Thursday, August 09, 2007

Radical Leftist Currents in Rand's Thought

Because of her uncompromising espousal of individualism and capitalism, Rand is usually identified with the right, rather than the left. Indeed, her intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, has gone so far as to describe himself as "to the right of Attila the Hun." Nevertheless, in at least two crucial areas of thought, Rand's views are much closer to the left than they are the right. I am referring specifically to Rand's views on human nature and social change.

Although there are some important theoretical differences between Rand and academic radical leftism, particularly in terms of economics and social morality, their ultimate conclusions about man and history converge in surprising ways. Rand and the Left both adhere to the belief that human nature is largely malleable--that, in other words, there exists little in the way of innate tendencies of behavior that make certain political, economic, and moral schemes impractical and dangerous. Although they differ in their basic explanations of human behavior (the Left claims that behavior is culturally or socially determined, Rand that it is determined by man's fundamental premises), in the end, their explanations are not so very different. Both Rand and the Left contend that most human beings are governed by ideas or premises or modes of thought and feeling that, in the leftist version, are imposed by the ruling class, or, in the Randian version, are absorbed from intellectuals by the unfocused masses. In either version, ideas, in a very broad sense of the word, are the ultimate determinants of society. For the left, it is the ideas of the ruling or master class. For Rand, it is the ideas of the great philosophical system builders. But in either case, it is ideas that are the means by which social change comes about.

Because of Rand's fierce commitment to free will, she tends to downplay the deterministic implications of her theory, in effect declaring that the masses more or less choose (even if unwittingly) to allow themselves to be determined by the predominant philosophy of a given age. The radical Left, on the other hand, because of its obsession with victimhood, emphasizes the powerlessness of the masses to resist the cultural hegemony of ruling class. But their ultimate conclusion is the same: most people, whether by their own free will or not, are determined by the predominant "ideas" in society. And, even more to the point, both Rand and the Left look to the intellectual as the agent of change. The intellectual, guided by philosophers or theorists, can, by challenging the predominant ideas in society, change the entire society. Rand talks about changing people's psycho-epistemology; the Left, about raising people's consciousness. But there really is not much difference in the two phrases. To be sure, Rand and the Left disagree on the type of ideas that trigger social change. Rand believed that metaphysical and epistemological ideas were key. The Left, on the other hand, tends to favor ideas about social and economic relations--though some on the left, particularly those that have bought into post-structuralism and other such intellectual frauds, also are increasingly looking to epistemological ideas in a way that draws strong parallels to Rand.

Rand may have disagreed about a lot of specific issues with the left. But on the broad essentials concerning human nature and social change, there isn't much difference between Objectivism and some of the more academic varieties of radical leftism.


Michael Prescott said...

One of the reasons I lost interest in Rand was that, while reading Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions, I realized that the Objectivist view of human nature was almost the same as the leftist view.

Sowell distinguishes between two "visions" of man: the constrained vision, which sees man as inherently flawed and unlikely to improve much, and the unconstrained vision, which sees man as highly malleable and theoretically perfectible. Conservatives tend to believe in Original Sin and the intractibility of human nature, while liberals tend to believe that human nature can be decisively and permananently modified by social engineering.

Rand's Utopian viewpoint, with her idealized fictional characters and her mission to write "the ideal man," fits much more comfortably into the leftist framework. I think this is why Rand despised conservatives and refused to make common cause with them.

When I realized that I shared the constrained vision of the conservatives, I began to see why I was feeling uncomfortable about Rand.

Sowell extends his analysis into many areas of social policy, showing how the constrained vision favors common law, political compromise, traditional values, and incrementalism. Rand disliked common law*, shunned compromise, rejected traditional values, and was impatient with incremental reforms.

*Rand on common law: "Common law is good in the way witchdoctors were once good: some of their discoveries were a primitive form of medicine, and to that extent achieved something. But once a science of medicine is established, you don’t return to witchdoctors. Similarly, common law established -- by tradition or inertia -- some proper principles (and some dreadful ones). But once a civilization grasps the concept of law, and particularly of a constitution, common law becomes unnecessary and should not be regarded as law."

Daniel Barnes said...

That's a great comment Michael.

Particularly your "common law" quote. That is so typically Rand - to 1) pronounce scornfully on the preceding human endeavour in a field, 2) appeal to some allegedly proper "concept" which should supposedly replace it, and then 3) conveniently fail to elaborate any further!

David said...

I don't know why this sticks in my craw, but I gotta say that I would be considered a leftist on pretty much all "social" issues and many economic ones, yet I don't hold this Rand's (Rosseau's - tho' she'd never admit it) utopion view of human nature.

I can't think of any "leftists" I know who do. Unless by "leftists" you guys mean Marxists, in which case, you should just say "Marxists."

Whether its my parents (New Deal Democrats and unionists both), my friends, or co-workers, we all recognize reality that the angels of our better selves aren't as likely to motivate us to achieve and succeed as are the "demons" like greed, envy, etc.

Neil Parille said...

"But once a civilization grasps the concept of law, and particularly of a constitution, common law becomes unnecessary and should not be regarded as law."

This is odd. Common law constitutes non-codified legal principles, generally in specific civil contexts such as contracts and torts. A constitution covers basic organic principles, and there generally isn't much overlap.

gregnyquist said...

David: "I don't know why this sticks in my craw, but I gotta say that I would be considered a leftist on pretty much all "social" issues and many economic ones, yet I don't hold this Rand's (Rosseau's - tho' she'd never admit it) utopion view of human nature.

"I can't think of any 'leftists' I know who do. Unless by 'leftists' you guys mean Marxists, in which case, you should just say 'Marxists.'"

In the first place, it should be understood that the comments in this post about leftist views of human nature (and the human condition) are generalizations; they don't necessarily apply to every one who thinks they are a leftists. Moreover, unionists and New Deal democrats are not really leftists, not in the sense meant here. By leftist, I mean someone who believes that wholesale change is not only possible, but desirable as well. Those liberals who accept the system as whole but merely want piecemeal reform are not really leftists, their merely centrists with leftist leanings.

Incidentally, the leftist view of human nature does not necessarily deny that human beings are capable of doing bad things, like exploiting workers or trashing the environment; they simply believe that the people who do these bad things are a small minority and that if leftists were in charge, none of these bad things would happen.

Anonymous said...

Actually Greg you're mistaken here, leftists do not want to change the system of buying and selling. The still are in favour of commodity production, what they seek is state capitalism - that is left-wing capitalism, whereas the libertarions and objectivists and right-wing capitalists. Marxists seek to replace capitalism with socialism, a world of free access. Under socialism there will be no state or buying and selling. But what leftists group expsouses that? None that I know of, they all believe in nationalisation or public works programmes or workers co-ops. This is not socialism.

Anonymous said...

Use this link as a starting point to how Marxists/socialists view human nature.

David said...

Greg, thanks for clearing up what you mean by "leftist." Oh, the slippery nature of language! (Yet another reality Rand couldn't cope with!) I reckon 33 years of demonization by talk radio and the GOP have made me a bit sensitive.

And to be fair, the original post topic did use the qualified term "Radical Leftist."

David said...

Anonymous, I think you're using ideal definitions of what a Marxists and socialists ought to be, not what they are historically or currently. (There's that is-ought problem again.)

Example: The Communist Party USA (CP-USA), the Revolutionary Communist Party USA (RCP-USA), and the Socialist Party USA (SP-USA) all talk about abolishing buying and selling and creating a world of "free access," I've yet to hear or read a coherent explanation of what a world of free access would look like, let alone how it would be created and sustained.

In short, how will goods and services produced by one collective be equitably exchanged for goods and services from another collective? What's the mechanism of exchange (currency? barter?) Who mediates, or at least, monitors the exchange to guarantee fairness and equity? And how will transition from our current system to the World of Plenty be made?

And also, Anon, you're wrong on two other counts ... I'm a registered Democrat, unionist, and Liberal, yet I'm fully in favor of public works programs and worker-owned collectives, if that's what voters and workers (respectively) want. And if those are things voters and workers want, then they should be free to work toward them. To paraphrase Joe Hill, "Don't whine, organize!"

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Actually Greg you're mistaken here, leftists do not want to change the system of buying and selling. "

I actually don't remember mentioning anything about buying and selling, but even so, I'm not aware of any hard leftists who don't want any changes in the system of buying and selling (i.e., free markets), and many would like extensive changes, if only they could be brought about. Since the collapse of the Soviet communism, doctrinaire socialism has become an untenable position, even for people on the left. But they certainly remain very hostile to the current system, and would at least desire major changes in it.

Anonymous said...

"What we are creating in Russia is not socialism..."

That's a quote by Lenin by the way.

How would trade take place under socialism? Well, there would be no 'trade' so to speak and your wrong about the parties you list trying to bring about a world of free access David but your correct that they offer nothing coherent to workers about building socialism.

How would goods and services be exhanged? Well, I imagine it would not be too difficult to work out as we have the means around us don't we? We would simply work out what we need and want and take it from there.

I'm wrong about public works programmes etc? But how, I simply said these were not socialism, Marx and Engels are quite clear on this. The state cannot be used in the interests of the working class. I've studied the history books and an early example of public works is by that well knwon socialist Henry the eighth, who taxed his barons to pay peasants to drain swamps. But so what? How can public works programmes be socialism? Yes, I agree if that is what the voters want then give it to them but socialists have pointed out the futility of market reforms.

Greg, the point I was trying to make is that the 'left' are not Socialists! Only in name are they and whats in a name! They are the left-wing of capitalism and still want buying or selling. Instead of a capitalist class they want a ruling party class who will no doubt get all the benifits and priviliges on offer.