Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Intellectual Blame Game and Why It’s Silly

with 8 comments

by Weiner

On Nemo’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a terrific book, Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (more on this in a future post). This of course got me thinking about Rand, and how I need to include her in the syllabus for the American Intellectual History course I’m leading next semester. I lamented on Twitter, “Can anyone recommend an essay by Ayn Rand that offers a decent summary of her thought? It’s for my students. Sadly, Rand is important.” My free market friend Josh tweeted in response: “hey, at least she didn’t lead to the death of millions, like Karl Marx.”

I eventually responded that Marx’s ideas having led to the death of millions made him “more important, not less.” But my initial response, perhaps more instinctive, was to say, “or Jesus.” And that made me think about the intellectual blame game, and why it’s silly.

From a causal point of view, Josh is right. Even the most elementary student of history can’t deny that Karl Marx’s ideas, however distorted or misinterpreted, led to immense suffering, from Stalin’s purges and Soviet gulags to Mao’s reeducation camps and Polpot’s genocidal class warfare. Indeed, leftists of all stripes have argued as to whether Marxism inevitably leads to Stalinism, or something like it. Since I’m not a Marxist, I don’t believe anything is inevitable. Clearly, though, the path from scientific socialism to Stalinism is a possibility, maybe even a probability. But that’s another argument altogether.

The point, however, is this is no reason to dismiss Marx. Because lots of people had ideas that led to terrible things. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection led to social Darwinism, perverted by the Nazis into an ideology that instigated the Holocaust. But it’s still important that we read him. Nietzsche (pictured above) was misinterpreted by both Adolf Hitler and Ayn Rand, but his writing remains compelling to figures far less misanthropic. And we needn’t lay the evils of capitalism (and they are legion) at Ayn Rand’s feet: we can go back further, to Adam Smith himself, even if some of his better ideas, like the ones about “moral sentiments,” have been mostly ignored and are now being reclaimed by the left. Jean Jacques Rousseau can perhaps be blamed for inspiring Robespierre’s “reign of terror” after the French Revolution, yet his proclamation that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains” remains a reasonable rallying cry for progressives. Thomas Hobbes may provide justification for dictators, but no more than Plato, whose Republic is elitist to the core but also a brilliant piece of philosophy on a range of issues.

Lots of thinkers have influenced lots of people to do terrible things. If we move from philosophy to religion, it gets even bloodier. Jesus preached peace and love, yet millions have died violent deaths at Christian hands, the Crusades being the best known example. The Hebrew Bible’s rigid and divisive particularism has led to great strife in the Middle East and elsewhere. Militant Islam is similarly guilty, as are many other faiths, if our standard is simply crude causal connection. Yet the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qu’ran all contain many worthwhile passages, despite all the crap they inspired.

My point is that Marx, and Nietzsche, and Smith, and Plato, and Jesus, are all important thinkers, worthy of study not only because of the deaths their ideas may have caused, but also because those ideas themselves had at least some merit. How people used or misused their ideas is not only worth studying, but is an important part of understanding how those ideas functioned in the world. But blaming them for the terrible things done in their name is silly and unfair. Blaming Marx for Stalin is like blaming Einstein for nuclear weaponry. Causally true, but not morally. So don’t blame Nietzsche for Hitler; blame Hitler.

The difference with Ayn Rand–who grossly misinterpreted Aristotle and Nietzsche–is that people did not really misinterpret her ideas at all (except her modern followers ignore her hatred of religion and particular hatred of Christianity). Her ideas are really stupid and harmful. But that’s another post for when I’m finished with Burns’ biography.


Written by David Weinfeld

December 15, 2010 at 21:34

8 Responses

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  1. Weiner,

    I love this blog and this post. You exactly hit the move from Plato to Hobbes to Progressivism through to NAZIism.

    But then you get into your multicultural think and say that all three religions under discussion (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) have equal levels of guilt of crimes.

    Diversity is real. Muhammed fought in 65 battles. Jesus said, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Short dismissals of the existence of cultural differences or competition undermine your argument.

    You cannot blame the messenger for the message. But you must recognize that messages can be different. One can lead to millions dying. That is a bad message. And after all, glorifying the proponent of a thought system is short for celebrating that thought system.

    By the way. I would not recommend you as a historian continue feigning impartiality in the world. Look where your avoiding the narrative Islam’s history of militant spreading and warring against western civ. Who else believes in your values of freedom of speech and democracy and gay rights?

    Thanks for your work,

    John Press

    Brooklyn Tea Party
    NYU Ph.D.

    John Press, NYU PHD

    December 15, 2010 at 22:27

  2. BTW,

    Had Rand lived, I believe she would have traded her allegiance from an individualism purity with culturism. She defined herself against collectivism. Her individual defied the group. And the USSR was the collective she personally abjured.

    Since the USSR and communism no longer threaten us as much as Islam, I believe she would have seen that, paradoxically, esteeming individual rights means supporting our collective existence as a nation; recognizing that our core is very cultural.

    John Press
    Brooklyn Tea Party
    NYU Ph.D.

    John Press, NYU PHD

    December 15, 2010 at 22:36

  3. You write:”Diversity is real. Muhammed fought in 65 battles. Jesus said, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Short dismissals of the existence of cultural differences or competition undermine your argument. You cannot blame the messenger for the message. But you must recognize that messages can be different. One can lead to millions dying.”

    The whole damn point is that BOTH religions (most religions) have “led to millions dying” and therefore there probably isn’t much connection between the tenets of their founders and the actions of their followers. If, as you seem to think, there is some essential quality of the doctrines of Islam that inherently makes its followers violent. Well then A. you’re pretty damn close to being a religious bigot; and B. If we’re being vulgar and counting, I’m pretty sure that Christians– between the Crusades, the various inquisitions, thousands of years of pogroms, the conquest of South America, African imperialism, etc…– have far far more blood on their hands than anyone else. So I guess that makes Christ an inherently violent messenger, too. So let’s kick out all the Christians!

    But needless to say, its all beside the point. We don’t practice collective guilt here. One neighbor who happens to be a lay Catholic is not responsible for nor has to answer for child abuse they didn’t commit and neither is another who is Muslim responsible for or at all related to terrorism they didn’t commit.


    December 16, 2010 at 15:46

  4. Kudos. I’m linking to this next time someone tries to say X philosophy leads to inevitable X outcome.


    December 17, 2010 at 12:12

    • Thanks Lena!


      December 22, 2010 at 12:37

  5. […] its adherents (converts?) have done to the American economy. I’ve addressed that a little bit here, and so has Wiz  here, and so did GQ‘s Andrew Corsello in a hilarious hit piece titled […]

  6. Can anyone cite an essay that Ayn Rand wrote that summarizes her philosophy? Had you bothered to read the Fountainhead in its entirety you would have an excellent speech in there that is several pages long. One of the most brilliant pieces of writing I’ve come across in my life that neatly captures the essence of the flawed reasoning of the collectivists/statists and their methodology.

    If you don’t believe in capitalism you are by default against freedom, economic freedom. You are for planned economies that are rigged with favoritism, the very corporatism that we have had for a very long time. Crashes in the economy are part of the natural cycle but the depth of the booms/busts are exacerbated by government policies. Our government is actively at work trying to prop up housing prices. Why? The fastest way to end the problem is to let them hit rock bottom as soon as possible, only then will the recovery begin. Postpone it artificially and we have the situation today, years of pricing declines and a general malaise in the market.


    March 2, 2012 at 13:22

    • Thanks for the comment Frank. I’ve read several of Rand’s essays and Jennifer Burns’ excellent biography which summarizes Rand’s philosophy and quotes from her extensively. Rand’s writing, aesthetically, is horrendous. There is nothing excellent about it, but we can give her something of a pass as English was not her first language. The ideas are also incredibly stupid. Recent history has shown her libertarianism to be morally bankrupt and also ineffective. Indeed, most libertarians fail to realize how much government does for them: Rand herself relied on government in doing a great deal for her. I’ll now respond to your other comment.

      David Weinfeld

      March 2, 2012 at 13:48

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