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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

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.


Another Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff,

This comment is not intended to be sarcastic, or to quibble. However, the advantage, politically speaking, of an avalanche is that it is very difficult to reverse, to put the boulders and rocks back to where they were.

As this past week has demonstrated, that is not true of social change in a two-party democratic system, where all it can take to reverse years of hard work and dedication to obtain certain rights, e.g., a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, can be undone in one election by the inaction of one segment of the electorate, and the gullibility of another sector.

Ludwig Richter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ludwig Richter said...

Thank you, Professor Wolff. I appreciate this distillation of wisdom.

I find, as I think you do, that we do different things at different phases of our lives. When I was young, I was an environmental activist. In middle age, I became involved in the Democratic Party and served on a district executive board. In those days, I saw myself as representing the antiwar wing of the Party. In late middle age, I become involved in my union. When I became visually impaired, I focused on being the most supportive building rep I could be. Now that I'm retired I'm fishing around to see what comes next. My wife, however, seems to have already decided for herself: she's become involved in an environmental organization.

I'm hoping to be a fleck of snow in the right kind of avalanche. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Marxist husband-and-wife team who wrote, for my money, the best police procedurals ev-ah, had one of their characters say, near the end of their final novel, "Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years [1965-1975]. You can't stop that avalanche on your own." No, we can't.

One of the things that I've enjoyed most in my various activist phases is the sense of solidarity with others fighting the good fight. The most I was ever charged up was during a strike. I even enjoyed walking a picket line, though I know many of my colleagues found it tedious. I don't know what comes next, but whatever it is, I will look for that sense of solidarity.

Michael said...

I'm not sure what the comments record is. "We Still Have Paris" (June 2021) had 142, though at least one of those (the last) was spam. I can't recall off the top of my head how many were generated by that one Ayn Rand-related post from a couple-or-so years ago... (I'll have to leave the searching to someone else.)

Lots of people for their part seem to enjoy arguing about politics on the Internet. It's surely ineffective for the most part, maybe even counterproductive, as e.g. it costs time and energy, and can alienate potential allies if it goes badly...

It gets tiresome and depressing - I give Prof. Wolff credit for continuing to blog in spite of it. But I'd also have to admit that conversations such as these are not necessarily pointless. When I was younger and dumber, I voted for Dubya; and strangely, it turned out that paying attention to the chatter online was one thing that swayed me in a better direction (i.e. far enough to the left to vote straight Democrat ever since). It's important for any thinking person to have at least one experience in which they realize, "Wait a second, I thought I'd figured this out, but it turns out I'm actually full of shit. I need to step back and reevaluate, and pay more attention this time to the folks who've studied this stuff" - and the Internet does massively reinforce people's ideological bubbles, and encourage a lot of useless hostility and silly posturing; but it also makes it easier on occasion for certain individuals to change their mind about something (i.e., to have one of those "I'm full of shit" moments).

Michael said...

Also (a few sketchy, tentative thoughts re. the previous conversation)...

I liked John Rapko's comment; what I took from it was that Trump's election, the ensuing damage, and the larger political context that predated and encouraged these things, do not obviously admit of (as he put it) "simple and monocausal" analysis, "subject to calculation and hypothetical variation." There are Trump voters, there are non-voters, there are Sanders-only voters, there are the errors and weaknesses of the Clinton campaign itself... There are several agents of whom it seems correct to say, "Had they acted just a little differently, we'd be better off today."

Now I suppose the main questions in that thread would've been: Given what we're dealing with now (the consequences of Trump's presidency etc.), to which of these agents is it most appropriate to impute blame and/or express righteous anger? And why? (There could be consequentialist and non-consequentialist proposals.)

FWIW, I haven't really made up my mind, but I'm inclined to think that Sanders-only voters and (to a lesser extent) left-leaning non-voters are much less deserving of blame and anger than the GOP/Trump and their supporters. One test (and maybe it's the wrong one) would be to ask: In which case is it true to say that their overall animating mindset would be better for the world if all/most of the population adopted it? For that matter, perhaps the "hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils" mindset has features that'd prove worse for the world overall if universally adopted; Sanders-only voters may by these lights have greater cause to blame Clinton-voters for the world's ills, than vice versa.

OTOH, blame and anger often seem quite unhelpful. OTOH, your closest ideological allies are precisely the people whom you'd most expect to be moved by your anger (or least expect to be "too far gone")...? If anything, I find this sort of uncertainty and confusion to be something that defuses the anger a bit. :)

aaall said...

Michael, if we lived in a world animated by the Trump voter mindset, the world would resemble "1984" and humans would be headed for extinction.

If one votes for the lesser of two evils in each election, how do things not get better even with Zeno's paradox?

Rather then a landslide, perhaps tectonic movement is a better analogy. Minute pressures and movements slowly build up and then things suddenly let go.

When I was born California enforced laws against inter-racial marriage and real estate covenants. In some areas schools were segregated. Most of that was gone (in the state, at least) while I was in grade school. The foundations for that were laid decades before.

The NAACP was formed a half century before the sixties landslide. Marshall and the NAACP LDF had a litigation strategy that began twenty years before Brown. A series of shocks like desegregating the military began in the late 1940s. Enough became too much in the sixties.

Francis Perkins and others worked for decades to get the items that finally happened in a few years in the mid-1930s (of course, "purists" would have disdained voting for that plutocrat Roosevelt in 1932 and voted for Thomas or foster).

Perhaps the sixties merely were the frictions of two world wars and the Great Depression letting go?

Carl said...

The Women's March was in 2017.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Quite right, Carl. I was there! How time flies when you are having fun.

Tom Weir said...

I seem to have not found that boulder on which I might ride down the avalanche to help the cause. Like you Prof Wolff I do not like to go to demonstrations. Much too introverted for that. Always tried to be personally responsible and live my life on such a way as to promote those values I hold dear. I don't let racist comments pass if in a conversation. I don't let rich people trash the less advantaged in my presence. My own little avalanche may be a mole hill, but I remain authentic