My Stuff

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, July 31, 2020


This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM. Over the years that little book has been translated a number of times, not only into the usual European languages but also into Korean and Malaysian. It was first translated into Italian in 1973 and today in the mail I received two copies of a new Italian translation published by ELEUTHERIA.. It costs €14 which doesn't seem exorbitant. I have long thought that if I am remembered for anything after my death it will be for that little work which I wrote, as I have remarked here before, for the $500 advance, which I used to pay somewhat more than one month of psychoanalyst bills back in the day.

It is nice to be remembered.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020


In response to David Zimmerman's request for the name of my cat, I blush to admit that my wife and I have never gotten around to giving her one. She is known to us simply as "Kitty" which is of course no name at all for a self-respecting cat. My stuffed teddy bear has a name, as I believe I have mentioned in this space, and the two cats we had for many years in Massachusetts and then North Carolina both had names: the male was named Murray after the dog in one of our favorite television shows and the female was named Christmas Eve because that is when we got her. I will say, however, that although she has no name our kitty has learned to come when I call her so long as I am looking at her when I issue the command. I gather from cat lovers that this is extraordinary and I put it down to my dynamic personality, hem hem.

Chris suggests that she is not really interested in my books for their merits but is in fact playing on my vanity. Alas, he may be correct. I am naïve and unsuspecting when it comes to pets, for all that I am preternaturally suspicious when it is a matter of politics or national security. Still and all, like most authors I am grateful for the attention, whatever its motivation.  However, I shall not allow her to read these comments for fear that it might put ideas in her mind.

On another matter entirely unrelated to the important issue of my cat, I note that Louis Gohmert has contracted the coronavirus. I believe it is incumbent upon me to say that I hope he recovers, but I am pleased that my readers cannot observe my body language as I utter these conventional sentiments.


Here is my cat looking for something to read.

I will just note that she is browsing on the shelves that hold copies of books by me.  She knows who opens the servings of cat food!

Monday, July 27, 2020


Today’s theme on the cable news talk shows is that we are now 100 days from the election. The talking heads are called on to speculate how the present day polls – so disastrous for Trump – may change over those 100 days. There is endless repetition of the banal observation that anything can happen 100 days. But no one seems to talk about what is certain to happen in the next 30 days so I’ll spend little time repeating what I have said here before.

Four things are sure to happen in the next 30 days and all of them will be disastrous for Trump. First, in less than a week 20 or 30 million Americans or perhaps more will be faced with eviction from their homes for nonpayment of rent or they will be faced with repossession of their houses for nonpayment of mortgages. This is a catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions and even if the Republicans can be persuaded to extend support payments and eviction delays in a new congressional support bill, their internal disagreements and consequent dillydallying ensure that before they can act millions of Americans will be displaced and made homeless.

The second thing that is going to happen, this time in 2 ½ weeks, is that the Republicans will put on some sort of half-assed nominating convention in Charlotte North Carolina or somewhere else at which Trump will be renominated. The event will be a shambles and will most certainly not produce a characteristic bump in the polls that past experience has taught us to expect from political conventions.

The third thing that will happen, or rather will continue to happen, is that the number of total confirmed virus cases will grow day by day and the number of total deaths will grow day by day and this will happen in red states as well as in blue states, and battleground states as well as in states that are not genuinely in contention in the forthcoming election. Since Trump is president, he will get the credit or in this case the blame.

Finally, the fourth thing that will happen – possibly the politically most consequential of all – is that some time in the next 30 days 50 million public elementary, middle school, and high school students will be faced with the prospect of returning to school in some form or other. If one adds to them their parents, their non-college-age brothers and sisters, their teachers, and their teachers’ immediate families, a total of perhaps 100 million Americans will be directly, unavoidably, and terrifyingly compelled to decide how to manage school this fall.

By the time these four developments play out, the election will be 60 or 70 days away, not 100 days, and early voting will be weeks away from starting. We must do everything in our power to run up the vote at every point on the ticket as much as possible and, of course, we must fight voter suppression and outright voter fraud as vigorously as we can, but I simply do not see how the Republicans can avoid a crushing defeat. The only downside to all of this is that when they finally have finished counting all the votes, not on November 3 but perhaps a week or two later, and the Democrats have taken the presidency, the house, and the Senate, we will be left with Joseph Biden as our president. But you can’t have everything. Sufficient unto the day.

Friday, July 24, 2020


One of the buzz phrases in the obsessive discussion of the virus is “herd immunity.” Herd immunity, as I understand it, is the protection one gets from an infection when one is part of a population so large a portion of which is immune and not transmitting the infection that the probability of contracting the infection becomes, if not zero, acceptably low. I don’t know from nothing about epidemiology so I will simply accept the commonly repeated statement that in order to achieve some measure of herd immunity a population must be at least 60% immune and not transmitting. At the moment there are roughly 4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States but it is widely estimated that as many as 10 times that number have actually contracted the virus and either have it in active form now or have recovered from it and are immune. So let us assume that 40 million Americans have or have had the virus. 60% of the American population is roughly 200 million people so by these calculations we are 1/5 of the way to herd immunity. At the moment, there are almost 150,000 confirmed deaths from the virus. Many commentators assert with confidence that the real number is rather larger but assume that 150,000 is correct. In the absence of a vaccine, that means that by the time the United States population achieved the lowest level of herd immunity, a total of 750,000 people would have died from contracting the virus.

That number of deaths in addition to all the other deaths routinely suffered would constitute an increase in the death rate for a year of roughly 33%.


It is now four months since Carolina Meadows effectively went into quarantine, and as you can well imagine we residents are growing impatient with the constraints imposed on our normal lifestyle. At first, we were told not to leave the premises save for medical appointments, after returning from which we were to self quarantine for 14 days. As I think I reported on this blog, after several months of this regime we were permitted to drive off campus to pick up takeout from local restaurants, something that I have done on five or six occasions, each time having the restaurant put the food in the trunk of my car so that I did not have to get out of the car and interact with anybody. More recently still, following the guidelines laid down by Gov. Cooper, the constraints on us have been further relaxed.

Now if one thinks about it purely from the point of view of the virus, none of this progressive relaxation makes any sense whatsoever. The number of cases has been growing steadily in North Carolina, and Chatham County, where we are located, is, I believe, the third or fourth of the 100 counties with the highest per capita incidence of infection. We are all painfully aware of the constraints on our activities and many of us feel extremely virtuous for having abided so religiously to the guidelines laid down by the managers of Carolina Meadows – even though, of course, these conscientious managers have no way of enforcing their regulations on the 850 of us. But the virus does not attend to our conscientiousness and pass over us like the angel of death in the Bible. Since the virus is more widely present in Chatham County now than it was four months ago we ought, strictly speaking, be more vigilant, not less.

This irrationality of response is intensified by the politicization of the pandemic. No one I know would be so foolish as to say or even consciously think that having the right politics is the second best thing to being vaccinated, but I suspect there is a primitive preconscious sense that our rectitude will be rewarded.

All of which means that it will be a long time before I see Paris again, and in the interim, there will be a great deal of handwashing as well as handwringing and a good deal of compulsive sanitizing of food containers that enter the little protected world that Susan and I call our apartment.

Thursday, July 23, 2020


As regular readers of this blog know, my wife and I have a little apartment in the center of old Paris to which we go several times a year. The apartment is half a block from Place Maubert and right in the middle of the Place is our café, Le Metro. My favorite activity in Paris is simply to sit in the café with a glass of wine or cup of coffee and watch the world go by. Our most recent visit was scheduled for late February and early March just as the virus hit. Ever cautious, I canceled the trip and what with one thing and another it may be a year before we can again go to Paris. Our best friend there, who lived several blocks from us, gave me the terrible news a month or more ago that the owners of the café had gone belly up and that it would reopen, if at all, without any of the old familiar people whom I have grown over the years to love.

Yesterday, I received a cheery message. The scuttlebutt in the quartier was false! The café will reopen in September under the old management and the person there whom I like the most, Gaèlle, who is in charge of the waitstaff, will be on hand to greet us. I googled three or four of my favorite restaurants and they all seem to have survived the shutdown as well. Not major world shattering news, of course, but a balm for my soul in these troubled times.

Here is a picture of Gaèlle:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


In 1961 – 62, when I was teaching at the University of Chicago, I got to know a political scientist named Grant McConnell who had spent a year teaching at Makerere College in Kampala, Uganda. Makerere was an external College of the University of London, one of a network of colonial academic institutions that spanned the globe. Grant said if I were interested he could arrange for me to spend 1962 – 63 in Uganda. I was about to get married that summer and thought that might not be the best way to launch a marriage but I was intrigued so I asked Grant what I would be teaching. He answered “political theory.” “What books what I assign?” “Oh,” he replied, “you know, Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s Social Contract, the usual stuff.” It seemed to me a trifle bizarre to teach these chestnuts of the European political tradition to a group of African students but he explained that because Makerere was an external College of the University of London, the curriculum had to be the same as in London. Indeed, he went on to tell me, the curriculum was the same at every external College of the University of London in the entire British Empire. What was more, the examination set at the end of the semester was the same no matter where you took the course, in London, or in Uganda, or in New Delhi, or anywhere else. The most delicious fact he communicated to me was that in order to avoid cheating, the University of London required that the examination be given at exactly the same time no matter where in the world the students might happen to be. Since, as we all know, in those days the sun never set on the British Empire, this meant that some students would be taking the exam at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, some at 10 PM, some at four in the morning, and some, no doubt, at midnight.

I thought about this as I have read stories about the arrangements universities in the United States are making for distance learning by their overseas students, some of whom might not be able to attend classes in person and might not even be able to travel to the United States.

The academic year 2020 – 2021 is going to be a shambles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020


Earlier today, I put up a snarky post about Donald Trump and the Montréal Cognitive Assessment test that he bragged about acing. Now I should like to return to the subject and this time write quite seriously about a problem that insensitive doctors have in dealing with patients of my age. My wife, Susan, is 87 years old. 30 years ago she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and she has been dealing with the disease ever since. Fortunately, the physical effects of the disease have been much less severe than in many other cases and although she has a number of bodily discomforts that she describes as “tingling and burning,” she still walks easily, usually with a cane that she often does not need. However, in the past five or six years the disease has inflicted upon her certain cognitive effects that make it more difficult for her to remember things, to perform complex tasks of a certain sort, and for example, to remember without my prompting to take her daily medications.

When we moved to North Carolina we were quite fortunate to get on the service of a first-rate doctor in the UNC health service and for a number of years he looked after both of us, but perhaps four years ago or perhaps a bit more he left to take some big deal job in Medicare and we had to transfer to other primary care physicians. Susan was transferred to the practice of a young, chirpy, cheerful, relentlessly friendly young woman who was obviously accustomed to being loved by her patients. The first time Susan saw her, with me in attendance as usual, as part of the examination she gave Susan a shortened version of the cognitive assessment survey – clearly something that is standard issue for all physicians in the UNC system. Susan is a proud woman who for many years before we married supported herself and her sons as a real estate agent. Susan graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key from Connecticut College for Women in 1954 and after moving to Chicago with her first husband, taught botany to premed students at the University of Chicago and worked for 10 years in a research laboratory. She is extremely sensitive about the cognitive deficits that the MS has inflicted upon her but, like the people of our generation, she almost never says anything about this.

As the doctor started to administer the cognitive skills test, Susan felt humiliated by her inability to do easily the simple tasks required by the test and, as I could tell but the doctor could not, she froze up, simply shaking her head as each new task was presented to her. The last task of the test was to write a simple sentence and when the doctor read the sentence that she had written she was startled and surprised. Susan had written, “I am very unhappy.” “Good heavens, why?” The doctor burst out. I could see that the doctor was accustomed to being adored by her patients and could not understand what Susan could possibly be unhappy about. I knew that she was not in fact unhappy, she was angry at having been humiliated, but people of our age and generation don’t say things like that.

When we got home, I wrote a long letter to the doctor explaining exactly what had happened and why Susan was so angry. The story has a happy ending. We found a new doctor for Susan who is everything we could want in a primary care physician, sensitive, understanding, supportive, and willing to work with Susan to make her life more pleasant and manageable.

Now you might think that the moral of this story is that doctors should be nicer people, and there is no doubt that that is true. But that is not really the point of the story at all. The real point is this. The purpose of administering the test to a new patient is to establish a baseline of cognitive performance. When the test is administered again a year or two later, the doctor can compare the score on the first test with the new score and determine whether there has been a cognitive decline in the interim. But because the doctor had administered the test insensitively and without any awareness of the stress that it would produce in an elderly patient concerned about her cognitive losses, the score recorded in the first administration of the test was inaccurate. Susan was capable of doing much better at that time than she actually did. At a later time, when the same test was administered by a more thoughtful doctor, Susan might achieve exactly the same score. The new doctor would think, “Good, there has been no decline in the interim.” In fact, however, they might in the interim has been a genuine decline that the new doctor missed.  This is, of course, not a problem with blood tests or an MRI. The results are what they are regardless of the manner of the administering technician.

The UNC medical school has adopted the practice of having their first year medical students meet in small groups with senior citizens like myself for an informal conversation so that they can get to know the sorts of people they may one day have as patients. I have several times signed up for this session and each time I tell the new medical students this story in an attempt to alert them to the special problems they will face in treating old people.

Incidentally, before writing this post I asked Susan whether she was comfortable with having me tell the story and she said that she was.


Donald Trump has been widely mocked for bragging in his Chris Wallace interview about having aced the Montréal Cognitive Assessment test or MOCA, which is usually used by doctors to identify the onset of dementia. I think it is unnecessarily cruel and partisan for people to make fun of Trump in this way. After all, it may well be the first test he has ever confronted that he did not pay somebody else to take for him.

Sunday, July 19, 2020


There are more than 50 million elementary, middle school, and high school students in the public schools of the United States and there are more than 3 million teachers. In less than a month, in some form or another, these children and their teachers are scheduled to go back to school. Judging from the anecdotal evidence one hears on cable news and reads online, parents and teachers are beside themselves with anxiety about the dangers of returning to school. Insanely, irrationally, self destructively Trump and his appalling Secretary of Education have placed themselves on the wrong side of the issue of reopening the schools. The protests triggered by the death of George Floyd are as nothing compared with the upheavals that will be caused as outbreaks of the virus occur in this classroom or that and are immediately reported on television and online. Already teachers are being interviewed who have announced that they will retire rather than be forced to go back into the classroom and risked their lives. If you alienate parents with children and also alienate senior citizens frightened by the virus, there isn’t much left in the way of a “base” on which to build an electoral strategy.

Friday, July 17, 2020


Sitting here in enforced isolation, even after I have played hundreds of games of computer solitaire I have a great deal of time to brood about the political campaign that is now heating up. Herewith a bit of prognostication, based simply on what I can gather from surfing the web and using my noodle.

This is now July 17th. In the next six weeks, I believe, four things are going to happen that are quite likely, taken altogether, to sink Trump’s political chances. First, in a little less than two weeks, millions of American families are going to run out of unemployment insurance and the additional $600 a week mandated by congressional action. As many as 20 or 30 million American families are going to be unable to meet their mortgage payments or pay the rent and they will therefore face eviction. This is going to create a social crisis that will resonate through the entire country. Second, deaths and Covid-19 infections will continue to rise and in a number of Republican states hospitals will be overwhelmed and governors will be forced to reinstitute shutdowns. Third, the Republican national convention, now scheduled for August 24 in Jacksonville Florida, will be held in some form or other and judging from the present evidence it is likely that it will be a political shambles. Finally, starting in middle or late August, elementary and secondary schools around the country will in some form or another undertake to open for the fall and the inevitable outbreaks of coronavirus hotspots will force shutdowns, protests, and in all likelihood legitimate parental hysteria. As a consequence of the first, second, and fourth of these developments all of the economic indicators will turn south (with the possible exception of the stock market, which seems to have become completely unhinged from economic reality.)

The apprehension that is now reported to be developing within the White House will intensify, Trump’s chaotic and unhinged performance will grow even worse, and after Labor Day Republicans will be in full panic mode at the prospects of a blue tsunami come election day in November.

It is difficult to take pleasure in these prospects when one reflects on the death and illness and poverty and desperation that will be inflicted upon the American people. I know it is not particularly noble of me but I shall be spending this time doing everything I can to make sure that Susie and I do not contract the virus.


Let me respond to the lengthy and interesting comment by the reader with the ridiculous blog name concerning the potential role of unions in a progressive movement going forward. My skepticism about the possible role of unions was fed by two considerations: first, the dramatic decline in the proportion of the labor force that is unionized, a decline that has brought that proportion down from roughly 1/3 to perhaps 15% in the past 50 or 60 years. I can recall, as I think the reader can as well, when the AFL/CIO was a bedrock of the Democratic Party. The deliberate and successful effort of Ronald Reagan and his followers to weaken unionization in the United States could to a considerable extent be reversed by a progressive Congress and president. But structural changes in capitalism in the United States in the past half-century place significant obstacles in the way of a real resurgence of labor union membership. I am, of course, thinking of the decline of manufacturing as well as the cultural and employment divide resulting from the increase in the proportion of the population having college degrees from five or 10% to roughly 33% today. The ritual repetition by Democratic politicians of the phrase “middle class” and the absence of the phrase “working class” in the rhetoric of all but Bernie Sanders and a few other politicians is one reflection of this fundamental change in American capitalism.

However, I am convinced that a progressive movement will have to adopt the strategy of the United Front if it is to be successful and in that Front I would certainly hope that unions would play an important role.

I would be very interested to hear from other readers whose experiences give them insights into other sources of movement strength in the years to come.


If there is a God, he or she or it or they will cure Ruth Bader Ginsburg of all of her illnesses. Don't give me any of that crap about how God works in mysterious ways. Put up or shut up!


Donald Trump’s speech patterns are quite strange and unnatural. I am not talking about the content of what he says so much as the way he uses words. He frequently treats words as though they were objects, not as syntactic components in sentences designed to communicate thoughts. I have long thought that he is probably dyslexic and that his father treated him brutally because of that disability. Consequently, I was interested to read that Mary Trump somewhere in her book (I have not looked at it) describes her uncle as having an undiagnosed case of dyslexia.

My favorite example of dyslexia is from the movie “Jack Reacher” starring Tom Cruise. The movie is made from one of the novels by Lee Childs in which Jack Reacher is the main character. In the novel, Reacher is described as being 6’5” tall. Tom Cruise is 5’6” tall. I have always thought that the casting director was dyslexic.

Thursday, July 16, 2020


I was thinking as I walked about what is going to happen when the schools reopen, and then I read this, which is, I suspect, exactly right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


Let me return to the question I posed several days ago about the way forward by saying a few words not about desirable policies but rather about the ongoing organizational grassroots support for those policies that is required if they are to be enacted. We tend to focus, quite naturally, on periodic elections which have something of the character of flash mobs. But major change is going to require established structures that continue to function effectively between elections. Churches are one such example and they help to explain why evangelical Christians have had a disproportionate impact on public policy. The most successful organizational structure in the modern world for the promotion and implementation of public policy is of course the Corporation. Unfortunately, corporations by and large do not promote the sorts of policies that I wish to see enacted so I must look elsewhere.

I am old enough to remember when labor unions played this role on the left in America. The unions that still exist are an important part of the struggle for progressive policies but their membership has been dramatically reduced both by economic changes and by deliberate reactionary efforts, principally by Republicans but also, alas, by corporate Democrats. Undoing antiunion laws would be a good step but for structural reasons it seems unlikely that labor unions of the old sort can again play the very large role that they once did in American politics.

So we must ask the question: what organizational structures can take the place of labor unions? I do not really know the answer to this question although I am fairly certain that there is no simple response. I invite readers to draw upon their experience as well as their wisdom to offer suggestions as to how we might build what could become an effective progressive movement.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Now that I have made it into the big time with my appearance on Existential Comics, I think I should consider seriously a new career. Perhaps philosophical standup with guest appearances at weddings and bar mitzvahs. I mean, I don’t look much like Woody Allen but perhaps for virtual appearances a little photo shopping could be arranged.

Alternatively, with millions of schoolchildren distance learning this fall, perhaps I could make a little money doing virtual AP philosophy courses.

Anybody want a job as my agent?

Monday, July 13, 2020


Before I returned to the conversation we have begun on the way forward, I feel it necessary to say a few words about the disaster unfolding around me. I have nothing new, original, or particularly intelligent to say about this disaster, but it would be grotesque of me to carry on without acknowledging it. I am referring, of course, to the death, severe illness, and economic catastrophe that this country is now experiencing. 135,000 people have died according to the official estimates and that is in all likelihood an undercount. No one is even keeping a public accounting of the people whose health has been permanently damaged by the virus even after they recover from it. Scores of millions of men and women are out of work, something appalling like 1/3 of all renters will be unable to meet their monthly payments come August, and there are uncounted numbers of families whose economic security, already fragile, has been destroyed by the virus. I doubt that I can live long enough to see this country fully recover from what has happened in just the past five months. It is also worth remembering that the federal government will be missing in action at least until the inauguration of a new president, which is six months in the future.

In the past few days, I have been listening to the horrifying projections of what will happen when children are sent back to school in only a few weeks. The anecdotal evidence is enough to make one weep.

All of this will of course strengthen the election prospects of the Democrats come November, and that is perhaps the only ray of sunshine in this gloomy forecast. But even if the Democrats win the House and the Senate and the presidency, eliminate the filibuster, and before the month of January is out pass a series of daring bills to repair the damage, and even if at the same time a vaccine is produced that works reasonably well, it will be months after January before we see any improvement either in the health or in the economic well-being of large segments of the American population.

If there is indeed a hell in which the damned souls suffer for all eternity, I hope it is capacious enough to hold all those who have earned a place in it.

It takes a good deal to turn a Tigger into an Eeyore, but I have to confess my inner Tigger is sorely tried.

Sunday, July 12, 2020


On this lazy Sunday morning, I thought I would say just a word about the term “ward heeler” and its connection to a very large change in American politics that took place after World War II. In the late 19th and early 20th century, an enormous number of people from Europe emigrated to the United States and many of them settled in large eastern and midwestern cities – Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and so forth. They tended to settle in linguistic, national, and ethnic neighborhoods – Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and Russian. The new immigrants by and large did not speak English and in the Catholic churches that sprang up, although of course the mass was still celebrated in Latin, the sermons were in the language of the neighborhood. In those days, a mixed marriage, a source of much agita to the parents, might be the union of a young Italian Catholic boy with a young Irish Catholic girl.

The city governments were organized into wards and quite often run by political machines whose low-level neighborhood operatives walked the wards saying hello to the folks they met and doing necessary favors for them – arranging for an ordinance to be waived, facilitating permission to hang a sign outside of a saloon, and so on. When election day rolled around, those for whom favors had been done were expected to respond by giving their votes to the machine candidate. Since these political operatives walked “on their heels” they were called ward heelers. Typically, the big city machines were allied with the Democratic Party and it was the proud boast of the machine boss that he could “deliver” his territory to a state or national candidate when called upon to do so. One of the last of the big city bosses was Richard Daley of Chicago. I can still recall, late on election night in 1960, when the vote total from Illinois had been frozen for hours and the outcome of the election hung in the balance, until finally Richard Daley “voted the graveyards” as the saying had it and threw Illinois to Kennedy, giving him the presidency.

After World War II, there was a massive movement of the more affluent city residents to the suburbs and even the exurbs, facilitated by the automobile and eventually by the creation of the interstate highway system. The explicit written federal guidelines for government guaranteed mortgages discriminated against nonwhite applicants with the consequence that the suburbs became all white. The white middle-class and upper-middle-class suburbanites no longer needed the small favors from the local city government that had been the meat and potatoes of the old political machines. Instead, sitting in their segregated enclaves beyond the city limits, they issued a call for “good government” which in practice meant government that attended to the economic needs of the upper-middle-class. The inner cities became ghettos, heavily black, and with the departure of the affluent city residents, the sources of funds for city government began to dry up. The machines remained in some form or other but were taken over by black politicians who eventually succeeded in electing some of their own to city government.

All of that and a great deal more is contained in the old term “ward heeler.”

Saturday, July 11, 2020


The enforced narrowing of the scope of my daily activities, about which I wrote yesterday, has gotten me thinking more generally about perspective. The conversation I have started with Tom Hickey, Jerry Fresia, and I hope others deals in very broad terms with national and international economic and political considerations, a marked contrast to the circumscription of my personal life. Given the rather peculiar turn of my mind, this led me ineluctably to the Big Five and the Little Five, which those of you who have not had the great good fortune to go on safari may be unfamiliar with. The Big Five are the lion, the rhinoceros, the elephant, the African buffalo, and the leopard. Originally, in the old days when colonial types went on hunting safaris, these were the five trophies most prized, apparently because they were thought to be the most difficult animals to kill. After trophy hunting was for the most part banned in East Africa, the Big Five became the animals that guides felt obligated to show to those of us who went on game viewing safaris. In my experience, guides would regularly pass up quite interesting lesser animals in order to ensure that their clients ticked off on their lists the lion, the rhinoceros, the elephant, the African buffalo, and the leopard.

At some point, I do not know when, a safari guide with a sense of humor came up with a list of the Little Five, small bugs and animals whose names happen to echo those of the Big Five: the antlion, the rhino beetle, the buffalo weaver, the elephant shrew, and the leopard turtle. Now these are very small game, needless to say, and hardly worth a guide’s attention unless the clients are curious to see them, as Susie and I were. The elephant shrew may look very small to me, but not to another elephant shrew, of course. And the rhino beetle looks quite as menacing to another small bug as a rhinoceros does to a large grazing animal. It is all a matter of perspective.

This is brought home to me daily in the apartment which is now my world, as Susie and I watch the birds that come to our three birdfeeders. Hummingbirds are tiny and look as though a slight breeze could blow them away but, judging from their behavior at the feeder, they are ferociously territorial and rather pushy. Goldfinches too, I am sorry to report, do not share easily or play well with others, as they say in upscale preschools.

One of the nicest literary expressions of this theme of perspective can be found in T. H. White’s classic work The Once and Future King, his three volume work about Merlin and King Arthur. You will recall that when Merlin begins the education that will prepare little Wart for eventual elevation to the throne, he turns the boy into a number of different creatures so that he may see the world as they do and understand it from many perspectives. As I recall, Merlin even turns Wart into a mountain so that Wart may understand how things look from the point of view of something that changes only over millions of years.

Lacking a magician, I do the next best thing and go to YouTube where I find interesting videos on paleontology and the evolution of life. It is humbling to reflect that from that point of view, my long life counts for no more than that of a mayfly. The evidence of the bones suggests that genetically modern humans have existed for perhaps 200,000 years. Assuming that for most of that time twenty was a relatively late age for a woman to bear a child, that means that there have been 10,000 generations of humans, only a bit more than the last four of which span my long life. All of recorded human history amounts to barely 5% of that period of time, and Plato, the first great philosopher in the tradition to which I have given my entire career, takes me back only 1% of the totality of the human story.

It requires a genuine feat of tunnel vision to care about capitalist exploitation, or systemic racism, or even global warming. Fortunately, evolution has seen fit to place my eyes close together above my nose so that I can only see what is right in front of me.

Friday, July 10, 2020


Let me thank both Tom Hickey and Jerry Fresia for the very useful responses to my open-ended question about the way forward. I shall try to respond to both of them, perhaps later today. Right now, however, I should like to spend a few moments talking about the contrast between my actual life and the large-scale philosophical and political questions about which I so often bloviate on this blog.

What have I actually been doing in the nearly 4 months since the virus compelled the retirement community in which I live to go on virtual lockdown? My wife and I live in a comfortable third floor apartment with our little cat. Our meals are delivered to our door by the dining services here at Carolina Meadows, along with a variety of things that I can order from them online. I also get deliveries to my door from and via Instacart from the local supermarket. I leave my apartment on a typical day twice: first, in the early morning, to take my one hour walk, carrying my mask with me so that I can put it on when I pass another early walker; and then later on in the early afternoon when I go masked downstairs to the lobby to pick up my mail. By my count, I have left Carolina Meadows ten times in the past four months: Four times to take Susie to a doctor when she broke her wrist in a fall during a brief walk outside; once when I went to the dentist; three times when I called in takeout orders at local restaurants, paid over the phone by credit card, and had them put the order in the trunk of my car when I got to the restaurant; once when I went to get some gas at a local gas station, sanitizing my credit card after inserting it into the slot and holding the pump handle with a sanitizing wipe; and once – a daring outing, this – when Susie and I drove to the parking lot of a local restaurant wearing masks, stood 6 feet away from her son and daughter-in-law, also masked, and chatted for half an hour. And that is it.

To be sure, during these four months I have taught five meetings of my UNC Marx course by zoom, made several guest appearances, also by zoom, in a course on the Critique of Pure Reason taught in Laramie, Wyoming, and sought daily, in the immortal words of Emily Dickinson, “to tell my name the livelong day to an admiring bog.”

Inasmuch as my overriding concern is to make absolutely certain that neither Susie nor I contract the virus, I suspect that this will be my life for at least another nine months. That is not an inconsiderable portion of all the days I have left on this earth so I must make of them what I can. The contrast between the constrained circumference of my actual life and the limitless scope of my speculations is, of course, a commonplace for people who make their living as philosophers, but this virus has brought it home to me with especial force.

Thursday, July 9, 2020


Let me offer a preliminary response to the question I posed several days ago, namely what should we do going forward if the Democrats do indeed sweep the table and take control both of the White House and of both branches of the legislature? There are quite obviously an enormous number of particular things that need to be done right away to reverse some of the damage that Trump has inflicted on the country but I am more interested in larger long-term changes that this moment may for the first time make possible.

The pandemic and the economic crash that it has triggered have together, I believe, created the possibility for major progressive initiatives. Not the certainty, Lord knows, but the genuine possibility. Let me briefly suggest three interconnected large-scale programmatic changes that I believe are now for the first time genuinely possible.

First of all, the pandemic and consequent massive unemployment have, I believe, finally made it manifest even to those who wish not to notice that America’s accidental connection of employment with healthcare has to go. I think I am correct that we are the only major industrial nation in the world that ties health insurance to employment. Fully half of the country gets its health insurance through a job. This is manageable, although hardly ideal, so long as unemployment is low, but to have scores of millions of working people lose their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic is so insane as to be unsupportable. Oh yes, there will be fights about what to do about this, and most politicians, among whom I am sure Biden is numbered, will argue that we should make some temporary accommodation in Obamacare to handle the problem. But if we continue to elect more and more genuinely progressive members of the House and even of the Senate, I think the way might be open to the establishment of universal single-payer health insurance.

Secondly, the present disaster has made it possible for the first time in my memory to raise in polite conversation, and not in whispered conspiratorial tones, the idea of a guaranteed universal minimum income. Not a minimum wage but a minimum income for everyone in the country.

Finally, as I somewhat puckishly observed back when the first trillion dollar emergency stimulus package was passed by Congress, MMT has finally come into its own. The next time a corporate Democrat says that some proposal is not viable unless it is paid for immediately by taxes, I think we can simply laugh him or her out of the room.

None of this is socialism, needless to say. But it is light years beyond what seemed possible only six months ago. To accomplish this will take organization, pressure from below, and the election of large numbers of progressive members of the House. But if these proposals do not give Chuck Schumer a heart attack, as they well may, and if Biden can forget who brought him to the dance long enough to sign what Congress puts on his desk, in the next several years might actually be enough to warm an old philosopher’s heart.


Charles Pigden’s lovely story about Peter Fraser and Trevelyan reminded me of a touching anecdote that I surfaced while writing a book about my grandfather, Barney Wolff and his long-time friend and comrade Abe Shiplacoff. Barney and Abe together started the branch of the Socialist party in Brooklyn New York in the early years of the point of the last century. That was a time when almost no one went to college and many people, like my grandfather, did not even complete elementary school. But the workers in the socialist movement held study sessions and inform themselves about the world and about Marx’s critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, many of them felt shamed and inadequate by their lack of formal education. Here’s the story as I wrote it:

“Abe Shiplacoff was two years older than Barney.  He was important enough to warrant a lengthy obituary in the New York TIMES when he died in 1934, from which we learn that he was born in Chernigov, Russia on December 13, 1877.  “Mr. Shiplacoff came to this country with his parents in 1891 [i.e., eleven years after Barney arrived].  For seven years he toiled over a sewing machine in a sweatshop, working twelve hours a day and studying at night..” [NY TIMES, February 8, 1934]

Shiplacoff was an indefatigable champion of Socialism and the leading figure in the Brownsville branch of the Party.  Elected to the New York State Assembly for the first time in the 1915 election to which the story is devoted, he won reelection the next year, and the year after.  In 1918, Shiplacoff ran for Congress from the 10th Congressional District, but lost.  This loss, and the impact of the Red Scare triggered by the World War and the Russian Revolution, led to perhaps the bitterest disappointment of Barney’s political career, as we shall see a bit later.

If you read the Call for these years, you meet Shiplacoff in almost every issue.  Naturally, his doings in the Assembly were fully reported by the Call, but he was also constantly on the stump, making speeches, raising money, and supporting the Party.  When the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum burned to the ground, he led the successful effort to raise money for a new building in Brownsville.  As his obituary indicates, Shiplacoff was active as well in a number of New York unions, serving as an officer of the United Hebrew Trades and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. 

In September 1918, Abe Shiplacoff and the communist newspaper reporter and author John Reed were indicted under the Espionage Act, Shiplacoff for having spoken out against the war effort.  The indictment was later quashed, and subsequently, Shiplacoff ran for Brooklyn Borough president [in 1919.]

Shiplacoff was a little man with a pinched face and a rather unimposing presence, very much in contrast with Barney, who was a big, barrel-chested man with a booming voice.  But more than any other single person, he can be credited with creating the socialist movement in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, and leading it to its greatest electoral triumphs in 1917.

Looking for background material on Shiplacoff, I stumbled on the following story in a review by John Patrick Diggins of Bertram Wolfe’s autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries.  Wolfe is a well-known expert on Soviet Russia and twentieth century communist movements.  I include it here because it seems to me to capture perfectly both the strengths and the weaknesses of the generation of socialist leaders to which Abe Shiplacoff and Barney belonged.

The young Bertram Wolfe apparently debated against Shiplacoff, at the Labor Lyceum, over the split in the party produced by the Third International [of which more later.] The issue was whether dictatorial tactics should replace the democratic procedures of the American Socialist Party. After the debate, Diggins says, “the two adversaries resumed their discussion in a local cafe.”  There then appears this passage quoted from Wolfe’s book:

“There was an embarrassed silence until Shiplacoff burst into tears.  ‘I have worked so hard all my life,’ he said, ‘for our party and for the labor movement, that I have never had the time to read all those books by Marx and Engels that you have read.’  Then he wept on in silence.  Suddenly, I felt sympathy for him, and more than a little shame, for I had not read ‘all those books’ either.  Moreover, for the first time I understood how much men like Shiplacoff had given to building the party that my colleagues and I, mostly youngsters, were now tearing apart.  I did not know what to say: we both left our cake and coffee unfinished, but I never forgot the episode.  I began to feel more charitable toward the old-timers whose work we were helping to destroy.  Though I continued to use quotations, I could no longer summon up the scorn with which I had read them to that Brownsville Labor Lyceum meeting.”

I can only comment that I have read ‘all those books,’ and in them you will not find an adequate justification for replacing democratic procedures with dictatorial tactics.  Shiplacoff, Barney, and the other ‘old-timers’ understood Marx and Engels quite as well as necessary to devote their lives to building a working-class movement.  Would that Bertram Wolfe had done as much!”


A reader sends this link to a marvelous YouTube kletzmer selection.  The famous section on the fetishism of commodities has never been put to better use!

Wednesday, July 8, 2020


Yesterday I wrote a short blog post with the title “a little arithmetic.” That post had a very limited and quite specific purpose which, perhaps with excessive optimism, I thought would be obvious to my readers. The post attracted no fewer than 29 comments, dominated by several very long comments from a new contributor to this blog, Tom Hickey. The discussion in those comments was interesting, although it covered ground that has been extensively tilled on this blog. But what I was most struck by was the odd fact that not a single one of the comments had anything at all to do with what I had posted.

At the risk of appearing simpleminded, let me explain in elementary terms what I was trying to accomplish by means of that imaginary arithmetic example. There is endless discussion in the blogosphere and on cable news about “turnout,” and everybody understands that turnout is important. But no one ever runs through numerical examples designed to explain precisely why a political campaign plan that focuses on “turning out the base” can be a rational way of trying to win an election. I thought that if I constructed a numerical example, it would put some flesh on those bones. I did not feel it necessary to repeat yet again that in the American political system presidents are elected by the electoral college and not by the popular vote. Nor did I think it necessary to remind the readers of this blog that in presidential election years over the past 70 years or so turnout has been in the neighborhood of 60%.

I think my numerical example clarified something that is often not adequately understood by commentators on cable news, namely that in certain circumstances it can be quite rational to focus all one’s efforts on significantly increasing the turnout of one’s loyal supporters rather than on attempting to win over those not already in the base.

In my example, a political campaign down 10 points in the polls in a particular state could nonetheless win that state and hence that state’s electoral votes by increasing the base turnout from 60 to 75%, a difficult but not impossible goal under certain circumstances. My example also showed that the candidate leading in the polls in that state by 10 percentage points could protect his or her lead by a relatively small increase in turnout.

And that was it. Now a blog is not a classroom, a fact that S. Wallerstein likes to remind me of. But I really would like to think that it has the form of a genuine conversation and not just an unstructured free-for-all.

Well, so much for that. Later today or perhaps tomorrow I will take a stab at answering my own question about what we ought to do in the event that the Democrats actually sweep the table in the November elections.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020


Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, as the old saying has it. Mary Trump’s tell-all book about the Trump family is now in the hands of reporters one week before its scheduled publication and I suspect that very soon we will learn that Trump as a little boy was dyslexic, that his father mocked him and treated him brutally because of the disability, and that it is from this original fact that much of his appalling personality derives. Well, I am not going to let him off the hook. Many people are born dyslexic, some are treated badly by their parents and teachers as a consequence, but very few grow up to be the appalling human being that Donald Trump is. The fact that his niece, Mary, is a clinical psychologist will add weight to her revelations. Poor little Donald. These days he just doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break.


While you are working out your contributions to the discussion I proposed we have, I thought I would lay before you a little arithmetic example that I worked out yesterday while taking my morning walk. Since I am a philosopher by profession I am, of course, under no obligation to pay any particular attention to the real world so these numbers are all quite hypothetical. They have been chosen principally to make the arithmetic easy.

Let us suppose there is a state in which there are 1 million eligible voters. Suppose as well that a series of polls have shown that 55% of the eligible voters support Biden and 45% support Trump. I am ignoring support for third-party candidates and I am ignoring as well those who respond “don’t know” when asked by pollsters whom they support. This last assumption actually has some grounding in reality. If you go to the website DailyKos you will find at the top of the main page a number of little graphics showing the evolution of various opinion polls over the course of the Trump presidency [it has now disappeared.] I mostly care about how large the negative over positive gap is but if you look at the bottom of the graphic you will find that for the last 3 ½ years almost no one has answered “don’t know.”

Thus in our imaginary state, by hypothesis, 550,000 voters support Biden and 450,000 support Trump. Over the last eight or 10 presidential election cycles roughly 60% of the eligible voters have actually gone to the polls. If that were to happen this year, it would mean that Biden would get 330,000 votes and Trump would get 270,000, a quite comfortable margin for Biden. Assuming that there are rational political operatives still associated with the Trump campaign, how can they possibly hope to win in such a state?

Well, suppose that Trump succeeds by his ugly, divisive, racist campaign in driving up the turnout of his supporters to 75%. Suppose as well that white bread vanilla Biden merely draws the historically usual 60%. In that case, Biden still gets 330,000 votes but Trump gets 337,500 votes and wins a narrow victory. He does this without persuading a single Biden voter to switch to his side.

Now the Biden campaign operatives may be working for a bland unexciting candidate but they are not fools and they understand this possibility quite well. So they work as hard as they can to get extra Biden supporters to the polls. It is a hard slog because there is not much one can say about Biden to excite a Biden supporter, but they work at it and manage to bring Biden’s turnout up from 60% to 65%. In that case, while Trump has driven his support at the polls up to 337,000, Biden’s vote is now 357,500, and Biden wins by 20,000.

When political experts on cable news say that turnout is everything, this is what they mean. In light of these numbers, why am I confident that Biden will win? Well, elections are decided by emotion, not by rational calculation, and there are two sorts of emotions that get people to the polls – the positive and the negative. Voters are pulled to the polls by hope, by desire, by love, by enthusiasm, even by exaltation. And they are driven to the polls by anger, by disgust, by hatred, by fear, by despair, and by loathing. There is a considerable amount of anecdotal and statistical evidence to suggest that Biden voters are being driven to the polls by all of these negative emotions, not by hope, by desire, by love, or by enthusiasm for Biden and certainly not by exaltation. I prefer love to hate, hope to despair, and enthusiasm to disgust, but in politics as in much of life you take what you can get.

Monday, July 6, 2020


With this post, I should like to launch a discussion of the way forward after the forthcoming election. For purposes of the discussion, I’m going to assume that the Democrats sweep the election, taking the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. I actually think that is a reasonable prognosis but I do not intend to argue it here. Rather I shall posit it as the premise of the discussion. Somewhat more particularly, I shall assume that under pressure from his colleagues and from the people, Chuck Schumer will agree finally to abrogate the notional filibuster so that a majority of Democratic senators can enact the will of the people.

The United States will face four crises on January 20 of next year. The most immediate crisis, of course, will be that posed by the virus and I am simply going to assume that Joe Biden and the Democrats will handle it in such a manner that, once a vaccine is established, this threat will dwindle or disappear. The second crisis will be restarting the economy and here, unfortunately, we cannot assume that the Biden administration will make wise and progressive decisions. Left to its own devices, it will do quite the opposite. In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, Biden will be inclined to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. The third crisis, unfolding over a longer period of time, will be an exacerbation of the long developing and ever deepening economic inequality that afflicts not only the United States but in one way or another the entire developed world. And finally, there will always be, of course, the threat posed by global warming that requires immediate action by the United States and by the rest of the world.

I see two ways that the future may unfold after the election. The more probable, unfortunately, is that the United States will emerge from the economic depression more unequal, more in thrall to the wealthy and powerful, with an ever larger proportion of the population consigned to poverty and perpetual economic uncertainty. But it is at least possible that this could be one of those rare moments when scores of millions of people join hands to create a better world. What will this require and what ought we to do now to prepare?

That is the question I propose for discussion on this blog. Lord knows, I do not have answers. I have convictions, I have a vision of the world I want to see us create from this shambles, and I am willing to do my small part to act on those convictions and in support of that vision.

Of one thing I am certain: change will come from below, not from above. It will be organic, not administrative. It will require the active participation of tens of millions of men and women, but I think this is one of those moments when the millions required may be fired up and ready to act.

So, what do you think is called for and how do you think we should act? I look forward to your answers.

Sunday, July 5, 2020


In December, 1957, having completed the active-duty portion of my National Guard obligation, I returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take up a delayed postdoctoral fellowship prior to beginning my instructorship at Harvard. I moved into an apartment in a converted one family home at 12 Prentiss St. off Massachusetts Avenue north of Harvard Square. My apartment was on the first floor and above me lived Hugh Amory, a graduate student in the English department. Hugh was a member of the Boston Amorys, an old upper crust family that thought of Harvard as the neighborhood school. I became friendly with Hugh, and his family “took up” me and my girlfriend, Cynthia, perhaps amused by a nonreligious Jew and the daughter of a self-made Catholic businessman. The Amorys had an in town home and an estate on the North Shore where they summered. Hugh’s birthday, it turned out, was July 4 and the family had adopted the custom of celebrating it with a big Fourth of July party at their summer home. In 1958 Cynthia and I were invited to come along to the shindig.

Cynthia and I pooled our funds and bought Hugh a magnum of champagne as a present. Then we put on our Sunday best and drove out to the party. As soon as we arrived, it was clear that we were going to be completely out of place. Everyone else was wearing T-shirts and cut off jeans and beach sandals. The party was a clambake – the only actual clambake I have ever seen or attended. A big pit had been dug in which hardwood had been burned down to glowing embers and then layers of seaweed and clams and seaweed and lobsters had been put down to cook. In those days, oddly enough, lobster was actually cheap and I had on several occasions cooked one in my apartment. I had inherited my taste for lobster from my father, who would work over a lobster cracking open the claws and painstakingly sucking the bits of lobster meat from each of the little legs. When I went up to the table to get my food, Hugh’s mother was just ahead of me. Mrs. Amory was a rather flamboyant lady who was rumored to have played the piano with the Boston Pops many years earlier. After the death of her husband, Hugh’s father, she had married a stuffy white shoe lawyer named Phillips Ketchum. One evening when Cynthia and I had dinner with the Ketchums at their in town residence, Mr. Ketchum, in an attempt to make me feel at ease, had told stories about the sole “Hebrew gentleman” who had been in his Harvard class.

At the food table, Mrs. Amory picked up a lobster, pulled off its tail, and tossed the rest into a barrel. She must have seen my appalled look because she turned and said, laughing, “life is too short.” I took my food and tried to blend in, which was difficult considering how I was dressed. I sat down with a group of young people who were chattering gaily about the Boston Arts Festival, a big summer event. The young man sitting next to me on the ground seem to know a good deal about the festival so in an attempt to make conversation I asked him politely “are you with the festival?” He turned to me and said coolly, “I run it.”

That was my only encounter with the Boston upper crust, those folks whose ladies had their hats and did not buy them. After one more year on Prentiss Street I moved into Winthrop House as a resident tutor and lost touch with Hugh. I think he ended up working at the Harvard library.

Saturday, July 4, 2020


Yesterday, one of the anonymati wrote with regard to my allusion to Socrates’ put down of Callicles, “You've repeated that bit about repetition many times.” I was curious, so I used Google’s powerful search facility and quickly discovered that I had indeed cited that passage a total of five times in eight years. That works out to roughly once every 585 days, which does not seem to me excessive, but it reminded me of a lovely old story that I heard during the years that I was living in Massachusetts. It seems that the wife of a nouveau riche businessman trying to make his way into the rarefied world of the Boston old Brahmans asked a Beacon Hill lady, “where do you buy your hats?” The lady looked down her nose at this upstart and responded, “we don’t buy our hats. We have our hats.”

That got me thinking about my own clothes and I realized that like the uppercrust Boston lady, although not for the same reasons, I don’t buy my clothes, I have my clothes. It is years since I have bought a shirt or pair of pants and the only shoes I have bought in the last five or six years are the sneakers I wear on my morning walks. Indeed, I don’t even own a suit and the last time I wore a tie was when my son, Tobias, took me along as his guest to an Obama White House Christmas party. I no longer buy cars, I have a car – a 16-year-old Toyota Camry that runs adequately and will, with any luck, last as long as I do.

This tendency to make do with what I already have is not an expression of aristocracy but rather of old age. When I was younger, I took pleasure in visiting places I had never been to before. Now, I sit here in enforced isolation hoping against hope that the day will come when I can return to my apartment in Paris and enjoy once again the old familiar cafés and restaurants. I am much the same way with favorite passages from books I have read. It gives me pleasure to return to Das Kapital or the Critique of Pure Reason or the Treatise of Human Nature, even though I pretty well already know what is in those books. And I do return again and again to certain passages that stand out in my memory. The exchange between Socrates and Callicles is one of them. The preface of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments is another. No one would consider it otiose to listen a second or third or even a tenth time to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, or to return to a museum to see a favorite painting. So I am content, every 600 days or so, to repeat a passage I like from a Platonic dialogue to make a point.

Friday, July 3, 2020


Paul writes: “Bob, I’ve seen you post this thought at least once, and maybe even twice before. I’ve got to ask you: what do you think are the practical implications of this analysis? Because I can’t see any, beyond not being misled into thinking everything would be great if it weren’t for America. I could easily see hawks and doves, neocons and internationalist socialists all accepting this analysis.”

This comment raises two questions, the second of which is the point of the comment, to which I will get in a moment. The first question is, why do I post the same thoughts several times? In response, I can only quote one of my favorite passages from Plato’s dialogues. It appears in the Gorgias, when Socrates is talking with Callicles.  Callicles complains, “Socrates, you always keep saying the same thing over and over again!” And Socrates replies, “not only that, Callicles, but on the same subjects, too.” Since the truth never changes, one has no choice but to say the same thing over and over again. That is why Kierkegaard considers repetition to be the essence of the ethical and novelty the essence of the aesthetic. There is, of course, also the fact that when you get to be 86 it is hard not to repeat yourself sometimes.

But now onto the really important question: what, if any, are the practical implications of my analysis of great power Imperial competition? Paul remarks that he could see everyone in the political spectrum agreeing with what I say, seemingly implying that this is a criticism of it. The truth is actually rather deep and it will take me more than a few sentences to start to answer his question.

The great tradition of modern political theory, starting in the 17th century, focuses almost entirely on the foundations of the legitimacy of the individual state. Indeed, some of the early social contract theorists observed that kings of different countries were in a state of nature with regard to one another, concluding that there could not be a political theory of their relationships. All the great political theorists – Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant – write in this manner. Marx understood the problem quite well and argued that since the state under capitalism was nothing more than the executive committee of the ruling class, and since capitalism was moving inexorably toward a full-scale international system, only a worldwide revolution by a united working class could fundamentally change the terms of world politics. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, they understood this quite well. But, of course, there was no immediate prospect of a worldwide socialist revolution. A debate broke out over whether it was possible to establish socialism in Russia independently of what was happening in the rest of the world. Stalin and Bukharin argued for what came to be known as “socialism in one country.” It made no sense, but one can feel a certain sympathy for them. As I have remarked before, it was probably asking a little much of them, having seized control of a very large country, to conclude that there was nothing for it but to scrounge around for some capitalists and asked them to develop a full-scale capitalist economy in Russia while waiting for the international workers movement to catch up.

Let us indulge for the moment in the fantasy that I and my comrades somehow come to power in the United States. I think I can at least begin to think coherently about what domestic policies I would wish to institute. But even if these were successful – continuing for a moment with the fantasy – what foreign policy would I choose to adopt for the United States? Fortress America? Active intervention in the politics of other nations for the purpose of advancing the interests of their working classes? A revised and broadened United Nations designed to avoid war while freezing in place the existing internal affairs of the constituent countries? A division of spheres of influence among the major nuclear powers?

Simply to list these alternative possibilities is to indicate how complex and vexing this question is. Perhaps I should go back to talking about Plato.

Thursday, July 2, 2020


Tom Hickey’s lengthy and useful comments on this blog reminded me of the work of Hans Morgenthau, a famous political scientist whom I met at the University of Chicago when I was a young assistant professor there almost 60 years ago. Drawing on Morgenthau’s work, and taking into account Tom Hickey’s comments, let me say a few words about the international world order or lack of order as I see it.

For all of recorded history, states have sought to establish imperial domains both by force of arms and through economic means. In the last several hundred years, there have been fundamentally two kinds of empires. The first, exemplified by the British Empire, consists of a homeland and a far-flung collection of colonies seized by force and economically exploited. The French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Belgian empires have been of this sort. The second kind of empire, of which the Chinese and Russian are the most prominent examples, consists of a homeland which expands into adjacent territories by force of arms. The fine old book by Owen Lattimore, called The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, describes the way in which over almost 2 millennia the Chinese state has, when it is strong, expanded into Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, retreating when it is weaker and expanding again when it grows strong. The Russian Empire is much younger, of course, but it has followed the same course. As it grew stronger, it expanded into its Asian neighbors, Turkmenistan, Khirgizia, and Kazakhstan.  It expanded south toward the Crimean, and as a consequence of its successes in World War II, West into the East European nations including the Baltic nations. (Alas, Russia even made it as far as Konigsberg, which it captured and renamed Kaliningrad, taking the library of the University there, with its trove of Kant materials, back to mother Russia.)

The imperial history of the United States has been to some extent a mixture of these two prototypes. America’s principal imperial expansion, of course, was its progressive seizure of Western lands, killing or imprisoning the people who lived there, until it stopped at the Pacific Ocean. But the United States has also engaged in what we might call imperialism at a distance, seizing at one time or another the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and at least trying unsuccessfully to take control of Cuba.

The border areas between Imperial nations are always danger spots which can erupt into local wars and if not carefully managed into regional wars or worse. At the moment, Kashmir, which has long been claimed both by Pakistan and India, is the site of renewed conflict. All of this is made enormously more dangerous by the advent of nuclear weapons.

Empires, at least in the modern world, find it useful to advance elevated moral rationales for their expansions and struggles against other empires. This is not new, but it seems somehow to have become more necessary in the modern world. So England conceived itself to be bringing civilization to “lesser breeds without the law.” The United States fancies itself “the leader of the free world” and a force bringing democracy to “Third World” nations. The Soviet Union liked to represent itself as being the tip of the spear of a world-wide communist movement, and just about every European nation congratulated itself on bringing Christianity to the “primitive” people of Africa.

It is easy for the disillusioned subjects of an imperial nation, disabused of the ideological rationalizations offered by their government, to suppose that if their home country were to refrain from pressing against the boundaries of other empires, peace would break out and we would all live happily together. But of course that is nonsense. If Pakistan ceases to lay claim to Kashmir, India will simply take it over. If Russia withdraws from those parts of Ukraine that it has taken control of, NATO will respond by expanding its claims on other borderlands. And of course, if the United States and its NATO allies pull back from Eastern Europe, Russia will move back in, claiming lands that it won in the Second World War and has since lost.

If one dislikes this system of competing world empires and would like the United States to withdraw from it, one must of course recognize that the space in the world system ceded by the United States will be taken by other empires. That may be a good thing, but it is a certainty.

Looking forward, beyond the years when I will still be alive, it is easy enough to see that China will for the foreseeable future play a major role in the world Imperial system but that Russia will not. Russia is essentially a petrostate dependent for its economic survival on the sale of a diminishing asset that will, we can all hope, soon no longer play a central role in the world economy. There is at this point very little evidence that the Russian government is doing anything to replace its dependence upon oil.

I hope it is clear that none of this has anything at all to do with my reaction to the story about bounties. That reaction had a good deal more to do with my somewhat fanciful sense that I am still, in some attenuated fashion, a veteran.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


that if an American commander has reliable intelligence that bounties have been placed on the heads of his or her soldiers, then he or she ought to respond strongly to protect his or her troops?

Or is that a bridge too far?


I was afraid that my blog post about Russians placing bounties on the heads of American soldiers would be misunderstood, and indeed it appears that it was. Let me try to say this as clearly as I can. My post had absolutely nothing to do with the Russians or with the Taliban and quite obviously it did not constitute any sort of endorsement of the reports in the media. My reaction concerned only Trump’s complete lack of understanding of his responsibility as the commander-in-chief of American forces. I thought I made clear the focus of my concern by my little remark about having served in the military. I don’t care what foreign country we are talking about in what geopolitical situation and with what level of evidentiary proof. The only conceivable response by a commander-in-chief to such a suggestion has to be “if it is true, I will take swift and strong action to defend my troops”.

Now, there may well be many who really do not care what happens to American troops because America is as guilty of aggressive involvement in other nation’s actions as any country in the world today. All right, I can understand that. But dammit, if you accept the position as commander of troops in battle, you take on the responsibility of defending your troops, regardless of who you are and what nation you are a citizen of.