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?