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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, April 26, 2010


When Christmas rolled around, Cindy and I decided to throw a party, but our apartment was small, and between us, we had accumulated a large number of friends during our Harvard years, so we hit upon the plan of dividing them up into three more or less compatible groups and inviting them for three successive nights. For each party, we would make a large bowl of eggnog, lay out cups and all, conjure up some eats, and welcome in that night's cohort. My Wellesley connections were part of the group invited for the third night, but Ellen Haring, the Philosophy Department Chair, got her wires crossed and showed up on the second night instead. I was surprised when she rang the doorbell, but I just greeted her and invited her in. I have often thought that when she got home, she might have consulted her date book, realized her mistake, and then wondered whether we gave a party every night.

I was still convinced that I needed to enter a full-scale psychoanalysis, but I could not do that until I knew where I was going to be for an extended period of years, so I compromised by again seeking once-a-week therapy. My first therapist was Dr. Max Day, who rather startled me by turning out to have read my big cover story article on Herman Kahn in The New Republic two years earlier. Day was a very sympathetic character, and helped me in an on-going way to deal with the marital problems I was having. When he had to leave town, he handed me on to a Dr. Limentani, a perfectly decent man who had the misfortune to be hard of hearing. It was really weird trying to free associate in the presence of someone who had to cup a hand behind his ear and ask me to repeat myself.

I had continued my efforts in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and the stress of arguing with people day after day about the threat of an accidental nuclear war was beginning to take its toll on me. I talked to Limentani about my fears, and he made a valiant effort to separate what was rational about them from what might be a neurotic element. By that time I really knew what I was talking about, and I was very sensitive, as you can imagine, to the slightest suggestion that it was all in my head.

One day, I found myself in the upstairs lounge of the Harvard Freshman Union, trying to persuade a skeptical member of the Harvard faculty of the seriousness of the dangers of an accidental nuclear exchange [it may have been Brzezinski, but my memory fails me on this point]. I must have simply wigged out, because the next thing I knew, I was running down Massachusetts Avenue as fast as I could, hyperventilating. When I got home, I took a long look at myself and decided that this could not be good for me. I had been more or less permanently in a state of controlled panic about nuclear weapons for three years, with no end in sight. I decided to pull back from the stress of public speaking and endless arguing, and instead ascend into what I later learned to think of as the ideological superstructure. I turned to political theory.

I began to think really hard about the foundations of democratic theory -- about the arguments that had been advanced by one or another of the great political theorists to justify the authority claims of the democratic state. Fairly quickly, it became clear to me that I needed something very like what Kant would have called a deduction of the democratic state, which is to say an argument designed to demonstrate a priori that a legitimate democratic state is theoretically possible. Couching the problem in Kantian terms, as seemed natural to me for obvious reasons, I set out to discover the conditions of the possibility in general of a de jure legitimate democratic state.

I wrote a paper called "The Fundamental Problem of Political Theory," which I interpreted to be the task of demonstrating the legitimacy of the democratic form of government. At first, I thought such a justification could be found, so at the beginning of my paper, I announced my intention of producing the justification, only to have to admit at the end of the paper that I had thus far failed. I delivered the paper in various places, always with this letdown as a conclusion. After a while, it dawned on me that I was not really looking for and failing to find a justification for democracy. I was really demonstrating the impossibility of such a justification. I had, almost without realizing it, become an anarchist.

Needless to say,, the rest of the world did not put itself on hold while I made up my mind about democracy. On Friday, November 22nd, 1963 I was in the Widener card catalogue room looking something up. Widener has been somewhat reconfigured in recent years. In those days, when you reached the top of the broad staircase leading to the second floor, if you turned right, you entered a narrow room crammed with brown wooden file cabinets containing hundreds of card drawers, in which, arrayed alphabetically, were cards for Widener's enormous collection. Having found what you were looking for, you could either fill out a call slip with one of the stubby yellow pencils the library provided, or flash your Harvard I. D. and walk into the stacks themselves via a narrow door located to the left of the large desk area reserved for the librarians. As I was filtering through the cards in a drawer, I noticed a stir up at the desk, which was usually a model of librarial silence. Several people were gathered around a small portable radio, listening intently. I wandered over to find out what was up, and heard the news that Kennedy had just been shot while visiting Dallas. At that point it was not known whether he had survived.

I rushed home to tell Cindy, who did not have either radio or television set on and therefore had not heard the news. In those days we had a little ugly tabletop black and white tv set with enormous rabbit ears that one could rotate this way and that to catch the signal. For the entire weekend, I remained glued to the set, along with most of the rest of America. I was actually watching when the Dallas police led Lee Harvey Oswald out of the station to transfer him to another location. Jack Ruby walked up, pulled out a gun, and shot him dead, though in fact you could not actually see any of this in the crush of police and spectators.

As luck would have it, Cindy's parents were scheduled to come to town a few days later, and although it was a business trip, we would be seeing them for dinner. Once again, a little back story is called for. Jim Griffin was a self-made man. He had never finished high school, and had entered the Sears Roebuck ranks before the war, when it was still possible to do that without educational credentials. Sears, which in those days was one of America's great corporations, was organized along regional lines. Griffin rose first to be the manager of a store in Louisville, and then to be head of the Cleveland group of Sears stores, one of the largest and most important groups in the country. His progress was guided by the President of the company, who had taken Griffin under his wing. The natural next step would have been a regional vice-presidency, a position which by then called for at the very least a college degree. Griffin was passed over, but the Sears President created a new slot for him in the Chicago home office: Vice President of Public Relations.

Now Sears wanted to build a new store in Boston at a location not zoned for so large a commercial enterprise, and a zoning waiver was needed. In the Boston of that time, the way to accomplish this was for money to change hands. The go-between was a shady character referred to simply as "the Egyptian," and Jim Griffin was the bagman. The Griffins had become friendly with two brothers of Greek extraction, Tom and John Pappas, who played an important role in Boston political life, and were facilitating the payoff. The Pappas family owed its money to the importation of Greek olives and other delicacies, with the result that for several years Cindy and I received large bags of pistachio nuts each Christmas. We were invited to join the Griffins for a dinner in a fabled North End Italian restaurant, along with John and Katherine Pappas, their daughter, and an impecunious young man of impeccable Greek aristocratic extraction to whom the Pappas were trying to marry off the daughter.

Boston Democrats were divided into two camps, those allied with the Kennedys and those allied with the McCormacks. The McCormack faction had been riding high because its leader, John McCormack had ascended to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, but the election of Jack Kennedy had totally tilted the balance in the other direction. The Pappas brothers were part of the McCormack faction, and at dinner, there was ill-concealed glee at the assassination. That night, for the first time, I had Fettuccini Alfredo.

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