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Monday, February 9, 2015


I am back from the West Coast after a quick trip made a good deal more uncertain than I would have liked by weather delays that threatened to louse up my connections, but in the end worked out all right.  You are going to have to bear with me while I tell you several stories about my grandchildren.   Those who are way too serious to put up with a grandfather's qvelling can pass the time reading the Grundrisse until I have reverted to my customary role as a high-domed commentator on the deeper meaning of contemporary capitalism.

The high point of the visit was of course the time I spent playing "duets" with Samuel, who at nine has just started studying the violin.  He has a three-quarter size loaner  on which he has learned to play the open strings [G, D, A, and E for those who are not familiar with the instrument.]  He was fascinated by my viola, which is a great deal bigger, and tried it out [while my heart stood still, fearful that he might drop it.]  His teacher has given him some little duets in which his part consists simply of open string notes.  I played the other part [which his teacher plays, I assume] on my viola.  The bizarre thing is that it sounded really nice -- like genuine music.  This is a phenomenon I noticed when I was taking lessons.  When my viola teacher [a really good professional violist] played a duet with me, it made me sound worlds better.  Now this may not seem like much, but let me assure you, it does not get much better for a grandfather!  In August, I am hosting an eighty-fifth birthday party for my big sister, Barbara, at the home of my son and daughter-in law.  By then, Samuel will be playing notes and all, and we can play some real duets.  Once his teacher decides that he is ready for a full-size violin, I am going to buy him a student instrument as a delayed ninth birthday present.

Samuel actually spent much of his time sitting on the floor playing out and analyzing a Karpov-Kasparov chess game with his father [who is, of course, a famous International Grandmaster.]  I was astonished to discover that Samuel is completely conversant with algebraic chess notation and understands what his father is saying when Patrick reels off a series of moves by way of illustrating a possible line in the game [something I am quite incapable of, by the way.]  Now, Samuel is a rabid SF Giants baseball fan, and he carries everywhere a stuffed panda called "pandabal" after Pedro Sandoval, until recently a member of the Giants team.  I have to tell you, it is a trifle disorienting to see a boy hugging a stuffed panda and saying, "but what about e5 d4 c2?"

The single most extraordinary moment of my short visit, however, involved little six and a half year old Athena, who is short for her age and therefore seems even younger than she is.  I was sitting alone in the living room when Athena came in carrying a colored case. She opened it and took out a rectangle of soft fuzzy cloth printed to look like a one hundred dollar bill.  We had a discussion about it -- I told her not to spend it all at once, and so forth.  Then she ran out to get her "wallet," from which she took some real money.  She started counting it, and I watched as she privately counted on her fingers to add a five to the twenty and three ones.  Finally, she informed me that she had forty-five dollars!  "Where did you get it?" I asked.  "From grandma and my allowance." 

Well, what are grandpas for?  I reached into my pocket and took out a twenty dollar bill, which I offered to her.  Athena pursed her lips and very quietly said "no."  "Why not?" I asked, astonished.  Very quietly, she said, "It wouldn't be fair to my brother."  I told her to call Samuel, and gave him a twenty also.

I do not think I have ever been prouder of anyone in my life than I was of Athena when she said, "It wouldn't be fair to my brother."  I mean, I am a moral philosopher by trade, and I do not recall a sentence in the writings of Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill more beautiful than those seven words.

Now, as I was saying about Das Kapital.  


David Auerbach said...

Ahh, so she's discovered justice as fairness.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

And all by herself -- no veils, of ignorance or otherwise.

trane said...

Priceless indeed!

Ian J. Seda Irizarry said...

I wonder which Karpov-Kasparov game Patrick was teaching him. Is either one of them Patrick's favorite?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Boy, you are really asking the wrong person!!! Patrick observed somewhat bemusedly that his head is stuffed with detailed chess knowledge even though he has not played competitively for more than a decade.

Unknown said...

We are studying for an exam in "Law and Philosophy" at the Hebrew University Law School, and part of the required reading is "In Defense of Anarchism". I randomly googled "Robert Paul Wolff" today, found this blog, and decide it to share it with our class' Facebook group. So far it's a hit. Wishing you much nachas.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for nodding in. Welcome to the blog.

classtruggle said...

An endearing story. Reminds me of special moments I had with my grandfather, a best friend and hero (not to mention a communist) while growing up.

I think my grandfather would agree with the notion that standards of justice, rather than being based on transcendent, absolute and eternal principles (much like civil and political rights which form the original and main part of so-called 'human rights') they are relative and internal to specific historical modes of production.

They are the outcome of a long history of contending forces, and are never fixed and constantly evolving through the dynamics of conflict between antagonistic groups. For yesterday’s laws are today’s crime, as the history of chattel slavery, patriarchal rights to physical punishment of wives and children, master and servant legislation, and the illegalities of the condom centuries ago, all confirm.

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Marx argues against the a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour and asks "What is 'a fair distribution'? Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is 'fair'? And is it not, in fact, the only 'fair' distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about 'fair' distribution?"

Shortly afterwards, he refers to these notions as "obsolete verbal rubbish" and "ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French Socialists"

And then again in a famous letter written in 1877, Marx describes "a whole gang of half-mature students and super-wise diplomaed doctors who want to give socialism a 'higher, idealistic' orientation, that is to say, to replace its materialistic basis (which demands serious objective study from anyone who tries to use it) by modern mythology with its goddesses of justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity."

And when Marx does use the language of morality, for example when he makes use of some phrases about rights and justice in his Inaugural Address and Preamble to the Rules of the First International he explains to Engels in a letter that he was "obliged to insert two phrases about 'duty' and 'right' into the Preamble to the Rules, ditto about 'truth, morality and justice', but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm."

Now injustice can and does occur, but only when a system ends up violating its own principles. In other words, certain practices and ideas in one social formation may be considered unjust in relation to the practices and ideas of another, yet completely just in relation to their own underlying principles: "Slavery, on the basis of the capitalist mode of production, is unjust; so is cheating on the quality of commodities" (Vol 3, p.460-461).