosophy, in the company of scholars far more knowledgeable than I. It seems to me that Marx and Engels' vision of communism derives from Kant's concept of the kingdom of ends. In collaborating as an equal with everyone else in managing the means of production, each human being, "...belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member, when, although he makes its universal laws, he is also himself subject to those laws. He belongs to it as its head, when as the maker of laws he is himself subject to the will of no other" (Groundwork 75). In producing for social needs rather than profit maximization - which would depends on worker exploitation - "...rational beings all stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others, never merely as as means, but always at the same time as an end in himself " (ibid 74-75). Please excuse my ignorance of the literature if someone else has written on this before.

classtruggle said...

Knowledge for whom, and for what and why? That is the question.

In all my years [third generation communist] I have not encountered many fellow travelers -- not trade unionists, Communist Party members, labour researchers, social democrats or even working class people -- who have read these texts (or had the privilege to if you want to look at the matter from a class perspective).

But if students and teachers are interested in them, by all means, read, enjoy and write about them as so many have before you. Is it 'unMarxian' to put them off in order to pursue more important or relevant matters related to the workers' movement i.e. current debates, trends and issues in understanding the character and organisation of work in contemporary society, understanding the contemporary structure, issues, and perceptions of labour unions and other forms of working class organisation, or the treatment of labour in the media and popular culture, or how labour views itself, or the economic and political forces that are constantly changing the nature of work, or the bargaining process and the organisational structure and components of collective agreements or critical and radical political economy traditions in Labour Studies? I don't think so. All of Marx's life and energies were spent in the cause of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines. And in time he became the single most important theoretician and prominent leader of a growing international labour movement.

Fortunately the working class has carved out a little space for itself in the university in the form of Labour Studies departments. A few universities in Canada (including mine which my supervisor is the Director of) have these departments which offer certificates, undergraduate and graduate degrees. Home sweet home for some of us. But even outside of labour studies, at least the social sciences have to a greater or lesser degree some element of a 'debate with Marx's ghost,’ specifically a debate with the arguments in Capital; and most of them also have a major 'branch', school or tendency which is Marxist.

classtruggle said...

Anonymous Coward -- generations of working class people (including my grandfather who read CAPITAL in the early 1990s) have read and understood Marx without thinking about any of that stuff. The petty bourgeois revolutionaries seem to dream up these ideas at their summer cottages.

The working classes understood their place in the system well before Marx. In fact it was during and after Ricardo that the labour theory of value was widely adopted by radical economists and trade unionists to support demands that the working class should receive the whole (or at least a much larger share) of the product of its labour because it was labour that supplied the value of products. From the pov of the bourgeoisie this became a socially dangerous idea; hardly supportive of the status quo. While it does not follow
from the labour theory of value that the whole product of labour ought to accrue to
the producers, in the hands of trade unionists and sympathetic economists in the 19th century, the labour theory of value was a theoretical weapon 'dangerous' to capitalist relations. It was more for this reason rather than its purported falseness that it was rejected and abandoned by orthodox economists.

Chris said...

"All of Marx's life and energies were spent in the cause of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines. And in time he became the single most important theoretician and prominent leader of a growing international labour movement. "

And without a doubt Marx read all of the classics on antiquity, and Hume, Locke, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, but also Dickens, and Balzac. And all of these thinkers helped in his theoretical and philosophical works. One can both read everything Wolff has recommended - and so much more - and aid in the Marxian project for the achievement of socialism and the development of sound working class theory. These aren't mutually exclusive goals.

Magpie said...

"From the pov of the bourgeoisie this became a socially dangerous idea; hardly supportive of the status quo."

Very true. As a matter of fact, many of those petty bourgeois intellectuals admitted as much and admitted as well that their theorising was devised, engineered, manufactured, concocted, however one might choose to call it, to argue against that idea.

One example is John Bates Clark:
"The welfare of the laboring classes depends on whether they get much or little; but their attitude toward other classes—and, therefore, the stability of the social state—depends chiefly on the question, whether the amount that they get, be it large or small, is what they produce. If they create a small amount of wealth and get the whole of it, they may not seek to revolutionize society; but if it were to appear that they produce an ample amount and get only a part of it, many of them would become revolutionists, and all would have the right to do so. The indictment that hangs over society is that of 'exploiting labor.' 'Workmen' it is said, 'are regularly robbed of what they produce. This is done within the forms of law, and by the natural working of competition.' If this charge were proved, every right-minded man should become a socialist; and his zeal in transforming the industrial system would then measure and express his sense of justice. If we are to test the charge, however, we must enter the realm of production. We must resolve the product of social industry into its component elements, in order to see whether the natural effect of competition is or is not to give to each producer the amount of wealth that he specifically brings into existence."

He wasn't the first, and he wasn't the last. Maybe his contemporary followers find that honesty tasteless and embarrassing and will try to cover their forefathers' nakedness. But Clark wasn't shy on his motivations.

Magpie said...

Incidentally, regarding the original subject of Prof. Wolff's post:

Like everybody else -- classtruggle included -- I do not deny those texts Prof. Wolff recommends are important and interesting. Like everybody else, given the choice, I think one should try to expand one's horizons.

As my previous comment may illustrate, I too venture outside of Marx and Marxist texts, to the measure of my perhaps limited capabilities (as I have remarked before, I'm no philosopher, just your run-of-the-mill guy)

But the bottom line -- as I believe classtruggle was trying to communicate -- is that we all have our own priorities, which may not coincide. That should not be taken as a suggestion one is undervaluing other people's position.

classtruggle said...

For a bit of relief...

Chris said...

LOL, that's the same comic I have on my office door for when students come to visit!