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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Saturday, October 20, 2018


I just watched the third in my series of video lectures on Ideological Critique as a refresher for a forthcoming lecture on Mannheim in my Columbia course.  I watched my discourse on Mannheim’s ideological analysis of time consciousness, and then my attempt at an extension of it to the case of  space consciousness.  I wrap that up with an ideological analysis of the revolutionary orientation toward space, which concludes with my story about a Columbia student’s remark in 1968.  I had forgotten that I managed to attach to the very end of the lecture a brief video of Pete Seeger singing “Which Side Are You On?”

I wept for what we have lost.


While the commentators on this blog debate high theory, I thought as a change of pace I would offer a bit of what the news media call local color.  Yesterday, I spent several hours in Pittsboro as a poll greeter at an early voting site.  Pittsboro is the county seat of Chatham County and in this mostly rural central North Carolina county, its population of a bit under 4,000 makes it an urban center.  My job was to hand out long blue cheat sheets to arriving voters, if they would have them, competing in genteel fashion against Republican greeters similarly tasked.  Word among those of us under the blue tent was that at least one of the opposing team was a paid operative, suggesting that the Republicans were having trouble recruiting volunteers.

This being an off year with neither a governor nor a senator up for grabs, the lead candidate on our ballot is Ryan Watts, the young man running for the US House from the 6th NC CD.  As previously reported here, I have canvassed for Ryan up north [Greensboro] and down south [Sanford], but Nate Silver, in his latest handicapping of the House races, gives Ryan only a 1 in 7 chance of upsetting Mark Walker, the right-wing sitting Rep, so I am not holding my breath.  The ballot is full of candidates for local county offices, about which I know nothing at all, but while I was on duty, I took a break and voted early, laboriously blacking in each oval identified on the cheat sheet.

The hot items this year, aside from the Congressional seat, are the race for the NC Supreme Court and six malicious, deceptively described state constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the Republican controlled legislature.  I met Anita Earls, our candidate for the court, at a Carolina Meadows fund raiser, and she is clearly first rate.  For some mysterious reason two Republicans are running against her and will presumably split the red vote, so my fingers are crossed.  There is no problem picking and choosing among the amendments.  They are all awful, so “Vote No on the Six” is an easy message to communicate.

There I stood, on a gorgeous sunny fall day, trying to waylay arriving voters before they crossed the 50 foot boundary marked on the paving of the parking lot, beyond which campaigning is forbidden.  Turnout was very heavy, with people waiting in their cars for parking places [nobody walks to the polling place.  This is America, after all.]  Anecdotally, I can report that the Dems were in the lead, at least at this polling place.  We handed out many more of our blue cheat sheets than our opponents handed out their white ones.  [A cheat sheet, by the way, is a sample ballot already filled out the right way.  For as long as I have been doing this sort of work, which is to say for about sixty years, this has been the preferred way of corralling our vote.]  As you might expect, every African-American voter who showed up took one of our blue sheets, save for those who smiled and said they already had one.

Despite the piggish behavior of a large young man campaigning for one of the Republican candidates for County Commissioner, the scene was peaceful, friendly, casual, indeed idyllic.  This is what democracy ought to look like.  Needless to say, there are countless places around the country, including right here in North Carolina, where blatant racially encoded voter suppression is in full swing, and the outcome of the election nationally may well be determined by those efforts.  But none of that was on display on Thompson Street in Pittsboro yesterday.

Is there a larger lesson to be learned from my experience [aside from the advisability of wearing a hat so as not to get a sunburn]?  Nope.  Not so far as I can see.  I just thought the account would amuse you, and perhaps lower the temperature a bit on this blog.

Friday, October 19, 2018


As the election approaches, I am afraid, all of us are getting testy, myself more than most.  Let us all take a deep breath and remember that none of us is the enemy.  A world in which the spectrum of political opinions exhibited by the American electorate roughly matched the range of opinions expressed on this blog by myself and commentators would be my dream world.

I am off to spend several hours handing out Democratic Party cheat sheets [lists of candidates and ballot initiatives with a guide how to vote] at an early voting station.  Each of us must find his or her own way to survive these times, but whatever our disagreements with one another, you are all my comrades.


As I am sure you all know, there was at one time a lively debate in the field of Biology about what was called the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  If a proto-giraffe stretched its neck to reach succulent leaves high on trees, would its offspring inherit that slightly elongated neck, until after many generations the modern giraffe had evolved.  And so forth.  Not so intensively studied is a phenomenon that I have observed in my own life, namely, parents acquiring the characteristics of their children.  I mention this because from time to time I am surprised and rather moved by the wisdom of my children, which I am quite sure they did not get from me.  Quite to the contrary, I seem to acquire some of their wisdom by a sort of reverse genetic mutation.

The most recent example of this curious phenomenon is a thoughtful and very moving email from my older son, Patrick, in response to my cry of despair in the post entitled Night Thoughts.  With his permission, I reproduce it here.

“Your Monday post, “Night Thoughts,” touched me, and I wanted to share three thoughts with you about it.

  1. As you well know, there is no such thing as the inherently legitimate state. The state can do the right thing, it can act for the greatest good, or it can behave in any other way as assessed by autonomous moral agents. But there is no form of state action or decision-making that arrogates to it the authoritative right to do X simply by nature of its being. Nor is there even any way for the state to channel the “will of the people,” since there is no such thing. (See Condorcet, Arrow, etc.) And to make things even worse, given the fundamental difference between judging “ought” versus “is” in the world, it is inevitable that reasonable, informed people (put aside for now all the unreasonable, uninformed people) can and will disagree all the time about what ought to be done. Yet, we all have to find a way to live together. Anarchism may be a useful intellectual endeavor, but anarchy is no way to live! The political life is therefore both absolutely necessary and inherently frustrating. There is not and never will be such a thing as a utopia. We will always have profound, difficult disagreements: that is the tragic fact about politics.

  1. There is a saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” I think this misses the point. Over short periods of time (where “short” can be an entire adult lifetime) various kinds of enlightened tyrannies can be significantly better in the outcomes it produces for the people. But eventually, power passes to the fool, the knave, or worse. When that happens, we must have strong institutions, protected rights and freedoms, and limitations on power. The strength of democracy is not that it produces the best outcomes for the people: rather, its strength is that it allows the people to survive the worst outcomes. Donald J. Trump is the poster child. I’m sure we could imagine a worse leader – although I hope we don’t ever test this hypothesis during my children’s lifetime! – but he is plenty bad. In Russia he might be Putin; in Argentina he might be Peron; in China he might be Mao. But in America we still have free elections, he is highly unpopular even during the height of the current economic cycle, and already the political tide appears to be turning. I say this not to be complacent in any way, but to reassure you that while our current president is certainly doing plenty of damage, our country’s guardrails are holding up.

  1. If you “have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation,” then you have been guided by too narrow a view of history. There is no single moment where the arc of human progress reaches its conclusion. The road bends and winds forever and ever, and even a single, long lifetime is not enough to know where it leads. Consider if you had been born in 1776. You would have grown up hearing stories of the Revolution. You would have come of age during the Constitutional Convention, and the first President you would have known would have been George Washington. Then, your adult lifetime would have seen both the rapid expansion of the American promise, and the systematic betrayal of its ideals. You would have railed against slavery and the annihilation of the Native Americans – both to no avail. You would have seen the degradation of American politics, to the point that the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to the point of murder by the slave-owning Representative Preston Brooks. At the age of 84, you would be rightfully bemoaning the unraveling of the Union and the imminent Civil War, which would turn out to be far worse than you could have imagined. And yet, the road continued past that dark time and reached new heights that could not have been imagined at the time. We do not choose the age in which we live, and we do not know how our history will eventually be written. All we can do is continue to live it.

Do not despair. It was never that good, and it will be eventually be much better. And then it will be worse again, and then it will be better, and on and on.” 

Thursday, October 18, 2018


For almost ten years, I have been pouring words out non-stop, and I find that I am, at least for the moment, running dry.  I have written so much I cannot recall it all.  A week ago in our Columbia course, while lecturing on Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Todd Gitlin made reference to the mini-tutorial I had written on the book and pointed students to it.  I had totally forgotten I had written it.

So I have taken a few days off, and the comments section has more or less exploded.  Rather than try to respond to everything that has been posted by the readers of this blog, I signed up to do some time tomorrow at the early voting locality in Pittsboro, NC, handing out a blue ballot sheet guiding Democrats how to vote on such things as the ballot amendments [easy – vote No on all of them] and the non-partisan candidates for Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court [a little trickier – the answer is Anita Earls.]

Like MS, I have no patience for people who refuse to vote for the lesser evil because they are offended or bored or enchanted with the Progressive of the Moment.  This is a genuinely desperate time, and it is not at all clear that when the dust settles we will still have enough of a democracy even to be able to fight for what we believe in.  Should anyone be nursing fantasies of violent upheavals, I will remind them that our opponents have most of the guns.

Nineteen days.

Monday, October 15, 2018


Off to New York, for the seventh meeting of my course.   Back late Tuesday night.


Inasmuch as this is my web log, or blog, I think it appropriate that I engage in some reasonably public navel gazing.  For some time now, I have been deeply, ungetoverably troubled, not to say unhappy.  I am not referring to elevated, sophisticated distress, the untergang des Abendlandes brooding we intellectuals deploy as our shtick.  I am talking about a pit-of-the-stomach lying-awake-at-night unhappiness that is momentarily lessened, but not ever dispelled, by a favorable round of polls or the victory of a Democratic Socialist primary winner in a safely Democratic seat.  

Lord knows, I have been unhappy about the way of the world at least since Jack Kennedy invaded Cuba and America embraced its nuclear weapons in a cosmic death hug.  I have seen Martin and Malcolm and Jack and Bobby killed, I have survived Nixon and Reagan and Clinton.  Trump is surely a uniquely despicable man, but at least he has not yet started a war, which sets him apart from a number of his post-1945 predecessors.  Why then, when I am sitting quietly and the facial muscles supporting my reflex smile relax, does my wife look at me and say, with concern, “You look so unhappy”?

To be sure, I am eighty-four, and the end of my life is a great deal closer than my middle years.  But my health is good, my children are flourishing, I am embarked on an exciting new venture in New York, and I am, by any reasonable measure, rich.  I mean, the only other people I know with apartments in Paris are my friends who live there.  So why so blue?  It is, as the King of Siam is wont to say in The King and I, a puzzlement.

The source of my distress is not the manifest evidence of the sheer evil of our political rulers.  I have known that for many decades.  Rather, it is the recognition that half of my fellow Americans are ready to embrace that evil when it is presented to them without the slightest simulacrum of the appearance of humanity and decency.  Hypocrisy, La Rochefoucauld observed, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Fascism, we might add, is not having to say you are sorry.

I have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation.  Why else write all those books unmasking the imperial aims of America’s “moral world leadership,” those manifestos demanding the end to voter suppression?  Why march for peace, for social justice, for Gay liberation, for women’s rights?

With luck, we will flip the House.  In 2020, we may take back the Senate and the Presidency.  But as I slip and slide into my nineties, those scores of millions will still be there, ready to embrace the next fascist poseur.

And after I am gone, as my grandchildren approach middle age, the water level will rise and the world’s billions will be displaced by changes that even then will be denied not only by the rich, who will have relocated to higher ground, but by the swamped cheering, chanting masses who elect and reelect them.

Is it any wonder I cannot sleep?

Now, when is my next canvassing appointment?

Saturday, October 13, 2018


I have been silent on this blog for several days while the discussion in the Comment section has once again blossomed.  In part this has been a consequence of my trip to New York, the grading of midterm papers, and a bit of fearsome weather locally.  For the most part we have just had high winds and drenching rains, but yesterday, as I was driving about doing errands, I found my way blocked by a very tall pine trip that had snapped off three or four feet above the ground and had crushed a parked car.  Something of a cautionary experience.

The principal reason for my silence is my despair at the way of the world.  I feel like a soldier hunkered down behind a building under fire from the enemy, and in that condition, I do not find myself moved to meditate on the theory of just war.  Three and a half weeks from the election, all I care about is turnout.  I do what I can canvassing, and I try not to despair.

Adding to the tumult in my life is a new rescue cat whom we acquired three weeks ago.  She is charming and playful but still too scared to let us hold her, although last night, after we turned the lights off, she hopped up on the bed and – as I lay very quietly – peered at us soulfully before hopping back down.  Progress.

Here is a picture.

A friend suggested we call her Ginsburg because she looks as though she is wearing a black robe with a white collar.  We shall see.

Monday, October 8, 2018


Howard Berman, a frequent contributor to this blog, offers this link to an interesting little piece by Corey Robin.


Readers of this blog have several times heard me invoke the image of a landslide as a metaphor for revolutionary political action.  Traditional literature and historiography concerns itself with the doings of kings and queens, generals and emperors, landed aristocrats and dynastic successions.  The common people enter their accounts either for the purposes of low comedy or as a backdrop for heroic actions.  [Erich Auerbach is brilliant on this theme in his classic work of comparative literature, Mimesis.]  But modern political action requires the participation of hundreds of thousands, indeed of millions of men and women, most of whom even in the most detailed histories remain nameless.  These are the pebbles and clods of dirt and rootlets, transforming the tumbling fall of one large tree or one boulder into the landslide of my metaphor.

The door to door canvassing that I did yesterday, tiring as it was to this eighty-four year old, was no more than one tiny pebble, rolling hopefully [which is to say, full of hope] down a hillside.  Will it be part of a landslide that obliterates the always execrable Mark Walker of the NC 6th CD?  Only time will tell.

Now the most minor of actors, unlike pebbles, are self-conscious, and some even have blogs.  On their blogs, they are big voices, embracing centuries and invoking giants – Marx, Malcolm, Martin, Mao.  But loud though their voices may be, they are still only pebbles in what they hope will prove to be a landslide.

Some may find this discouraging, but I find it reassuring, even inspiring.  After all, if I really believe all that sophisticated social and political theory that I read, assign to students, and on occasion try my best to imitate in my own writings, then history ought to be made by multitudes, not by famous men [and latterly, women.] 

If you reject so minor a role as beneath your dignity as an intellectual, then you are not a pebble in a landslide.  You are merely part of the audience for a soliloquy.  And soliloquies are, after all, lonely speeches, even if it is you who are soliloquizing. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018


I am back now from a long day of door to door canvassing in Sanford, NC, at the very southern part of the 6th NC Congressional District.  What with driving there and back, it was almost six hours of grunt political work.  I hope it made some difference.  Once again, I was reminded of the difference between theorizing about politics and actually engaging in it.

And so to bed, to quote Samuel Pepys.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Well, I am signed up to canvass tomorrow from 2-5 pm in the bowels of Chatham County. One of the side benefits of political grunt work is that you get to see parts of your town or county that you would otherwise not likely visit.  When I ran for the town School Committee in Northampton, MA in 1977, I got to know the town by walking the wards with my then young son Patrick in an unsuccessful campaign [my first and only run of office.]  The town is heavily Catholic and I thought a son named Patrick might con the voters into thinking I was also, but they were too shrewd for that bit of political subterfuge.


I have become enamored of Alexandra Petri's distinctive satirical voice.  Here is her response to the Kavanaugh debacle.  She can take her place next to Swift.


I spent a very bad night.  It is petty and irrational of me to focus my rage and despair on Collins.  She is contemptible, but not as destructive as, say, McConnell, but there it is.  I am a small person.

The Supreme Court is lost for a generation, and at eighty-four, I have no hope of seeing light from that quarter.

So we fight.  We fight for women, we fight for the working class [yes, even for the benighted Trumpites,[ we fight for a higher minimum wage in those states where we have a majority, we fight for clean air and water, we fight for decent health care, we fight even though at best we shall merely be saving some portion of what we thought we had won, some measure of what old folks like me grew up taking for granted as the legacy of the pre-war New Deal.

And to soothe our souls, lift our spirits, and amuse the young, we shall "sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death" of Marx.

This morning, I shall contact the Ryan Watts campaign and volunteer for another day of canvassing.

Thursday, October 4, 2018


Like many, I have been obsessed by the Kavanaugh nomination, the testimony, and the aftermath.  In this post, I am going to offer my opinion of how this will play out.  I am now quite sure that the nomination will succeed.  I predict that Murkowsky will vote no, but Collins and Flake will vote yes.  Since that will ensure the success of the nomination, Manchin and/or Heidkamp may then cast yes votes in an effort to help them in November.  Were the nomination to fail, a clean rightwing nominee would be frog marched through the Senate and confirmed before January, regardless of whether the Republicans retain control of the Senate. 

The yes vote on Kavanaugh will be a permanent stain on Collins’ legacy and the Maine voters may very possibly defeat her in 2020.  Much has been made of the importance to Trump of having Kavanaugh on the court in case a subpoena or impeachment case comes before the court, but I actually doubt that is significant.

If, as I expect, Kavanaugh is confirmed, the surge in enthusiasm on the right, much commented on in recent days, will die away, but the Left will become incandescent, and that may very well determine the outcome of the November election.  Kavanaugh will immediately take his seat on the High Court, but that, I am convinced, will not be the end of the matter.  Between now and November, and possibly beyond, more and more people will come forward to confirm the charges against him and quite possibly to level new charges as well.  This will be a continuing nightmare for the Court, and for the Republicans.

Meanwhile, in a year or two, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and much more besides that is truly horrible will become law.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


This is a comment about Senator Susan Collins of Maine, although it may at first glance not seem to be.

I resigned a senior professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department and joined the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971.  Only somewhat later did I discover that the UMass department was deeply divided between a majority of members who thought of themselves as Analytic Philosophers and a small minority who did not.  Inasmuch as I had been trained at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman, among others, generally considered premier Analytic Philosophers, I was rather surprised to discover that the UMass majority clique did not want me around and did not think that what I did was philosophy at all [the most damning judgment they could issue about anyone, in their eyes.]  I threw in my lot with the minority, with whom it was possible to have a serious conversation.  Over the next twenty-one years, until I decamped for the Afro-American Studies Department, those of us in the minority fought a series of departmental battles, the details of which I have described in my online autobiography.

One of the members of the majority was a man who was universally viewed as a real gentleman and a first rate philosopher, a decent, thoughtful, reasonable man completely free of the animus that, in my eyes and those of my fellow minority members, characterized the most vocal and implacable members of the majority.  When an issue arose, he would listen to our arguments and concerns attentively, ask us probing questions, nod thoughtfully at our answers, and like as not confess himself to be deeply torn and even, on occasion, genuinely on the fence.  He was, in all ways, the very model of a modern philosopher, if I may channel my inner Gilbert and Sullivan.

There was only one problem.  In twenty-one years, he never voted with us on any issue large or small.  Not once.  He hemmed, he hawed, he hesitated, he meditated, his face was a visible manifestation of his inner torment.  And yet, not once did his fair, unbiased, objective review of the facts and arguments lead him to vote for our point of view.

Perhaps unreasonably and unfairly, I grew to hate him more than I hated his openly partisan colleagues.

Monday, October 1, 2018


Well, I predicted it [as did everyone else.]  No matter what restrictions are placed on the FBI investigation, people will come out of the woodwork with new stories about Kavanaugh.  “But they all concern his youth and college days,” it is said.

Wait for it.  This is only Monday.


There has been a flood of comments on this blog [and a four or five fold increase in views, a result of Brian Leiter’s kind words and link].  I should like to respond calmly to just one, by LFC.  Here is what he or she said:

“I think all I was trying to suggest -- and probably I didn't say it very well -- is that Wolff's Freudian take on Kavanaugh is theory-influenced (or theory-laden) speculation, and that's different from the people-watching analogies he used. Maybe "hazardous" was the wrong word. I just think it's different than common-sense inference.”

I don’t agree with that distinction.  Let me explain why.  All human beings, for as long as anyone can tell, have engaged in efforts to interpret the feelings, motives, and behavior of other human beings.  These efforts, successful or not, all involve observation, memory, the forming of hypotheses, the checking of those hypotheses against new observations, the making of generalizations arising out of those efforts, and the remembering of past observations, hypotheses, and generalizations.  Some people are astonishingly good at interpreting the feelings, motives, and behavior of others.  Some are not so good at it.

In my opinion [and this is, I know, a matter of considerable debate among Philosophers of Science,] there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy between what ordinary people do and what trained scientists do.  And ordinary people of any period in history tend to incorporate into their explanatory efforts what they know about the scientific discoveries of previous periods.  My examples of ordinary “people watching” were intended, perhaps unskillfully, to indicate that continuum.

In my interpretation of Kavanaugh’s testimony, I drew on my layman’s knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, derived principally from the quite limited and narrowly focused experiences of my own psychoanalysis.  I also drew on my first-hand experiences with people and my [mostly] second-hand knowledge of American Catholic social milieus.  

It might be useful here to tell once again a story from fifty years ago.  One evening in New York, I attended a very chi-chi gathering of Upper West Side intellectuals at a meeting of something called The Theater for Ideas.  The topic of the panel discussions was “The Hidden Philosophy of Psychoanalysis,” and one of the speakers was the famous psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.  [In the audience, by the way, were, among others, William Schuman, Susan Sontag, Sander Vanocur, and Norman Mailer.  It was that sort of event.]  After Bettelheim’s talk, feisty little neocon Sidney Hook got up and said, pugnaciously, “There is nothing new in what Freud said.  Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare could do what Freud could do!”  Bettelheim replied calmly, “That is true.  Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did, and Shakespeare could do what Freud did.  But Freud taught us to do it.”

Correctly or incorrectly, I was trying to do what Dostoyevsky did and what Shakespeare did, and what Austen and Dickens and Proust and countless other novelists have done, which is to make sense of a striking and extremely memorable public self-presentation.

Sunday, September 30, 2018


Inasmuch as I cannot think of anything else, I will speculate on the possible outcomes of the Kavanaugh affair.   Let us be clear: at this point all the matters in the short run is three votes in the Senate:  Manchin, Collins, Murkowsky [I assume Flake will vote yes in the end, unless something turns up that derails the entire matter.]

With that said, what are the short term and long term possibilities?

1.         Mark Judge caves to the FBI and say that the event described by Ford occurred pretty much as she described it.  If Judge does that, I predict that in his version of the event he is trying successfully to stop Kavanaugh, not abetting him.  If Judge rats Kavanaugh out, I would expect Kavanaugh to get wind of the news and withdraw his name from nomination before any thing comes out, angrily accusing the world of destroying his life, his family, and his reputation.  Behind the scenes he cuts a deal with McConnell that he will withdraw and save the Republicans the political carnage of a floor vote on condition that he keep his seat on the DC Circuit.  I think this is a possibility, on which I can put no estimate of likelihood.

2.         The FBI turns up all manner of slimy stuff, but nothing definitive.  Then Murkowsky probably votes no, but Collins?  She is between a rock and a hard place [assuming, as I do, that she has no actual conscience whatsoever.]  I do not think she can get re-elected in 2020 if she votes yes, but she will be primaried if she votes no.  Her best chance may be to vote no and appeal to Maine Democrats to vote for her in the primary.  She will make a cold eyed decision.  If she votes no, so will Manchin.  If she votes yes, Manchin will be free to vote yes, because the nomination will go through regardless of how he votes.  Once again, I cannot estimate the probabilities.

3.         The nomination goes through.  Kavanaugh immediately takes his seat on the High Court, making his SCOTUS colleagues right and left intensely uncomfortable behind their bland exteriors.  At this point, I predict, we will see something truly unprecedented.  After Kavanaugh is seated, a series of new allegations will surface.  Large numbers of people who have known Kavanaugh, both men and women, will tell credible stories about his appalling behavior not just during his prep school and early college days but later in his life as well.  I am absolutely sure such behavior exists and will come out.  The news media will not “move on.”  Remember, Kavanaugh will join the court the day after the vote, which means four weeks before the election.  He will be the poster child for Democratic candidates campaigning for everything from Governor and Senator to City Council and Dog Catcher.  This will not die away.  Impeaching and removing a Supreme Court Justice is a non-starter.  Can Kavanaugh stand the heat?  I do not know.  Perhaps he and Thomas will form a small support group for Supreme Court sexual abusers.

As the old Chinese curse has it, may you live in interesting times.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


LFC makes three brief but interesting comments on my piece about Kavanaugh’s presentation and what it reveals about him.  Here is the first:  “I agree w/ certain aspects of the post but I think it's somewhat hazardous to engage in this sort of psychoanalysis-at-a-distance of someone one 'knows' only as filtered through the media reports about his life or through his televised testimony. Hazardous, but not necessarily completely groundless.”

I want to take a moment to push back against the tendency to discount or discourage evaluations of the motives and personalities of others as “armchair psychoanalysis” and hence unwise.  [By the way, since psychoanalysts, in my experience, always sit in armchairs, we need some other phrase of disparagement.]  As anyone will know who has watched my video lectures on Freud, I insist on the impossibility, even for Freud, of engaging in psychoanalysis at a distance, as it were, so let that be understood as given in what I am now going to say.

Human beings [and many other mammals, as it happens] are constantly observing others, forming judgments about their motivations and probable future behavior, and adjusting what they think and do accordingly.  Let me give you several familiar examples.

Every time we get in a car and drive, we engage in on-going observations of and judgments about the other persons driving on the same roads.  When I drive from my home to the entry to the nearby Interstate, on my way to RDU airport, there is a stretch of two lane country road on which people routinely drive 50 or 60 miles an hour.  That means that the cars in the opposite lane and I are approaching one another at between 100 and 120 mph.  My survival depends on making snap judgments about the reliability and probable behavior of people I do not know and will never meet.

When I walk on a busy street in midtown Manhattan, I am walking alongside or counter to people very close to me, and I must make a series of judgments about their probable next steps if I am to avoid bumping into them.  At the same time, I am alert to any walkers whose behavior deviates from the norm in ways suggesting that they are mentally disturbed or potentially dangerous.  [I am old enough to recall when someone speaking loudly to no one at all was a sure tell.  Now, they are probably on their cellphones.  It took me a while to adjust to the new reality.]  It is of course not just human beings who engage in this sort of ongoing interpretation.  As I fanatic viewer of nature shows on TV, I am aware that predators like lions and cheetahs will observe a herd of Impala or Wildebeest and instantly spot the one animal whose slightly abnormal behavior is a sign that it might be injured and hence easier to kill.

When young people go to Singles bars [I am told], they acutely observe their fellow patrons looking for signs that someone might be receptive to a come-on.

And so forth.  Interpreting the behavior and divining the motivations of other people is one the principal things we humans do, and natural selection has made us really good at it.  So when I observe a wildly deviant bit of behavior like Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee testimony, and draw from it conclusions about his character and motivations, I am not engaging in armchair psychoanalysis.  I am simply engaging in the oldest human activity: people watching.


By the time I had returned home from New York on Wednesday, posted my two course handouts, and recovered a bit from the rigors of the trip, it was Thursday morning.  I spent an entire day riveted by the Judiciary Committee hearings, posted my analysis of Kavanaugh’s testimony, and then was caught up in the drama yesterday that led to the one week postponement of the floor vote and the order for a “limited” FBI investigation.  Only now am I able to attend to and partially respond to the flood of comments posted on this blog.

Let me begin by saying just a word or two about the motivation for the post concerning linear homogeneous functions, which may provide a context that was missing from the document itself.

The title of the course is Mystifications of Social Reality.  The first mystification is the misrepresentation of capitalism designed to conceal the fundamental fact that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  The Classical mystification, or ideological rationalization, consisted in presenting the worker as a petit bourgeois commodity producer whose commodity, labor power, he or she brings to a free, open, fair, uncoerced market, where, like all other commodities, it is exchanged at a price proportional to its value.  With the proceeds from their commodity, proceeds which are conventionally called the wage, workers purchase new inputs into their productive activities, which is to say food, clothing, and shelter.  The central aim of Capital, as I explained in my first three lectures, is to demystify capitalism and expose this rationalization as false.

In the 1870’s, the decade after Capital appeared, mainstream economic theory underwent a “triple revolution,” carried out more or less independently by Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, and Karl Menger, in the wake of which there emerged modern Marginalist economic theory.  Modern Economics has a different ideological mystification of capitalism, but with the same purpose of concealing the fact that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  According to the new mystification, Capital and Labor work cooperatively to produce the social product, each one [in ideal circumstances] paid its marginal product, called respectively profits or wages.  The mathematical framework for this new ideological rationalization is provided by Leonhardt Euler’s theorem concerning homogeneous functions.

Hence the handout.

There is obviously much more to be said about the mystifications of modern Economics [I said a bit about indifference curves], but I had other fish to fry in that lecture and did not linger.

I hope this helps makes sense of what I posted.

Friday, September 28, 2018


I spent most of yesterday watching the Judiciary Committee hearings, and in this post, I am going to try to make sense of them.  What follows is my amateur opinion.  It differs from everything I have heard and read about the hearing, so it may be of interest.

First of all, I believe Christine Blasey Ford’s account.  I am certain that she suffered the experience she described, and I am certain that she is not mistaken about the identity of the two persons in the room.  If you reject these judgments, then you will probably prefer to navigate to some other blog.

Well, do I think then that Brett Kavanaugh is lying?  The reality, I suggest, is a great deal more complex, and it will take me a while to explain.  The keys to understanding the truth lie in Kavanaugh’s testimony, in its words, but also in his self-presentation.  To keep this reasonably short, I am going to simply state my conclusions without extended background justifications.  Take them for what they are worth.

Brett Kavanaugh was born into an extremely conventional upper middle-class Catholic family, and as a boy he was under enormous parental pressure to be a Good Boy.  This meant being polite to adults, embracing sports, mobilizing his considerable psychic energy and his considerable intelligence to do well, as that is conventionally understood, in school.  He went to Church regularly, as regularly, to quote his testimony, as brushing his teeth.  He palled around with boys and girls in happy, cheerful Leave it To Beaver style, systematically denying his sexuality in ways that were deeply painful.  His every action was a public performance, an affirmation of the part of him that would garner praise from parents, teachers, coaches, and priests.  He was a Good Boy.

This is, psychodynamically, a volatile mixture.  Kavanaugh was constantly under extreme pressure to repress his sexual [and also aggressive] urges.  His reward for this painful pressure was praise, approval, high grades, and all the other overt public rewards that his social milieu had to offer.

Kavanaugh was hardly alone in this set of circumstances, needless to say, nor are they peculiar to young Catholics, although the particular form they take does have religious, ethnic, and economic roots.  This is, after all, the stuff of a hundred, nay a thousand, American novels.

Kavanaugh drank beer.  As he said repeatedly in his testimony, he drank beer, he liked beer, he still likes beer.  It is not at all an accident that it is beer, not hard liquor, that he drank.  He was not a solitary drinker [this is an absolutely crucial point, as we shall see.]  He drank beer with his buddies, his male friends.  When he drank, he experienced a momentary relief from the crushing psychic repression that defined his emotional makeup.  When he drank, his sexual and aggressive urges achieved some expression.  And under the influence of beer, which he regularly drank to excess, he became belligerent, sexually aggressive toward women.

But it is a striking and enormously significant fact that he became belligerent and sexually aggressive toward women in the presence of other men.  Indeed, his drunken behavior was as much a performance for the benefit of those men as it was an expression of any sort of desire for the women.  Listen closely to the astonishingly accurate, revealing, and precise testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.  Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, she tells us, were laughing uproariously as Brett assaulted her.  They were laughing with each other, having a good time with each other. 

Compare this with what we know of many of the sexual predators who have been called to account by the #MeToo Movement.  Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and all the rest.  They committed their assaults in private, and the focus of their acts was their sexual victim.

Not Brett Kavanaugh.  In a Fox News interview, and then in his Senate testimony, Kavanaugh says he was a virgin in High School and for some years thereafter.  He was a Good Boy.  I believe him.  I do not think he was actually trying to rape Christine Blasey in that room, and if by some accident he had managed to rip her clothes off, I think it is entirely possible that he would not have known quite what to do next.  He and Mark Judge were laughing with each other, having a good time with each other.

The accounts of Kavanaugh’s Freshman Yale roommate and of other victims make it clear that, as we would expect, he did not change his basic psychological makeup when he graduated from prep school. 

Brett Kavanaugh is a Good Boy.  He has done everything that was demanded of him as a boy, and has been spectacularly successful.  Now, the entire enormously painful psychologically demanding series of inner repressions and compromises on which his entire life has been built is being called into question by the public revelation of that repressed side, that back side, that hidden side of his psyche.  His testimony yesterday was a desperate, impassioned, terrified cry:  I AM A GOOD BOY.  To deny him the Supreme Court seat is to tell him that those sacrifices, repressions, and denials were for naught. 

Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth.  But so was Brett Kavanaugh.  Not about the actual incident.  He was telling the truth as he genuinely believes it.  He is a Good Boy.

Thursday, September 27, 2018


A homogeneous function is a function in which the sum of the exponents of the variables in each term is the same.

For example:                 f(x,y,z) = 4xyz + 1/2x2y - .72z3 

is a homogeneous          function of order 3, because it is equivalent to

                                       4xyz + 1/2x2yz0 – .72x0y0z3 

                                                And (1 + 1 + 1) = (2 + 1 + 0) = (0 + 0 + 3) = 3

A homogeneous function in which the sum of the exponents        of the variables is 1 is called a linear homogeneous function.

Euler proved a theorem about the first partial derivatives of homogeneous functions.   For linear homogeneous functions, and in particular for the example above, the theorem states that:

the value of the function f at a point  f0(x0,y0,z0) is equal to the sum of each first partial derivative multiplied by the value of the variable at that point.  In symbols:

                             f(x0,y0,z0)  =  δf/δx(x0) + δf/δy(y0) + δf/δz(z0)

Now for the payoff.

Suppose there is a production function for an economy in which the two variables are Capital and Labor [measured how?  Ah, that is a very big question and another story.]   Let us represent the function as

f = f(K,L)

 where K stands for capital and L stands for Labor.

The partial derivative of f with respect to Capital, or K, can be interpreted as the increase in the value of the production function of the society if Labor is held constant and one unit of Capital is added.  In short, it can be interpreted as the marginal product of Capital.  Similarly for Labor.

Now, suppose that each unit of Capital is paid a profit equal to its Marginal Product and each unit of Labor [one hour, one employee, whatever] is paid a wage equal to its [his/her] Marginal Product. 




Never mind the various definitional problems, which are huge.  The question is:  Does the US economy have a linear homogeneous production function?

Well, an economy with a linear homogeneous production function can be shown to have three properties that follow mathematically from that assumption:

1.       The economy exhibits constant returns to scale
2.       The economy is in long run equilibrium
3.       The economy has a zero rate of profit.

Hmm.  Does that describe the US economy?  Does it describe any capitalist economy?  No.





I am home from my fourth trip to teach at Columbia, and it is beginning to feel comfortingly usual.  The waiter in the food court of Terminal C at LaGuardia has learned of my fondness for pancakes and greets me like a regular.

Needless to say, I have been mesmerized by l’affaire Kavanaugh and await the Senate testimony in an hour with anticipation.  Speaking as an amateur observer, it does not surprise me at all that a man might be both a serious scholar, athlete, church goer, and professed teenage virgin and also a mean drunken sexual abuser.

However, be that as it may, I thought I would post the two handouts I prepared for my class and distributed on Tuesday.  Since my first stint is now ended, and Todd Gitlin picks up the mantle next week, I prepared for my students a list of my writings on Marx, both published and unpublished, should they decide they could not get enough of me.  This is the first handout:

Robert Paul Wolff
Published and Unpublished Writings on Marx

I.          Books

1985:   UNDERSTANDING MARX: A Reconstruction and Critique of CAPITAL, Hardcover and Paperback Edi­tions, Princeton University Press.

1988:   MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY: On The Literary Structure Of CAPITAL, Hardcover and Paperback Editions, University of Massachusetts Press.

II.        Journal Articles

"How to Read DAS KAPITAL, MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW, Winter, 1980, 739‑765.

"A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value, PHILOSOPHY AND PUBLIC AF­FAIRS, Spring, 1981, 89‑120.

"Piero Sraffa and the Rehabilitation of Classical Political Economy," SOCIAL RESEARCH, Spring, 1982, 209‑238.

Translated as "Piero Sraffa e la riabilitazione dell'economia classica," COMMUNITA, Novembre, 1983, 78‑101.

"The Analytics of the Labor Theory of Value in David Ricardo and Adam Smith," MIDWEST STUDIES IN PHILOSOPHY, 1982, 301‑319.

"A Reply to Roemer," PHILOSOPHY AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS, Winter, 1983, 84‑88.

"The Rehabilitation of Karl Marx," JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, 1983, 713‑719.

"A Reply to Professor Schweickart," CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, September, 1984, 369‑374.

"The Resurrection of Karl Marx, Political Economist," SOCIAL RESEARCH, 1986, 475‑512.

"Absolute Fruit and Abstract Labor; Remarks on Marx's Use of the Concept of Inversion," in KNOWLEDGE AND POLITICS: Case Studies in the Relationship Between Epistemology and Political Philosophy, edited by Marcelo Dascal and Ora Gruengard, Westview Press, 1989, 171‑187.

"Methodological Individualism and Marx: Some Remarks on Jon Elster, Game Theory, and Other Things," CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 20, Number 4 [Dec., 1990], 469‑486.

III.       Unpublished Papers Archived on [accessible via link on Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone.]

Marx Working paper
A Unified Reading of Marx
The Future of Socialism
The Thought of Karl Marx
The Study of Society


Monday, September 24, 2018


There is something that has puzzled me for quite some time, and perhaps a reader with genuine legal knowledge can help me out.  It is established that the Trump campaign was approached with the offer of material from the Russian government detrimental to Hillary Clinton and her campaign, and that senior members of the campaign, including the campaign chair, agreed to meet for the purpose of discussing this offer.

Leave aside everything else, including whether the Russians actually possessed such material.  Why are those facts, as they stand, not evidence of a conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign to affect the election?


And so the evidence emerges of other Kavanaugh incidents, just as I [and the rest of the civilized world] predicted.  It is really worth reading this New Yorker story by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow.  It seems that Kavanaugh's drunken and sexually aggressive behavior was well known to fellow Yalies and was the topic of contemporaneous email chatter.

Hardly a surprise.

Now the always eager Michael Avenatti announces that he has, as a client, yet a third woman with a Kavanaugh story to tell.

I think we may yet defeat Kavanaugh.  Whether McConnell can railroad through a substitute nominee before the new Congress is sworn in remains to be seen, but if he cannot, and if the Democrats can retake the Senate, then Chief Justice Roberts can preside over an eight-person court until 2020.

Fair is fair.

Sunday, September 23, 2018


Read this.  The world is unspeakable.


Once again, I found a five hour stint driving to the meetup place, canvassing, and driving home very tiring, but it was well worth it.  The candidate himself was there to start us off, as well as his mother, and his grade school teacher.  All politics is local.  Six weeks to go.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to believe that Kavanaugh will not make it to the High Court.  If we can take back the Senate, we can hold the seat open for two years until the 2020 election.

This is beginning to feel like the Sixties.  Social and political forces are moving underneath us in ways that are hard to predict.

Saturday, September 22, 2018


I am off in a ninety minutes to spend five hours canvassing for Ryan Watts here in the NC 6th.  Actually, the canvassing will only take three hours, but I live at the eastern end of the 6th and we are doing our door-to-door in Greensboro, at the western end, so it will take me an hour to get  there and an hour to get home.

Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose at the national level.  I think if Dr. Blasey Ford testifies on camera, Kavanaugh will go down.  As for Rosenstein, the fact that Trump has not summarily fired him says a good deal about how vulnerable Trump is.

With all of this going on, I am preparing to lecture on Tuesday about the ideological significance of linear homogeneous functions.  How weird is that?

Friday, September 21, 2018


Enough of court packing fantasies.  Let me try to think through the probable consequences of Brett Kavanagh’s confirmation.

Very quickly after that confirmation, a case would come before the High Court that would result either in the overturning of Roe v. Wade or in a restriction of its application so severe as to constitute de facto reversal.  [At this point I proceed without any real legal knowledge, so the reader should be wary of my conclusions.]   This would not make abortion illegal in the United States.  It would simply leave in place and once again in force existing state anti-abortion laws.  In many states, encompassing, I believe, a majority of the population, abortion would be legal.  There would be some pro-abortion states [Massachusetts?] in which anti-abortion laws that had never been reversed but had simply been overruled by Roe would suddenly once again become state law, and would have to be removed by state legislative action.  There would be anti-abortion states where laws designed to make abortion impossibly difficult to obtain would be replaced by outright prohibitions.  The issue of abortion would become the determinative factor in struggles for control of state legislatures.  There would be an attempt in Congress to pass a federal prohibition on abortion, and although it would be expected to be upheld by the Supreme Court, it would, I believe, fail to get the necessary votes.

Thus on the issue of abortion, America would become two nations under one flag.

But that would not be the end of it.  Middle class and upper middle class women in anti-abortion states desiring an abortion would have the option of traveling to abortion-legal states, where they could obtain an abortion safely, legally, and privately from a health clinic.  This would of course include the wives and daughters of publicly anti-abortion male politicians.  The overturning of Roe would affect most immediately the tens of millions of women whose economic circumstances made such private medical trips prohibitive or whose understanding of the medical realities and available options was limited by their education and the nature of their medical care and insurance.

This would be a cruel, hypocritical, and in my judgment unsustainable state of affairs.  But I think it is almost certainly the state of affairs we would see come to pass if Kavanagh were confirmed.

Will he be confirmed?  I don’t know.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


If Kavanagh is confirmed, the political fallout may cost the Republicans some House seats, and even control of the Senate.  But the possible consequences, not only for reproductive rights but also for the environment and any hope of a rebirth of unions would likely be catastrophic, for a good deal longer than I for one can hope to live.

There is an alternative, other than the States' Rights option discussed here a while back.  A simple majority in both houses plus the presidency is sufficient to alter the size of the court.  Congress has done this six or seven times in the past, although not in the 20th or 21st centuries.

The time has come to think about serious steps, of the sort that senior Democrats are quite obviously unwilling to consider.


A friend tells me reliably that Winnie the Pooh has been banned in China.  It seems someone noticed a resemblance between President Xi Jinping and the lovable bear and posted several comparison pictures online, which went viral.  This fundamentally changes my view of the Chinese government.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


I have just learned, from David Auerbach, that Sylvain Bromberger has died.  Sylvain was an old, old friend from my Harvard graduate school days, and we were then briefly colleagues at the University of Chicago from 1961-63.  He spent most of his career at MIT.  Not too long ago, when I gave a talk at MIT, we reconnected briefly.  I have lovely memories of Sylvain, who was universally not only admired for his intelligence but loved as a human being.  A little later on, I will write something of my memories of him.  Sylvain was 94 when he passed away.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Donald Trump has a great deal of money.  This has enabled him to give Don Jr. a good life, even though young Trump is clearly brain-damaged.  But couldn't the father have at least found an orthodontist who could do something about those front teeth?


Yesterday, a quiet Sunday, hits on this blog went from their usual roughly 1000-1200 a day to 10,280!  Does anyone know what happened?  Is my secret name Christine Blasey Ford?


1.  Brett Kavanagh did in fact do, as a seventeen year old prep school student, what he is accused of having done.

2.  He did not do this sort of thing just once.  Men who do this do it again.

3.  Sooner or later, another woman will surface with her story.

I have absolutely no knowledge of the matter.  We shall see.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


There has been extended comment here concerning Marx's Labor Theory of Value.  This is a subject on which I have written extensively over many years, and I am not going to repeat myself here, but interested readers who are prepared to deal with some serious mathematics are invited to follow the link at  the top of this blog to and there to find my paper, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value."  Those somewhat put off by math can read Understanding Marx for a primer.

By the way, Marx's claim that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall has been refuted mathematically, first by Okishio and then by Sam Bowles.

If I may summarize twenty years of work in a sentence, Marx was right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class but wrong that the key to proving this is the distinction between labor and labor power.


The journalist David Leonhardt has this Op Ed in the NY TIMES this morning.  It is, I think, one of the most important and insightful pieces I have read in a very long time.  Here is just one fact cited by Leonhardt that stood out for me.  The official unemployment rate in the United States is currently just below 4%.  But the percentage of men age 25-54 who are not employed is slightly below 15%.

Think about that fact.  In an economy as close to official full employment as you are ever likely to see, 15% of adult men in prime wage earning years are unemployed, and two thirds of them do not even show up in the topline unemployment figures because they have simply given up looking for work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics experts know this, of course.  Their work is the source of the figures Leonhardt cites.  But virtually none of the public discussions of economic affairs mention these figures, nor do these facts play any role in policy debates in Washington.

Why don't these men [and women, of course] show up in the official unemployment figures?  Because those figures are generated by monthly household sampling conducted by the BLS, whose employees ask, as they go door to door, "Are you now employed full time or part time?  If you are not employed, have you looked for work in the last month [or, in some surveys, two months]?"

If the answer to the first question is "no" and to the second question is "yes," the person is counted as unemployed.  But if the answer to both questions is "no," the person is not counted.  That person is considered not to be in the labor force.

If you think about this simple set of facts for a moment, much of contemporary politics makes much more sense.