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Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021


If you are Itzhak Perlman and you announce a concert in which you will play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, nobody complains “But you already played that once, why are you playing it again?”  If you are Barbra Streisand and you start singing People, nobody grumbles “that again! Why don't you sing something new?” So if you are a philosopher and you have what you think is a really good idea and you write it up and publish it somewhere, you ought to be able to come back to it and explain it again without generating a chorus of complaints, right? Fat chance!


Well, as I was taking my morning walk today, pushing as hard as I could to get my heart rate up and all that, I thought to myself, “Why don’t you write a blog post today about your critique of the concept of an inequality surplus, which lies at the heart of John Rawls’s theories and also is taken for granted by virtually all modern sociology, economics, and political theory?” when I got home, I went to the search facility on my blog and sure enough, it turns out that I have already explained that idea three or four times in the last 13 years.


Now I think this is a genuinely important and powerful argument, and one to which I have never read or heard a satisfactory response. It is as close as I am ever going to come to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto or, for that matter, to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. But I devoted a whole blog post to the idea just one year ago.


If you go back and take a look at my blog post on October 11, 2020 you can find out what I am talking about.  That post generated a long series of comments, almost all of which (with the exception of those posted by somebody who identifies himself or herself as “purple library guy”) seemed completely to miss the point of my argument, so maybe it would not be so bad if I play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto again.


I was eleven years old when World War II ended and there were never any stories told in my family about relatives who died in the Holocaust, although more than half a century later I learned that 30 members of the Parisian branch of my extended family were killed in Auschwitz. But for some reason, from an early age, I was obsessed by the thought of how important it is to recognize a threat before it is too late to respond. I could not stop thinking about the Jews who could have gotten out of Germany in time had they been willing to leave all their belongings behind and simply run. I watch the television reports, mesmerized, of people trapped in traffic jams trying to leave a city before a hurricane hit, having waited too long to get out. During the Cuban missile crisis I was in Chicago. My VW was loaded with dried food and a Geiger Counter and I had plane reservations for my wife and myself to take us both to Canada and to Mexico (depending on which way the wind was blowing.)


Perhaps that is why I am compelled to keep talking about the dangers of a stolen president election that is still three years off. I do not really care about the proper definition of the word “fascism.”  But I care deeply about acting now to forestall what are clearly the conscious, deliberate Republican plans to steal the next election and install a dictatorial ruler who will end anything resembling Democratic elections in America.

Monday, September 27, 2021


There is this. 


Although there is much in this essay by Robert Kagan with which I disagree, he is fundamentally right about the threat the United States faces.  It is worth reading.

Sunday, September 26, 2021


It is now clear that sizable portions of the Republican Party are seriously and systematically planning a fascist coup.  It would be a mistake, I think, to take comfort in the buffoonish and clearly psychologically diminished leader of that coup, our former president. The lawyer who drafted the memorandum laying out the steps to be taken on January 6, after all, clerked for Clarence Thomas, and although that is not evidence of good character, it is I am afraid evidence of adequate intelligence and legal knowledge.


I really do not think we can tell at this point whether the plotters will succeed.  Lord knows, a great many prominent people in the Democratic Party are aware of the threat and are trying to alert the public to it. What can any of us do? The simple answer is, anything we can to try to turn out enough votes to overcome all the efforts to suppress the vote and subvert the count.


I cannot tell whether Biden recognizes or acknowledges the seriousness of the situation. Nothing in his long career has prepared him for such a threat and he is clearly temperamentally unsympathetic to the sorts of responses that a crisis of this nature calls for, but he is not a fool and perhaps he is capable of appreciating the danger that his reelection might simply be stolen from him.


My days are absorbed by the concern I feel for my health and that of my wife, about which at least there are things I can do. I began my long engagement with politics obsessed by fears of nuclear war and I seem to be ending it with fears for the end of democracy in America. Hardly appropriate for someone who considers himself a Tigger, not an Eeyore.

Saturday, September 25, 2021


These are terrible times. For the first time in my life, I am genuinely fearful that America will descend into full on fascism. I watch each daily wrinkle – the comic end to the Arizona farce, for example – and take what hope I can, but as I do my morning walk, pressing as hard as I can to get my heart rate up and thereby to postpone the depredations of Parkinson’s, I wonder whether my life will end not with a whimper but with a bang.


Yesterday I learned of the loss of yet another old friend, Jules Chametsky, who at the age of 92 passed away in Amherst, Massachusetts. When I was young, 92 seemed unimaginably ancient. Now, at 87, it is one election cycle around the corner.


Rather than trying to achieve some elevated wisdom about the dumpster fire we call America, let me honor the memory of Jules by retelling here a story I have told in my autobiography.  Those of you who have read my autobiography can move on to other things unless, like me, you enjoy the retelling of old stories.


One day in the late summer of '48, Johnny Brown and I set out from Kew Gardens Hills to attend a Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium.  When we got there, it was raining, and we decided that our politics were not serious enough to get us to stand in the rain just to hear political speeches.  As we left the stadium, the rain let up, and it occurred to us that right across the river the Dodgers were playing the Giants at the Polo Grounds.  Since we were both avid Dodgers fans, we walked across the bridge, paid our way into the cheap seats, sneaked down in the nearly empty ball park to the expensive seats, and, after the rain finally let up, watched Rex Barney pitch a no-hitter.  It is the only no-hitter I ever saw, and it is forever associated in my mind with progressive politics.

Well, that is the story, and I have, or think I have, visual memories of each element of it --- the rally at Yankee Stadium, the walk to the Polo grounds, and the no-hitter.  As I prepared to write this bit of my memoir, I went on line to check the component parts of the story.  Sure enough, I found an account of Rex Barney's no-hitter against the Giants, which mentioned a one hour rain delay and showers in the sixth, eighth, and ninth innings.  September 9, 1948.  I also found an account of the Wallace rally at Yankee Stadium.  It turns out Pete Seegar was on the program, which may in fact have been the real inducement, for me at least.  But the rally was held on September 10, 1948, not September 9!   So regardless of what I think I remember, I could not have walked with Johnny Brown from the rally to the game.  Did I really go to the rally at all?  Did I go to the game one night, and the rally the next?

A month or so after writing that paragraph, I was having lunch with a group of friends in Amherst, all of them professors at the University of Massachusetts, where I was teaching.  I told the story as a humorous example of the fallibility of memory, but one of the group, a marvelous old left-wing emeritus Professor of English named Jules Chametzky, said “But I have been telling that story for fifty years.  I was there.”  “What do you mean,” I asked, mystified, “you were there?”  “Yes,” he said, “I was one of Vito Marcantonio’s lieutenants.  [Marcantonio was a Congressman and a left-wing member of the American Labor Party.]   My story is that fifty thousand people showed up for the rally, and when it was rained out, all fifty thousand came back the next night!”

So my memory is correct!  The rally and the ball game were the same night, and it did rain on the rally. 


Jules was a wonderful man, a scholar, a teacher, the founding editor of The Mass Review, a lifelong radical. He will be missed by many of us around the world.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021


When my son Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Tobias Barrington Wolff was a little boy, I used to read to him every evening before he went to sleep.  After I had read The Hobbit to him and had worked through several volumes of the Narnia stories, I cast about for something else to read and thought it might be fun to go through Around the World in Eighty Days.  But it turned out, to my surprise, that the vocabulary was too difficult and I had to give it up.  Despite the elaborate mythology, Tolkien was much easier for him to understand then Jules Verne.


 I spent more than an hour this morning watching the Tanner lecture given a year ago at the University of Michigan by Charles Mills. It turned out an absolutely perfect complement to the course I will  be teaching at UNC Chapel Hill in the spring semester. Here is the course description:

Course description for Philosophy 370

Spring, 2022   Instructor: Robert Paul Wolff


The defining feature of the modern state is de facto legitimacy, the claim made by the state to have the right to issue laws and compel obedience to them. The most important argument supporting this claim to have been put forward in the last 350 years is the theory of the Social Contract. This course will be devoted to an in-depth examination of that theoretical justification for the authority of the state. The course will be divided into three roughly equal segments. In the first segment, we will look at two classic texts that set forth different versions of the theory of the social contract: John Locke’s Second Treatise C6oncerning Civil Government and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. In the second segment, we will examine an extremely influential modern revision of the theory put forward by the famous American philosopher John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice. In the third segment, we will examine a powerful racial and ideological critique of the tradition of the social contract by the important Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills, set out in his book The Racial Contract. Each segment will be concluded in an unusual manner to be revealed at the first meeting of the course.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021


Jordan asks for stories about the late Charles Mills. I will tell just one which is perhaps appropriate because it is also a plea for assistance from anyone out there who can help.


Long ago, in the early 1990s, I received a request from the chair of the philosophy department at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle to serve as an external reviewer in the tenure case of a member of their department. The candidate was Charles. I said sure and shortly thereafter I received a packet of material. The principal item in the packet was a draft of The Racial Contract. Well, they did not need me to tell them that it was brilliant and that Charles deserved tenure, which of course he got. But in the packet was also an unpublished paper that I read with the very greatest delight. It was a racial and ideological reading of The Lord of the Rings, in which Mills demonstrated with great wit that Tolkien’s famous trilogy was built on a racially encoded hierarchy of European peoples in which the highest position was occupied by the tall blonde Scandinavians (the elves), and the lowest was occupied by the swarthy short southern Europeans (the orcs.) I read the paper with delicious pleasure and asked Charles, after I had gotten to know him, why he had never published it. He said he was afraid that if it appeared under his name it would hurt his career.


Some years later, I went looking for the paper in my study and could not find it. Now you have to understand that I am a real packrat when it comes to anything professional. I mean, I have a separate folder for every course I have ever taught with the comments I made on student papers, going all the way back to 1955 when I was a 21-year-old Teaching Fellow in Rafael Demos’s Philosophy 1 course at Harvard.  I have the notes I took in undergraduate courses and copies of the papers I wrote for them.  I wrote to Charles in great distress, telling him that I had somehow misplaced my copy of his paper and asking for a new copy. He told me that he also had mislaid it and that he did not have a copy of it anywhere.


This paper is a real gem so I am taking this opportunity to issue a plea to my readership. Does anybody out there have a copy of Charles Mills’s paper on The Lord of the Rings? If so, I would dearly love a Xerox of it.


Just a moment ago, I learned that Charles Mills died yesterday evening. Charles was a wonderful man, a brilliant philosopher, the author of a book, The Racial Contract, that I believe is one of the most important pieces of political philosophy of the 20th century. I shall be assigning it in the course I am teaching in the UNC philosophy department next semester. Charles was only 70, far too young to leave us. I could tell stories about Charles but this is not the time. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crumbling American political system, with global warming upon us and crushing inequality everywhere we look, it is a small personal loss that hurts the most.

Sunday, September 19, 2021


Okay. I figured I was going to have to explain my deliberately provocative remark.


The productivity of labor has been rising steadily for millennia, both as a consequence of the invention of laborsaving devices (such as the saw, the hammer, the shovel, the spinning Jenny, the power loom, the wheel, the cart, the automobile, locomotive, and so forth) and as a consequence of the increased skill of workers. But in the capitalist system that Friedman celebrates and thinks of as the apotheosis of human development, the lion’s share of the benefits of this increase in productivity goes to the legal owner of capital in the form of profit. So it is that although productivity in the United States has risen by 400% since the 1950s, working men and women – or at least those of them who can find jobs – still work 40 hours a week or more, many of them compelled to take several jobs simply to pay for a decent life.


Suppose an automobile production plant in which 1000 employees work is automated, so that more cars can be turned out with only 200 employees. Any rational capitalist will invest in the automated machinery, dramatically reduce the workforce, and pocket the increased profits, while the lucky 200 who get to keep their jobs are trained on the new machinery and continue to work 40 hours a week. An alternative way of responding to the automation would of course be to divide the workers into five shifts, each of which would work two weeks on and six weeks off (very much like the workload of professors at elite private universities, but never mind that.)


Friedman cannot really imagine a world organized to benefit the workers rather than the capitalists so he makes jokes. Obviously, the rational solution would be to hire all of the men whose labor would be required to dig using shovels, then invest in steam shovels, and reduce the number of hours each man is required to work by 80 or 90% while keeping their wages unchanged.


No, Milton Friedman was not stupid, at least as intelligence is ordinarily measured in our society. He was quite quick-witted.  Nor was he ignorant, at least he was not ignorant of the things one was required to know in order to become a professor of economics at a great private university. Quite the contrary. Was he cruel? I do not know. Did he have a dog? Was he nice to the dog?


The physical therapist with whom I have been working is a very competent young woman, although she seems to be about 11 years old (but then, at my age, everybody younger than 50 seems to be about 11 years old.) She referred me to several research articles on Parkinson’s, from which I got two important takeaways: first, the medication I am taking, although it addresses some of the symptoms, does nothing to slow the progress of the disease; and second, most importantly, aerobic exercise raising my heart rate to 100 or more and keeping it there for half an hour will, if done regularly four or more times a week, actually measurably slow down the inexorable advance of the disease. So for the past week I have been pushing myself to walk as hard and fast as I can each morning and I have successfully been getting my heart rate into the target range and keeping it there for the second half of my walk.  My goal is to hold off the last stages of Parkinson’s for so long that I die of something else before I am ever consigned to a wheelchair.


This morning, as I was plugging along, urging myself “longer steps, faster, longer steps, faster,” I found myself thinking for no reason at all about an old story I had heard somewhere about the famous right wing Nobel Laureate in Economics Milton Friedman. Sure enough, Google popped the story up, not surprisingly on the American Enterprise Institute website. Here it is:


“While traveling by car during one of his many overseas travels, Professor Milton Friedman spotted scores of road builders moving earth with shovels instead of modern machinery. When he asked why powerful equipment wasn’t used instead of so many laborers, his host told him it was to keep employment high in the construction industry. If they used tractors or modern road building equipment, fewer people would have jobs was his host’s logic.

“Then instead of shovels, why don’t you give them spoons and create even more jobs?” Friedman inquired.”


This, I reflected, is Friedman at his very best: stupid, ignorant, and cruel. Needless to say, he is a God among modern economists.

Friday, September 17, 2021


A reader of this blog, moved by some problems he has faced, has written to me asking whether I think there is any basis for his strong belief that some things are simply always wrong. Without quoting him directly or in any way revealing his identity, I thought I would answer with a blog post since this question is obviously of very broad interest and importance. The question he raises is one to which I have given a great deal of thought over the course of my life and, as I have said in various places, it is a question on which I fundamentally changed my mind at one point in my life. So I will have a go at answering him here in the hopes that my answer will be of interest to others as well.

I was not raised in any religion. As I have recounted somewhat puckishly in my autobiography, when I reached the age at which other little Jewish boys were bar mitzvahed, my mother told me that I was the product of a mixed marriage. “Your father is an agnostic,” she said, “and I am an atheist.” Still, my parents offered to send me to Hebrew school if I wanted to have a big party and get lots of presents, but the alternative they offered – a hundred dollars to buy some presents for myself – seemed more attractive so I took it, thus severing my connection with organized religion. I confess that I do not find religion a very helpful answer to the question my blog reader posed. Either what God commands He commands because it is right, in which case I am left with the question why it is right. Or what God commands is right because He commands it, regardless of what that is, in which case I am reduced to the status of a mushroom, as the background bystanders in the early computer games were called.


I spent a good deal of time in the earlier part of my life looking unsuccessfully for an argument that would satisfactorily support the claim that there are universal moral principles demonstrable by reason alone that tell me what I ought to do (the way in which I formulate the question makes it obvious that I was influenced more than anything else by the teaching of Immanuel Kant.) Indeed, when I wrote In Defense of Anarchism I still believe that such an argument could be found, as a careful reading of that little book will reveal. Having grappled with Kant, I was not, as you can imagine, much impressed by the vastly less powerful arguments of Rawls.


Eventually, I embraced my failure as a deeper truth and concluded that each of us in this life must decide, as I chose to think of it, who our comrades are and who are our enemies, or as I also liked to think of it, which side of the barricade we choose to stand on. I found that I was liberated, not enfeebled, by the recognition that I was forced to choose what sort of life I would lead and what principles I would bind myself to autonomously.


My liberation comes with a price, of course. I was forced to acknowledge that no amount of argument, no assemblage of facts, no appeal to conscience or to sentiment or to the consensus gentium could promise eventual agreement about fundamental principles of morality. Many people, I am well aware, find this an unacceptable conclusion and refuse to embrace the fact of struggle as the human condition. I think I can hold my own against them in an argument but I have nothing to offer them to alleviate the discomfort that my position causes them.

Thursday, September 16, 2021


Since the appearance of snippets from the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, there has been a great deal of talk about the appropriateness of General Milley’s back channel communication with the Chinese. He is coming under criticism for violating the chain of command and civilian control of the military and suchlike crimes. Assuming the reports are correct, I will just say that I am enormously relieved that he did what he did.


Almost none of the people going on about this on television were alive when the United States dropped two small virtually experimental fission bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and managed in the blink of an eye to kill more than 200,000 people. Most of them are not even old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. They talk about the possibility of a nuclear “exchange” as though they were discussing the swapping of baseball cards or dinner invitations. A nuclear “exchange” between China and the United States would probably kill scores of millions of people, not in a generation or in a year or in a month or in a day but in 20 minutes.


Is there anybody who seriously wants to claim that such a world historical disaster would be preferable to violating the principle of civilian control of the military? I began my long career of political commentary by shouting at anyone who would listen about the dangers of nuclear weapons. In those days my opponents were academics and think tank residents who trotted out what they mistakenly thought were game theoretic arguments to shill for one or another branch of the American military – people like Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger. I thank the God in whom I do not believe that in the intervening 75 years no other nuclear weapons have been used.  I would be happy if on my deathbed I can say the same.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021


Jerry Brown asked whether I have any views on Occasionalism. I confess that is not something to which I have given much thought (or perhaps I should say, to which God has given much thought through me) but a little reflection suggests that if taken seriously, it is a very strange view.


Let us suppose that it took me one second to dictate the phrase “Blogs are weird.” There are 1 billion nanoseconds in a second. That means that during the time I was dictating that three word sentence, God created the universe anew 1 billion times. Each time He did this (God apparently likes to be referred to as masculine and since He is all in all, I think we should play along) He created the universe ex nihilo, unconstrained by anything He had done previously, such as beginning through me the dictation of the three word sentence. But of course between any two nanoseconds there is on this theory a timeless eternity that could in principle be filled by an infinity of worlds.


Well, you get the idea. Someone might claim to be comforted by this thought but of course that would simply be a misleading shorthand way of saying that God comforts Himself by this thought, for there is nothing but God and God is all in all and so forth and so on.


Now one might ask, if one has not been paying attention, why someone who believes this would bother to write it in the comments section of a blog, but once again that would be a fundamental mistake because it is God who is writing in the comments section on His own blog (and of course it is also God who, through me, is mistakingly thinking that this is my blog.)


There are, we are told, one and ½ billion people who believe this, to whom can be added the more than 1 ½ billion who believe the Christian story and all those other folks with their religious beliefs. Or rather, we are to suppose, God is endlessly, uncountably infinitely many times, creating a new a world that is simply Himself writ small in which for his own incomprehensible amusement he chooses to contemplate himself in various ways through these various people.


On an entirely different matter not quite at the same elevated level, our little cat, Chloe, is settling in quite nicely and after one day of picking at the food we put out is now eating us out of house and home. In these difficult times, it is good to find so simple a pleasure, or, to quote Pooh Bah, an innocent source of merriment.

Monday, September 13, 2021


 I post a brief comment about adopting a cat and my lack of response to 9/11, and the result? An extended discussion of occasionalism. Who could have predicted?

Sunday, September 12, 2021


1.         Yesterday, the television was consumed by wall-to-wall coverage of memories, pontifications, analyses, and the such prompted by the 20th anniversary of the attack on the Manhattan twin towers.  It reminded me of something that has long puzzled me about myself. The suicide attacks by Saudi Arabian followers of Osama bin Laden had little or no emotional effect on me. I listened to the reports as they came in, I watched on television the collapse of these two enormously tall buildings, I realized that a great many lives had been lost, but it was not then and has not been since a defining moment in my life, a moment about which I would always say “I remember where I was when I first heard of it” and so forth. Since I am the only person of any political persuasion I have ever met who has said something like this, I realize that I must just be a very odd person but there it is. I remember vividly where I was when I first heard of the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. I remember precisely what I was doing when I heard that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I even recall how as a small boy I got the news of the death of FDR. But this extraordinarily dramatic attack, which forever changed the geography of lower Manhattan – part of the city, after all, in which I grew up and in which I lived for seven years while teaching at Columbia – just did not have much impact on me. I do not see any larger significance in this, but this is, after all my web log, or blog, so I thought I would mention it.


2.      Yesterday was also significant, at least in my little household, because Susie and I went to the headquarters of the local animal services department and picked up the little cat we had decided to adopt. She has settled in spectacularly well, running all over the apartment exploring, using the cat box, eating food, climbing up to look out the window at the birds that come to our birdfeeder, even hopping up on our bed several times in the middle of the night – all in all a total success and one that nicely fills the hole in our hearts left by the loss of our much loved Kitty. We started the adoption process by going online and looking at the pictures posted there of 20 or 30 cats available for adoption. Initially we chose to have a personal meeting with a young cat named Tigger, to whom I was attracted for obvious reasons. But when we went to the kennel last Tuesday we were not terribly taken with Tigger. However, we did see an enchanting young kitty to whom the kennel owners had given the unappealing name of Eda, and after spending some time with her we decided to adopt her (after a good deal of discussion, we have given her the name Chloe which I think suits her much better.)


As we were driving home yesterday a thought occurred to me that I confess rather ashamedly had never in the same way crossed my mind before. As I was congratulating us on finding and adopting a delightful little cat, I thought to myself, “but suppose we had been adopting a little girl. Suppose we had gone to the orphanage thinking to adopt one child but after spending some time with her had found her not especially responsive or interesting, and had then switched to a different child at the orphanage who took our fancy more.” I was appalled by the heartlessness of this thought and realized – this is the part about which I feel shame – that I had never in the same way thought about adoption like this before.  Now I am not totally dumb. I mean, this theme about which children get adopted from orphanages plays a small but significant role in the TV series about which I have made such a fuss, The Queen’s Gambit. But the sheer naked transactional character of adoption had never before been thrust on my mind in quite the same way.


Friday, September 10, 2021


 It works.  OK, read 'em and weep.  


 Okay, here we go again. Would someone please copy the link at the top of the page under the heading My Stuff, plug  it into your command line and see whether it takes you to everything I have stored in It is not an actual link but maybe it is the next best thing. Let me know whether it works.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021


Since I really do not want to participate in a debate about whether Jill Stein and Ralph Nader are narcissists, and because I am so upset about what is happening in the world right now that I need for my own psychological well-being to retreat a little bit into the realm of theory, let me write something about the whole complex issue of the left right political spectrum. Those of you who are only comfortable fulminating or casting aspersions can take a short break while I talk to whatever readers out there share my interest in theory.


The metaphor of the left right political spectrum dates back, of course, to the time of the French Revolution when the most anti-monarchical and radical delegates to the National Assembly sat on the left side of the meeting hall and the supporters of monarchy sat on the right. The assumption, often unexamined, that underlies the image is that the issues before an assembly or electorate can be arrayed one-dimensionally in such a way that wherever one positions oneself on that array, the closer anyone else is to one’s own position in either direction the more likely one will be to agree with that person. So a moderate Democrat is more likely to agree with a liberal Democrat than with a radical Democrat and also more likely to agree with a moderate Republican than with a conservative Republican.


Now this is a very powerful assumption that is true only rather rarely. Just to choose a real example, when I was a young man very active in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, I made common cause with Catholic pacifists who did not at all share my views about reproductive freedom as well as with libertarian anarchists who took a position diametrically opposed to my own on the question of forced redistribution of wealth.


Even if the left right political spectrum is a reasonably accurate representation of the views of members of the House or Senate, it is not at all reasonable to assume that someone occupying a position in the middle of the spectrum will have broader or more accommodating views to either side than someone occupying a position much farther left or right. To be sure, because of the two-party structure of American politics, someone who occupies a middle position more likely will be found voting with members of the opposed party, but it might very well be that he or she has in fact a very narrow spread of positions with which he or she can find accommodation. It might be, and frequently is, that someone on the far left is prepared to reach much farther along the spectrum to work out a compromise than someone routinely classified as a “moderate.”


The left right political spectrum does have one intriguing logical characteristic, however. To explain it, I must go back to the 18th century and the work of the great Enlightenment figure Condorcet.  Condorcet demonstrated (and perhaps discovered, I am not sure) what has come to be referred to as the paradox of majority rule. It turns out that a group of voters, each of whom has perfectly consistent preferences among three or more alternatives, may by a process of majority rule arrive at an inconsistent collective preference order.


To see that this is so, consider the simplest possible case, one of three voters, A, B, and C, and three alternatives, X, Y, and C. Assume that A, B, and C have the following quite consistent preferences among three alternatives:


A:    X > Y > Z

B:   Y > Z > X

C:   Z > X > Y


When the three vote for X against Y, X wins because both A and C prefer X to Y.

When the three vote for Y against Z, Y wins because both A and B prefer Y to Z.

From which it follows, if the group is to be consistent, that it must prefer X to Z.

But in fact, since both B and C prefer Z to X, majority rule requires that the group prefer Z to X.


This is not a trick, it is a genuine contradiction. Kenneth Arrow, in a doctoral dissertation that eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Economics, generalized this result and demonstrated that no mode of collective decision-making that meets a quite minimal and reasonable set of constraints – roughly those of majority rule and similar systems of group decision-making – can avoid this distressing contradiction.


Now the nifty thing – demonstrated by an Australian political scientist named Duncan Black – is that if the preferences of the individuals voting can be arrayed accurately along a single two-dimensional left right spectrum, then majority rule is guaranteed to yield a consistent choice.


Nerds like me really dig this sort of thing and I must confess that writing about it has soothed the savage breast.

Monday, September 6, 2021


I have been dealing for several days with personal matters that have taken me away from this blog and when I returned to check things out, I discovered that my very brief recent post had triggered 112 comments, a record I think. This morning, before taking my walk, I read through them all, and on my walk I sorted out in my mind what I wanted to say about this tsunami of opinion.


Let me begin with the distinction, which I am sure I have several times drawn before on this blog, between two very different images of progressive or transformative political action: brain surgery and a landslide. If you think that radical political action is like brain surgery, then you will suppose that it is a precise and delicate matter in which it is desperately important to perform the operation in precisely the correct manner – one wrong move can leave the patient paralyzed or, worse still, dead. For the past 200 years, a good deal of debate on the left seems to have been motivated by this image of political action. I saw this up close at the University of Massachusetts almost 50 years ago when five young Marxist economists were hired simultaneously into tenured positions in the economics department and almost immediately split into three factions.


The alternative view, to which I subscribe, is that social change or political action is like a landslide. I like to compare the modern civil rights movement in the United States to an enormous landslide down the side of a mountain. Here comes a tremendous boulder – Fannie Lou Hamer. Then a huge tree uprooted and tumbling down the mountainside – Malcolm X. Then an entire outcropping of rock that lets loose – Martin Luther King, Jr.


Now there are two things about a landslide. The first is that it does not consist only of these highly visible and very notable objects – the boulder, the tree, the outcropping. If those are the only things that roll down the side of the hill, then although they will be quite striking as they tumble down, the hill, when they are all done falling, will not be transformed. The landslide also includes middle size boulders, rocks, pebbles, small trees, bushes, twigs, clots of dirt, even little bits of dirt. All of that taken together is the landslide and when the dust has settled the entire side of the mountain is changed forever.


The second thing about a landslide is that more than anything else what matters is what side of the mountain it takes place on.


As I read those 112 comments, I reflected that all of us were tumbling down the same side of the hill, bumping into each other, knocking one another this way and that, producing a lot of dust so that it was hard at times to see exactly what was going on, but nonetheless all of us on the same side of the hill contributing, or so we hoped, to a landslide that would forever transform the American mountainside.


Not all of us end up being Fannie Lou Hamer. Indeed, for most of us even our names are lost in the dust of history. But in the end what matters is whether we were on the right side of the hill tumbling down with all those big boulders and trees, making up a part of a transformative landslide.


Now one thing I have learned in more than 65 years of political activity is that life being what it is, you will only stick with an activity if you find something to do that you actually enjoy so that you will keep doing it even when the band goes by and the headlines change and it is no longer the moment. Leaving aside the metaphor of the landslide, there are many different tasks that are required of those who want to change the world. There is carrying placards and marching; there is standing on street corners handing out flyers; there is sitting at a desk making phone calls; there is giving money and there is raising money; every so often there is voting and of course there is going door-to-door trying to get other people to vote. Sometimes, if the moment calls for it, there may be running guns. And it may even that someone needs to be writing books.


Almost half a century ago I gave a talk at Hampshire College in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. I explained to the students that historical change was not by and large made by people writing books, so one of the students asked me "then why do you write books?” I answered, “writing books is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important thing one can do but I am good at it and I enjoy it so I do it. It is not a major contribution to social change but it is some sort of contribution, somebody needs to do it, and since I enjoy it I know I will go on doing it even when the band has moved on and is playing in another festival.”


I do not actually like taking part in demonstrations. Oh, I have done it of course. On January 21, 2017 I schlepped up to Washington DC and took part in the Women’s March to protest the election of Trump. I got a couple of good pictures from it on my cell phone but I did not much enjoy it. It is just not my thing. But one of the consequences of my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement at Harvard University is that I discovered I am good at raising money out of my computer by sending out mailings and it is something I like to do, so in 1990 I founded a little one man scholarship organization for poor black men and women in South Africa who wanted to go to historically black universities there and because I liked doing it, I stuck with it for 23 years. Was that a major accomplishment? Of course not. I helped about 1600 young men and women go to university during those 23 years but that was such a small number that it is scarcely a blip in the South African educational statistics. But the important thing is, I did it.  I stuck with it because I enjoyed doing it. I figure, if I may return to my metaphor, that I was a middle sized rock rolling down the hillside of racial liberation – not a boulder, not a tree, but maybe not just a pebble either. That is really the most one can ask in a lifetime.


That was my first thought about the comments as I started my walk. I had some other thoughts as well, but since this one took me more than a thousand words to express I will stop here and leave the other thoughts for subsequent posts.

Thursday, September 2, 2021


 For a fraction of what it cost Jeff Bezos to take his ride to the stars, it would be possible to fund a system that offers any young Texas woman who wants an abortion a flight to California and back and an overnight stay at a hotel near a clinic. All those Taliban style private enforcers planning to sue anyone who aids the young woman in getting an abortion would have a difficult time bringing their actions in California courts. If I knew how to run an Internet-based go fund me operation I would start an organization myself. The time has come to stop relying on politicians and the courts to protect us against the fascist madness abroad in this land.

This is going to get a lot worse, not better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


When I called the UMass OIT help desk to figure out how to get access to all the things I have archived on, I was told that they had put in a work order and I would hear from the folks handling this sort of thing. When I did not hear, I called again and was told that the people who answered the phone have absolutely no contact the people who are actually doing the work, even though they are in the same building (!!). But a nice young man told me how to get access to my materials, and it worked. So I have put a URL at the top of my blog under the heading "my stuff" and it works. The only problem is it is not a link so instead of clicking on it, you have to copy it and put it in your command line and then you can get to my stuff. This is roughly the equivalent of driving across country by hooking up a team of oxen to your Jaguar but if it works, it works. So my stuff is again available. At some point, the inaccessible folks handling these sorts of things will get around to it and then presumably I can substitute a link and be marginally a resident of the 21st century.



Forget about Afghanistan and set to one side for a moment our concerns about Covid. I think we are approaching a moment in this country when the rule of law is going to be genuinely called into question. I have had this thought for some time as a consequence of the widespread efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to lay the groundwork for the simple overturning of the results of a presidential election. But the news out of Texas today strengthens my conviction.


Many of you will have read or heard about the Texas antiabortion law that went into effect today, making it a criminal offense for woman to have an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. By choosing to remain silent, the Supreme Court has tacitly given its imprimatur to this punitive piece of medieval legislation. Later in this court’s current term, it will have the opportunity to reverse Roe V Wade, an opportunity it will almost certainly take.


I think it is at least an open question whether a majority of Americans will docilely accept these developments. Consider first the threat to the 2024 presidential election. Suppose, as is highly likely, a Democrat (probably Biden) wins a huge popular majority and a substantial electoral majority, which latter is then undone by the actions of state Republican controlled legislatures who choose to ignore the popular vote in their states and instead send Republican electors to the Congress. Will California and New York and Massachusetts and Virginia and all the other Democratic states really just accept that result? I have serious doubts. What then?


More immediately, will scores of millions of women who have grown up in an America in which abortion is readily available agree to go back to the time of dangerous back alley abortions?


Americans have shown themselves to be willing to submit with little protest to exploitation and rampant economic inequality, but I am not sure they will accept the overturning of a presidential election or the imposition of sharia law on American women.