Ph.D. Octopus

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“The Minstrel Boy” Unites in Song: Star Trek, Paul Robeson, Great Big Sea, and Beyond

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by David

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “The Wounded.” It aired in season four, on January 28, 1991, so I might have caught it as an eight-year-old, but more likely on reruns. In this episode, a renegade Starfleet captain goes on a rampage with his ship, destroying a bunch of Cardassian vessels, thinking the Cardassians were preparing for war. The Enterprise has hunt him down, and they use transporter chief Miles O’Brien (played by the terrific Colm Meaney), that captain’s former crewman, to try to reason with him. It’s a great episode for a number of reasons: great plot, great acting, heck, anything with an O’Brien focus is pretty great. But the best part of the episode by far is when O’Brien and the rogue captain get together and sing the Irish war ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.”

From the moment I heard it. I loved that song. Perhaps is was because I played Dungeons and Dragons as a boy, and the song had very D&Dish lyrics. At that point in my life,  I was attracted to anything that talked of swords and battles. But I think early on, even at this juncture, it was the Irishness of the song, the ethnic-ness of the song. It had survived into the fictional 24th century, yet we still felt its Irish roots, perhaps because O’Brien sang it.

A few years later I encountered the song again. It was a bizarre experience.

If you’re a secular Jewish child of a certain age, and your parents have a record collection, it’s very likely that one of those records is of Paul Robeson. Yes, I’m referring to Paul Robeson, everyone’s favourite African American Communist football player/lawyer/actor, who also sang African American spirituals and gospel music along with traditional folk songs from all over the world. My father introduced me to Robeson through his rendition of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising aka the “Partisan Song” aka in Yiddish “Der Partizaner Lid” or “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”). It’s a song that energizes me. I always imagined that if I were to have become a professional prizefighter, that would have been my entrance music.

But Paul Robeson has many other great songs. He sang powerful spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He sang passionate renditions of “Joe Hill” and “John Brown’s Body.” He sang the Scottish hymn “Loch Lomond” and the Irish tune “Danny Boy.” And sure enough, he also sang a hauntingly beautiful version  of “The Minstrel Boy.”

It makes me shiver every time I hear it. Through song, Robeson united himself to ethnic traditions that were not his own, and yet of course, they were his own, for they resonated with him the way Black spirituals did.

So what is “The Minstrel Boy” exactly? Wikipedia writes:

The Minstrel Boy is an Irish patriotic song written by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, an old Irish air. It is widely believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends, whom he met while studying at Trinity College, Dublin and who had participated in (and were killed during) the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The article goes on to note that the song was popular among Irish soldiers in the American Civil War and then again in the First World War. It became commonplace at funeral services held by institutions with disproportionately Irish membership like police and fire departments. Though often only the melody is played, the lyrics are simple and beautiful:

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him;
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foreman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

Much to my surprise and delight, I heard the song again, the melody without the lyrics, in the middle of the song “Wandering Ways” by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. Great Big Sea are a folk/celtic/rock bank from Newfoundland. They play traditional Newfoundland, English, Irish, Scottish, Canadian, and French Canadian music spiced up a bit to sound more like rock n’ roll. Their concerts have the intensity of heavy metal/punk performances, but instead of mosh pits there is Irish jigging (I’ve been to seven). Though they write some of their own songs, most are traditional folk songs, and their album liner notes come with explanations of their origins. Their songs are also often medleys, with different ditties contained as a bridge between verses. “The Minstrel Boy” is contained within the recording of “Wandering Ways” from the 2012 album Safe Upon The Shore.

One of the great appeals of Great Big Sea is their incredible respect for the tradition of music that came before them, that made what they do possible. And this reminded me of a passage from one of my favourite novel, The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s Kundera’s first novel, written in 1965 (published in 1967), a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the absurdities of Soviet era Communism in Czechoslovakia before the Prague Spring of 1968. But Kundera also has a background in ethnomusicology, and in one passage, one of the characters, Ludvik, explains the strength of folk music, and its appeal to socialists and communists:

The romantics imagined that a girl cutting grass was struck by inspiration and immediately a song gushed from her like stream from a rock. But a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of  them modestly disappeared behind their creation. 

While this conception of the folk song may be even too anti-individualistic for my tastes, I appreciate the sentiment greatly. The music I like most is that which makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than that particular song or artist. Maybe that’s why I love the hora so much. The individual artist is basically irrelevant in the joy of the hora circle. I feel a similar communal spirit at Great Big Sea concerts, or really whenever I hear folk music, especially celtic folk music. I’m not Irish, but I respect and understand the tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the creativity of individual artists. But I’m also amused when they fail to recognize what came before. A few years ago I was at Nields concert, the folk-singing sister duo of Nerissa and Katrina Nields. In 2008, they had released an album, called Sister Holler, where all the tracks were in some sense folk songs that borrowed (or stole, as they admitted) from works that had come before. To introduce one such song, “Abbington Sea Fair,”they told a story. First, the admitted that “Abbington Sea Fair” bore a clear (though not overwhelming) resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in music and lyrics. Of course, when Simon and Garfunkel had released “Scarborough Fair,” Bob Dylan got upset because it resembled his song “Girl From the North Country.” Nerissa Nields explained that all this was kind of silly, because all three songs are based on a late medieval melody and lyrics. Nothing comes from nothing, and tradition trumps originality.

And so “The Minstrel Boy” fits in to this tradition. It appears in different but similar iterations across the generations and even centuries, forever retaining its communal and ethnic power, uniting people not because of the creativity of who wrote it or performed it, but by the feelings it invokes. You don’t want to be listening to these kinds of songs alone, but rather singing and dancing with other people. “The Minstrel Boy” is a sad song,  but it is still communal, to be sung solemnly together.  Songs like “The Minstrel Boy” allow you to appreciate that which exists outside of yourself, that which existed before, and that which will exist after. It’s not divine, it’s the power of people, community, and art merging together. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish when you listen, to feel intertwined with that proud history and tradition. From Thomas More in the 18th century to Paul Robeson in the 20th, Great Big Sea in the 21st and Miles O’Brien in the 24th, the minstrel boy, forever slain, continues to sing.

Written by David Weinfeld

October 18, 2013 at 15:41

Tony Judt Retrospective

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by David

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.

The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.

On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.

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Ayn Rand vs Karl Marx: Nobody Wins

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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

The Intellectual Blame Game and Why It’s Silly

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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

Market Rationality and Education

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By Wiz

There is an interesting debate going on right now among Crooked Timber participants about whether rational choice theory (RCT) can be compatible with the Left. As someone who is totally fascinated with the curious (and depressing) dominance of econo-thought in our elite discourse, I strongly recommend the debate, and have some thoughts about how it might be relevant to debates about education.

As I understand it, it started when Richard Seymour—over at the hard left Lenin’s Tomb blog—criticized the dominance of market rationality in universities. Riffing off David Harvey he argued that there is an “imperialism of market rationality” in which the logic of neo-classical economics (itself intended to justify capitalism) has bled over into fields like political science, sociology, and even philosophy. To sum up, he argued:

What I’m describing as the imperialism of market “reason” is nothing other than the ability of the ruling class to naturalise and universalise its accumulation activities, to express it as an ideology, a pseudo-sociology with pseudo-explanations for social phenomena, and to use that ideology as a justification for advancing on and enclosing all areas of public life that are not commodified, not subject to the laws of accumulation.

This is, as I understand it, a fairly common argument on the Left, made, in different variations by Gramsci and Lucaks, among others. As an empirical matter I find it convincing, though perhaps a bit overstated. NYU, for instance, has turned their political science department over to the rational choice theory school, basically pushing everyone who does anything else out. They are now housed in the same building as the economics department and– with some nice exceptions– are generally a conservative department.

Anyways…Responding, Henry Farrell, at Crooked Timber defended rational choice theory, pointing out that a number of Marxists, even ones which Seymour himself had praised, have used rational choice theory. Henry denied that the “microfoundations” of RCT were right-wing, and argued that there are a number of situations– among them “If you want to make arguments about class solidarity, the power of social democratic ‘majorities’ to win elections where the working class is not actually in the majority etc…”– in which the Left could learn from the rational choice theory model. More convincingly he argued that only by knowing RCT, could the Left properly point out the incredible amount of right-wing hackery justified by RCT type claims.

Seymour responded, but didn’t say much that was too new, besides arguing (convincingly I think) that the methodological individualism and egoism of RCT are in fact embedded within right-wing narratives about human behavior. Chris Bertram, however, jumped in and argued that rational choice theory is scientifically suspect, since its basic assumptions (people are rational, people are individualistic, people are egoistic, etc…) are simply not true. There is too much factual evidence that people, even young pre-social children, have an innate sociability, moral sense, and feelings of trust and solidarity, to find simplistic rational choice theory useful.

So to sum up in a grossly oversimplified way: Argument 1 is that the assumptions of RCT are products of capitalist logic and a tool (consciously or unconsciously) of class domination.

Argument 2 is that RCT as an intellectual tool will be pragmatically useful for the left in a series of fights (among them, showing how intellectually weak are some people who justify their arguments with RCT).

Argument 3 is that RCT is simply scientifically invalid. It is based on a series of assumptions about human nature that are empirically false.

To swivel a second, I think these critiques of market logic and market psychology might be incredibly useful in the current debates going on over education, at both the higher ed and high-school level. As long as policy makers insist on trying to solve every problem with the economics 101/RCT logic, they will be making a couple of errors.

First, their policies will suffer because they are based on faulty premises. New York City’s vaulted campaign to pay their students if they performed well did not succeed. Turns out kids need good parents, teachers, and a supportive community; intangible things that cannot be solved by cash-incentives. Second, RCT technocratic language may mask the class domination going on. Seymour’s original post argued that this sort of market language had been deployed in order to push through “liberalizations” of public services that ended up being about breaking unions and opening up new fields for capital accumulation. Similarly, the charter school movement, in some of its more crass forms, is leading to lower pay for the non-union teachers, and higher pay for administrators, all while providing tax-shelters for hedge fund millionaires.

Finally, at the higher-ed level, as long as our discourse is dominated by narratives of instrumental reason, methodological individualism, and self-regarding egoism inherent in RCT, I don’t see how we can even have the language to justify the humanities, which base themselves on fundamentally different conceptions of human nature and don’t provide the sort of cash justification that, say, the hard sciences or law schools do. This certainly isn’t to say that Marxism is required to justify the humanities, as perhaps Seymour would argue. Heavens no. But a broader view of humanity, one that encompasses and values the mystery, ambiguity, and multidimensional nature of the human experience, is necessary.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

September 10, 2010 at 10:08

Adolf Hitler: Gay or Gassy?

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by Weiner

A recent episode of The Daily Show featured a hilarious bit about religious conservative nutcase Scott Lively‘s belief that Adolf Hitler, along with much of the Nazi leadership, were homosexuals. As historian Dagmar Herzog astutely commented, there is no evidence to support this claim, and more important, it’s entirely irrelevant.

Of course, it got me thinking about another strange Hitler theory, namely that his horrendous gas may have led to his horrendous deeds. According to Tony Perrottet, “medical historians are unanimous that Adolf was the victim of uncontrollable flatulence.” The implication, unstated but clear, is that Hitler’s farts may have caused the Holocaust.

Of course, among the “scholarship” in Perrottet’s “Further Reading” suggestions is The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor by notorious antisemite and Holocaust-denier David Irving. So it’s best to take Perrottet’s conclusion with a grain of salt (or Gas-X).

Still, this got me thinking about a common “what if” scenario involving the Holocaust: What if Hitler had been accepted to art school? Would he have become Adolf Hitler, the antisemitic artist, rather than Adolf Hitler, mastermind of the Holocaust?

This question in turns leads us to the bitter historical debate about the Holocaust, between functionalism versus intentionalism. Very briefly, intentionalists argue for a master plan to exterminate the Jews, a direct order from Hitler and the highest level of Nazi leadership. Many also believe that Hitler had planned to organize the genocide of the Jews as early as his writing of Mein Kampf. Functionalists argue that no such order or plan was made, and that the murder of Jews was decided upon at far lower levels in the German bureaucracy, or as a reaction to domestic power struggles in Germany, external events during the Second World War, or some other processes beyond the individual level.

For those who support the intentionalist school and place a great deal of blame upon Hitler, his sexual orientation, gastrointestinal problems and artistic ability could potentially be very significant. For functionalists, these are less important: something like the Holocaust was going to happen anyway.

Most historians today argue for a synthesis of these two views. But of course, this debate extends beyond the Holocaust and into broader questions for the field of history.

For example, the excellent book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by sociologist Charles Payne looks at the American Civil Rights movement but avoids a Martin Luther King Jr. centric perspective, focusing on grassroots organizing, or at least at the leadership level below King, like Ella Baker or Medgar Evers. This time looking at one of history’s good guys, we can pose similar questions: How important was MLK to the Civil Rights movement? Would it have happened without him? Would it have happened differently?

The turn towards social history in the 1960s and 1970s, history from the “bottom up,” so to speak, has done a lot of good, by opening up both new theoretical lenses with which to look at history, but also by granting agency to a new set of actors: the poor, workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, children, and of course people who combine two or more of those categories.

Many historians today shun the “Great Man” school of history, whereby important individuals, almost always white men, shaped world history, on the battlefield, in seats of government, in the clergy or the Ivory Tower. Politicians, generals and intellectuals have become less interesting than the “ordinary men” who slaughtered Jews during WW2, as described in Christopher Browning‘s famous book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Much of this social history, though by no means all or even most of it, employs a Marxist viewpoint. The pioneering work in this regard is E.P. Thompson‘s 1963 tour de force, The Making of the English Working Class, which argues that the working class developed its own class consciousness, restoring agency to poor English workers. Following this example, Lizabeth Cohen wrote Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, arguing that workers quite literally made the New Deal happen through their activism.

While these works of social history are both brilliant and important, as an intellectual historian, I’m sympathetic to individuals as major actors. I think Hitler’s personality, like MLK’s, or Josef Stalin’s, or Karl Marx’s, Margaret Thatcher’s, Albert Einstein’s, were all important in shaping world history.

Obviously there is some form of middle ground here, and perhaps I’m setting up a false dichotomy. But these questions are important, not just for historians, but also for those interested in the present, when we think about how much blame or praise to heap upon Barack Obama, Congress, the American people, the international market, fundamentalist Islam and other individuals, groups and large structural forces at work in the world.

Thoreau, Marx, and the Self under Capitalism

with one comment

By Wiz

One of the books that most inspired me to go to grad school was Staughton Lynd’s classic: The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. Its an old book now, and suffers from some of the defects common to writing from the 1960s (a slightly heroic and romantic vision of certain left heroes, a over-emphasis on white male authors, while more or less ignoring women and people of color, the slightly naive belief that there is one American radical tradition, etc…). But still, I think, an excellent reminder, as the American Right tries to co-opt all the symbols of our past, that America has a deep and long tradition of radicalism rooted in our oldest intellectual traditions. I’m excited to see that it has recently been re-issued.

Anyways… all this introduction is to bring up one of my favorite passages in which Lynd analyzes Henry David Thoreau’s reaction to capitalism. In a brilliant move he prints a paragraph of Marx, running down one side of the page, and a paragraph from Thoreau down the other, and dares us to guess who wrote which. “The reader may correctly identify the author of each of these passages, but I suspect it will take him a few moments,” Lynd concludes.

Like Marx, Thoreau was obsessed with the ways in which capitalism alienated man from his labor. In a passage in his journal, Thoreau described the dignity of a laborer, sweating as he hauled a stone, only to be disappointed when he realized that the only purpose of it was to enrich some employer. Like Marx he saw how industrialization turned men into appendages of the machine, or as he put it: “Men have become tools of their tools.” He predicts Marx’s obsession with how capitalism structures of the time of the worker, worrying about having to “sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society.” He even understood that the point of capital was “to get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky.” There is a chance that Thoreau read some of Marx’s dispatches in the New York Tribune, as he was a friend of Horace Greeley. But he certainly was not familiar with Marx’s philosophy and social critique.

And yet, I think, Lynd can also take this a bit too far. As Lynd himself suggests, the American political tradition that Thoreau came out of was still far more individualistic than Marx’s vision. For all of his acute analysis of capitalism, Thoreau never could get behind any collective solutions to the problem of wage labor, instead counseling that individuals simply drop out. He “suspected any enterprise in which two were engaged together,” and never really developed much of a class analysis. He would have bristled at Marx’s belief that we are social beings, and, for all his religious unorthodoxy remained a theistic of sorts and would have distrusted the supposedly atheistic scientific pretensions of Marx.

And so, I would suggest, Thoreau’s real interest to the Marxist tradition, lies less in his political and economic vision, and more in his understanding of how capitalism affects the self; how it, in a sense, colonizes the soul. Marx, of course, understood this. But I associate his twentieth century followers, especially the Frankfurt School, with really making this a source of intellectual concern, and drawing out the conclusions. Here, I would argue, by protesting how the market divided, mechanized, and distorted the self, the American Transcendentalists presaged European intellectual trends, and continue today to have valuable things to say to the Left.

So, with all respect to Staughton Lynd, whom I’m shamelessly ripping off, I’d like to present some dueling quotes by Thoreau and various 20th Century Cultural Marxists, about the impact of capitalism and the market on the self.

“I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand, not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less, because the man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case, the workman’s relation to his work is more poetic, he also shows more dexterity and is more of a man. You come away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails; but, in the case of the country man who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved.”

–Thoreau: The Journal October 19th, 1858

“If we follow the path taken by labour in its development from the handicraft via co-operation and manufacture to machine industry we can see a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker”

–Lukacs: History and Class Consciousness p. 88

“The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf… I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since as far as I have observed, the principle object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.”

–Thoreau: Walden p. 26

“We may distinguish both true and false needs. “False” are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice.”

–Marcuse: One Dimensional Man, p. 5

“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things… Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were,– its foundations broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds.”

–Thoreau: Life Without Principle p. 362

“Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced back to more primitive anthropological stages… the standardization of the intellectual function through which the mastery of the sense is accomplished, the acquiescence of thought to the reproduction of unanimity, implies an impoverishment of thought no less than of experience. “

–Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialect of Enlightenment p. 28

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 1, 2010 at 01:43