A Commentary on the Passing Scene by
Robert Paul Wolff
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 Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.
To contact me about organizing, email me at email@example.com
I launch my Freud lectures today. Let me offer one lovely tidbit as a preview. By common agreement, Freud's most important book is The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1900. My copy of the translation by an important analyst, A. A. Brill, dates from 1913. I got it secondhand for two bucks. Today we tend to think of Freud as old news, outdated, a relic, and nobody, but nobody, is shocked by his theories of infant sexuality. But it was not always thus. Pasted to the flyleaf of my copy is the following notice:
I just got back from the supermarket where I was shopping for dinner. As I was unloading the bags, I turned on Joy Reid on MSNBC [ I like her], and caught a bit of her interviewing two attractive young people [young to me!], a woman who is challenging Steve King in an Iowa House race next year and a man who is challenging Darryl Issa in a California race. This is the sort of news I have been hoping to see. Does anyone know anything about either of them?
Before taking my walk, I am spending some time reading on line, and I just came on this op ed piece from the Washington Post about what it is like to be on the receiving end of the calls flooding in to Congressional offices. It seems clear that the groundswell of opposition to the Republican "health" bill, both at town halls and in phone calls, had a good deal to do with its failure. As I read the column, what struck me was how much influence was exerted by a relatively small fraction of a Congressperson's constituent base. There are 700,000 people in a Congressional District, more or less, but calls from only several hundred people a day -- say 2,000 over a ten day period -- can overwhelm a Congressional Office and create the impression of a tsunami. Having read with awe your accounts of your weekly activities, I am moved to pledge that every day I will call Senator Burr's office. urging him to pursue more vigorously his rather lackadaisical investigation of Russian interference in the American election. Who knows? It might make a difference.
Well, I have been having my fun cackling at Trump’s
incompetence as a negotiator and snickering at the embarrassment of the
Congressional Republicans, and that’s all right, ‘cause politics ain’t beanbag,
as Mr. Dooley observed. But I like to preen
and posture as a genuine philosopher, so it behooves me to take seriously the
intellectual roots of the man who is universally acknowledged to be the deepest
thinker on the other side of the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
I think we all know that Ryan draws his philosophical
inspiration from the writings of a prominent Russian-American thinker, Ayn
Rand. Now, I imagine that most of you
have spent your time reading the writings of Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant and
Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim, and even Georg Friedrich Hegel, but you may have
neglected the profundities of Rand, so I thought I would say just a very brief word
about her contributions to the great tradition of Western Philosophy. My aim is to encourage you to delve more
deeply into the corpus of her writings, so that you will gain insight into the
sources of the power of Paul Ryan’s thought.
It is, after all, unusual to have a serious student of Philosophy serve
as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Rand, like all great philosophers, is known for a single
core proposition from which she seeks to derive the particulars of her
theories. Descartes gave us cogito, ergo sum, Kant gave us The Categorical Imperative, Hegel gave
us thesis, antithesis, synthesis. What is Rand’s foundational principle, her
claim to philosophical fame, as it were?
Here is a brief passage plucked from my copy of the 1961
summation of her thought, For The New Intellectual:
“To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the
nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of
specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his
errors—the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the
concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself.
You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it:
Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.
Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an
attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be
a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time,
it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated
in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All
the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to
evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you
and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the
fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make
you forget that Man is Man.”
And there it is: A is
A. Who would be so foolish as to deny
it? A is A.
From there it is mere elaboration to derive the Republican health bill, “a
task that is more an amusement than a labour,” as Kant says in the Preface to
the First Edition of the Critique of Pure
If we on the left could cease our petty snarking and elevate
ourselves to this plane of rationality, think what we might achieve in
cooperation with our brothers and sisters on the Right!
In the aftermath of the enormous legislative defeat for
Trump and the Republicans, now is the time to plan the way forward. I think we can confidently anticipate more
and more bad news for Trump and his crew on the Russian front, which will
weaken their ability to get anything done.
They are on their heels, two months into their presidency, and we ought
not to allow them to recover. We shall
of course meticulously follow Robert Shore’s advice and grant each and every one
of them the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
As I see it, with regard to health care, the Democrats ought
to draft and put forward legislation calling for the transformation of the
Affordable Care Act into a single-payer Medicare-For-All system. They will of course not even be allowed to
bring the proposal to the floor of the House – that does not matter. What matters is to make this the de facto Democratic position. Nancy Pelosi should “accept’ Trump’s
facetious call for a bi-partisan approach and invite him to join with her in supporting
a Single Payer plan. [It goes without
saying that I do not need to advise her on legislative tactics. Nor do I need to teach her how to suck eggs,
as the saying goes.]
Right now, we need to capitalize on the Republican defeat by
doing everything we can to elect Ossoff to the House in the Georgia
by-election. He is apparently assured of
surviving the first round, but after that it gets dicey.
Can any of you tell the rest of us about other up-coming
local elections to which we ought to be lending our support? The idea is to try to create the reality, or
at least the appearance, of a groundswell, a wave, a national uprising. The general principle is, Hit ‘em when they’re
My natural Tigger has come to the fore and I am hopeful that
we can turn this into some genuine advances.
1. I attended and spoke at a union meeting about a potential
strike on May Day.
2. In response to the testimony of a former student before the school board, I
organized a meeting to discuss how we can integrate ethnic studies curricula
into our social studies courses. (Is this a political act? If trying to help
empower young people of color is a political act, then I will count this
organizing as political.)
3. I called Sen. Cantwell's office to thank her for her public opposition to
dismantling the ACA and to encourage her to hang tough in her opposition to the
nomination of Gorsuch.
1. Called the office of Rep Patrick Meehan (PA-05) to urge
him to votes against the execrable American Health Care Act (which alas was not
voted on); each time I was told that the mailbox was full. I took this as a
2. Registered for the general assembly for the New Sanctuary Movement of
Philadelphia (anyone who has seen the movie "The Hunchback of Notre
Dame" with Charles Laughton and remembers the scene in which Quasimodo
[Laughton] holds Esmerelda and claims "Sanctuary, Sanctuary" cannot
help but be stirred by sanctuary.
3. Called the office of the hopeless Pat Toomey (R-PA) (Mr. Club for Growth
which would be better called the Club to Keep a Boot on the Neck of the Poor)
urging him to oppose the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court ( I
don't expect much from this effort)
4. Wrote to Sen Bob Casey (R-PA) (when did politicians became known as Bob and
Pat and Bill and Jimmy rather than Robert, Patrick, William, and James) urging
him to continuing his opposition of the Trump agenda.
1. Spent government money on queer theory. Went to a
conference and talked about gender and gay men.
2. Tried to explain what queer theory is (who can say, really) to about four
people on the way to the conference.
3. Donated to Jon Ossoff for the second time.
4. I joined stampstampede.org! It's a cool project, where people are stamping
their cash, to protest money in politics. Regardless of whether or not it
works, it is a lot of fun. http://www.stampstampede.org/
5. Sent the following postcards to my representatives a few days before the
health care vote: https://vk.com/id313285303?w=wall313285303_139%2Fall
I'm very pleased with them.
6. Made nice with a friend I had previously shouted out about politics and
alienated. Mistake. Corrected.
7. Called (last week) my city council and Chuck Edwards, NC state senator who
is trying to promote an affirmative action program for Republicans in my
hometown's city government.
8. Received membership cards from NAACP and ACLU.
9. Continued making a monthly contribution to the NC state senate Democratic
10. Continued toying with the idea of supporting or starting an NC non profit
that would push a left-wing educational effort--counteracting these
organizations: John Lock Society, Ayn Rand Society.
11. Participated in a successful fundraising effort for _Cellar Door_ the
official undergraduate literary magazine at UNC, which does good work, but has
been having trouble with austerity.
12. Took this opportunity to set two goals for next week:
Watch Roy Cooper's (NC Governor's) State of the State address and find two good
things he is doing and write him a thank you note.
Respond to Rep. Patrick McHenry's weekly newsletter with a phone call.
A little late on this, but actually did some stuff this
1. Went to a county level planning meeting for Our Revolution. Ended up on a
small committee dedicated to promoting cross-solidarity with a local immigrant
rights group. We are planning a "bystander training" for well meaning
white folks in conjunction with the immigrant rights group. Also made plans for
the May Day strike.
2. Spoke at my local city council meeting in favor of making our town a
sanctuary city. I'm happy to report that it looks like this will pass when they
vote on it, and it even has the support of the police chief.
3. Attended a letter writing party, wrote letters to my federal reps about NEA
and NEH cuts, and letters to my state reps about the minimum wage.
Time to get your reports in. For all sorts of reasons there has been a fall off in reporting, and maybe also in actions. Quite natural. Perhaps, whichever way the vote comes out later today, we can use the result as a springboard for local action and organizing. I have signed some petitions but done little else because of my obsession with preparing my apartment to sell. Now that work is done, so I should be able to become more active once more. Let me hear from you, maybe from some new folks as well.
As I observed in one of my books, in politics I am an anarchist, in religion I am an atheist, and in economics I am a Marxist. I am also, rather more importantly, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a violist.