January 3, 2021
After attending Harvard, W. E. B. Du Bois went off to the University of Berlin, where the best and brightest studied (Harvard was a backwater.) He was a keen and – what’s more important – honest observer: He didn’t subordinate reality to ideology. He was also hypersensitive to race. He had decided early on to make resolution of the “Negro Question” his life’s mission. Still, Du Bois is emphatic in his Autobiography that he encountered no race prejudice in Germany or, for that matter, anywhere else in Europe. The only exception was when an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, busybody American barged onto the scene to, temporarily, mess things up. Otherwise, his relations with people around him were perfectly normal: convivial social occasions, warm friendships, the occasional romance. I see no reason to doubt him. Race is deeply entrenched in the U.S. We all carry around racist baggage. It won’t be extirpated anytime soon, even if the economic system is radically overhauled. But I also believe it’s important, as the Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukacs, said, to see “the present as history.” What is, wasn’t always, and doesn’t always have to be.
Even as I’ve seen a lot in life that should disillusion me, I’ve also not forsaken the communist ideals of my youth. I still think that it’s possible to create a world based on the communist credo, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” and also a society in which people can pursue personally meaningful goals and not be governed by the exigency of satisfying basic wants. As Marx said, to reduce the realm of “necessity” and expand the “realm of freedom”–which, for practical purposes means, contracting the work-day. Marx imagined that as labor became more productive through the application of science and technology, most of our basic needs could be satisfied in just a few hours of more or less mindless drudgery each day; the remainder of the day would be ours to do as we please. The rub, however, is, if our needs keep expanding—I must have this, I can’t live without that—the realm of necessity will never be reduced. We will forever be working at mindless labor to satisfy our ever-expanding needs. I myself am more optimistic on this score. I grew up in a working-class family. My Father was a factory worker, eventually a foreman. My Mother stayed at home to raise me and my siblings until I was about ten years old. She then went to work as an accountant. We didn’t have much. We lived in an upwardly-mobile lower-middle-class neighborhood. Families went out Friday nights for dinner and then took in a movie; children went to summer camp. But not our family. Summers were very lonely. (My best friend, who recently passed, much later in life confided how much he envied me: “No one beat you up in the bunks!”) No one was around, it was too hot to read (we didn’t use air-conditioning) and, anyhow, I didn’t become a reader until about age 15, so I had to self-consciously manufacture things each day, stupid things, to make time go by. The winters were quite cold. I used to say, “In my house, we put the steak in the freezer to defrost it!” Clothes, it was mostly hand-me-downs from my two elder brothers (I still get most of my clothes from my middle brother), or things stamped “Irregular” (the irregularities were usually minor, but on occasion could be quite embarrassing). I was the only one in the neighborhood who didn’t have a bar mitzvah. It was less a rite of passage than an occasion to conspicuously display one’s wealth. I was popular so was invited to many bar mitzvahs. But a minimum $15 gift was de rigueur. My Mother knew no money would ever be coming our way, so she would only put $10 in the gift envelope. Word quickly spread, “Norman is cheap!” Me? I had nothing to do with it! Here’s a funny footnote. I was born in December so technically I would be among the last in my grade to be bar mitzvah-ed. When people would ask, When is your bar matvah?, I was so mortified, I’d say, “I’m having it in Israel.” (So Israel did come in handy, after all.) By the time December rolled around, everyone already forgot that I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. What’s the upshot? As painful as these memories are, they served me good in life. I learnt to live on a little, and to be happy without material things. My realm of necessity was, and still is, minimal, and consequently my realm of freedom, to pursue what’s important to me, expansive. I calculated the other day that I live comfortably on about $20,000 per year.