Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate has set off a fresh new set of articles on the influence of Ayn Rand, and it has sent her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, back to the top of the Amazon best-seller lists. Though Ryan has recently abjured Ayn Rand’s philosophy in favor of the more Catholic-friendly Thomas Aquinas, he has clearly been influenced by her spirited defense of capitalism and individual rights.
This influence, and the resulting air of intellectual self-confidence that Ryan projects, has got the left starting to feel a little worried and on the defensive. In an article in Slate, for example, Beverly Gage frets, “Why Is There No Liberal Atlas Shrugged?”
If you’re a fan of Ayn Rand, you just spit out your coffee. The mind reels. Why is there no “liberal Atlas Shrugged”? Where do you even start answering that question?
Well, here’s an idea of where to start. Note specifically what Gage is asking.
Ask Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan how he became a conservative and he’ll probably answer by citing a book. It might be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Or perhaps he’ll come up with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, or even Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. All of these books are staples of the modern conservative canon, works with the reputed power to radicalize even the most tepid Republican. Over the last half-century, they have been vital to the conservative movement’s success—and to liberalism’s demise.
We tend to think of the conservative influence in purely political terms: electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, picking away at Social Security, reducing taxes for the wealthy. But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock….
Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.
This is delicious on a number of different levels. First, fifty years after William F. Buckley tried to drum Objectivists out of the right, Ayn Rand is now considered central to the movement’s “canon.” More important, note that the left, which has always dismissed Ayn Rand’s work as “juvenile” or as “pop philosophy,” is now starting to figure out that her works give intellectual substance and an ideological framework to the right—while the left has nothing to match her intellectually. That, dear readers, is a cultural inflection point.
Given the magnitude of this change—if the right, thanks to Ayn Rand, is now taking the intellectual initiative in our culture—it’s important to ask how the left lost that initiative. So let’s take the question seriously: why isn’t there a “liberal Atlas Shrugged“?
We can look at this question both ideologically, as Gage does, and literarily. That is, why isn’t there a book from the left with the same intellectual substance as Atlas Shrugged, and why isn’t there a book with the same literary power and appeal? The two are closely related, of course. The larger-than-life drama in Ayn Rand’s novels comes from the fact that she is dealing with big and profound ideas, and at the same time, she attracted a much larger audience for her ideas by presenting them through memorable characters and a compelling story than she would have by writing an abstract philosophical treatise.
So it’s no surprise that the answer to both questions is the same.
Let’s take the ideological question first. Why is there no equivalent work in the ideological “canon” of the left? There, the answer is easy. There was such a book: Das Kapital. Up through the middle of the 20th century, the left did have an ideological foundation and framework: Marxism. I went off to college just in time—the late 1980s—to catch the tail end of this. There was Marx, and then there were various spin-offs and tie-ins with Marx. (My favorites were the attempts to integrate Freudian psychology with Marxist economics. It was not a pretty combination.) But Marx was the center, not so much because of the details of his economics—his complex rationalizations for portraying capitalist productivity as parasitism—but because of his worldview, which divided the economy into warring classes and portrayed an individual’s every personal interest and value as defined by his economic class.
But if Marxism defined the intellectual center of the left, it is also what shattered the intellectualism of the left, because at the heart of Marx’s theory is a contempt for ideas. In Marx’s philosophy, it was economic relationships, the “class struggle,” that drove the world, and all of this lip-flapping about philosophy, religion, and values was just a useless “superstructure” constructed as a “legitimating ideology” for the real, underlying “class interests.”
This outlook permeated the left and came to hold sway far beyond the direct influence of Marx. Today, it lives on in the left’s obsession with defining everything in terms of “race, class, and gender,” a more recent extension of Marx’s class divisions. Consider the current election, in which you frequently hear the positions of the right dismissed as those of rich white men. This is part of the reason we’re seeing the left begin to openly and stridently invoke race as an issue. The latest charge? When Mitt Romney criticized President Obama for trying to dismantle welfare reform, this was immediately portrayed by the left as “injecting race into the election.” Never mind the patronizing assumption that welfare recipients must all be black (which they most certainly are not). For our current purposes, note how this is an attempt to avoid a debate on the actual merits of welfare reform by dismissing the right’s position on this issue as secret code—no, really, they actually describe it as “code”—for underlying racial animus.
Gage describes this trajectory for us, without fully realizing its significance.
Once upon a time, the Old Left had “movement culture” par excellence: to be considered a serious activist, you had to read Marx and Lenin until your eyes bled….
The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s…. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.
What she is describing is a kind of intellectual Balkanization, which is the logical consequence of Marxism. If your ideas are just a product of your membership in a collective social group, well, there are an awful lot of ways to carve people up into different groups. You start by trying to analyze the struggle of the international working class and you end up writing academic papers on the unique perspective of left-handed lesbian tugboat workers.
In the left’s view, the only role for ideas is to serve as propaganda for a brute power struggle between opposing social collectives. But if that’s all they are, then why bother with them? Hence the de-intellectualization of the left and its inability to produce theories with wide, universal appeal.
This collectivist worldview is also the key to the left’s failure to produce works of wide, popular literary appeal. I think it’s interesting to note that here, too, there used to be a book that could qualify as a liberal version of Atlas Shrugged. Ironically, it was Ayn Rand’s favorite novel: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In fact it might be more accurate to say, not that Les Misérables was a liberal Atlas Shrugged, but that Atlas Shrugged is a capitalist Les Misérables. Hugo’s masterwork had the epic scale and high drama that inspired a young Ayn Rand, but it was devoted to a squishier, altruist version of social reform. Hugo’s concern was with the plight of the poor, as he described in the novel’s preface.
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Ayn Rand described the novel’s theme as “the injustice of society toward its lower classes,” which might sound like a good theme for a modern American “liberal.” And yet, though Hugo described himself as a “socialist,” he was no collectivist. In terms of the content of his ideas, he spoke in terms that today would probably place him on the center-right. Here, for example, was his view on the Communists’ plans for redistribution of wealth: “Their distribution kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation. And consequently labor. It is a distribution made by the butcher, who kills what he divides.”
The important thing about Hugo, however, wasn’t his political ideology, which was more than a little vague, but his literary style. The key to his literary power is his profoundly individualist outlook. Hugo’s work is, at root, a celebration of the power of choice and the individual’s ability to determine his own destiny.
The central literary idea of Les Misérables is summed up in a passage where Hugo describes his hero, the embittered ex-convict Jean Valjean, wrestling with his conscience. This is my own version of it, cobbled together from several different translations and slightly re-arranged, but it will give you the idea.
There is a sight greater than the sea, and that is the sky. There is a sight greater than the sky, and that is the interior of the human soul. There gods do battle as in Homer, there are dragons and hydras, as in Milton, visionary circles as in Dante. To write the poem of the human conscience, if only of one man, even the most insignificant man, would be to swallow up all epics in a superior and definitive epic.
Jean Valjean is Hugo’s insignificant man, and Les Misérables is the superior and definitive epic. Hugo’s message is that even the most seemingly worthless man, the kind who would be most despised by “respectable” society, can be a moral giant.
If you want to grasp his literary style, consider an extended scene in which we catch up with Valjean after he has reformed himself and become a respected industrialist and the mayor of his town, living under a false name. He discovers that a luckless vagrant who happens to resemble him is about to be sent to prison for being the fugitive felon, Jean Valjean. Does he save an innocent man by revealing his true identity, at the cost of losing the respectable life he has built for himself? In an enormously suspenseful scene, Valjean sets off to travel to the court where the case is being tried. Along the journey, he encounters a series of obstacles—a broken carriage wheel, for example—any of which would give him a plausible excuse to give up and say, “oh well, I tried.” At every stage, he has to take action to overcome the obstacle, to keep on choosing to do what is right in spite of all obstacles.
Again, put this in the context of the current presidential campaign. Victor Hugo believed that, when it came to his life and character, Jean Valjean did “build that.” Hugo was, in his literary premises, an arch-individualist. No wonder the works of a man who described himself as a Christian and a socialist are most admired today by atheistic capitalists.
Just as the content of Hugo’s politics—a vague program of social reforms—gave way among the cultural elite to the systematic ideological collectivism of Marx, so his literary style was subsequently rejected in favor of a style more consistent with collectivism. This is the modern version of Naturalism, which dispenses with Hugo’s “melodramatic” Romanticism and seeks to portray man “as he really is,” which usually means: as the doomed product of social forces outside his control.
The Wikipedia entry on literary Naturalism sums it up very well. It is a literary movement “that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character…. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth.” If you’ve ever had to sit through one of these modern films about the doomed existence of a squalid street-hustler, you have an idea of this kind of Naturalist approach.
This became the literary voice of the left, because it corresponds so perfectly to the worldview of Marxism: men are the products of social forces, pitted against one another according to factors of race, class, and gender. The protagonist of a Naturalist novel is always somebody who “didn’t build that.”
While Hugo sought to show how an insignificant man could be a giant, the Naturalists sought to portray an insignificant man in all his insignificance. You can see how, for all of its pretension of literary superiority, this approach never produced anything one-tenth as appealing as Les Misérables or Atlas Shrugged. You can see how it fails to inspire and energize its readers and doesn’t get cited by high achievers as having shaped their lives.
That’s why there is no “liberal Atlas Shrugged.” The left’s embrace of a collectivist ideology committed it to the anti-intellectualism of the “race, class, and gender” school in politics, and to the bleak tedium of the Naturalist school in literature.
In a dramatic juxtaposition that both Rand and Hugo would have appreciated, this year’s election will be bookended by the release just before the election of Part 2 of the movie adaptation of Atlas Shrugged and the release just after the election of a film version of the musical adaptation of Les Misérables. It is a reminder that what the world really wants and needs is not some impossible, imaginary “liberal Atlas Shrugged,” but these two enduring literary expressions of individualism.