How fortunate I was last Wednesday to be sitting by myself in the Hans Bethe House dining hall during house dinner when out of nowhere a flock of academics—they are so particular you know one when you see one—sat down at the same table. In the group were several familiar faces, including the House Professor and the House Dean, and two older people, a husband and wife, whom I quickly deduced were the night’s Bethe Ansatz guest speakers.
As I chowed down on that night’s rather good meal—pulled pork sandwiches, jambalaya rice with tofu, and sweet bread rolls—I eavesdropped on the conversation taking place right next to me. I won’t go into trifling detail about what they talked about, but it was certainly enough to convince me to attend the couple’s joint lecture. Their topic for that night’s guest lecture was “Marxism and Marxist government in East Germany.” Naturally, I was interested.
The male guest speaker, Allen Wood, was a philosophy professor at Cornell in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is a self-described Marxist, as is his wife, Rega Wood, who is a philosophy professor as well. They both now teach at Indiana University. You can read Mr. Wood’s CV here–warning, it’s seventeen (17) pages long. (From each according to his ability, right?)
Bethe Ansatz is a guest lecture series hosted by Hans Bethe House. Each West Campus dormitory has their own incarnation of a speaker series. Basically, they involve notable Cornell and non-Cornell academics, writers, scientists, etc. staying a few days in the dorm and hosting an hour-long lecture on Wednesday nights in the House Professor’s apartment, also located in the dorm. Attending the guest lecture series at Hans Bethe House each week can also count as a one-credit philosophy course, which is organized by House Professor Scott MacDonald.
Rega Wood started off the discussion, speaking about the time she spent researching manuscripts in East Germany in 1984. She fondly recalled just how ideal life was under the communist regime, noting the abundance of “entitlements, schooling, housing universal healthcare” and how “anyone who wanted a job could find one.” There were also oranges from Cuba and “wonderful children’s books” always to be found in bookstores. Later in her talk, Wood admitted that access to these niceties was contingent largely on your “connections and political views.” She also let is slide that due to a lack of heating she was always cold; that housing was abundant because families fled “in droves” to West Germany; that most basic foods were scarce; that people often had nothing to do in their jobs; and that healthcare was “not necessarily high quality.” At least the streets were safe, except when people trying to flee the country were shot by their own soldiers, as Ms. Wood noted.
Then came Mr. Wood’s turn. His discussion concerned his analysis, praise, and criticisms of Marx’s works. According to Wood, the most important and praiseworthy tenet of Marxism is the idea that the private ownership of capital—the means of production—is not a prerequisite to liberty but is in fact a “threat to freedom.” But, Wood diverges with Marx on two points. The first is the idea societal change from capitalism to socialism (or Marxism) is inevitable. According to Wood, Marx made this point more as an encouraging statement to his followers more than out of any sort of genuine philosophical or economic basis. Wood’s second disagreement was with Herr Marx’s “too favorable” view of capitalism. “Capitalism is quicksand” according to Wood, and will lead to human society’s collapse, particularly because of “climate destruction.”
Overall, the discussion was quite boring until the Q&A session. When a student asked how Marxists reconcile themselves with 20th century communist regimes, Mr. and Mrs. Wood both lit up, jumped from their seats, and led a cacophonous, jumbled attempt to defend their beloved philosophy.
Later, when a student asked about how to live as a Marxist today, Wood admitted he had no answer. He did talk about donating money to Democrat candidates, whom he and his wife viewed as the lesser of two evils. He then went into a rant about how Republicans are “American Nazis” and how the Tea Party mindset is like that of the “Bolsheviks.”
This last rant happened so unexpectedly, I hadn’t my phone available to take video. That was extremely unfortunate, because it was a rant like few others.