Rand and Marx

Early in my days as a graduate student, a professor for whom I was a teaching assistant and I were discussing the week’s assigned reading, which was an excerpt from Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Libertarianism was, my professor explained, merely  “a young man’s philosophy.” When our conversation suggested to him that I apparently thought there might be some value in exploring in Nozick’s argument, he at first recoiled; but he did not immediately give up on me. I was, after all, still young. So he instead treated it as a teaching moment: “I know,” he cautioned, “that you are not indifferent to the suffering.” I may have been young and foolish, but I got the message.

I was reminded of this episode in my past upon reading a recent article in The Nation entitled “Garbage and Gravitas.” It is a lengthy discussion of Ayn Rand that begins charitably enough but ends with this:

Far from needing explanation, Rand’s success explains itself. Rand worked in that quintessential American proving ground—alongside the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Glenn Beck—where garbage achieves gravitas and bullshit gets blessed. There she learned that dreams don’t come true. They are true. Turn your metaphysics into chewing gum, and your chewing gum is metaphysics. A is A.

There is not much new in this article’s claims against Rand, though its author does seem to have read Rand. Perhaps its claim that Rand is really not a “con man” after all—because con men at least know that what they are peddling is false—is more condemnatory than usual:

We possess an entire literature, from Melville to Mamet, devoted to the con man and the hustler, and it’s tempting to see Rand as one of the many fakes and frauds who periodically light up the American landscape. But that temptation should be resisted. Rand represents something different, more unsettling. The con man is a liar who can ascertain the truth of things, often better than the rest of us. He has to: if he is going to fleece his mark, he has to know who the mark is and who the mark would like to be. Working in that netherworld between fact and fantasy, the con man can gild the lily only if he sees the lily for what it is. But Rand had no desire to gild anything. The gilded lily was reality.

So Rand is appealing only to the young and benighted, to those who have an improbably inflated sense of themselves, who want a rationalization for their selfish boorishness, who fancy themselves philosophers but who are in fact only poseurs, who are looking for a cult-like leader to give them intellectual validation: We have heard all this before.

What struck me on reading this article, however, is how many of those criticisms would seem to apply to Karl Marx—and yet how different the respective fates of Marx and Rand have been in the academy.

Marx is taken quite seriously in the academy; Rand is not. The recent publication of a couple of biographies of Rand have reignited interest in her, including in the article cited above, but my guess is that they will not make much difference in the consensus among academics—if not the public at large—that Rand is not worth taking seriously.

Many years ago, Joseph Schumpeter wrotethis about Marxism:

Marxism is a religion. To the believer it presents, first, a system of ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved. We may specify still further: Marxist socialism also belongs to that subgroup which promises paradise on this side of the grave. I believe the formulation of these characteristics by an hierologist would give opportunities for classification and comment which might possibly lead much deeper into the sociological essence of Marxism than anything a mere economist can say.

Schumpeter goes on to say that Marx “was a prophet,” and he argues that one cannot understand Marx’s powerful influence unless one understands the “religious quality of Marxism,” which “also explains a characteristic attitude of the orthodox Marxist toward opponents. To him, as to any believer in a Faith, the opponent is not merely in error but in sin. Dissent is disapproved of not only intellectually but also morally. There cannot be any excuse for it once the Message has been revealed.”

These charges are eerily reminiscent of those raised against Rand. Is an interest in Marx, then, also an indication of an immature mind, a phase perhaps understandable in the young but unforgivable in adults?

9 thoughts on “Rand and Marx

  1. First, I am going to apologize for high-jacking a post about the Academy and its inconsitencies towards Marx to provide a much needed defense for Rand on this blog. Second, Dr. Otteson I normally find your posts very englightening and insightful, regardless of the blog on which you’ve posted over the years, and I have been a big fan of yours for sometime, having taken the lessons you taught me at UA and applying them in my personal and professional choices as best I can. You are a great teacher and a first-rate thinker. The Yanks are the richer for having you, and our Department suffered a true loss with your exodus. But, I must say that I feel compelled to take up Mill’s position, as you’ve often advocated, and attempt, however woefully, a defense for Miss Rand. So, here goes.

    I find it amusing that Rand and Objectivists (or just Rand sympathizers) are consistently attacked with ad hominems or strawmen by both the left and the right of American politics, rather than engaging her/their points directly. But that would only legitimize her threatening philosophy as worth debating, which we can’t have because it’s just too boorish or too childish or too immature or too narcissistic or too secular or too whatever. I contend that Objectivism hasn’t been taken seriously in the Academy not because it lacks merit to stand upon but rather because (i) Objectivism dismisses outright the very idea of self-proclaimed or institution-proclaimed intellectual authorities, (ii) it puts forth a very concrete view of things that is threatening to those who thrive in “theoretical nebulae,” and (iii) it represents a philosophical strategy to which any response other than strawmen or character assassinations leaves its opponent open to full frontal assault (i.e. if I claim it’s not a serious threat, I won’t be threatened by it seriously). Every fully self-actualized human, from the Randian/Objectivist perspective, is a free thinker, confident in his mind’s competence and needing no external authority to legitimize his conclusions. Few, if any, of us actually attain this. Rand, for all her flaws, spoke to the hero within each of us–that we can be the hero of our own lives. Some Rand followers/admirers/readers have missed this truth she tried to share, substituting Rand for their own judgments. (And, in fairness and irony, Rand seems to have “faked reality”-to use one of her coined phrases-in a similar way, inflating her view of herself disproportionately. However, Nathaniel Branden, her one time acolyte and lover, was actually even more in tune with the truths Rand echoed than Rand herself and reflects a better grasp of Objectivism than even Rand herself. But, that is a different can of worms altogether.) In any case, there is certainly a strong elitist current in those who dismiss Rand out of hand or by strawmen, whether they be James Rachels or William F. Buckley or Nozick, chalking up her mass appeal to mass ignorance or mass immaturity or mass ineptitude or mass failing-that-I-the-critcizer-don’t-possess-whatever. I contend that though the people who read Rand and with whom her work resonates are not all the strictest philosophical cogitators, they nevertheless recognize the essential insights Rand has or communicated and, accordingly, take her seriously as she deserves. (Of course, a similar argument could probably be made for Marxists, but that doesn’t mean Marx shouldn’t be taken seriously either since he affects so many well-funcioning, normally-constructed human minds.) To reiterate, Rand herself glosses over philosophers, their philosophies, and the history of ideas. Sometimes, perhaps often, she out-and-out mischaracterizes positions, engaging in strawmen and ad hominems herself. She is neither perfectly rigid nor incontrovertible in her representation of Objectivism. Nonetheless, there is much serious philosophy and serious psychology in Objectivism. Most of this has been elaborated very well outside the mainstream by Peikoff, Kelly, Branden, and others. What’s more, Tara Smith and the Rand biographers are starting to bring Rand and Objectivism into the mainstream step by step. My prediction is that Rand and Objectivism will not only be a nuisance to academicians for generations, nay centuries, to come, but will find foothold in the hallowed halls of Academia as more Rand-inspired intellectual “apostles” take the message out to the “gentile” hegemony.

  2. I might add that after re-reading your original post, Dr. Otteson, you may have only been sarcastically or satirically critiquing Rand and Randians to bring out the contrast between Marx’s and Rand’s treatment in the Academy. If that was your intent, I apologize for misreading and misrepresenting you. However, it’s not clear to me still which view you intended.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Bryant. (And good to hear from you again!) I miss the South, though I’m not sure I can forgive Alabama for winning a national championship only after I left.

    As I think you realize, I was not endorsing the criticisms of Rand. I didn’t deny them either, though I thought my tone suggested I think they should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. On all those issues, I think you’re quite right. Many of Rand’s fiercest critics have not even bothered to read her, and much of the criticism involves unacceptable ad hominems.

    There are indeed some movements to introduce Rand’s works into the academy on a larger scale; you may be aware of some of them. I applaud those efforts. If Rand’s work is as full of obvious mistakes as some people maintain, it should prove easy to refute—so there should be nothing to fear.

    As for my own position, I found the review of Rand’s books cited by Grover Cleveland today to be strikingly similar to my own reaction to Rand.

  4. Victor: I’d like to thank you for your comment, but it is hard to muster anything but disgust at the article to which you pointed me. Did that article actually appear in GQ? Was there some editor somewhere who thought that was actually—really—worth printing? And it went on for six pages?! For his own sake, and for ours, I hope the author is, in real life, nothing like what he appears to be in that article.

    1. You did note my use of the word “rant” in describing the GQ piece, I hope. Though I wholeheartedly concur that “rant” falls far short of capturing its. . . unique. . . ahem . . . essence.

      And it did indeed appear in the print version of GQ. I confess that I keep a subscription to it, but only to remain aware of what is being said out there. And the Rand diatribe (again, too mild) is worth knowing about, I think.

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