Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, June 30, 2019

CHANGING DIRECTION


I am not comfortable with the acrimony that has crept into this blog, and since it is my blog, I bear the principal responsibility for it.  I am not by nature a happy warrior.  I do not enjoy fighting, especially with those with whom I share both a world view and a normative orientation toward that world.  During the more than six decades of my career, I have derived my greatest pleasure from thinking through complex ideas until they are clear to me and then showing those ideas, in their elegant and beautiful simplicity, to my students and to my readers.

I first recoiled from the acrimony of public political debate fifty-five years ago.   Deeply frightened by the threat of nuclear war, I had for some years been writing, speaking, and arguing in favor of nuclear disarmament with ever greater urgency until, in the midst of an angry argument in Harvard’s Freshman Union – I think with Zbigniew Bzrezinski – I snapped.  I must have wigged out, because I found myself running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square, hyperventilating.

It was obvious that I had to step back from the daily struggle if I was to survive, and so I did what seemed most natural to me – I retreated into political theory.  The first result was a lengthy essay written a year and a half later that, five years further still, was published as a little book called In Defense of Anarchism.  After the events of ’68, I left Columbia for much the same reason, happily rusticating at UMass Amherst where I plunged deeply first into Kant’s ethical theory, then into the thought of Karl Marx, and finally into the creation of a doctoral program in the Afro-American Studies Department.

Now, in my dotage, I seem to have stumbled into a role that is quite unnatural for me, that of a political inside dopester, to resurrect a lovely term invented by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  But I am not really any sort of expert on politics.  As the cowboy humorist Will Rogers liked to say, all I know is what I read in the papers.  If I still have a contribution to make, it must be to the clarification of complex ideas, not to the handicapping of political races or to the decrying of the manifest and intractable evils of the world.

I apologize for the tone of this blog these past months.  The current political scene has once again driven me a little bit crazy.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

BY WAY OF EXPLANATION


All right, let’s take this slowly.  First, my post had nothing to do with decorum or polite manners, either of the slave plantations of the old South or of the chi chi dinner parties of the Upper East Side.  My elementary example of poll watchers and precinct workers should have made that clear.  I was talking about the norms that attach to and guide countless bureaucratically defined roles and functions, in the judicial system, in corporations, in hospitals, in universities, in labor unions, in Department of Motor Vehicle registries and unemployment offices.  I was talking about the norms that are expected to guide the actions of FBI agents and House committees and police departments.  I was talking, rather more significantly, about the universal assumption that after the votes have been counted and certified, the losers will quietly vacate their offices and make way for the winners.  If you don’t think that last is an important norm, take a look around the world at all the countries where that quiet transition of power cannot be counted on.  This has nothing to do with decorum, as that word is customarily used.  Furthermore, laws by themselves are not sufficient to ensure the requisite behavior, either in a capitalist democracy dominated by the rich and powerful or in a socialist democracy responsive to the will of the people.  In addition to laws there must be a widespread acceptance and internalization of norms of expected behavior.  If textual references will help, spend a little time reading Max Weber on bureaucracy.

My point was that when one spends so much time and energy, as I have, calling out and fuming against those who sanctimoniously celebrate these norms while secretly or even openly violating them, it is difficult to keep in mind that the better world we desire would depend essentially on the enactment and maintenance of those very norms.  Hence it is important to embrace them and repeatedly celebrate them even while condemning all those who violate them.

As for the insult.  Here are the words:  “Is it possible the decorum and demeanor you appreciate and revere is tantamount to the charm of the slave holding South?”

Let’s not be na├»ve or disingenuous about this.  Those words accuse me of embracing a Gone With The Wind ideal of proper behavior, with all that implies.  That is what in other circumstances would be called a blood libel, and I took offense.  I accept the apology.

BROODING


I have been brooding about something for a long time, and I have decided to try to think it through in the medium of this blog.  I do not see my way clear on this matter, so somewhat uncharacteristically you will see me feeling my way to a conclusion in public, as it were.

My question can be stated simply:  How should I think about American politics and public life?  I do not mean by this which candidate should I support or what policies should I favor or what practical political action should I engage in?  I mean rather how should I think in an ongoing way about the norms and modes of behavior that are desirable in the public and political life of the country in which I live?

Let me begin, as I am wont to do, by reviewing briefly the arc of my own long engagement with public affairs.  My grandfather was a lifelong socialist of the Eugene Debs Norman Thomas variety, and my father and mother courted at Circle One of the Young People’s Socialist League in New York City, but by the time I was a little boy, they were FDR New Deal Democrats, although they did send me to a red diaper pre-school, the Sunnyside Progressive School.  I was a Henry Wallace supporter at fourteen, in 1948, but my serious involvement in public affairs did not begin until ten years later, when as a young Harvard Instructor I became deeply committed to nuclear disarmament, a cause I spoke publicly for and published on both at Harvard and later at the University of Chicago.  I have always dated the turning point in my political life as the morning of April 18, 1961, the morning after the unsuccessful effort of CIA backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the new Castro government.  Until that point, despite my vocal leftwing politics, I considered myself a Liberal.  But Kennedy was a Liberal and he had invaded Cuba, so I was forced to recognize that I was something else.  As a place holder, I called myself a Radical, with very little idea what that might mean.

It has been fifty-eight years since that day in April, and much has changed in the world and in my understanding of it.  I have devoted a good deal of time thinking about, writing about, and in small ways taking action in response to the seemingly endless series of evil things the American government has done domestically and abroad.  I need not catalogue them; you know them all.  But until quite recently, I gave very little thought to the norms of public behavior that were presupposed and served as the backdrop for my political activity.

Let me give you a very simple example.  Let us suppose I am a dedicated supporter of Bernie Sanders, as a consequence of which I volunteer to canvass for him in the North Carolina  Democratic primary, which this year is part of Super Tuesday, March 3rd, and hence is very politically consequential.  Despite my thoroughgoing disenchantment with the United States and my deep knowledge of the endlessly evil ways in which American local, state, and federal government officials have acted for the past 232 years, I expect the local volunteer precinct workers actually to count the votes for Bernie that I have corralled and guided to the polls by my efforts.  I will be alert to the possibility of fraud, perpetrated perhaps by malign Biden supporting poll workers, but I will be righteously angry if I detect such fraud.  I will not smile a superior, supercilious smile and say that since America is a slough of hypocrisy, I am neither surprised nor outraged.  

In short, despite my deep disagreements with mainstream political commentators, I share their professed belief that a democracy depends for its success and survival on norms of civic behavior whose public flouting and endless violation pose a threat to the possibility of social justice.  And this is true not only for precinct poll workers but for Senators, Congresspersons, Presidents, judges, Cabinet officers, and everyone else who plays a role in the public life of a democracy.

Many of those commentators earlier in their careers served in Democratic or Republican administrations whose hands drip, Picture of Dorian Gray style, with the blood of countless victims, and I am so accustomed to shouting this fact at the TV screen that I forget how completely I believe in and indeed count on the norms of public discourse and behavior that they and their political employers have violated.

I say I want socialism.  Well, socialism can replace capitalism either peacefully or violently.  If peacefully, then the electoral processes by which this happens will require that countless thousands or tens of thousands of public officials adhere to those norms even when the votes are going against them.  What is more, the administration of a socialist state will demand a level of public honesty greater than anything we see in the administrations of capitalist democracies.

If violently, then there may well be an exciting period of transition during which commitment to The Cause substitutes for quotidian norms of public behavior.  But as Max Weber noted in another context, all too soon we see the routinization of charisma, and as the ecstasy of revolution gives way to the grind of administration, our protection against the inevitable lure of corruption and oppression will be those same norms, even if they are now rechristened Socialist Morality.

It is for this reason that I really do believe Donald Trump is an existential threat to the ideals I still cherish at eighty-five, and that it is a serious mistake to say, albeit perhaps merely for the sake of provocation, that a Beto presidency would be worse than a second Trump term.



Friday, June 28, 2019

BACK IN THE SADDLE


Although preoccupied with personal problems that necessitated my premature return from Paris, I have been following the lengthy discussion in the comments section concerning commodities, metaphysical entities, and opportunity costs.  Inasmuch as I have written two books, half a dozen lengthy journal articles, and tens of thousands of blog words about these topics, I shall refrain from repeating myself [even more than I am wont to do.]  So let me return to blogging with some observations on the political scene as it has unfolded since I went to Paris two weeks ago.

As we have just experienced the two-day long first debate among the two dozen or so folks competing for the Democratic nomination, I shall start there.  I did not watch the debates [past my bedtime], but I watched the morning after sound bites.  The conventional wisdom is that Warren shone on the first night and Harris scored big against Biden on the second night.  Whether this will hurt Biden remains to be seen.  It must be hard for him to repeat his customary claim as a lifelong champion for Civil Rights when an actual Black person is on the stage.  Not really fair, I imagine ole’ Joe is thinking.  He does seem to be as weak a campaigner as everyone says, but I do not know whether that will hurt him.

I remain convinced that it is existentially important to defeat Trump so that we can go back to fighting the endless battle for the marginal improvements that we are forced to substitute for our true goals.  We are currently experiencing an exhilarating moment of radical political energy at ground level, energy that has already elected some first-rate men and women to the House and may carry a number more to victory in 2020.  These victories, should they materialize, will fall far short of the fulfilment of our dreams, so I shall repeat the caution that I have voiced before.  It was said best by Paul Newman playing the legendary grifter Henry Gondorff in The Sting.  [Long time readers will know that I have invoked this reference at least twice here in the past ten years – I really only have about four strings in my bow.]  Newman is holed up in a whore house when he is sought out by the young and inexperienced Robert Redford.  Newman warns Redford of the difficulties and dangers of playing the Big Con against the gangster Robert Shaw, and then he says:

“I don't want a hothead looking to get even, coming back saying......"It ain't enough."  'Cause it's all we're gonna get.”

If you want to be active in the radical political lane for life, you must take this advice to heart, because it is the truth, bitter as the taste may be that it leaves in your mouth.  If we beat Trump, there will still be more than sixty million Americans who have voted for him and perhaps one hundred million who support him.  That is a terrifying fact, one that we must reckon with as we fight to accomplish some of the things we believe in.

Meanwhile, it looks as though Sanders, Warren, and Harris have a shot at the nomination.  Things could be worse.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A PLEASANT DINNER

Brian Leiter and I dined at Brasserie Balzar yesterday evening.  We had a llvely time, swapping stories about the University of Chicago and people we know.  No heavy philosophical discourse, just a genial dinner of two philosophers separated by a generation but united by our contempt for the man who inhabits the White House.

Friday, June 21, 2019

THIS IS SCARY

My son, Patrick, sent me this link to a column I had missed.  This is genuinely frightening.  Hardly peculiar to Trump, of course.  There has not been a president in my lifetime save Carter whose hands are clean in this matter.

A RESPONSE TO CHRIS


Chris asked me to elaborate on point 4.  I assume he refers to this:

4.  Sanders, I am afraid, won’t make it.  His best shot was as the bearer of all the hopes of young progressives, but his success has been his undoing, for too many other candidates now espouse the policies he reintroduced into Democratic politics after their half century long disappearance.

Remember, I am not offering a judgment of which candidate should make it, just a guess about which one will.  At the moment there are three or four or five candidates who seem to have some chance, and a horde who do not.  In a situation like this, it matters a lot who is voters’ second choice.  When the hordes disappear, they will free up maybe 20% of the polling, and where it will go will do much to shape the race.  I have a feeling Biden is nobody’s second choice, and as he continues to sink in the polls, as I think he will, he will not pick up the bits and pieces of votes now going to the non-starters.  I would guess Bernie is the second choice of many Warren voters, and she is the second choice of many of his, but neither of them will drop out.  If it were Bernie against Biden [as it was Bernie against Clinton in 2016] I would bet on Bernie, but it isn’t, and so I suspect he has hit his ceiling and won’t make it.

By the way, I do not think he is a terribly good candidate, which doesn’t help.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

A SIMPLE REQUEST

Folks, do me a favor.  Don't use the comment section of my blog to insult someone I am going to have dinner with tomorrow.  Lord knows, Professor Leiter doesn't need me to defend him, and if you want to mix it up with him, go to his vastly more popular blog.  But it is just bad manners to do it here.  If you are so outraged by him that you cannot bring yourself to comment there, then you probably shouldn't be visiting this blog either.

Now, for heaven's sake, let's all calm down.  America is threatening war with Iran, the government is separating babies from their mothers, women are being threatened with the removal of the last remaining protections to their reproductive freedom, the rich are getting super rich while half the country stagnates.  Let us mainain some sense of proportion regarding what is worth arguing about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

NOBODY SAID IT WOULD BE EASY TO STAY COOL

Read this and repeat after me, "Biden really would not be as bad as a second Trump term."  Now, take a valium, let it kick in, and say again, "Biden really would not be as bad as a second Trump term."

Feel better?  No?  Punch a pillow, scream at the wall, remember, Biden really would not be as bad as a second Trump term.  Then donate some money to your favorite progressive candidate.

Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!!!!!!!!

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT


Goodness gracious.  I leave you alone for a few moments while I try to deal with a vexing electricity problem in my Paris apartment and when I return I find that all hell has broken loose.  Let us take a deep breath and remember that the people you are excoriating [including myself, though that is the least of it] are, in the larger scheme of things, so close to you on the political spectrum that in any world that does not include a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, they would have to be your allies in the enactment of even the least controversial of your favorite proposals.

Short of taking up arms against a sea of troubles, which I would imagine is not the preferred mode of social change in this corner of the blogosphere, you are left with ground level organizing and electoral politics, both of which succeed only when large numbers of people can be mobilized, many of whom, alas, may not see things exactly as you do. 

Let the process work for a while, do what you can and will for the candidate, the policy proposal, or the global vision nearest and dearest to your heart, and wait a bit to see how things shake out.

In any real world I can envision, all of us will be comrades, though we may not all be lovers.

Monday, June 17, 2019

THIS AND THAT FROM THE LEFT BANK


It is not yet the summer of 2019 and even the most indolent of political observers grows weary of the campaign.  Here in Paris, where the competition of rival electric scooter companies seems urgent and compelling, I try to achieve some perspective on what may, if things go badly, be the death throes of American democracy.  Herewith a few thoughts after an absence of a month from the blogosphere.

1.  Within two months of his inauguration, Trump’s disapproval rose above 50%, his approval, which has never been positive, sank to between 44% and 37%, and that is where the numbers of have remained for 27 months.  Nothing that goes right for him gets him to 45% approval, and nothing that goes wrong for him gets him below 37% approval.  This constancy is, I believe, unprecedented in the modern polling era and very strongly suggests that nothing much will change in the fifteen and a half months that remain until the 2020 election.  The good news is that a majority of American voters disapprove of Trump.  The appallingly bad news is that well over 100 million adult Americans approve of Trump.  Trump is an odds-on favorite to lose in 2020.  This fact may well influence the choice of a Democratic candidate.

2.   I am increasingly doubtful that Biden will in the end secure the Democratic nomination.  Never mind what is, from my point of view, wrong with him.  He is carrying more baggage than the cargo hold of a 747, and history suggests that he is an awful campaigner.  If he does not remain the clear front runner six months from now, I think he is toast.  One can but hope.

3.  Buttigieg is a flash in the pan.  At the moment, he is sucking up rating points that some of the one percenters need, but I do not believe he is viable.  His secret flaw, I am sorry to say, is the homophobia of the older Black community.

4.  Sanders, I am afraid, won’t make it.  His best shot was as the bearer of all the hopes of young progressives, but his success has been his undoing, for too many other candidates now espouse the policies he reintroduced into Democratic politics after their half century long disappearance.

5.  Warren against all the odds, may make a serious run for it.  The random allotment of debate slots seems to have been handcrafted to help her.  We shall see how the polls look after next week’s debates.

If everything else was not enough to demonstrate the world-historical decline of the American empire, the NBA championship went to foreigners. 

I will let you know how the dinner with Leiter goes.



Sunday, June 16, 2019

FIRST THOUGHTS


First things first.  Here is a picture I took this afternoon of Notre Dame as it presents itself now to the hordes of tourists who are drawn to the site of the disaster.  The cathedral will live, and two centuries from now, this will all be a footnote to its career.  A comforting thought, withal.



Much has happened during my silence.  I am afraid my self-imposed exile from the blogosphere did nothing to calm my nerves.  Of all the horrors that are now our daily bread, the most worrisome by far to me is the series of confrontations in the Strait of Hormuz.  Trump, I am pleased to say, has thus far shown no taste for actual military engagements, but I am, with no evidence, fearful that Bolton is stage managing an Incident designed to drag Trump into war.  We shall see.


My biggest personal disappointment [this will show you, if you had not already discerned it, how petty I am] is that before I went silent I neglected to post here a thought I had, that the House could impeach Trump and simply not forward that case to the Senate for trial, thus hanging the scarlet I around his neck but denying him the inevitable Senatorial acquittal.  Subsequently, some upstart named Lawrence Tribe said the same thing in a Washington Post Op Ed, stealing my thunder.  Rats!

Tonight I shall cook dorade royale, and tomorrow quail.

Oh, by the way, on Friday we shall dine at Brasserie Balzar with Brian Leiter!  I have never met Leiter, but he noted from my blog that we would be in Paris, wrote to tell me that he would be here giving talks, and suggested that we meet.

I think in my dotage I am coming up in the world.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

SURPRISE!

I managed to get on my blog here in Paris, and could not stand being silent so long, so here I am, the Return of  the Irrepressible.

Once I finish unpacking, I will resume my commentary on the passing scene.