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Saturday, May 7, 2016


[Attributed to the Duke of Gloucester, on the occasion of his receiving a presentation copy of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.]

I thank Jerry Fresia and S. Wallerstein for their kind encouragement to me to write a short popular book on Marx, but I think I must continue with my perhaps ill-advised magnum opus.  Leaving to one side the books I edited back in the day to make enough money to pay my psychoanalyst bills, almost all of my books have sprung from some source deep within me to which I have only limited access.  In each of those books I seek to tell a story, the story of an argument or the story of an idea, and I am unable to write until the story unfolds in my mind before me.  Somewhat factiously, I have compared the stories I tell in my books to Jack and the Beanstalk, the serious point being that only when the story of the book is clear to me can I tell where it begins, how it proceeds, and where it ends.

   Because I write this way, my books tend to be short and to have few if any footnotes [a fact that used to irk my old friend, Bob Ackerman, who would spend frantic hours, when writing, searching for the scraps of paper on which he had jotted down the information for a footnote.]  Only once have I written a book on demand, as it were, and that was my textbook, About Philosophy, which I agreed to write in order to enable my then wife to take a semester off from teaching so that she could finish her important book on Edith Wharton.  It was a labor of love, one might say, but it was not fun.  I cranked it out in eight weeks to forestall the threat of having to return the advance.  [It is now in its eleventh edition and has earned me well over a million in 2016 dollars, but that is another story.]

My son, Patrick, who is a brilliant chess Grandmaster, once wrote a book on chess in the series called The Idiot’s Guide to …,” but I am afraid I would be an utter failure if I were to attempt The Idiot’s Guide to Marx.  I think such a book would be valuable and I do not doubt that it would do more to advance the cause than the book on which I have just embarked, but it is just not my thing.  Of one thing I am quite certain:  Capital itself is not such a book.  I have no idea at all whom Marx thought would be his readers.  Can he have imagined that this astonishing book, in German [!!], would be snatched up and read avidly by English workingmen?  Lord alone knows.  It is, when you think about it, a miracle that two world-historical revolutions were carried out in his name.

Perhaps if I could find a venue with a good camera and a handful of volunteers to serve as an audience, I might attempt a series of lectures on “Marx in the Twenty-first Century.”  I could imagine myself doing that.


Jerry Fresia said...

Okay, then, let the story be told. But you are going to have to change your name. Too many Wolffs out there. To be a Wolffist might be confusing.

Austin Haigler said...

I will say, being in the Triangle. I would be in the Marx audience. So you've got one here. Maybe a call could be put out to Duke/UNC/NCSU/NCCU students who are interested in it from a Philosophy/Poli Sci/Econ/History lens. I think finding an audience would not be too terribly hard. But maybe I am wrong.

ES said...

The lecture series on Capital is certainly needed, though the classic version by David Harvey (also turned into a book) would be hard to outdo []. It's interesting to compare his story to yours (Robert) and Austin's: in his first lecture he explains how he just fell into doing the lecture series and has done it for all manner of audiences. I haven't watched all the lectures but they're highly recommended.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I just read this quotation from an interview with philosopher Allen Wood (via Prof. Brian Leiter's blog), and wondered if you had any thoughts in response, Professor Wolff:

"Marx is thought of as an implacable foe of capitalism. But go back and read the first section of the Communist Manifesto. Notice how it contains a paean of praise for the way capitalism and the bourgeoisie have both enriched the human powers of production and also enabled us to see with clear vision the nature of human society and human history. It has taken me a long time to realize where I most disagree with Marx. His assessment of capitalism is far too favorable. He took its instability, inhumanity and irrationality to be signs that it was a merely transitional form, which had delivered into humanity’s hands the means to a much better way of life than any that have ever existed on earth. Marx could not bring himself to believe that our species is so benighted, irrational and slavish that it would put up with such a monstrous way of life. He thought that it was inevitable that people would find a better way. We now see that this was not so. Capitalism has not proven to be a transitional form, a gateway to a higher human future. Capitalism now seems more likely a swamp, a bog, a quicksand in which humanity is presently flailing about, unable to extricate itself, perhaps doomed to perish within a few generations from the long term effects of the technology which seemed to Marx its greatest gift to humanity. Capitalism has proven to be a far more terrible system than Marx could ever bring himself to imagine. Those who are so deluded as to find something good in it, or even feel loyalty toward it, are its most pitiful victims."

s. wallerstein said...

Dude Diogenes,

Thanks. Brilliant and insightful, well worth meditating on.....

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

How about a variation on 'My Dinner With Andrè'? Is there a follower of your blog who is sufficiently close and who could be your Wally Shawn?

Alex Campbell said...

Hi Bob,

Depending when you would be doing the series of lectures, if you do, I could perhaps serve as an audience member. I will be out of town for the summer, but I'll be back at the end of July before the semester begins.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Alex. I am still considering it. Do you suppose UNC actually has facilities for recording that one could use?

Alex Campbell said...

I know that when some professors miss a class and schedule a makeup lecture, they will often record the makeup lecture for whoever cannot make it. John Roberts did this during the Fall semester for his philosophy of science class for instance. He would just give the lecture in Caldwell 213 (the big room) like a regular class, but he would have a camera set up to record it. I'm not sure about the details as to how to go about setting it up though, or whether he used his own camera or used the department's or UNC's.