Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Friday, April 27, 2012


For some time now, a woman who uses the webname "High Arka" has been posting abusive and insulting comments on this site.  Because she hides behind anonymity, not having the courage of her convictions, I have taken to deleting her comments.  I do not think that sort of discourse has any place on a site like this one.  Just recently, however, she has raised in a slightly more acceptable fashion the question why I engage actively in electoral politics, supporting Barack Obama despite all the ways in which I fundamentally disagree with him.  She takes this support [which she always characterizes in personally insulting fashion] as evidence that I cannot possibly be, as I claim to be, an anarchist and a Marxist.  Somewhat in support of "High Arka," Chris says ” Amongst the Anarchist crowd, I don't know a single one that actually votes, let alone has a single positive thing to say about the president or an executive branch in general."

I think the time has come to address this question in a serious fashion.  Nevertheless, I shall continue to delete High Arka's comments until she decides to observe the norms of courtesy in debate that I have tried to exemplify and encourage here.  Since she has her own blog, you are free to follow her there if you find her mode of discourse congenial.  This is, I might observe, one of the great attractions of the web.  As a professor, I occupied a position of status and power in the classroom.  It was, after all, I who handed out the grades at the end of the semester.  But as a blogger, I have exactly the same status and power as High Arka and all the other hundreds of millions of folks who have blogs.  Google makes its blogging utility available for nothing, so that if you are on line [or have access to an internet cafe], you have the same access to public opinion that I have.  If what you write draws a crowd, then you become a somebody in the world of blogging.  This blog, for example, has a rather small readership.  A famous blog like the Huffington Post or TPM probably pulls as many hits in a minute as I do in a day.

Now let me address the question why I engage actively in mainstream politics.  The first point to make is that I am a well-to-do person who has for most of his life lived an upper-middle class existence.  I come from a lower middle class background [my mother was, until her heart attack, a secretary and my father was a high school teacher and then near the end of his career a high school principal,] but I did rather better financially, spending my life as a college professor.  I was never out of work for even a day until I retired, and thanks to a generous Commonwealth of Massachusetts pension, Social Security, and Medicare, I have a secure and comfortable old age.  I mention these facts because I believe they are important.  Since I have led a comfortable, secure, affluent life, I have, I believe, a more than ordinary responsibility to concern myself with the well-being of the many, many scores of millions of Americans who have been less fortunate.  I mean that quite seriously.  For me to turn my back on the public political world of America out of anger or disgust, and fail to do what I can to make things better for other Americans, would be in my opinion unconscionable.  High Arka may mock me for espousing leftwing opinions when I am one of the comfortable and fortunate, but I think she has it exactly wrong.  I have a greater obligation to express those views and act on them precisely because I am one of the comfortable and fortunate.

I am, as I have often said on this blog and elsewhere, a socialist.  But it is perfectly obvious that there is not the slightest probability that either major political party in this country will embrace and espouse, let alone implement, a socialist program.  Of course, not everyone who thinks of himself or herself as a Marxist or a socialist agrees with this assessment.  There was a time, after all -- roughly when my grandfather was active in the Socialist Party -- when many serious, committed socialists believed the world was on the brink of a revolutionary period during which there would be a real chance for the working class to seize power and put an end to capitalism.  I don't think that was a foolish belief, as I have made clear in my paper "The Future of Socialism," but it proved to be incorrect, again for reasons I have spelled out in that paper.

What, then, is someone with my beliefs and commitments and life situation to do?  There are, so far as I can see, five possibilities.

First, I can turn my back on the public world, out of disgust, despair, or simple disappointment, and refuse to have anything to do with it, not even bothering to vote, inasmuch as none of the alternatives presented on the ballot offers any hope of the realization of the socialist dream.  To do that is implicitly to say that it really makes no difference which political party comes to power.  Well, it certainly makes no material difference to me.  As I have indicated, I am quite nicely cushioned against the inevitable traumata and trials of old age.  Of course, it might make a difference to my children and grandchildren, who could find themselves deprived of a social safety net in a world of ever greater income and wealth inequality, but that, after all, is their problem, not mine.  I will be dead before they have to confront it.

But it does make a very great deal of difference to hundreds of millions of Americans, now and in the future.  The policies and proposals of the two major political parties are fundamentally different with regard to all of the economic questions that are summarized in the phrase "social safety net."  Is a nation with universal health care socialist?  Hardly!  Is a nation with secure rights of unionization socialist?  Of course not.  Is a nation that pursues an imperial foreign policy socialist?  That is actually a more complicated question, but I am happy to say No.  But a nation with universal health care and strong union protections is a better nation, for those who need the health care and belong to the unions, than a nation without them.  About this there seems to me to be no possibility of dispute.  Just speak to someone who, upon changing jobs, finds that she cannot get health insurance because of a "pre-existing condition."

Do I have the right to ignore the needs of my fellow Americans because doing something might require me to choose between imperfect alternatives?  I don't think so, especially because I am one of the fortunate whose life is comfortable and secure.  So I work for the party whose policies seem to me more beneficial for those whose life circumstances are inferior to my own.  So far as I am concerned, this first option, to do nothing, is simply unacceptable.

My Second option is to engage actively in politics in support of a party or individual candidates who openly and enthusiastically embrace the socialist principles I espouse.  This is, I think, an honorable course of action, but if I choose it, it is essential to be honest with myself about its prospects for success.  Now, this is always difficult to calculate.  For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which looked about as quixotic as anything one could imagine, has succeeded against all the odds in almost immediately transforming the public discourse in America, so that the notion of the opposition between the 1% and the 99% is now a part of mainstream discussions.  That is a triumph far beyond anything I have ever achieved or could have achieved with my involvement in mainstream politics.  [That is why I have supported the local manifestation of the Occupy movement here in Chapel Hill.]  If someone decides to take this route, and shun major party politicking, I think that is fine.  But not voting on election day is just irresponsible, regardless of how one has decided to act politically.

The Third alternative, much favored a generation or two ago by some folks who thought of themselves as revolutionary, is to embrace the thesis that things can only get better after they have gotten worse, and thus to retreat from the public arena and wait for the crash that will presage the great Revolution, or indeed even to do what one can to hasten the crash [perhaps by pursuing a career as a trader in Credit Default Swaps.] 

Marx held a version of this theory, of course, expecting that capitalism would be unable to moderate the ever greater booms and busts, so that eventually there would be a world crash, from whose ashes would rise a united working class to seize the reins of power.  Well, I am old enough to feel my heart begin to flutter at these words, but I am seriously doubtful that this is what the future holds.  If I am wrong, I will be delighted to admit, indeed to celebrate, my error.

The Fourth option is to go underground and work for violent revolution.  Or, if not that, then to hang out in countercultural coffee houses and talk about violent revolution.  Well, good luck with that!  There have been a number of successful violent revolutions in the past century -- the Russian, the Chinese, the Cuban.  In every case, there were objective circumstances that made the revolution possible.  Now, I really do not think the United States presents such circumstances.  Indeed, the real possibility at the present time is a counter-revolution, a religiously inspired reactionary destruction of whatever good has been achieved by struggling men and women in this century.

Finally, the Fifth option is to work within the existing political system, always supporting, in any election, the candidate who is farther to the left, recognizing that this means supporting candidates with whom one disagrees, and in any other way that one can, trying to build popular support for more progressive alternatives, hoping, but without much hope, that someday socialism will, in Marx's evocative phrase, emerge from the womb of the old order.

So, there we are:  Do nothing, work on the fringes of the system, scheme [or hope] to make things worse so that they will get better, plot violent revolution, or work within the system and try to pull it to them left.  I think that for someone in my material circumstances, only the second and the fifth are honorable and plausible.  If someone wants to tell me that the second is preferable, I will not argue.  I think it is just a matter of choice and preference.

However:  young people who refuse to vote because they do not like the choices presented to them had better not complain about how things turn out!  They have forfeited that right by refusing to use what little power they have.


Alex G. said...

It seems pretty monstrous that there are people who supposedly care about the welfare of "the people", but hope for a collapse of the system or violent revolution. Big political jumps tend to make things even worse for the already worst off in society. Gradual change through our current political system is not romantic, but it is way better than anyone imposing their view of what the just society is on everyone else with no vision of what the ultimate consequences of such action will be.

Somewhere in The Black Swan Taleb talks about how more advances in medicine have come from tinkering and trying things out, rather than applying some explanative paradigm. Indeed, in the cases where people did try to treat the sick using some overarching framework it often led to disastrous consequences. Think of shock therapy and lobotomization. Human societies are much more complicated than human bodies, and anyone who thinks that quickly changing how things currently work will be helpful is deluded. Increasing spending on food stamps and increasing access to good healthcare can and probably would make lives better; one "radical" thing that would undoubtedly make lives better is ending state terrorism. Radically altering the way things function in the US, though, would probably just end up hurting a lot of people who are more concerned with getting on with their lives.

For these reasons I think your support of a mainstream candidate is far more laudable than the visionary work others suggest.

Alex G. said...

To clarify: I don't think electing Obama will end state terrorism, but I do think that a reduction in violence is more likely be achieved by working through the political system than it would be through revolution.

Scott said...

How do you define "successful" violent revolutions?

English Jerk said...

It's odd that someone would think Marxism incompatible with engaging in bourgeois party politics, since Marx advocated (contra Bakunin) doing so; but you can understand someone being confused by your support for Obama when you describe yourself as an anarchist (at least, if they haven't read your book on the subject carefully). But in any case (and with apologies for using a pseudonym!) I do have a few questions.

1) What if Candidate X is better on, say, unions than Candidate Y, but is worse on foreign policy? As an option 2 guy who is in the process of organizing a union, that issue has immediate practical consequences for my political activities. But do I really want better labor laws in the US at the cost of millions of people exterminated abroad? For that matter, do I want better labor laws in the US at the cost of the US government supporting the violent suppression of unions in Colombia (where a few hundred labor organizers are murdered every year)? In other words, it seems to me that, in order to make this assessment, we'd have to determine in some detail what a candidate is likely to do (which is no easy matter) and then to find some way to compare (or even quantify?) his various evils so that we can determine whether it's a net gain to have X rather than Y in office. In Obama's case, of course, we could at least look at his past record and assume he'll continue in the same vein. So I'd like to see what it would look like if we really try to balance out all the good and bad things he's done and see where the scales fall. To put this another way: many of your arguments hang on an evaluation of Obama's specific policies, and I'd like to hear more about your views on those details.

2) What if capitalism is more adaptable than Marx supposed precisely because of these "progressive" strands in government, so that encouraging them actually prevents radical change? I know this line of thinking can be harnessed to the "making things worse until they get better" strategy, but it doesn't have to be. We might, for example, opt for direct action that helps people in our communities while pointedly avoiding any participation with state-corporate entities. If all participation in government makes capitalism stronger, then we'd need to find other avenues of political action—and, in light of the infinite capacities of humans, I think there are always infinitely many such avenues.

3) What if it turns out to be necessarily impossible to determine what political outcomes these particular circumstances make possible? We would, in that case, lack information that is crucial to the kinds of moral deliberations you describe. Marx seems sometimes to have thought that a given situation was fairly deterministically related to what could come next, but Hegel (on my reading, anyway) thought that contingency itself was necessary, which makes all real situations deeply unpredictable. My thinking is that it might be better to devote our energies to local action, since we are more likely to have sufficient grasp of the local situation to make a good guess about what that situation calls for. The energy would thus be better spent locally. And I know that the act of voting by itself doesn't require much energy, if all one does it to pull a crank in a curtained booth; but surely if one engages in the careful research and deliberation required to reach morally justifiable conclusions (and even more so if one actually advocates for the candidate, as one should of one really wants the candidate to win), then voting actually is going to take quite a lot of energy. I'm still not convinced that the energy wouldn't be better spent elsewhere.

David Palmeter said...

I recall being told at the time of the 2000 election that it made no difference whether Bush or Gore won. As it happened, however, there were at least three: John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and the war in Iraq.

High Arka said...

Mr. Palmeter, perhaps you're unfamiliar with how the Democratic Party spent 8 years prior to the Iraq invasion engaging in almost daily bombing of the Iraqi people, and imposing sanctions that starved over a million children to death?

the pied cow blog said...

I read both your blog and High Arka's. I don't find High Arka's commentary so beyond the pale that you should delete it. If anything, her commentary improves your blog by adding principled disagreement with your views. Her commentary also carries the benefit of holding your and your readers' feet to the fire.

I would like to call "foul" on one of your points: Just as Samuel Clemens was entitled to use the nom de plume Mark Twain, so too is Ms. Arka entitled to make use of a literary identity.