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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at

Total Pageviews

Monday, August 14, 2017


My post on the Charlottesville event has elicited two comments, both of which, in different ways, are I believe misguided.  Here are the two comments:

Frank said... Professor Wolff, Does your critique extend to white racists who are not within any positions of power (social, economic, or political)? If so, I'm wondering how one could square the view of white supremacy for the power it provides white people with the fact that many of the people holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville likely do not hold any position of power or privilege in this society.
Anonymous said...
"The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep."  What an odd assertion. To be sure, the motivation to enslave was not black inferiority, any more than a farmer's motivation to employ a mule is the inferiority of the beast. But the status of the mule as beast is the cause of its employment by the farmer, just as the perception of blacks as something inferior was the cause of their enslavement. Blacks were enslaved because they were thought to be inferior (your strange "quite to the contrary" notwithstanding).

To Frank, I respond:  You are mistaken.  All of the people “holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville” hold a position of power and privilege in this society, one that is, I would imagine, desperately important to them, and which they feel is threatened.  What position of power and privilege?  They are White.  That fact by itself, regardless of their education, wealth, or position in the economy, confers on them in America a position superior to that of Black people.  You think not?  When was the last time a White father had to have “the talk” with his White son?  It is precisely their lack of status and position and wealth in White society that makes it so desperately important to them to be superior to any Black man [or woman – that raises other issues as well] in America.

To Anonymous:  You are simply wrong.  The West Africans sold into slavery were not selected to be sold by the local Black bigwigs because they were perceived as inferior.  They were captives in local wars or were otherwise vulnerable.  Some were in fact local nobles who had been captured.  Hence such names as “Prince” given to male slaves by the American owners.  The American slave owners tried to enslave Native Americans but for various reasons that did not work well.  They also did their best to enslave indentured English servants, but there was sufficient protection by the English Common Law to make that unfeasible.  The White characterization of the slaves as inferior was an ex post rationalization, not an ex ante reason for or cause of their enslavement.


s. wallerstein said...

The classic explanation of fascism is that it attracted people from the lower middle class who had been ruined by the economic crisis of the 1930's (and in the case of Germany, by the hyperinflation during the 1920's) and may in objective terms (income, wealth) have been worse off than the working class, but who turned to fascism as a defense against the rise of the working class, since fascism promised to and did destroy the working class unions and the political parties which represented them (the Socialists and the Communists).

A fascist is a fascist. That is, a noxious creature who deserves a cold shower on a freezing day or worse.

The racism which we see in Charlottesville has clear fascist overtones and we should oppose it because of its fascism and its racism. If by chance some who participate in that hideous movement have low incomes, maybe they should work harder and spend less time spreading hate against their fellow human beings. My heart does not go out to them, in spite of their possible poverty nor should the heart of anyone on the left.

David E. said...

Your response to both comments certainly seem correct to me. I would add:

1. White racists get to carry guns in public. Like Faulkner's angry white man, Abner Snopes, today's white racists harbor the same class resentments, and they get to take them out on blacks, Jews, (a much longer list goes here), and women. We are still seeing this in policing, treatment in the courts, and many other aspects of American society: blacks routinely receive harsher treatment and sentences. Therefore, there is white advantage.

2. Look at how slaves were advertised for a sense of whether they were inferior or not. At least physically, slaves were described in terms of all their positive attributes. However, slavery had to invent a rationale to legitimize the practice; moral and intellectual inferiority were trotted out. But then, in order that no one look too closely at this principle, which no one really believed, slaves were forbidden from reading or writing -- ways that would have easily disproved their supposed "inferiority."

Ed Barreras said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Barreras said...

Frank's query seems easily answered. If you're a white person without power -- if you suffer from low self-esteem because you're stuck in a low-wage job or otherwise feel like a "loser" in life -- then there's a citadel called White Supremacy (these days rebranded as White Nationlism) to which you can retreat in order to get a hit of counterfeit self-confidence. It won't make you richer, but you can at least feel better about yourself for belonging to the privileged group. The fact that this citadel exists -- and the fact that it's defended by the person who currently occupies the office of president because it's proven politically advantageous for him to do so -- is precisely the problem.

No more illusions, please. T***p won because of white resentment. As you rightly point out in you previous post, white supremacy has only been challenged in the past fifty years or so. Enough time for older white voters to remember the good ole days, and to have passed that longing on to their children.

howie b said...

Today Trump had to eat crow and condemn rightwing hate groups. Now pressure is on to oust Bannon. Is this just a bad round in his brawl in the white house, or do you think the effort to contain Trump and isolate him is finally paying off?
This is our second, if only symbolic, victory. First health care now this.
Public opinion and outrage is our chief weapon, and if Wall Street gives him the cold shoulder, all he'd have left is his nuclear weapons

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Indeed. I fear that racist attitudes towards black people (etc. - and misogyny) is far wider and deeper in the American soul than most, on the Left or the Right, are willing to countenance. It would shatter the illusions they have about living in a post-race/colorblind/meritocratic/whatever other similar bullshit gets spewed society. Anything to avoid looking in the mirror.

Jerry Fresia said...

Ding. Ding. Ding! Great responses, especially no. 2 in that it illuminates not only a key part of our history but suggests, at least to me, the power of materialist explanations.

F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LFC said...

Prof Wolff writes in the OP:

"The White characterization of the slaves as inferior was an ex post rationalization, not an ex ante reason for or cause of their enslavement."

I'd be inclined, as admittedly a complete non-expert on this, to add that it was a rationalization that came to be held as an actual (i.e. 'sincere') belief by at least some white participants in and/or defenders of slavery and the economic system, for lack of a better word, of which slavery was a key part.

I'm not sure, for example, how slave families could be separated at auctions, children sold to one person, parents to another (which did happen) unless at least some of the people doing this believed that the slaves did not possess full moral personhood, i.e. were morally 'inferior'. Indeed it's somewhat hard to imagine the institution of slavery at all, whether in the U.S. antebellum South or classical Athens or wherever, without a belief, again held by at least some, that slaves lack full personhood.

If I recall correctly, Orlando Patterson called his imposing comparative-historical study of slavery Slavery and Social Death. I haven't read the book, but the notion that slaves are socially "dead" would seem to imply that they are viewed as morally inferior. How much Patterson goes into this and related questions I'm not sure. (I have dipped into the first volume of Patterson's historical study of the concept of freedom, which I happen to own, but I don't own Slavery and Social Death. Esp. since I'm not an especially fast reader (at least not most of the time), practically speaking I'm never going to get to read many or most of the things I'd ideally like to.)

F Lengyel said...

This series of posts and comments led me to order and read your Autobiography of an Ex-White Man. Now I've started reading the books from the appendix on the syllabus of the original fifty major works of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts. I'm grateful for this guide to the major literature.

Ed Barreras said...

You are right, F Lengeyl. The words of Jefferson, for example, are hard to read. And keep in mind he was against slavery:

The first difference [between whites and blacks] which strikes us is that of color. . . . The difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? . . .
[2] They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. . . .
[3] Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

s. wallerstein said...

The Greeks did not have a concept of moral personhood (whatever that means). Aristotle claims that slaves or some slaves are naturally inferior, but in Homer and in the tragedies, slaves are just people who are on the losing side. The Romans let slaves buy their freedom and often used Greek slaves to educate their children or as secretaries (which meant that they did not consider them as essentially inferior, just luckless).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply. Perhaps it is just my own lack of imagination, or maybe I am too much in the grip of a modern notion of property, but I find the idea of something owned being the equal of the owner hard to hold onto. I see a more profound or essential kind of inequality presupposed between owner and owned than that between mere captor and captive, fortunate and unfortunate, wrongdoer and wronged.

LFC said...

@S Wallerstein

Aristotle claims that slaves or some slaves are naturally inferior, but in Homer and in the tragedies, slaves are just people who are on the losing side. The Romans let slaves buy their freedom and often used Greek slaves to educate their children or as secretaries (which meant that they did not consider them as essentially inferior, just luckless).

Thanks, good points. Been a long time since I had to read, e.g., Homer or Sophocles, so I probably shdn't have dumped in the throwaway ref to ancient Greece. Still, my sense is that slaves in the antebellum South, while they had a mixture of roles and some were taken into households in fairly intimate capacities, were considered inferior -- again, by at least some masters etc. It's also a bit unclear, at least to me, where to draw the lines between rationalization, ideology, and belief (or indeed whether to distinguish betw. these at all).

I guess one place to start to answer some of the questions might be:


As for what moral personhood means, I don't think it's all that arcane a notion. Rawls uses it to refer to humans' capacity to have a conception of their own good and a sense of justice, and seems to assume that people generally have it. (So denying that someone has it = thinking the person 'inferior'.) But maybe it's not the right phrase here.

I'll end w the observation that if African-Americans were not enslaved because they were thought inferior, it wd still have been clearly useful to proslavery writers to view them as such.

s. wallerstein said...

There's a famous scene in the Iliad where Hector explains to his wife what will occur if the Trojans lose the war: she and their son will enslaved and will have to serve other people. There is no mention that being enslaved makes them "inferior" in the sense that blacks were considered inferior in the U.S nor, if I recall correctly, is there any emphasis on the fact that being a slave means that you're someone's property. For Homer being a slave is horrible because you're oppressed by someone, you're ordered around, you're not longer master (or mistress) of your life. In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, one of the main character is Cassandra, who is Priam's daughter (Priam was the Trojan king) and is now Agamemnon's slave. There is no sense that she is not the moral equivalent of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife: her side simply lost the war and those who lose wars are killed or enslaved in that world.

In the post-enlightenment world, that of U.S. slavery, they obviously had to invent more complex rationalizations for slavery than the Greeks did.

LFC said...

Of possible relevance:

Jean Allain (ed.), The Legal Understanding of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary (Oxford UP, 2012; [publisher's hardcover price $115.00])

There's a section of the bk on the U.S. and at least one of the chaps. is available online as a pdf. (which I can link if someone wants)