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Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I was not ready in those early Belmont years to begin the large multi-volume work on Marx that I had conceived while teaching the seminar on Classics of Critical Social Theory, but I did bring some of what I had learned to the printed page. After the paper in Philosophy and Public Affairs, which I still believe makes a genuine contribution to the further development of Marx's analysis of capitalist exploitation, I wrote several papers that were, in one way or another, designed to remind scholars that Marx is not dead, Paul Samuelson and company notwithstanding. [I have always resented Samuelson's off-hand snide remark that Marx was "a minor post-Ricardian autodidact."]

In '82, Social Research published "Piero Sraffa and the Rehabilitation of Classical Political Economy," which later appeared in translation in an Italian journal, Communita. That same year, Midwest Studies in Philosophy carried "The Analytics of the Labor Theory of Value in David Ricardo and Adam Smith." The next year, the Journal of Philosophy published a short paper, "The Rehabilitation of Karl Marx," and in '84, Social Research carried a much longer essay called "The Resurrection of Karl Marx, Political Economist" [I was obviously running out of titles.] There was nothing remotely original in any of these papers save the first, but I conceived them as a sort of missionary work, bringing the Word to the benighted primitives living in Philosophy. I am afraid I was pretty much a flop as St. Paul. None of those papers, so far as I was ever able to tell, made the slightest impression on the readers of philosophical journals.

At the same time, volumes continued to appear with my name on them, even though for the most part they required very little effort on my part. About Philosophy had done well enough to warrant a second edition, the work for which was completed while we were still living in Northampton. This revision, the first of what have been nine to date, was rather extensive, involving an expansion and reorganization of the text. The odd practices of textbook publishers being what they are, the second edition carries a 1981 publication date, even though the first copies were actually in my hands before the movers came to transport us to Belmont. And of course the translations continued: German and French for in Defense of Anarchism and Spanish for Understanding Rawls. Translations obviously require literally no effort on my part. Indeed, I never see the translation until after it has been published, and even then I sometimes have to hassle the publisher to get my free copies. But my life-long obsession with writing books makes me take a secret and unwarranted pride in each new volume -- even a paperback edition -- that carries my name. At this point there are seventy such volumes, all sitting on a shelf in our little apartment in Paris. It is not for nothing that I think of myself as Mr. Toad.

Even though Belmont is only a short car or bus ride from Harvard, it was at Boston University, across the Charles, that I found far and away the most intellectually exciting and socially satisfying opportunity to widen my circle of friends and acquaintances. Two long-time members of the Philosophy Department, Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky, had started an operation known as "The Boston University Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science." Each year, they scheduled a number of sessions -- sometimes as many as one a week -- at which a speaker would present a talk followed by discussion. If you managed to wangle your way into the inner circle of the Colloquium, which I did pretty quickly, you were invited to a dinner for twenty or thirty people before the talk. Those evenings were the high point of my social and intellectual life during the Belmont years.

Bob and Marx had the widest, most eclectic conception imaginable of what counted as "philosophy of science." They brought in historians, medical doctors, physicists, chemists, anthropologists, and sociologists, as well as the usual suspects from Philosophy. The question periods could be riotous affairs, straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Somehow, no matter how arcane the subject, it seemed that the only other expert in the world was sitting in the audience. I recall one evening when a Professor of Medicine at the UMass Medical School in Worcester showed up to deliver a blood-curdling lecture on the sacrificial practices of the Aztecs. We all sat there in an appalled silence as he went on about priests plucking the hearts from living victims. What could anyone think to ask once the question period came? As soon as Bob called for questions, a young man with long hair jumped up in the back of the room. "I am a descendant of the Aztecs," he began, "and I know something about this." The fight was one. Where on earth had Bob and Marx found him?

I loved those colloquia. They were everything the UMass Philosophy Department had never been. Especially during a time when my marriage to Cindy was becoming more stressful and unsatisfying, the BU evenings were oases in an emotional desert. Bob Cohen had the money for an assistant, who did much of the work of scheduling and such. In the early years of my participation, Debra Nails did the honors. Debra is a philosopher whose scholarly specialty is Plato and the Greeks. She was [and I am sure, after all these years, still is] a vibrant, beautiful red-haired woman whose intelligence and charm did much to lift the colloquium from the category of a scholarly symposium to something like the Old Regime tradition of the soirée.

Despite the Brandeis fiasco, I was still trying to relocate in the Boston area. At one point, discussion began with the B. U. Philosophy Department, which included even some talk about possibly having Bob Ackerman and me take over the running of the Colloquium. Marx had married a New York based political philosopher, Carol Gould, and was planning to move to CUNY. Things went so far as a vote by the Philosophy Department to offer me a professorship, but by then John Silber was President and Emperor for Life at BU, and I was not surprised when he arranged, through his flunky, Provost Jon Westling, to veto the appointment. The fact that I had anthologized Silber years earlier counted for nothing, of course. That was the third time I was denied a senior appointment because of my politics, and in each case things turned out better for the rebuff. But I do feel that I ended one up on John. My Massachusetts automobile license plate for many years read I. KANT. I think he would have killed for that plate.

I was still responsible for teaching a full load of courses in Amherst, of course. I was by now so alienated from the Philosophy Department that I wanted as little to do with them as possible, and the majority who controlled the Department were even more eager to see me fulfill my duties anywhere but in their program. While I was having lunch with Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles one day, I floated the idea of teaching a course in Economics. "I could teach a seminar on Game Theory, " I suggested, "or perhaps one on the Transformation Problem." [That, for the non-Marxists and non-Economists among my readers, is the name given to the theoretical problem of explaining formally the "transformation" of labor values into equilibrium prices in a capitalist market.] Sam and Herb suggested that I send a note to Jim Crotty, who by then was Department Chair. Back came a memo that said, "You have been assigned a section of 200 students in Econ 103, Introductory MicroEconomics, for Spring '82. You will have four TAs." It seems the popularity of the radicals in the Department had created a crisis of abundance. Econ was swamped with students who wanted to take an intro course, and there just weren't enough seats in the regularly scheduled sections. Jim jumped on my offer and set things up before I had a chance to protest.

I was stunned. I had never actually taken an Economics course in my life, although I had, thank heavens, sat in on Don Katzner's graduate Micro course. I went to the Harvard Book Store on Mass Ave and asked them, "What textbook does the Harvard Economics Department use for Introductory Micro?" "Lipsey and Steiner," they said. So I bought a copy of Lipsey and Steiner and assigned it for my Econ 103 section. There I was again, teaching something I didn't know as a way of learning it. The story of my professional life. It was Soc. Sci. 5 at Harvard all over again.

The first day of class, I walked into a large lecture hall filled to overflowing with undergraduates. I had the eerie sense that lurking just outside the doors were milling throngs of students who had failed to make it into any of the Econ 103 sections that term, so that if someone walked out of the lecture hall, the seat would immediately be filled. "Good morning," I began, "my name is Professor Robert Paul Wolff." There was an angry murmur, and I suddenly realized what had happened. The course catalogue said "Professor R. Wolff," and of course all of these Freshmen and Sophomores assumed it meant Richard Wolff, one of the founding Marxists and a wildly popular undergraduate lecturer. I hurried on. 'You have never taken Micro and I have never taught it, so we will learn it together." It would be an exaggeration to say that I had captured their hearts.

I plowed through all the standard topics. From time to time, when I got really stuck, I would call Sam Bowles, and he would in a few sentences explain to me what I was supposed to be teaching. There were some bad moments, needless to say. One day, I wrote on the board the formula for elasticity of demand, always a crowd pleaser. One of the my four TAs, all of whom regularly sat in the first row right in front of me, said in a stage whisper that could, I am sure, be heard throughout the entire auditorium, "You've got it upside down." I quickly erased the formula and re-wrote it, but I am convinced that for the rest of the semester at least half of the class never got it right. At the end of the semester, the TAs handed out computerized Departmental evaluation forms, and I waited anxiously to find out just how badly I had done. Eventually I received a mathematical analysis of the returns from the Econ Department, and it turned out that my teaching had been a triumph. The students rated me as "average." I decided not to try my luck by doing that again.

Patrick and Toby had gone right into the Belmont public schools when we moved to Garfield Road. For Toby, that meant fifth grade at the Winbrook School, one of several Elementary Schools in town, but for Patrick, it meant Middle School. Now Middle School was an innovation after my time as a schoolboy. In the 40s, you went to Elementary School [or "Public School," as it was called in New York City] from age six to age fourteen, at which point you graduated from eighth grade and entered High School. High School was four years long, after which you could go to college. But shifts in the demographic shape of the population created strains on Elementary Schools, which started enrolling more kids than they had seats for, and around the country, a new division of the sixteen years of public schooling was introduced. Elementary School now taught kids up through fifth grade. Something called Middle School took them for grades six, seven, and eight. And then High School kicked in. This rearrangement had the consequence, probably unintentional, that during the three absolutely worst years of the entire growing up process, children were separated from younger kids for whom they might be persuaded to serve as role models. The result was Lord of the Flies.

Patrick was simply miserable in Middle School. At first, we pooh-poohed his upset and assured him that in a little while he would make friends. Then he started begging us not to take him to school -- not good, from the point of view of two professional academics. We found him a therapist, who laid down the law to me: The one absolute rule in a case of school phobia is that the child must go to school. So I would drive Patrick to school, as he cried and screamed and begged me not to make him go. I would physically push him out of the car, and rush off, emotionally shattered. I would then drive out to Amherst, teach, and drive home in time to pick Patrick up at school, dreading the tears and piteous pleas I knew I would face. When I got to the Middle School [there was only one in Belmont], like as not he would come bouncing out and say, "Hi, Dad. What are you doing here?" I wanted to kill him.

Toby, whose social skills were off the charts, fared better than Patrick, but I became really anxious about how the two of them would adjust to high school. I decided to arrange a meeting with the Guidance Counselor at the Middle School. I fully expected that when I had finished with my tale of woe, she would tell me that I was over-reacting, that Patrick was just a sensitive child, and that everything was just fine at the school. I went in, armed with particulars, and explained that I wanted some reassurance from her that things were not as terrible as they seemed. When I was finished with my prepared remarks, she asked quietly, "Have you considered private school?'

I was astonished by this tacit acknowledgement that her school was a snake pit. "But," she went on, "everything will be fine when they go to High School." "How on earth is that going to help?" I spluttered. "The problem isn't the teachers, it is the kids. This is the only Middle School in town, and Belmont High is the only High School. When Patrick goes to Belmont High, all the kids who are making his life hell will go with him." "I know, I know," she replied, "but somehow, everything gets better as soon as they move up."

I was not reassured, so I talked things over with Cindy, and we decided to look into private school, at least for Toby. In Belmont, this pretty much meant either the Belmont Hill School, which was only three or four blocks away, or something called BB&N, which was the merger of the Buckingham School with Browne and Nichols School. Toby was now taking advanced math classes, and gave every sign of being an extraordinary student. I figured that a fancy private school, though very expensive, would offer him challenges and opportunities that a public high school could not match. At BB&N, they told us proudly that students who completed their regular math curriculum early were regularly sent to Harvard by special arrangement to take college level courses. I was suitably impressed, until we went to the high school. There, in response to our question about advanced math, the counselor closed his door and said, sotto voce, that in those cases they managed to place the students in Harvard math classes. Score one for public education.

My interviews at both Belmont Hill and BB&N very quickly revealed that their principal raison d'etre was to somehow shoehorn mediocre students into Harvard. Since both Patrick and Toby were spectacular students, and I wasn't so sure I wanted them going to Harvard anyway, it looked to me like a ton of money just to protect them from a social nightmare that the Middle School counselor assured me ended the day the students entered high school. I got a glimpse of why this might be true at the proceedings ending Patrick's Middle School years. For some reason, this was not called a "graduation" but rather a "moving up ceremony." The featured speaker was the Principal of Belmont High School. He began his remarks by saying, "Up 'til now, nothing you have done in school has mattered, but from the day you walk into high school, what you do will determine the rest of your life." The kids looked terrified, and I began to believe that in ninth grade Lord of the Flies might turn into Little Women.

By now, Patrick had advanced so far as a chess player that from time to time he went to tournaments out of town, and even out of the country. All of this was pretty exciting, of course, and got lots of attention at home, but it left Toby out in the cold. I really wanted to find something I could do with him that would be fully as exciting as one of Patrick's chess jaunts. Toby had studied some French in third grade in Northampton, continuing that study one Summer in Belmont, so I asked him whether he would like to go to Paris. Smart kid, he jumped at the chance. Since Cindy was phobic about flying, it would be just the two of us, which suited me fine.

Toby and I had already forged a strong bond, not just through Cub Scouts. Starting quite early, while we were still in Northampton, I began the practice of reading to him at bedtime. It had started with storytelling. Each evening, when he was still a little boy, I would make up a story that always began the same way. "Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Toby, who lived with his Mommy and his Daddy and his big brother Patrick in a big house at Twenty-Six Barrett Place..." From this, we graduated to the Narnia books, which seemed endless, and then to The Lord of the Rings. I read Toby all three volumes of Tolkein's masterpiece, which I loved as much as Toby did. When we had finished The Return of the King, I cast about for something else to read, and tried out Eighty Days Around the World. I was surprised and fascinated to discover that the language was too difficult for nine year old Toby, and we never did finish reading it together.

With the trip to France all planned, we waited until summer came, and before I started my Summer School teaching, we flew off to Paris for a two week stay. The Paris trip was an unalloyed success. We stayed in a little hotel on the Left Bank, not very far from where Susie and I now have an apartment, and spent a number of days exploring old Paris, even catching an English Language film at Action Ecole, a little cinema on rue des Ecoles that shows golden oldies in the "version originale." For the boffo ending of the trip, we took a train to Reims for a meal at one of France's premier restaurants, the three star Le Boyer. Toby was dressed in a darling three piece suit, and looked like a little gentleman. The meal was wonderful, as might be expected. The capstone was dessert, which was listed on the menu as "Délices de Marjorie," Marjorie being the wife of the chef, M. Boyer. This turned out to be a rolling cart loaded with an assortment of the most delicious looking desserts I had ever seen. One simply pointed at whatever one wished to try, with no limits on amounts or numbers of items, and the waiter would spoon it onto your plate.

Eventually, it came time to leave, and as we stepped outside into the summer night, there was the chef himself, taking a breather after an evening of three star cooking. He greeted us, and Toby, pulling himself up to his not very great height, said, in his best Elementary School French, "C'etait le plus bon repas de ma vie." Boyer burst out laughing and replied, "But you have not lived very long." Of all my memories of Toby in those early years, and there are many, many happy ones, I think that is my favorite. On display that evening was the gravitas that I have come to love.


wj said...

I know that Wartofsky was a major influence on MacIntyre while he was at Boston; I wonder, did you have any interaction with MacIntyre during this time? He was then still a disgruntled Marxist and not a Thomist, as I recall.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

WJ, I did not have any real contact with MacIntyre, although I think he was in the department when I was being considered for a position. My relationship with the BU department was really through Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky, both of whom I liked a very great deal.

Marx, Carol, Susie, and I had a wonderful meal at a one star restaurant on the right bank in Paris, but that is a later story.

Unknown said...

"That was the third time I was denied a senior appointment because of my politics, and in each case things turned out better for the rebuff."

In retrospect, what do you think are the lessons from your experiences for younger people on the left?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Ann, obviously I have led a charmed life, so it doesn't much help for me to recommend that younger scholars on the left do likewise. Clearly, securing tenure is paramount. I have always said to my students that the Categorical Imperative only applies to people with tenure. :) Politics may very well deny you a better job. If you can get tenure, you can have a productive and rewarding life, no matter where you end up teaching. It is a myth that life depends on ending up at an Ivy League school, or the equivalent. But I am sad to say that I think tenure nation wide is going to be under assault in the coming decades, for economic reasons, not political reasons. This is true world wide, by the way, which is very cold comfort indeed.

Anonymous said...


NotHobbes said...

"From this, we graduated to the Narnia books"

Somehow I find it hard to imagine an atheist reading about Aslan`s sacrifice for us all....I mean his sacrifice for Edmund ;-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I may be an atheist, but I want my boys to have a full, rich understanding of the Judeo-Christian Muslim tradition, since it informs our culture to completely. Besides, they are fun books.