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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Even those of you who do not keep tabs on French affairs may have seen reports that President Franҫois Hollande's government has undergone a bouleversement.  Briefly, three of the most left-wing of his ministers, who have been persistently critical of his austerity economic policies, are out and safe loyalists are replacing them.  You can see Paul Krugman's account of the matter, with some very interesting and rather surprising statistics, on his blog.   Needless to say, I am very distressed.  In my artless Japanese way [to quote a phrase from The Mikado], I took it as a very good thing when the Socialists swept to power in France.  Although my French friends warned me that Hollande was hardly a fire-breather, I was intoxicated by the experience of owning property in a country with a government that wrapped itself in the Red Flag.  I even found myself living in an arrondissement that went for the Socialists, though not by as much as the working class districts farther from the center of Old Paris.  So it has been hard for me to watch the slow disintegration of my hopes and dreams as Hollande  has thrown in his lot with Angela Merkel and the dastardly German austeriocrats.

Then I thought, "What would my reliably radical readers [the three R's] say about my distress at Hollande's failure even to follow the policy proposals of the more adept defenders of capitalism, such as Krugman, who of course have been beating up on the proponents of austerity in Europe and America for years?"  Would they tell me that I should have known better?  And that in turn brought me back to the old question that has haunted socialists like a spectre for a hundred and fifty years:  Will the long awaited transition to Socialism, deo volente, come quietly through evolution or violently by way of revolution?

Marx tells two stories, and though they are not at all incompatible with one another, they prepare us in quite different ways for possible futures.  The first story is found in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a work Marx published in 1859 during the time when he was writing Capital.  The crucial passage from the Preface, which has been many times quoted, is as follows:  "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." 

This passage was obviously shaped by Marx's study of the centuries-long process by which nascent mercantile was born within late feudal Europe and grew slowly until its explosion into full scale industrial capitalism, first in England in the late eighteenth century, then in France, and finally in Germany and other parts of Europe as well as in the Americas.  Marx had nothing but scorn for the so-called Utopian Socialists who sat at their writing desks planning ideal socialist communities without considering by what steps such fantasies might be realized.  My essay, "The Future of Socialism," to which I periodically refer [see] is an attempt to think through precisely the processes within the womb of capitalism that can be construed as preparing the way for the possibility of socialism.

Marx's second story is to be found both in the very early Communist Manifesto and in the pages of Capital, where he describes in some detail the internal "contradictions" of capitalism that are leading rapidly and inexorably to a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism.  To summarize a complex and nuanced story in a sentence, Marx thinks that the same internal processes of unchecked capitalist competition that produce ever more violent economic booms and busts also, albeit quite unintentionally on the part of the capitalists, generate increasingly successful efforts within the working class to organize and mobilize to combat the devastation wrought by capitalist competition.  As a consequence of these two internal tendencies within capitalism, at about the time when the capitalists manage to wreck their own system in a world-wide economic crash, a mobilized and energized international working class movement, that has achieved a high level of self-consciousness [and hence is, as the old saying has it, a class for itself as well as in itself], will stand ready to rise up, overthrow the political order that protects capitalism, and establish a new socialist order.  [God, how I love to write those words!  It is like repeating the stories I read as a boy of ogres and princes and the overthrowing of evil step-fathers.]

Neither the first story nor the second offers much in the way of hope for socialist wannebes, I am afraid.  I have identified in my essay developments within capitalism at the microeconomic level that one can plausibly construe as a new order growing in the womb of the old.  And recent events certainly suggest on the macroeconomic level that capitalism is trapped in a sequence of crises that ought to provide openings for radical restructurings, whether violent or not.  But there is very little evidence I can see of the development of an organized national or international working class movement poised to seize the day.  I have tried in my essay to identify the principal reasons for the failure of this movement to emerge.

What to do?  I really do not know.  I hardly think writing about these matters on a blog will make much of a contribution, but then, what will?  For a variety of reasons, the era of the labor union seems to be behind us, at least for those not in the public sector.

Does anyone have a suggestion?


NotHobbes said...

" But there is very little evidence I can see of the development of an organized national or international working class movement poised to seize the day"

Watch this space. Scotland stands on the brink of a second period of enlightenment, political enlightenment.
I am fully confident that a political earthquake is about to hit Scotland. A grass roots movement so enormous in proportion to our small population has been working so tirelessly towards our goal of full autonomy, independence for our wee nation, that it has taken the mainstream media by surprise. We have the momentum, and we will win.
The political divergence between England and Scotland is vast, a plethora of irreconcilable differences drive us apart; not differences of dialect or sense of national identity, but how we want our society to function, how we demand a more democratic system, how we despise the nuclear weapons we are compelled to host, how we perceive our obligations to the most vulnerable members of our society .
Even if we were to lose, the fact that we've made it this far makes our fight a recurring theme in Scottish politics until the day we win.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

God, I love it. Now, how can we bring that spirit to the Great Satan?

TCP said...

There's also Marx's comments on the family and inheritance dissolving.

Just as people now think it's absurd that we allowed a king to rule us, and his son to assume power through no merit of his own, they will think it's absurd that the rich passed money on to their children.

Ludwig Richter said...

In Seattle, where I live, we elected Kshama Sawant, of the Socialist Alternative, to the City Council in 2013. This was a citywide election, and I can assure you that there are not enough Socialists in Seattle to have elected her all by themselves.

How did this happen? The reasons are complex, but I think it's fair to say that she galvanized many voters with her $15/hour minimum wage campaign. She built a coalition of working class voters, lefty liberals, LGBT activists, and so on.

Her opponent, Richard Conlin, was not some right-wing Republican, but had offended voters by opposing mandatory sick leave for workers in Seattle, and he offended teachers when he sided with administration during contract negotiations.

I don't know that we'll be electing a second Socialist to the Council any time soon. But if it were to happen, then it would have to involve a fired-up coalition similar to the one that Sawant built. And I'm not sure that what happened in Seattle can be replicated elsewhere in the USA. However, lefty candidates in other cities might consider a $15/hour campaign as both a worthy political cause and a way of organizing working class voters.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I know that Seattle is an unusually advanced city, but I like the idea of organizing around a call for a $15/hr minmimum wage. It may be that the old workfloor based labor union must give way to shifting coalitions of issue based groups.

Ludwig Richter said...

Anthony Cody believes that public school teachers could have a key role to play role in "activating" the power of the working class.

While this might sound a little far-fetched to some, consider the case of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Karen Lewis. The CTU was in decline when Lewis was elected President. The CTU has become one of the most powerful teacher union locals in the country because they unified their members and led grassroots efforts to form alliances with parents, civil rights leaders, and community leaders. Now Lewis is considering a run against Rahm Emmanuel for mayor, and some polls have her leading. She could conceivably win if she can form a coalition around education, community and economic issues.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I view all such efforts with enormous enthusiasm. Obviously, they are pinpricks on an elephant, but only the endless duplication of those efforts can create the possibility of real change. Lord knows it will not come from the top!

I will take a look at the link. Thank you.