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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, November 30, 2014

gekko [gordon, not geico]

i think the time has come to say a few words about the seven deadly sins -- wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony -- and more particularly, about greed.  appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, karl marx was not a moralist, nor was he a nineteenth century incarnation of an old testament prophet, railing against the personal characterological deficiencies of british capitalists.  his central thesis is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class -- that profit is the value form of the surplus labor extracted from workers over and above what is required to reproduce their conditions of existence. 

the collective labor of the entire working class, which marx sometimes figures for dramatic effect as the labor of a single worker, is devoted to the production of four classes or categories of output.  the first category is the wage goods [food, clothing, shelter, etc.] consumed by the workers to replenish their capacity for further laboring, including what is needed to raise their children to replace them when, like spindles or shovels, they wear out and are discarded.  the second category is the capital goods needed to replace those that are consumed in the production process, so that production may continue in the next cycle -- seed for the next crop, wool for carding, spinning, and weaving, tools and machines as they wear out, and so forth.  the third category is the luxury goods consumed unproductively by the owners of capital and their subordinate associates -- land-owners, financiers, the military and police, etc.  this category does not include the wage goods consumed by managerial employees even when those managers are also owners.  [left hand not required for bolding.]  those goods belong to the first category.  finally, the fourth category is the extra output that can be devoted to expanding the scope of production -- in other words, economic growth.  this includes the wage goods that will be consumed by the additional workers brought into the production process, which of course presupposes the availability of previously unemployed workers [the so-called reserve army] desperate to find work.

nothing in the efficient working of this system and the consequent endless accumulation of capital presupposes that the owners of capital be, like midas or gordon gekko, personally greedy.  indeed, as marx makes clear and max weber showed us in his great monograph, the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, the less the capitalist consumes in unproductive personal consumption [i.e., by being greedy], the more rapid, efficient, and successful is capital accumulation.

now there is no question that the wall street financiers who pay themselves billions of dollars in bonuses  and style themselves masters of the universe are thoroughly despicable human beings.  but if they were all replaced by self-denying unitarian-universalist vegan tree-hugging humanities majors, capitalism would go right on accumulating capital by exploiting the working class.  were it not for his many other gifts to us, i would be tempted to say that karl marx's greatest achievement was once and for all to establish that greed has nothing to do with capitalism.

archy and mehitabel

most of you, especially my younger readers, will be unfamiliar with the touching love story of archy and mehitabel.   this passage from wikipedia will explain.  marquis is don marquis, an old time newspaper columnist.

In 1916, Marquis introduced Archy, a fictional cockroach, into his daily newspaper column at The New York Evening Sun. Archy (whose name was always written in lower case in the book titles, but was upper case when Marquis would write about him in narrative form) was a cockroach who had been a free verse poet in a previous life, and took to writing stories and poems on an old typewriter at the newspaper office when everyone in the building had left. Archy would climb up onto the typewriter and hurl himself at the keys, laboriously typing out stories of the daily challenges and travails of a cockroach. Archy's best friend was Mehitabel, an alley cat. The two of them shared a series of day-to-day adventures that made satiric commentary on daily life in the city during the 1910s and 1920s.  Because he was a cockroach, Archy was unable to operate the shift key on the typewriter (he jumped on each key to type; since using shift requires two keys to be pressed simultaneously, he physically could not use capitals), and so all of his verse was written without capitalization or punctuation.

for several months now i have been struggling with a very painful case of what the doctors call tennis elbow.  at present, i am in my second week wearing an arm brace and taking naproxin, but this has not cured the problem.  yesterday susie and i saw the rather depressing biopic of the life of stephan hawking, called the theory of everything.  after a troubled night, in which i managed to conflate his heroic efforts to communicate despite his total disability with my quite minor affliction, i arose today determined to use my left hand as little as possible, to see whether that will help.

instead of typing with two fingers, as i have for sixty-five years, i am writing this with one finger.  hence, like archy, i am forced to eschew the instrumentality of capitalization.  thus slowed down, i find that i have time to think before i write, a relatively new experience for me.

Friday, November 28, 2014


God has a good deal to answer for.  Witness Genesis Chapter 11, verses 1-9, which, to those of you who are not regular visitors to the Good Book, records the story of the Tower of Babel and the consequent multiplication of languages.  To someone like myself who is, as we say delicately, linguistically challenged, this and not the earlier story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the true Divine Curse under which we all labor to this day.

A few moments ago, there was a knock on my door.  It was Norbert, our mailman, asking me to sign for a package from Turkey.  Inside were three copies of the newly published translation of A Critique of Pure Tolerance, the little collection of essays that Herbert Marcuse, Barrington Moore, Jr., and I brought out forty-nine years ago with Beacon Press. 

My contribution to the volume is entitled Hoşgörünün Őtesinde.  Is there anyone within cyber-earshot of this blog who can tell me whether that is indeed a plausible translation of "Beyond Tolerance"?


On Wednesday, Michael Llenos made the following comment on my blog post about the Manifesto:

"Plato and Wallace Shawn may say they are socialists but is it practical to have a country based on socialism? I've heard one person say that when the 20th century Cold War ended, some middle class Russians declared that Marx knew everything about capitalism but almost nothing about communism. During the 1st century BCE Cicero, himself, mocked Cato the Younger because he lived in a socialist fantasy world in which he treated his fellow senators like they were living in Plato's Republic--meaning, Cicero did not find the book practical enough for real world use. The Republic (although I haven't read it all) is a masterpiece, I agree, but I believe some of those same socialist ideas can be better implemented in a democratic-republican style of government. Although, I realize I am just generalizing all of my points."

The comment, which ranges easily over two thousand years of European history, exhibits, I believe, a common and rather important misunderstanding of what Marx meant by "socialism."  I think it is worth an extended blog post by way of clarification.   First, a small but ultimately important point.  Plato was not, indeed could not have been, a socialist, as Marx uses that term.  [I pass over in silence Michael Llenos' elegant allusion to Wallace Shawn.  I do believe an exhaustive Google search would reveal that this is the only time the phrase "Plato and Wallace Shawn" has appeared in the English language.]  Plato did indeed propose that the Philosopher-kings in the ideal Republic should share their belongings in common [an echo of his admiration for Sparta, I believe], but the communal sharing of belongings has nothing to do with socialism.  From this point forward, every time I use the term "socialism" I wish to be understood as meaning "socialism as Marx understood it."  I trust that is clear.  I absolve myself of all responsibility for the myriad other ways in which people have used the term.

Socialism as an organization of the social relations of production in which the means of production [what is, in a capitalist economy, referred to as "capital"] are collectively owned and managed, and in which major decisions about the allocation of those means of production and about the distribution of the goods and services produced are made collectively for such purposes as the members of the society choose.  Such a system of the social relations of production requires first that the forces of production -- the technology and the social organization of production -- be sufficiently far developed that their collective ownership and management even becomes possible.  It was for this reason that Marx wrote the statement to which I have so often alluded on this blog about the new order growing in the womb of the old.

Let me expand on this point for a bit, inasmuch as it is often misunderstood even by those who should know better.  The Statistical Abstract of the United States is a big fat book published annually by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Its many hundreds of pages are crammed with charts and tables containing breathtakingly detailed information about virtually every aspect of the American economy and population that one could mention.  A single page of a single volume of the BLS Statistical Abstract contains more concrete information about America than historians devoted to a study of medieval Europe have managed to recapture about that six hundred year period from all the documents and artifacts they have examined.  Precisely how many acres were under cultivation in Burgundy in the eleventh century?  No one knows now, and no one knew at the time.  What was the population of thirteenth century York?  At most, we have guesses extrapolated from parish ledgers and royal tax receipts.  What proportion of the population of Castile was engaged in craft production?  Who knows?  What was the gross output of wheat in Europe in 1217?  Simply to ask the question is to reveal the hopelessness of answering it.  Without vast quantities of detailed information of this sort -- the information assembled annually by the BLS -- any notion of the collective ownership and management of the means of production of a society is mere fantasy.

In addition to information, socialism requires a rationalization of the organization of production that makes possible large-scale collective decisions about the allocation of productive resources and labor, about sustainable schedules of compensation for labor, or  -- a matter of the very greatest collective social importance -- about the agreed upon rate of economic growth.  [Once again, credit where credit is due.  John Rawls is the only major political philosopher in the entire history of the subject who even discusses this question of the social rate of growth, in his principal work, A Theory of Justice.]

When Marx was writing, capitalism was still in its infancy.  Nothing had yet evolved remotely resembling the vast, highly integrated assemblages of capital that we know today as major multi-national corporations.  The rationalization of production achieved by modern capitalist corporations is the necessary precondition for the possibility of socialism.  For technical reasons that I explored at length in my essay "The Future of Socialism," and will not recapitulate here, the major decisions taken by the masters of the modern multinationals are in their logical structure fundamentally political rather than purely economic.  In effect, the elements of economic planning have evolved within capitalism, just as Marx foresaw that they would.  The experiences of Russians in the old Soviet Union or of Chinese in the People's Republic of China are not apposite to the question of the feasibility of socialism, save negatively, because in neither of those nations had there taken place anything resembling the development of capitalist social relations of production let alone embryonic socialism "in the womb of the old."

Would socialism be democratic?  Yes, necessarily, because the major means of production cannot be owned and managed collectively any other way.  To be sure, a revolutionary cadre can seize control of the means of production and declare solemnly that they plan to manage those means "in the name of the people," but we may view all such declarations with the scepticism they deserve.  Could the social relations of production necessary for the very possibility of socialism be developed by fiat "in the name of the people?"  Marx clearly thought not, judging from everything he says in Capital, and I think he was right.

Chris refers us to an inspiring experiment being carried out in the Basque Country.  Worker Cooperatives, of which there are now a great many both abroad and here in the United States, are conscious efforts to transform the social relations of production within the womb of capitalism from the ground up, rather than in the advanced sectors of capitalism, namely the huge multi-nationals.  Can socialism in fact emerge from the expansion and replication of such experiments?  I honestly do not know, and I think it would be unhelpful for me to offer opinions about a subject about which I really know very little.

As I explained in my essay referred to above, the principal obstacle to the sort of evolution toward socialism that Marx anticipated is the stratification of the labor market, a development exactly opposite to what Marx, basing himself on what he observed, believed was the direction of the transformation of labor.  This stratification seems to have destroyed the basis for the worker solidarity on which Marx was counting.

One final point in response to Michael Llenos' comment.  Socialism as Marx understood it is not a counsel of perfection, an alternative to worldly sinfulness, a utopian dream resting on the transformation of the human spirit.  Socialism does not, for example, presuppose, or indeed have anything at all to do with, the elimination of various unpleasant individual personality traits.  Contrary to the shallow and thoughtless views of many, capitalism is not in any way, shape, or form the embodiment of greed.  Indeed, capitalism requires the disciplining and rationalization of such traits for its effective functioning.  Greed has always been with us.  Cain was greedy.  The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were greedy.  The Roman emperors were greedy [as were many of the Roman Senators].  Medieval lords were greedy.  Viking raiders were greedy.  Incan dynasts were greedy. Capitalists too are greedy.  All of these folks were also cruel, selfish, dishonest, and self-indulgent.  Indeed, it has even been rumored that Popes have exhibited some of these unfortunate characteristics.  If, God willing, socialism one day should replace advanced capitalism [or as we somewhat optimistically used to say in the old days, "late capitalism,"] I have not the slightest doubt that there will be greedy, cruel, selfish, dishonest, self-indulgent men and women in that new world order, and some of them undoubtedly will rise to positions of great influence, where they will their positions to do quite scrimy things.  That, I am afraid, is the human condition.

Well, so much for socialism on Black Friday.  Consider this my alternative to a day at the big box stores grappling with my neighbors for discount items I do not need.





Thursday, November 27, 2014


Michael Llenos offers a comment on my post about the MANIFESTO that cries out for a response, but out of respect for the sensibilities of my readers, who are all, I am sure, deeply engrossed in Thanksgiving preparations and celebrations, I shall defer that response until tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Readers will note that I have said nothing about the decision by the grand jury in the case of the authorized murder of Michael Brown.  I am so sickened by the entire affair that I cannot find something witty or amusing to say about it.


And so, in my preparations for my course next semester, I come today to a re-reading of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.  What is there to say?  Everything!  My God, but that man could write!  The Manifesto begins with the chilling words "A spectre is haunting Europe," and ends with the immortal call to action:  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

The central structural idea that organizes the Manifesto is the schema of an historical succession of socio-economic stages leading ineluctably to the supplanting of capitalism by socialism.  This thesis, elsewhere given by Marx and Engels the label "historical materialism," is one of the most powerful analytical ideas ever advanced.  We have all of us so completely incorporated it into our thinking that it is an effort of resurrection to remind ourselves of its origins.

Once again, we must repair to the Good Book.  The Judeo-Christian story unfolds in a sequence of religio-metaphysical stages, foreseen, ordained, and stage-managed by God.  The story begins with the Creation, followed [textually] almost immediately by The Fall.  Now, there are many alterations between the first and second stages:  sartorial [nothing before, fig leaves after], locational [Eden before, the world after], occupational [effortless ease before, labor after].  But these are, as it were, merely ephemeral.  The real, the objective change is from a condition of blessedness to a condition of sinfulness.  A man and woman living after The Fall might be so deluded as to suppose that by shedding their clothes, living at ease off the labor of others, and christening their pleasure palace Eden, they could thereby return to the metaphysical condition of Adam and Eve before The Fall, but they would be sadly mistaken, as would be made clear to them at The Last Trump.

The Fall is followed by the Covenant or Testament forged between God and Abraham and renewed with Noah, then by the Giving of the Law to Moses, then by the Word or Law Being Made Flesh in the Incarnation, and then by the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Son of God.  The unfolding of the religio-metaphysical story will be completed by the Second Coming and the Last Trump, after which time itself will end.

The central idea to take from this story, which infuses so much of Western Civilization, is that an individual's spiritual and metaphysical standing is entirely determined by where in this story his or her life takes place.  If you live in the time of the Old Testament, under The Law, your  condition is utterly different from what it is if you live after the Word has been made Flesh, in the time of the New Testament.  Nothing else matters.  That is why those living in the sixteenth century saw nothing anomalous or anachronistic in a painting of Old Testament characters dressed in Flemish clothes.  They understood, perhaps without even bringing that understanding to consciousness, that a Noah or David or Judas garbed as a burgher of Amsterdam is no less situated in his religio-metaphysical period for that fact.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel immanentized that story.  The succession of stages defined and imposed by God on His Creation became the immanent unfolding of Mind or Spirit within History.  Whereas each stage in the Judeo-Christian story is defined by Man's relation to Salvation, each stage in Hegel's story is defined by the degree to which Spirit has come to a Self-Understanding.  Each stage of history differs in this regard from what went before and what follows, and -- this is crucially important -- everything at a given stage of history is related to, exhibits, exemplifies that degree of the unfolding of Spirit or Mind.  [It is in this sense that Hegel is an Idealist.]  Each aspect of the civilization of a stage can be understood and characterized by this central Ideal character.  Thus we can speak of the Classical Period of Ancient Greece and Rome, and mean by this equally the character of its politics, its philosophy, its law, and also its architecture, statuary, and literature.  We can speak meaningfully of Baroque music, of Medieval sculpture, or of Romantic poetry, or, with Jacob Burckhardt, of Renaissance Man.

As readers of this blog know, I don't like Hegel, but give credit where credit is due.  This is a brilliant idea.  It is also the immediate origin of Marx's idea that the History of Europe exhibits the succession of a series of stages in the development of the social relations of production, each stage defining a distinct period of the human experience.  Primitive Communism, Roman Slavery, Medieval Feudalism, and Bourgeois Capitalism are to Marx as the Eden, The Fall, The Giving of the Law, and the Incarnation are to the Christian.  And Communism, like The Last Trump, will bring History as we know it to a conclusion, after which, as the old communist slogan has it, we will all eat peaches and cream.

It is worth noting one of the immediately obvious implications of this schema:  There can be no skipping of a stage.  Without the Fall, there can be no Covenant with Abraham and Noah, without the Giving of the Law no Word Made Flesh in the Incarnation.  So too, as Marx makes brilliantly clear and persuasive in Capital, it would have been impossible to institute full-fledged capitalism in twelfth century feudal Europe, or [somewhat closer to home] to skip over the full development of advanced capitalism and go directly to socialism, as the French, German, and English utopians desired.

This issue became immediately [and bloodily] urgent in Russia in 1917 when a revolutionary Socialist vanguard seized control of a huge nation of serfs in which the very beginnings of capitalism were emerging in the Western regions.  The Bolsheviks were educated men and woman, and they knew full well the problem of "skipping a stage."  Indeed, they debated whether such an anomaly was possible.  The obvious answer was of course "no," but it was too much to expect those who had risked their lives to turn to whatever nascent capitalists they could find and say "Okay, it is your turn now.  We will be back when you have fully developed bourgeois capitalist social and economic relations, in a generation or two."  And so, we had State Capitalism, better known as The Soviet Union.

Clearly, there is going to be a great deal to say at the second meeting of my seminar.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The responses of Jerry Fresia and Magpie to yesterday's post raise so many  important issues that I scarcely know where to begin.  Let me start with the term banausic, an adjective translated [or virtually transliterated] from an ancient Greek term for the labor of common workmen, and by extension, for the workmen themselves.  It  is a term of contempt, sometimes translated "mechanic," or "mechanical."  Plato and Aristotle believed that the labor of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants corrupted their souls and made them unfit for full participation in the deliberations of the public sphere.  One finds a very similar attitude in the writings of Hannah Arendt [suitably cleaned up, as it were.]  There is an interesting echo of this attitude in John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures, one of his revisions of the simple utilitarianism on which he was raised by his father and his godfather [Jeremy Bentham.]  Mill assumes without argument that the common folk are capable of enjoying only the lower pleasures, whereas the elite, such as himself, can appreciate both the lower and the higher pleasures, and hence are in a position to judge that the higher are better.[[One is reminded of the old definition of Jewish foreplay -- half an hour of nagging.]  By describing the labor of common workers in language customarily reserved for the analysis of the act of artistic creation, Marx accomplishes a brilliant transvaluation of values [to steal a phrase from that virtuoso of dismissive contempt, Friedrich Nietzsche.]

The celebration of manual labor appears in many places, such as the early Israeli Kibbutzim, various nineteenth century American transcendentalist utopian experimental communities, and the writings of such twentieth century authors as Carl Sandburg and Paul Goodman.  It also famously crops up in the late writings of Leo Tolstoy.

Although it is only tangentially relevant, I cannot resist the temptation to quote the glorious last paragraph of Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution:

"It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the height to which he may carry his technique.  Social construction and psycho-physical education will become two aspects of one and the same process.  All the arts -- literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form.  More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.  Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler;  his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical.  The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic.  The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.  And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

A very large portion of Volume One of Capital is devoted to spelling out in rich circumstantial detail the ways in which first the substitution of manufacturing [literally "making by hand"] for traditional handicrafts and then the substitution of machine production for manufacturing robs labor of its natural rhythms and its fusion of hand and head and transforms it into a rote activity that is deadening and life-destroying.

The division of labor into handwork and headwork, with its implications for class stratification,  is one of the most distinctive "achievements" of capitalism, and the overcoming of the division has been a goal of revolutionaries in many countries.  In the South Africa that I first discovered in 1986, and with which I fell in love, this took the form of a call among radical academics for the granting of formal educational credentials to those township residents who, despite being denied access to higher education, had demonstrated in their work lives a mastery of the skills and concepts that school learning was intended to instill.  It was argued, for example, that those who managed the informal township councils of Soweto, Alexandra, or Mamelodi had acquired as much understanding of government as those who had studied Public Administration at university, and should therefore be awarded the appropriate university degree.  Needless to say, this, like so many other inspiring revolutionary goals, became a dead letter once the apartheid  regime was overthrown.

Here in the United States, the popular slang for this division used to be "suits and shirts," until in the '60s dress ceased to be a reliable marker for social class.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


My ebullient remarks about Marx's manuscript on Alienated Labor provoked two requests for a mini-tutorial on Romanticism.  Alas, I am not even remotely competent to write such a tutorial, desirable though it might be.  However, I think I owe Jerry Fresia and Magpie some explanation.  Consider this post yet another warm-up for my course next semester.

Let us begin, as I so like to do, with the Good Book, specifically Genesis 3:14-19.  God is royally pissed at the disobedience of Adam and Eve, who despite clear warnings, have succumbed to the seductions of the serpent and have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is a moment of world-historical importance, of course, for from it flows original sin and the entire Christian story.  Note the last three verses, especially verse 19.  Man's labor is a curse laid upon him for his disobedience, and so is woman's labor, which is the name given to the bringing forth of children.  This conception of labor as a curse dominates the Judeo-Christian tradition ever afterward.  To be required to labor is to be cursed, if not for your sin then for Adam's.  Activity is not a curse, of course.  From Aristotle onward, activity, free autonomous self-directed activity, is understood to be a blessing, the condition of the aristocrat.  But the work of getting one's bread from the soil by the sweat of one's brow is the lot of the unfree, of those in bondage, of the poor who cannot command the labor of others for the satisfaction of their needs.

In the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx turns that tradition on its head, and gives us an entirely new understanding of the nature of work.  For all its youthful wordplay and its juvenile show of paradoxes and Hegelian inversions, this text is one of the richest and most remarkable of the entire corpus of nineteenth century writings.  What Marx does is to take the Romantic conception of the creative artist and transform it into a radically new idea of the human condition [hence my ill-considered allusion to Romanticism.]

Briefly [for this is a subject about which one could go on endlessly], in the medieval period, and indeed in the Baroque and Classical periods as well, artists were considered artisans, on a par with stone masons, jewelers, carpenters, and goldsmiths.  They were frequently employees of royal or aristocratic courts and were treated as such, expected to bow and scrape in  the presence of the King or Duke or Prince, called upon to produce their works for ceremonial and other occasions.  It would have struck an Elector or Margrave as comical, indeed as actionable, for one of his employees to say, "I am sorry, but I cannot produce the Mass you requested for the baptism of your son because I do not feel inspired today."  That would have been as absurd and incomprehensible as his tailor saying, "The spirit does not move me to make a cloak for you this week."

The Romantic conception of artistic creation is completely different.  On this view, the process, putting it somewhat formulaically, is as follows.  The artist first forms in his or her mind an image of the work to be created [I know, Jerry, that this is not always the way it is, but bear with me.]  It may be a conception of a work in stone, or in paint, or it may be a poem, a tragedy, a string quartet.  Then the artist labors to externalize the ideal conception in stone or on canvas or on paper.  This externalization [entäusserung] is a profoundly ambivalent act.  On the one hand, it makes the ideal conception real, and thus is the fulfillment of the artistic act.  But the entäusserung is at the same time an alienation, an entfremdung, in two senses.  First of all, what was internal and wholly a part of the artist's mind or spirit now becomes a foreign object, separate from  the artist.  It stands over against the artist [i.e., it is quite literally a gegenstand, an object.]  The artist loses control over its fate.  It will outlive the artist.  And it may be alienated in another sense: its ownership may change hands.  For "to alienate," in German as in English, means both "to become the enemy of" and also "to change ownership."  [The sale of property is routinely referred to in the law as alienation.]

The artist loses physical control of the art object, which was, in the act of creation, the externalization of the artist's innermost being. And the artist loses control over how the art object will be interpreted or experienced by the public.  The artist may believe that the sculpture should stand alone in a barren garden, but the new owner may stick it in his entry hall along with other works that the artist hates and would rather die than be associated with.  [One is reminded of poor old René Descartes, who sent copies of his newly created Meditations to all the great philosophers of Europe, with precise instructions that they were to read one Meditation per day for six days and then think about each Meditation for one week before writing back with comments, only to begin receiving comments almost the very next day!]   Thus, the act of artistic labor is deeply ambivalent in its meaning and potentiality.

Marx now takes up this Romantic notion of artistic creativity and transforms it in two ways.  He "materializes" it by applying the very same analysis to the work of transforming nature so as to provide for human needs and wants, and he "socializes" it by integrating with it Adam Smith's notion of the division of labor.  Turning his back on the entire Western tradition arising from Genesis, Marx claims that work can be, and should be, intelligent, fulfilling, communal, and deeply pleasurable, if engaged in in the right fashion.  As the artist forms a conception in mind and externalizes it in a painting, sculpture, or symphony, so the farmer forms a conception in mind of a field of wheat for the making of bread, which he or she then makes real, realizes, externalizes by laboring with others in the fields, day after day.  Once the idea has been made flesh, as the Good Book might say, those whose labor has brought about this realization can join in a communal meal at which they enjoy "the fruits of their labors."

This social productive activity ideally is carried on with full recognition of the natural tempos of the human condition and with a generous acknowledgement of the variations in the capacity for work of one man or woman or another.  Just as the artist experiences a good fatigue, a satisfying ache of the muscles while wrestling the stone into shape or crafting just the right chordal transitions from major to minor, so the blacksmith, the farmer, the cobbler -- yes, and the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer as well -- will welcome the tiredness that accompanies a good job well done.  There will be a time for working from sun up to sun down, and a time for resting, for repairing the fishing nets, for waiting out the storms.

But this human activity with its natural fulfillment and satisfaction is corrupted by capitalism.  Objectively, the products of collective human activity become alienated from those who have brought them into existence.  They stand over against the workers as Capital, which oppresses and exploits them.  The harder they work, the greater grow the accumulations of Capital and the more powerless they become to resist the oppression.  Subjectively, the work process itself is distorted and corrupted.  The needs of Capital require men and women to transform themselves into wage laborers whose pace of work, intensity of work, and duration of work are determined neither by their human needs nor by their natural physical tempi but by the incessant, insatiable need of Capital for profit.  Work truly becomes the curse that God imagined it to be.  The alienation of man from his species being is complete.

Well, that, or something like it, is what I had in mind when I referred to the essay on Alienated Labor as "a wild, Romantic effusion of Marx's youth."




Saturday, November 22, 2014


After a day of rest, I have returned to my course preparations, today re-reading the famous discussion of alienated labor from the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.  I should not be surprised if all of the readers of this rather recherché blog are fully familiar with the text, but if there are some folks who have been drawn to my daily musings merely out of an affection for Paris or from grandfatherly fellow-feeling, I should explain that at the age of twenty-six, the young Karl Marx, living in Paris, sat down to sort out some thoughts.  On large sheets of paper he drew vertical lines to create three columns, each headed with one of the central categories of Political Economy:  Land, Labor, Capital.  Then he wrote as much as he had to say about each subject, page after page.  He never published these writings -- they were in the nature of study notes or self-explications -- but in the twentieth century they finally saw the light of day.  They were seized on especially by dedicated Marxists who were alienated from Stalinist Russia, which had appropriated Capital as its bible.  In this and other early writings, a number of mid-century radicals found fresh inspiration.

The text breaks off abruptly in what is clearly the middle of a much longer exposition.  In the edition I shall be assigning, it runs only to sixteen pages, and yet there is a world in those pages. I shall spend much of a two and a half hour class unfolding that world for my students.

In this post, I should like simply to quote a single brief passage from what is, in my opinion, the richest passage, and connect it with one of my favorite movies from the '50s, the Peter Sellars vehicle, I'm All Right Jack.  Here are the two sentences from the manuscript on alienated labor:

"The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work.  He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home."

In the movie, Sellars plays a communist union boss whose members work at a factory, owned by Dennis Price, in which wealthy young Ian Carmichael finds a job [he is enamored of Sellars' implausibly bosomy daughter.]  Price wants to lay off some workers, but Sellars negotiates for them a deal that allows them to stay on the payroll even though they are now supernumerary.  Each day those workers sit behind a stack of bales on pallets and play cards.  One day, Sellars schedules a labor action.  The workers stream out of the factory, but the excess workers, behind their bales, do not notice at first that their comrades are on strike.  Suddenly, they realize what is going on, and they drop their cards, jump up from their chairs, and hurry out of the factory -- presumably to go home, where they will play cards!
That scene is the perfect comic rendering of Marx's profound insight.  For half a century and more, I have wondered idly whether the writers knew what they were doing


My two closest friends in college were fellow members of the Harvard class of '54, Michael Jorrin and Richard Eder.  Mike was [and still is] a tall, handsome blond man with a big basso singing voice.  Dick was a short, slender, wry, dark-haired man with a quirky sense of humor and a limp as the result of a childhood bout of polio.  He sang tenor.  I cannot recall how we met, but somehow we found one another as devotées of early music and formed a little trio to sing Elizabethan madrigals.  We worked our way through a book of madrigals arranged for men's voices and would burst into song spontaneously whenever we met.  Early on, we discovered that the tunnels connecting some of the Harvard houses had great acoustics.  I recall with fondness our rendition of The Silver Swan.

I graduated a year early, and to commemorate the occasion, Mike and Dick bought me my very own copy of the Critique of Pure Reason [I was at that point too strapped for funds to own one and used the library copy.]  I used it until it began to fall apart, at which point I had it re-bound.  It sits on the shelf in my Paris apartment.  The inscription reads, "To Bob, Each even line from Dick, Each odd line from Mike."

Dick got a job as a copyboy on the TIMES when he graduated, and rose from there to become an important foreign correspondent and then book reviewer.  Later in life, when he had moved to the Los Angeles TIMES, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book reviews.  He was married for his entire adult life to his childhood sweetheart, Esther, with whom he had seven children.

The NY TIMES today carries the obituary of Richard Eder, who died yesterday at 82.  He was an extraordinary man, a gifted man, and with Michael Jorrin, a bright light of my undergraduate days.  I was deeply saddened by the word of his passing.

Friday, November 21, 2014


With the re-reading of Capital behind me, I can now turn my attention to the re-reading of the 1844 manuscript on "Alienated Labor" and the 1848 Communist Manifesto, "a task which is rather an amusement than a labor," to snatch a line from the Preface to the First Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.  The first of these texts, barely 15 pages in the edition I shall be using, is of course one of the most often read of Marx's writings.  It makes for a fascinating comparison with Capital.  The manuscript is a wild, Romantic effusion of Marx's youth, spun, so far as I can tell, entirely out of his head.  It was written before Marx had begun the backbreaking work of archival scholarship into every aspect of the emergence of capitalism from European feudalism that serves as the foundation of the argument of Capital.  And yet, at the age of twenty-six, the young Karl Marx had intuited the essential inhumanity of capitalist labor that is detailed over so many pages in his mature hauptwerk.  

At a certain point in the twentieth century evolution of Marxism, it became popular to speak of a break or discontinuity between the youthful writings and the mature works, and yet in this important respect, the two are seamlessly continuous one with the other.  There was indeed a break, or at least a reversal, in Marx's views of feudalism and capitalism, but it concerned something quite different.  Briefly, when he was young, Marx viewed feudal socio-economic relations as thoroughly mystified by religious and political rationalizations, whereas capitalism, he thought, had dispelled the clouds of mystery to reveal the raw, naked exploitation lying beneath.  But the dramatic and deeply disappointing failure of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings seems to have persuaded Marx that the truth was in fact the reverse.  Under feudalism, he came to think, the economic structure of exploitation was nakedly exhibited, as typified by the division of the week's labor into days owed to the Lord and days for cultivating one's own land.  It was capitalism that presented its exploitation in the mystified form of a Free Market in which legally free workers met legally free capitalists and bargained as equals for their wages.

All of this, as the saying goes, will be gone into at the proper time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Well, I finally completed my re-reading of Capital Volume One today.  Here is an odd fact.  Marx wraps up his long discourse with a dramatic, powerful five page Chapter XXXII entitled "Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation."  The mists have dispelled, the veils have parted, and the raw story of the development of modern capitalism is laid before us as clearly as one could desire.  The chapter concludes with this marvelous paragraph:

"The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already resting on socialised production, into socialised property.  In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers;  in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people."

That ought to be the end of the book, right?  But then, unaccountably, Marx adds one more chapter, "The Modern Theory of Colonisation."  It is in every way an anticlimax, engendered, so far as I can tell, by Marx's desire to beat up on a wretch named E. G. Wakefield. 

When I teach the book next semester, I plan to end with Chapter XXXII. 


My grandson, Samuel, has expressed an interest in learning to play the violin, so I shall foot the bill for a half sized instrument for his birthday present [he will be nine in December].  I have dreams of playing duets with him.  What is it with little Jewish boys and violins?  I think half of the little boys in Vilna must have studied the violin in the early twentieth century.  Samuel's six year old sister [the one who is a shark at Backgammon] would like a pair of boots.  So I went on line.  Do you have any idea how many styles of boots there are for little girls?  This business of being a grandpa is more complicated than it looks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Inasmuch as Chris has done me the honor of addressing me by the title I have affected these past  fifty -six years [I think of it as the academic version of a patronymic or matronymic], I think I owe it to him to pause momentarily in my re-reading of Capital in order to address the question he raises, viz, how exactly would a socialist society work?  It is worth reminding those of you who have read a great deal of Marx and telling those of you who have not that Marx said almost nothing about this subject.  Indeed, if we were to add up all the pages that Marx devoted to an analysis of capitalism and the critique of theorists of capitalism, we would certainly pass 5000, and perhaps many more.  If we were then to gather together every passing comment, aside, and ephemeral remark he made about what a socialist society would look like, we might manage, generously, to cobble together five pages, but even that would be in large print.  There were, of course, many nineteenth century authors who speculated extensively about the lineaments of a socialist society.  Marx and Engels had nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as "Utopian Socialists."

There are a number of reasons why the high priest of socialism never wrote about it, the most profound of which is that Marx understood, better than anyone before him [and perhaps after as well] that how the transition to socialism was made would shape what emerged from the transition.  This idea, of the relationship between the character of a socio-political transition and what emerges from it, is the subject of a truly great book by my old friend [and the godfather of my younger son] Barrington Moore Jr.  I refer, of course, to The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.

What follows are some thoughts I had during my morning walk.  The temperature at six a.m. was hovering just above 20 degrees, so a good deal of my energy was devoted to staying warm, which may explain why these thoughts are a trifle scattered.  [Wearing thermal underwear, two sweaters, and a scarf under my hoodie, I looked rather like a miniature version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.]

I shall begin with a point Chris makes, about which Marx has a very great deal to say in Volume One:  At the present stage of economic development, an extremely extensive division of labor has long since taken place, with the result that few if any of us actually reproduce our own means of existence by our own individual labor.  Those of us who are city dwellers , which I assume includes virtually all the readers of this blog, do not grow our own food or spin, weave, and tailor our own clothes, nor have most of us had a hand in the building of the dwellings in which we reside.  [I have, as it happens, carded and spun raw wool into thread, but that was at an upscale leftwing work camp for middle-class teenage boys and girls, so it does not really count.]

For this reason, Marx, for certain analytical purposes, speaks in Capital of the assembled labor of the entire working class as though it were the labor of a single worker, a portion of whose day is devoted to reproducing "his" conditions of existence [i.e., wage goods], the remainder being devoted to producing the surplus value that is transmuted into the money form as profit for the capitalist. 

Thinking in this way is useful for reminding us that in a socialist society, a certain amount of labor must be done in each cycle simply to produce what is consumed, one way or another, by the workers, and also to reproduce the capital that is used up in the processes of production.  If the population is growing, or if a decision has been made [by whom?  Ah.  That is the question] to raise the standard of living, in either case requiring an expansion of the scope of output through economic growth, then "the" worker will have to labor longer than is required for simple reproduction, either to produce the capital goods to which the additional working population will apply itself productively or else to expand the output of wage goods available to the existing population.  What is more, if the demographic composition of the population is shifting, perhaps with fewer persons of working age doing the labor required to support the entire population, then those who work will have to labor longer than would be required merely to sustain themselves.  All of this is obvious and has been well understood for a long time.

A good deal of the labor performed by our "worker" goes to produce wealth for those who control or own the means of production, and are therefore in a position collectively and individually to compel the workers to perform surplus labor by threatening to withhold from them the food, clothing, and shelter that they need to survive.  There are more pages in Capital devoted to this doleful subject than to anything else.  It is the fundamental fact of capitalism [and also of all previous economic formations, but that is several other stories.]

How would things differ in a socialist society?  Indeed, what would a socialist society be?  Well, the traditional answer -- and I am in this, as in so much else, a traditionalist -- is that in a socialist society capital, which is to say the means of production, would be collectively owned, and decisions about what and how much to produce would be made collectively.  [This is why the transition process matters.  If a small cadre of revolutionary leaders act as the commanders of the revolutionary process, you can bet that after the revolution, even if we are all eating peaches and cream, they and their epigones will be making all the big decisions, which they will no doubt call Democratic Centralism, without irony, alas.]

At the present time, decisions about the allocation of capital are for the most part made by private owners who are motivated by a desire to expand the value of their holdings through the making of a profit.  These decisions may, but they also may not, serve the human needs of those doing the labor in the society.  In America today, for example, a good profit can be made by manufacturing in expensive, nicely designed, reasonably well made clothes.  Hence even the poor are well-dressed by historical standards.  But in the housing business, the real money is to be made in high-end luxury housing.  Hence the poor, who are well-dressed, are ill-housed.  In a socialist society, it would be possible to allocate capital in such a way that the workers are well-housed.  It would not be cheap.  Even under socialism, there is no free lunch [except at Apple headquarters].  It would be a deliberate decision, made with full knowledge of the costs, which include what would have to be foregone.

Shifting the capital around looks easy on paper when one is working with dollar equivalents.  Take so many billions out of this industry and put it into that industry.  Things are a bit trickier when we get down to the real economy.  One cannot simply issue an order that an aircraft manufacturer making Lear Jets must forthwith start producing nicely designed workers' dwellings, nor can one require a Rolex Watch manufacturer, by fiat, to start churning out nutritious school lunches for poor children.  However, with a little Schumpeterian "creative destruction" the changes can be made.

Thus far, I have been talking about America, but it is time to acknowledge a fact that requires some deep thought.  Those cheap, well-designed clothes I mentioned that you and I are wearing [leaving to one side my utter lack of clothes sense] are made by girls and women working twelve hours for a wage that we would not consider adequate pay for a day.  So are those making our cell phones.  They just don't happen to be living in America, so a socialist transformation in America will do them precious little good.  [Oscar Wilde is reported to have said of socialism, "It will never work.  Too many meetings."  I shudder to think what would happen to me if I were to explain to a gathering of revolutionary youth that they might have to give up their IPhones.]

Well, this is a great deal more in a connected way than Marx ever wrote about socialism, and since I am now all warmed up, I am going to go back to reading Capital. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I begin my daily portion of Capital today on page 668, a little more than one hundred pages from the end of Volume One.  My careful reading notes, filled with notations of passages I must call to the attention of my class, now fill almost nineteen pages.  Inasmuch as there is more to say about this extraordinary book than even thirty-seven and a half hours of class time will allow, I need to begin the difficult business of deciding what is essential and what can, albeit reluctantly, be set aside.

Happily, I have already identified what seems to me to be the single most important sentence in the entire volume.  It appears in the middle of a long paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 307 [in the Aveling and Moore translation] and continues on to page 309.  The context is not important, because what Marx says could as easily have been said on every single page of the book.  Here is the sentence:

"If this labourer [who is being hired for a year by a capitalist] were in possession of his own means of production, and were satisfied to live as a labourer, he need not work beyond the time necessary for the reproduction of his means of subsistence, say 8 hours a day."

Literally everything in Marx's long, complex, detailed critique of capitalism is contained in this simple sentence.  Why must the nineteenth century English worker labor for ten or twelve or fourteen hours?  Because, by an historical process that Marx will analyze in the final pages of Volume One, he has been deprived of access to and ownership of the means of production that he requires in order to reproduce his own existence.  Why, as the productivity of the workers improves and grows, does the work day not shorten?  If only six hours, or four, come to be required to reproduce the worker's means of existence, why must he still labor for eight or ten or twelve hours?  Because those means of production, which his labor and that of other workers has created, are owned not by himself and his comrades, but by the capitalist, who in his role as capitalist [not as plant manager -- that is a separate matter] does nothing save own the means of production and "allow" the workers to use them.  Whence comes his profit, that grows and grows as the years roll by?  From the unpaid labor extracted from the workers.

If this is the sum and substance of Capital, why is the entire academic Economics profession incapable of grasping its truth?  The great old American novelist Upton Sinclair had the answer:  "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Monday, November 17, 2014


Well, a reader more knowledgeable than I tells me that the site of the cafe La Regence was 161 rue St. Honore, quite close to the eastern end of the Louvre, and now apparently [if I can trust Googlemaps] occupied by a shop called Maroc.  Oh well.


I am not what you would call a scholar.  Even when I write two books on someone, I am liable to be a bit dim about that person's actual life.  So it was with considerable surprise that I learned only today that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels met for the first time, in 1843, in a Paris cafe, cafe de la Regence.  The cafe, which I also learned is famous in chess circles as the site of many storied matches in the 19th century, lies on a little side street between rue de Rivoli and the Right Bank.  If GoogleMaps is to be trusted, it is still there, though it is now a restaurant, not a cafe.  When I return to Paris in March for a brief visit during Spring Break, I shall be sure to visit it.  I shall also ask my chess grandmaster son, Patrick, whether he has ever come across the name.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


1.  As I plowed my way through the seemingly endless passages in Chapter XV, "Machinery and Modern Industry" in which Marx copies out and reproduces detailed descriptions of the appalling conditions of life and work of children in early industrial capitalist enterprises, I reflected that since all of this took place almost two hundred years ago, my students would probably have difficulty seeing it as anything other than a tale of horribles from an era long past.  A few moments with Google turned up a very nice story about the fourteen hour days put in by twelve year old girls and boys in Apple's Chinese factories, where they earn less than a dollar an hour for making the IPhones that I and my students carry about with us.  At an appropriate time, I shall read it to them.

2.  Deep in Part VI now, "The Production of Absolute and Of Relative Surplus Value," territory frequented only by the most fanatic of Marxist loyalists.  Grinding through Marx's rather tedious ringing of the changes on variations in the length of the work day, the intensity of the work process, and the productiveness of labour, I come upon a four-page chapter, "Various Formulae for the Rate of Surplus-Value," in which, suddenly, unexpectedly, wonderfully, I find the following passage:

"The habit of representing surplus-value and value of labour-power as fractions of the value created -- a habit that originates in the capitalist mode of production itself, and whose import will hereafter be disclosed -- conceals the very transaction that characterises capital, namely the exchange of variable capital for living labour-power, and the consequent exclusion of the labourer from the product.  Instead of the real fact, we have the semblance of an association, in which the labourer and capitalist divide the product in proportion to the different elements which they respectively contribute to its formation."

It may not be immediately obvious to some of you, but this is a brilliant attack by Marx on the neo-Classical use of Euler's Theorem to prove that labour and capital each receive their marginal product, and hence, as Professor Pangloss says, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Since I am morally certain that Marx did not know Euler's Theorem, and since he published this book ten years before Walras, Jevons, and Menger each bestowed the marginalist revolution on a world hungry for enlightenment, it is simply wonderful that Marx had the genius to expose the meretriciousness  of that "gift" before it was even given.  [I use "meretriciousness" in its original meaning.]