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Friday, August 29, 2014


It seems that I must consult the Office of University Counsel before recording my Marx course next Spring for podcasting.  As a guest of the Department, I feel an obligation to behave in a way that does not embarrass them, so I shall of course comply.  I will let you know whether the course will be available to the world for listening.


After the United States, the country now producing the most visits to this blog is Ukraine, according to Google.  More than the United Kingdom!  I hesitate to say this, but I am beginning to develop doubts about Google.




Philosophy 454

Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism

Instructor:  Professor Robert Paul Wolff

Wednesdays, 1:00 - 3:30 p.m.

Caldwell Hall


An integrated examination of the historical, economic, sociological, political, and psychological theories of Karl Marx, with attention to the literary dimensions of his greatest work, CAPITAL.


Open to graduate students and advanced

undergraduates without prerequisites.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Even those of you who do not keep tabs on French affairs may have seen reports that President Franҫois Hollande's government has undergone a bouleversement.  Briefly, three of the most left-wing of his ministers, who have been persistently critical of his austerity economic policies, are out and safe loyalists are replacing them.  You can see Paul Krugman's account of the matter, with some very interesting and rather surprising statistics, on his blog.   Needless to say, I am very distressed.  In my artless Japanese way [to quote a phrase from The Mikado], I took it as a very good thing when the Socialists swept to power in France.  Although my French friends warned me that Hollande was hardly a fire-breather, I was intoxicated by the experience of owning property in a country with a government that wrapped itself in the Red Flag.  I even found myself living in an arrondissement that went for the Socialists, though not by as much as the working class districts farther from the center of Old Paris.  So it has been hard for me to watch the slow disintegration of my hopes and dreams as Hollande  has thrown in his lot with Angela Merkel and the dastardly German austeriocrats.

Then I thought, "What would my reliably radical readers [the three R's] say about my distress at Hollande's failure even to follow the policy proposals of the more adept defenders of capitalism, such as Krugman, who of course have been beating up on the proponents of austerity in Europe and America for years?"  Would they tell me that I should have known better?  And that in turn brought me back to the old question that has haunted socialists like a spectre for a hundred and fifty years:  Will the long awaited transition to Socialism, deo volente, come quietly through evolution or violently by way of revolution?

Marx tells two stories, and though they are not at all incompatible with one another, they prepare us in quite different ways for possible futures.  The first story is found in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a work Marx published in 1859 during the time when he was writing Capital.  The crucial passage from the Preface, which has been many times quoted, is as follows:  "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." 

This passage was obviously shaped by Marx's study of the centuries-long process by which nascent mercantile was born within late feudal Europe and grew slowly until its explosion into full scale industrial capitalism, first in England in the late eighteenth century, then in France, and finally in Germany and other parts of Europe as well as in the Americas.  Marx had nothing but scorn for the so-called Utopian Socialists who sat at their writing desks planning ideal socialist communities without considering by what steps such fantasies might be realized.  My essay, "The Future of Socialism," to which I periodically refer [see] is an attempt to think through precisely the processes within the womb of capitalism that can be construed as preparing the way for the possibility of socialism.

Marx's second story is to be found both in the very early Communist Manifesto and in the pages of Capital, where he describes in some detail the internal "contradictions" of capitalism that are leading rapidly and inexorably to a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism.  To summarize a complex and nuanced story in a sentence, Marx thinks that the same internal processes of unchecked capitalist competition that produce ever more violent economic booms and busts also, albeit quite unintentionally on the part of the capitalists, generate increasingly successful efforts within the working class to organize and mobilize to combat the devastation wrought by capitalist competition.  As a consequence of these two internal tendencies within capitalism, at about the time when the capitalists manage to wreck their own system in a world-wide economic crash, a mobilized and energized international working class movement, that has achieved a high level of self-consciousness [and hence is, as the old saying has it, a class for itself as well as in itself], will stand ready to rise up, overthrow the political order that protects capitalism, and establish a new socialist order.  [God, how I love to write those words!  It is like repeating the stories I read as a boy of ogres and princes and the overthrowing of evil step-fathers.]

Neither the first story nor the second offers much in the way of hope for socialist wannebes, I am afraid.  I have identified in my essay developments within capitalism at the microeconomic level that one can plausibly construe as a new order growing in the womb of the old.  And recent events certainly suggest on the macroeconomic level that capitalism is trapped in a sequence of crises that ought to provide openings for radical restructurings, whether violent or not.  But there is very little evidence I can see of the development of an organized national or international working class movement poised to seize the day.  I have tried in my essay to identify the principal reasons for the failure of this movement to emerge.

What to do?  I really do not know.  I hardly think writing about these matters on a blog will make much of a contribution, but then, what will?  For a variety of reasons, the era of the labor union seems to be behind us, at least for those not in the public sector.

Does anyone have a suggestion?


After my mean-spirited snark at the UMass e-mail system, my old friend and former colleague Bruce Aune [who of course also uses UMass e-mail] wrote to tell me that all I need do is enter control-a and all of the messages in the spam file are highlighted.  Pressing the delete key gets rid of them all.

My humble apologies to the UMass Office of Information Technology, or OIT, as we call it.  My bad.


One of my computer rituals is the periodic deletion of spam.  My rather primitive e-mail program, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts [the one post-retirement benefit] does not allow me to delete the entire collection with one series of key strokes, so I must go through them tediously, deleting one page at a time.  A typical several days' collection runs to seven or eight pages.

Some while ago, while performing this chore, I noticed an e-mail message I actually wanted lodged between greetings from Nigerians who needed my help to extract several million dollars from a frozen bank account, so now I run my eye quickly down each page before I delete, just to be sure there is nothing I need look at.  As a result, I keep a running tab on what is hot in spam.

The Nigerians, as I say, are always with us.  Yesterday, there were also half a dozen beautiful Russian women looking for husbands.  And of course there are the scams that begin "My dear," which I assume are variations on the Nigerian millions.  Since spammers are the most liberated and gender-neutral of all those who inhabit the cloud, I receive regular offers to enhance the size of both my breasts and my penis, as well as offers of cut-rate drugs from Canada guaranteed to correct erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness.  And of course there are the urgent messages ostensibly from banks, credit card companies, and PayPal, warning me of the dangers of identity theft and asking me for my name, address, credit card number, and password so that they can protect me.  All of these messages, and many more, I view with tolerance or even a wry enjoyment.  So many people out there so determined to separate me from my money, and so imaginative in their approaches.  But there is one regular occupant of my spam file that fills me with righteous anger, one message that I take as a direct and unforgivable insult.  That is the offer of an on-line doctorate.

Do they have no idea whom they are talking to?  Does my entire life have no meaning?  Could these unprincipled rascals not take the brief moment it would have cost them to ascertain that I have an EARNED doctorate from a respectable institution?

As the late great Rodney Dangerfield would have said, I don't get no respect.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


For reasons that I cannot now reconstruct, a few moments ago the phrase "Sperner's Lemma" popped into my head.  Thirty-nine years ago, while working on the lectures I gave in a graduate course called "The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy" [out of which came my book on Rawls and my article on Nozick, as well as my tutorial on a blog two years ago devoted to the subject], I undertook to master and then to teach a formal proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, due to John van Neumann, which states that every two person zero sum game with mixed strategies has a solution.  The key move in that proof, at least in the form in which it is given in Luce and Raiffa's Games and Decisions, is an appeal to the famous Fixed Point Theorem of L. E. J. Brouwer.  [The proof given by Luce and Raiffa may actually be due to Nash.  I am not sure now.]  Back then, I located and mastered a proof of the fixed point theorem in a math book [there are many such proofs] which used a theorem due to Kakutani, in the course of which there is an appeal to Sperner's Lemma.   I actually expounded the entire proof of von Neumann's theorem, with the proof of the Fixed Point Theorem, in my course.  Lord knows what the students made of it all.

My curiosity piqued by the idle thought, I did what any normal red-blooded American boy would do: I looked on Wikipedia.  There, sure enough, was a lovely article about the Fixed Point Theorem and another even lovelier article about Sperner's Lemma.   Fully understanding what I found in those two articles is, alas, beyond me.  Which got me thinking, as I often have, that one of the many things I regret is that I did not study more math.  That and my embarrassing inability to master foreign languages are my two intellectual deficits, I feel [others, of course, may have a longer list of my failings.]

As I noted on this blog some long while ago, My grandniece Emily is now making a serious study of Mathematics, a fact that gives me enormous vicarious pleasure.  Go Emily!