Coming Soon:

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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




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Saturday, April 21, 2018

TIGGER SNIFFS THE SPRING BREEZES AND REGAINS HIS SUNNY DISPOSITION


The secret to the NRA’s success, we are repeatedly told, is the fact that gun rights advocates are single issue voters, ready to set aside even economic self-interest in pursuit of their obsessive desire to own assault rifles.  Fair enough.  In a winner-take-all electoral system, single issue voting is one of the few ways to express cardinal rather than simply ordinal preference.  I have a dream, and here it is.  The only thing that can successfully counter a single-issue voting bloc is another single-issue voting bloc, especially a voting bloc that has not in the past voted at all but is now motivated to get out to the polls.  The high school students’ gun control movement has the potential to be just such a counter-weight to the gun rights activists.  Using social media, the students can communicate with an extremely broad segment of the 18-21 age population, historically the least likely to vote.  If they really do mobilize, the idea of voting, and voting only for pro-regulation candidates, could easily go viral, tilting even solidly red districts blue.  We shall see.

I do not speak, read, or write Korean, I have never been to the Korean Peninsula or even to Asia, and in the immortal words of Will Rogers, all I know is what I read in the papers, so take what follows with enough salt to satisfy a chef in a Chinese restaurant.  I got my start in political activism sixty years ago with the campaign for nuclear disarmament.  I wrote, spoke, marched, and protested in favor of getting rid of nuclear weapons, not merely limiting their possession to America, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain.  Well, we failed big time, and the world is now awash in small, medium, and large fission, fusion, and dirty bombs capable of being delivered by everything from an intercontinental ballistic missile to a suitcase.  By my count, there are at least nine countries that have workable nuclear weapons, the most recent of them being North Korea.  Only one nation has actually used nuclear weapons in war, namely America, which, I think we can agree, somewhat limits its moral authority in this matter, though not of course, its presumption of moral superiority.

At the moment, one of the most urgent dangers of catastrophic [even if not nuclear] war is America’s bipartisan insistence that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is “unacceptable” whereas Pakistan’s, India’s, Israel’s, Russia’s, France’s, Great Britain’s, and China’s is not.  [I leave to one side the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons.]  If America launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites, a million or more men, women, and children could die in the resultant war.

There now seems to be a genuine possibility that Trump will agree to North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons in return for their agreement to discontinue further development of more sophisticated delivery systems and the regularization of relations with South Korea.  This would be a triumph for North Korea, giving it everything it has sought for more than sixty years.  Trump would trumpet the agreement as proof of his spectacular deal-making, and in all likelihood John Bolton would resign in outrage.  One can but hope.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen is going to be indicted.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.



Friday, April 20, 2018

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN


On Wednesday I met my OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute] class on Plato.  About fifteen old folks turned out, including enough retired physicians to staff a small hospital and an Anthropologist.  OLLI is a hoot.  Preparing for the class I re-read the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and will in due time re-read the Gorgias, the four Dialogues I am covering.  As I think I remarked here earlier, all of us “professional philosophers” [or Sophists, to use the Athenian term] are so familiar with Plato, and have been for so long, that it is easy for us to forget how extraordinary he was and is.  I mean, he invented our field [the Pre-Socratics to the contrary notwithstanding.]  The distinction between Appearance and Reality, which lies at the foundation of all philosophical thinking, was virtually given to us by Plato, along with the technique of definition by division.  On top of which, he was far and away the greatest artist of the entire Pantheon of great philosophers.  And he lived TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO!

If I accomplish nothing else, I need to help the members of the class to see and appreciate how truly remarkable he was.  It is a challenge.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

SIGH

Well, I bitched about the screw-up concerning my Columbia course next semester, and the response is extended discourses about bureaucracy and solidarity with the working class.  It recalls the old light bulb joke, "How many socialists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer, a dozen.  Eleven to debate the hidden injuries of class, and one to go out and find an electrician."

Just to be clear, I am only being paid $8000 to teach the course [$2000 less than UNC Chapel Hill, a state university, pays], so in this situation I count as one of the exploited.  And the people I am complaining about are the College Committee on Instruction, which consists of six tenured professors, one untenured professor, and the dean of the College, not underpaid secretaries.

I mean, if we are not going to be able to complain about bureaucratic screw-ups under socialism, I am going to reconsider my commitments.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A MINATORY TALE

I have mentioned that next Fall, I shall be flying up to New York every Tuesday to co-teach a course with Todd Gitlin in the Sociology Department of Columbia University.  The course is an undergraduate seminar entitled "The Mystifications of Social Reality."  Today begins enrollment for the Fall ["rising seniors" today, in the jargon of the modern Academy.]  Out of obsessive curiosity, I went on line to check the course and see how many seniors had signed up.  To my distress, I could not find the course in the list of offerings, so I called the Department secretary.  She knew from nothing, so I called the office of the Chair, Shamus Kahn and left a message.  Todd emailed me to say that he had heard from Kahn who knew nothing about it.  Todd and I talked, and agreed that he would get onto the department [where he is a professor] and have someone correct the list of offerings and send a message to students about a "new course."

Now, one could speculate that  this is an act of political suppression, but that is clearly untrue.  This is by no means the edgiest course being offered in Sociology next semester.  No, alas, it is just good old fashioned incompetence, of a sort with which I am too, too familiar in the Academy.

Fortunately, Todd says, students keep signing up all Spring.  But it is a good thing I am so obsessive, or we would have had no students at all.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

BACK TO SERIOUS BLOGGING


It is clearly pointless to wait patiently until the political world settles down before turning to the composition of an essay I have been contemplating.  Every day, indeed every hour, brings a revelation more provocative and worthy of commentary than its predecessor.  So, I have turned off MSNBC and repaired to my computer keyboard, where I shall now spend a quiet hour hunting and pecking.

Let us suppose, arguendo, that we yearn for fundamental changes in America, for an end to its extreme inequality of wealth and income, to its imperial foreign policy, to its brutal treatment of women, African-Americans, gay and lesbian persons, and the poor.  Suppose that we are not content simply to restore some of the elements of the social safety net that have been frayed or destroyed, welcome though that would be.  Suppose, dare I say it, that we hold, in a secret place in our hearts, the dream of collective ownership of the means of production.  How might such a transformation of America come about?

There are, as I see it, three possible avenues to such a future:  violent extra-legal revolution, an electoral transformation, or the natural inner maturing, within the current economic order, of new social relationships of production that result in an immanent transformation of capitalism into socialism.

Successful society-transforming violent revolution is, in this country at this time, an old leftie’s wet dream.  Seriously, revolution?  When there are three hundred million guns in private hands, most of them owned and coddled by the opponents of significant change?  I doubt it.

As for the inner natural maturing of new social relations of production, that is in fact happening, as Marx predicted, but I am skeptical that it will lead to the overthrow of capitalism, for reasons I have detailed in my paper The Future of Socialism, available at box.net via the link at the top of this blog page.

Which leaves an electoral transformation.  Let us recall that we have a presidential, not a parliamentary, form of government.  For well-known reasons, which my fingers are not nimble enough to spell out in detail unless someone really wants an explanation, this means that ideologically homogeneous minority parties rarely are able to achieve much legislatively, save in rather special circumstances, such as those that obtained in New York State, for example.  Power comes from gaining leverage within one of the two major parties, which in turn means that a movement must elect Representatives or Senators [or, in rare cases, a President] who share and are responsive to the concerns and demands of the movement.

Now, it does not follow from this that only electoral politics has any chance of changing the country.  Not at all.  A movement outside the two parties – a Civil Rights Movement, a Women’s Liberation Movement, a Gay Liberation Movement, an Occupy Wall Street Movement, a Poor People’s Movement, can change the political landscape and apply irresistible pressure on ambitious candidates leading them to alter their positions and even their votes in Congress in an effort to win re-election.  The key here is, as everyone understands, the astonishingly low turnouts even in Presidential elections.  One-vote-one-person winner-take-all elections give no structural expression to intensity of preference, but intensity of preference shapes turnout, which in turn determines elections.

Nor is it at all necessary or even desirable for everyone to do the same thing.  A centrist Democrat working to re-elect Joe Manchin or Heidi Heidkamp and an Occupy Wall Street activist putting her body on the line in front of the home office of a multi-national corporation are both, in their very different ways, contributing to the painfully slow process of turning the enormous, bulky ship of state in a new direction.  No bill redistributing income can pass the Senate unless the Democrats have at least fifty-one votes in the upper chamber, and no bill redistributing income will ever be sent over from the House to the Senate for debate unless millions, or rather tens of millions, of Americans march in the streets demanding such legislation and vowing not to vote for candidates for the House who do not sponsor and vote for such legislation.  Simply to say this is to recognize the height of the mountain we have to climb.

One final observation before my two forefingers give out.  Contrary to the nonsense written by Op Ed columnists and repeated by Cable News commentators, people on the far left are not at all less prone to compromise than people positioned roughly where the political landscape changes from blue to red.  If we imagine the political spectrum laid out in the familiar left/right fashion we inherited from the French Revolution, legislators on the far left are quite as prepared to compromise with legislators on the left or even the center left as legislators a tad to the left of the middle are to compromise with legislators somewhat to their right.  But because these latter are  compromising with legislators of the other party, they are held up as saints of political virtue, even though the actual range of their compromise may be narrow than that of their far left colleagues.

Friday, April 13, 2018

BIBLE VERSE FOR THE DAY


Michael Llenos brings up the matter of Ham and slavery.  Not Ham as in Ham and Eggs but Ham as in Noah’s three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham.  The curse laid upon Ham by Noah was a standard justification for slavery in the Old South.  Here is the relevant passage from Genesis, Chapter 9:

19These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. 20And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: 21And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. 24And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”

Africans were traditionally said to be descended from Ham, and hence destined by God for servitude.

In the Fall of 1993, shortly after I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, I offered an undergraduate course on The Political Economy of Race and Class.  I was the only White member of the department [not the first, but my predecessor was long retired by the time I showed up] and the students did not know what to make of me.  One young Black man from Springfield, who went on to have a distinguished career as a student, sat in on the first lecture to check me out for his four siblings and cousins, all of  whom were students at UMass.  I passed muster, and the rest of the gang enrolled.

Some while into the semester I got to Franz Fanon’s Black Faces, White Masks, and for some reason [I forget now why], I mentioned the story about Ham, who was, I said, “of course not Black.”  One of the cousins raised her hand and said, “But he was Black.”  ‘Now look,” I said, “if his brothers were all White, how could he be Black?”  “I don’t care,” she said, “he was.”  “What makes you so sure?” I asked.  “My grandma told me.”

I was the new boy in the department, and White besides, but I was not stupid, and I knew that you did not call out a person’s grandmother, so I just dropped the matter and moved on.