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Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Here is what he [ ? ] says:

"Professor Wolff,
You refer to yourself as a "Marxist".
What exactly do you mean by that?
Someone who believes that everything Marx said is true?
Someone who believes that most of what Marx said is true?
Some who believes that Marx was right on all important issues?
Someone who believes that Marx was right on most important issues?
Someone who believes that Marx was right on more important issues than anyone else?
Or does believing in one or a few key ideas from Marx, say, the labor theory of value or class struggle, make one a Marxist?
None of the above?
Thank you."

A fair question.  Here is my answer, in five parts:

1.  Most rigorously, I mean that I believe that Marx's fundamental claim about capitalism is true, and that claim is so important that it justifies me in calling myself a Marxist.  The claim is:  Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

2.  Secondarily, I believe that Marx is a more insightful, penetrating, helpful guide to an understanding of capitalism than anyone else I have ever encountered, and calling myself a Marxist signals that belief.

3.  Thirdly, I believe that Marx is the greatest social theorist who has ever written, and calling myself a Marxist is an homage to him.

4.  Fourth, calling myself a Marxist, in America at this time, is a way of giving the finger to a great many economists, philosophers, sociologists, political theorists, and political figures, and it amuses me to do so.

5.  And Fifth, calling myself a Marxist is a plea, a message in a bottle, to anyone out there who might be similarly inclined, with whom I could therefore make common cause and who would, for that reason, be my comrade, wherever and whomever he or she might be.


Although one might think that I have been obsessed with the primary contests in recent days, in fact most of my time has been spent brooding about the idea of writing a major book bringing together in an integrated fashion all the work I have been doing on the thought of Karl Marx and associated subjects in the past forty years.  I am reminded of a story I have told before.  In the late sixties, when I was a member of the Columbia Philosophy Department, I was asked to speak to a seminar that met from time to time at which members of the faculty addressed guests from the larger New York intellectual community.  I chose to deliver a scathing left critique of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  Hannah Arendt was in the audience, and she came up after the talk to say hello.  She was quite polite, but it was obvious she had not been thrilled with my remarks.  After a bit, she asked what I was currently working on.  “I am writing a book on Kant’s ethics,” I replied.  She broke into a broad smile that split her face, and said with a satisfied sigh, “Ah, it is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant!”  After thinking for months about Trump and Clinton, I can say emphatically that is vastly more pleasant to spend time with Marx.

The book project poses for me several unusual problems.  I would need to incorporate into the text many, many pages of books and essays I have already published, and in an odd way that says a good deal about my unconscious motivations, that feels to me as though I would be cheating, asking to be approved of, as it were, for something I have already done.  The larger problem is that this book would be quite unlike the other books I have written.  My books are almost always clear, spare linear arguments, with a natural beginning, middle, and end.  I think of arguments, as I have elsewhere observed, as being rather like stories – Jack and the Beanstalk is my favorite example.  But this book would range widely, incorporating and expanding on my two books and articles specifically on Marx, while also drawing on such associated but different materials as the article “Narrative Time” and the 16,500 word serial blog post on The Study of Society.  I would probably conclude with the essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  Inevitably, it would be a big book, longer than either Moneybags Must be So Lucky or Understanding Marx.

The more I think about the project, the less likely it seems to me that I could find a good publisher for it, but that fact does not disturb me, because I think I might actually win a larger audience by using my blog as a vehicle.

My visit to Brown and MIT alerted me to a deeper problem to which I must give serious thought:  Even in those extremely friendly and supportive venues, there seemed to be a fundamental lack of understanding of why I was trying to find a way to unite the literary criticism, philosophy, and mathematical economics that I had brought to bear in my effort to understand Capital.  If even so sympathetic and knowledgeable an audience found this difficult to grasp, I realized, I would have to do a much better job of explaining my core insights.

Because the book would not be a simple linear argument, its organization would pose problems that I must think through before I begin to write.

The idea of doing a series of YouTube lectures on Marx has also been in my mind, but I do not think I want again to lecture to a camera propped up on my desk.  I thought I was a good deal more relaxed and – dare I say it --- personable in the Brown talk, clearly because I was talking to real people.  I have not yet figured out how to replicate that sort of setting down here in Chapel Hill.


Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for the Presidency.  I shall do everything I can to defeat him, and then everything I can to keep alive Bernie's movement.  I have had my say on this and shall not continue to blog about it until after November 6th.  I consider him an existential threat to what remains of democracy in America.  If Nate Cohn, Nate Silver, and Sam Wang are right, Trump is not likely to win  --  not at all likely.  Lord, I hope they are all getting this one right.


Austen Haigler, would you tell Michael Pendelbury hello, and that I met his son when I went north to speak at Brown and MIT!  He introduced himself by saying that I had slept in his bed before he was born [in South Africa]!  Small world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


You may recall that on April 21st and 22nd, I spoke at Brown and MIT about my long engagement with the thought of Karl Marx.  The Brown talk was recorded, and Brown has now put it up on YouTube.  You may access it here,  The first thirty-five or forty minutes is me talking, after which there is an hour and twenty minutes of discussion.  It was an interesting event, graced by the presence of the distinguished Kant scholar Paul Guyer.  The MIT event was not recorded, unfortunately.  My last talk at MIT was in the late fall of 1963.  I hope I do not have to wait quite so long for the next one.

Monday, May 2, 2016


All of a sudden, I am swamped with more interesting and thoughtful comments than I can respond to.  I am going to start by replying to a comment by Richard Lewis that is, for me at least, extremely provocative.  Here is what he wrote:

“I disagree with the calculations that would cause a person on the left to reluctantly pull the lever for Clinton. I would argue that there is a factor which trumps the others; existential threat to civilization via global nuclear war. I would argue, based on the candidates' explicit statements, foreign policy advisors' backgrounds, and personal inclinations, that under Clinton the chances of a nuclear confrontation with Russia might be around 1%; under Trump about 0%. I would argue that even this small difference in odds dwarfs any progressive pragmatic inclination to go for Clinton over Trump.

I'm also not sure I see Clinton quite the way Prof Wolff does - as a 'known' quantity - dull, center-right, cautious, etc. On the contrary I fear she may be as much or more of a loose cannon than Trump. The only two instances where she has had real decision making power - the 1990's health reform debacle and the Libya air strike debacle (in depth reporting on both these is available, and disturbing) don't bode well for her basic mental stability and ability to listen to advisors and make rational decisions based on that advice. In short, she scares me more than Trump.”

This comment especially moved me because I spent a number of years, more than half a century ago, thinking about very little else besides the threat of nuclear war, lecturing, writing, arguing in public and private about the threat and informing myself as much as possible about every aspect of it.  Only one president, John F. Kennedy, has brought this country to the brink of a nuclear war, and so far as I am concerned, that fact alone is sufficient to judge him a disaster as a president.

If I really believed that the probabilities rather casually tossed off by Richard Lewis were in fact correct, that alone would not merely justify voting for Trump rather than Clinton but would argue strongly for planning her assassination.  A nuclear war would surely kill more than one hundred million people, pollute large portions of the earth’s surface for countless millennia, and destroy the world’s economy for generations.  A 1% probability of such a catastrophe would, by standard expected utility calculations, imply the certainty of an outcome worse than a world war.

I have no idea at all how Richard Lewis arrived at those numbers, nor do I have any clear idea how I might come up with alternative estimates myself, but I think I can say something about the circumstances under which the United States government would deploy and use nuclear weapons [I am utterly unable to judge the probability that the Russian government would do so.]  First of all, dramatic movies to the contrary notwithstanding, presidents do not make these decisions alone nor do they carry them out alone.  Elaborate bureaucratic procedures are in place that make such decisions very much collective chain-of-command decisions.  I think it is inconceivable that Clinton would initiate such a decision under any circumstances I can now imagine, nor do I think that the notoriously risk-averse US high command would press her do make such a decision.  I can conceive of circumstances in which Trump would be moved to issue such an order, but if he were to do so, I do not think it would be carried out.  Instead, almost certainly, there would be a defensive gathering of generals and admirals around him who would carefully, delicately try to dissuade him while simultaneously consulting with civilian figures about the procedures for removing a president from command on grounds of medical incapacitation.  I am quite serious about this.

Short of nuclear war, would Clinton be more or less likely to use military force than Trump?  This is a very important question and one that it is uncommonly difficult to answer, because of the incoherent quality of Trump’s statements on these matters.  He talks casually of “not taking off the table” the use of nuclear weapons in Europe [!!! Against whom???]  He brags wildly of wiping out ISIS in weeks, without the slightest apparent awareness of the military situation on the ground.  Are we to take these statements seriously?  Are we to ignore them entirely?  I have no idea.

We do have grounds for making predictions about Clinton’s use of military force.  She would be hawkish, as it is now common to say, which means that during her presidency, we would probably see a number of military deployments overseas, and perhaps the initiation of yet another limited war.  That is one of the principal reasons why I so strongly supported Sanders as against her.  My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Trump would be very likely also to order military deployments, particularly if he surrounds himself with the sorts of advisors whose names he has thus far given out.

Well, enough speculation.  If anyone has factually grounded probability estimates of the use of nuclear weapons by either Trump or Clinton, I would very much like to hear them.


It was Nader who flipped Florida in 2000 by winning almost 100,000 [not 50,000] votes, almost all of which would surely have gone for Gore.