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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, April 25, 2016


Among several very kind and encouraging comments about the possibility of my attempting a full-scale book-length integration of half a lifetime's work on the thought of Karl Marx was Jim's allusion to my facetious remark about books falling from my sleeves like tribbles.  [To those of you who are not trekkies, that was an illusion to a classic episode of the original Star Trek called "The Trouble With Tribbles."  Tribbles were the interstellar version of schmoos, from the old Al Capp comic strip L'il Abner.]  I thought I would spend a bit of time talking about the good old days, when I was a young aspiring academic.

In the late 60's and into the 70's and 80's, it was actually easier to publish an academic book than it was to fall off a log, since there were not many logs on the typical college campus but there were always editors eager for book proposals.  There were two reasons for this happy state of affairs:  The GI Bill and Sputnik.  Let me explain.

Until Word War Two [or "the big one," as Archie Bunker liked to call it], very few young men and even fewer young women went to college.  But the GI Bill offered financial aid to returning vets, and in response the higher education sector exploded in growth.  State universities sprouted satellite campuses, state college systems metastasized, and community colleges popped up like summer flowers.  Each of these entities needed a library, a fact that drove up the market for academic books.  At the same time, the Cold War became an obsession with politicians, and when, in 1957, the Soviet Union beat America in the race to be first in space, launching into orbit a tiny satellite nicknamed Sputnik, the demand grew for America to "do something."  [I was engaged in Basic Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey when Sputnik was launched, and we could see the tiny dot of light move across the sky as we stood in formation in the pre-dawn.]

The next year, the National Defense Education Act was passed by the Congress.  As the title suggests, the goal was to enlist the newly expanded higher education sector in America's imperial plan for world domination [although it was not quite put that way], so much of the money went to fund Centers for the Study of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and anywhere else that America saw an enemy or the possibility of an ally.  But some of the money slopped over into the budgets of campus libraries.

The result of all this expansion and funding was that for several decades, a publisher who brought out an academic text couldn't lose.  By the time the author's family and friends had bought copies and a sizable fraction of the nation's college libraries had added it to their collections, the sales were enough to break even.  If anyone actually read the damned thing, the publisher would make a profit.  Editors of respected presses started hanging out on street corners like pimps and drug pushers, soliciting manuscripts.  Those of us who were the beneficiaries of this happy state of affairs, needless to say, attributed it to our intellectual brilliance, but the truth was that we were in the seller's market to beat all seller's markets.  

Now, at this time, during much of the 60's, both I and my wife were in full-scale psychoanalysis.  A fifty-minute analytic hour only cost $25 then, but since, as a senior member of the Columbia faculty, I was only making about $13,000 or $14,000 a year, that took a large bite out of my salary.  I was tap dancing as fast as I could to pay the bills.  I was moonlighting, I was teaching summer school, and I was grabbing every publishing opportunity that offered an advance.  When New American Library approached me to edit a little number to be called Ten Great Works of Philosophy, all I asked was "What's the advance?"  The editor replied "A thousand on signing, a thousand on submission of the manuscript."  I did the job so fast that before they could send me the thousand on signing I handed in the finished book.  [That was 1970.  Forty-six years later, the wretched thing is still in print.  At last royalty statement, it had sold a total of 196,215 copies -- my most successful "book."]  When I gave a talk at a college in '71, the young professor who introduced me said, "Professor Wolff recently joined the Book of the Month Club, but he misread the instructions.  They required him to buy a book a month, but he thought he had to publish a book a month."

Was this an evidence of intellectual brilliance, of virtue, of creativity?  Of course not.  It was, to use a locution from horse-breeding, from desperation out of opportunity.  As Ann Richards famously said of George W. Bush, we were born on third and thought we had hit a triple.

That is how it used to be.  Now, alas, it is a trifle more difficult to bring out a book.  Editors have stopped behaving like drug pushers and have started behaving like the maitre d' at an exclusive restaurant, responding with a mixture of hauteur and scorn when you approach them, manuscript in hand, to ask piteously whether they would consider publishing it.

So, should I write yet another book, a big-shouldered integration of half a lifetime of work on Marx?  We shall see.


s. wallerstein said...

Some more semi-unsolicited advice:

If you enjoy writing books, write it. In that case, you have little to lose if it isn't published.

If you don't enjoy writing books, continue blogging and lecturing and posting videos in YouTube as you do now and avoid the possible frustration of slaving to write a book and finding that it's been rejected by publishers.

Jordan said...

I agree with s. wallerstein, but want to add that there is a best of both worlds option: put the book out in blog form as you're writing it. You may get some helpful feedback along the way, and if you aren't able to officially publish it (which I doubt), you'll still have the satisfaction of having delighted your regular blog readers.

Matt Christopher said...

Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY-City College) is currently "publishing" a book via his blog. He seems to be taking it seriously as a (mostly) academic book.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

My take is that the academic publishing world is currently experiencing a case of the economic doldrums. A friend of a friend who works at Harvard University Press noted that prior to the release of Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," HUP was planning on eliminating at least five staff positions. When the book took off, those plans changed. Consequently, many university presses are banking on the next Piketty to come on the scene. Maybe that could be you. You just need a catchy title. If you draw upon all the people who contribute to this blog, I am sure we could come up with something marketable. I argue that it is well worth a shot.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

How about "Das Kapital in the Twenty-First Century"? :)

mesnenor said...

Das Kapital in the Twenty-First Century is clever, and would be something of a sporting challenge to any hypothetical German translators.

Paul said...

I always thought it was the fantastic Jim Hightower who made the third base comment. Brief checking shows that he did (though he was talking about the senior Bush). I just now learned that Barry Switzer might have been the first with the line!

trane said...

I would also very much like to read a forthcoming book by you.

I think for example, you would be able to write a great book titled Why Social Justice Matters. A good book with that title, however, has already been written by Brian Barry:

But I think also Barry's aim may be of inspiration. If I remember correctly, his chief aim was to make it a not particularly scholastic one (not Rawlsiology part 1,000,233,002,001), but instead a very accessible one.

I am sure you could write a similar book (not Marxiology part 4,003,4000,988) where you - with Marx as a main guide - give the reader a systematic view of how our present society came to be what it is. I would hope that the strong personal voice of your blog posts could be carried over into a book form. I agree with Jim and others that it posting chapters here on your blog could be useful... and draw more readers! :-)

Thanks again for a great blog.


David Auerbach said...

The NYTimes has noticed something!

Jerry Fresia said...

Thanks David; important survey!