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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, August 31, 2018


Relatively long time readers of this blog may recall that four and a half years ago I wrote a 9,000 word review of a major book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century.  Piketty’s work was based on research he carried out with Emmanuel Saez.  Today, Paul Krugman linked in Op Ed essay to a new journal article by Piketty, Saez, and a young Assistant Professor, Gabriel Zucman entitled “DISTRIBUTIONAL NATIONAL ACCOUNTS: METHODS AND ESTIMATES FOR THE UNITED STATES.”  I have just spent most of the morning reading it, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to dive deeply into the structure of economic inequality in the United States.  The growth in inequality in the United States in the last thirty years is astounding.  Speaking as an interested amateur, I was especially impressed by the methodological transparency of the essay.  The authors make quite clear the places where their data fall short or they are compelled to make ad hoc assumptions not yet supported by evidence or theory.  The essay is hard going, at least it was for me, but the picture it paints is compelling.  To cite just one among many conclusions of the essay, since the 1980s, the bottom half of the adult population has experienced no aggregate growth in real income whatsoever.  What is more, within that group, it is retirees who have experienced real income growth through Social Security and health insurance.  The working age portion of the bottom 50% have suffered a significant decline in real income.  By the way, the instincts of the Occupy Wall Street protestors were exactly correct.  It is the top 1% that has experienced almost all the growth in income over that time.

If you are interested, you can find the article here.


An easy non-judgmental affability is a useful personality trait in an entrepreneur.  If you are in the cut throat business of wresting a profit from heartless competitors, it is best to adopt a hale fellow well met public face, for today’s market enemy may be tomorrow’s investment friend.  Hence, the popularity of fraternal organizations – the Elks, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus – where two men, each of whom would happily drive the other into bankruptcy, can share drinks, slap backs, tell stories, and in general preserve that façade of congeniality on which tomorrow’s business deal can be built.  By contrast, aristocrats are prickly, proud, stubborn, and prone to nurse grievances, as Alexis de Tocqueville observes in his classic work, Democracy in America. 

Like all good Marxists, I applaud capitalism as a revolutionary way station on the road to socialism, but I must confess to a secret nostalgia for those pre-capitalist traits of the aristos.  This anti-historical longing of mine was called from its resting place deep in my soul by the elaborate funeral arrangements made by John McCain in preparation for his death from brain cancer.

McCain had many faults, as the commentators on this blog have noted at length, but he had certain endearing traits, and one, which speaks to his quasi-aristocratic life, was on full display this week.  I speak, of course, of his infinite capacity to be personally and visibly affronted.

The organizing and defining incident of McCain’s persona was his captivity in North Viet Nam.  I am not speaking of the truth of the matter, but rather of what it meant to him.  On that five year captivity and torture was built both his self-understanding and his political career.  When Donald Trump cavalierly dismissed that experience, saying that McCain was only a hero because he got captured [“I prefer those who don’t get captured”], he sought to rip away McCain’s reason for being, his essence, his claim upon our admiration. 

It was, I thought, transparently obvious that McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down on the repeal of Obamacare was a middle finger to Trump.  But like the aristocrats of old, McCain neither forgot nor forgave.  So it was that when he confronted the inevitability of his own death, he deliberately devised funereal rites specifically intended to achieve a final retribution for Trump’s insult.

McCain began by excluding Trump from the proceedings, thereby depriving Trump of his most precious possession – the daily news cycle. Trump has been compelled to endure an entire week devoted to someone other than himself.  But that was only the start.  He invited both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the funeral, a second slight.   Then, as a final insult, McCain invited, as a memorial speaker, a Black NFL player!  All the proceedings lacked was a biblical reading by Stormy Daniels.

I must confess it.  I like a man who can hold a grudge even from beyond the grave.

Thursday, August 30, 2018


David Palmeter posts a comment on a subject that has obsessed me for a long time, namely whether it is wiser for the Democratic Party to nominate progressive candidates in an attempt to increase turnout of their supporters or nominate centrist candidates in an attempt to woo soft Republicans, as it were.  He notes that this cycle the primary voters are opting again and again for the progressives.  Mr. Palmeter is appropriately agnostic about which is the better strategy for progressives, since what is at issue is a prediction of future voter behavior, not matters of principle or ideology.  He and I and most of the readers of this blog prefer the progressives if we can elect them. 

Thus far, voters seem to me to be behaving with extraordinarily refined judgment.  When a seat is assured for the Democrats, they nominate an Alexandra Octavio-Cortez.  When the race is an uphill battle for a deep red seat, they nominate a centrist Conor Lamb.  And when a succession of elections has seen centrist Democrats go down to defeat again and again, they choose an Andrew Gillum or Stacey Abrams in what may just prove to be successful efforts to boost turnout enough to win against the odds.  From a purely practical strategic perspective, it doesn’t get any shrewder than that.

David Palmeter observes that switching a voter from R to D is, arithmetically, twice as valuable as getting a lazy D to the polls, and he is of course right.  But I am still of the opinion that boosting turnout is the more promising tactic.  [I am here setting aside a different consideration, namely the value of building a progressive coalition long term.]

The central fact of American politics is that scores of millions of eligible voters don’t vote.  In presidential elections, roughly 60% of eligible voters vote.  In off year elections, roughly 40% vote.  The country is awash in voters who, if they would only come out on election day, would vote Democratic [the same, of course, is true of those who would vote Republican, although  Republicans are more likely than Democrats actually to vote.] 

This is why talk of impeachment is probably counterproductive.  Trumpists seem not terribly wedded to Republicans as a brand, as opposed to being loyal to Trump himself.  What we want to do is excite the Democratic Party base while not agitating the Trumpists, who tend to be low probability voters as a general rule.

All of this is tediously and offensively mainstream, I know, but it is the reality we are living with.  The hard, painful fact is that as we sit here worrying about just exactly how to be appropriately radical, the Republicans are filling the federal judiciary with hard right judges who will hand down disastrous rulings for the next thirty years.  It may be that in years to come [probably after I am dead, as it happens], the only available strategy for radicals will be to try to take over state and local governments and fight in whichever regions of the country seem receptive to our ideas.

These are bad times.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


I watched the Monty Python sketch that MS linked to, and midway through realized it was an OxBridge version of that old African-American word game, Playing the Dozens.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


A three judge Federal Appeals Court panel has once again found North Carolina's gerrymandered Congressional districts unconstitutional, and has raised the possibility that a new map will have to be re-drawn before November!  I have not yet been able to find out what this would mean for the 6th CD and for the chances of Ryan Watts, the young man for whom I have been working in his effort to unseat Mark Walker.  Any redrawing of the map could only help us.

The 6th CD cuts heavily Black Guilford County right in half, the line actually running down the middle of the campus of NC A&T, one of the two historically Black college campuses in Greensboro, the 6th CD's biggest city.

Stay tuned.

Monday, August 27, 2018


I want to say just a few words in response to the flood of comments triggered by my son’s YouTube posting, which I reproduced here.  I really am not interested in arguing about the matter, but this is my blog, which is to say my weblog, and so I shall exercise that privilege.

John McCain’s political positions were anathema to me, as I am sure everyone can guess.  It is also the case that I know about, at least informally, his past as a privileged army brat and perennial screw-up.  [I recall reading that he crashed a number of planes during training before he even went to war.]  He chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, which is simply off the charts awful.  But when he was captured, and tortured, and was offered the chance to go home as an admiral’s son, he chose the stay a prisoner until his fellow prisoners were released.  Nothing in my own life enables me to even imagine making such a choice.  I have no doubt he was, in some way, trying to live up to his father’s expectations, or atoning for his screw ups, or even [though I suspect not] making a cold-eyed calculation of future political advantage.  None of that impresses me, since every courageous act [as well as every other kind of act] is rooted in childhood experiences, parental expectations, and other pre-moral psychological forces.

But he did it, and I honor him for it, even though I was bitterly opposed to the war and believe it was conducted on the American side as a series of war crimes.  Well, you may ask [as I am sure someone will want to], does that mean you would honor a German who made an analogous choice while fighting in a war to wipe out the Jews? And the answer is, yes.

Perhaps I say this because I am old, and painfully conscious of the limitations of life and its brevity.  Perhaps I am simply aware that I have never been presented with such a choice, and honestly do not know what I would do if I were.

Well, there are many fine blogs written by those of us on the left, so if you now feel that you can never again read what I write without a sense of revulsion or betrayal, feel free to click on one of them.


I await news that Mueller has indicted Don Jr.  The informal deadline is this Friday.  Hope springs eternal ...


A week from tomorrow I travel to New York for the first meeting of the seminar Todd Gitlin and I will be teaching at Columbia [Todd is in Chile for a week giving lectures.]  After the class, I shall be meeting Charles Mills for dinner.  Charles, I have just learned, is now a Distinguished Professor at the City University Graduate Center in Manhattan.  Many years ago, I became acquainted with his work when I served as an external evaluator for his tenure.   Charles’ first book, The Racial Contract, is, in my judgment, one of the very best works of political theory of the last half century.  I consider it more important than, but of course not held in such high esteem as, A Theory of Justice.  Todd and I will be assigning it in our course.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


As usual, my son Tobias shows himself to be a better man than I am.  Here is what he posted on FaceBook about John McCain:

I am stepping away from what is supposed to be a short vacation to offer this one observation about the passing of Senator McCain and the encomiums that are being widely offered in memory of his military and political career.
I had many political disagreements with Senator McCain over the years, often about vitally important issues. There will be time enough to explore those. I also sometimes took issue with the narrative that surrounded his political career. But there are precious few politicians who do not curate their image and story, and there was a lot of substance behind Senator McCain’s image.
I do not care right now whether Senator McCain sometimes, or even often, fell short of the ideals that people are now invoking to celebrate his memory. Let us remember him at his best, as we all hope to be remembered. What I do care about is whether the people invoking those ideals actually believe in them.
John McCain was a patriot. He loved the United States. And I believe he always sought to defend this country as best he could, even if sometimes imperfectly. Let us talk now about patriotism — true patriotism. Let us talk now about deep commitment to the ideals of democracy, decency, and public service that people are now invoking in praise of the Senator. Let us ask who among us — and particularly, who among those singing his praises the loudest — is failing to defend those same vital principles.
The United States is under attack by a hostile foreign power. Our democracy was assaulted in 2016 and is being assaulted still. And the Oval Office is occupied by a man who has contempt for the idea of public service, who has no love of country and no commitment to others, who has surrounded himself with thugs and mobsters, and who cares nothing for anyone or anything but himself. The current occupant of the presidency is the antithesis of everything that Senator McCain is celebrated for. Whether Senator McCain deserves every piece of praise is not the issue — let us remember him generously. The issue is the members of that chorus of praise who are actively working to undermine those very principles by supporting and apologizing for and giving cover to the systematic attacks on the rule of law, the national interest, and basic human decency that are the daily fare of this appalling administration.
Make space for the celebrations of Senator McCain. There will be time enough to debate the details of his long record of public service. But now, right now, hold to account the people who are participating in that celebration. Do not let them invoke the narrative of Senator McCain without demanding that they be held to the standard they are trumpeting and held responsible if they have flagrantly violated that standard, as so many have.
Now is a time for decency. Remembering Senator John McCain in the best possible light is simple decency. But now is also a time for taking values and principles seriously. Do not let the enablers of this national crisis of democracy go unchallenged when they try to wrap themselves in Senator McCain’s memory.
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When I was a boy, I read a short sci fi story in Astounding Science Fiction, told in the first person, about an astronaut who is stranded on a planet that had been inhabited, in times gone by, by lizard-like creatures.  After struggling to survive, he finds things growing easier for him, until he catches sight of himself in a fragment of a mirror and realizes he has turned into a lizard.

Last week, I uttered a word of praise for Jeff Sessions after he declared the independence of the Justice Department.  Today, the thought crossed my mind that we might miss John McCain.

I am afraid to look in the mirror.

Saturday, August 25, 2018


I am back from three hours of canvassing in Chatham County for Ryan Watts, the young man trying to knock off the execrable Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Walker in the NC 6th CD.  In my youth, this stint would have been no biggie, but at eighty-four, I tire rather more easily.  We were canvassing in an upscale development full of McMansions, each one set apart from its neighbors by lots of grass and space, which of course meant lots of walking between houses with long curving walks and prominent signs saying "private residence" [I guess so that no one mistakes them for public buildings.]  Our list included only registered Democrats, the idea being not to persuade them but simply to get them to come out and vote.

I would guess the houses range from $750,000 to several million each.  A development called Colvert Farms, maybe because it was built on the site of an old farm.  The organizer who mobilized us and sent us off with VoteBuilder maps [a creation of the Obama campaigns] is sixty-six years my junior, having just graduated from high school.  

American politics is strange.


If you have nothing better to do, try this.  I got 15 out of 17.  Not bad.

Friday, August 24, 2018


A moment ago, I was watching a cable news discussion of the current political mess with the lawyer who represented Spiro Agnew during his troubles as sitting Vice-President.  The discussion called to mind one of the loveliest moments of my life. 

My first wife and I had not too long before relocated from a wretched New York semi-slum apartment that Columbia grandly allocated to me as a full professor in the Philosophy Department to a glorious Federal style three story home in Northampton, Massachusetts where we moved when my wife and I took up positions in the English and Philosophy Departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  I was still a rabid Mets fan, even though we were now in Red Sox territory.

My pine-paneled book lined third floor study looked out both on a back patio and also on Barrett Place, a lovely dead end street in the Smith College area of Northampton.  I had a tiny portable TV set with rabbit ears that I brought up to my study so that I could keep track of the Mets’ battle for the National League championship.

It was there that I sat on October 10th, the sun streaming in the windows on a crisp fall day, working on my next lecture, watching the Mets win the final game of the National League playoffs against the Cincinnati Reds and listening to the spot announcements of Spiro Agnew’s resignation.

Life does not get much better than that.


Abbie Hoffmnan famously wrote a book titled Steal This Book.  What greater compliment could an author hope for than to have his or her book stolen?  Jeffrey Kessen, may his tribe increase, quotes from a recent FaceBook post by someone who, in 1983, stole my book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, from a library!  That is infinitely better than a positive review.

This has definitely made my day.


Read this, especially the very last line.


1.         The medium of the blog never fails to astonish me.  I pour my heart out in a series of deadly serious multi-part on-line essays, some as much as 30,000 words in length, and the response is quiet, respectful, rather muted.  I post two brief, humorous remarks, one about the Manafort trial and the other evoking some phrases from the Watergate era, and instantaneously there is a blizzard of comments, the first eliciting 19 and the second 22.  Perhaps the Zen Buddhists have it right – less is more.

2.         I try to follow Michelle Obama’s advice and go high when my opponents go low, I really do.  But I am only human.  So I must confess that the pictures of Eric and Donald Jr. inspire me with loathing.  I do understand that we must not judge people by their looks, and as someone who has been afflicted all his life with a disfiguring array of facial tics and involuntary grimaces, I take this caution to heart.  But I really, really yearn to see those smug smiles wiped off the faces of the Trump boys.  That moment may be approaching.

3.         Rather unexpectedly, in the midst of the discussion about the decision of the Manafort jury, a mini-dispute broke out about the epistemological views of David Hume.  I must confess that I did not expect things to turn in that direction, but since they have, let me say a few words about some ways in which modern readers tend to misunderstand the Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume is perhaps most famous for his refutation of the claims made for causal inference, a refutation that takes no more than a portion of one paragraph of Section 3, part iii of Book I of the Treatise, a section with the title “Why a Cause is Always Necessary.”  In that section, Hume offers a brief but devastating critique of causal inference, and his argument is justly famous.  But Hume is not a pyrrhonian sceptic of the ancient Greek sort, as he makes explicitly clear.  Most of part iii is actually devoted to an imaginative, albeit somewhat speculative, explanation of our natural tendency to believe causal reasoning, a tendency that he has absolutely no interest in undermining.  Hume would have understood and approved the charge to the jury that they must decide whether a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  He coins the phrase “natural belief” to describe our inescapable human belief in causal judgments.  As Hume says, famously, in section 1 of part iv, "belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary and creative part of Hume’s argument is found in the very next section of part iv, which extends uncharacteristically for 31 pages.  Hume argues there that even after we have accepted causal inference as an ineliminable component of our mental processes, we must still recognize that our belief in the continued and independent existence of objects goes beyond anything that causal reasoning can establish.  This is, in my judgment, the philosophically most interesting section of the Treatise, a view that was shared, I think, by some early twentieth century British empiricist philosophers, most notably H. H. Price.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


I receive the Harvard alumni/ae magazine every two months or so, and always turn to the back to see who has died.  In my most recent copy, which got misdirected and finally showed up, there was news that Stanley Cavell had passed away last June.  Stanley and I were at Harvard at the same time, in the late '50s.  I have written about him in my autobiography, and shan't repeat any of the stories here.  But he was a presence at Harvard and in Anglo-American philosophy, and I thought I should note his passing.  Stanley was older than I.  He died at the age of 91.


This story reveals that, as I suspected, one holdout juror blocked the Manafort jury from finding him guilty on all eighteen counts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


We who are old enough to have lived through Watergate have burned into our minds certain phrases that capture those times.  Three that stand out for me are “modified limited hangout,” used by Erlichman in one of the taped Oval Office conversations, “plausible deniability,” a perennial favorite, and of course the premier phrase, “unindicted co-conspiritor.”

Before this mess is over, we shall have need of all three, I suspect.


What are we to make of yesterday’s events?  I am going to resist the natural temptation of the left-leaning public intellectual to seek some deep and of course contrarian interpretation. My personal reaction is this:  we are in a war, a long, difficult, frustrating war.  It is hard to keep my spirits up as I watch, day after day, the cruel, heartless, unjust, exploitative actions taken both by my sworn enemies and by my supposed friends.  I am eighty-four years old, and I despair of living long enough to see anything remotely resembling justice, equality, or even simple decency break out in the land of my birth, my maturity, and my old age.  So I have decided to enjoy to the full every good day with which I am blessed, and yesterday was a good day.

Two thoughts, one about the Manafort verdict, the other about the Cohen affair and the performance of Cohen’s lawyer, Lannie Davis.

The Manafort verdict was puzzling, as many TV commentators noted.  Why find Manafort guilty of one of the four charges of failing to file a foreign bank account and hang on the other three, when the evidence in all four was identical?  Why was he not found not guilty on any of the 18 charges?  I have a theory.  I think most of the jury [maybe all but one] thought Manafort was guilty on all the counts, and one [maybe a Trump loyalist?] wanted to acquit him of everything, and the jury cut an internal deal.  Notice that the charges fell into three categories and the jury found him guilty of at least one charge in each category.  We may never know the truth, but then, we may.  Sometimes juries talk.

There was a great deal of discussion this morning of the unusual fact that Cohen’s guilty plea was not accompanied by a an agreement to turn state’s evidence, even though Cohen chose, as he did not have to, to implicate Trump in his plea of guilty to the two campaign finance charges.  After the formal proceeding, Cohen’s lawyer made very public statements that his client had big info on Trump and the Trump Tower meeting and wanted to talk.  Broadcasting this, rather than saying it privately to Mueller, was, various talking heads observed, very odd.  Meanwhile, the Washington Post had a cryptic statement to the effect that Mueller does not need Cohen’s testimony.  My speculative hypothesis:  Mueller has everything he needs about that meeting without Cohen, and Cohen is desperately trying to sell a deal to Mueller to reduce his jail time.

Well, you can see where my head has been for the past eighteen hours.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018


I have a theory regarding which of the 18 counts the Manafort jury cannot agree on.  Manafort is charged with misrepresenting his true assets in order to get a 16 million dollar loan from a small Chicago bank.  But it was testified to that the bank president, who had dreams of glory, wanted a cabinet appointment.  It is plausible that Manafort got the loan not because he exaggerated his collateral but because he pandered to the bank president's ambitions [not a crime in our glorious political system.]

If I turn out to be right, you heard it here first.


This post may be overtaken by events before it is even online, but I cannot resist.  The jury in the Paul Manafort trial has just sent a tantalizingly ambiguous note to the judge.  They ask, if we cannot reach agreement on a single count [of the eighteen], how shall we fill out the jury response form?

This could mean:  we have agreed on 17 counts, but are at odds on the 18th – which would almost certainly be good news for the prosecution.

Or it could mean: we have not agreed on a single count, not one.  Which would be spectacular news for the defense.

Ah, English!

Monday, August 20, 2018


The Roman Catholic Church has split twice in its two millennium long run:  first in 1054, not quite a thousand years ago, when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off, and then, just half a millennium ago, when part of the church splintered into an array of Protestant sects.  Do the appalling new revelations of deep-rooted, pandemic, unending priestly sexual abuse of parishioners signal yet another existential crisis? 

It does not seem to me likely that a theatrical display of hair shirt self-flagellation will suffice this time.  These are not merely the inevitable failings of human beings called to a standard of sanctity beyond all but the handful of saints.  As a lifelong atheist, I shun the use of the term “evil,” which has a religious meaning, but what is now being exposed to view must be seen by true believers as no less than the work of Satan himself.

I can fully understand how devout Catholics can continue to pray, to atone, to believe, but I cannot see how they can bring themselves to receive Holy Communion from a parish priest who, it is more than likely, is complicit in, aware off, in denial about, if not himself a participant in, the abusive acts.

But weighing as an anchor on the Church is the enormous accumulation of property and the career ambitions and awards of a worldwide bureaucracy of cardinals, monsignors, bishops, nuncios, abbots, and deacons.

There is a solution, of course.  Let the nuns take over to cleanse Holy Mother Church.

Fat chance.


A while ago, I had a lovely email from a woman in India who is a philosophy student and came across my Kant lectures.  I have just received the appeal below from her.  I never post appeals of this sort on my blog, but I decided after some reflection to make an exception.  If for no other reason, it is an interesting voice from halfway around the world.  Here it is:

I have been thinking of writing this for the last three days. What prevented me from doing it is the apprehension that whether this is the right platform or place to do it. Considering the kind of intellectual discussions on this place, perhaps, it is wrong. But sometimes, situation demands one to set aside such apprehensions and swallow whatever little pride one has. I am in exactly such a situation. Let me start by apologising to Prof Wolff and the regular readers of this blog for using this place to make an appeal/request for contribution.

I am from India and a couple of months back, Prof Wolff had kindly offered me some space to talk about the place I hail from. Well, India is a large and diverse country and I am from Kerala, one of the southern states in India. For the last one week, my state has been reeling from incessant rains and related floods and landslides. As per official estimates death toll has crossed over 300. The toll is likely to rise further as people are still trapped in buildings and rescue teams are yet to reach them.  India is still an under developed country, although the federal government likes to pretend that we are just two steps away from being developed. As a result, Kerala is still largely dependent on individual contributions to tide over the unprecedented crisis. Economic loss is over Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 10 million = Rs 1crore). So, if any of you are willing to contribute (whatever little), it will be of immense help. Another reason for making this appeal on this place is that at present, rupee is sliding against dollar with $1= Rs 70. In other words, my one rupee contribution may not fetch a slice of bread, but your one dollar can help the disaster affected people buy two packets of bread. Just for comparison, one relief camp in one district need on an average 65 kg of rice (that is our staple food) and an average quality rice will cost Rs 35/kg. There are close to 100 such camps in most districts depending on the severity of the condition.

For contributions you can go to Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief fund and the site is:
Google and Amazon have also set up contribution links.

For those, who are not familiar with Kerala, 12 out of 14 districts in the state have been affected. It is the only state in India, where a Communist (though namesake) government is in place. It was also in Kerala in 1957 that the world’s first democratically elected Communist government assumed office. Historically it has great significance as Kerala is the state in India with the highest HDIs. Also, most of India, including the central (Federal) government ruled by the right-wing BJP.  Not that any of its matters when seeking funds for disaster relief.

I offered this background as I want you all to make an informed decision. I am aware of many cases where people (especially from third world countries) have set up fraud online accounts to seek money. As a precautionary measure, I urge, anyone who is considering to contribute, to go to Google and check for news on Kerala floods. Alternatively, you can go to YouTube and type Malayalam news live. Mute it and just see the visuals. That will give you an idea about the situation.

I don’t live in Kerala anymore. India has 29 states. I live in Hyderabad in Telangana state. My parents in Kerala left their house yesterday with just two bags – one with clothes and another documents. I would say they were among the fortunate ones as they managed to leave the house when the ground floor got inundated. Most people had to leave without anything but wet clothes they were wearing. And, that will haunt them in the coming days. In all probability, these poor souls will be asked to prove (with documents) that they are alive. Thanks to our red tape. Besides, my parents did not go to a relief camp. They went to my aunt’s house. Yet, it was a challenge for my 63-year-old mother and 70-year-old father to wade through the waist-deep water for about 20 minutes to reach the main road.
Finally, I want to add another caveat. Corruption is (reportedly) rampant in India. Kerala is comparatively better but not free from corruption. There is a chance that 10-15% (lower limit) of the total contributions (not individual) may go to line the pockets of the officials. That is a chance we Indians take when we contribute money. If you are also willing to take that chance for a larger cause, kindly contribute. It can go a long way in reducing the suffering of people. Thank you all for your patience.

Prof Wolff, you can decide not to publish this if you think it is not suitable for this platform. I felt I should do this as I did not want to regret for not doing it later. Thank you.


Sunday, August 19, 2018


It is now only sixteen days until the first meeting of the course Todd Gitlin and I shall be offering in the Columbia University Sociology Department this fall.   On this lazy, muggy Sunday, I thought I would take a break from Giuliani and Omarosa and other tropical diseases and spend a few moments putting down in an organized way the thoughts with which I shall introduce the course and its rationale to such students who show up on September 4th.

The students will all have completed the mainstay of Columbia’s required General Education program, a course somewhat confusingly called Contemporary Civilization – confusing because it begins with Plato and does not reach the eighteenth century until the second semester.  I thought therefore that I would take as an entry point a famous passage from the Phaedo.  About two-thirds of the way through the dialogue, Socrates pauses to reflect on his own intellectual development.  As a young man, he reports, he was much taken with the speculations of the physicists who wrote about the behavior of physical particles and such matters.  They could explain well enough how he, Socrates, came to be sitting in this prison awaiting his imminent death.  They could speak of the muscles and bones whose movements and disposition accounted for his sitting there with his legs crossed in the prison cell.  But they could say nothing of why he was there, what reasons had led him to conclude that inasmuch as the people of Athens had voted to condemn him to death, he thought it right to submit to their decision rather than escape and go into exile, as his disciple Crito had urged him to do [in the dialogue of that name.]

Just at this moment, I will explain to the students in the class, we can see drawn a distinction that would come to form the fundamental dividing line of theoretical investigations for the next two millennia and more of Western Civilization: the distinction between investigations of nature, which by the seventeenth century were called Natural Philosophy, and investigations of the purposive doings of human beings, which were called Moral Philosophy, or, in German, Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft.

But near the end of the eighteenth century, there began to emerge a third sphere of investigation, reducible neither to the objects of natural philosophers nor to those of moral philosophers: Society.

This new object of study made its appearance first in the writings of a group of French and English thinkers who eventually came to be called Political Economists:  the Physiocrats Turgot and Quesney and the Scotsman Adam Smith, most notably.  These thinkers sought in the affairs of the marketplace some semblance of the order and regularity that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton had found in the motions of terrestrial and celestial bodies.  Indeed, in an effort to borrow in his investigations the authority of those famous Natural Philosophers, Smith, in his greatest work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, distinguished between the fluctuating prices at which goods sold from day to day and the stable, expectable “natural” prices that experienced commercial men came to expect, and described those natural prices, or values, as “centers of gravity” drawing the variable market prices to them. 

Thus was born a third branch of investigation to take its place next to Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy, namely Social Philosophy, or Sozialwissenschaft.  Over the next century, this new sphere of investigation differentiated itself into special sub-fields.  Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology took their place beside Economics.  Eventually, all of these branches of study took up residence in universities as the Faculties of Natural Science and Mathematics, Humanities and Fine Arts, and Social and Behavioral Sciences.

However, although for purposes of bureaucratic university organization, these three branches of inquiry were treated as equal and coordinate, the new sphere, Social Sciences, differed fundamentally from its elder cousins, Natural Philosophy and Moral Philosophy.  The ground of this distinction was not at first recognized by the thinkers who brought the Social Sciences into existence.  It fell to Karl Marx to recognize the mark of difference and to make of it the centerpiece of his revolutionary thought.  For Marx saw, as no one before him had in true depth and clarity, that Society, the object of investigation of the new discipline, is fundamentally, essentially mystified.  Its true nature is systematically concealed from our view in the interest of those men and women who exercise power and control in society.  Taking over a term that had gained currency in German thought through the work of Georg Friedrich Hegel, Marx revealed the fundamental laws of society to be ideologically distorted and concealed from view beneath a mystified surface misrepresentation.

Marx’s object of study was the political economy of capitalism, but each branch of the new Social Sciences has its own distinctive mode of mystification.  And it is those mystifications of social reality that we shall study in this course.

We begin, as we must, with Marx’s greatest work, Volume I of Capital, which shall occupy us for three weeks.  Then we shall read some of the writings of the three greatest thinkers of the field known as Sociology:  Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim.  Mannheim will introduce us to the structure and nature of Ideology, and we shall then apply this concept to the discipline known as Ethnology by an intensive study of an ideological critique of that discipline, Land Filled With Flies, by the Marxist ethnologist Edwin Wilmsen.  Following our engagement with Ethnology, we shall turn to Political Theory, and read an excoriating critique of the classical theory of the social contract by the Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills, The Racial Contract.  The semester will conclude with Martha Nussbaum’s critique of gender studies, Sex and Social Justice.

Saturday, August 18, 2018


These are hard times, and the only way to survive them is to take whatever pleasure one can find, wherever it is offered.   Which brings me to Omarosa.  Omarosa Manigault-Newman is a forty-four year old ordained minister with a Master’s Degree from Howard University who has recently held an extremely high-level position in the White House.  She is also a classy, good-looking, intelligent, well-spoken, back-stabbing, self-promoting, treacherous Reality TV star who has tapes.

What is not to love?

So much really bad stuff is coming down that we all need something to get us through the day.  For me, right now, it is the hope, the dream, the faith that Omarosa will release another tape.  Does anything really important depend on it?  Hardly, although if she has a tape showing that Trump had advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting, that really would be something.  But we cannot listen to Bach, read Dickinson, and eat soufflés all day long.  Each of us has a low side, a backside, an inner streak of vindictiveness and vulgarity, and mine is tickled, amused, gratified by Omarosa.

President Donald J. Trump deserves her.

Friday, August 17, 2018


I had a go at a jeu d’esprit and it turned into a hoofooraw, so let me talk about something else.  All of us cable news junkies have been up to our ears in hysterical discussions of Trump’s removal of John Brennan’s security clearance.  The damage to Brennan has been described as dire, and he is being hailed as a hero for not succumbing to the assault.  One estimate I read suggested that former government officials with their clearances intact can earn five to eight percent more than those without, so Trump has not exactly condemned Brennan to public assistance.  What is more, the current administration is not likely to want to call on Brennan anyway for his expertise in matters of spycraft.  The whole affair makes Trump look both petty and weak, which, from my point of view, is all to the good.

The uproar, however, reminds me of something I have long known but tend to forget when I am spinning fantasies of American socialism.  Modern mature capitalist states, of which America certainly is one, have enormous bureaucratic infrastructures [or superstructures, if you want to be rigorously Marxist about it] that administer on a daily basis the laws, regulations, and policies of the central and state governments.  These governmental structures are staffed by quite literally millions of men and women, most of whom are career employees.  Call them the Bureaucracy, the Establishment, the Deep State, call them the Enemies or the Defenders of the American Way, they are there, they are in place, and every day they make the decisions, implement the directives, and process the paper [or computer entries] on which society runs.

Because they are career employees, and because a career lasts typically for thirty or forty years, this huge group of people constitute a powerful conservative drag on change, regardless of whether that change is politically progressive or reactionary.  Let us recall that the modern Welfare State was put into place by a Congress that, for three generations, was controlled by the Democratic Party.  Between 1931 and 1995, the House of Representatives was Democratically controlled for all but two two-year breaks!  What is more, from 1933 to 1969, the Democrats controlled the White House for all but the eight years of the Eisenhower interregnum.  The generations of career employees, laid down like strata of sedimentary rock by successive Democratic Administrations, have proved an almost impenetrable obstacle to the reactionary aspirations of post-Reagan Republicans, despite the fact that the Republicans have controlled the House for all but four of the last twenty-three years.

Which brings me to my dreams of socialism.  Let us suppose, if you will follow me down the rabbithole to Wonderland, that a surge of millennials and post-millennials elect a Democratic Socialist as President and a House and Senate controlled by Democratic Socialists [you can see how far into an alternative universe I have wandered.]  And let us also suppose that this miraculous collection pass and sign into law legislation designed to fundamentally alter the structure of capitalist America [I am not even capable of imagining exactly what that legislation would be, but let that go for now.]  It would then fall to the vast numbers of career government employees actually to implement the legislation, to translate it into the decisions, regulations, studies, guidelines that would actually constitute socialism on the ground, if I may put it that way.

Career bureaucrats would have to rule against corporations and in favor of workers in hundreds of thousands of cases involving workers’ rights, safety, pensions, family leave, and all the other things that the Democratic Socialists in the Congress had legislated about.

I am not saying it would be impossible.  Not at all!  But the amusing Brennan kerfuffle can serve to remind us just how much work and time would be required to transform the American economy and society into something recognizable as socialism.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


[In the metaphysical poetry of 16th century England, a complaint is a song, a poem, by a spurned lover to his beloved.  Thus the title of Philip Roth’s breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is a witty double entendre, for the novel is both an account of Alexander Portnoy’s emotional disorders that bring him into psychoanalysis and also a love song to his beloved, which is to say, of course, to his mother.]

In the past few days, I have revealed myself on this blog to be a prig, a prude, a reactionary when it comes to English usage.  Indeed, were I more of a fan of the old TV show Seinfeld, I might even describe myself as a Language Nazi.  I quibble over presently, I fulminate against beg the question, I draw a line in the sand at the incorrect use of “transpire” to mean “happen” rather than “become known” [it originally means “to breathe about.”]

I am, of course, well aware that in these actions I stand not on solid ground but rather on linguistic quicksand.  Comparative Linguists are fond of pointing out that language evolves and grows and changes endlessly, despite the efforts of William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.  Indeed, one often finds that although people living close to one another can understand one another quite well, one can, by a series of geographical dislocations, end up with two communities, speaking ostensibly the same language, who are mutually incomprehensible.  I once listened to Noam Chomsky on YouTube describing this well-known phenomenon.  Nobody, he observed, ever actually speaks Correct English.  What made his discourse especially delicious was that it was couched easily, effortlessly, fluently in precisely the Correct English that he was claiming no one speaks.

So why do I do it?  There are two reasons, and the purpose of this post is merely to set them forth, not, heaven knows, to try to infect others with my disorder.

The first reason is that there are endlessly many logical distinctions available to be made, and in my view one of the functions of language is to make them.  “That poses a question so urgent that it virtually demands to be raised” means something different from “That simply assumes what you claim to be trying to prove and thus reduces what you have said to a miserable tautology.”  This is a real distinction.  It can obviously be expressed in many different ways.  Which we choose is a matter of convention, and conventions in language, as in dress or body adornment, change over time.  But using “begs the question” to mean both obliterates a real distinction, and thus contributes to the coarsening and dumbing down of discourse.

The second reason is aesthetic, not logical.  One of my principal aesthetic pleasures is the contemplation of the work of an artist who simultaneously embraces and transcends the formal constraints of an art form.  Consider, as an example, the fugue.  The rules of musical composition governing the writing of a fugue are severe indeed, stipulating as they do the sequence of voices or lines, the interval at which each enters, and so forth.  In the hands of a journeyman composer, these restraints are all too evident, and conspire to produce a work that is tedious and predictable.  But not when Bach writes a fugue.  Bach plays with the rules, teases them, inverts them, all the while conforming to them rigorously.  The result is a beauty that seems both spontaneous, free form, utterly expressive, and yet is a perfect instantiation of the inviolable rules of the fugue.  Thus, we may imagine, God played with His laws of Nature as He created the world.

Language is, to be sure, a medium of communication, but it is also an art form in the right hands.  A great writer produces graceful, seemingly effortless prose that articulates with precision complex concepts while conforming strictly to the rules that define correct usage.  The language of Plato, of Marx, of Hume – and yes, of Chomsky at his best – is as much a work of art as a Bach fugue or a Dickinson poem.  It takes our breath away.

It is not easy to write in this manner, even if, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, one has been speaking prose all one’s life without knowing it.  It requires focused attention and much practice.  I recall once watching Yo Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  As he played, he leaned back, away from the instrument, as though he were listening to the music rather than producing it, while his arms and hands did the most complex, precise things to create that music.  Since I am an amateur mediocre violist, who has actually played one of those Suites arranged for my instrument, I have some dim sense of the years of endless work that the young Yo Yo Ma did to achieve that magical transcendence.

That, in a few words, is why I flinch when someone is described as disinterested when what is meant is that she is uninterested.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


“Decimate” is now used as a synonym for “wipe out” or “obliterate” but that is not its original meaning.  Two thousand years ago, when a Roman legion had performed disastrously or had disobeyed orders in battle, as an extreme punishment its soldiers were lined up and every tenth soldier was put to death – the legion was decimated.  The aim was not to obliterate the legion but to enforce strict and harsh discipline.

This is an utterly useless piece of information, but it is interesting.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


In response to my light-hearted little post about a borrowed jug, MS made a series of three enormously knowledgeable and interesting comments.  Rather than let them languish in the comments section, where only the most devoted readers will find them, I decided to combine them into a "guest post" so that everyone will read what he/she had to say.

Here they are:

As your son will tell you, pleading in the alternative is a standard methodology that is taught in first year Civil Procedure. It can be very infuriating. In the example provided by Dean, the pleading is not as absurd as it may appear. Whether a contract has been formed, and what its terms are, can be a complex fact issue when there is no written document to memorialize what was agreed on, if anything. So the defendant is disputing whether, as a matter of law, an oral contract was formed by the words the parties exchanged; if the court determines that a contract was formed, then, he claims, the plaintiff, not the defendant, breached it.

What Giuliani is doing he may think is like pleading in the alternative, but it is not as sophisticated.

Regarding the nature of oaths, I need to expand a bit on my comment in the previous blog entry relating to alternative pleading. The example of alternative pleading regarding the contract is easily defended for the reasons I gave – whether a contract has been formed can be a complex combined factual/legal issue, particularly in the absence of a written document. However, the example of the borrowed jar is quite different. Whether a jar existed, whether it was borrowed; whether it was broken, etc., are not complex legal issues. They are solely factual allegations that are either true or false. What the imaginary pleader in the case of the jar is doing is relying on the burden of proof – it is the plaintiff, the person suing for the alleged broken jar, who, by law, has the burden of proving every factual element of his/her case. So, rather than admitting that there was a borrowed jar and that it was broken, the defendant is denying each of the elements and telling the plaintiff to prove them. Pleading in the alternative with respect to such factual allegations, however, is not without its risks. Under the federal court rules, a party that continues to deny factual allegations in the face of strong evidence that the factual allegations are accurate (e.g., a document signed by the defendant indicating s/he borrowed the jar) can be sanctioned by the court with an assortment of penalties, e.g., reimbursing the plaintiff’s attorney for the legal expenses required to prove the allegation true.

What does this have to do with what Giuliani and Trump are doing? Most of Giuliani’s double-talk relates more to factual issues, like whether the jar was borrowed, rather than combined factual/legal issues, like whether a contract was formed. Moreover, Giuliani is not (as of yet) representing Trump in a legal proceeding, ala’ Clinton’s deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Remember when President Clinton was castigated for answering a question during that deposition by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”? His answer, although criticized as being “legalistic,” was a perfectly good answer to a very badly worded question by Jones’ attorney. The attorney, using the present tense, asked Clinton a question about whether he was having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton focused on the use of the present tense and gave a perfectly acceptable answer in a legal proceeding. From this perspective, contrary to the shouts for his impeachment, he did not commit perjury. Clinton was a defendant in a civil lawsuit; he had every right to be particular in his answers and to expect that the plaintiff’s attorney ask questions in a professionally worded manner.

What President Clinton did in the course of a deposition, however, was not an acceptable answer outside the context of a legal deposition. When addressing the American people at a news conference, for example, when acting as the President of the United States, he had an obligation not to give cunning, legalistic answers to questions. Although in that context he had not taken an oath prior to testifying, he had, as Trump has, taken an oath of office specified in Aritcle II, Sec. 1 of the Constitution to, “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and ... to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Article II, Sec. 3 of the Constitution provides that the President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.... .” I submit that when Giuliani, on Trump’s behalf, gives blatantly contradictory answers to factual questions – none of which relate to issues of national security – as if he is pleading in the alternative in a legal proceeding, Trump, via Giuliani, is violating that oath.

I agree that Giuliani will not be sanctioned by any court for his conduct. But that is primarily because his representation of Trump is not part of any legal proceeding. But the point I was attempting to make in my earlier comment, perhaps a bit obscurely, is that precisely because it is not related to a legal proceeding, his conduct on behalf of a mendacious President is much worse. In a legal proceeding, Giuliani’s tactical maneuvering, his “pleading in the alternative,” would, up to a point, constitute legitimate advocacy on behalf of his client. But outside the context of a legal proceeding, we have a right to expect a degree of candor, a degree of consistency, in our President that, in a legal proceeding, might be regarded as poor gamesmanship. The President should not need to recite an oath to tell the truth, with his hand on a bible, to be expected to tell the truth at a press conference. Yes, it is true, that most politicians and most presidents, bend the truth. But, as President Obama noted in his recent speech in South Africa, it used to be when a politician was caught in a lie, s/he at least would affect embarrassment. Trump, aided and abetted by Giuliani, doubles down on the lies. He lies more than any other President has done; and then he contradicts the lies, and lies about the lies. For all of Nixon’s faults, and there were many, when he declared, “The American people have the right to expect that their President is not a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” he at least recognized that there was a standard of decent behavior that the President owed the country, even though he failed to live up to that standard.

By his outlandish advocacy on behalf of Trump, Giuliani is doing serious harm to the office of the President that will have a lasting, deleterious effect on this country. Trump’s critics express legitimate concerns about the repercussions his policies will have on international relationships and voice concern that he may do something rash militarily in order to prove his manhood. But even if, hopefully, none of these worse case scenarios come to pass, the harm that Trump’s behavior is causing to the psyche of this country will last well after he is long gone. He is teaching the young people in this country that the way to be successful in life is to lie, cheat and bully your opponent. Giuliani’s contradictions in defense of Trump is legitimizing that behavior.

Monday, August 13, 2018


is that the readership is full of people who know all sorts of things really well that I do not know or about which I have only a sketchy awareness.  At its best, it is like an extended Senior Common Room conversation over sherry.


Fifty-seven years ago, I taught an upper class undergraduate course in Harvard’s General Education program called “Value and Reality in Western Society.”  Part One of the course dealt with The Problem of Loyalty in Contemporary America.  Part Two was devoted to An Analysis of Historical Materialism.  Doing some background reading for Part One, I found myself one day in the reading room of the Harvard Law School.  I can still recall the look and feel of the long library tables, at one of which I sat reading a law review article about the origins of the modern practice of having witnesses in a trial testify under oath.

The author of the article [who was, I recall, a woman, but her name is long since lost to me] explained that the oath a witness swears in court originated as what she called a conditional self-curse.  That is, the witness said, in effect, “If I should testify falsely, let God damn me to eternal hell fire.”  This conditional self-curse was taken so seriously by all involved that if a witness issued uttered it, his testimony was accepted forthwith as reliable, since it was unimaginable that anyone would call down upon himself so terrible a punishment.  The modern phrase “so help me God” uttered ritually by witnesses “taking the oath” is a compressed and fragmentary remnant of the original conditional self-curse.

This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was interesting.


I have a dim memory of an ancient case in the English Common Law, dating maybe from the 12th or 13th century, concerning a man who was sued for damages by a neighbor who charged that he had borrowed a jug and returned it cracked.  His defendant’s argument went something like this:  The jug does not exist; I did not borrow it; I returned it whole; and it was broken when I borrowed it.  I think this is now called “arguing in the alternative.”

It reminds me of Rudy Giuliani’s defense of Trump.


As I was reading the daily pundit summary on Daily Kos, I came across this fascinating account of the anti-Asian paranoia in the early part of the twentieth century that led eventually to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  I mention it here because it gives me the opportunity to tell once again a family story of which I am very proud.  Faithful readers of this blog will recall that my paternal grandfather, Barnet Wolff, was a leader of the Socialist Party in New York City during the first quarter of the last century.  In 1910, he went as a delegate [representing the Jewish Agitation Bureau!] to the annual Socialist Party convention in Chicago.  At the convention, I am appalled to have to report, the assembled socialists voted in favor of excluding Asian workers from the United States.  But my grandfather, God bless him, voted against the proposal.

For my account of the affair, you can read pages 22-5 of Barney’s Political Career archived at, accessible via the link at the top of this page.

Sunday, August 12, 2018


Well, if nothing else, I seem to be able to provoke a flood of comments and disputes.  Let me expand on one of the several things Jerry Fresia said, the idea of circumventing the Electoral College without a Constitutional amendment that would be nearly impossible to pull off.  The idea, for those of you not familiar with it, is this:  One by one, state legislatures pass a law instructing their Electors to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally, regardless of whether that candidate has won the popular vote in that state, these laws to take effect only when enough states have signed on to yield a majority in the Electoral College.  This is completely consonant with the Constitution.  Since the Electoral College has 538 votes, a group of states having in total one half plus one, or 270 Electoral votes, must join the effort for the system to be implemented.  Remarkably, it is already the case, as Jerry notes, that states having a total of 165 Electoral votes have passed such laws, leaving only 105 to go.

As an anarchist who believes that all state authority is illegitimate, I take a transactional view of these matters.  Since the political forces I favor currently command a popular majority nation-wide [thank you, California], and seeing as how demographic trends promise to only increase that majority, I am all in with this idea.  Note that the Democratic candidate has won the popular majority in six out of the last seven presidential elections.  Such a system would, of course, totally alter the pattern and structure of campaigning, since under it, running up the vote in California or New York would be quite as effective as fighting for wins in closely divided states.  Candidates would go where their popular votes were, not where the Electoral votes are.

As for at-large slates of Congressional candidates, I have mixed feelings about that reform.  On the one hand, it would make it possible for minority parties to gain Congressional representation.  On the other hand, it would eliminate the current direct relationship between a constituent and his or her representative.  I would be interested in hearing what folks think about the idea.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


I had some further thoughts triggered by the Berman/Robin controversy [and thanks to Dean for his/her kind remarks].  They concern the subject, now much under discussion in the media, of the relationship of those identifying themselves as Democratic Socialists or Social Democrats to the main body of Democratic Party elected officials and operatives.  It strikes me that it is less than helpful to draw elaborate comparisons with European struggles between the two wars.  My reason is as follows.

Multi-party parliamentary politics always poses for the members of one of the parties, especially one of the smaller parties, a problematic choice: whether to work with, perhaps even to join, one of the larger parties, thereby gaining some measure of political power, but at the price of compromising severely with one’s principles and programs; or alternatively to remain separate and thus able to preserve the authenticity of one's principles and programs, but at the price of giving up even such power as participation in a coalition might afford.

I do not see this choice as a matter of existential purity, as it would be perhaps for a religious splinter sect convinced that precisely its interpretation of holy writ is the only pathway to salvation.  Rather, it is a choice forced on the party by the structure of parliamentary politics.

The American political system is not a parliamentary system, a fact that makes minor party political efforts unsuccessful save in the most unusual of circumstances.  The Greens, the Libertarians, and other minority parties are in general doomed to failure by the structure of the American political system.  The fight between the left of the Democratic Party and the establishment wing is taking place within the party.  Next January, if the Democrats have retaken the House, all the candidates who are elected on the Democratic ticket, whatever their political orientation, will choose a Speaker of the House and share around the committee chairmanships.  The fights will go on, just as they have in the Republican Party, and as the successes of the so-called Freedom Caucus demonstrate, unified minorities can have considerable success.  But the experiences of European Socialist, Communist, Social Democratic and other left parties do not, I believe, offer useful lessons or guides to American left activists.


Once again, an interesting discussion has erupted in the comments section, this time triggered by a piece by Sheri Berman in the Washington Post.  [She is a member of the Barnard College Political Science Department, and I have just sent her an email suggesting that we meet for coffee some Tuesday in the fall.]  The comments here deal with her review of a book by Corey Robin, which I have not read, but one line in the Post piece prompts me to say a few words.  Early in the article, Berman writes: “Central to Marxism was the belief that capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.” 

This is a standard line about Marx, repeated so often as to become little more than background music in discussions, but I think it betrays a deep misunderstanding of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, and the purpose of this post is to explore and clarify the matter.  [Some of you will have read my essay, The Future of Socialism, archived at  You may want to amuse yourself for the next few moments by contemplating the miraculous success of the Boston Red Sox.]

The problem, if I may get ahead of myself, is that Marx’s central idea has been so totally absorbed and internalized by absolutely everyone writing today about society and economics that no one recognizes it any more for the revolutionary idea that it was when Marx first advanced it.  It is rather like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, which is simply assumed to be obviously true by everyone, including those engaged in bashing Freud.

Marx looked at the development of capitalism in England and saw a centuries-long process resulting from the decisions, choices, and struggles of countless men and women:  the enclosure of agricultural land to be used for pasturing wool-bearing sheep, which drove displaced peasants to flock to the big cities and become, in Marx’s evocative phrase, a “reserve army of the unemployed;” the movement of weavers and spinners from their cottages, where they were part of the “putting out system,” into large buildings called “make-eries” [i.e., factories];  the transformation of making-by-hand [“manufacturing”] into machine production, which robbed the workers of the hard-won traditional skills and reduced them to semi-skilled machine tenders; the gobbling up of small firms by larger firms in the competition of the market; the seemingly endless series of booms and busts produced by overproduction and underconsumption; the rising self-awareness of workers, made aware of one another by being brought together into the factories, and the consequent formation of labor unions, which would have been unthinkable during the period the putting-out system and cottage labor; and so on and on.

All of this was utterly new when Marx advanced it, but today it is part of the intellectual air we breathe, not at all the property of “the left.”

Writing when he was, and looking at the world as he saw it, Marx believed that these deep, broad developmental trends were moving in the direction of greater concentrations of capital, increased organization of labor, and ever more disruptive swings of the business cycle, all of which, he hoped and believed, were leading toward a trans-national upheaval.

This anticipated upheaval, be it noted, was not thought by him to be a behind-the-scenes metaphysical movement of world historical forces, a materialist version of the Immanent Unfolding of Reason or a secular version of God’s Plan for the Universe and Man.  What is more, Marx wrote surprisingly little about what he thought the outcome of these deep social and economic movements would be.  Capital, after all, taking into account the Theories of Surplus Value, which is officially Volume Four, runs to 5,000 pages.  One would be hard pressed to cobble together more than 100-200 pages by Marx on the post-capitalist world.  Marx did, however, tell us that the next stage after capitalism would grow “in the womb” of capitalism, just as capitalism had grown in the womb of feudalism.

Marx conceived of the “inevitability” of socialism in somewhat the way that modern climatologists conceive of global warming: as the slow working through of manifest present tendencies including the deliberate actions of human beings.

In my essay referenced above, I try to think about what those tendencies might be in capitalism as it is currently constituted.  I then identify three big tendencies that Marx got wrong, mistakes that, taken together, help to explain why things have not thus far turned out as Marx anticipated.

But none of this constitutes the claim that “capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.”

Well, all of this may seem to have little or nothing to do with the debate between Berman and Robin, but I wanted to get it off my chest.  Now, about those Red Sox …