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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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Saturday, June 13, 2015


It is a commonplace of soap operas, Romance novels, and pop psychology that one never entirely gets over one’s first love.  I fell in love with Susie in the Fall of 1948 as a fourteen year old high school sophomore, and although it took me another thirty-nine years to persuade her to marry me, I carried the memory of that young love in my heart for all the intervening years.

At about the same time that I fell for Susie, I first heard the music of the great Black folk singer, Huddie Ledbetter. Leadbelly, as he was known, was a hard-driving man, twice convicted of murder and twice reprieved by governors who heard him sing. During his prison time in brutal Southern chain gangs, Leadbelly would work under the blazing sun all day, and then play for the prisoners and guards at night. Alan Lomax, who with his father first introduced Leadbelly to White audiences, had this to say about him:

“Leadbelly, himself, was like the gray goose, indomitable, tougher than life, itself. In the Texas pen he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in the state.”

That description became for me the epitome of what it was to be big league.

In college, I had a brief fling with mathematical logic and a romance with David Hume, but it was when I met Immanuel Kant in 1953 as a nineteen year old senior that I lost my heart forever.  After I had encountered the Critique of Pure Reason in the classroom of Clarence Irving Lewis, Alan Lomax’s description of Leadbelly became firmly associated in my mind with the passage in the Critique known as the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories -- more formally, “The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding”. It seemed obvious to me that that short section of the Critique was the most important passage in the hardest book by the greatest philosopher who ever lived -- the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas. To engage with that passage, to wrestle with it like Jacob with the angel, to force it to yield up its true meaning, was for me then, and has been for me during my entire career, the ultimate challenge for a student of philosophy.

I met that challenge, I am firmly convinced, in my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, completed in the early Fall of 1961 and published two years later.  I told my psychoanalyst, Terry Cloyd Rogers, that Kant was for me the powerful, thoroughly admirable father that I felt my own father had not been.  He observed quietly that although Kant figured in my mind as the ideal father figure, in fact what I was really saying in my book was that he needed me and my interpretation of him to make what he had in mind clear to the world.  It was only two years after publishing that book that I wrote In Defense of Anarchism, the central thesis of which, psychologically speaking, is of course that there are no legitimate fathers.

But my love affair with Kant did not end there.  Having settled accounts with Kant’s theoretical philosophy, I turned to his moral philosophy.  When I began that engagement, I was convinced that there must somewhere be a rigorous argument, knowable a priori, that establishes the universal validity of the fundamental principle of morality.  I wrestled with Kant for ten years, publishing thirteen books on a variety of subjects along the way, but finally in 1973 I threw in the towel.  In The Autonomy of Reason, a commentary on Kant’s Grundlegung, I confessed myself unable to find in Kant’s writings any argument establishing the unconditional bindingness of the Categorical Imperative.  Still convinced that he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm in Texas, I concluded that if Kant had been unable to find the argument, it did not exist, and I gave up the search.

It was not long afterward that I began my relationship with Marx.  That relationship has been rewarding, in the way that mature affairs frequently are, but I am afraid that no one, not even Marx, can displace Kant in my heart.



Jerry Fresia said...

This post is the best thus far on the consideration of what socialism might look and feel like. Again we are treated to the Professor’s engaged romanticism, a kind of silent melody linking love, aesthetics, justice, and liberation, that is never separate from a way of working (realizing oneself) that makes manifest an epiphany of being. Displaced entirely is the mechanistic and the instrumental as a way of seeing and as a way of being (an academic). Welcomed in is beauty – as a certain kind of feeling, as a certain kind of pleasure. In this setting, our products then, might be so many mirrors in which we could see reflected our essential nature.

Chris said...

Did you ever read/get into Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation. Friends I trust swear its an improvement over Kant. I'm wondering what you would think of that claim?

Jerry Fresia said...

I trust, given this site, that everyone knows that my last line above is from Marx.

Not sure where to put this, but the unfolding saga of Greece raises all the questions that this site does. I found this post to be
quite interesting. Essentially it raises the question of the role of Keynesianism in the transition to Marxism:

"Oh yes, very much! Keynes is not Marx, and Keynesianism is not Marxism. Of course there’s a gulf between them, and it’s pretty much as you have said. Marxism is about overturning capitalism and heading towards socialism. It has always been about that, and it will remain about that. Keynesianism is not about that. It’s about improving capitalism and even rescuing it from itself. That’s exactly right.

However, when it comes to issues of policy such as fiscal policy, exchange-rate policy, banking policy, and so on — issues on which the Marxist left must necessarily position itself if it is to do serious politics rather than denouncing the world from small rooms — then you will rapidly discover that, like it or not, the concepts that Keynes used, the concepts that Keynesianism has worked with, play an indispensable role in working out strategy, which remains Marxist."

classtruggle said...

With all the divorces today, especially in the U.S. (approximately 1.2 million divorces a year while you have about 2.4 million marriages -- average length of a marriage is around 10 years last time I checked), it is nice to hear about a successful long-term relationship and marriage. I'm in my late 20s and have been married for almost five years (my wife is a few years younger than I am). I will say marriage or relationships in general, do take a lot of work but they can also make a real difference in the quality and longevity of one's life, no?

Unlike older generations though (who grew up in a less commodified and competitive world), we see lots of young people today who are alone or even worse, they prefer to call themselves 'independent.' Oh besides the sale and purchase of commodities and the wage relation, healthy, nurturing social relationships are outside the capability of the marketplace to provide.

classtruggle said...

"We are all socialists now" -- such was the sentiment of the social democratic Fabians as asserted by Sidney Webb in 1890. Jerry, one should be familiar with this argument, but do not spend too much time there; he is obviously confused on some issues.

Paul Mattick studied Keynes and put together a number of critical notes and articles against Keynesian theory and practice. Here's a link to an article entitled 'Marx and Keynes' which he wrote several decades ago. I think he may have also written a book on the same topic.

Anonymous said...

I think that Gerry Cohen’s book “If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?” is a useful text on which to base a discussion of what socialism would look like. Whether one ultimately agrees with Cohen or not, he frames the discussion of a socialist future in ways that I think are very useful. (This book is a compilation of Cohen’s Gifford Lectures of 1996. Much like the Philosopher’s Stone blog, the lectures weave together thoughts on larger social questions with reflections on Cohen’s own life and personal intellectual journey.)

Cohen mounts a very strong critique of what he calls the “obstetric doctrine,” or “radical endogeny” in classical Marxism—i.e., “that the full development of a problem always issues in its solution.” In Cohen’s view, this doctrine, inherited from Hegel, leads, when applied to historical and social issues, to the belief that a solution arises when “the problem itself is consummated, when it reaches its highest pitch.” Cohen: “Consider, for example, the problem posed by capitalism, as Marx and Engels envisaged it—the problem, to describe it simply, of massive power to produce, alongside massive poverty. As that problem deepens, its solution looms, as and because the problem deepens.” Cohen cites the famous passage in the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” (“No social order ever perishes before…”) and concludes that this leads, for Marxism, to the “happy result” that “Social repair—like conceptual repair, as Hegel conceived it—cannot come from without and always will be found within, provided that the thing is really broken. The utopian project is, therefore, both impossible and unnecessary.”

Cohen believes that this has led, in classical Marxism, to “a criminal inattention to what one is trying to achieve, to the problem of socialist design.” A further consequence of this thinking is that it lacks any kind of moral or ethical vision—not because the egalitarian ends to which Marxists aspire to aren’t ethical, but because, in the light of the deeply entrenched obstetric doctrine, morals are contemptible, “utopian” illusions. Cohen: “Marxism presented itself to itself from its inception as the consciousness of a struggle within the world, rather than as a set of ideals proposed to the world to which the world was required to adjust itself.”

Cohen then describes how, in multiple ways, the obstetric doctrine has failed and is no longer tenable for Marxists like himself, and how, as a result, this has led him to turn to normative political philosophy—a turn that he would have found un-necessary earlier in his career. This turn leads him to Rawls, whom he also finds wanting, primarily because Cohen does not believe that mere rules or social structure would be enough establish an egalitarian society. (He also mounts a very convincing claim that Rawls’ justification for inequality is merely factual—inequality is regrettably unavoidable—and not normative or just.) Interestingly, Cohen ends up defending what he calls the “Christian social nostrum” –the idea that “for inequality to be overcome, there needs to be a revolution in feeling or motivation, as opposed to (just) in economic structure.”

I’ll stop here, hoping that I have whetted some appetites for what I think is a very thoughtful, deep and wise book that challenges a lot of entrenched thinking on the part of Marxists, liberals and conservatives alike.

Anonymous said...

On re-reading my last comment, I am concerned that anyone who doesn't check out Cohen's book itself may be left with some wrong impressions.

First, his espousal of the "Christian social nostrum" is just that: the espousal of a social nostrum and not of any religious belief.

Second, he is not quite as dismissive of the obstetric doctrine as my outline might suggest. His view is best summed up I think in his critique of the following sentence from Rosa Luxemburg, which Cohen divides in two halves and that I break with numbers here:

"(i)The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, a historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, (ii) which—just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part—has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution."

Cohen: "The first half of this sentence is true, interesting, and important. Luxemburg probably thought that the second half, which is far stronger, and which, unlike the first half, affirms the obstetric doctrine, follows from, or restates, what is said in the first. But one may believe, against the full utopian doctrine, that socialism can be achieved only through an intervention in history that is sensitive both to history and to what it has wrought—one may, that is, affirm the first part of Luxemburg’s sentence—yet steadfastly resist the reassurance offered in its second part. And that is a reassurance which, after the sorry history of the twentieth century, we can no longer enjoy, and which it is, moreover, dangerous to

Cohen, a few lines later says: "whatever is meant by calling Marxism scientific socialism,it cannot now maintain its pretension to that designation without transforming itself radically. The particular ways in which the classic doctrine is false mean that we need to get out of obstetric space, but without, of course, entering utopian space in every sense. We have to work with social forces, if not, perhaps, always in the direction in which they are disposed to go. We have to be guided by the first half of Rosa Luxemburg’s overloaded sentence."

classtruggle said...

Wallace -- 'classical marxism' was a myth invented by Deutscher to distinguish among other things and according to his own bias 'legitimate marxism' from 'bastard marxism' (stalinist and maoist off shoots). The whole classical marxism argument is as follows: there was once a time in which marxism reached a high point in critical, intellectual, democratic and humanistic cultural values ("golden era of marxism") before it increasingly became perverted. [What a profound and convenient argument!]. Perry Anderson promoted this idea while a few U.S. scholars such as Kevin B Anderson and Richard Day rejected the tales of 'classical marxism.' When one bothers to study in detail this era of so called classical marxism, it becomes clear (and Deutscher even agrees) that most of the marxists of this period had actually read very little of Marx's work. Most of the man's writings were either unpublished, unavailable or heavily censored by the government. You can read more about this argument if you are interested in the works of researchers at the International Institute of Social History, including Marcel van der Linden, Jaap Kloosterman and Jan Lucassenis.

The problem with this notion is that a particular interpretation of Marx was formed well before people actually knew what they were interpreting. Few people in the 20th century had even read CAPITAL and barely anyone had re-read it in any great detail. Even those who tried like Riaznov or Rubin were murdered by Stalin's regime. What's more unfortunate and this is somewhat a digression, is that the modern day gurus of marxism are pastiche people like Zizek, Badiou and Negri (whose works have less to do with the workers' movement and more to do with psychoanalysis, Lacan, etc) but from a marxological point of view their writings (and I would include the analytical marxists, including the one you seem to find profound and interesting, and who ironically dubbed their works as 'non bullshit marxism', in this category as well) don't offer much that is very significant or substantial. They've written a lot of non sense and the more serious scholars don't pay any attention to them. As an aside, I don't think the marxists in North America are on the same level as the Europeans and this may have to do with how McCarthyism played out in the U.S. I prefer the authoritative 'living' marx specialists, like the Marx-Engels-Forschung team working on the MEGA2, researchers working on the Wolfgang Haug's Critical Dictionary of Marxism; groups of intellectuals around figures such as Elmar Altvater, Terell Carver, Jairus Banaji, Alan Freeman, Enrico Dussell, Fred Moseley, Werner Bonefeld, Simon Clarke, Geert Reuten, Marcello Musto, Paolo Giussani and Riccardo Bellofiore; scholars at SOAS in London, Frankfurt Institute, etc. There are also journals like Historical Materialism, RRPE, CJE, NLR, Capital & Class which publish some fairly good authoritative pieces but again this list is not exhaustive at all and is heavily biased toward the North Atlantic region. I also hear there is a lot of good "authoritative" works published in German and sometimes French or Dutch as well.

Chris said...

Classtruggle is no doubt right. Cohen is devastating in eviscerating Libertarian logic, but his reading of Marxism teeters on the branch of Marxism coming straight out of Stalin's Russia. And he admits as much in the book Wallace cites. I believe in the first chapter he talks about growing up in a Stalinist household. Oh well.

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