Ph.D. Octopus

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Ayn Rand vs Karl Marx: Nobody Wins

with 22 comments

by Weiner

I tried to read The Fountainhead. I really did. But after ten or fifteen pages, I gave up. The text was so poorly written, so comically absurd yet mind-numbingly dull at the same time that I had to put it down. In my snobbery, when I see  a smart friend’s profile on Facebook which lists one of Ayn Rand’s books as their favourites, I feel a sense of tremendous disappointment, the way I used to feel when I saw similarly smart people list The Da Vinci Code. Except The Da Vinci Code, however stupid, is a quick, entertaining read, and doesn’t turn its readers into sensational assholes (also, Dan Brown may be a bad writer, but he never really hurt anyone except the Catholic Church, and they had it coming). I could get through The Da Vinci Code. I doubt I’ll ever be able to stomach Atlas Shrugged.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about how bad Ayn Rand’s books are, or how stupid her philosophy of Objectivism is, or how much harm 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 “The Bitch is Back.” Corsello compares reading Rand (pictured left) at age 19 to “devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting. During: irresistible, bracing, the thing at hand imparting vitality, fertility, potency. After: bleccchh.” I never got to the irresistible part, but the urge to vomit came soon enough.

I think Rand’s work can best be summarized with an old intellectual putdown my father taught me: “Ayn Rand’s writing is both interesting and original. Unfortunately, what is interesting is not original, and what is original is not interesting.” I’d add that it’s also inaccurate and harmful and even downright pernicious, but that’s enough for now.

Perhaps the best short takedown of Rand can be found in The Nation, by Corey Robin. But if you’re looking for something a little longer, but don’t have the stomach for Rand herself, try this superb intellectual biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.

In Burns’ book, we learn about the crazy cult of Objectivism, which Rand ran like an authoritarian tyrant. To call it quasi-religious might be a bit mild. As Burns writes on page 203:

Although Objectivism appeared a way to escape religion, it was more often a substitute, offering a similar regimentation and moralism without the sense of conformity. Rand’s ideas allowed students to reject traditional religion without feeling lost in a nihilistic, meaningless universe.

And yet three pages earlier, Burns compared the adoption of Objectivism to a similar religious experience.

In many ways the overwhelming impact of Rand’s ideas mimicked Marxism’s influence. Arthur Koestler’s memory of conversion to Communism echoes the sentiments expressed by Rand’s readers: “The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a  jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question; doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past.” Only a small portion of Rand’s readers became as feverishly devoted to her ideas as Koestler did to Marxism, but the basic dynamic was similar. A twenty-four-year-old woman told Rand, “you have combined all my stray thoughts into an orderly, workable pattern–this alone is worth many years of my life.” Rand’s perspective could bring refreshing clarity to the unfocused, replacing doubt and uncertainty with passion and conviction.

It’s no accident that Burns used the word “conversion” to describe Koestler’s Marxist turn, nor that Koestler the himself used religious, even miraculous language to recount how he saw the “light” of scientific socialism. Objectivism, like Marxism, and most religious doctrines, are absolutist and all-encompassing philosophies.

When I first seriously studied Marx (pictured right) in the Dawson College Liberal Arts program (with Nemo among my classmates), our wonderful professor David Mulhall frequently used the term “millenarian” to describe Marxist thought. To Mulhall, and of course he was not the first to say this, Marxism was a fundamentally messianic faith, with its belief in the withering away of the state and an eventual Communist utopia, despite the mask of materialism. That description stuck with me.

When I studied Marxism as an undergraduate, I did so in the context of European intellectual history, with the brilliant Peter Gordon. With Gordon’s guidance, I came to understand Marx primarily as a “Left Hegelian,” someone who did not merely stand “Hegel on his head,” as Marx’s own cliche would have you, but in fact simply adapted Hegel to a more practical, materialist framework. Hegel’s messianic “world spirit” became Marx’s messianic working class, both operating in dialectical fashion.

When I finally studied Marx as a graduate student, in a History of the Left class (along with Wiz) taught by the excellent professors Molly Nolan and Linda Gordon (no relation to Peter, as far as I know), I had had enough. As a moderate social democrat and strong supporter of the welfare state, I was the class fascist, by far the most conservative, and probably the most vocal participant. This was certainly a strange scenario as a Canadian among mostly American students. I won’t lie: I relished the role. More important, I learned a great deal in these class discussions.

Of course, the stakes were pretty low. As my free market friend Josh once quipped: “the only place you’ll find real Marxists is in the humanities departments of universities, which is a good thing, because they can’t hurt anyone there.” This remark isn’t all that different from an observation made by the late Irving Kristol in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” Kristol wrote, “if you want to meet active socialists intellectuals, you can go to Oxford or Berkeley or Paris or Rome. There is no point in going to Moscow or Peking or Belgrade or Bucharest or Havana.” Much as I loathe Kristol, he, and Josh (who I quite like) may be on to something. As the semester went on, much as I enjoyed it, I became exasperated.

You see, I felt that the class, like much of academia, venerated (and venerates) Marx in a way that is totally inappropriate, and frankly ahistorical. This will offend some readers (and possibly writers) of this blog, but when I hear obviously Marxist academics make obviously Marxist arguments, my eyes secretly glaze over (or perhaps not so secretly, if my subtlety is wearing thin) much in the same way they would if I had to listen to a Creationist defend the Biblical account on the universe’s origins, or an Intelligent Design advocate attempt to mesh Darwin with God’s divine plan. It’s like that feeling you get when you meet very smart and devoutly religious people and you think to yourself “how do intelligent people believe this nonsense?”

And yet many smart people did and do in fact, “believe this nonsense.” As the late Tony Judt wrote of the Trotsykite Marxist Isaac Deutscher (pictured below):

I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.

This is not to say that Marx is entirely devoid of “originality and depth of content.” I don’t really think Marx is nonsense. The funny thing is, I love Marx. I really do. I think his writing was and is sensationally inspirational. Politically, I think his vision is impractical but nonetheless alluring, his goals noble and moral. I even think that his observations about working class life in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution reaching full steam, was incredibly astute.

But there’s the rub. As a historian, I can’t help think we’d be better off looking at Marx in his context. Yes, his description of worker alienation, and commodity fetishization can still ring true, in certain very specific circumstances, like in the developing world today. But on the whole, one cannot escape the fact, and yes it is a fact, that Marx got a whole lot wrong. He thought nationalism was a weak force, but in fact it was (and is) a very strong one. More important, he never recognized the power of a middle way, of strong welfare states offering a restraint on, rather than the destruction of, the market economy . He never imagined the compelling appeal of unions, like those of Samuel Gompers (pictured right) that offered “bread and butter” benefits to dignify workers within a capitalist framework (minus Gompers’ racism and sexism).

More important, Marx didn’t realize that most workers wanted to cease being workers, or at least, ensure that their children would not have to work like they did. Indeed, the story of eastern European Jews in America serves as a spectacular refutation of Marxism. Many came with dedication to socialism in hand, or more likely one that they learned on the job. They were active in left wing politics on New York’s Lower East Side and elsewhere. They worked in sweat shops, and lived in dilapidated tenement apartments. But eventually, they sent their kids to public school, and their kids became doctors and lawyers and entered the middle class. They mostly (though not all) remained on the left, but typically the mainstream left, of the Democratic Party. Their class consciousness was no more, if it ever really existed.

There’s no way Marx could have anticipated any of this, let alone i-phones and the Internet and a million other kinds of technological, scientific and philosophical and historical developments that have laid waste to his theory. Which is why, as I said earlier, we should understand Marx in context. And the same goes for Rand. Incidentally, that’s precisely what Burns does: her Rand responded to her upbringing as a middle-class Jew in Russia and then the Soviet Union, her disillusionment with the New Deal, and her distaste for the Judeo-Christian religiosity of mainstream conservatives, and role as a fierce Cold Warrior. But she too, like Marx, could not anticipate history.

As I’ve written here before, one of the biggest problems with Marxism, as the great philosopher Sir Karl Popper (pictured below) elucidated many years ago, was it’s utter imperviousness to “falsifiability.” As Popper wrote, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiabilityor refutabilityor testability.” Marx’s socialism, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, could not be scientific, because they couldn’t really be proven or disproven. As I wrote then:

[Popper] criticized Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian economics on the ground that they were not falsifiable. Their advocates found evidence in every result, even ones that seemed to blatantly contradict these “theories.” The Marxist revolution never happened, so Marxists tweaked the theory, rather than abandon it. They forced a strange fit of theory and fact, rather than simply form a new theory. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, is a valid theory, because it is testable, the results came in, proving it right. If different results has come in, the theory would have been proven wrong.

I think the same of course, can be said about those who remain faithful to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or who remain staunch believers in free market capitalism, even after the recent troubles of the American economy. Whatever the facts, they will find some way to make them fit the theory.

One of the biggest problems I have with Rand and Marx is this implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim to inevitability. I don’t think anything is inevitable. I know that many, perhaps most Marxists, abandoned inevitability by the 1930s, including, Sidney Hook, who attempted to meld Marxism with John Dewey’s pragmatism in his 1934 essay “Communism Without Dogmas.” I would argue that by abandoning inevitability, these “Marxists” had actually abandoned Marxism entirely, and tweaked it save the theory, as Popper’s critique noted.

Because, annoyingly for them, history got in the way. As I just said, I don’t think anything is inevitable, and I don’t think that Marx is to be blamed for the gulag. Nonetheless, with all the horrors of the 20th century, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China and many others in the name of some kind of scientific socialism, Marxists, if not Marx, have a lot to answer for.

So too do the Randians today, some of whom (Paul Ryan, Rand and Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and so on) simply ignore her militant atheism (as Burns recounts, she once told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent to believe in God”). More significantly, many of Rand’s adherents ignore her inability to deal with historical reality and economic facts.

But I think the basic similarity between Rand and Marx comes in their misjudgment of human nature. Rand, as a hyper-individualist, had absolutely no sense of the joys of human love and companionship (hence her unfulfilling marital life, substance abuse, and chronic depression), the warmth of community, and most famously, the dignity of altruism. Indeed, she despised fellow libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman because they argued that libertarianism was actually good from a utilitarian standpoint, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would bring the greatest good to the greatest number. Rand didn’t care about that. She thought altruism was wrong, plain and simple. People should act selfishly and only selfishly, no matter what happened to anyone else. Not only did she think Christianity led to socialism, or at that it basically was socialism, she believed that self-sacrificial altruism, the very essence of Christianity (Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, but for yours), was immoral.

Rand seems to advocate the basic philosophical principle of psychological egoism, without any awareness of its simplicity and flaws. Psychological egoists say: “people are selfish because they always do what they want,” without taking into account that what people want differs greatly. Some people want to work in soup kitchens, others want to be investment bankers, still others want to be axe murderers. Each are doing what they want, but we can evaluate their desires as having different moral standings.

Marx went the other way. First, his community is too large: he has no use for ethno-cultural particularism, gender solidarity, or anything that moves beyond class. Second, his philosophy does not understand the thoroughly strongly individualistic aspect of human nature. Sure, Sidney Hook (pictured below) tried to argue against that proposition:

Communism is hostile to individualism, as a social theory, and not individuality, as a social value. It seeks to provide the material guarantee of security without which the free development of individuality or personality is an empty or impossible ideal. But the free development of personality remains its ideal; difference uniqueness, independence, and creative originality are intrinsic values to be fostered and strengthened; and indeed one of the strongest arguments against capitalism is that it prevents these values from flourishing for all but a few.

I’m not sure this distinction is true in theory, as Marx has no use for individual expression that derived from national or ethno-cultural traditions. In practice, it has meant even less. Experiments in socialism have often bred uniformity, with Mao’s cultural revolution perhaps the most egregious example, and the limits placed on Soviet art a close second. I think one can argue that strong welfare states in a capitalist context allow for a good amount of “material security” along with the “free development of personality.”

Furthermore, Marx and Marxists discount the importance of individualism, not just individuality, to human beings, who often do place their first loyalties to themselves and to their families, well above class and community. Indeed, this little ditty my father taught me may provide more insight into class relations and human nature than anything Marx or Engels or other Marxists theorists ever wrote:

The working class, can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

Again, I do think much of Marx is valuable, and inspirational, orders of magnitude more than Rand. But like Rand, historically it doesn’t hold up, and politically it seems to contradict human nature as I understand it. Which is why, much as I think pragmatism is a silly philosophy with which to pursue scholarship (I believe in objectivity, but not Objectivism), I think it’s useful, or dare I say, pragmatic, when it comes to politics. It allows for the flexibility to change your opinion, to make compromises, to account for new evidence and realities. Of course, not all compromises are good, and principles are important too, which is why I support a progressive, principled pragmatism.

I think one can do this and remain on the left. One can remain committed to left-wing policies and politics without adhering to any sort of Marxism. Tony Judt will be remembered as a leading advocate of social democracy. Yet some on the left often forget that he cut his teeth as a STAUNCHLY ANTI-MARXIST thinker, criticizing French Communists who ignored, downplayed, or apologized for Stalin’s crimes.

My point here is not to venerate pragmatism or Tony Judt’s political views, both of which have their flaws. My point is simply to say that one can uphold progressive politics and fight the legacy of Ayn Rand without succumbing to the philosophy of her much smarter, much more moral but similarly dogmatic and messianic alter ego, Karl Marx.


Written by David Weinfeld

February 6, 2011 at 15:02

22 Responses

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  1. some things you perhaps already heard in seminar, but that i can’t help spewing:

    it’s entirely a 19th century red-herring to bring popperian falsifiability against marxism. it’s not a science like that, and only some people ever thought it was, even in 1900.

    i would also make the banal point, related to the above, not to confuse marx with marxists.

    Eastern europe rescued Tony Judt from the kind of French history he ended up doing after a while. his books on Sartre et al are really not great work–deeply political, so radically unsympathetic to their subjects that they can’t even explain, before they refuse to forgive. His first books on French socialism are better; *Postwar* is much, much better, a major achievement.

    Long ago and in another country, they would have said: this is objectively reactionary, never mind the subjective intent. really? ayn rand and karl marx? it’s nice to say that he’s much smarter than her–but it seems to me that he was engaged in a totally different project. say that marx was smarter than proudhon, than lasalle–but he wasn’t just smarter than rand, he was a deeply moral person, and she was a hack.


    February 6, 2011 at 22:50

  2. Thanks for the comments Eric. I always appreciate whatever healthy debate this blog can generate. A few quick replies.

    1) I don’t think the Popper is a red herring at all, whether we emphasize the “science” of socialist or not. Marx made major predictions, and they were wrong. I think it’s important as historians to be able to evaluate which thinkers were prescient and which were not. Theodor Herzl: very prescient. He saw the writing on the wall for the Jews in Europe. So did Marx’s friend Moses Hess. But Marx, I don’t he was all that prescient. Idealistic, yes. Prescient, no.

    2) Your point about confusing Marx and Marxists is well-taken, but I guess my larger point is that Marxists often have an unhealthy, quasi-religious view of Marx.

    3) I don’t know Judt’s history as a scholar all that well, but the work that made him a “public intellectual” of note was his Israel: An Alterative” piece in the NY Review of Books. That made him a controversial figure and launched him into the public eye, as far as I can tell.

    4) I don’t know much of Marx’s biography, so I can’t say exactly how moral a person he was. His thought was certainly moral, in a way, though his views on Jews and nationality in general were unsympathetic to say the least.

    To go back to your earlier point, Marx was certainly not a hack, but many Marxists are. I also think approaching anything, but especially history, with a preconceived over-arching theory usually makes for bad scholarship, as you tend to find what you’re looking for. Same goes for Freudian psychoanalysis in that regard actually. I prefer having no theory at all and just doing the best I can with the sources.


    February 7, 2011 at 00:06

  3. Very thought provoking.

    My personal take is something along the lines of this: It is obviously ludicrous to take Marx or Marxism as some sort of religious text. But it also hasn’t been the case for years that anyone of note has. Since at least the 60s Marx has served, for the vast majority of so-called Marxists, more as a starting point for various inspirations, than a rigid formula. The idea that, for instance, marxists like David Harvey, Fred Jameson, Zizek, etc… use Marxism as a “absolutist and all-encompassing philosoph[y]” is, I think, a profound misreading of their work. In almost every case, thinkers have found something useful by combining elements of Marxist thought, with something else, and producing interesting work. Harvey, for instance, takes Marx and adds some geography theory to produce a theory of spatial production, Zizek combines Marxism with Lacanian psychoanalysis to produce, well…whatever the hell it is that Zizek produces. They’re not necessarily right or wrong, but its also not fair to say they take Marxism as a closed system.

    Also, almost all of the interesting Marxist thinkers of the last 50 years or so (I’m thinking of people like the Frankfurt School, EP Thompson and Herb Gutman, Hobsbawm, Harvey, Jamison, etc…) almost all critique Marx from various perspectives, even as they employ certain Marxist terms and critiques. So many of the critiques you make have already been integrated into the thought of many marxists.

    On the issue of inevitability, I think this is slightly unfair to Marx himself, and certainly unfair to Marxists since. Yes, Marx believed that capitalism contained within it certain laws of development. But he also famously said that men make their own history. And towards the end of his life, he understood that capitalism had a lot of development ahead, before a serious revolution would happen. What, I think you are right about, is that Marx misunderstood the amount of things that could tamper with the “laws” he perceived. I think he may be right that, in a perfectly capitalist world, the working class will become relatively (important word) worse off. But Marx clearly did not see that strong labor unions, social democratic policy, progressive taxation, etc… could, for at least some time, thwart and reverse that “law.”

    As far as individuality goes, yes a rigid Marxism might undervalue individual idiosyncrasies and/or alternative forms of identity (race, nationality, gender, etc…). And, as Richard Rorty once wrote about going to Trotskyist summer camp, there is a type of Marxist politics that can be soul-crushing, in its denial of the artistic, aesthetic, and even spiritual aspects of life. But is not the same true of a rigid nationalism or a rigid racial or gender identity (that it has the potential to destroy or flatten both individual traits and alternative forms of identity)? Almost any political program can get too dogmatic and narrow.

    Where I may be with you, is the distinction between Marx as political program and Marx as political interpretation. Its one thing to say, Marxist categories like class, commodities, surplus value, etc… help us understand or analyze certain historical or current phenomenon. Marxism as political program, on the other hand, has always seemed much fuzzier. Who is supposed to create the revolution now that the working class in its classic form is gone? What does the new society look like? Why did so many attempts at revolution fail so miserably? Even David Harvey, who comes closest to being an orthodox Marxist, is conspicuously silent about what the communist society will look like. I’m pretty sure, after all, that the two of us support about 90% of the same political agenda even if we disagree a bit on the utility of Marxist categories.

    The final thing I’ll say is about historical accountability. Anyone who is going to be sympathetic to Marx has to struggle with the legacy of the Gulag. Absolutely. Even if you don’t hold Marx accountable, you need to be aware where that line of thought can lead. At the same point, though, we shouldn’t let Stalin win the argument about what was Marxism. That’s hardly fair to Jean Juares, or Eugene Debs, or any of a number of humane socialist leaders. After all, remember that the great European Social Democratic parties, especially the German SPD, also claimed inspiration from Marx, albeit a revisionist form of him. As did many of the labor movements in Europe and (pre McCarthy) America. Also a number of decolonization, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist movements which had much prouder histories than the USSR. Point is, Marx inspired some terrible things, but also some more admirable things, in the 20th century. Any moral reckoning would have to include both the Soviet bureaucrats, but also the organizers working with black sharecroppers in 1930s Mississippi; the Maoist guerillas, but also the defenders of the Spanish Republic, etc…

    Very interesting post, though.


    February 7, 2011 at 00:48

  4. Mmm… Second thought. I think one thing you’re on to here is that some (though not all) of both Marxists and (especially) Randians tend to treat those thinkers as qualitatively different than other thinkers. Whom your commitment to must be something special.

    I think Weber, for instance, provides some useful insights, language, and concepts. But no one would assume that because, for instance, I talk about disenchantment, I must also agree 100% about the spirit of capitalism. Or whatever… but sometimes you get the sense that some marxists treat marx as an all or nothing proposition.

    In other words, its almost as if while one is allowed to pick and choose from Weber’s thought, to take what you find useful and interesting, while rejecting what is of no use, that sometimes does not feel true of Marx. Which is actually a great disservice to him.

    As I argued above, I think there are lots of interesting marxists who don’t do this. But perhaps not all.


    February 7, 2011 at 01:08

  5. Great comments.

    I think you’re 100% right that a lot of Marxist scholars simply borrow what works from Marx, don’t accept everything entirely, and are doing very interesting, important and valuable work.

    I also think you’re right that a lot of Marxists/Communists were/are very moral ethical and have a lot to proud of. And certainly capitalists/Randians have a lot to be ashamed of too.

    You’re also right that even with disagreements about the utility of Marx, on policy questions you and I, and probably most marxists, agree on 90% of things.

    I think you’re right that lots of all-encompassing ideologies, based on race, religion, gender, etc., can be soul-sucking in the way you described.

    As for the distinction between political and scholarly marxism, I think my view, and I want to be more clear here, is that I’m sympathetic with the sentiments espoused by political marxism, i.e. support for the working class, but I think you’re right that both the means, and the end goals, are often very vague.

    I think your last comment about Weber gets to the heart of what I’m talking about. I think certain figures: Marx, Rand, Freud, and maybe to a lesser extent Adam Smith, Derrida, Foucault, the Pragmatists, who are venerated in a way that they should not be. Certainly with Marx not all Marxist scholars do this, as you suggest.

    But I think the point is that if you embrace thinkers in this way, like if you have a rigidly religious perspective, it would totally colour and probably distort your ability to interpret the past, source material, etc.

    Like Wiz, if you are researching abolitionist Robert Hayden, and I asked you: has the source material given you any indication that he had an Oedipal complex? Or that he was ego drive rather than id driven? You would look at me as if I was insane. Because neither you nor I think that Freudian thought has that all encompassing type of analytical power.

    I think Marx offers far more useful analytical tools that Freud does. And in Hayden’s case he might offer useful questions, as the time period and circumstances line up. Like Hayden might have felt something like class consciousness with slaves, etc.

    But for my work, on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, I’m not sure what, if any, useful tools marxism might offer. They just weren’t concerned with class issues in the same way, and weren’t motivated or shaped by those concerns in the same way that Hayden might have been.

    Anyhow, great comments. Hopefully lots more to discuss. Thanks again.


    February 7, 2011 at 08:36

  6. Nice thought-provoking post. I’ll second Eric and Wiz on a number of points, and add what I think is a relevant point in light of your criticisms of Marx, which is that Judt himself fell into a problematic ahistoricism in his evaluation of French Marxist intellectuals in Past Imperfect. For instance he condemned Merleau-Ponty without contextualizing M-P’s thought within its polarized east-west context and without differentiating between intent and outcome.

    I think a major distinction between Rand and Marx is actually embedded in your post, which is the fact that Marx can very much (and from my perspective should) be read as a materialist Left Hegelian, and in doing so occupies a place in a very important line of western thought extending forward through the Frankfurt School to Habermas, etc. The point being that Marx is still extremely useful as a theorist to “think with” (rather than agree with) in a way that Rand is not. So for instance if I’m trying to think about the relationship between human freedom, nature, and technology in a way relevant even for thinking about female agency and reproductive technologies, then I need to start thinking about what these entities ontologically are (or are not, or can’t be ontologically defined) and what their relation is with each other. Marx is a really important place to start thinking about all that, even though in the process I will likely disagree with a majority of his conclusions.

    On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to the idea of not getting stuck in a theory that is not applicable to the historical substance or period you’re studying. Recently I’ve been reading a book that argues we need to move beyond Foucault’s idea of “discipline,” which is really grounded in a bourgeois liberal capitalist society, and move on to the ideas of “control and freedom” which the author argues make more sense in our postmodern age of flexible identity and the internet, and I think she’s right. The beauty of theorists is that they can be used to think about a number of different historical situations (one of my favorite seminar discussions from last semester was whether we could use Foucault to think about the purpose and operation of 14th century Italian sumptuary laws–and I think you can…), but they grow perilous when their theory is used haphazardly across the board.


    February 7, 2011 at 10:17

  7. Thanks Luce. I think you’re right on about placing Marx in that broader conversation. Meanwhile, Rand is entirely derivative of classical economists and Nietzsche, though she misinterprets Nietzsche quite badly.

    I especially liked your last point about using theories “haphazardly across the board.”

    That leads me to my last point, I guess, which is one I harped on in that class but maybe wasn’t clear enough about in this post, which is the question of explanatory power.

    When we look to books or texts that are supposed to be classics, to be timeless in some way, we look for ideas that transcend context, that offer not just a moral vision, but guidance, answers and explanations.

    The Old Testament (or as I like to call it, The Bible) has lots of crap in it, lots I disagree with, lots that is just wrong or useless or interesting. But it also offers, I think, particularly in books like Job, or Genesis, or Ecclesiastes, some real wisdom, actual lessons that can be applied today, that can help us understand the world we live in.

    Though I actually disagree with many of the messages in the New Testament, I recognize that one can also find lots of value in the wisdom attributed there to Jesus and his followers.

    There are all sorts of other works that I think have offered me this form of guidance. The Platonic dialogues taught me about argumentation, and especially Euthyphro affected my understanding of irrational religious argumentation. John Locke, largely as a refutation of Hobbes, offers useful political models. Kant provides an important guide to non-utilitarian ethics, and Mill and Bentham’s utilitarianism still drives so much of our thought. Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” is an interesting non-utilitarian foundation for liberal, progressive politics. Existentialists from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus to Woody Allen have all helped me understand the world.

    But then there are thinkers, like Freud, who are interesting, but who, to me, don’t offer much by way of explanatory power. I don’t think Freudian analysis really tells me how the human mind works, and how people are going to behave.

    Ayn Rand, of course, offers nothing new to the equation. Most of her thought is unoriginal, but the extremes of Objectivism are so irrational and childish that I don’t think they really explain anything at all.

    Marx, unfortunately, while very interesting, falls closer to the Freud category for me. When it comes to economics (though of course, I’m not an economist at all), I think Adam Smith has more to offer. Again, not about what we should do, but about how the economic system functions.

    In fact, in terms of Hegelians, I think Ludwig Feuerbach has had a bigger impact on my thinking than Marx has. Feuerbach’s magisterial The Essence of Christianity changed the way I understand religion, God, and atheism. He inspires me less than Marx does, but his thought rings more true.

    I’m rambling now, but my point is simply that I don’t think Marx offers nearly as much explanatory power as many Marxists think he does.


    February 8, 2011 at 13:41

  8. Great post!

    I was once at a seminar where the someone, without irony, explained that Marx did not see race. I agree that most of this isn’t his fault (and I have to say, without being a Marxist myself, I certainly have to constantly fight a tendency toward economic determinism in my own work!), but I still object to the sometimes ‘Life of Brian’ style messiah-fication of Marx and his writings. This being England, Ayn Rand isn’t really so much of a problem.


    February 10, 2011 at 12:46

  9. Seeing as I’ve just been so honored as to guest post, I made my way through past posts a bit and Ayn Rand never fails to draw me in! While the evisceration of Objectivism is right on, I’m not sure Marx is quite the best comparison.

    If one wants to see Marx truly in context, then how “true” the theory is, or whether its 20th century outcomes can be justified morally, or even how historians should use him, all become less relevant. To me, Marx is explainable not only in the context of German philosophy (I never took a class with Peter Gordon so all that stuff is way above my pay grade, to quote Obama) but also of industrialization and the rise of capitalism. In this sense many “socialist” or “proto-socialist” theorists and practitioners, from Fourier to Owen to William Morris, start thinking about these same issues of labor value, exchange and class division long before and after Marx. If we take the spotlight off him we can see that the issues he’s dealing with are very common and certainly don’t go away into the 21st century…I think historians more or less have to deal with Marx when writing about the capitalist economy. I-phones or other technological advancements don’t render him irrelevant (the cobalt in laptop batteries is currently extracted from Congo under conditions that may plausibly fit within a Marxian model of “primitive accumulation.”)

    Of course, just because Marx wrote a lot about capitalism doesn’t mean he should be trusted over other thinkers. Why he is by academic historians isn’t surprising, but I’ve never seen this as a problem. The most successful historians, in terms of social standing, money and political influence are still conservative Hayekians and Friedmanites like Niall Ferguson, despite the fact that they constitute a very very small minority within academia itself.

    In the end, I don’t think Marxism can be discredited as somehow contrary to an abstracted “human nature” (a concept to which I personally do not subscribe). It would of course be subject on a case-by-case basis to a more modest test, not of Popperian falsifiability (since I also do not believe history is a scientific discipline) but of plausibility. In other words, if a theoretical apparatus that includes Marx does not help produce a plausible description of, say, the financial crisis of 2008 (cf. Harvey), then it should be combated with a model that can do so without Marx. After all, no one would notice if Marx wasn’t there if the argument made sense without him. As historians, we read so many books that it becomes quickly apparent who comes to their sources with dogmatism and who can really extract a great argument or thesis with the help of Marx or Foucault or whomever else. As with all things, it’s the difference between good and bad history rather than ideological versus objective, or theoretical versus empirical.


    February 15, 2011 at 20:01

  10. Thanks for the comment Mircea. I think you’re 100% right about good versus bad history, though in my opinion I’d say the ideological is more likely to veer toward the bad and the objective to veer toward the good, everything else being equal (which is seldom is).

    I think you’re right on about Marxism and the rise of capitalism. One of the things I remember best from the my History of the Left seminar was the point Linda Gordon made, that in the 19th century industrial capitalism was still pretty new, and people thought it might be a fleeting phenomenon. That it had so much staying power though, I think, is one of Marx’s many errors. And again, this is not unlike religious messianism: at the time of Jesus’ death, many thought he was coming again real soon.

    You’re right to call me out on the abstraction known as “human nature,” and obviously different individuals want different things. But if we can have a discipline like psychology, where we can try to generalize about human behaviour, I truly think that Marxism can be viewed as a kind of naive optimistic idealism, just as Rand’s Objectivism is pessimistic to the point of absurdity. Neither view jars with my own anecdotal experience in life, which of course don’t constitute any real evidence, but I think world history provides tons of examples which do.

    Last, I think Ferguson is something of an aberration. And within the discipline of history he is not well-regarded. And Ferguson is not a giant like the late Tony Judt or Howard Zinn, nor is he as well known as other prominent “public” intellectuals who are situated to varying degrees on the left: Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, Steven Pinker. None of those are historians, it’s true, but I think Ferguson’s position as a historian is almost irrelevant to his fame and success.


    February 15, 2011 at 20:47

  11. […] rights, salaries and dignity and the overall good to society. And yet, as I mentioned in previous post, when I look across time, at American Jewish history, and the workers who unionized so that they […]

  12. Your words for me are like candy to me. The more I eat of their sugary goodness, the more insatiable my desire is. I am a first year university student, from Canada. I hope one day that I will develop a clear brilliant style such as yours. Thank you for the word candy, my days are sweeter because of it Holly.


    April 6, 2011 at 12:11

  13. Are you people really serious?

    Werner Z. Brandendburg

    April 9, 2011 at 17:29

  14. “Marx made major predictions, and they were wrong” I dont entirely agree with this, some of the necessary tenets for utopian government to occur are the abolition of religion and scientific solutions to man’s ills, none of which has really happened yet, so it is not a stretch to believe that things can dawdle around and change to the point where true communism via pure societal evolution will occur naturally, perhaps without the requisite for revolution.


    April 10, 2011 at 11:56

  15. […] even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural […]

  16. […] Still, Washington and Carr moved me because I am definitely guilty of holding Paul Krugman up as a divine-like authority, just as others do with Marx or Rand. I think Krugman is more pragmatic and less ideological than those two, which is why  I think that more extreme ideologies, like Marxism or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, are more pernicious in the ways they resemble religion. […]

  17. If you can’t even read The Fountainhead, which is a novel and not even an explicitly philosophical text, like The Virtue of Selfishness, for example, and then you proceed to pillory her ideas using secondary sources (wait? did you even address her ideas?), then you are the one who is a joke, and a pompous one at that.


    February 13, 2012 at 08:03

  18. This analysis is littered with personal expressions of distaste and ridicule. I’ll throw this on to the pile of hachet jobs that is so prevalent on the internet. Substitute “Ayn Rand” in this diatribe with a person this writer admires and the absurdity is rendered unequivocal.

    You read 10-15 pages of fiction, none of her non-fiction and yet presume to comprehend her entire philosophy? Even amongst those who read her works there are many who profess an understanding yet fall considerably short.

    “Ayn Rand said we must all be selfish”. I hear this one all the time from her detractors and it is embarrassingly off the mark, even a high school student can figure out the truth. She advocated rational self interest, making the best out of yourself and by no means deprecated charity as long as it was PRIVATE and VOLUNTARY. She was extremely generous with many people in her life, giving her time and money (you never read these accounts on liberal blogs, they lie by omission) to people who she thought needed help. Her point was that you should reward the virtuous, not the criminal.

    It sickens me to hear the sanctimonius public officials who claim to be helping the poor (they aren’t, keeping them in poverty is job security). Since when is giving glorified when you are using your neighbors money to do so? And since when it is charity when you have no choice in the matter as a private citizen? What hypocrites.


    March 2, 2012 at 13:02

    • Thanks again for the comment Frank. As I mentioned in my other reply, I’ve read Rand’s essays and Burn’s excellent biography and have a good understanding of Rand’s uncomplicated philosophy. I actually think you misunderstood Rand. She really did make a virtue of selfishness. She hated Milton Friedman and even Hayek because they were fundamentally consequentialists. According to Burns’ balanced and exhaustive biography, Rand was not particularly personally generous or charitable: in fact she could be quite mean, had a cult-like following, and was relatively cruel to her husband. Libertarians pretend as if history never happened, that whatever the good and virtuous John Galts of the world do they do on their own. Well that is just false. This is the appeal of Elizabeth Warren, understanding that modern life and society and civilization is a collective enterprise that allows individuals to excel and the group to rise together. We’re all in it together. Rand relied on collectivism greatly in her life, everyone successful does. There are degrees of course. I’m not a communist, I’m a moderate social democrat who believes in a strong welfare state that preserves individual freedoms, strong but reasonable unions and rational, mixed economy that allows capitalism to work where it does best and regulate it where it falls short. Rand was a very important figure in American history (sadly) but she was not a great thinker.

      David Weinfeld

      March 2, 2012 at 13:55

  19. […] economists to philosophers. But, as with the “Objectivism” of Ayn Rand, I think the better analogy is to religion. Followers of the Austrian economists, of Objectivism hold fast to their ideologies with the fervor […]

  20. I made it through Atlas Shrugged recently, and although I’m no well read philosopher, it seems to me that most of her [relatively basic] ideas were dragged out and excessively repeated.

    Also, unlike most novels, it felt almost impossible to envision the world she attempted to create or empathise with the characters – they were mostly too far from any personality I’ve ever known.

    So anyway, I don’t blame you at all for giving up of the Fountainhead!

    (I’ve written my thoughts on the book here, with a slight environmental slant


    September 25, 2012 at 18:49

  21. I just happened on your blog, and I’d just like to say you seem to very much misunderstand Marx (as many do). To say he isn’t for the individual is a complete and total misunderstanding of his work at its most basic level. I won’t comment further as this blog is old, but you should go back and re-read, perhaps starting with the Paris Manuscripts; the point he made throughout his entire life was the freedom outside of economy to grow human individuality. D-


    February 14, 2013 at 09:46

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