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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


An old friend, Steve Garrard, has invited me to speak in his seminar at Williams College in October, in my new-found role as a "public intellectual."  [I am not exactly sure what a private intellectual would be -- presumably someone who never open acknowledges an obsessive interest in ideas.]  Since I will be speaking to undergraduates, who began to take notice of the larger world of politics some time during George W. Bush's second term, I plan to draw on my vast experience as an old person to give them advice about how to remain politically engaged not just for a season or for a Congressional term but for an entire life.

As I was turning over in my mind just which stories to tell [I am, as readers of this blog will have learned, a compulsive story teller], Enver Motala's tribute to Neville Alexander popped up in my email in-box.  It is posted on my blog, just after this entry.  Although I never had the good fortune to meet Neville Alexander, save perhaps for a fleeting moment, if my memory serves me correctly, I was of course well aware of him during the entire quarter century of my deep involvement with South Africa, an involvement that I have described in detail in the second volume of my Memoir.  South Africa has produced an extraordinary number of truly admirable men and women who fought for freedom and socialism during the long night of Apartheid.  It is why I fell in love with the country when I first visited it in 1986, and have remained committed to its people ever since.

There have been countless men and women over much of the past two centuries who have devoted their lives to the struggle for freedom and socialism -- some of them truly admirable, some very much less so.  What strikes me most powerfully about the South Africans I have known is how many of them are genuinely honorable men and women.  I have in mind not just such world figures as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu [and Mohandas Gandhi, whose career started, one sometimes forgets, in Natal Province in South Africa], but other less well-known people, including my friend Enver Motala. 

It is a great economic strength of capitalism that it has no time for, indeed no conception of, honor.  Relationships in the public world are regulated solely by calculations of profitability.  To refuse to do business with a man simply because he is a scoundrel is economically disadvantageous.  To turn down a deal offered by a woman who previously betrayed her business associates risks losing profit.  That is why it is simply impossible in contemporary society for someone permanently to disgrace himself or herself and henceforward to by excluded from the society of decent people.  With the death of honor goes the disappearance of shame as an emotion capable of stifling ambition. 

It is in such a world that men and women like Neville Alexander stand out as exemplars of the honorable life.  I shall not talk about this at Williams.  I fear the students listening to me would be unable to make any sense of such observations.  But it is very much on my mind as I approach the end of my life and look back, wondering whether I have managed to live in a way that I can, in retrospect, respect.


a life well-lived in the struggle

The following was sent to me by my old South African friend Enver Motala, himself a lifelong participant in the struggle for freedom and socialism in South Africa.  I post it as a model of how one ought to live one's life:

Tribute to Neville Alexander

(born 22 October 1936; died 27 August 2012)


Neville Edward Alexander meant many specific things to many different people. For the most part of his adult life, he grappled with life’s contradictions, its dilemmas, its twists and its beauty as a socialist intellectual and a revolutionary Marxist since his political baptism in the Non-European Unity Movement’s student wing, the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union. In the unfolding drama that captures his life’s work, Alexander eschewed the presumed impartiality of the scholar who pretends to stand “on the wall of a threatened city” and write about the oppressors and the oppressed. Like Antonio Gramsci, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky, Alexander’s place has been “within the revolution’s threatened city”. His political and academic choices were ideologically inspired and his writings were crafted unambiguously to promote the interests of working people and their allies.

                Alexander was born in Cradock in the Eastern Cape on 22 October 1936. His father was David James Alexander, a carpenter, and his mother, Dimbiti Bisho Alexander, a school teacher. His maternal grandmother was enslaved as a child in Ethiopia in 1888, rescued on the high seas and eventually brought to Lovedale in the Eastern Cape. His formal schooling was at the Holy Rosary Convent, and his university studies were at the University of Cape Town and the University of Tübingen in Germany where he completed his doctorate on the dramatic work of Gerhardt Hauptmann in 1961.

                After Sharpeville in 1960 and after his return to South Africa in 1961, Alexander opened up a debate within the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (Apdusa) about the armed struggle. He formed the Yu Chin Chan Club which included Marcus Solomon, Kenneth Abrahams and Fikile Bam. This organisation was superseded by the National Liberation Front. He was arrested in 1963 and convicted in 1964. Alexander spent 10 years on Robben Island where he had an epic debate on the “national question”, first with Walter Sisulu and then with Nelson Mandela. In more ways than one, this exchange prefigured his own written exposition of this question in One Azania, One Nation, which was published in 1979. In this work, Alexander draws up a Marxist interpretation of nationalism, its limits and possibilities and its dire consequences. One Azania, One Nation is his philosophical and political template for much of his subsequent writings.

                In 1981, Alexander became Western Cape director of the South African Committee for Higher Education (Sached). Through Sached, he established Khanya College, an institution that was created to serve as a bridging organisation for black students en route to university study. He also established the National Language Project (1985) and the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa) in the 1990s.

                In June 1983, he formed the National Forum with Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Saths Cooper, Lybon Mabasa and others, and which had as its patrons Desmond Tutu, Albertina Sisulu and Emma Mashinini. This forum drew up the Azanian Manifesto, a set of demands and injunctions calling for a socialist state in South Africa. For Alexander, this forum was an effort at a united front of oppressed people’s organisations, and had as its aim the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources. In the early 1990s, he initiated a new political organisation called the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action and to which he has remained committed.

                Alexander’s literary output includes eight books and numerous scholarly articles that have been published in refereed journals, and through political and educational organisations with which he has been associated. One Azania, One Nation was followed by Sow the Wind (1985), Language policy and National Unity in South Africa/Azania (1989), Education and the Struggle for National Liberation in South Africa (1990), Some Are More Equal Than Others (1993), Robben Island Dossier (1994), and An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy (2002).

                In his writings, Alexander rejected the notion of “’race” as a valid biological entity. While he accepted that racism exists as a social construct, and with the life-and-death consequences of the former apartheid regime’s Bantustan policies and Hitler’s delusions about a master race, he criticised the lack of a scientific understanding within the former South African liberation movement’s perceptions about the phenomenon of “race”. Instead, through his work, he experimented with notions of colour-caste, class and identities, and marshalled his thoughts to develop an indigenous theory of knowledge about humanity’s genealogy and evolving consciousness.

                What separated Alexander from many other academics and intellectuals is that his pursuit of knowledge was anchored in the existential imperative to act in the “here and now”. He stood on the shoulders of equally agile and committed writers and thinkers such as Ben Kies and Isaac Bangani Tabata, who were leaders in knowledge production outside the academy. His interrogation of contemporary debates and conversations on language and nation-building places him among the leading scholars and committed writers on the future of humanity. His synergy with former SACP stalwart Harold Wolpe’s Race, Class and the Apartheid State (1988) is not accidental.

                Neville Alexander was a radical participant in the making of South African history. In his own words, written in 1995 after the democratic elections in 1994: “The nation is being imagined, invented, created before our eyes. Indeed, we are extremely fortunate to have been afforded ringside seats by Clio enabling us to observe in the most concrete manner possible the contest between the nation conceived as a community of culture and the nation as a political community. As organic intellectuals, however, we resemble Brechtian rather than Aristotelian theatre-goers. Like every other would-be mother or sire of the nation, we want to be involved in its conception even if only as midwives to the wondrous fruit of the womb of our struggle. At worst, we are willing to be mere critics, those (usually tired old) men and women who stand around in the labor ward admiring or bewailing the features of the new-born infant.”


Written By: Na-iem Dollie, Hamied Mahate, James Marsh, Enver Motala, Jean Pease, John Samuels, Marcus Solomon, Salim Vally and Crain Soudien

27 August 2012

Monday, August 27, 2012


'I celebrate myself," as Walt Whitman famously began his poem.  If Whitman can do it, why can't I?  [The obvious answer is, because Whitman was a great poet, and I am no poet at all.  Oh well.]  More than a year ago, I wrote a short book, posted on this blog in segments as I wrote it, called "The Use and Abuse of Formal Models in Political Philosophy."  It now resides on, along with much else that I have written.  Having nothing better to do this afternoon, while the oven heats up to receive a cornish hen, I decided to re-read some of that little book.  I was delighted to discover that it is really very clear, very readable, and a splendid introduction to collective choice theory, rational choice theory, and Game Theory, as well as an acerbic debunking of the so-called Prisoner's Dilemma.  Having long ago learned, though not actually from Walt Whitman, that if you do not sing a song of yourself probably nobody else will, I heartily recommend my web-book to anyone who has a serious interest in the formal side of political theory but has somehow managed to reach this point in life without mastering the technical materials that others deploy with such insoucience and self-confidence.  I can say with serene confidence that you will enjoy it more than watching the Republican Nominating Convention.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


An odd turn of my mind this morning led me to recall the opening line of the great speech with which Shakespeare brings Henry IV, Part II to a close:  "I know thee not, old man" etc etc.  [Spoken by the newly crowned Prince Hal to his old tutor and drinking companion, Sir John Falstaff.]  Google quickly supplied me with the entire speech, which I read through, tears forming in my eyes.  This took me to Kenneth Branagh's much acclaimed film re-make of Henry V, and courtesy of Netflix, I watched Derek Jacobi deliver Prologue's opening speech.  I am of that generation that fed on the theatrics of Lawrence Olivier's classic film versions of  Shakespeare's plays, including, of course, Henry V, and I quite naturally felt a certain disappointment at Branagh's distinctly low-key approach to that best-loved of Shakespeare's history plays.  But then I called to mind something said to me by a student of literature who was, a lifetime ago, a good friend --  Richard J. Onorato. 

As I have recounted in my Memoir, Richard and I were members of the Winthrop House Senior Common Room at Harvard at the end of the 50's.  Richard was a handsome, incredibly fit man with a wry sense of humor and a picture-perfect tennis playing style, who was then engaged in writing a doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth that eventually became a very well-received book.  One day I was going on about how wonderful Olivier was in his film version of Henry V, when Onorato broke into set me straight.  What you don't realize, he said, is that Olivier has just one acting trick that he uses in every scene.  He conveys intensity by making his voice rise to a higher and higher pitch, making you think that he has grasped the emotional essence of the speech, when in fact he might just as well be reading the telephone book [we still had telephone books in those days.]  He then proved his point irrefutably by imitating Olivier perfectly. 

Thereafter, I was never able to watch Olivier on the screen without thinking of what Dick had said.  It spoiled a number of movies for me.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Pat Robertson has made a good living explaining natural disasters as God's punishment for such sins as homosexuality, abortion, socialized medicine, and same sex marriage.  Now, as the Republicans gather for their national convention in Tampa, a storm threatening to become a hurricane is approaching Florida, and looks to have a good chance of hitting Tampa itself.  It is just our luck that when we need him the most, Pat is reported to have checked into a hospital.  I guess the line of Jeremiahs has run out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Shortly after I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, I was chatting with the Chair, Esther Terry [now the Interim President of Bennett College] about the famous novel by James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  It is a novel about the phenomenon of passing, which is to say the practice of a very light-skinned Black man or woman passing for white, and transitioning into the White community.  "There are people on this campus who are passing," Esther said.  "We know who they are," she went on, meaning "we African-Americans."  But the rest of the UMass community, which included me of course, did not know that they were passing, and since neither Esther nor the other Black faculty and staff were going to say anything, we never found out who they were.

At roughly the same time, I went to New York to visit my younger son, Tobias, who had just graduated from college and was working as a paralegal at a big Manhattan law firm before beginning his legal education.  As we were taking a walk, he told me about an evening he had spent at a gay dance club with a friend [Tobias had by this time come out to me, and to the world.]  At the club, the two of them met a regular who was dressed quite strikingly in an outfit heavy on leather and chains.  When he had moved on, Tobias' friend said, "Do you know who that is?  He is the general counsel for" -- and then he named an extremely prominent large corporation with headquarters in the city.  "But, did they know that he is gay?" I asked -- this was at a time when that knowledge could easily get him fired.  "Oh no," Tobias said.  "Everyone in the gay community knows, of course.  He is totally out.  But no one in the straight community has any idea."

These two conversations, occurring at more or less the same time, started me thinking about some widely held and rarely challenged assumptions in the philosophical field of Epistemology.  A little background is called for to set the context for my reflections.  Back in the 40's and 50's and 60's, when I was a philosophy student and young philosophy professor, the subject of sense data and private languages was a hot topic in Epistemology.  A lot of ink was spilled over questions of the logical relationship between the immediate data of sense -- of sight, sound, tough, taste, and feeling -- and judgments about physical objects.  A number of writers speculated on the possibility of an individual forming and then using a private language, known only by him or her, to describe and think about these immediate data of sense, which, because of the hermetical nature of consciousness, could not then be communicated to anyone else save by a series of analogies or evidentiary leaps -- claims that what one person experienced as an object of direct awareness was identical with, or appropriately similar to, what another person experienced.  This became folded into the old debate, going back at least to Descartes' Meditations, about whether it was possible to prove the existence of the eternal world [external to subjective consciousness, that is.]

The problem had an extremely important correlate in the fields of ethics, political philosophy, and Welfare Economics, arising out of Jeremy Bentham's insistence, in his 1789 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, that each person's pleasures and pains were to be given equal weight in any social calculation of the desirability or undesirability of a proposed piece of legislation.  The manifest difficulty, not to say impossibility, of what came to be called "interpersonal comparisons of utility" forced mathematically inclined economists to restrict themselves to ordinal, rather cardinal, measures of utility and Pareto partial orderings of alternative social states, leading to some very fancy byplay with indifference curves and the like.

The epistemic relationship of the gay community to the entire sexual community and of African-Americans to the entire multi-racial community mirrors the epistemic structure of a tribe I read about some while ago in which the women spoke among themselves a language that the men did not speak.  The women, of course, also spoke the common language of the tribe, shared by men and women alike.  This created a striking cognitive situation, perfectly exhibiting the epistemic structure of ironic communication, in which one part of the group [the women] understood everything that was being said, by men and women alike, while another part of the group [the men] understood only what was said in the common language.

All of these thoughts, going back more than half a century, popped up in my mind as I read and watched on television the unfolding story of the appalling remarks by Missouri congressman and senate Republican candidate Todd Akin.  All of my American readers, I am sure, are aware of this kerfuffle, but my overseas readers may not be, so I will simply say, briefly, that Akin, an opponent of all abortion even in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, explained to a sympathetic interviewer that in the case of what he called "legitimate rape," by which he now says he meant "forcible rape," the woman's body secretes a substance that kills the sperm, so that she does not in fact get pregnant.  The clear implication was that any woman who got pregnant during a supposed rape was not really opposed to the sexual congress, but was, as they say in the neighborhoods that Akin frequents, "asking for it."

The initial response to Akin's remark was explosive, and within twenty-four hours every major Republican figure, including even the flaccid Romney, was calling for Akin to step aside and allow some less objectionable candidate to run for Claire McCaskill's easily winnable senate seat.  But as the commentariat began to focus its fickle attention on  the story, tape began to surface going back thirty years of many, many other anti-abortionists saying essentially the same thing.  Apparently, in anti-abortion circles, it is a commonplace that the woman's body has this ability ["God's little gift," as it is sometimes called] to produce a spermaticidal liquid when she is being forced to engage in sexual intercourse by someone other than her husband [marital rape is, in these circles, considered a contradiction in terms, like round circle of married bachelor.]

Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonably attentive and perceptive observer of the ;passing scene, but until Akin shot his mouth off on tape in the middle of a senate campaign, I had not the slightest inkling that sizable numbers of Americans -- perhaps scores of millions! -- believe this appalling nonsense about a sperm-killing fluid triggered by "legitimate rape."  It is not as though the people who believe this nonsense try to keep their beliefs to themselves, any more than the gay legal counsel concealed his sexual preference.  To one part of the American community, this bit of noxious folk wisdom is a commonplace.  To the rest of us, it was utterly unknown until Akin let the rat out of the bag.

I know that scores of millions of Americans believe that the earth is no more than ten thousand years old, and that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs at roughly the time the Odyssey was being composed.  I know, too, that a sizable fraction of these hordes expect the End Times and the Rapture very soon now, at which time they will be taken up to heaven sans clothes, sans crowns, inlays, and fillings, and sans hip replacements.  But not in my most fevered dreams could I have imagined this story about a decent woman's natural protection from unwanted pregnancy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


It is a lazy Sunday here in Chapel Hill.  I set out on my morning walk rather late, at 6:44, having slept in, but about the time I was powering alongside the UNC golf course [where, on a good day, I see the resident Blue Heron], it began to rain really hard, and I turned back.  No point in getting totally soaked.  Having some extra time on my hands, I decided to think about Mitt Romney's taxes.  After struggling with Harry Reid's marvelous charge that he has paid no taxes for ten years, Romney finally responded in classic schoolyard fashion:  "I did too pay taxes, so there!"  Indeed, Romney says that he went back and checked, and found that he has paid at least 13.6% in taxes every year.  How do we know this is true?  Because he says it is.

Oddly enough, I suspect he is actually telling the truth, sort of.  Let me explain.  What follows should be obvious, because most Americans pay income taxes, and absolutely all newspaper and television commentators pay income taxes using the long form 1040, so everyone who has ventured an opinion about Romney's taxes knows what I am about to say.  But for some strange reason, when these bloviators mouth off about public affairs, they seem to go into a fugue state in which they forget everything they know about the world.  Perhaps what follows will be of interest to my overseas readers.

Since all politics is local, as Tip O'Neill said [ungrammatically, "politics" being plural], let me explain myself by talking about my own tax returns.  On Page 1 of Form 1040, I list our various sources of income.  Since Susie and I are retired, we do not have wages and salaries, which is for most ordinary people the principal source of taxable income [leaving to one side the dollar a year I am to be paid by Bennett College, if they ever get around to asking me for my social security number.]  Most of the joint income Susie and I report comes from my two pensions [UMass and TIAA-CREF] and our Social Security [only 85% of which is taxable, for some odd reason.]  But we have some interest income from our bank accounts [not much, alas], and Susie has some income from investments that she inherited from her mother, so all of that gets listed on page 1.  In addition, I get royalties from those of my books that are still in print.  Now this is actually listed on Schedule C, where I am permitted to deduct from the total amount a number of business-related expenses.  The net amount, after those deductions, is listed on page 1 of Form 1040.  The total of all these sources of income is our "gross taxable income," and that is reentered at the top of page 2.

Now come the allowable deductions:  two exemptions, for me and for Susie, and then the itemized deductions from Schedule A, including interest on the mortgage on our condo, and the real estate taxes we pay [far too much, since we live in upscale Chapel Hill], charitable donations [but not the rather large amount that we give to political campaigns], and even the excise tax we pay on my 2004 Camry and Susie's 2011 Yaris [a very snappy little red car.] 

When all those deductions have been subtracted from our gross taxable income, we are left with our net taxable income, and that is the figure on which we calculate our taxes.  The tax rates are progressive [though not nearly progressive enough], so we pay different percentages on different components of our net taxable income.  Our top marginal tax rate is 25% [which tells you that Susie and I are quite comfortably well-off], but of course we do not pay that on all of our taxable income, and certainly not on all of our income [which is not at all the same thing], only on the part of our net taxable income that is over $69,000.

The situation for someone like Mitt Romney is structurally the same but in reality vastly different.  I would be willing to bet that he regularly rakes in millions of dollars on which he pays no taxes whatsoever, thanks to a variety of perfectly legal deductions, dodges, finagles, and finesses put into the tax code by earnest Senators and Representatives to benefit their smiling campaign contributors.  Mitt Romney could easily have twenty million dollars in gross income, and yet end up with a small amount of net taxable income on which he actually pays 13.6%.  What proportion of his total income does he pay in taxes?  We shall never know, because he has clearly decided it is in his interest to take the heat rather than release his taxes.

Does any of this matter?  Only politically, which is to say yes.  Mitt Romney's taxes are a perfect symbol of the deep structural unfairness of American society.  They are as perfect a symbol as the Occupy Movement's one percent.  This is the first time in many decades that income and wealth inequality has become a hot button political issue in America.  Socialists like me have been dreaming of this for generations, crying in the wilderness.  I do not know how long the issue will remain alive, and I am virtually certain that regardless of the outcome of the election, there will be no serious effort fundamentally to alter the structure of American capitalism.  But you have to take what you can get in this life and enjoy it while you can, so I plan to groove on Romney's taxes for the time being.

Friday, August 17, 2012


I was deeply saddened to learn, just a few moments ago via Brian Leiter's blog, that Hugo Bedau had passed away at the age of 85.  Hugo was an old, old friend -- in 1953, when as a senior at Harvard I took C. I. Lewis' great course on THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, Hugo was the graduate assistant who graded my Kant Summaries.  I still have those summaries, with his marginal notes and corrections.  Hugo was a dear, sweet, incredibly decent and morally admirable man who devoted his professional life to a number of important issues in applied ethics.  On my bookshelf here in Chapel Hill is perhaps his most important work, THE DEATH PENALTY IN AMERICA, along with several other books that he wrote or edited.  Five years ago, Susie and I attended a delightful eightieth birthday party for Hugo at which each of us was called on to rise and say something personal and particular about our relationship to him.  The range of remembrances, and the warmth of the testimony, said a great deal about his qualities as a man.  I suppose eighty-five seems like a ripe old age to my younger readers, but it is only seven years away for me.  Let us hope that when I too pass from the scene, I will leave a fraction of the many fond memories and admiring mourners that Hugo leaves today.


Richard Marshall, who runs something called, asked me to reply to a number of questions, for his ezine.  On the off chance that someone might be interested in my replies, here are the questions and answers.  I hope that by scooping him, as it were, I am not causing trouble, but that is the way of the web, is it not?

I have tried very hard to resist the temptation to become one of those bloviators who can be counted on to have an opinion about anything, instantaneously, regardless of whether he or she has ever given it a moment's thought prior to the question. [Indeed, that is one of the reasons why I left Columbia in '71, when I was becoming a recognized New York intellectual, and "rusticated" in western mass.]

So, I am going to start by replying to the questions about which I actually have something to say. later on, I will think about addressing the other ones. Where I really have nothing valuable to say, I will admit as much and move on. OK?

Here goes:

Robert Paul Wolff

1. You?ve been a philosopher for a long
time. Looking at the philosophy scene at the moment, what are the big changes that you notice from when you started out? Is it better now or worse as a field of study do you think?

I have paid very little attention to the current philosophical scene for a very long time -- not in maybe forty years -- so I really do not know. What I have seen, from time to time, does not impress me as very interesting, but then the field of academic philosophy does not much interest me now.

2. In that time you have met with many of
the great and famous philosophical figures of this period. Who are the people that have most impressed you ? either in terms of their philosophical contributions or as people?

C. I. Lewis, W. v. O. Quine, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Marcuse. I really liked Bob Nozick, but was not much impressed with his political philosophy, for all that he was very bright. I didn't much like Jack Rawls, as many people have commented.

3. Connected with these changes is the role
of the University. You say that when you were starting out it was the golden
age for being an academic, but that things have soured. Can you say a little
about how you view the assault on the university?

This is a subject on which many people have commented. For a variety of reasons, some of which [The Cold War, for example, which I could have done without], the period from 1950 to roughly 1980 or a bit later was a true golden age for serious academic intellectual activity -- solid tenure, good pay, freedom from most intrusions on intellectual freedom, expanding job opportunities, ease of publication -- what was not to like? Progressively, tenure is being weakened, part time and non tenure track academics now make up most of the professoriate, jobs are hard to come by, publication is more difficult, academic administration has been more and more transformed by a corporation model of governance, and so forth. It is worth remembering that things were pretty bad before WW II. These years really have been a happy interval, and current trends suggest that the good times will not come back any time soon. It is interesting to compare us with Great Britain, where the golden age was the period until maybe 1960 or a bit later. Now, British higher education is a shambles.

4. You?ve written about the ideal of the
university: what is your ideal and is it now at all a possibility?

I did write about this, and indeed I then blogged about it. I think I will take a pass, and not try to repeat what I have already published.

5. You note that the Occupy movement has
been a phenomenon that has managed to change the terms of public debate,
although it has so far not translated into policy shift. How significant do you think this has been as a signal that there are still grounds for optimism?

So long as we are alive there are grounds for optimism, so long as we DO something and don't just comment -- to paraphrase Marx's great last thesis on Feuerbach. It is extraordinary how quickly, and with how little in the way of resources or support, the Occupy movement totally changed the terms of public discussion in America. The rhetorical device of the 1% and the 99%, despite its factual inaccuracy, was simply brilliant, and has taken hold, I think irreversibly.

6. Are the uprisings in North Africa dubbed the ?Arab Spring? equally important to you?

This is a good example of a question about which I have absolutely no real knowwledge or expertise -- I have never visited any of those countries, and speak none of the languages at all, and it is only chutzpah and a sense of entitlement that would lead me to offer opinions.

7. You are famously a political anarchist.
Can you say what you mean by this?

Not only can I, I have. I can sum up my anarchism in one sentence: There is not, and cannot be, a morally de jure legitimate state. The book that made me famous is barely 80 pages long, and most of that is not really a part of the central argument. I wrote it in three weeks 47 years ago, and published it in book form 42 years ago, and since then no one has ever offered a single objection that holds water, for all that many have tried. I am, one might say, the little boy who cried, "The king has no clothes on!" and since in fact the king does have no clothes on, any rational and unbiased person can see that I am right. It is a little weird to have made a career out of an observation that a child could have made.

[Show Quoted Text - 8 lines][Hide Quoted Text]

8. You?re a figure of the left, but arguments
against state authority are being used at the moment to attack things like
medicare in the USA and the National Health Service in the UK. Some say: isn?t
this a problem with anarchism, that small state, small government ideas ultimately
drive reactionary forces? You admire the NHS to the point where you even might revise your Anglophobia, but it is more a socialist than anarchist
institution isn?t it?

Sigh. This is a tangle, and I am not sure I want to spend a great deal of time untangling it. My anarchism is simply a thesis about the individual's moral obligagtion to obey the commands of the state SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY ARE THE COMMANDS OF THE STATE. I am not someone who thinks that small illegitimate governments are better than large illegitimate governments. I am a Marxist precisely in the sense that I agree with him that capitalism rests on exploitation. Any arguments that turn on the supposed superiority of the several states to the federal government in American strike me as absurd on their face.

9. You?ve some striking views on Ayn Rand,
who is now dangerously topical given the appointment of Paul Ryan as Mitt
Romney?s running mate., a hypocritical man who inherited his millions from
Federal contracts. There?s also been a fuss about the Stanford Encyclopedia of > philosophy presenting Rand as a serious philosopher. What does this tell us about the state of US politics and academia?

Not much we didn't already know. That is the same academia populated by economists who take Milton Friedman seriously and gave him a Nobel prize, if I recall correctly.

10. Economically you?re a Marxist. Has the collapse of the Soviet Union made it easier to express genuine Marxist economic > views now than it was back in the sixties, or is it just differently > problematic? And why does a radical left seem so weak in the USA?

That is several more or less unrelated questions. It has been quite a while since anyone was willing to take Marx's ideas seriously in the United States, and that unwillingness pre-dates the break up of the Soviet Union. It is quite easy to express Marxist economic views in the United States. It is just that not many people listen to you when you do. The absence of a strong radical left in the United States has been a subject for speculation for more than a hundred years. A good deal has been said about it, much of it probably correct.

11. A criticism of Marxism made by Ernest
Gellner was that it was poor at discussing power. Because ownership of the
means of productivity was supposed to drive everything, once everyone
joint-owned these means, the state would have no point and would wither. This
seems a mistake. Doesn?t your anarchist politics coupled with Marxist economics make the same mistake?

Ernest was right about that. It is formulaic and simple-minded to ask a question that assumes that there are units called "anarchism" and "Marxist economics" that do or do not fit together like a child's building blocks. Asked in this way, such questions cannot be answered intelligently, so I shall not try.

12. What made you investigate the literary structure of ?Capital??

The answer to this is rather complex. In the late 70's and 80's I undertook a very extensive and deep study of Marx's writings, that involved not only reading very large amounts of his collected works, including the very early works and the letters, but also making a serious study of mathematical economics and the world-wide mathematical reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories. My original intention was to write a trilogy of books, only two of which I ever actually wrote. Very early on, I was mesmerized by Marx's language in Volume One of CAPITAL, which was utterly unlike the language of his predecessors -- Smith, Ricardo, the Physiocrats, and so forth. I had an intuition that the reason for the highly inflected literary language was Marx's conviction that the complexity of bourgeois society and economy could only be captured by such language [the fetishism of commodites, mystification, and all that]. The result was a book consisting of three lectures, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, which is, I think, pound for pound, the best thing I have ever written, and possibly the most brilliantr thing anyone has written about Marx [I am 78, so I get to say things like this.] But the world thought otherwise. In David Hume's words, speaking of his own immortal TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, my book "fell stillborn from the presses." Oh well. I will always have Paris.

13. Do you see Rawls as a kind of Marxist?

Not at all. he is a bourgeois apologist for late capitalism with a human face.

14. Elizabeth Anderson has recently written
a great book showing that racism is the great American unresolved problem. You?ve
examined this issue as well. How do you understand this evil and are there any
grounds for optimism?

Well, I wrote a book about this, and I have not read her book, so I will take a pass.

15. Obama, Clinton and Blair alongside the Bush's are pushing more right wing politics than Nixon ever did. This seems like a terrible situation. Does this suggest that it was politically wrong to attack Nixon and that if Nobel Peace Prizes should be given back, Obama should be handing his back before Kissinger. This is madness! You describe yourself as an optimist, despite the crazies. Where might we look to find hope?

Come on. be serious.

16. And finally, are there five books you
could recommend to the readers here at 3ammagazine(other than your own of
course which we?ll all be dashing out to read straight after this) that will
give us further insights into your philosophical world?

Oh lord, I don't know. CAPITAL, THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, Paul Goodman's uproarious novel, EMPIRE CITY, Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, the Bible. They may not give anyone insight into my philosophical world [whatever that is], but I can guarantee that you won't waste your time reading them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Now that Mitt Romney has selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, it behooves bloviators with some philosophical training, among whom I count myself, to take a closer look at the thinker who is, by his own testimony, Ryan's inspiration.  I refer, of course, to Ayn Rand, the twentieth century Russian-American novelist and essayist whose fervent embrace of laisser-faire capitalism, given fictional voice in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, has inspired the political passions and wet dreams of several generations of American right-wingers.  Rand is, in some ways, an odd figure to be venerated by contemporary conservatives, inasmuch as she was a convinced atheist who rejected the use of force, but her detestation of anything having a whiff of "collectivism" about it sweeps away any doubts that a thoughtful reactionary might harbor.
My own engagement with Rand's writings has been rather episodic.  It began in the Fall of 1953, when, as a nineteen year old graduate student cramming for General Exams [called "Prelims" in the Harvard Philosophy Department], I began to have doubts about the career on which I was embarking.  Sitting alone in my basement room in William James Hall, I turned to large works of heroic fiction as a source of guidance.  After plowing through Moby Dick ["It's about this whale," to quote a famous movie line], I found my way to The Fountainhead. 

I am afraid I came to Rand too late to be inspired, or even intrigued.  Having already read deeply in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, I found Rand pretty thin stuff.  So I pulled myself together, passed my exams, and did not look back.

That was pretty much it for me and Rand until 1968.  By then I was at Columbia, but that year I was visiting at Rutgers, in nearby New Brunswick.  After class one day in an undergraduate course on Ethics, a young, thin, rather timid student approached my desk and with an apologetic air, offered me a worn, obviously much read paperback.  "I will give this to you," he said hesitantly, "if you promise to read it."  There was obviously nothing to do but thank him profusely and promise to get right to it.  The book was The Virtue of Selfishness, a collection of essays by Rand and her epigone, Nathaniel Brandon.

Four years later I was at the University of Massachusetts, charged with teaching an Introduction to Philosophy for a hundred students.  I assigned Gabriel Kolko's Wealth and Power in America, some readings by Marx, Betty and Theodore Roszak's Masculine/Feminine, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful.  In an effort to maintain some semblance of objectivity [so to speak], I also assigned The Virtue of Selfishness.  This was the Sixties [everything came a little late to the Pioneer Valley], and I assumed that the students would all groove on the Marx, so I really busted my butt giving the most forceful, interesting, positive lectures on Rand I could manage.  Imagine my chagrin when the hour exams came in and I discovered that I was talking not to a horde of budding Marxian collectivists but to a raging mob of Objectivists!  I try to assure myself that my lectures were quite ineffectual and that the students had all come to UMass already enrolled in the Right Wing, but the small voice of conscience suggests that I may actually have had a hand in fostering what eventually became The Tea Party.  Oh well.
A few quotes from the lead essay of The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Objectivist Ethics," will convey accurately enough the line Rand is pushing.  "The Objectivist ethics," she writes, "proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness [italics in the original]. ... The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. ... The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice."  [all italics in the original.  She rather liked italics.]  All of this, Rand claims, quoting from a speech by the protagonist in her novel, Atlas Shrugged, derives from "the principle of identity -- A is A."  Kant would have been interested to learn that the fundamental principles of ethics are analytic! 

I want to spend most of my energies in this post discussing the political significance of Rand's theories, but since she herself treated her novels as occasions for immensely long declamatory speeches barely masquerading as plot elements, it might be appropriate to say just a word or two of a literary critical nature about her writings.  Atlas Shrugged  and The Fountainhead are both vast, gassy, romantic works perfectly designed to captivate an adolescent audience.  They might be described as what would have resulted if Jacqueline Susann had been bowled over by Nietzsche rather than Lady Chatterley's Lover.  
Rather oddly, when I think of Rand my mind turns to The Brothers Karamazov.   You will recall that Ivan, under the baleful influence of nineteenth century Western liberal thought, is given to saying that "all things are permitted."  Now Ivan has a good Russian soul, and does not, in his heart of hearts, believe that, but his bastard half brother Smerdyakov hears Ivan saying these things and takes them to heart, eventually [spoiler alert] killing their father, old man Karamazov.  Rand read some Hayek and, like Smerdyakov, took it to heart, with what turned out to be equally unfortunate results.

Rand's elevation of market exchange to the highest level of moral excellence is more or less what you could imagine an impressionable Russian emigrée would take away from a glancing acquaintance with Léon Walras' theory of tâtonnement.  In light of her Nietzschean novelistic celebration of the lonely creative genius [an architect, for example], her identification of the trader as the quintessential moral man [they are always men in Rand's writings] is rather odd, for the trader, qua trader, makes nothing.  He or she simply swaps something for something that someone else is offering in the marketplace.
But what is truly odd, and in fact deeply self-contradictory, is the embrace of Rand by such American right-wingers as Paul Ryan.  The moral, economic, and political doctrine that Rand is unconsciously parodying is echt nineteenth century laisser-faire liberalism.  [For a truly brilliant, totally self-aware send-up of this philosophy from the left, see Paul Goodman's riotously funny novel, Empire City.]  The true laisser-faire liberal has no religion, no politics, no traditions, no sense at all of the situatedness of human existence.  To quote more or less Michael Oakeshott's great line, he strives to live each day as though it were his first, and thinks that to form a habit is to fail.  It would never cross the mind of a true laisser-faire liberal so much as to have an opinion about abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, or prayer in schools, and he certainly would not undertake to legislate about such matters, for whatever position he took might cost him business.   Indeed, ostensibly serious libertarian economists with no grasp of historical fact have actually argued seriously that racial discrimination is impossible in a true free market, inasmuch as discrimination might drive up wages by limiting the pool of available workers.  [The truth, as anyone familiar with post Civil-War history knows, is that White workers struck devil's bargains with employers, accepting lower wages in exchange for the exclusion of the former slaves from the labor market.]

Paul Ryan is a Roman Catholic whose family made a good deal of money over half a century off of government contracts for building the interstate highway system.  To this day it feeds at the federal trough, getting defense-related dollars.  In every way conceivable, Ryan the man is totally in violation of the Objectivist ethical theories pushed by Rand.  It has become a central tenet of the consensus gentium in recent decades that American conservatives are deep thinkers who, in their think tanks, come up with new ideas to replace the tired habits of liberal pols.  Paul Ryan, we are told, is the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.  I think we should pause just a bit before embracing our very own Smerdyakov.


While I am writing my blog post on Ayn Rand as promised, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, has posted an op ed on The Huffington Post about Romney, Ryan, and Rand.  Here is the url:
Take a look at it.  The choice of Ryan is going to give the Democrats Florida, and possibly much more besides.  Palin redux.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


It being Sunday, I have been spending a little time with the Good Book.  It has been a while since I re-read Genesis, so I started at the beginning.  As you will recall, it takes God a chapter to create the world, and another chapter to create Adam and Eve, but scarcely have we made our way two pages into the King James version when things start to go downhill.  The serpent shows up in chapter 3, and sex rears its ugly head in chapter 4, with the birth first of Cain [verse 1] and Abel [verse 2].  It is an old and ugly story.  The Lord prefers Abel's sacrifice of a sheep to Cain's offer of grain [this is long before the advent of vegetarianism], angering Cain so much that he up and slays Abel, whereupon the Lord curses Cain.  Cain is weighed down by the curse, and expresses to the Lord his fear that "every one that findeth me shall slay me," [chapter 4], so God, taking pity, I guess, puts upon him a mark [the mark of Cain, as it came to be called], "lest any finding him should kill him." 
It is just about here, barely three pages into a Book that, in my edition, runs to 918 pages [not War and Peace, to be sure, but not The Great Gatsby either], that I begin to have doubts about this being the inerrant Word of the Lord.  I mean, whom is Cain afraid of?  At this point, only four people have come into the world, two by divine creation and two by birth, and one of them is dead.  Although it requires us to engage in a soupҫon of lit crit, I think the text makes it pretty clear that Cain is not fearful of being killed by Adam or Eve. Besides, while we are still in chapter 4 [verses 16-17], Cain leaves Eden and sets up light housekeeping east of Eden in the land of Nod where he "knew his wife" who "conceived, and bare Enoch," so pleasing Cain that "he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch."

As Spencer Tracy asks Frederic March in the great courtroom scene from Inherit the Wind, where on earth did Cain's wife come from?  At this point, the only woman in the world, according to Inerrantist Fundamentalists, is Eve, and I think we have to assume that Cain did not "know" Eve, who was, after all, his mother, and is living in Eden, not Nod.

All right.  So much for the cheap shots.  There is nothing even faintly original in this snarking.  But look, in the United States today, we are routinely asked to take seriously grown men and women who believe this nonsense.  They control the choice of textbooks in Texas, and have taken to writing vicious anti-women laws in a score of states, all as an expression of their deep faith in The Word, which we atheists and agnostics and rational people are supposed to respect and treat with great courtesy.
Now I take a back seat to no man or woman in my love and admiration for the King James version as a great work of literary art.  I expect my students to read it, and as this post makes clear, I recur to it repeatedly.  But the time has come for all of us who are even halfway educated to just say, Enough!  Keep your childhood fantasies and bedtime stories to yourselves and don't try to foist them on the rest of us.

Tomorrow, if I have time after returning from Bennett College, I will have a few choice words to say about Ayn Rand, who is the inspiration not only for the Chairman of the Fed who gave us the present Depression but also for the newly anointed presumptive Republican nominee for the Vice-Presidency.


The Platform Commitee of the Democratic Party met yesterday in Detroit, to amend and then to adopt the Platform on which President Obama will run.  The proceedings were carried on C-Span, at this link:

At roughly the 1 hour 22 minute mark, or a bit later, when they are considering amendments, you will see and hear my son, Tobias Wolff, submit an amendment concerning the rights of LGBT immigrant families.  I don't think it will come as a surprise that I am very much the proud father.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, one of a number of protected enclaves in America where liberals can relax and be themselves without running the risk of encountering a representative of the Republican base.  In Chapel Hill, the principal distinction in automobile bumper displays is between 2008 Obama stickers and 2012 Obama stickers.  So long as I stay well within the confines of Chapel Hill [and its funky appendage, Carrboro], I can go for two or three weeks without hearing an authentic Southern accent.

Recently, however, I have been driving to and from Greensboro, where Bennett College is located.  Along about the time when I start passing the Outlet Malls on I-85, my Chapel Hill radio stations begin to fade, and I must either drive in silence or hit the scan button on my car radio to find signals that come in strongly.  It will surprise no one that when I do that, I come across a good many Christian evangelical radio stations.  Yesterday, I was idly surfing the bandwidth, pausing at each station long enough to get the flavor of its offerings, when I began to notice something quite curious.

Now, I must back up to explain that as a Philosopher, I have spent a career of almost sixty years reading widely in the philosophical theology of the western tradition.  I can prove the existence of God four different ways without breaking a sweat, and I have at least a nodding acquaintance with the ancient disputes about the three-fold or unitary nature of God, salvation by works or by faith alone, and Predestination.  I am, I confess, rather fond of these old debates, even though, as my mother explained to me when I was twelve, I am the product of a mixed marriage.  "Your father is an agnostic and I am an atheist," she said.  I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to theology, if one can have preferences among alternatives all of which one considers nonsense.

But to my dismay, I discovered that on the religious stations I was listening to, there is little or no reference to anything I would recognize as theology.  Instead, the talk is filled with a sort of uplifting inspirational psychobabble of the sort I have come to associate with Alcoholics Anonymous.  Self-esteem seems to loom larger in these discourses than repentance.  Interpersonal relationships are featured more prominently than one's relationship to the Almighty.  There are ritual references to Bible passages, of course, and the name of Jesus is thrown around more freely than that of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, but very little of what is said would have struck Martin Luther or John Calvin Jonathan Edwards as religious.

I suppose I have simply not been paying attention, but Christianity seems to have been taken over by a bastardization of Freud.  I have always believed that a youthful engagement with the doctrinal disputes of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is good practice for serious philosophical reflection.  Perhaps this new development in what passes for Evangelical Christianity in America explains the appallingly low intellectual level of discourse on the right.

Just to be fair, it is also true that a renewal of the serious study of the writings of Karl Marx would tone up popular liberal discourse considerably as well.  Paul Samuelson is no Emile Coue ["Every day in every way I am getting better and better."], but the neo-classical synthesis is a far cry from the insights to be found in Capital

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


My apologies for being absent from this blog for several days.  The semester is about to begin at Bennett College [way too early, in my opinion, but there it is], and there are a host of administrative matters to which I must attend before the students arrive.  I spent much of yesterday on campus going from office to office, meeting the people with whom I have been corresponding by email.  This morning, at 8:30 a.m., when a "Faculty-Staff Institute" convenes for everyone at Bennett [except the students], I shall be there, listening and learning.  Greensboro is a mere one hour drive from my home, but although I regularly made an even longer commute between Boston and Amherst in the eighties, it seems I am older now and have, as they say in baseball, lost a step or two.  The story is told that when Joe DiMaggio was near the end of his career, he could not fire a rifle shot from the outfield to home plate with quite the ease of his younger years, so he would push himself, early in a game, to uncork a scorcher, just to warn the runners on the opposing team not to try to take an extra base on his aging arm.  I am pushing myself to show up for everything at the very beginning of the year, hoping that I can then ease off and coddle myself just a trifle.  As the United Negro College Fund did not say, but might have, "a body is a terrible thing to lose."

While I have been away from the blog, the Olympics have ground on.  Beach volleyball is a bit like a MacDonald's cheeseburger.  After you have watched enough of it, you begin to think that it tastes better than track and field.  But I am afraid I shall never develop a real fan's appreciation for doubles ping pong.  On the other hand, when Tirunesh Dibaba shot forward in the bell lap of the women's 10,000 and sprinted away from the field, I was genuinely thrilled.  During my entire life, running has been something that I have shunned, and even now, when I take my morning four mile walk, if I try to jog for just a few yards along the way I give it up and go back to walking.  So watching her performance was a revelation.

The political campaign grinds on, of course, and since I have taken it upon myself to comment on the passing scene, I feel that I must offer opinions about these political ephemera.  Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will recall the encounter with a terrible killer rabbit, which was clearly a cinematic anticipation of Harry Reid.  Reid, for the three or four people in the world who have been too caught up in synchronized swimming to attend to important matters, is the U. S. Senate Majority Leader who claims to have been told by a well-placed source that Mitt Romney paid no taxes at all for ten years.  Romney's flat refusal to release his tax returns has reduced the Romney campaign to fulminating that Reid is a "dirty liar," a charge I particularly enjoy because Reid is the highest-ranked elected Mormon government official in American history.

There is an old saying -- when you go to a gun fight, don't bring a knife.  Liberal commentators, whose rule of thumb is that when you go to a knife fight, bring a folding fan, have tut-tutted about the impropriety of Reid making a charge based on an anonymous source.  Republicans, having spent the past two generations savaging their Democratic opponents with the dirtiest of dirty tricks, are apoplectic at the thought of someone doing unto them what they have routinely done unto others.  I freely confess that it has gladdened my declining years to see someone on my side finally decide that politics is war.  For those who seek a deeper, more intellectually satisfying analysis, I refer you to the discussion of Chapter One of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia in my tutorial on Ideological critique, posted on

Just yesterday, Romney got it into his head, for reasons that passeth all understanding, to try to improve his standing with American Jews by taking a swipe at kibbutzim.  America, he said, is not a kibbutz.  We stand on our own feet as individuals.  Now, as anyone even fleetingly in touch with American social and political life knows, for the American Jews most deeply supportive of Israel, the kibbutz is a sacred icon, as revered [and misunderstood] as the Christ-like pictures of JFK that for generations have graced the front parlors of homes in Boston's Irish neighborhoods.  I cannot begin to fathom what went through Romney's brain as he delivered that gratuitous insult.

Well, it is time for me to begin my commute.  More anon.