My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, December 31, 2010


In a series of comments on a previous post, Murfmensch, a young philosopher who has just started teaching at The Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, says, of the students there, "The working class character and ethnic diversity of its student body puts most schools to shame." That got me thinking about the changes I saw at nearby UMass during my thirty-seven years on the faculty there. I have written about this in my Memoir, but since, for some mysterious reason, not everyone has read every word I have written, I will reprise the observations here. They say something in a larger way about social, cultural, and class changes in America that underlie a number of important political phenomena, including the Tea Party.

When I joined its faculty in 1971, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had almost completed a period of rapid expansion and transformation that changed it from an 8,000 student agricultural college, Mass Aggie, into a mid-sized State University campus of 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Coming as I did from Columbia University, I was immediately struck by the contrast between the students of the two institutions. The Columbia students were mostly urban upper middle class young men who had a very strong sense of themselves as embarked on a journey to the professional upper middle classes. Although only a few of them actually chose an academic calling, they clearly viewed the faculty as older versions of themselves. There was a great deal of eye contact and easy banter between them and us, heightened in many ways by anxieties over the Viet Nam War and the draft.

The UMass undergraduates could not have been more different. In those days, much of the student body was drawn from the working class and lower middle class. There was a major Catholic presence, which manifested itself in an attitude of deference and dutiful silence in the classroom. Many of the students came from the Greater Boston area, of course, but UMass is situated eighty miles west of Boston in what was then a predominantly rural area, and there were plenty of non-Ivy League schools in the Boston area to which the Boston kids could go -- Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, among others.

In countless small verbal and behavioral ways, the students exhibited the cultural markers of their working class origins and of the fact that they were, in many cases, the first members of their family to continue their education beyond high school. They spoke of "tests" rather than exams." They referred to their "teachers," not to their "professors." It was clear that they thought of UMass as a continuation of high school. Students regularly kept dogs and brought them to class [a rather charming rural feature of the campus]. Perhaps most strikingly, each Friday, buses lined up at the north end of something called the Haigis Mall and loaded up undergraduates who then went home for the weekend. Even though they lived on campus in dorms, their minds were still at home. Some came from reasonably big cities -- Boston, Worcester, Springfield -- but for many, UMass was the biggest town they had ever lived in, and their behavior revealed that in countless ways. The very few students of color found the campus especially intimidating, coming as they did from de facto segregated high schools with majority minority populations.

The students in those days were clearly headed for the lower and middle ranks of the middle class, not for the prestigious upper middle class jobs with the big salaries and the great benefits. Relatively few of the pre-med students were admitted to any medical school at all, let alone to one of the prestige med schools, and Suffolk Law School in Boston, which a Harvard student would have disdained, was a catch for a UMass pre-law senior.

Over the years, things changed. As college became steadily more expensive, increasing numbers of upper middle class families decided that the heavy extra costs of second tier private colleges were not worth beggaring themselves to meet. If a child won admission to Harvard or MIT or Amherst, then perhaps the sacrifice might be acceptable, but as the word got out that UMass Amherst was actually a rather good school, more and more young men and women began to show up exhibiting the cultural stigmata of the upper middle class. The quality of the clothing worn by students began to change, until by and large they were better dressed than their professors. Students stopped taking a bus home, and started bringing cars to campus.

As I have written in my Memoir, the iconic moment of change for me came in the late 80's. I had accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to pay for two round trip tickets to Europe, but the restrictions were so severe that I could not find a time when Susie and I could go. Finally, I decided to use them up on an extended weekend in Paris. On Thursday, I told a class that I was going to Paris for the weekend, and would see them on Tuesday at the regular class time. After the bell had rung, a young woman came up to my desk, opened her purse, and took out a half used carnet of Paris Metro tickets. "Here," she said, "you might need these."

UMass was no longer a working class school.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


As the seventeenth century passed grimly into the eighteenth, I can imagine that there were enlightened spirits in Ireland, England, and Scotland who cast an unillusioned eye on the world around them and said to themselves, "Thank God for Jonathan Swift, who keeps me sane." I feel much the same way about THE ONION, the satirical on-line faux newspaper whose reportage, even in these awful times, manages to find ways to skewer the insanities of the right.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with THE ONION, here is a selection of the headlines that can be found on its webpage just today:

"Kim Jong Il Ends Nuclear Program for Lead in Next Batman"
"White Person Waved Past Beeping Walgreen's Security Barrier"

And my favorite: "Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living in Public Library to Warrant Congressional District."

The life of a satirist cannot be easy, and in these times, it must take an iron will to hold firmly to one's calling and resist the temptation to settle for simple, factual reporting. To illustrate my point, let me offer three recent genuine headlines, each of which might as easily have come from the pen of an ONION staff writer:

"Maine Republican Party Calls For Repeal of 17th Amendment, Return to Selection of Senators by State Legislatures"
"Newly Elected Representative Who Opposes New Health Care Reform Act Complains About Having to Wait One Month Before His Congressional Health Care Kicks In"

And, once again, my favorite: "Right Wingers Accuse Obama of Wanting to Give Manhattan Island Back to the Indians."

Now, I ask you: Suppose you had not been reading the papers for some while, and were presented with a list of six putative headlines -- the three from the ONION and the three listed just above. How many of you could have unerringly disambiguated the real from the satirical?

I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I wrote IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM in 1965, and finally published it in 1970, forty years ago. And yet, people still read it, comment on it, explain at length why it is all wrong, assign it to students in college courses, even -- or so I gather from a Canadian correspondent -- try to put some of its proposals into practice. But in the world of the blog, four hours ago is old news, and yesterday is forgotten. The insatiable maw of the world wide web gobbles up even one's most carefully thought through posts and spits them out again barely half-digested.

Today is a new day with a blank screen, and I have nothing to say! Oh, I could comment on the latest wingnut hysterical alarm, which is that President Obama wants to give Manhattan Island back to the Indians. [Why he would want to do this, when it can be counted on to give him an overwhelming vote in 2012, I do not quite understand.] Or I could snark about the fact that the newly elected Republican Congressman who whined about having to wait thirty days for his cadillac Congressional health plan to kick in has apparently been so great an embarrassment to his colleagues that they have denied him a seat on the Committee overseeing health care. I might even pause to note that in a recent poll, only Massachusetts residents have a more unfavorable opinion of Sarah Palin than the people of her very own Alaska.

But those are cheap shots, hardly worthy of a deep thinker like myself. So I must content myself with wishing you all happy holidays one more time, and hope that the muse will visit me tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Now that I am safely in my seventy-eighth year, on the slippery slope to eighty, my mind turns to the joys of youth. This brief essay will have a sadly elegiac tone, as I reminisce about teenage pleasures that seem no longer to attract the young.

Very early in my life, perhaps when I was thirteen or younger, I fell under the spell of the music of the Middle Ages, the Baroque, and the Classical period. I recall fondly borrowing from the Jamaica Public Library [the same branch at which I discovered the complete novels and short stories of Sherlock Holmes] a set of 78 rpm records of Gregorian chants, which I played on our Victrola, changing the needle every several plays as it wore down. [Lest I sound unacceptably bathetic, let me hasten to say that it was an electric Victrola, and did not need to be wound up, though those were still in use.] During this same time I was, like all the other little Jewish boys in the world, taking violin lessons, and even though I rarely practiced, I derived an inordinate pleasure from my clumsy rendition of the first violin part of the Bach Double Concerto.

In 1948, as I have recounted in my Autobiography, I fell in love with Susie Shaeffer, who sat in front of me in home room in Forest Hills High School. Susie, who lived several blocks from school in a Forest Hills apartment, owned a big boxed set of Bach's B Minor mass, all on seventy- eights, performed by the Collegiate Chorale and directed by the great Robert Shaw. I felt a certain connection with Shaw, because at Shaker Village Work Camp, the left-wing summer teenage camp where I spent three summers, the choral conductor was Hal Aks, who had studied with Shaw and had many of his distinctive conducting mannerisms. On happy occasions, I would walk Susie home from school and we would sit in her apartment, listening to the B Minor. The triumphant Gloria, the dramatic Credo, that begins with the tenors alone, the luxurious and sinuous Esurientes all made their way into my consciousness and became friends on whom I could rely for sheer sensuous pleasure.

In the next year or two, when I could assemble the necessary funds, I took Susie to the 92nd St. Y to hear the newly formed Bach Aria Group perform. The musicians were mostly just starting out, and many of them went on to brilliant professional careers. Robert Bloom, the oboist, Julius Baker, the flautist, and Leonard Greenhouse, the wonderful cellist who later on was an indispensable member of the Beaux Arts Trio. [The pianist of that trio, Menahem Pressler, was a magical pixie of a musician whose fingers danced across the keys, weaving tapestries of sound. During the years that I heard them, Isidore Cohen was the violinist, and I confess I never really liked his playing. It seemed to me his tone was too harsh and mechanical for his two great colleagues.] A concert of the Bach Aria group, as their name suggests, consisted of arias from Bach's more than two hundred cantatas. Although we also attended concerts at the Y by Oscar Brand and other left-wing folk singers, it was the classical music that gave me the greatest pleasure.

One of my happiest memories of those early years was an evening I spent at the Greenwich Village apartment of Walt and Vickie Fischman. Vickie had been married to Arthur Lidov, an artist some of whose work had served as covers for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and who was a friend of my uncle Anoch and aunt Rosabelle. Walt was a professional photographer who wrote a weekly How To column for the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, using his photos to illustrate various home improvement projects. [I once earned the fabulous salary of $20 an hour posing as the hands in a column devoted to recovering an upholstered chair]. Walt and Vickie were living together EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE NOT MARRIED. In the Twenties, when my parents lived in the Village, that would have attracted no notice at all, but in the late Forties, it was unheard of. In their apartment, I found a recording of the great tenor Aksel Schiotz singing a transcendently beautiful Buxtehude motet Aperiti Mihi Portas Justitiae [Open to me the gates of justice.] I was ravished by the music, and immediately bought a copy for myself, which I played endlessly until it all but wore out.

When I went off to Harvard, I met Mike Jorrin, who had a rich, booming bass, and Richard Eder, a fine tenor. The three of us spent our undergraduate years singing madrigals together, searching for places in and about Harvard with particularly good acoustics [the steam tunnels were our favorite.] Sometimes we would run into one another in Hayes Bickford and spontaneously break into a rendition of The Silver Swan or Il est bel et bon.

Although I stopped playing the violin when I left New York for college, many, many years later I returned to the instrument, then switched to the viola, and by dint of eight years of lessons and serious practice [something that had eluded me as a boy], eventually was able to do a creditable job of Haydn, Mozart, and early and middle Beethoven quartets.

Thirty-four years after Susie and I broke up, I finally persuaded her to marry me, and we settled in the little town of Pelham, abutting Amherst, where I was teaching at UMass. For twenty years, each summer, we attended the concert series of the Aston Magna early music group, led by violinist Daniel Stepner and including his wife, the wonderful gambist Laura Jepperson. if any of you live in Boston, you may be familiar with the couple, who are two-thirds of the Boston Museum trio. The drive over the Berkshires to Great Barrington, a beautiful concert, first at a church in town and then on the campus of Simon's Rock College, and then a dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in the Lenox area combined to make a perfect summer day.

Why then do I speak of a "sadly elegiac tone" when recalling this lifetime of delight? Because as Susie and I attended the Aston Magna concerts, year after year, we began to notice that we, and the entire audience, were aging inexorably. There did not seem to be any influx of younger devotees, much as we had been half a century and more earlier. Looking around during intermission, we would joke that by attending, we were lowering the average age of the audience. Where were the teenagers sitting in the cheap seats, enraptured by the exquisite music? It would seem that when we and our age mates finally pass from the scene, there will not be enough of a fan base to sustain the many wonderful early music ensembles who even now struggle to earn a decent living.

The life of a professional classical musician has never been easy. If you read the performer capsule biographies in the programs, you will find that each of them survives by cobbling together university associations, membership in three or four established groups, appearances at music festivals, and recordings, all supplemented by a heavy load of individual students. Long gone are the days when wealthy nobles served as patrons to court musicians [a stressful and uncertain living itself, as a biography of Mozart will attest.]

And so I say, without the irony of George Orwell's invocation of William Blake's poetic line, such, such were the joys.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Inasmuch as today is my seventy-seventh birthday, I feel an obligation to pass on to you youngsters some of the great wisdom I have acquired in more than three-quarters of a century. That, I believe, is the traditional role of the old men and women of the tribe as they sit around the fire in the evening. The readers of this blog are the closest thing I have to a tribe, so herewith a pearl of wisdom. As is appropriate on such occasions, I begin with a story from long ago.

Back in the early seventies [when the late unlamented Richard Nixon was as yet an undisgraced president], I was sitting around with several UMass colleagues gossiping, as was our wont, about a mutual friend. He had just been elevated from the faculty to a Deanship, and we were speculating about what sort of administrator he would be. Since he had not even served as a Department Chair, we had no track record on which to base our speculations, so we were very much at a loss. Then Zina Tillona, a Professor of Italian in the Romance Languages Department [since phased out as part of a long, tragic world-wide assault on the Humanities] offered a bit of folk wisdom that, with the benefit of many years of hindsight, I now recognize as truly profound.

"Well," she said, "most people do most things the way they do most other things."

At first, what she said struck me as being very close to tautological, but as I reflected on it, I began to realize the deep insight of that simple remark. People have styles of behavior, modes of interacting with the world, that are grounded in their character, and a person's style of being manifests itself in small things as much as in large. If a person is perpetually late, lingering with a student in her office rather than promptly moving on to the next student on her appointment list, she will probably continue to be late when it is Deans and Provosts she is dealing with. If a professor's desk is neat and cleared of all papers, with six pencils lined up in a row, their newly sharpened points exactly aligned, then he will almost certainly be punctilious, precise, and obsessively complete in his scholarly work.

I thought of Zina's maxim when trying to puzzle out the political ambitions and intentions of Sarah Palin. Would she run for the Republican presidential nomination? Did she even want to be president? One of my sons, to whom I had long since passed on Zina's folk wisdom, recalled it for me, and went on to suggest that it held the answer to my questions. Palin has held three significant positions in her life: mayor of Alaska, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission, and Governor of Alaska. She walked away from the second and third, each time because she saw an opportunity to maximize her fame and personal wealth. She clearly had no interest in actually being Governor of Alaska, nor is there the slightest indication that she wanted actually to be, or even had any idea what was involved in being, Vice-President of the United States. Since most people do most tings the way they do most other things, she will almost certainly run for the nomination, because that is the best way to remain famous and to develop new money-making opportunities without working for them. But should she have early successes in the 2012 primaries, as well she may, she will find some way, before the nomination process is complete, to drop out of the race, presenting herself as a victim of all manner of plots and prejudices. Indeed, even if she secures the nomination, it is a virtual certainty that she will quit the race before she is defeated on election day. That this will cause chaos in the Republican Party will be of no concern to her, for at no time in her entire career has she ever exhibited the slightest loyalty to anyone or anything beyond her own immediate interest.

Since Zina's maxim has universal application, it is only fair to ask how it applies to me. Well, if you were to ask my wife how I do things, she would almost certainly answer, "fast." I do everything fast, and hence, of course, sometimes sloppily. When I cook, I rush through the recipe, with the result that although I make dinner quickly, I sometimes omit an ingredient. I make on-line reservations very quickly, with the result that sometimes I make them for the wrong day! True to Zina's maxim, I do big things the same way I do small things. In the case of both of my marriages, I fell in love more or less instantly and knew just as quickly that I wanted to marry [happily, I did not in each of those cases omit an important ingredient.] I write books quickly, as readers of my Memoir will know, but I am a sloppy scholar. Indeed, I am really no sort of scholar at all. As soon as I have seized the central idea of my narrative, I am ready to write. The long slog through the secondary literature is not for me. I am more attracted by Vincent van Gogh, completing a painting in a single afternoon, than by the old masters who carefully sketched charcoal outlines, did preliminary sketches, and then painstakingly completed their canvases. I am impatient to a fault, considering a day more than enough time for anyone to respond to a letter or an email message.

Erik Erikson has a wonderful passage in CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY in which he observes that people have styles in dreaming, quite independently of the content or meaning of the dreams. Some people have spare, monochromatic dreams; others dream in technicolor, their dreamworld filled with objects. A patient may go through deep emotional changes, but his or her style of dreaming remains unaltered. In much the same way, politicians have ways of being, and it is in vain that we expect experience to change them. Character is destiny, as Heraclitus observed some while ago, and character does not change.

So, there you have it -- my thought for my natal day. Most people do most things the way they do most other things.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Using Google's Advanced Search mechanism, I checked to see how many mentions Lady Gaga got in the last twenty-four hours -- 119,000,000 [yes, one hundred nineteen million]. Sarah Palin got 1,160,000 -- not quite one tenth as many. Clearly Sarah has some work to do.


Today is Christmas, the second most important day in the Christian calendar. [The first is Easter, contrary to the faux religiosity of Jon Kyl and his ilk, who haven't a clue about real religion. Christmas, of course, is just an old pagan Winter Solstice festival taken over by the early Christian missionaries to northern Europe.] On this blog, I rather belligerently announce myself as an atheist, but one cannot be a lifelong student of the history of Western Philosophy without having spent a good deal of time with texts that treat religious faith seriously. Since nothing of note is happening in the world today [save the threatened collapse of the roof of Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and the evacuation of hundreds of stranded travelers sleeping in the terminal on cots], I thought I might spend a little time describing what I understand genuine religious faith to be. Those of you who cannot stand God talk even from an atheist can return to opening presents, watching football, and overeating.

What is it "to believe in God?" Well, from a Christian perspective, the one thing that it definitely does not mean is believing that God exists. One can ask whether unicorns exist, whether the Abominable Snowman exists, whether King Arthur ever existed, even whether Sarah Palin's brain exists, but belief in God is not belief in the existence of some very odd sort of thing. To understand what the phrase "belief in God means," we must invoke a different sense of "belief in," namely the sense of trusting in God, relying on God, or believing that God will keep His word. At the simplest and most literal level, the Old Testament is the story of a compact made between God and His chosen people -- a "testament." God will make them multiply and be fruitful if they keep His laws. The message of the New Testament is that sinful man, who has proven incapable of keeping God's laws, may nevertheless be saved if he will but believe in the free gift of God's salvation. To believe in God is thus to trust in Him to keep His promise of eternal life.

This belief is called faith, and it, like the ability to keep God's laws, is impossible for man unaided by God. To trust in God's promise, to have faith in the face of all the contrary evidence, is possible for man only with the God-given ability, a gift called grace.

That is the Christian story [and I confess that no other religious story holds any interest for me], but what is it like to have faith? This is not so easy to describe or explain, and to make an attempt at it, I must, rather unexpectedly, speak for a bit about the experience of reading a novel.

A novel is nothing more than a collection of words by which the author, the novelist, calls into being a world - a fictional world. The ontological structure of the world of a novel is fundamentally unlike the ontological structure of the real world. The real world is, as the physicists say, anisotropic. That is to say, each place in the world [and each time] is like each other place [and time.] There are no privileged places, hence no standpoints [in the literal as well as the figurative sense] from which one can gain access to a privileged point of view.

But the fictional world of a novel is isotropic. The world exists from a point of view, that of the narrator. Hence there are privileged places and privileged times. A novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the human world simply fills time and space. A novel can end with the words "and they lived happily ever after," and by the writing of those words, the novelist makes it so, but nothing resembling that occurs in the real world.

A novel has in it only the people and things that the words of the novelist call into fictional existence. In THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, a town is conjured in which there are very few adult men. But it would be a logical error to say "Mark Twain chose only to write about a few of the men in the town," as though the men exist independently of his words, and simply failed to get honorable mention. In the novels of Edith Wharton , thresholds have a special meaning or valence -- objectively so. This is not merely a statement about Wharton, but also about the worlds she creates through the words of her novels. ETHAN FROME is narrated by a nameless engineer who has come to a northern Berkshire town one winter on a job. His tragic story of Ethan and Matty begins as his foot begins to cross the threshold of the Frome household, and ends as his foot comes down inside the door. The examples are endless. The ontological structure and the moral valence of fictional worlds are perspectival -- they exist from the point of view of the narrator.

Now, as best as I can understand religious faith, being myself devoid -- or should I say bereft -- of it, to have faith -- thus to believe in God -- is to experience the real world in which we live as existing from the perspective of a divine Creator, in whose story we live out our lives. Every part of that world, not just churches or creches or Sunday services or monasteries or convents, exists from that divine perspective. This is, I take it, what it means to say that the world is infused with a Divine presence. In the world as thus experienced, there will be privileged times -- Easter, Christmas -- and privileged places -- Bethlehem, Jerusalem -- toward which I will be oriented. [this, I take it, is the central meaning of John Donne's great poem, "Easter Sunday 1613 Riding Westward."

I do not experience the world in this manner, and so I do not have faith, I do not "believe in God." Thus, I am an atheist. But I think I can at least imagine in some measure what it would be like to have faith, to believe in God, to experience the world as existing from a divine perspective.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 24, 2010


The frigid weather having uncharacteristically invaded the southland, I am not able to take my morning four mile walk up route 54 to Country Club Road and back, so I have been going to the UNC Wellness Center two blocks away to use a treadmill. This is a rather daunting experience, because inevitably there is some perfectly toned young thing who looks to be running a four minute mile on the treadmill next to mine. My son, Tobias, who at forty is in better shape than I have ever been, even during my brief stint in the United States Army, and who goes to a gym in whatever city he finds himself for rigorous workouts, has counseled me that I must not take notice of the other folks in the gym, but rather concentrate on trying to up my personal best at whatever machine I have chosen.

Well, the machine I favor has an elaborate display, and is capable both of varying speeds and varying elevations. The speed is calibrated in tenths of a mile an hour, and the elevation seemingly in halves of a percentage of incline. This morning, I set the machine at 4 miles an hour and the incline at 12%, and then ramped it up during the next half hour to an incline of 20%. The readout at the end told me that I had walked 2 miles [as indeed I should have, doing 4 miles an hour for half an hour], and had climbed a total of 1694 feet. That was a hundred feet better than yesterday, a personal best. Next to me was a tall slender young woman who was walking effortlessly up a 30% incline at 4 miles an hour for what seemed like forever. But, guided by my son, I took no notice of her at all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Since I have never really liked the Christmas season [it is one long interminable weekend, in which nothing happens and one is required to be cheerful], I shall amuse myself by making some predictions about how things will play out in the new Congress. A very large number of truly appalling people are joining the Congress in January, so there should be endless occasions for snarking. But what will the Republican control of the House and an enlarged majority in the Senate actually mean for America, and for 2012 politics?

The easy part first -- the Senate will not be more intractable than it has been, and if the move now afoot to limit the filibuster actually succeeds in making marginal adjustments, may actually be a bit less so. It requires a two-thirds majority to change Senate rules -- a non-starter -- but only a majority to alter the ways in which the filibuster is used. So, for example, the procedures may be altered so that the forty-one senators claiming to be filibustering will actually have to be on the floor of the Senate. Won't that be a hoot?

The big reactionary action will be in the House. That is Tea Party turf, and there are a goodly number of newly elected Republicans coming to Washington to tear the place down. They will spend a lot of time and energy trying to repeal the Health Care Reform bill, and will of course fail [repeal cannot get through the Senate, and in any case would be vetoed.] However, they will make very serious, and in some cases probably successful, efforts to defund, or underfund, the provisions they especially hate. This is, in my view, a bad thing, but not a disaster, because the law is going to take years to implement fully, and should the Democrats retake control of the House in 2012, which I actually expect, the funding will be restored. The history of major pieces of social legislation like this one is that they never go away. They are revised, they grow, they take root, and they become part of the social and economic landscape -- see Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Medicare Drug Benefit, Unemployment Insurance, and so forth.

A great deal of effort will be expended in discontinuing Social Security and Medicare, without the slightest chance for success. Nor will the Republicans manage to get rid of Unemployment Insurance.

The major focus of the new right-wingers will be on cutting the budget, as a way of cutting the deficit without raising taxes. But that is going to turn out to be a great deal harder than they imagine. Some of them -- the Rand Paulines -- are ready to slash the defense budget, and I wish them success in that endeavor, but they will run into fierce opposition from their own fellow Republicans, and will get no help from any but the farthest left of the Democrats. So they will whittle away at the Consumer Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control, the Department of Education, and the like. There, they will manage to do some real damage, but not to save much money, since there is not much money in those pots.

Obama will push immigration reform, which they will fight tooth and nail, thereby ensuring that an even larger majority of Hispanic Americans vote Democratic despite being social conservatives. The self-destructiveness of the Republicans is a joy to behold.

Freaked out by the Tea Party and the Palinites, every Republican presidential hopeful [there seem to be several dozen of them] will tack as far to the right as possible without falling off the edge of the earth [which they will all be prepared, if asked, to say they think is flat], and this will make Republicans leery about compromising with the Democratically controlled Senate.

Oh yes, a hefty minority of Republicans will refuse to vote for an increase in the Federal debt limit, but Wall Street has not paid all that money to Republicans [or to Democrats] to see anyone play fast and loose with the soundness of the dollar, so that will fail also.

In short, this is going to be a very long cold shower for the ostensible winners of the 2010 off-year elections. I think we will find some real opportunities for schadenfreude.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


For those who did not see the DADT Repeal signing ceremony, check out the President's website. There are three pictures. The first is Obama. The third is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen. The second is my son Tobias. Need I say more? Here is the URL:


I have just watched the signing of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in C-Span, and I want to take a moment to memorialize this moment. It is an extraordinary moment, a unique moment. No other sitting president has regularly included gay and lesbian men and women in his stock speeches -- routinely talking about "all Americans, white or black, Christian or Jewish, old and young, rich or poor, gay or straight ..." If you are not as old as I am, you may have trouble understanding just how revolutionary this has been. In my lifetime, same-sex emotional and physical relationships have gone from being objects of ridicule or "the love that has no name" to an acknowledged and accepted part of American life. Let us recall that today, in many other parts of the world, homosexuality is not merely a crime but a capital crime.

When Obama spoke, I wept, and I am not ashamed to admit it, not merely for my son, who was in the room this morning when Obama signed the bill, but for the millions of men and women who are now officially recognized as part of the American community. Anti-gay bigotry still flourishes, of course, as does naked racial hatred -- witness the appalling statements made just this week by Haley Barbour, who fancies himself presidential material. But the John McCains and Jon Kyls, like the Haley Barbours, are now decisively and irretrievably on the wrong side of history.

The bill is signed. It is law. We need no longer speculate about the outcome of court cases, or the leanings of the Supreme Court. With this step taken, we can move on to that other terrible legacy of the Clinton years, the Defense of Marriage Act. Save your snarking for another day. This is a day for celebration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


[Winston Churchill, describing Soviet actions]

Something strange is happening in our nation's capitol. I do not understand it, but since it is of very great political importance, I feel I must at least acknowledge its existence. Let me say, to begin, that in explaining to myself the behavior of our sainted leaders, my default assumption is that they are rationally self-interested, at least subjectively. That is to say, given their goals and their beliefs about the world, however bizarre those beliefs may be [see yesterday's post], their actions should for the most part be explainable as chosen in the reasonable expectation of achieving those goals. Their goals may be execrable -- that goes without saying -- and their beliefs may be, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, north by northwest to reality, but given those goals and beliefs, what they actually do should make a kind of subjective sense.

Now, the Congressional Republicans began Obama's presidency with the declared intention of making his presidency a failure, Their behavior for the next two years conformed quite nicely to that despicable goal. They made it quite clear that they were prepared to drive the country into a deep depression if that would sink Obama's chances for reelection. As the midterm elections approached, it was a near certainty that they were going to win control of the House, and at a minimum, diminish significantly the Democrats' majority in the Senate. This latter goal was somewhat undercut by the success of the Tea Party in nominating unelectable candidates to easily winnable seats, but nonetheless, we all knew that there would be a tectonic shift in Washington politics in the next Congress. McConnell openly declared that the primary goal of the Republicans would then be to do whatever it took to defeat Obama for reelection.

The election went pretty much as the Republicans anticipated and hoped. Obama himself described what he had suffered as a "shellacking." He went off on a foreign trip shortly after election day [as defeated presidents often do], while the mainstream media and cable bloviators excitedly gossiped about the prospects for a primary challenge to Obama and even a Palin presidency.

So what happened? First, Obama succeeded in working out a compromise with the supposedly intransigent Republicans on the continuation of the Bush tax cuts. In that bill, Obama got an extension of unemployment benefits, a one year FICA tax reduction [Social Security], and an expansion of Pell grants. Next, against all odds, and with masterful skill, he actually secured the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which he will sign tomorrow morning [my son, Tobias, has been invited to the signing. He will not be on the dais, but if the cameras scan the audience, look for the really handsome gay man in an elegant suit.] Finally, despite the stated opposition of both Senate Republican leaders, he is poised to win the 67 votes needed for ratification of the new START treaty.

A word about this last item, for those of you who do not pay much attention to the issue of nuclear weapons control. I got my start in politics, fifty years ago, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I lived through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a hairsbreadth of an all-out world destroying nuclear war. I have anguished over the fate of the thousands upon thousands of nuclear warheads inadequately guarded after the breakup of the Soviet Union. To his very great credit, Obama made this is signature issue during his brief tenure as a United States Senate, and he is now poised to take a major step toward a further reduction in warheads and better inspection protocols with regard to those that remain. This may in fact be the most important thing he ever does as President.

The net result of this series of legislative victories, all of which are publicly perceived as his doing, is that Obama looks like the Comeback Kid after the election. He goes into the next Congress not knocked back on his heels by the election losses, but buoyed by a series of remarkable victories.

Here is the riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. The Republicans could have addressed all of these issues before the election, simply by aborting their obstructionist stalling tactics. Had Obama won these victories BEFORE the election, it would not have changed the outcome one iota. But it would have left Obama looking weak and defeated after the election, instead of resurgent and victorious. Now, it would not have taken a great deal of intelligence to see this. I mean, worrying about such things is virtually all Congressional Republicans do, aside from raising money. But they played their hand so badly that it is now quite unclear what their control of the House and increased Senate presence will get them.

I invite my readers to offer their explanations for this puzzling turn of events.

Monday, December 20, 2010


A new poll reveals that 40% of Americans believe that the earth was created ten thousand years ago, and that human beings and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. An absolute majority of Republicans claim to believe that.

What are we to make of this? On the face of it, this seems to means that there are perhaps one hundred twenty million mind-numbingly stupid, soul-crushingly ignorant people in America. It appears to mean that when you walk down the street in a city or town that voted Republican in the last election, every second person you pass is mentally incapable of adding a column of figures or following a recipe or reading a newspaper.

But common sense tells us that this cannot be so, because these same people drive school buses, run supermarkets, manage large companies, perform delicate surgery, fix computers, teach school, write novels, run heavy machinery, and sort mail at the post office. They handle bank accounts, earn college degrees, dress themselves each morning, and even succeed in speaking recognizable English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, or some other natural language. So what on earth is going on? I have a hypothesis that I think explains the facts, and gives us some insight into the results of opinion polls of this sort.

Like all people, I live my quotidien life in a rather circumscribed sphere, a sphere in which I function with reasonable efficiency and intelligence. It is the world of my household, my family and friends, my job [if I have one], and the assortment of mechanical objects that I operate on a daily basis -- my stove, my microwave oven, my telephone, my computer, my car. I manage my bank account, pay for things I buy with my credit card, on occasion travel to another city by airplane or car. In this world, my beliefs and expectations are constantly being tested by experience, and I make repeated corrections to adjust for errors in those beliefs and expectations. If I think that I can get to the supermarket by turning left when I exit the front door of my condominium building, I will very quickly learn that I am mistaken, and that in fact I must turn right to get there. Since I do not like wandering aimlessly, looking for the supermarket, especially when it is cold, as it is right now, I pay attention to what experience tells me, and turn right the next time I go to the store. If a preacher or a televangelist or a political rabble-rouser tried to tell me that the supermarket is to the left, and that turning to the right reveals me to be an apostate or a follower of the Antichrist, I would give him [or her] short shrift.

But I also carry about with me a complex mental construction into which I fit a vast number of beliefs about things that rarely or never turn up in my immediate experience and quotidien life. I believe that the solar system came into existence four and a half or five billion years ago. I believe that life arose first in a unicellular form [or perhaps even without clearly defined cells], and evolved slowly, with many world-wide die backs, to its present complexity. Having read some books on the subject, I can probably conjure up, if called upon to do so, some array of evidence and arguments in support of this belief. But even though as a boy I used to go to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and look at what purported to be fossils, I have never actually been on an archaeological dig. The closest I have come was a brief visit to a famous site in South Africa called Makaponshut, from which I surreptitiously stole a microlith sticking out of one face of the cave wall. [I trust the statute of limitations has run on that crime]. I believe that the earth is an oblate spheroid, but I have never gone up in a space capsule from which I could see that shape with my own eyes. I did indeed watch the television images of the first man to walk on the moon, but then I have also watched many episodes of Star Trek on television, and I have no direct way of telling which of the two was fact and which fiction.

Now, there really is nothing in my direct experience that confirms or disconfirms these wider structures of belief, in the way that my belief about how to operate a car or a microwave or how to find my way to the supermarket is directly confirmed or disconfirmed by my sensory experience. So if I choose to reject what I have been told by teachers and television specials and officially proclaimed experts about the age of the earth and the processes by which the world in which I live came to be, this refusal will have not the slightest effect on my daily life. To be sure, if the world really was created ten thousand years ago, then the scientific rationale for the medical treatment I receive when I am sick collapses. But that does not alter the fact that I will receive the treatment, for -- contrary to my secret fantasies -- patients are not required to forswear Creationism before receiving antibiotics or radiation therapy.

My explanation of the fact that 40% of Americans embrace Creationism is this: That rejection of science is their way of giving the finger to those high-brow better-than-thou educated liberal types who in a thousand ways flaunt their social, cultural, and intellectual superiority. It is of a piece with the body-piercing and tattooing and rock music and outrageous hair styles that served an earlier generation of rebels as visible, irritating ways of challenging authority.

Are there consequences to this rejection of scientific truth? You bet. But those consequences are sufficiently distant, complex, and unconnected to immediate experiential confirmations and disconfirmations so that in the short term, there is no price to be paid in daily life for embracing absurdities and superstitions. Let us recall, after all, that most of the people in the world, for most of history, have professed religious beliefs that flew in the face -- that fly in the face -- of the evidence, and yet they have managed to function on a daily basis reasonably well.

I take polls about people's beliefs as being thermometer readings of their degree of alienation, not as measures of their cognitive functioning. Still and all, it does make me nervous, when I leave the bubble of Chapel Hill, to realize that I am surrounded by masses of religious nuts.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Just moments ago, the Senate voted 63-33, with six Republicans in the affirmative, to invoke cloture and effectively guarantee repeal of DADT. This is an historic moment in America, in a league with the Civil Rights Act and other major rectifications of injustice in America. My son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, has worked tirelessly for this victory over many years, and I am prouder of him than I can possibly say for the role he has played.

With this victory, Obama fulfills a major campaign pledge, and a massive injustice is rectified. It is worth reflecting on the skill with which the Obama White House handled this extremely divisive issue. Those who wanted Obama simply to cancel the policy by Presidential fiat were either confused [a President cannot cancel a duly enacted law, George W. Bush to the contrary notwithstanding] or deeply politically naive. There are unilateral in-your-face steps Obama could have taken with regard to this matter, but they almost certainly would have provoked a Congressional backlash that would have killed all chances for repeal for many years. Instead, he engaged in the six-months long process of study, in effect polling the military, until he had the Joint Chiefs and the Republican Secretary of Defense on board. That boxed in large numbers of Senators who make a fetish of military opinion, and isolated McCain and other die hards, making them look foolish and petty in the process. It is a tribute to Obama's patience and political skill that this moment has occurred, and I for one consider it a triumph.

Now, let us hear some words of praise from the Left, please.


It appears that a cloture vote on DADT may happen in the Senate as soon as this afternoon. If the 60 votes materialize, as it seems they will, this will be a huge win for progressives, all the more astonishing for coming after the big election defeat last month. My son, Tobias, has been working all out for this moment for years now, and he has become very much the point man on the issue as an unpaid outside consultant for the White House. If this does happen, I don't want to hear any thing but hosannas from my fellow lefties.

Let me point out that this is the culmination of a carefully planned and brilliantly executed White House strategy, the key to which was the months long survey of military opinion that boxed opponents in, lined up the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs, and isolated John McCain, who was reduced to telling an admiral with forty years of active service that, because he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he did not "command troops." This from a pampered screw-up, son of an admiral, who crashed four planes in training before he was shot down and spent six years as a prisoner of war.

Because of Tobias, I take this one personally. If you want to snark about it, go to another blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010


As the senior citizens among you will recall, President Eisenhower's grandson, David, married President Nixon's daughter, Julie. During the time that I lived in Northampton, I heard it said that, David, as an undergraduate at Amherst and Julie, as an undergraduate at Smith, courted at the Friendly's on North King Street in Northampton. David went on to become an historian, and has written a well-regarded book about General Eisenhower's years commanding the Allied forces that invaded the continent of Europe and defeated Hitler's army.

Several days ago, driving around Chapel Hill, I caught an interview on the local public radio station with David and Julie, who have co-authored a new book about Eisenhower's last years in retirement. As I listened, a feeling of great sadness came over me. David observed at one point that the largest percentage increase in the American economy ever took place between the Hoover inaugural and the fourth Roosevelt inaugural [a period spanning the depression and World War II]. In those sixteen years, David noted, the top marginal income tax rate was what he called "a confiscatory 91%." Such extraordinary rates were completely compatible with rapid economic growth, he said, and would be so today.

This was a Republican talking! Once again, but this time with the jolt of immediacy, I realized how dramatically the entire political spectrum has shifted to the far right. How I would revel in an Administration capable of enacting the policies that Republican presidents advocated when I was a young man! On the left in Congress, of course, were men [and a few women] who were true Progressives -- what today in Europe would be called Democratic Socialists.

We have argued on this blog about how we might bring about a socialist revolution. Perhaps we should begin by asking how we can resurrect old-style Republicans from the ashheap of history!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Tomorrow morning, I am flying up to Washington for a quick visit. I shall report on doings there when I return.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Although sometimes it is difficult for me to remember, I am actually a philosopher, and not just an old retiree blogging away. Next month, I shall start teaching a course on Plato's REPUBLIC in a Duke University Learning in Retirement program [no assignments, no papers, no exams, no pay -- more or less the ideal pedagogical situation.] One old friend and one new one have sent me scholarly papers they wrote on the REPUBLIC, from both of which I learned a good deal. The first is by an old friend and UMass colleague, Bruce Aune: "The Unity of Plato's REPUBLIC", in ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, 17, No. 2 [Fall, 1997] That one seems to be on line. It argues persuasively, against many critics, that Book One of the REPUBLIC is consistent with, and continuous with, the remainder of the work, despite the dramatic difference in the style of agumentation. The second is by a new acquaintance whom I should like to think of as a friend, though we have not met -- Stephen Menn, in the McGill Philosophy Department -- entitled "On Plato's POLITEIA [this in Greek]", a very long, deeply scholarly, but quite accessible and well-written discussion of Plato's relationship to a large literature, in his day, of writings idealizing or otherwise referencing Sparta. It can be found in PROCEEDINGS OF THE BOSTON AREA COLLOQUIUM IN ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, Volume 21, 2005.

For those of you out there who are interested in Plato, I strongly urge you to take a look. My thanks to both Aune and Menn, who have done their bit to save me from making a fool of myself next month.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


It was not my intention to endorse identity politics as opposed to politics with an economic orientation. I was responding to what I considered an important point made by Amato in a comment. It is this: To forge an effective political movement, it is necessary to achieve what in the old days was called solidarity. An objective coincidence of interests is rarely enough, nor is an agreement on abstract ideological principles. If people are to work effectively together, and to expend the energy [and even take the risks] required for successful action, they must develop a sense of shared commitment, a set of bonds that tie them to one another when things get difficult -- or merely boring -- as they always do in any political movement. This sense of comradeship is more difficult to achieve among people who come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, or economic circumstances and backgrounds. I am not saying it is impossible to overcome these obstacles, just more difficult. When people come from the same neighborhood, or work in the same workplace, or worship at the same church, or celebrate the same ethnic holidays, or speak the same language, they find it easier to develop and sustain these ties of comradeship. The entire history of activist politics on the left testifies to this simple truth.

Therefore, when we find that there are large social, educational, religious, or other gulfs between groups of people who otherwise might find it possible to work together, it is worth thinking about this problem, and not ignoring it.

Let us recall that one reason for the absence of a major socialist party in the United States [the only major industrial nation inn the world without one] is the fact that after the end of the Civil War, white workers turned their backs on black workers, whom they saw as competitors for their jobs, and struck deals with their employers to maintain labor peace in return for the employers not hiring black workers [who were just as skilled] Let us also recall the antagonism between Protestant and Catholic workers that made union organizing more difficult in the early decades of the twentieth century.

There is, or ought to be, a natural coalition of working class African-Americans, working class Latinos, White manufacturing and service sector workers, young people, and highly educated people of all races and ethnicities, as well as the growing ranks of former middle class workers being oppressed economically by joblessness, home foreclosures, and the systematic driving down of average wages -- a formidable collection, if it could be forged into an effective movement. It would not be a revolutionary movement -- at least not yet -- but it would move the center of American politics significantly to the left. For a brief moment, Obama was successful in assembling such a coalition. The right has responded by playing identity politics in a successful effort to dismantle this coalition. Ignoring the elements of identity in this dynamic is, I believe, a mistake.

That is what I was suggesting. Now, let us cool the rhetoric and discuss this calmly and seriously. I am really getting very tired of having each of my posts treated as evidence that I am the enemy. Give me a break!

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Amato makes, and then develops, an interesting and important point about the need to attend to identity as well as ideology in the development of a left-wing politics. He references the Pan-African movement [quite interestingly], but I should like to address the point with regard to American politics.

In contemporary America, there are very sharp class lines that are deeply rooted in conceptions of self-identity rather than merely in wealth or one's relationship to the social relations of production. Three-quarters of Americans do not have college degrees, and most of the quarter who do have earned them at what might reasonably be called declasse institutions. The roster of colleges and universities that confer status on their graduates is rather long, but in a country with four thousand or more tertiary institutions, they are very much a minority. Like it or not, people are extremely conscious, and self-conscious, about their educational attainments and the associated stigmata [the sort of coffee they drink, the television shows they watch, their relationship to organized religion, and so forth].

The fact is that there are two economies in America -- one with generous rewards and, in the old phrase, a "career open to talents," the other full of dead end jobs, limited prospects, and grave economic uncertainty.

A fundamental problem those of us on the left have is that even, or perhaps especially, the most radical of us tend to have educational and other identity markers that sharply distinguish us from the people with whom we wish to make common cause. They know that as well as we do, and fancy education or no, can smell someone from the other America at a hundred paces.

This divide fuels resentment that finds expression in the demagoguery of the Palins and Becks and Limbaughs. When the Republicans smeared John Kerry by pointing to the fact that he windsurfs and knows French, we all protested loudly, but we knew perfectly well what they meant, and they were of course right. The only politician in recent American public life who has successfully bridged that gap in pursuit of at least nominally progressive politics is Bill Clinton. [Jack Kennedy, oddly enough, also managed that.]

The divide between the two Americas places obstacles in the way of serious left-wing organizing. This is why the labor movement is so important. The Civil Rights Movement bridged that divide as well, since race trumps even class in America.

What to do? I confess that I do not know. Pretending to be someone you are not is a total loser. Americans can smell a phony a mile off [which may be one reason why Palin, despite her media success, has extraordinarily low approval ratings among Americans.]

I thank Amato for raising the question, and look forward to comments.


I am very much in sympathy with the long, thoughtful, intelligent two-part comment by English Jerk [I really have trouble adjusting to the weird names perfectly sensible people adopt on the internet. It is, I am sure, a sign of age.] The distinction between the two forms of union action is very valuable. I am not above nostalgia for the Wobblies [and, as an educator, for the once vibrant tradition of worker education.] I have two responses.

First, as I have a number of times argued, I think -- following Marx's example -- it is valuable to spend some time trying to understand the direction in which modern capitalism is developing all on its own. As I suggest in my paper "The Future of Socialism" [on line somewhere], the inner logic of capitalist expansion leads it not in the direction of small, autonomous economic units, but rather in the direction of huge internally planned aggregations of capital, whose inner decision processes, in their structure but not in their aims, looks very much like a planned economy. This happens because it is necessary to capital accumulation and profit, and can therefore be expected to continue, even in the face of efforts by the state to limit the potentially destructive consequences of such aggregation. We emerge from a financial crisis with bigger banks, not smaller ones, for example. What conclusions can we draw from this observation, assuming that it is true? I fear that in this case, the old Scottish proverb, "many a mickle makes a muckle," does not apply. The world economy is now so enormous that it has plenty of room for collectives, worker owned firms, and other small-scale experiments in non-capitalist economic organization, but I simply do not see how bringing such experiments into being and making them work, for all that it is a worthwhile effort in its own right, will move us toward the replacement of global capitalism. I very much fear that the more likely result is that some enterprising capitalist will find a way to market the effort and make a profit from it [think Whole Foods].

The second response is this: despite all of that, English Jerk's impulse is, I believe, right. The only thing we can do is try, as imaginatively as we can, in our daily lives, to search for ways of being that embody as well as proselytize for our ideals and dreams. I am old, and not likely to start a collective or much of anything else, but many of you who read this blog are young, and have lifetimes in which to make this idea real.

A caution, born of that long lifetime of experience. Thinking is easy, so we tend to think big, since it takes no more energy than thinking small. Acting is hard, and it takes all the energy we have to do just a little something. Now changing the world will take the actions of scores of millions of people, no one of whom will be the crucial actor in all of this. So find a way of embodying your ideals in your actions that you enjoy. If you do, you will keep at it not only during the exhilarating times when things seem to be on the move, but also during the long winters of discontent when everything seems to be going the wrong way. There are lots and lots of things that need doing: helping to organize a union, writing pamphlets, standing on street corners, raising money, making bombs [well, maybe not making bombs ;) ]. All of them are necessary. I, for example, like writing books and I like raising money, but I hate standing on street corners or taking part in marches. So I do what I like and can do reasonably well, hoping that in some small way it will advance a larger cause.

I think of social change as being like an avalanche, not like brain surgery. In brain surgery, one slip or false move and the patient dies. In an avalanche, rocks and trees and dirt are tumbling down a hillside, helter skelter. If you are one of the little clots of dirt [as almost all of us are], what matters is that you are rolling down the correct side of the hill, and thus adding your tiny weight to the avalanche. In this life, we really cannot ask for more than that. With luck, you will meet some nice people rolling down the hillside with you.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I am going to make one last comment on the series of rather angry posts that have been prompted by my support for Obama's budget deal with the Republicans. Then I am going to move on to something else. Let me explain why. There is a long tradition, started by Marx himself, of fratricidal in-fighting on the left. [As young men, Marx and Engels started things off with their boisterous fights with the Bauer brothers and others on the left.] This visceral anger is focused on those actually relatively close to one's own position, while the real enemies are passed over more or less in silence, as though it is not even necessary to get angry at them.

Now, for the past two years, our politics have been dominated by the instransigence of the Republicans, who have used the device of the filibuster to hold every Democratic proposal hostage. But the anger for failures and compromises seems to be focused almost entirely on Obama, who is, after all, a great deal closer to the left than are the Republicans, or even the Blue Dog Democrats who have themselves held the Democratic proposals hostage.

Are Obama's politics mine? No, but then I never thought they were. Would he have preferred a larger stimulus package? I think clearly yes, but he knew he could not get what he wanted, and he very nearly did not get the cut down package he was willing to settle for. Would he have liked a public option in the health bill? Pretty clearly yes, but what does it matter? There was no chance at all of getting that past the Republicans, or even past many in his own party. Does Obama want to end the tax cuts for the rich? yes. Can he get that? No. Does he want to end DADT? Yes. Can he get even that? Judging from last night's vote, maybe not.

Who is to blame for all of this? In the first instance, the Republicans. Surely that is obvious. But those Republicans were elected by constituents. So why is there not more anger on the left at the people who put Jon Kyl and Jeff Sessions and John Boehner and the egregious Susan Collins and all the others in office?

One commentator cited a poll, which I have also seen, purporting to show that the "American people" are farther to the left than Obama. Really? Take a look at the results of the recent election. Is the time ripe for revolution? Give me a break. To be sure, the future is always harder to predict than the past, but on my reading of the current political situation, America is a good deal riper for fascism than it is for a proletarian revolution.

Now, I don't like in-fighting with those who are, or ought to be, my comrades. In this respect, I dislike Marx's mentality. I do not choose to go that route, so I am going to stop responding to angry posts about "Obama and the other demons" and focus my energies on things I can do to make the situation a tiny bit better. And I will continue to keep at the forefront of my awareness the simple fact that the Republicans, and the Americans who elect them, are the real problem.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


OK. I am sorry, Chris, if I seemed to make this personal. I apologize. I don't like it when I feel pushed, and I push back. The truth is that we are all on the same end of the political spectrum, where there are all too few of us, in fact. So let us not reproduce the fratricidal in-fighting of the historical left. That is why I like the labor movement -- it always remembers who the real enemy is.

I shall return to my philosophical postings, and we shall see how things work out. If anyone has an idea how to change the fundamentally reactionary orientation of American politics, speak up.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


On this one, I am with Obama. The deal cut by the President with the Republicans is enough to make one sick. Extending the unjustified tax cuts for the super rich is appalling, and my in-box is filled each day with messages from left-liberal political groups urging me to do this or that to help block the deal. [Full disclosure: I also have somehow gotten onto the Republican national Committee's database, and I receive endless postal appeals and robo-phone call "surveys" designed to get me to say whether I prefer Palin or Huckabee or Romney. I am ashamed to be on their list, but I have chosen to leave myself on it because it costs them something to contact me, and every little bit helps.]

NEVERTHELESS: I think it is preferable to a political standoff in which all the Bush tax cuts would end. Let me spend a little time explaining myself, before you remove the link to this blog from your list of favorites and conclude that Wolff has gone over to the dark side [or alternatively, has simply gone senile -- always a threat at my age.]

Since I am a strong believer in making politics personal, I shall begin with some facts about myself. I was awarded tenure at Columbia University in 1964. For the next forty-four years, until my retirement in 2008 from the University of Massachusetts, I had an assured salary that rose steadily, either because of cost of living increases or because of genuine raises, from the $11,000 I received from Columbia in '64 as a tenured Associate Professor to roughly $180,000 that I was earning at the end of my career, thanks to an eleven month administrative salary. [By the way, the CPI calculator tells me that the 2008 equivalent of my 1964 salary is $76,400, so my real salary more than doubled over my long period of tenure -- not bad for an atheistical anarchistic Marxist on the public payroll.] Like countless others in my social and economic class, I have been completely protected from the vagaries of inflation, recession, job layoffs, outsourcing, and the rest. National politics has been, for me, a deadly earnest spectator sport, roughly on a par, emotionally, with college basketball here in Chapel Hill. One of the reasons that I have trouble remembering which years have been boom years and which recession years in America is that I have experienced no noticeable alteration in my personal circumstances as a consequence of the one or the other. There were a series of terrible budget crises at UMass during my thirty-seven years there, but although they resulted at one point in the phones being removed from our faculty offices, and though there was never money for travel or research, the simple fact is that I coasted along happily as though I had an independent income.

Now, with these personal reminiscences on the page, let me turn to the deal that Obama struck with the Republicans. Bad stuff first: The handout to the super rich will continue for two more years. In light of what I have said on this blog in recent months, I am going to take it as given how I feel about that. So what did Obama get in return? Well, all the attention is on the extension of the tax cuts for those referred to as "middle class," which, since it includes households with net taxable annual income of less than a quarter of a million, means, by my way of thinking, a great many rich people as well as "struggling middle class families." This is, all by itself, a good thing for the economy, since taking all of that money out of the economy in the form of higher taxes would have an anti-stimulus effect. But Obama got two other things as well. He got an extension of unemployment benefits for two million out of work Americans for another thirteen months. These people are hurting, and those benefits are desperately needed to put food on the table and clothes of peoples backs. All of it, we can assume, will be spent right away, providing a maximum amount of stimulation to the faltering economy.

And -- in many ways the biggest gain of all -- Obama got a one year reduction in the FICA or social security tax levied on the paychecks of working Americans. Let us please remember that for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, many of whom pay no income taxes, the payroll tax is a huge regressive bite into their meager incomes. If I understand what I have read, that tax will be cut roughly a third or a bit less, for a period of a year.

These people have been completely forgotten in all the political talk about "the middle class." To have secured some benefit, however short-lived, for them is in my eyes a political triumph.

Now, how will this play out politically? I do not think there is any doubt that it will help the Republicans, who will be perceived as having faced down the President. The appalling Mitch McConnell will gloat. John Boehner, the George Hamilton of politics, will preen himself and probably weep. We on the left will gnash our teeth and take antacids to counteract the bile in our stomachs. But millions of poor and middle income Americans will get a break when they need it.

Worn down teeth and a bilious stomach seem to me a small price to pay for forty-five years of secure comfort.

So, on this one, I am with Obama.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Herewith a few comments on the books I recommended dealing with the modern mathematical reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories. The comments make it clear that there are many other more recent works that I have failed to keep up with. All additions and comments gratefully accepted.

1. Piero Sraffa, PRODUCTION OF COMMODITIES BY MEANS OF COMMODITIES This is an extraordinary work, totally different from CAPITAL in tone and style, but fully as compelling and distinctive. Sraffa writes as though he were a monk who, after forty years of meditation on the scriptures, now begins softly, without haste, to speak. The first sentence of the little book is: "Let us consider an extremely simple society which produces just enough to maintain itself." As I remarked, the math is dead simple, but Sraffa, like many theorists, omits intermediate steps quite often, with the result that it sometimes took me hours to read a page, reconstructing the steps and refusing to move on until I understood exactly how each step followed from the one before. Reading the book was an intellectual [and dare I say it, spiritual] experience for me quite like any other.

2. Michio Morishima, MARX'S ECONOMICS I found this a difficult book to work through, and you might want to move on to some of the others, but it played an important role in the development of the movement.

3. Luigi Pasinetti, GROWTH AND INCOME DISTRIBUTION and LECTURES ON THE THEORY OF PRODUCTION. I found Pasinetti very helpful. His writing is quite accessible, albeit rigorous. He is especially good at making the connections between Marx and his predecessors -- most notably Ricardo and the Physiocrats. He even includes an appendix in which he presents the elements of linear algebra.

4. Andras Brody, PROPORTIONS, PRICES, AND PLANNING. I found this a fascinating book for two reasons: First of all, Brody was writing in Hungary, during a time when the government was engaging in economic planning, so, unlike all of the other authors, he is actually concerned with the application of the theory to practice; and Second, in total contrast to all the other authors, Brody worries about whether the units in an equation are compatible. This may seem like a rather minor matter, but I found it quite helpful and refreshing.

5. Abraham-Frois and Berrebi, THEORY OF VALUE, PRICES AND ACCUMULATION. A difficult but important book, that includes a very helpful discussion of joint production, a problem in linear production models on which a lot of ink has been spilled. One of the curious and interesting things in the book is an extremely arcane analysis of a special case in which one of Marx's central propositions holds true. Roughly speaking, the story is this: In explaining why prices deviate from labor values in the general case in which there is not equal organic composition of capital in all industries [the case analyzed in Volume One of CAPITAL], Marx argues that the identity of profit and surplus value is maintained in the economy as a whole. It turns out that this is not true generally, but is true, remarkably enough, just in case the economy is embarked on a von Neumann balanced growth path. [This involves there being no luxury consumption, all profits being plowed back into capital expansion -- "Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets to the capitalists" as Marx says in one wonderful passage.] It had been thought that this was the necessary as well as the sufficient condition for Marx's claim to be true, but Abraham-Frois and Berrebi show that there is a very obscure situation, having to do with the maximal eigenvalues of the unit input matrix, in which Marx's claim also holds. For the specialist!

6. Ian Steedman, MARX AFTER SRAFFA. This is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. It is, if I may put it this way, a furiously angry work of mathematics! Steedman is [was?] a British communist who was fed up with his traditionalist colleagues in the Party who insisted on holding to the old bedtime stories about surplus value and all, even after Sraffa had shown that one needed a new, cleaned up version of the critique of capitalism. He plays out all manner of supposed ridiculous conclusions one can draw from the old Marxist story, such as the fact that with joint production, some labor values turn out to be negative. He surely must have been a young man when he wrote this book, and he just cannot contain his scorn for those who hew to the old ways without knowing any math. It is a great read, and lots of fun. By the way, I think he is essentially wrong, but that is a long, long story.

7. John Roemer, ANALYTICAL FOUNDATIONS OF MARXIAN ECONOMIC THEORY. This is a simply terrific book, difficult in its math parts, but absolutely clear in its exposition. One of Roemer's many important insights [which he urged against me in a comment on a paper I wrote and published] is that exploitation is possible even in the absence of a labor market, by way of structures of debt that effectively enslave and exploit workers or peasants. If you are going to read only one book on this list, and are willing to do the work, this might be the best choice.

8. Walsh and Gram, CLASICAL AND NEOCLASSICAL THEORIES OF GENERAL EQUILIBIUM I don't really recommend that you read this, but I include it for two reasons. First of all, when I started reading all this literature, I became very excited about it. At the time, I was very close to Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis, and the other radicals in the UMass econ department. It seemed to me that the success of this alternative approach to economics would require a way of teaching it at the intro level as perspicuous and elegant as that created by Samuelson and others with their familiar little supply and demand curves. I knew I could not do it, but I hoped against hope that Sam would try, since he was [and is] the smartest of the radicals. But he and Herb got interested in Game Theory [which I thought was a mistake] and went in another direction. Anyway, Walsh and Gram attempt a geometric representation of the linear programming models underlying the classical and Marxian approach, so I read their book with great anticipation [but eventual disappointment]. The other reason is a funny story. I had met John Kenneth Galbraith in the senior common room of Winthrop House at Harvard, although of course he did not remember that. Anyway, I was on a plane returning from a talk in Ohio, and in those days the American Airlines jets were configured so that in the first two rows, six people sat, three and three, facing one another across a table. I sat down in one of the seats, and catty-corner across from me was none other than Galbraith, crammed into the seat [he was 6'7"]. I had the Walsh and Gram with me on the table, reading it, and at one point Galbraith reached a long arm across the table and took the book to look at it, without so much as a word. I told him what it was about, and he looked at it and handed it back. He was at that point traveling and campaigning for Teddy Kennedy, who was making an unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was the next to the last time I met Galbraith.