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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, March 28, 2021


                            My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx


Part One: introduction


In a career that has spanned 71 years, ever since as a first semester freshman I took Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic, I have devoted extended periods of time to the study and interpretation of the writings of two great thinkers: Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. To the thought of each I devoted two books and a number of lengthy essays. Kant was my first love and my first great challenge. When I had come to terms with his thought, I was sure I would never encounter another thinker as difficult to master or correctly to interpret. However, when I plunged into Das Kapital three years after publishing my second book on the philosophy of Kant, I found myself confronted with a task even more demanding and multidimensional than that posed by the Critique and the Grundlegung.


For better or for worse, I am content with my engagement with Kant. The books I have written and the series of YouTube lectures I have posted do as good a job of laying out my understanding of Kant’s philosophy as I am capable of. But despite 45 years of effort and many thousands of words, I still feel that I have somewhat failed to articulate the full complexity of my vision of Marx’s thought. I have decided therefore to make one last effort. I am moved to attempt this in part by my sense that I have been unsuccessful in persuading others of my reading of Marx’s work.


It will surprise none of you who have been following my blog that this reminds me of a story, and I think it may be appropriate to begin my effort by telling it once again. In 1956, when I was a graduate student in the Harvard University philosophy department, the graduate philosophy club invited Roy Wood Sellars to give us a lecture. Sellars was at that time quite ancient – 11 years younger than I am now, I believe – and retired from the University of Michigan. Some of you may be familiar with the name of his more famous son, Wilfrid Sellars. Roy Wood gave a long sad plaintive talk, the theme of which was that his Midwestern version of causal realism had not received a fair hearing in the journals because it had been eclipsed by the East Coast version of causal realism. We all sat there in stunned silence trying desperately to remember what causal realism was. The talk was not a success. And here I am, 65 years later, seemingly complaining that my version of Das Kapital has not received a fair hearing perhaps because Analytical Marxism has dominated the journals. Nothing changes, alas. At any rate, here we go.


I first read Volume One of Das Kapital in the spring of 1960 when I was preparing to co-teach a sophomore tutorial with Barrington Moore in Harvard’s newly established Social Studies program. I read it quickly and was unimpressed with it. Over the next 16 years I taught things by Marx frequently but it was always the early writings – The 1844 Manuscripts, The Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology. Then in the spring semester of 1977 I decided to teach a seminar at UMass on Classics of Critical Social Theory and assigned Volume One. When I reread it to prepare for the seminar, I was bowled over. I thought I had never read anything so brilliant, so complex, requiring so complicated an interpretation. I had what the French call an éclaircissement. On the spot, I decided to devote as much time as it took to struggling with the text and getting absolutely clear what I could see was going on in it. Marx, it seemed to me, had found a way to analyze the impossibly complex character of capitalist society and to capture its complexity literarily in those puzzling and unforgettable opening chapters.  To reach my goal, I would have to bring to bear on the text an understanding of philosophy, history, economics, and literary criticism, for all of these, I was convinced, had been integrated by Marx into a single seamless interpretation of capitalism.


The philosophy was no problem. That was, if I may steal a phrase from Eliza Doolittle, mother’s milk to me. And since the first course I taught at Harvard after getting a PhD in philosophy was a history of Western Europe from Caesar to Napoleon (don’t ask), I was sure I could handle the history. I have never in my life taken a course on literature, but at that point I had been married for 15 years to a gifted literary scholar and I had picked up some of the elements of literary theory from pillow talk, as it were. The economics, however, posed a problem. 


I could handle the writings of Smith and Ricardo easily enough, but as it happened, this was just the time when a number of brilliant mathematical economists around the world were bringing modern analytical techniques to bear on the work of those great classical political economists as well as on that of Marx himself. For reasons that I shall explain later, the mathematical tool they used most often was not the calculus of the neoclassical economic school but rather linear algebra.  I had studied a fair amount of calculus in college but had never engaged with linear algebra, so as soon as I had submitted my grades in December 1976, I bought a linear algebra textbook and spend the month of January teaching myself the subject. And then I was off on my adventure.


What Marx had done in Capital was to bring to bear on the analysis of capitalism the old philosophical distinction between Appearance and Reality, a distinction first introduced systematically into philosophy by Plato. Like Plato, Marx faced an extremely complicated expositional problem. He had to begin at the level of appearances, penetrate those appearances to reveal the underlying reality, struggle successfully against the resistance of his readers to giving up their false belief in the appearances, while deploying literary techniques designed to capture this complex structure in a discourse that could speak simultaneously to audiences who had achieved different degrees of insight into reality. All of this, I recognized almost immediately, Marx had achieved brilliantly in the opening 10 chapters or so of Volume One. My job would be to lay this out clearly and analytically, somewhat like a medical student dissecting a corpse to display the complex structure of nerves and blood vessels and bones and organs that in the living body comprised a graceful functioning structure.


However, after I had mastered linear algebra sufficiently to be able to read the work of Sraffa, Morishima, Pasinetti, Brody, Abraham-Frois and Berrebi, and the others, I discovered there was a problem neither Marx nor any of his interpreters and disciples had recognized: a way had to be found to integrate the modern mathematical reinterpretation of the classical school with the philosophical, historical, and literary understandings that Marx had achieved. To put the point in a deliberately provocative and seemingly paradoxical fashion, a way had to be found to introduce the literary criticism into the equations. The recognition of this problem and my initial admittedly somewhat elementary efforts to solve it are what sets my reading of Marx off from that of every other commentator I have ever encountered.  This essay is one last effort to make the case, as it were, for my "Midwestern version of causal realism.”


marcel proust said...

"Midwestern version of causal realism" vs. "East Coast version of causal realism"

Freshwater vs. Saltwater avant la lettre... le plus ca change le plus c'est la meme chose

(Trying to keep in the spirit of the last week's posts)

marcel proust said...

The link didn't link, so trying again...

"Midwestern version of causal realism" vs. "East Coast version of causal realism"

Freshwater vs. Saltwater avant la lettre... le plus ca change le plus c'est la meme chose

(Trying to keep in the spirit of the last week's posts)

s. wallerstein said...

Your intellectual courage and spirit of initiative are impressive. To dare to take a new approach to Marx, a thinker who has been studied and studied for over a century and was then
(1977) still the official canonical figure for about half of humanity, is a Promethean feat.

I wouldn't dare to presume to understand anyone or anything, besides myself, better than
anyone else.

LFC said...

At the same time (1976-77) that Prof Wolff was having his illumination(s) re Capital, I was a college student encountering Capital vol. 1 for the first time, in my sophomore tutorial in the Social Studies program that Prof Wolff had been one of the co-founders of 16 years or so earlier. I wrote a long paper on Marx on which I worked really hard (and in which, like the brash 19-year-old that I probably was, I criticized him on various points). I view that paper as one of the relatively few highlights of my (cough) not-wildly-distinguished undergraduate career.

Jerry Brown said...

Hoping that was not the totality of the essay on Marx and am looking forward to your interpretation. I'm fairly sure I don't understand Marx as well as I want to even with some familiarity of the basics.

Just a question- why would you want to "integrate the modern mathematical reinterpretation of the classical school" (of economics) into anything that might make sense all by itself? In my opinion, there is so much wrong with modern economics that trying to integrate it with something else and expecting a good result would be futile.

Libby said...

Hello Professor Wolff! I would love to know your thoughts on Fabio Vighi's critique of surplus value.
Interview here:

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

After I was allowed to wander through the streets of Paris with the professor in the last few days, which awakened very intense memories in me of my own countless walks through this extraordinary metropolis, I have my packed lunch ready to wander with the professor into the mind of Karl Marx.

I am currently reading Max Weber's work on the spirit of capitalism and Protestant ethics for the third time. If I had to classify Weber's text with a short description or put it in relation to Das Kapital, then I would say, by analogy with physics, that Weber is thinking about the very early universe and Marx is describing the expansion of the same and the laws and connections that apply in it.

Michael said...

I look forward to the rest of this! If it's of interest, Yale recently had a lecture series on Capital (vol.1) to celebrate the forthcoming publication of a new translation. You can find the lectures here:

LFC said...


Thanks for that link, which I bookmarked.

I just listened to the first half-hour roughly of Terrell Carver, the first lecturer in that series. I'm not really much into his "postmodern Marx," so I think I'll probably skip to the next one when I next have time.

s. wallerstein said...

Where did you find Terrell Carver? He was a classmate of mine and in the broadest sense of the word, a friend. I'd love to listen what he has to say now. Could you send me the link, please?

LFC said...

s. wallerstein:

Go up to the comment by Michael, just above mine, posted today @3:55 p.m. Copy that long link he provides and paste it in your browser -- that will take you to the Yale lecture series on Capital to which Michael refers. Carver is the first in that series, under the title "Das Kapital: Critique, History, and Knowledge" or something close to that. Shouldn't be hard to find. There is a brief intro by Paul North, a professor of German at Yale, and then Carver comes on.

Btw, that title is something of an indication of why I cdn't really listen to him (Carver) for more than 28 minutes. The word "knowledge" there is kind of a giveaway. And in a display of heroic self-restraint (irony anyone?), I'll leave it at that.

s. wallerstein said...


Thank you.

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