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Friday, May 29, 2015


I should like to add one final comment, in the form of a story, on the rather wide-ranging discussion that has taken place on this blog about the desirability of reading Hume or Kant or Descartes if you are a dedicated Marxist.  This story is somewhat tangential, but I think it may add something to the discussion.  The following passage comes from the book I wrote about my grandparents, Barnet and Ella Wolff, my father’s parents.  The central character, Abe Shiplacoff, was my grandfather’s close friend and comrade.  Together, they created the Brooklyn branch of the Socialist Party in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Here is the story:

Shiplacoff was a little man with a pinched face and a rather unimposing presence, very much in contrast with Barney, who was a big, barrel-chested man with a booming voice.  But more than any other single person, he can be credited with creating the socialist movement in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, and leading it to its greatest electoral triumphs in 1917. Looking for background material on Shiplacoff, I stumbled on the following story in a review by John Patrick Diggins of Bertram Wolfe’s autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries. Wolfe is a well-known expert on Soviet Russia and twentieth century communist movements.  I include it here because it seems to me to capture perfectly both the strengths and the weaknesses of the generation of socialist leaders to which Abe Shiplacoff and Barney belonged. The young Bertram Wolfe apparently debated against Shiplacoff, at the Labor Lyceum, over the split in the party produced by the Third International.  The issue was whether dictatorial tactics should replace the democratic procedures of the American Socialist Party. After the debate, Diggins says, “the two adversaries resumed their discussion in a local cafe.”  There then appears this passage quoted from Wolfe’s book:

 “There was an embarrassed silence until Shiplacoff burst into tears.  ‘I have worked so hard all my life,’ he said, ‘for our party and for the labor movement, that I have never had the time to read all those books by Marx and Engels that you have read.’  Then he wept on in silence.  Suddenly, I felt sympathy for him, and more than a little shame, for I had not read ‘all those books’ either.  Moreover, for the first time I understood how much men like
Shiplacoff had given to building the party that my colleagues and I, mostly youngsters, were now tearing apart.  I did not know what to say: we both left our cake and coffee unfinished, but I never forgot the episode.  I began to feel more charitable toward the old-timers whose work we were helping to destroy.  Though I continued to use quotations, I could no longer summon up the scorn with which I had read them to that Brownsville Labor Lyceum meeting.”

I can only comment that I have read ‘all those books,’ and in them you will not find an adequate justification for replacing democratic procedures with dictatorial tactics.  Shiplacoff,
Barney, and the other ‘old-timers’ understood Marx and Engels quite as well as necessary to
devote their lives to building a working-class movement.  Would that Bertram Wolfe had done as much!



Susie and I walked into the 4th arrondissement today to attend a free concert of the music of John Dowland at l'Eglise Notre Dame des Blanc Manteaux.  The concert was pleasant enough, although the sixteen people who showed up were swamped by the large church.  But what caught my attention was the name chosen by the two performers for their little ensemble:  Duo Nausicaa.

This brought to mind a lovely story concerning arguably my worst moment as a test-taking student.  Way back in the Fall of 1951, as a first semester sophomore at Harvard, I enrolled in a required Humanities survey course, Hum 3, taught in sections.  My section leader was an inoffensive little man named, rather appropriately, Mr. Brown.  I was also taking, that semester, two graduate mathematical logic courses taught by Willard Van Orman Quine and Hao Wang, so I considered Hum 3 a good deal beneath me and paid it accordingly little mind.

The first reading assignment in Hum 3 was a prose translation of the Odyssey, which I read as fast as I could, and then promptly forgot, the first weekend of the term.  We also read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.  The first hour exam of the course included, among other things, a list of names that we were to identify with a sentence or two.  On the list was "Nausicaa."  Nausicaa, as I am sure all of you recall, is the princess who drags Odysseus off the beach that he has been washed up on after being shipwrecked on his rather extended trip home from the Trojan War.  I could not for the life of me recall who or what Nausicaa was, but it seemed to me that it must be a city state allied either with Athens or Sparta in the aforementioned war, so flipping a mental coin, I put down "Nausicasa:  City state allied with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War."  Mr. Brown had the grace not to mark the answer wrong.  He simply put the following comment:  "!!!!!!!!"

Walking home, my eye caught a poster in a window of the upscale monied 4th arrondissement.

Only in Paris.


Readers of this blog, I realize, have been waiting anxiously for word of the Jean Gabin and Yves Montand batobuses, afraid to ask lest the news be bad.  I am happy to report that both little batobuses are well and parked modestly at the rear of the queue on the Seine near the bridge that connects the National Assembly with the Place de la Concorde.  Since nothing short of visual evidence will reassure, I include a photo taken this morning during my walk with my IPhone.  That is Yves Montand next to Jean Gabin.  Fans of French cinema may rest easy.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Human beings have been around in their present form – homo sapiens sapiens – for about 150,000 years, give or take a few score millennia.  If we assume that young Cro Magnon men and women did not wait to have babies until they had graduated from college and paid off their student loans, a generation for most of that time would have been, say, fifteen years.  So there have been maybe ten thousand generations of people.  For the first nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine of those generations, old people explained to young people how to shape a promising looking bit of stone into a hand axe or how to protect a castle with a moat or how to rebuild an internal combustion engine.  We are now living in the first generation of the human experience in which young people tell old people how stuff works.

These sober reflections were prompted by my experience yesterday.  Faithful readers will recall my traumatic Parisian struggles last time around to get on the Internet.  This time, as soon as we arrived, I set up my computer and had a go.  No problem.  Nor was there any problem with the telephone [which I rarely use because my French is not good enough to chat on the phone.]  But the television set was a complete non-starter.

So what?, you might reasonably ask.  With all Paris at my doorstep, what need have I for TV?  Well, leaving aside my plebian tastes, there is the problem of my renters.  I advertise the apartment [in the back pages of the New York Review of Books] as having, among other things, TV, and I feel compelled therefore to make the damned thing work.  I tried.  I unplugged the modem and rebooted it [always the first thing to do, as I have learned from Time Warner Cable.]  I unplugged and replugged the cable box [called, in France, rather ominously a “decoder.”]  Then I screwed my courage to the sticking point [I trust you know the source of that cliché – it is the crossbow] and walked over to the nearest Orange store [Orange is what FranceTelecom became when that fine old state corporation was taken private some years ago.]  There I was given an English language phone number to call for help.  [Trying to describe technical problems over the phone is hard enough for me in English – in French it would be a charade.]

I called the number and received a recorded announcement that there was no such number – not promising.  I consulted the Internet and found a completely different number, which did indeed connect me to a young man who spoke quite good English.  I told him my sad story and assured him that I had rebooted the modem, trying to sound as technically proficient as I could manage.   Speaking slowly and distinctly, as one would to a not too bright child, he asked me to look at the TV set.  Did I see a button with an up arrow?  I did.  “Press it,” he suggested.  I pressed it.

The TV set burst into color and sound with Bloomberg International reporting the business news.

I got off the phone as quickly and with as little further embarrassment as I could muster.  Later, reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that I might have deduced the problem, had I thought about it more deeply.  TV sets in the U. S. typically receive cable signals on channel 3, or sometimes on channel 4.  If the set gets switched to another channel, there is nothing but snow on the screen.  Obviously, one of my renters accidentally or mistakenly pressed the channel button on the set and switched the set to the wrong channel [notice the care with which I distinguish “accidentally” from “mistakenly.”  J. L. Austin would be pleased.]

In the next generation, younger children will explain to older children how things work.

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Classstruggle, who has posted many lengthy comments on this blog, some running to several comment spaces, posted a brief comment to my post titled “Keeping My Hand In” that troubled me greatly, and I should like to respond, even though to do so is in a way rather bad-tempered of me.  He [?] said, regarding my report that I had sent copies of the Meditations, the Monadology, Hume’s Treatise, and Kant’s First Critique to a student I am mentoring, “I may have a PDF copy of some of these texts (not that I have read them or care to really). But if I can be of any help, you just let me know.”

That was a very generous thing for him [?] to do, and yet here I am caviling at the parenthetical aside.

That aside is such a profoundly unMarxian thing to say that I had to respond.  I think I am safe in assuming that classstruggle holds Marx in the very highest esteem.  And yet, Marx was one of the most widely and deeply educated people in Western civilization of the past three or four centuries at the very least.  He gobbled up books the way the Cookie Monster gobbles up cookies.  I cannot even begin to imagine how he managed to read as much as he did.  And this was not mere obsession or a demented notion of a good education.  Marx used ideas, quotations, suggestions, facts, and arguments from an unimaginably broad array of written sources, in at least seven different languages and a dozen disciplines.   Those of us who find inspiration and guidance in the thousands of pages Marx wrote ought, it seems to me, to learn from his practice.  We ought to read the great literature of our culture, from antiquity onward.  We ought to read widely in history, in sociology, in the sciences, and yes, in the  neo-classical economics we claim to disdain.  Let us follow Marx’s own practice, and embrace the famous saying of the poet Terence, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Now, I am sure that classstruggle has many pressing obligations that might keep him [?] from reading Hume’s Treatise or Kant’s Critique, but I would urge that he allow himself [?] to feel some passing regret at the missed opportunity.


Yesterday evening, I finished reading The Sixth Extinction, a relatively light, rather chatty and anecdotal, but nevertheless quite interesting book by Elizabeth Kolbert.  There have been five great extinctions – periods of time short by geological standards when as much as fifty or sixty or even ninety percent of all extant species of living things disappeared.  Most of these extinctions were the result of gradual changes in the world’s environment – a rise or drop in temperature, for example.  The last and most famous, the Late Triassic extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and made ecological room for the expansion of the mammalian population [and eventually, for us], was the result quite literally of an event, the crashing into the earth of a five mile wide asteroid.

Kolbert’s thesis is that human beings are producing a sixth great extinction by their expansion across the planet, their rearrangement of ecological spaces [by clearing forests, building cities, and subdividing old growth areas into parcels too small to support many species, for example], and by raising the planet’s temperature so rapidly that species do not have time to adapt.

This is presented by her as a disaster, but that depends on one’s point of view.  Several years ago, there were reports that the lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa were dying of pneumonia.  This was widely viewed as a crisis, but it was, of course, a success story for the virus or bacterium causing the disease.  E. O. Wilson likes to tell us how successful ants are as a family but not many of us have learned to adopt a formicaedean standpoint.

Anyway, the book is perfect summer reading.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


One of the liveliest and most engaging of the philosophy graduate students who took my course last semester on Karl Marx’s Critique of Capitalism was a young first year student who has been forced to take a year off from his studies to return home so that he can help to support his mother.  I offered to mentor him this coming year in order to enable him in some manner to continue his study of philosophy during his year in California.  As I have often made clear on this blog, I am deeply suspicious of the contemporary practice of giving doctoral students snippets of philosophy to read – selections from great works, or recent journal articles.  I am unashamedly old-fashioned in my belief that the very best preparation for beginning students is close reading of a number of major texts of Western philosophy.  Accordingly, I arranged to have send the young man copies of Descartes’ Meditations, Leibniz’s Monadology, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  Over the coming months, I hope to take him through these works – all of each of them, even the less highly regarded or commented upon parts – and perhaps through other classic works as well, if time permits.  By the time he returns to resume his doctoral studies, he should have some solid grounding for whatever his professors ask him to read.  It should be an interesting experience for me, and perhaps for him as well.