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Saturday, May 22, 2010


All this took a giant leap forward in 1974. The Economics Department was in terrible shape. A group if neo-classicals were feuding with some Chicago Milton Friedman types who had been brought in to jump start things. Enrolment in the intro courses was down, hurting not only Arts and Sciences but also some huge departments like Business and Food and Natural Resources, whose majors were all required to take an Economics course. The Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the time was a really decent man named Dean Alfange, who had ascended to the Deanship from the Chairmanship of Poli Sci. He tried bringing in an outside Chair, but that didn't work. He tried handing the Chairmanship to a young Associate Professor, but that flopped. He even thought of taking the department over himself. At that point, his friend and former colleague, Bill Connolly, came to him with an idea. Bill told him that there was a real hotshot young Harvard economist who had just been denied tenure at Harvard, despite having the support of Paul Samuelson, Wassily Leontiev, and John Kenneth Galbraith. His name, Bill said, was Sam Bowles, and he was spending a sabbatical semester right here in the Pioneer Valley. What about bringing in Bowles?

Sam Bowles was the real deal, arguably the smartest young economist in the country. At Harvard, he had been given the plum of teaching the graduate Micro course, the jewel in every Economics doctoral program. He had been denied tenure because he was a left-wing thinker who did not do the sort of cramped economics that the younger tenured Harvard professors respected. Sam wanted to stay in the area, Bill said. Alfange met with Bowles and asked whether he would be interested in coming to UMass. Right away, Sam said that he had no intention of being the token Marxist in the Econ Department. He would only come if Alfange hired five radical economists, all with tenure walking in the door.

This is where courage comes into it. Instead of throwing Bowles out of his office, Alfange said he would do it, but on one condition: the five had to have gilt-edged Ivy League credentials that Alfange could get past an inattentive Board of Trustees. Bowles recruited Herb Gintis, Richard Wolff, Stephen Resnick, and Rick Edwards. The five met with Alfange, and arrived at an agreement. Overnight, UMass acquired the largest collection of American Marxist economists in captivity.

When the five showed up, some way had to be found for them to live with the people already in the department. Alfange appointed a five man committee to sort things out. Two were neo-classical from the department. Two were drawn from the five new professors. I was the fifth. The committee agreed that the neo-classicals would control the Chairmanship, which went to a really bright, nice mathematical economist named Don Katzner, whose most intense concern seemed to me to be boundary conditions on semi-closed sets. The Marxists would control the Executive Committee of the Department. Everyone agreed that there would be no ideological tests for applicants to the doctoral program. Graduate students would be chosen solely on objective criteria -- GPAs and GREs.

Almost immediately, the West Coast radical magazine Ramparts published a big article about the new radicals at UMass. When it came time for seniors to apply to graduate school, every super-bright hotshot radical econ major in the country applied. The existing neo-classical grad program was a decent second or third tier program, not at all in the league of Harvard or MIT. So the very best neo-classical students applied to UMass only as a back up, having no intention of actually going there. The next Fall, an entire class of top of the line radical graduate students enrolled. Overnight, the program was transformed.

The new faculty were not only smart and left, they were also attractive, charismatic teachers. Enrolments soared, and Alfange was vindicated. But all was not entirely calm. The first problem was the intro courses. Business and Food and Natural Resources wanted the old time religion -- supply and demand curves, elasticities of demand -- Samuelson light, basically. But the graduate students wanted to teach them Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Baran and Sweezy. Sam and Herb and Rick and Steve explained that these courses were the department's bread and butter. If the department did not teach what the big clients wanted, the TA-ships that supported the new graduate students would dry up. The students were not happy.

The second problem was inevitable, and could have been anticipated. Put five Marxists in a room, and the first thing they do is split into two factions. Sam and Herb were a team, joined at the hip, or so it seemed. Shortly after coming to UMass they published Schooling in Capitalist America, probably the most famous work of Marxist scholarship by Americans. They were fiercely smart [and still are, of course], and enormously popular teachers at every level from Intro Econ to the most advanced graduate seminar. Both Herb and Sam are very skilled mathematicians, and their published work shows the power of formal methods when wedded to an uncompromisingly progressive politics. Rick Wolff and Steve Resnick were totally different sorts of intellectual Marxists, much more in the European tradition. They were seriously enamored of the writings of the most refined and sophisticated of the French Marxists, Louis Althusser. Rick and Steve are movement builders, and over the years they have forged a school of Marxist analysis that has its own publications, annual scholarly conventions, and acolytes. Like Herb and Sam, Rick and Steve were enormously popular lecturers. As the years went by, the Economics Department recruited more and more radical economists, becoming the largest and most intellectually powerful Marxist economics department in America.

There is a lovely story about Rick Wolff that I would like to tell. This is really Rick's story, not mine, but since I think Rick has more important things to do than write his memoirs, I hope he will not mind if I appropriate it. It seems that before the Second World War, Rick's father was a jurist in Europe who used his official position to help a number of Jews escape from the Nazis. Rick's family came to the United States, and eventually Rick went to Harvard. He was in his Harvard room one day when there was a knock on the door. It was a little man named Fritz Pappenheim. Pappenheim said that Rick's father had helped him to escape to the United States, and he was here now to repay that debt, by undertaking Rick's real education. For the next several years, as Rick took the standard Economics and Sociology and Government courses that Harvard offered in those days, Pappenheim conducted a private tutorial for Rick, taking him through the writings of Marx and the great sociologists, philosophers, economists, and political theorists of the European tradition. It was that informal tutorial, not what he learned in his classes, Rick said, that shaped his intellectual development. I have often thought that if Rick were a bit younger, he might have encountered at least some of that tradition in Social Studies.

All of this -- the Economics Department, the Legal Studies Department, the Afro-American Studies Department, the Labor Center, and smart, radical intellectuals scattered across the campus in English, German, Comparative Literature, and elsewhere -- made UMass in the 70's, 80's, and 90's one of the most exciting campuses in America. The buildings were in serious need of repair, the budgets were periodically slashed, the university suffered through a series of less than stellar top administrators, but the place was alive. It turned out that my decision to walk away from Columbia was a brilliant career move.

The termination of my analysis and Cindy's lifted a great burden from my shoulders. No longer did I have to teach summer school or hunt up moonlighting opportunities. Between the Fall of 1971 and the Spring of 1980, I did not teach a single course above my mandated load. Edited books also stopped dropping from my sleeves like tribbles, [StarTrek episode, December 29, 1967] although there were three in the works that appeared in '71, '72, and '73. But I still had hanging over my head an unfinished book on Kant's ethics. I had begun the project while teaching Ethical Theory for the first time at Columbia in 1964-65. Fresh from what I felt was my successful engagement with the First Critique, I conceived the book as a critique and reinterpretation of Kant's ethical theory that would succeed at long last in producing the demonstration a priori of the Categorical Imperative that Kant claimed to have given us in the Grundlegung. Those of you reading this, if there are any, who are both knowledgeable about Kantian ethical theory and also conversant with my In Defense of Anarchism will recognize that I desperately needed such an argument to sustain the objectivist premise I had laid down in the latter work.

Ordinarily, as should by now be clear, I write quickly and finish a book without delays, but this project had been in the works for seven years. The problem was simple: I could not get the story right. Kant tries three times in the Grundlegung to demonstrate a priori the universal validity of the Fundamental Principle of Morality, and three times he fails. He first tries, as indeed he ought, to derive the conclusion from an analysis of the nature of willing as such. That attempt comes to grief with the famous, and famously unsatisfactory, Four Examples of the Categorical Imperative. His second attempt is the analysis of humanity as an end in itself, but deeply moving though that passage is, it turns out not actually to mean anything coherent. His final attempt is the concept of a Realm of Ends, which in fact is far and away the most promising of the three. But although Kant has a pretty good argument for the claim that rational agents, if they enter into a Kingdom of Ends, are objectively obligated to abide by its laws [a line of argument he gets from Rousseau], he has in the Grundlegung no proof that rational agents as such are obligated to form a Kingdom of Ends. The dictates of the legislature in the Realm of Ends are therefore hypothetical, not categorical, in force.

It was this unsatisfactory state of affairs, this story without an ending, that kept me from finishing the book. Shortly after settling into the Barrett Place house, I returned to the project, and more by main force than by inspired storytelling, pushed through to a conclusion. In Defense of Anarchism had been such a marked success that Harper and Row agreed to publish the book, and in 1973 it finally appeared under the title The Autonomy of Reason. I have never been happy with that book, even though I do think it contains valuable explications of some of Kant's most impenetrable texts. Some years later, I was paging through Kant's Rechtslehre, for reasons I cannot now recall, and I came upon a discussion of property that I realized constituted the missing step in the argument for which I had been searching. When I was invited to contribute an essay to a festschrift for Barrington Moore, I sat down and wrote a paper that I called "The Completion of Kant's Moral Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." The editor of the festschrift rejected it because it did not "fit in" with the rest of the essays, and I put the essay in a file cabinet. Years later, I was invited to contribute to a volume of new essays on Kant's philosophy, and I sent it along. It finally appeared in 1998 in a volume called Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy. It is actually a rather important essay, in my judgment, showing, among other things, exactly what the relationship is of Jack Rawls' "theory of justice" to Kant's moral philosophy.

The most successful book I have ever written, if we measure success by the size of the royalty checks, was really just an effort at uxorial support. After completing the preparation of her dissertation for publication, Cindy set right to work on a full-scale study of the novels of the American author Edith Wharton [resulting, of course, in my introduction to yet another body of wonderful literature with which I had until then been totally unfamiliar]. She won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that permitted her to take off the academic year 1972-73. She worked feverishly, but at the end of the year still very much needed another semester of free time before going back to teaching. I should explain, parenthetically, that the members of the English Department had rejected suggestions that they reduce their teaching load to two-and-two by scheduling large lectures and discussion sections taught by graduate students. Rather nobly, they insisted that literature could only properly be taught in small classes, and took on themselves a three-three load that no one else in the faculties of Arts and Sciences bore. Cindy simply could not work as she needed to on her Wharton book while carrying that burden of teaching. But with Mrs. McEwan's salary, we did not think we could afford to have her take off a semester without pay.

As her fellowship year was coming to a close, I had a visitation from two Prentice Hall editors. My textbook for them, Philosophy: A Modern Encounter, had been extremely successful, albeit short-lived, and they thought I might be just the person for a new project they wanted to launch. Their formidable sales force of reps who visit Philosophy professors in community colleges and State University campuses across America were reporting that the students found the traditional casebooks too difficult to understand. Twenty pages of Descartes, half a Platonic dialogue, or a section of the Grundlegung was just more than they could handle. Would I be willing to write a readable textbook aimed at "the lower end of the market?"

I really was not attracted by the idea. After pouring out book after book to pay for the analytic bills, I wanted to spend time with my boys, do my teaching, and relax. But then it struck me that this might be the solution to Cindy's problem. "I will do it," I said, "if you give me an advance big enough to allow my wife to take a semester off without pay so that she can finish her scholarly book." How much would that be?, they wanted to know. Given Cindy's salary as an Assistant Professor, I figured we could manage it for $6,000. [Lest anyone think I was nickel and diming it, I will point out that in 2010 constant dollars, that is just shy of $30,000.] They agreed, and on July 12, 1973, I signed the contract, committing myself to turn in the finished manuscript one year later, at the end of the summer of 1974. Cindy took the semester off, she broke the back of her Wharton project, and in 1977, A Feast of Words was published to universal acclaim, establishing her as a major critic of American fiction


Unknown said...

"...although Kant has a pretty good argument for the claim that rational agents, if they enter into a Kingdom of Ends, are objectively obligated to abide by its laws [a line of argument he gets from Rousseau], he has in the Grundlegung no proof that rational agents as such are obligated to form a Kingdom of Ends. The dictates of the legislature in the Realm of Ends are therefore hypothetical, not categorical, in force."

I would love to see a discussion of your essay re: the "completion of Kant's moral theory."

Where would one go?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

So would I!

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

The fifth recruit of the "radical package", as Don Katzner named it, was Rick Edwards. It is my understanding that Leonard Rapping would come in 74 as a "non-radical hire", along with his former student Jim Crotty.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Ian. My memory is obviously faulty. I did not know that Jim was Leonard's student. Did you study at UMass? I will go into the blog and correct it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Whoops. Google tells me you are there now. Say hello to all my old friends!

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

Oh and another detail. Sanuelson at the time was already in MIT. The other person Sam had support from was Kenneth Arrow. With that backing of those three and still no tenure....
A friend in the department is trying to document the history of the Econ Department in Harvard. Check

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I know Samuelson was at MIT, but I thought he wrote in support of Sam. I have a vague recollection that Sam told me that, but of course I could be wrong. Still, as you say, with that kind of support, who could believe he would't get tenure! Their loss was our great gain. By the way, Benjamin Friedman lived across the street from me in Belmont, in the early eighties, Nice guy.

Matt said...

Have you read any of Gintis's book reviews on Amazon? They are really amazing, huge in number and detail. I'm pretty sure that he no longer considers himself a Maxist, but he's still very interesting. (See his review of G.A. Cohen's _Why Not Socialism_ for an example. You can click on "read all my reviews" from there to see the others.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks Matt, I will take a look. One of the endeearing things to me about Herb is that he called his son Huck [as in Huckleberry Finn]. he is dauntingly smart, of course.

Simon Halliday said...

Thanks for this - always fascinating to hear more about one's teachers. I was recently taught by both Sam and Herb at the University of Siena (one of the main reasons I went there was to be taught by them). They are fascinating characters and phenomenal teachers, what a pleasure to find out more about the background of yourself, the department at U Mass, and them. Thank you.

As an aside, as far as I know, Milton Friedman also tried to recruit Sam to Chicago because he had such a respect for his economics even though he was a radical. The other funny story is that Sam went to Havana to teach economics there for a short while after Harvard, thinking he'd teach more heterodox stuff, then he realised (as had many) that with socialist planning the General Equilibrium solutions could be the same with the central planner replacing the Walrasian auctioneer (other assumptions notwithstanding). Supposedly he popped a postcard to his colleagues at Harvard lamenting this fact, which surprised them all, we're told. He does have many entertaining stories.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hi, Simon, Great story. Just another example of the new order growing in the womb of the old. How many wonderful evenings I had at Sam and Libby's house in Leverett!