A Commentary on the Passing Scene by
Robert Paul Wolff
The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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
I should like to add one final comment, in the form of a story, on
the rather wide-ranging discussion that has taken place on this blog about the desirability
of reading Hume or Kant or Descartes if you are a dedicated Marxist.This story is somewhat tangential, but I
think it may add something to the discussion.The following passage comes from the book I wrote about my grandparents,
Barnet and Ella Wolff, my father’s parents.The central character, Abe Shiplacoff, was my grandfather’s close friend
and comrade.Together, they created the
Brooklyn branch of the Socialist Party in the first decade of the twentieth
century.Here is the story:
Shiplacoff was a little man with a pinched face and a rather
unimposing presence, very much in contrast with Barney, who was a big,
barrel-chested man with a booming voice. But more than any other single
person, he can be credited with creating the socialist movement in the
Brownsville area of Brooklyn, and leading it to its greatest electoral triumphs
in 1917. Looking for background material on Shiplacoff, I stumbled on the
following story in a review by John Patrick Diggins of Bertram Wolfe’s
autobiography, A Life in Two
Centuries. Wolfe is a well-known expert on Soviet Russia and twentieth
century communist movements. I include it here because it seems to me to
capture perfectly both the strengths and the weaknesses of the generation of
socialist leaders to which Abe Shiplacoff and Barney belonged. The young
Bertram Wolfe apparently debated against Shiplacoff, at the Labor Lyceum, over
the split in the party produced by the Third International. The issue was whether dictatorial tactics
should replace the democratic procedures of the American Socialist Party. After
the debate, Diggins says, “the two adversaries resumed their discussion in a
local cafe.” There then appears this passage quoted from Wolfe’s book:
“There was an embarrassed silence until Shiplacoff burst into
tears. ‘I have worked so hard all my life,’ he said, ‘for our party and
for the labor movement, that I have never had the time to read all those books
by Marx and Engels that you have read.’ Then he wept on in silence.
Suddenly, I felt sympathy for him, and more than a little shame, for I
had not read ‘all those books’ either. Moreover, for the first time I
understood how much men like Shiplacoff had given to building the party that my colleagues and
I, mostly youngsters, were now tearing apart. I did not know what to say:
we both left our cake and coffee unfinished, but I never forgot the episode.
I began to feel more charitable toward the old-timers whose work we were
helping to destroy. Though I continued to use quotations, I could no
longer summon up the scorn with which I had read them to that Brownsville Labor
I can only comment that I have read ‘all those books,’
and in them you will not find an adequate justification for replacing
democratic procedures with dictatorial tactics. Shiplacoff, Barney, and the other ‘old-timers’ understood Marx and Engels
quite as well as necessary to devote their lives to building a working-class movement.
Would that Bertram Wolfe had done as much!
As I observed in one of my books, in politics I am an anarchist, in religion I am an atheist, and in economics I am a Marxist. I am also, rather more importantly, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist.