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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Saturday, April 13, 2019


I would like to spend some times this morning trying to put into organized form some thoughts with which I have been struggling in recent months.  If you believe, as I do, that the human world is massively fouled up, and that at the heart of our problems, but by no means their sole source, is the capitalist system of social relations of production; if you do not believe, as I do not, that there is very little real prospect of the fundamental economic organization of the world changing any time soon [I will not restrict us to my lifetime, which at my age may only carry us to the next World Cup]; and if, despite these beliefs, you also believe fervently, as I do, that it makes a great deal of difference in the lives of billions of people just how things actually go day to day in this massively fouled up world:  Then you are confronted, as I am, with the necessity of finding a way to talk about the world that acknowledges all of these beliefs simultaneously.

Now, most political commentators believe that democratic capitalism is essentially just fine so long as bad actors or bad ideas do not screw it up, so it is easy for them to rest on that belief and focus on this corrupt politician or that anti-social corporation, to identify the root of our problems as a “breakdown of norms” or a “denial of the facts of climate change.”  But if you do not believe that democratic capitalism, even at its best, is really defensible, then it is very hard to fight fiercely for policies that will both make the lives of countless people better and yet also will leave untouched the underlying sources of vastly greater social harms.

Let me give you several trivial examples.  America is a country of 330 million people, more or less, roughly half of whom are poor by any reasonable calculation, living paycheck to paycheck when they can get a paycheck.  The lives of tens of millions of poor Americans could be made somewhat better if they could cash their paychecks without paying usurious fees, or even have free bank accounts into which their paychecks are automatically deposited.  This is simply not a problem at all for the other half and more of America, and fixing the problem would not alter the fundamentally exploitative nature of capitalism one whit.  But it really would put more food on the tables of millions of households.

Here is a totally different example:  Millions of Americans have been locked up, some for many, many years, as a consequence of a cruel and blatantly racist piece of federal legislation put forward and supported by every moderate Democrat’s wet dream, Joe Biden.  Now that it is white folks who are hooked on drugs – opioids – the decent caring folk have decided that drug addiction is a medical problem, not a law enforcement problem.  But drug addiction really is a medical problem, and so we all ought to throw our political support behind the legislators who wish to treat it that way, even though many of them cooperated in locking up millions of black and brown people for essentially the same actions.

Here is a third example of a totally different nature:  In any society, including even a genuinely socialist society, should one ever come into existence, it is absolutely essential that there be publicly articulated, recognized, and internalized norms of honesty, respect for law, and impartiality that shape and constrain the behavior of everyone, but especially of public figures.  Adherence to these norms is sustained by pride, by shame, by the praise of others, by modes and practices of upbringing and education, not merely or even primarily by ideological correctness.  This is as true in our present society as it would be in a socialist society.  It really is better that judges strive to rule fairly and impartially, for all that their view of the law is shaped by their politics and their class loyalties, than that they rule corruptly and with unmediated parti pris.

Now, when the public discourse focuses on the appalling behavior of the present president, it is quite natural for some of us to push back, insisting that his predecessors, who are ritually praised for their sterling character, unimpeachable patriotism, and adherence to The Constitution, were themselves also corrupt, albeit less blatantly so and less often in the service of their private financial interest.  But Trump’s efforts to undermine the norms and guardrails of American constitutional democracy really are dangerous, even though a more traditional president would pursue policies as fundamentally unjust and exploitative as those of Trump.

I can testify from my personal experience that in order to sustain any sort of political activity beyond merely offering an opinion, one has to believe that it would make some difference if one’s candidate wins.  Otherwise, why get up early on a cloudy Saturday and drive an hour to a meeting point from which one then goes out knocking on doors for three hours? 

It is easy to relax, recount the unquestionable evils of every side, eschew any political efforts, and leave to their own devices those whose lives might be made better by one’s efforts, even though those efforts have no hope at all of addressing the deep underlying causes of the injustice and misery in the world.  But I am not willing to do that.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your "broodings" and trust they are only transitory. Optimism is what drives us forward, otherwise we would be extinct as a species.

I share your dislike of capitalism but I see no real alternative. As part of a commune in the 1970s I can affirm that human nature undermines idealism because human nature wasn't built to fully share. Some put in heroic effort. Others nibbled and cheated in small ways that brought the collective effort down.

A communal life possibly can work. I guess the monastic orders "prove" that, but I don't know enough about their organization. Perhaps they were petty tyrannies. I do think many worked because they exploited the serfs on their lands. I do know that the religious hierarchy was corrupt and exploited the peasants, serfs, and even the lords and ladies when they could because of their credulity.

The only path forward I see is a "reformed" capitalism lashed like Odysseus to a mast of public good, i.e. force corporations to give unions seats on the board, force corporate decisions to look beyond "shareholder profit" to the long neglected "stakeholders": the community, the nation, the world which provides the source of the wealth exploited by corporations. Create real stockholder democracy and ensure that the corporate executives no longer pay themselves a king's ransom for the role. Force transparency into municipal, state, and federal planning so that the wider public can see what government is and plans to provide for the taxpayer's dollars.

I agree that there is "very little real prospect of the fundamental economic organization of the world changing any time soon". I see no viable alternative. They may be, but it would need to be developed and evolved, and integrated. The lessons of the 19th and 20th century "revolutions" is that you cannot impose fundamental social change. Marx was right in saying that it grows out of the old institutions. He was wrong in thinking that some "elite revolutionaries" could guide us to a new utopia. The world will change, needs to change, but it will come about organically, evolving, and developing from what we have. And no "elite" has the right to dictate the future. That was Marx's fundamental error.

You are wrong to think that "corrupt politicians" can be removed. This is as silly as to think that we can wish away illness and disease! There will always be evil in the world. There is in fact good and evil in each and every one of us. You can't slice it out of yourself, and you can't slice it out of society. But what you can do is manage it, control it, and suppress it in favour of your better self and a better future.

While I grieve for the poor and the imprisoned and the other horrors of society, I think it is foolish to think these are things that can be "eliminated". First, equality is a goal and not a state of being. Whenever we spread education to lift people up, some will refuse it. Whenever we grow more food and make it cheaper, some will fall through the cracks either by their own foolishness or by the harshness of an indifferent universe. Each step of progress creates yet more inequalities and more problems. To dream of a world where this does not exist is wrong-headed. Our job, and eternal task, is to improve the world around us, lift each other up, and dream of a better day. Glory in our successes, not be disheartened by the expected occasional slips backwards, but keep our gaze firmly toward a better future.
...cut off by 4096 char limit

Anonymous said...

When I get down in the dumps, I look back at history and revel in the tremendous achievements we've made. As a post-WWII child I reached late adolescence with doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich promising only death from famine and the Club of Rome in the 1970s told us that the future was bleak because of resource exhaustion. Today you have the fanatics of "global warming" assuring is that there are only "12 more years" before catastrophe. Don't listen. Instead, our task is to put our shoulder to the wheel and lift the cart and move forward. Tomorrow will be a better day!

I'm not a Pollyana. The world is indifferent. We live in a vast cold universe that physicists tell us is dying a heat death. But value is a human construct. We find it in each other. As long as we struggle together we make our own world, we make a better world. The fight continues!

Anonymous said...

By the way, Trump is truly corrupt and evil, but as an outsider living in Canada, I can say this is not that unusual in the US. There have been dark days before and will be dark days ahead.

The solution will come from the people. I'm not religious, but great changes come like a religious revival, i.e. a great mass of people have to rise up with a new vision, a new determination to build a better future. Where this comes from is a mystery. Historians can trace it to individuals or, like Marx to structural changes, but all of this ultimately fails to capture the real mystery of the spark that spreads.

For me, the future lies in education. Not schools and universities. They play a part. But real education comes when people value learning, look to the past critically and learn from it, and look to the future by heeding the great scholars of today with their varying views about what may lie ahead. From out of this messy muddle, the future grows, it grows organically. Our job as individuals is to be part of that process, not to "lead it", but be participate. We usher in the future. No president can steal it. No corrupt aristocracy or industrial hegemony can steal it. Only if we, the people, refuse to learn and grow and built our own future will it be stolen from us.

Anonymous said...

I doubt many readers of your blog pay much attention to billionaires. It is too easy to write them off as evil and corrupt men. And, yes, many are. How else do you get to the top except by climbing over thousands and millions of others? But they sometimes say things worth listening to.

Here's a post by Ray Dalio, a hedge fund manage (bah! hiss!) which makes sense:

He says:
"I think that most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well, yet we are now at a juncture in which either a) people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or b) we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie."

That is truly wise. If only the French Aristocracy in 1789 had listened. If only the Russian aristocracy in the 1850s and in 1917 has listened. If only the US slaveholders had listened. All revolutions (like all wars) end up costing far more than anybody imagined. And gains are far less substantial than the dreamers had hoped.

Those at the top are not always blind. Again from Ray Dalio:
"My exposure to most economic systems in most countries over many years taught me that the ability to make money, save it, and put it into capital (i.e., capitalism) is the most effective motivator of people and allocator of resources to raise people’s living standards. Over these many years I have also seen capitalism evolve in a way that it is not working well for the majority of Americans because it’s producing self-reinforcing spirals up for the haves and down for the have-nots. This is creating widening income/wealth/opportunity gaps that pose existential threats to the United States because these gaps are bringing about damaging domestic and international conflicts and weakening America’s condition."

The future is built one brick at a time and it is a collective effort. It is a kind of "Enlightenment" that spreads a spark from one mind to the next. You can't trust anybody to "lead you" to the future. You have to make it. It is hard work. There will be setbacks. That is just the messy fact of life. But it is a collective effort well worth it. It is, after all, our future! said...

Prof. Wolff, that's a felt plea from the heart. To wallow in nihilism and flippancy, as I tend to do, is a poor sort of response to current circumstances. It's possible, just possible, that I will vote (for the first time ever) in up-coming elections. And it will not be for Trump.

Anonymous II said...

For the longest time I called myself a socialist, and in some situations I still do, for the alternative has been and is grotesque and repugnant in so many ways. More recently, however, when I contemplate the disastrous conditions which are threatening not just human societies but even life on earth, while I believe it is capitalism which has brought us so rapidly to this possibly fatal situation, I find myself pondering that socialism is also oriented towards more and more production—and even if it could be successfully turned in the direction of producing to meet human necessities rather than glossy plastic rubbish, I’m still not convinced that socialism could now do more than slow down our movement towards disaster.

I’ve no doubt capitalism is malignant modernity. Socialism of various sorts has sought to be and imagines it can continue to be a benign form of modernity. But maybe modernity has generated the conditions for its own demise? (I.e., Marx didn’t go deep enough in trying to imagine how the system would bring about its own destruction?) There is, by the way, somewhere out there an explanation as to why we have not encountered any evidence of magnificent civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy: the bases for technological civilizations —esp. the exploitation of resources and energy—would be true everywhere. And everywhere, that pursuit ends up in the same place: self-destruction.

So what to do? Locked in as we all are, whether on the left or the right, maybe we’re incapable of thinking and acting our way out of this one. Maybe we just have to hope that somehow, somewhere, some radically intellectually dissident people will manage to come up with very new ways of thinking and acting in Earth-saving and life-saving ways. But I doubt I, for one, will be able to recognize such novelty for what it is and what it might portend.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't see socialism and as far as I know, Professor Wolff doesn't see socialism as analogous to a hippie commune, where all is "shared".

Socialism means that the means of production are no longer owned by capitalists, but by
the state or by the workers themselves. It does not mean that we all have to live together and share our toothpaste. Under socialism, as I see it (and correct me please if I'm wrong, other readers), people can live with their nuclear families or by themselves or with whom they choose in their own homes, have their own computers, their own bicycles, their own books, etc.

Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein

I don't know if you have ever been in a commune but you confuse giving up your "possessions" with a communal effort. I've been involved in a communal bookstore, a communal grocery, and an anarchist "collective" putting out a newspaper. Never did I have to give up my bicycle, books, clothes, or other "possessions" to be part of the commune.

But I did discover that working in a commune was much like working as a youth in a religious organization: some did a lot of work, most did a middling amount of work, and a few were "free riders".

Human nature being what it is, collective enterprises are hard to be truly effective because the connection between effort and reward is broken. I'm big on helping others, but I'm not big on carrying those who are unwilling to "do their fair share". I recognize that not all are blessed with equal gifts. But I do believe that most people feel good about working for themselves and others. But not all. There are sociopaths and psychopaths, and just damn lazy, greedy people. Any "socialist utopia" has to decide how to deal with them. Marx claim the "communist creed" of "from each according to his ability and to each according to his need". This is a wondrous statement. A very high-minded statement. But in the real world, that doesn't work. Collectives and communes don't work (except for a limited time using up the store of initial enthusiasm).

The future belongs to those willing to build a better future. And that requires carrying along those less than willing to help themselves. Just as each organism carries a load of parasites, each society carries its own "parasites". To think otherwise is to fool yourself. The "revolution" will only work if it starts from below and it is voluntary, it includes everyone, and it connects effort with reward. It can be built on religion or ideology. But I would hope that in the latter 21st century the better future would be built on something more enlightened than these. It needs a rational scientific foundation with a morals that acts as the glue to hold the community together. Alexis de Tocqueville was inspired by the America he saw in the first half of the 19th century because it had "social glue" at many levels, and a commitment to law and morals, and "religion" (which sadly I can't buy into). But this is the kind of thing you need. And Bush 43's "bringing democracy to Iraq" demonstrated is an utterly bankrupt concept if you don't have these foundation stones.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, I spent a few days on a hippie commune in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico (I don't recall the exact place) in the early 70's. It was a bit too "laid back" and "stoned" for my tastes.

I don't see why lazy, greedy people and free riders would be rewarded under socialism. As you undoubtedly recall, in the same text (the Critique of the Gotha Program) as Marx describes communism as "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs", he describes socialism as a step towards communism as "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work". We're talking about socialism here, not some far-off communist utopia.

Anonymous said...

s. wallerstein

I'm glad that you have found all your "answers" and that "socialism" answers all your needs.

I think of Emma Goldman going to Russia to help "build the revolution". The problem with all forms of top-down "answers" is that they tend to end up in the hands of people who "know" the answers. She had to flee Russia. She wasn't welcome with either the capitalists or socialists (read "Communists").

The long history of "socialism" leaves me leery. But I'm glad you have found your answers. I, sadly, an still wandering in the wilderness. I must admit that I doubt there will ever be an "answer". Humanity is filled with imperfect humans and those glorious institutions that the "elite" map out for us always end up being a bit too utopian, and far too corruptible. I remain doing work at the level of the everyday. A little bit here. A little bit there. Grand answers don't satisfy me. But I do enjoy Robert Paul Wolff's stories. I respect his history. I love the clear analysis and insights. I'm afraid I'm a consumer who wanders the bazaar bedazzled by all the wonderful intellectual "goods" on display, but I'm a very bad consumer. I see flaws. I see unfilled promises.

In the end all we can do is tend our own garden, help our neighbor, and work as best we can to build a community to make a better world. I leave the "grand ideas" to the philosophers and those razzle-dazzle "politicians" with their pie-in-the-sky promises.

Anonymous said...

Today you have the fanatics of "global warming" assuring is that there are only "12 more years" before catastrophe. Don't listen. Instead, our task is to put our shoulder to the wheel and lift the cart and move forward. Tomorrow will be a better day!

I'm not a Pollyana.

I couldn't help but notice that.

Yet Another Anonymous

Dean said...

I want to wonder, because I have the free time and mental and emotional energy to do so, whether in fact "it makes a great deal of difference in the lives of billions of people just how things actually go day to day in this massively fouled up world." Things go one way, billions reap a benefit, but others don't, and vice versa. What's the difference?

Matt said...

I think of Emma Goldman going to Russia to help "build the revolution".

I'm not a huge fan of Goldman, who seems to me to have been more fluff than results and unduly romantic , but in any case, it's misleading to talk about her "going to Russia", as she was deported there, in a case that's absolutely shameful for the US.