Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, October 16, 2016


With three weeks to go, it is now clear that Hillary Clinton will win the election, taking the popular vote by a 4 or 5 percent margin and the electoral vote by 320-340 votes.  [By comparison, Obama won the 2012 popular vote by 3.9% with 332 electoral votes.]  The popular vote margin could go as high as 6-7%, and there is a very small chance of an electoral college blowout of 400 or more.  There is a good but not great chance – maybe 2/3 -- that the Democrats will end up with the 50 Senate seats they need for control, and no realistic chance of their taking the House.

This is therefore a good time to address a matter that has received a good deal of attention lately, and is much misunderstood.  The point I wish to make is quite general, and has nothing in particular to do with the two people currently competing for the presidency.  I could make it directly with reference to Hillary Clinton, but her name is now so toxic on this site that it would be difficult for me to get my readers to attend thoughtfully if I were to couch my argument in reference to her candidacy.  Indeed, I really suspect that if I were to put forward a syllogism in Barbara with “Hillary Clinton” as one of the terms in the major premise, there are some who should know better who would refuse to grant the validity of the argument.

So, let us suppose Bernie had won the nomination, and were now in the last weeks of his campaign.  Let us also suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bernie really is a socialist, as he says.  I have seen no evidence of that, by the way.  His policies are essentially indistinguishable from those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, but let us take Bernie at his word.  Imagine now that WikiLeaks releases a collection of hacked email messages between Bernie and his wife, Jane.  In one of them, Bernie tells his wife about a talk he gave to the annual meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference.  [I spoke on two occasions to that group back in the day, but I have no idea whether it still exists.]  The Socialist Scholars Conference would of course not have paid Bernie $250,000, but we may suppose that they hosted a brunch for him catered by Zabar’s.

It is easy to imagine Bernie saying to the assembled socialists, “You and I understand that what America needs is collective ownership of the means of production, but I cannot say that in a political campaign, because if I did, I would have no chance of winning.  So I talk about billionaires and the one percent and I rail at banks too big to fail, because those have a wide appeal.  You see, in politics, it is necessary to have both a public and a private position.  [These are the words from one of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street bankers.]

Had Bernie ever said this, he would have been quite right.  The American political party system is one of broad uneasy coalitions of scores of millions of men and women with very different interests and commitments.  In presidential campaigns, the inevitable and unavoidable compromises are made not, as in a parliamentary system, among parties each of which has an unambiguous stand on major issues, but within each of the two major parties, by compromises the selling of which to the electorate requires a distinction between the public and private positions of the party candidates.  This is not a shocking revelation of the corruption of our politics; it is the normal and inevitable result of the need to achieve some sort of governing coalition in a nation of three hundred thirty million very diverse people.

What, after all, are the alternatives?  A parliamentary system, which has its own strengths and weaknesses, or the war of all against all.  What makes Clinton despicable is not that she has “both a public and a private position.”  It is what the private position is.  But we always knew that about her.  So please, let us have no more channeling of Claude Raines in Casablanca [“I am shocked, shocked, that there is gambling in Rick’s place.”]


Anonymous said...

The problem is not just the content of the position, but that it is not merely a private position but an esoteric position: one she was willing to reveal only to a select constituency.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous

What is a private position, if not something you "reveal only to a select constituency"? That's precisely Wolff's point. You cannot reveal the position so openly because you cannot risk the divisions it would cause amongst the massive parties that constitute our democracy. Once again, it seems you've found a way to make this into an attack on Clinton, rather than addressing Wolff's actual question (which is much more interesting than the how awful is hillary game)

Chris said...

"What, after all, are the alternatives?"

Public and private honesty.

Is that REALLY so hard?

For instance, I've never in my life imagined that you're blogging one thing and secretly plotting another.

I would expect this strawman you've erected, i.e., the Bernie Sanders example, to support and put forward the same ideas in both public and private. And if he has to compromise on issues to be candid publicly and privately as to why he did so. "although X is my ideal, I voted for Y because it's as close to my ideal as I can get the moment. period."

We seriously need to stop normalizing the pathological behavior of one group of people (politicians), while knowing in our own lives we would never tolerate such strange behavior from others.

Anonymous said...

@ Second Anonymous

Please do not accuse me of arguing in bad faith. The public discussion that has focused on Clinton's remarks about having a "private position" has obscured the fact that her position is not private but esoteric. Wolff claimed that what was objectionable was strictly the content of the position. I claimed it was not merely the content that was objectionable, but the fact that it is an esoteric position. I think there is a straightforward and intuitive difference between a private position and an esoteric position. A private position is one that one holds and does not make public. People of good faith can always speak privately among friends about their true convictions, but may reasonably not be bound to do so in public. An esoteric position is a position that is public but whose publicity is concealed or suppressed. A political speech, even made at a private function, is by definition public in nature.

David Auerbach said...

Russ & Daughters not Zabar's.

s. wallerstein said...

Lots of us have both political political positions and philosophical political positions.

My political political position is in favor of social rights for everyone like healthcare, education (including university and pre-school education), housing, public transportation, etc. More or less what Professor Wolff calls "a New Deal Liberal". That position is more or less invariable and I see it as viable now in the United States and Chile (where I live) today.

My philosophical political position is in favor of some kind of libertarian socialism more or less what Chomsky proposes. I don't see that as viable today because most people are too competitive, consumerist, and individualist to build that kind of society, but through education or through some kind of gradual process of social change, libertarian socialism could become a reality. It may be that when Sanders says that he is a socialist, he means that his ideal would be a socialist society, but he sees that as a far off ideal.

However, as far as I can see, Hillary does not have different political and philosophical political positions, but different political political positions depending on whom she is talking to, big Wall Street campaign donors or ordinary working people. That is the problem with her.

Chris said...

Right, and we can be candid and honest about both.

s. wallerstein said...

I can be candid and honest about both, but I'm not running for political office. Perhaps one of the many reasons I'd never run for political office is that I enjoy being candid and honest. I think that you and I have discussed Sartre's play Dirty Hands previously in this blog and that we both agreed that both Hugo and Hoederer are right at times.

LFC said...

from the post:
With three weeks to go, it is now clear that Hillary Clinton will win the election, taking the popular vote by a 4 or 5 percent margin and the electoral vote by 320-340 votes.

I'm going to vote for Clinton. With that out of the way, I don't believe it is "clear" that Clinton is going to win by a 4 or 5 percent margin. Indeed, it's not clear that she's going to win by any particular margin, unless you place great trust in polls and in putatively scientific forecasting. Since I don't, especially not in this election cycle, I would not predict any specific margin of victory, or even a range of likely margins. Clinton will probably win, but that's as specific as I would care to get.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Not hard, impossible. On the one hand, political or collective actions are sui generis. On the other, in the context of the presumably individual, lying is also necessary, not constantly, of course, but at least occasionally. With regard to the former, though, for example, suppose that the powers that be want to eliminate the bus to Sunderland. I could care less about getting to Sunderland, but I know that the powers that be see public transportation as a mote in the free market's eye, and are using the Sunderland case to whittle away at public institutions in general. If I argue for the Sunderland bus on socialist grounds, I loose. So, I lie. "The Sunderland bus is important to this, that and the other person.... Blah, blah, blah...." Do I really care about the Sunderland Bus? No, but I do care about diminishing the progressive chipping away at public institutions, but if I make that case, not only do some people loose their needed bus, but I loose my convert battle to preserve public institutions. That is a simple example. A far more complicated battle is being waged over charter schools. When the Wall Mart funded proponents of Charter Schools argue in terms of the right of parents to choose, I know that it is really about undoing a public institution for the sake of expanding the reach of the free market. Can this be said? Can this manipulative use of "choice" be called out? No, although, it has. The parents who want to send their children to Charter Schools vote. The parents who could care less, not so much. To be honest about dishonesty, moral purity is a bus to political powerlessness. This, more or less, is one of the first items on the agenda in most ethics classes. Do you lie to the Nazis to protect the Jewish children? Of course. Ten years later, are you a hypocrite for condemning a lie? It depends, but depending is part of the point of whatever there might be to ethics.

Tom Cathcart said...

Thank you, Bob. Your calm rationality is appreciated.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,
I don't know if anyone has done a percentage rating of a pre-planned election hack, so I would like to find out how likely you think there will be a hack? Trump is talking about election fraud, while the Democrats are worried about foreign hackers--and I perceive nobody is taking it too seriously. People should, perhaps, realize that by the first week after the election we may still not have a president-elect elected.

Anonymous Coward said...

There is an important difference between Clinton's politics and Professor Wolff's thought experiment. In the latter, Sanders moderates his private commitments when speaking publicly. In the former, Clinton often takes public stances that are diametrically opposed to her private promises to corporate donors - for instance, on TPP. As Professor Wolff argues, the latter is a necessary feature of assembling governing coalitions in democratic politics. The former is a symptom of corruption, which varies according to historical circumstances. Of course, she is not very different in this regard from most of her colleagues in Washington, DC.