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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Although one might think that I have been obsessed with the primary contests in recent days, in fact most of my time has been spent brooding about the idea of writing a major book bringing together in an integrated fashion all the work I have been doing on the thought of Karl Marx and associated subjects in the past forty years.  I am reminded of a story I have told before.  In the late sixties, when I was a member of the Columbia Philosophy Department, I was asked to speak to a seminar that met from time to time at which members of the faculty addressed guests from the larger New York intellectual community.  I chose to deliver a scathing left critique of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  Hannah Arendt was in the audience, and she came up after the talk to say hello.  She was quite polite, but it was obvious she had not been thrilled with my remarks.  After a bit, she asked what I was currently working on.  “I am writing a book on Kant’s ethics,” I replied.  She broke into a broad smile that split her face, and said with a satisfied sigh, “Ah, it is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant!”  After thinking for months about Trump and Clinton, I can say emphatically that is vastly more pleasant to spend time with Marx.

The book project poses for me several unusual problems.  I would need to incorporate into the text many, many pages of books and essays I have already published, and in an odd way that says a good deal about my unconscious motivations, that feels to me as though I would be cheating, asking to be approved of, as it were, for something I have already done.  The larger problem is that this book would be quite unlike the other books I have written.  My books are almost always clear, spare linear arguments, with a natural beginning, middle, and end.  I think of arguments, as I have elsewhere observed, as being rather like stories – Jack and the Beanstalk is my favorite example.  But this book would range widely, incorporating and expanding on my two books and articles specifically on Marx, while also drawing on such associated but different materials as the article “Narrative Time” and the 16,500 word serial blog post on The Study of Society.  I would probably conclude with the essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  Inevitably, it would be a big book, longer than either Moneybags Must be So Lucky or Understanding Marx.

The more I think about the project, the less likely it seems to me that I could find a good publisher for it, but that fact does not disturb me, because I think I might actually win a larger audience by using my blog as a vehicle.

My visit to Brown and MIT alerted me to a deeper problem to which I must give serious thought:  Even in those extremely friendly and supportive venues, there seemed to be a fundamental lack of understanding of why I was trying to find a way to unite the literary criticism, philosophy, and mathematical economics that I had brought to bear in my effort to understand Capital.  If even so sympathetic and knowledgeable an audience found this difficult to grasp, I realized, I would have to do a much better job of explaining my core insights.

Because the book would not be a simple linear argument, its organization would pose problems that I must think through before I begin to write.

The idea of doing a series of YouTube lectures on Marx has also been in my mind, but I do not think I want again to lecture to a camera propped up on my desk.  I thought I was a good deal more relaxed and – dare I say it --- personable in the Brown talk, clearly because I was talking to real people.  I have not yet figured out how to replicate that sort of setting down here in Chapel Hill.


s. wallerstein said...

Professor Wolff,

You refer to yourself as a "Marxist".

What exactly do you mean by that?

Someone who believes that everything Marx said is true?

Someone who believes that most of what Marx said is true?

Some who believes that Marx was right on all important issues?

Someone who believes that Marx was right on most important issues?

Someone who believes that Marx was right on more important issues than anyone else?

Or does believing in one or a few key ideas from Marx, say, the labor theory of value or class struggle, make one a Marxist?

None of the above?

Thank you.

s. wallerstein said...

Correction: I should have said "a few key ideas from Marx, say, the theory of surplus value..." not "the labor theory of value".

der Wolf said...

Dear Prof. Wolff,

Marx isn't my strong suit, in fact I haven't read a single word of him. But I'm absolutely certain that I would not only learn a great deal from your lectures on Marx but that I would find them very enjoyable too (I've been following your blog for a while now). So please, let me encourage you to reconsider speaking to a virtual audience via a camera in your study.

Best regards
Ulf Br├╝ggemann/Berlin

der Wolf said...

One word of explanation. The picture you're seeing is my alter ego at google (I'm blogging myself). Was a bit surprised to see that in the published comment. Sorry about that.

Ulf Br├╝ggemann

mesnenor said...

I doubt finding a publisher would be difficult. One of the left-leaning print-on-demand style publishers would probably be happy to release your title.

Zero Books comes to mind, but there are others as well.

Alex Campbell said...

Hi Bob,

I would like to second der Wolf's encouragement for you doing an online lecture series on Marx. In the ideal world, I would offer to follow along with the relevant reading materials and attend your lectures seeing as I'm right down the street from you, but I'm not sure time will permit me to do that with the rest of the workload that I will have next semester, especially if you plan to do a lecture a week as you were with your Ideological Critique series.


Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I would encourage you to do the book. Like most other endeavors you have undertaken, I think you can accomplish it if you apply yourself. It will be a challenge, but think of the payoff once it is complete (maybe not a monetary payoff -- but who knows, maybe you could catch the tail of the Piketty juggernaut). I think it can be published and serve as a positive contribution to the literature on Marx. Again, if you need any assistance with the bibliography, citations, editorial matters, etc., I am more than happy to help.

-- Jim

Charles Pigden said...

I am keener on a book. I don't think you should despair of prestigious university presses, and I would have thought you were a shoo-in for somebody like Prometheus.

I expect to be teaching marx on and off for the next ten years or so as part of our PPE programme. A good book integrating the philosophy the politics and the economics would be very useful. I could not instruct my students to buy it but I could encourage the library to do so.