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Friday, April 28, 2017


I should like to make an observation anent the responses to my post titled “I WEEP.”  There is something gratifying, but also diminishing, in the relentless condemnation of everyone who does not meet one’s inflexible standards of rectitude.  Karl Marx was, to my way of thinking, the greatest student of society who has ever lived.  His work is an inspiration to me, as it is to countless others.  Again and again I return not only to his texts but also to his themes, his insights, his moral passion.  But he was not a particularly admirable man.  He cadged money from friends and acolytes even though he was living a more comfortably middle class life than they.  He seduced the family servant and got her pregnant.  He was a sexist at a time when many were not.  When he received a letter from Friedrich Engels telling him that Engels’ great love, Mary Burns, had died, he scarcely acknowledged the news and instead went on about some matter that was concerning him.  Long ago, I decided that he was not a person I would have enjoyed knowing.  But that is the way of the world.

I am appalled and affronted by Donald Trump.  I am not appalled and affronted by Barack Obama.  I am utterly opposed to Trump’s policies, such as they seem to be, or at least to what he is actually doing with the power of the presidency.  I have supported some of Obama’s policies and actions and strongly opposed others.  But it has seemed to me that I could then at least reasonably hope for improvement in Obama’s actions and policies, something I cannot now hope for with regard to Trump.

It is easy enough, and frankly, I think rather cheap, for Chris and others to call me self-deceived, foolish, or blind.  Obama’s actions paved the way for my son to have the right to marry.  His actions made it possible for millions of people to obtain health insurance that they otherwise would not have.  In the face of determined Republican opposition, he took concrete steps to combat global warming, steps that Trump and his administration are now hurrying to reverse.  That is not nothing, and I think it is unwise for anyone on the left to think and talk and act as though it is.

Let me quote the great concluding lines of the magisterial tenth chapter of Capital, “The Working Day”:

“It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”  For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death.  In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”

Notice that in this crucial passage, Marx does not offer up the promise of socialism.  He talks instead about the passage of the Ten Hours Bill, which would limit the working day to ten hours [not eight – that came much later, after struggle and organization and repeated defeats.]  When I make a distinction between Trump and Obama, I am following in Marx’s footsteps.

As for Noam Chomsky, he is more than able to speak for himself.


Chris said...

At no point did I say YOU - Professor Robert Paul Wolff - WERE DECEIVED or DUPED.

But can we discuss some points without resorting to straw man?

"I am not appalled and affronted by Barack Obama."

Can we discuss, honestly, whether or not Obama is an appalling figure? I think he is. You don't. I'm open to the conversation without dismissal or straw men. You often act as if rejection of Obama comes from obscene ideological purity, but where does the litmus test begin and end? If I say I'm appalled by Trump, you would agree, and neither of us sees the other as ideologically obstinate in this claim. If I say Obama appalls me because he threw Bradley Manning in solitary confinement, or sent Snowden and Assange fleeing for asylum, or assassinated two American citizens without due process, one of whom was a minor(!!!) I'm now obstinate? Why? If my neighbor assassinated a minor would it be ideologically obstinate to abhor him? Where does Obama's free pass come from? These are SERIOUS questions, I'm not asking them rhetorically. I've read over a dozen presidential bios in my life, all of these men disgust me. Perhaps I am too pure, but it would help to know where the litmus test begins and ends. Where I've erred in my moral reasoning?

"I have supported some of Obama’s policies and actions and strongly opposed others."

I don't have a perfect memory, but I don't recall a single negative Obama post from 2008-2016 on this blog.

"Obama’s actions paved the way for my son to have the right to marry."

And your son deserves that right and I doubt a single reader of the blog is opposed to that right, but Obama didn't do this, activists (including your son) struggling pulled this off. Presidents rarely if ever grant progressive concessions without blood, sweat, and tears on the ground. Even Biden came out for gay marriage before Obama, further pushing him in the right direction. I applaud your son, and you, and the many activists who won that battle, but not Obama.

Slightly unrelated, but I think essentially related is the following observation I may have errneously made. I think the disagreement between myself, perhaps Jerry and Wallerstein, and then the other members of this blog is the following:

There are those of us who 1) think if the Republican party was obliterated overnight, and Democrats took control of all institutions, the world would be a PROGRESSIVE place. Then there are those of us (this includes me), who think 2) while the world would be better if Republicans went away over night, the Democrats and their corporate nexus and triangulation policies would still shift ever rightward, becoming the republicans of yester-year, further impeding PROGRESSIVE policies.

Because of these two different views, we fight about a lot of minutia (is Pelosi okay, should Ellison be DNC chair, etc), focusing on the trees and not the forest.

s. wallerstein said...


Let's just say that on economic and social issues, the kinds that Marx talks about, the Democrats are only slightly better than the Republicans (who are ridiculously reactionary). The Democrats, excepting Sanders and a few others, are Macron, not Melenchon, while the Republicans are Fillon and Le Pen.

I'm more Melenchon myself and I think that you are too.

On issues like gay rights and climate change there is an appreciable difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.

On foreign policy the Democrats are as imperialist as the Republicans, although Obama tended to be more prudent than Bush 2 or Trump (so far). Hillary is a card-carrying imperialist though and less prudent than Obama.

The Democrats also often reach levels of hypocrisy which are hard to stomach when they claim to be "progressive" in the New Deal sense of the term.

Chris said...

I agree with basically all of this, except that Obama was more prudent on foreign policy. I think he implemented actual precedents that are horrifying.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I would object to is stylistic. I would be too self-conscious myself to write, "I weep".

The other question was whether it was even possible to generate something of independent intellectual and historically significant interest from Trump's "..stultifying crudity, banality, cruelty, corruption, and mendacity" on the order of a Ricardo, Smith, Taylor, Freud, Durkheim or Swift.

That's a tall order all right. Maybe the ancient philosophers lived under similar circumstances. Stoicism might be an acquired taste. That's the best I can offer.

Jim Westrich said...

The point I do not understand with the rush to defend Obama by some (and this is the same thing I did not understand in some of the defenses of Clinton's electoral strategy) is that progressive people are supposed to ally themselves with Democrats in order to prevent worse things from happening. This is a fair point and Prof. Wolff has argued this point eloquently many times (although I would emphasize there are compelling motivations that except themselves from such logic as well).

The point that I do not understand is why are behaviors that increase the chance of Democrats losing (and consequently worse/horrible things) excused? Clearly Obama giving speeches to shady financial firms for huge sums makes all Democrats look bad and consequently empowers worse things. The same could be said for many things Clinton did and strategies she chose. I am not arguing for progressive purity whatever that may be but isn't the whole point of "lesser evilism" getting lesser not greater evil?

I suspect that people are stuck in outdated ways of thinking of politics and do not understand what parties mean these days (I get the structural point about the role of parties that Prof. Wolff makes but I do not understand why a progressive would acquiesce to things that are not related at all to structural matters). People are not as wedded to parties as much as some assume. Things have changed; there is a reason why someone like Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States despite so much unfair attention from "allies".

Also, I want to add a slightly different point that I think many people still fail to see the significance of having such an unpopular President like Trump. While it is emphasized that Trump lost the popular vote, it should be further noted that a lot of people that did not like him voted for him (yes, grabbing hold of the burning cactus that is Trump was preferable to eating the turd sandwich that Clinton served for some). Understanding that and mobilizing around repairing mistakes not only moves the Democrats in a more progressive direction it is also a more winnable direction.

The executive power Trump wields and structural power of the Republican are real and formidable of course. But the people power is very real and has already done a lot (discussed here on the Friday updates). It seems to me that many Democrats are afraid of that people power and are more comfortable ceding power to Republicans than to get square with the people.

Chris said...

I think you're spot on that democratic behavior over the last several decades has alienated more and more people, and attempts to defend the behavior seem bizarre at best, and captive at worst. And you're right that this is why Sanders is popular, but the democratic party as a whole is not (it's actually less popular than Trump at the moment!). You're further right that there may be an issue of outdatedness here (especially in my disagreements with Wolff), Millienial voters, of which I meet the mark by barely a year, overwhelmingly like Sanders, but dislike both parties and don't identify with either party. Left independents especially dislike the democrats. So when Obama snags 400,000$ for speaking to a bunch of unjustified masters and oligarchs, it only furthers are alienation from party participation.

Hence why I think the older people who keep saying voter Democrat no matter what are not gaining traction with younger people....

Maybe this is more of a generational issue....Anyone?

Danny said...

I feel that the whole Marx thing ought be to possible to hash out, -- There is no Marxist economics there only the dogmas of communism for those who can't track on the subtleties of Hegel. I mean, maybe I'm wrong and this bombastic stuff is really what I need to understand. So okay, that's why I can't leave it alone, then! Somebody is Wrong!!

I'll offer this -- For Marx:
The problem is that the system of capitalism put the means of production into just a few rich person's hands, so that labor devolves into un-satisfying assembly-line work. Because, people are barred from the tools to do meaningful work. The problem is *structural*. With the governmental form being the means of repression. Part of this, actually intrigues me: 'the problem is structural'. I have no doubt that one must come to this conclusion, if one starts with the notion that achievements in work is how a person realizes themself..

Guy Tennenbaum said...

"Clearly Obama giving speeches to shady financial firms for huge sums makes all Democrats look bad and consequently empowers worse things."

I agree, and I said as much in my comment in the previous thread.

Obama giving speeches to Wall Street is unseemly and disappointing and bad optics, but it doesn't prove anything about him we didn't already know. If anything, it diminishes the hope some of us may have had about the lessons Obama could have learned from the current state of politics. But if in the future Obama works to undermine Sanders within the Democratic organization, it won't be because he was paid 400K by a Wall Street firm, but because of longstanding and deeply entrenched ideological opposition.

I don't begrudge Obama joining the speaker's circuit; nor even the mere fact of his accepting payment for speeches to Wall Street (except, again, bad optics, not helpful). I'd be more interested in what he plans to do with the money.

Obama is a participant in the capitalist economy just as we all are -- even Chomsky. Per that article I posted, Chomsky, who is very well-off as a teacher and author/speaker, essentially profits from oil companies, military contractors, pharmaceutical companies, and when confronted with the possible hypocrisy his response was: "What else should I do? Should I live in a cabin in Montana?" Well, as the author points out, there are socially responsible stock funds available. But aside from that, what I take Chomsky to be saying is that it's impossible for any of us to escape the tentacles of capitalism short of dropping out of society altogether. Incidentally, I recently heard him justify the purchasing of iPhones (made with overseas sweatshop labor) on the same grounds.

s. wallerstein said...

Obviously, we are all participants in the capitalist economy, but we choose our role within that economy. That's what ethics is all about: choices in the real world.

No one is asking Obama to live in a cabin in Montana or even to live in the Chicago inner city.

The actions of someone as important as Obama (and even my insignificant little actions) send messages to others. What message is Obama sending to others by accepting to speak to Wall St. as his first paying job after leaving the White House? As people have pointed out in previous comments, Obama has no economic problems and has a multi-million book deal. As far as I know, he hasn't spoken to striking workers or to anti-Trump protesters or to African-Americans protesting police violence since he left the White House.

Obama is communicating that Wall St. are people he feels called upon to speak to
and that he is happy to accept their money. Now he could spend his speaking time before the Wall St. denouncing the evils of finance capitalism or reading sections of Das Kapital. We'll see.

The fact that we can't escape the tentacles of capitalism (true) does not indicate that we have to make love to it.

Chomsky, on the other hand, seems to be someone struggling to be an ethical person within the structures of a capitalist society. Maybe he makes some ethical mistakes as we all do. Obama, apparently, just stop struggling as did both Clintons.

Chris said...

Great points wallerstein

s. wallerstein said...

Thank you, Chris.

It all goes back to a point Professor Wolff makes in his lectures on Ideological Critique, that the basic ethical/political question is which side are you on.

Obama is on Wall St.'s side, that of finance capital, and Chomsky is not.

Guy Tennenbaum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Tennenbaum said...

S. Wallerstein, if you define "the struggle" as implying identification with anarcho-syndicalism, then it seems Obama didn't stop struggling so much as he was never a struggler to begin with. Hence there doesn't seem to be any great hypocrisy in his accepting Wall Street money (though on the other hand, you do seem to think Chomsky's investing in blue chips funds is "a mistake").

I'm not inclined to think it's hugely significant that Obama accepted this as his first speaking gig, as though that implied a deliberate attempt to telegraph preeminence. It was probably just him and his schedulers not realizing how tone deaf that move was. We will see, but I strongly suspect that Obama will, like all ex-presidents, occupy his time with inoffensive (though still necessesary) charity publicity. As a rule, members of that club don't rock the political boat. However, I suppose we can be glad that rocking the boat now seems to include giving paid speeches to Wall Street, as even the Huffingtonpost (now just Huffpost) blasted Obama in their headline article. This counts as progress for those of us who would like to see a greater separation between government and finance capital.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

Actually, if one judges from his book, Dreams from my Father, Obama was once one who struggled on the side of the oppressed, although not an anarcho-syndicalist.

Jerry Fresia said...

Anonymous: I too would feel self-conscious saying "I weep." But this is something not to

object to but to admire. Professor Wolff puts himself out there and makes himself vulnerable. Were we

all so secure! Moreover, while personally I do not like Obama and am troubled by the near worship of

him by liberals, I think it is great that at this site we are, by the Professor's example, invited to put ourselves

out there too. Keeping it real, as the Professor does, is a necessary feature of a Marxist/Anarchist dialogue,

more so than having "correct" positions.

Tom Cathcart said...

Well said, Jerry. I was about to check out of reading this blog (or, rather, the comments) because of the endless battle of "positions". It was interfering with my mental hygiene. Now I'll hang in for a while. Thanks.