Big Fish, Bullshit

— Galen Strawson calls out the “narrativist orthodoxy” in his review of Jerome Bruner's Making Stories. Strawson argues, and he is right, that we are not “constituted” by the stories of our lives in which we cast ourselves as characters. While having a sense that one's life has gone well may involve seeing it as having had a satisfying narrative arc, the conditions for a satisfying arc are not something we are free to concoct from the abundant matter of imagination.
Bruner never raises the question of whether there is any sense in which one's self-narrative should be accurate or realistic. Those who favour the extreme fictionalist or post-modernist version of the narrative self-creation view don't care about this, both because they don't care about truth and because a fiction isn't open to criticism by comparison with reality (it doesn't matter that there is no Middle Earth). But honesty and realism about self and past must matter. There are innumerable facts about one's character and history that don't depend on one's inventions. One can't found a good life on falsehood.
Strawson's point should lead us to ask what makes a good story a good story. Presumably it has something to do with relating to the world, and to others, in the right sort of way. And the right way to relate is a fact about the world, independent of the stories we tell.
Reason editors with degrees in literature or film eager to praise consumer culture for providing the stuff of narrative self-invention, take note.
[Link via A&L Daily.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

121 thoughts

  1. I’m wondering if the choice of a starting point for this analysis, right after the recession of the early 80s, is skewing this at all.

  2. What’s really embarrassing is to believe that Marx (who even said before he died, “I am not a Marxist”) would have approved of 20th-century Marxist movements, so I wouldn’t consider them “influenced by Marx” so much as “using Marx as an excuse to grab power.” On the other hand, Rand would have championed the rise of neoliberalism. One of its legacies is that in the richest country in the world, 18,000 people die in each year from lack of health insurance.

    1. What’s really embarrassing is to believe that Marx (who even said before he died, “I am not a Marxist”) would have approved of 20th-century Marxist movements
      This claim was never made.
      On the other hand, Rand would have championed the rise of neoliberalism
      A) Who cares.
      B) If she would have preferred neo-liberalism to Marxism that would have made her “correct”. Ditto for Karl.
      18,000 people die in each year from lack of health insurance.
      The spurious nature of this claim aside, you are right about one thing, societies dealing with abject poverty usually are not too concerned with wonky details about the provision of insurance.

        10% of NHS patients admitted to hospital “suffer some form of harm”
        A committee of MPs has called for urgent action on patient safety in the NHS. The Health Committee said services “are not safe enough yet.” Chairman of the Committee, Kevin Barron MP, said:
        “Reviews of patients’ case notes indicates that in the NHS and in other healthcare systems as many as 10% of patients admitted to hospital suffer some form of harm, much of which is avoidable.

      2. Yep… and it probably doesn’t even count those hurt in non blatant ways (wait lists, denied expensive drugs or treatments, et cetera)… ie, those hurt by the system working as designed vs. screw ups and dirty NHS hospitals…

    2. thatlllarnya – I've always had an enormous memory--pretty well stuffed. Now, at 75, the memory's starting to go and, I'd suppose, so will many of the memories. So, whether or not readers find such content interesting, it'll serve as a mnemonic. To a great extent, I am my stories and wouldn't want to forget who I am. My memory's sometimes faulty--even at its very best. So, my first story shall be one very well illustrating just that point.
      geneberman says:

      “Lack of health insurance” as “cause of death?” C’mon, man wha’d’areye, nuts hangin’ out the window?

  3. Re: “The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each.”
    Why would one judge an intellectual based on the actions of her ‘devotees’?
    Historically, many more people have identified as Marxists than as ‘Randites’. So–even if the underlying attribute were agreed to be a rational basis upon which to rank quality–your claim would have the persuasiveness of ‘there are fewer people suffering from cancer in North Dakota than in Japan.’

    1. The larger sample seems like a good point, but I think you’re giving the followers argument short shrift. I’m not necessarily claiming it’s incredibly strong evidence, but surely the actions of people following a theory are some evidence, in a Bayesian sense? If you had two theories that you were equally likely were correct/good, and then you noticed that literally every single person following one was a psychopath and everyone following the other went on to accomplish wonderful things that made society better, would you still literally be indifferent between the two? Those records would literally give you no information?

  4. Part of Marxism’s appeal has always been the sense of having both Grand Insight and Pure Intentions, so of course wonderful doctrine is contrasted to messy reality. That any defender of “capitalism” is burdened by all its sins but no Marxist is burdened by the legacy of {every single attempt to put it into practice} is just par for the course.
    Not that the doctrine is all that impressive: Marx’s argument for the labour theory of value is fairly awful and the theory demonstrably false.

  5. How about the fact that in spite of the depravities of those who appropriated Marx’s work and despite the many and deep flaws in his thinking, Marx was actually a great philosopher, a historian, a penetrating observer of current events, and often a fantastic writer (yes, he was often also very bad; but his best prose sparkles), whereas Rand was a hack philosopher and an awful novelist?

    1. Good points, all. Except that he was a really bad philosopher, historian, and observer. It’s kind of a travesty of horrible misconstruals and willful misreadings.

    2. “his best prose sparkles”
      So you’ve read it in the original German? (sorry, couldn’t resist)
      I find Marx’s view that society is a dichotomous struggle between two “classes” to be as grossly simplistic as Rand’s struggle between the producers and looters, or whatever she called them. Even if you believe that Marx was a great philosopher and Rand was a hack, in light of the last century how can you possibly defend the ideas of the former over the latter?

    3. Marx was a fraud and would invent data to support his premise rather than the other way around. He was a liar and wherever his ideas have been put into practice the result has been increased human suffering. His entire premise is contrary to human nature. He was also a horrible human being. (Intellectuals by Paul M. Johnson) Why exactly is Rand a hack philosopher? What makes her any more of a Hack philosopher than Marx? In my humble opinion, having read some of the works of both authors, Marx was a hack philosopher as well in addition to being a bully, a mooch and a liar. In addition, from what I have read, he could really have used some help in the area of personal hygiene.

      1. Unimpressive argument there – lots of assertions, some personal attacks, and no evidence to support your claims. Rand remains a standing joke among philosophers, and no-one takes her seriously in politics. Sure, there’s a fringe movement among life’s perpetual adolescents, but adults realize that Rand wrote crude fantasies that are simply not applicable to real life.

      2. The good news is I never intended to impress anyone with my argument. This is a comment section on a blog, not an annotated dissertation comparing Marx and Rand. In addition, you have no evidence to support your claims and are assertions only. Not being a “serious philosopher” myself (I consider myself to be more of a “serious engineer” that builds and produces rather than just talking) and not having any idea what constitutes a “serious philosopher” I would not know who is considered a “standing joke” among them. I am guessing that you have data and sources to prove such a general and far-reaching statement. But, I do not really expect that you would because this is a comment section on a blog and I do not worry too much about such things. I also doubt very much that you speak for all “adults” who know about “real life.” I am sure you have many thoroughly researched sources to support that unimpressive argument. I did provide one source in my comment regarding Marx (Paul M. Johnson) as opposed to all the sources you provided. For some reason “the pot calling the kettle black” comes to mind after reading your post.

      3. … and philosophers in general are a standing joke among people who take ideas seriously.
        It would be nice if someone who obviously dislikes Rand and her ideas could say something substantial about her – showing some passing familiarity with her work, since understanding would be far too much to ask – rather than simply saying she was “deeply stupid”, a “hack”, “crude”, or any of the other standard dismissive insults.
        It’s enough to convince me that the people who express the deepest dislike for her are the ones whose objection rests on a refusal to engage their intellect, lest they find they can’t answer her.

      4. ..and philosophers remain a standing joke to the rest of us.
        “… but adults realize that Rand wrote crude fantasies that are simply not applicable to real life.”
        “Adults” and “I” are not interchangeable, sad sack.

    4. That’s just not true. I remember even Richard Rorty, who is sympathetic to some of Marx’s social appeals, flatly stated that Marx is simply bad philosophy.

    5. Engles cleaned up a lot of Marx’s intellectual messes.
      I think both are over rated. Sweeping narrative history is simplistic and avoids true / deep study of various cultures. It’s infected some modern social sciences (such as sociology) to the point of making them useless (including the ‘education’ and degree associated with it). They’re just all biased opinions thrown out as something more than that….

  6. Fact is, commitment to some kind of socialism and fluency in the jargon of Marxism used to be mandatory for serious intellectuals. And there’s something glamorous in the very idea of the intellectual….So it is not only possible proudly to confess Marx’s influence on one’s thought, but it remains possible in some quarters to impress by doing so.
    I would love to hear what Robin Hanson would have to say.

  7. I think it’s one of the great achievements of the 20th century that most of us managed to decide that even one ideology was beyond contempt, and that anyone who paid attention to it was an idiot. It might be asking too much to hope for two.
    Of course, it is probably one of the great failures of the 20th century that it took a few million corpses to agree on the first, and then we couldn’t even decide on the second, even after a few million more bodies.

  8. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    To fix the Marx/Rand/Jesus awfulness-o-meter, you have to adjust for the number of years their writings have been around.
    Personally, I find it odd that its so much more acceptable to be a communist than a nazi. Some nazis these days say, no we’re not that kind of nazi, we’re third-positionist Strasserites, but nobody’s buying. I don’t even think that kind of disavowal is necessary for communists. Zizek still calls himself a Stalinist, right?

  9. It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand than by Karl Marx.

    Really? That’s rather like saying Ted Kaczinski (the Unabomber) was less of a terrorist than Tim McVeigh. It’s morally untenable to say “well, the Unabomber is more acceptable because he only killed a handful of professors, whilc McVeigh blew up a building full of people.”
    And you wonder why Objectivism gets a bad name…it’s stuff like this, Will. Cold, unfeeling, heartless.

    1. Isn’t it more like saying, for example, Will Wilkinson is more acceptable than Tim McVeigh”? Who are these mass-murdering Objectivists? (And if they exist, why aren’t they the ones who are giving Objectivism a bad name, rather than someone saying “hey, murder is bad, and mass murder more so”?)

      1. At least McVeigh occasionally wrote coherent prose, which is more than the Queen of Galt’s Gulch ever managed. And let’s face it, Marx provided a sustained and radical critique of capitalism, rather than being a parasite on it, which is basically what Rand and her fellow libertarians amount to.

      2. No one argues that Marx didn’t criticize capitalism. What’s being argued is that his argument is really shoddy, his history is entirely bunk, his economics painfully & demonstrably wrong, that his philosophy is flawed and sort of silly, and, oh yeah, that people putting his ideas into effect are the world’s biggest mass-murderers. And don’t pull this “Marxism has never been tried” nonsense. If that were true, then you wouldn’t have seen defenses of the Soviets et al up to their collapse (not to mention the idiots who still walk around wearing Mao & Che t-shirts). And, no, in point of fact, Marx wasn’t a great human rights-loving hater of dictators.

      3. Everyone who takes up the Objectivist philosophy of “why should I subsidize those who are less productive than me” participates in the slow strangulation of the poor. Objectivists are not mass murderers in the singular; it is as a group, as a collective, that they can be called such. Their denial of society or social responsibility is what renders them cold-blooded killers; they don’t have to pull the trigger themselves, they just elect to stand by and do nothing. Objectivism calls for the murder of the concept of society. There can be no such thing as an “Objectivist society.”
        I do not call Stalin a Marxist. He was an authoritarian dictator who ruled by terror and fear, not according to a theory of economic equalization. Marxism was a facade, a convenient cover story to conceal his true intentions. Marx never advocated mass murder in order to accomplish his utopia; there is such a thing as a bloodless revolution. The atrocities were committed by power-mad individuals with no higher purpose than to preserve and extend their own power, just as has always been done throughout history.

      4. Right, I can see how you can think that failing to give someone money and mass-murder are roughly identical to a first approximation. That’s a good point. And given that the market demonstrably does infinitely more to help the poor than legions of sophomoric Marxists ever have, you certainly do seem to be making a good argument that in no way constitutes an embarrassing defense of the indefensible.
        And hey, it’s not like Marx ever advocated dictatorship or ever said that the communist utopia can and should be accomplished by force in certain circumstances (can you imagine how embarrassing it’d be either of those were true?). But I think you’re a little unfair to Stalin. He actually accomplished quite a bit of economic equalization — you know, kill the rich people, destroy the sources of wealth, make everyone equally poor. What’s not to love?

      5. To call Objectivists “murderers’ is to completely obliterate the concept of murder, and to engage in the worst kind of blood libel. And we only advocate “doing nothing” when it comes to government coercion. You evidently feel this is an essential requirement of society. Not retaliatory force, but the initiation of force by the government against its citizens. Gotcha.
        Really now, you are equally as liable as every Objectivist in the death of every person whom you did not personally help.

  10. Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be usefully summed up as: individual liberty is the only thing that matters.
    Karl Marx’s philosophy can be usefully summed up as: economic equality is the only thing that matters.
    I would follow the smart man who said that any political choice must reconcile individual liberty, equality or fairness, and efficiency. (Fascism could be summed up as: efficiency at achieving the desired end is the only thing that matters)
    In that sense both Rand and Marx are equally interesting extreme thought experiments, and swallowing either one whole would be equally misguided, and being influenced by both as good examples of how not to think would be equally useful.

      1. This point changes nothing about the fact that both Marx and Rand espoused idealistic fantasies that pathologically ignore the realities of human nature.
        Of course Marx advocated violence for his “cause”, so there’s probably a reason for more direct deaths in his column, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel deeply embarrassed for anyone who uncritically accepts either Marxist or Randian dogmas as something desirable.

      2. “Uncritically accepts” is not the topic that was introduced for discussion. The post is about whether someone should be embarrassed by having been “influenced by” these authors.

    1. Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be usefully summed up as: individual liberty is the only thing that matters.

      No, Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be usefully summed up as: I got mine, F**k you.

  11. I think it’s the whole perception of fighting for the underdog. Certainly that’s not what happened in any Marx-inspired dictatorship. But they always advertised that they were working on behalf of The People. Rand, by putting a sort of naive egotism to the forefront, seems to champion the winners over the little people, which will always be a tough sell, even though we all operate from self-centeredness in one way or another.

    1. I think it’s true that Rand’s work is often seen this way — as seeming to champion the “winners” over “the little people.”
      It strikes me that this is a Marxist-influenced perception!

      1. Well, populist-influenced at least. Though going by Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”, humans seem to be hard-wired to (depending on which particular view you take) make things even or punish the winners. I do agree that there was an underlying idea of doing good work in Rand’s work (like the hamburger that was presented as a philosophical ideal in Atlas Shrugged).

  12. When any government levies a tax and takes away a man’s honestly earned resources, it forcibly takes away the equivalent of the portion of that man’s life used to acquire those resources. Taxation is thus a partial form of slavery.
    When the taxation is done by duly elected representatives, it is a more bearable form of partial slavery, but still a partial slavery.
    When the government uses the taxes to provide protection and to secure rights, then it is a necessary partial slavery, used to prevent some other force from imposing a worse form of slavery.
    When a government is not representative, or when a government goes beyond its role in protecting and securing rights, the amount of partial slavery is increased, and the amount of freedom is decreased.
    The United States already has too high a degree of partial slavery, and is proposing to increase that amount – to be like other nations. I hope we can reverse this trend, and advance toward more freedom.

    1. This is the most pathetic piece of self-pitying idiocy that I have seen in years. Slavery? Oh yes, you are picking cotton under the lash when the government taxes you, aren’t you? Even by Randian standards, you qualify for the funny farm.

      1. Wow – major ad hominem invective! With an attempt at sarcasm.
        Consider the prinicple: slavery is when a powerful entity forces a weaker entity to spend his or her time doing the bidding of the more powerful entity. In taxation, a powerful government forces a weak citizen to spend a portion of his or her time generating revenue for that government.
        When this revenue is used to protect that citizen and secure his or her rights, such a practice is justifiable – to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.
        When this revenue is used for other activities, however, the use of governmental power is very, very questionable. You might possibly have to pick some cotton to satisfy the IRS.
        In its pure form, capitalism is two people coming to a voluntary agreement on the exchange of goods and services. They set the price, or the wage, or the barter. Replicate this billions of times, and you have the system – “voluntary” is the key word.
        In its pure form, communism is two people looking to a central authority to tell them the terms and conditions for the exchange of goods and services. That central authority holds the power to set prices and wages, and to thus direct how people spend their time – another form of slavery.
        Communism and slavery have a lot “in common”. Marx did not, of course, mention this. The similarity doesn’t lend itself to sparkling prose.

      2. Your attempt at defining slavery is weak and uninspired. Slavery is many things, but it is not, by definition, when a powerful entity forces another into absolute manumission.
        Check out “Slavery and Social Death” by Orlando Patterson.

      3. There is no ‘pure form’ of communism. Marx, wrong as he was about most things, didn’t think there would (need to) be any central authority (for long). Marx only wanted the profits of production to redound to the laborers – the oppoosite of slavery. Lenin was the one who put down the anarcho-syndicalists and spearheaded the centralization/bureaucratization of authority in Russia to implement the Marxist program. While the Leninist (or Trotskyist) system was capable of casual evil (power corrupts, after all, in our system today in America as much as anywhere), it took the paranoid sociopath from Georgia to really hit world-historical levels of death and destruction. Blaming ‘communism’ is just intellectually lazy. Of course, the Marxist program is hopelessly utopian, precisely because it fails to account for the iron law of oligarchy, and is based on nonsense economics. Then again, there’s as much a pure form of communism as there’s a pure form of capitalism, and here in the real world where “two people coming to a voluntary agreement on the exchange of goods and services” never happens off ebay, we recognize that Rand’s work (and that of her acolytes) is equally hopelessly utopian and even more useless for critiqueing (= understanding in order to change for the better) actually existing social ills than Marx’s work (and that of his acolytes).

      4. Capitalism is when a capitalist, one with money and the means of production, offers a worker a chance to earn money he requires to live. He can’t say no to this oppurtunity so he must work for the capitalist. Capital is controlled by the few (who always seek to control more capital) so there will always be more workers than capitalists. So the capitalist always has the advantage over the worker. The worker will starve to death, die of preventable disease, or die from exposure without money. The capitalist controls how money is distributed.
        That is wage slavery 101.
        Syndicalism is two people coming together and saying “we are both required to work this machine and our work is required to create a thing of value so let’s profit from the sale of it’s value equally.”
        That’s justice 101.

  13. Brilliant, michaelsteele, how you manage, with a single swipe of ad hominem, to deftly defeat all those who, like Rand and Nozick, propound taxation-as-slavery arguments. No premises or conclusion needed when a little name-calling will do, eh?

  14. Sorry Will, but it’s like you’re ignoring the host of effective and interesting work that people who have been, and will continue to be, affected by Marx have done. This isn’t necessarily about being a ‘Marxist’ or _believing in_ Marxism, but understanding that there were relevant points within Marx’s writing, rather than devoting yourself (without humility about its potential to be wrong) to an ideology that has done immense damage.
    I think here about interesting writers like Jerry Cohen, Sam Bowles, John Roemer, Pranab Bardhan, Jon Elster, Herb Gintis, and others who were undoubtedly ‘affected’ by Marx, but have made substantial contributions to, and interrogations of, our understanding of marginal effects, of the extended order, of self-ownership. It should not be embarrassing for them to say they’ve been influenced (positively/negatively) by Marx, they should just say it, and we can all move on.

  15. Not a bad start for Rand, I suppose:
    1) Pinochet’s Chile: 2,279
    2) Lancet’s account of excess death’s in Iraq due to invasion (equating Rand’s philosophy with the neo-liberal ideals ostensibly underpinning the invasion): 654,965
    3) Plus however many eventually die ‘seasteading.’

  16. “The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each. That line of attack ought to be decisive…”
    Yes! Also, one should be more embarrassed to have been influenced by the Beatles than by Britney Spears.

  17. Karl Marx(1818-1883) did not have a theory of morality; he had a theory of history. Thus, Marxism was not about right or wrong but about what will happen in history. Marx was contemptuous of people who judged things in moral terms. When diehards say that Marxism has actually never been “tried” (despite what Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Ho, and Daniel Ortega thought they were doing), they don’t understand that Marxism was not a rule for behavior or a program for action; it was supposed to be the theory of a deterministic mechanism that will produce the future, a theory of actions that will arise spontaneously because of historical circumstances — although we can infer what kinds of actions people, including ourselves, will be taking — after all, Marx said that the purpose of his work was to change the world, not just understand it. It is the theory, however, the world will change because of the objective economic conditions, not because of some decisions we make. This was not a theory about “human nature” or “human psychology,” but about how the mode of economic production (how goods and services are produced) determines all the other political, social, cultural, and moral structures of a society (though some Marxists are uncomfortable with this in an absolute sense). The needs of the “English petty bourgeois” are thus not “false needs” [note], however dismissive Marx sounds, but true needs in relation to a capitalistic mode of production — needs which will change over time, in a historicist sense, as the mode of production changes. As a “science” of history, Marxism would succeed or fail to the extent that it could actually predict the evolution of production and its various effects.
    Marx thought that as capitalism had replaced feudalism with a new mode of production, which was more productive and efficient, the same thing would happen to produce a replacement for capitalism. In the end, as the workers were impoverished (when capitalists drove down wages) and the number of capitalists dwindled (as competition was replaced by larger and larger monopolies), the capitalists would end up with no one to sell their goods to and nothing to do with the capital derived from their profits. This would produce increasingly severe credit and banking crises, until the proletariat would easily tip over the whole rotten structure and replace it with a classless society.
    Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. [Capital, Vol. I, p.837, Charles H. Kerr & Co., Chicago, 1906, translation by Edward Aveling, quoted by Thomas Sowell, On Classical Economics, Yale, 2006, p.170]
    Already in this we find the essence of the fallacy of Marxist economics. Marx believes that as the dialectic of history evolves new modes of production, greater productivity and greater wealth will be created, ultimately eliminating the need for alienated and exploited labor. However, there is not a variable in Marxist value theory to account for greater productivity. If labor (or “socialy necessary” labor) creates value, then a greater quantity of labor will create greater value, but only in quantity, not in kind. More labor for pyramid building just builds more pyramids. Thus, some other variable is involved besides labor. In fact, that is capital. Labor intensive production gives way to capital intensive production, and greater capital means great productivity, not just in quantity, but in kind. But Marx does not believe that capital exists, which is why capitalism is called “capitalism.” This means that Marxism cannot explain increased productivity. And then Marxism also contains another trend disparaging to productivity as such. Jack London, less well remembered now as a communist than as an author, said that a worker who is more productive than others “is already a scab,” i.e. a strike breaker. Thus, the view seems to be than increases in producitivity are part of the exploitation of labor. (from

    1. If Marxism is just a “theory of a deterministic mechanism,” and “the mode of economic production … determines all the other political, social, cultural, and moral structures of a society,” then why would Marx bother to write with the stated intent of changing the world? If Marx rejected the idea of judging things in moral terms, why did he want to change the world?

  18. It’s interesting to see the immediate knee-jerk “but Jesus and Mohammed have blood on their hands too” response, when Wilkinson isn’t talking about religion at all; and last I checked, Rand was an atheist. As an admirer of Rand and a libertarian myself, I’m quite happy to put Marx’s political descendants at number two in the mass-murder hit parade, if only because they have some serious competition from jihadis and Inquisitors in the game of top-down, ideology-matters-more-than-reality-and-human-suffering ways of “thinking”. Number one with a bullet!

  19. I have to jump in here to defend my beloved Marx…
    1) It’s intellectually lazy to oppose Ayn Rand to Karl Marx as though those two are the poles of a single one-dimensional spectrum. The only reason Marx is still used in opposition to capitalism is because socialism doesn’t have a widely-recognized poster-boy.
    2) A lot of annoying self-described “Marxists” tend to use ridiculous jargon in everyday discussion. Yes, its dumb, and these people probably also think that “Stalin didn’t practice REAL communism.”
    3) Marxist criticism (to be distinguished from Marxists) is alive and well and is an interesting lens through which to view your capitalist utopias. It’s less a political view than a sociological or cultural one.
    4) Marx made some devastating errors, but he was nevertheless a brilliant man with ideas that revolutionized thought. This is why he is widely studied, not because of communism. Is it possible a person can have some good ideas and some bad ideas, or does a bad idea cancel out all the good ones? In your case, an idea you happen to disagree with cancels out everything else. That’s what makes people narrow.

    1. Can you think of any of Marx’s ideas that were both true AND original? I can think of many that are true and many that are original, but none that are both.

      1. My answer is, yes, but you’re missing my point.
        Above all, Marxism nowadays is method of criticism. Whether a method of criticism is “true” or not is debatable. Is the scientific method ‘true’? At best, Marxism is outdated. Plato is also outdated, and his ‘Republic’ would be frowned upon and probably characterized as totalitarianism, by today’s standards, but we still find his work useful and insightful.
        I think you’re looking to argue with someone who will defend Communism, which I can’t do. I will defend socialism-lite (capitalism tempered by government regulation) against libertarianism, but don’t pretend Obama’s socialism-lite, or socialism in general, has anything whatsoever to do with communism, Marx or Marxism. It doesn’t.
        I recommend reading the first volume of Das Kapital if you want to get a real sense of Marx’s ideas, and to what sort of culture he was applying these ideas to.

      2. @uknowbetter “They sure do. It’s more control by the state with communism being even further control the by the state.”
        Communism has no market. Socialism has an active market. Compare, say, Finland, and the old Soviet or communist-Asia countries. What similarities do you see? They’re completely, totally different. No comparison.
        As I said, you guys are intellectually lazy. The real world isn’t either/or, however neat it looks on paper.

  20. Blue Collar Todd – California – My unique perspective comes from having a Master’s degree in the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, and from working in the oil industry. I blog around my work schedule. This blog attempts to confront both religious and political Liberalism which is pervasive in our society, even our churches.
    BlueCollarTodd says:

    I noted that when Barack Obama was inaugurated it was the beginning of a period of Darkness in America, taking a twist on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. America was Bush fatigued and the Liberal media did not do it’s job to analyze what Obama really believed. Now we are in a spiral to kinder and gentler Marxist State.

  21. Thiiis seems wrong to me. For one, to be fair, you’d need there to be a few actual Objectivist societies so we could see whether they somehow yielded mass death. I’m being a little facetious here, but really, history is presumably littered with thinkers whose works are basically without value, but who bear no responsibility for any human catastrophe by dint of neglect. And while surely it should be embarrassing at this late date to want to try to advance an unreconstructed Marxist political program—you know, for really-real this time, where it works somehow—I don’t know why that should attach to someone who thinks there’s some nugget of useful insight in the corpus that might be worth building on.

  22. Not a Marx admirer but I have read a bit and find a certain irony in Kunkel’s writing. He is taking Marx’s historical ken and steering it away from Marx’s use of it in the service of a progressive materialism but rather towards it’s opposites. It smellls a bit more Tyler Durden’s anti capitalism (stop history, stop production, stop consumption, let me off the train) than Karl Marx’s (take the means of production, cut out owners and middlemen / use planning instead, and share it’s products)… The anti materialist / Durden vision is closer to the European notions of the right wing…. I’d have to read more to see if my initial takes were on the right tracks….

  23. Trying to get into the details of arguing with someone who believes Marxist theory and dogma is much like arguing with a schizophrenic or cult devotee. Marxist positions cannot be arrived at through reason and therefore, devotees cannot be swayed by reason, it is useless to attempt to engage. Devotion to Marxist theory and dogma results solely from the existence of pre-existing psychological deficiences that remain unaddressed and manifest as neuroses unrecognized by the host, resulting in an external projection on others of what is wrong with themselves. No cure but psycotherapy or obliteration.

      1. ??? What does Freud have to do with it? You don’t have to subscribe to Freud’s theories to understand psychological orders exist and manifest in observable behavior and beliefs detached from reality. Hope that was just sarcasm that I missed, otherwise it’s obtuse.

      2. “No cure but psycotherapy [sic] or obliteration.”
        If that wasn’t a joke, it was fighting words. I don’t like it when people talk about obliteration.
        “Marxist positions cannot be arrived at through reason…”
        This is just false and betrays a deep lack of understanding of the nature of reason itself. Reason and reality may (and indeed have) proven many Marxist positions to be wrong, but that’s a different thing altogether.
        “Devotion to Marxist theory and dogma results solely from the existence of pre-existing psychological deficiences that remain unaddressed and manifest as neuroses unrecognized by the host, resulting in an external projection on others of what is wrong with themselves.”
        This is freudian through and through. Devotees of any dogma are quite like cult members, Randroids at least as much as Marxists. Both equally annoying. But this bit about psychological deficiencies manifesting as neuroses is freudian nonsense. There has been actual progress in cognitive neuroscience, and even some progress in understanding cultists and paranoiacs in the last 40 years or so. WRT cults, all are susceptible. Training in a hard science can help (somewhat), but in the right social environment even trained skeptical empiricists can be remade. The only psychological deficiencies at play are those inherent in human nature – which is to say the structure and function of the normal human brain.
        What Freud has to do with it is that your entire ‘analysis’ of the Marxist’s psychology is bs, and really nothing more than an ad hominem attack that is fallaciously ‘justified’ by reference to pseudoscience, and then used to call (hyperbolically, I’m sure, but still unacceptably) for violence. I was trying to gently point out the fallacious nature of your comment, but was obviously too opaque. Sorry about that.

  24. More broadly, it’s worth considering the merits of Ayn Rand vs virtually all other ideologies WRT sacrifice; picking [some] people down to their bones for the good of others. Show me a man that completely rejects sacrifice – always – and you have found a man that embraces Ayn Rand and life on earth.

  25. I’m a leftist, but I’m perfectly happy to say that I hate Marx. I came to hate Marx as a result of what I experienced in academia, which is currently experiencing a great deal of unemployment. And what are the many liberals and leftists of academia doing about that unemployment? Precisely nothing. In fact, back in 1995 when some Yale graduate students, worried about unemployment after graduation, formed a union and went on strike, their leftist professors did what they could to squash the strike. Read Cary Nelson’s “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical,” p. 143, for the sordid details. (I’m always amazed that those who hate the left are unfamiliar with this episode.)
    Once I came to my senses and realized that leftism was horribly wrong about things, I decided that the important thing isn’t equalizing wealth. Instead, it is equalizing power. And when I looked at matters from this perspective, what a change of view I had. America came off looking pretty good, while the communist countries were (and still are) some of the worst offenders of all. I’ve often taunted other leftists by asking, “If Castro is so progressive, why hasn’t he resigned so that a woman or a black could take over?” Of course, they have no response.
    There’s a lot more I could say, but the mass killings really says it all.
    John Pepple

  26. Ironic that “Marxism, by contrast, is a discipline of deep memory and long anticipation.” A primary objective of Pol Pot, Marx’s student, was to obliterate the cultural memory of an entire people. He almost succeeded. Capitalism has never done anything close to that in terms of destroying memory and history.

  27. Will, Congratulations. The comments of your readers are very impressive. Anyone with such a following is definately worth following.

  28. Obama is up front and proud of the fact that Marxism is the dominant influence on his intellectual coming of age — he speaks of seeking out Marxist professors at Occidental, he speaks of his intellectual mentoring in high school by a poet who long labored in the Soviet Union’s communist party in America (Frank Marshall Davis), he tells us he spent his spare time going to Socialist conferences while at Columbia, he sought out Marx inspired “Critical Legal Studies” and “Critical Race Theory” professors at Harvard Law, and he attended for 20 years a church run by a man who subscribed to a “black” version of Marxist inspired “Liberation Theology”.
    Rand, Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Burke, Smith, Hume, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, etc.?
    Not so much.

    1. And I forgot to mention Obama’s self confessed fan-boy admiration for Fanon, Said, Du Bois, Alinsky, and other anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-freedom far left radicals.
      You can read all this for yourself. It’s in Obama’s memoir.
      Working as an editor for a Wall Street financial newsletter covering the world of business and capitalist production ?
      Working “behind enemy lines” to quote Obama’s own words.

  29. The thing about Marxism is that it is so simple that even an idiot can understand it. Its like astrology, but it takes less mental discipline to understand the key concepts. And, once you get into it even an idiot can convince themselves that they are “intellectuals.” Like astrology, it pretends to explain everything. And like astrology, the results suck. It has no predictive power.
    I think its ironic that people who style themselves as “progressives” embrace 19th century ideas that were totally shown to be defective in the 20th century. But what is a “progressive” other than a Neanderthal with delusions of grandeur?

  30. “The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each.”
    This is the single worst point I’ve ever seen you make on this blog, Will–a rare blunder. I agree 100% that cleaving to Marxism ought to be embarrassing, but there are way better ways to judge a thinker than by looking at who flies the same banner. If you thought (rightly) it was unfair to judge Megan’s politics by her parents, then I’d think you could see the hysteria of judging a thinker by their intellectual siblings. If someone killed a union leader and claimed to be a devotee of Hayek or Friedman, would that have *any* standing at all on how respectable it is to be a libertarian?

  31. All else aside the theory of class war should be uncontroversial.
    Those with power seek to expand or extend their power at the expense of those without power.
    A simple reality. We see it every day with politicians and captains of industry, with influence peddling, with biased media, and taxes wages and war.

  32. Will, are you just troll baiting here? I mean Marx was amazingly influential in politics, cultural analysis, and philosophy. Whether or not he was right or wrong. I mean Plato was wrong about almost everything but he was hugely more influential than Heraclitus (though that’s not a good comparison for Rand, maybe one of the lesser known roman rhetoricians instead?).
    Rand has not been very influential in the realm of politics, philosophy, or cultural analysis. You don’t see Libertarian internationals. There hasn’t been any dictator who tried to use Rand as ideological cover (Marxism was nowhere as deadly as Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism by the way).
    Marx wasn’t completely wrong and he certainly was revolutionary (as in shockingly original) in his thinking. He’s the intellectual godfather of modern socialism. Ayn Rand was just a derivative Nietzschean Lockean not widely known outside of certain political circles.

  33. “Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand than by Karl Marx.
    The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each.”
    Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Ashlee Simpson than Ayn Rand
    The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each.
    Clearly Ashlee Simpson comes out on the top in this debate
    Here is a good debate proposition: It ought to be less embarrassing to have been influenced by Michael Vick than Ayn Rand
    The most powerful way to argue the affirmative is to compare the number of human beings murdered by the devotees of each.
    Michael Vick wins this one.
    Wait a second…this is a really stupid debate…

  34. Not one of you has even the slightest understanding of who funded Marx (Rothschild) and who were to be the sole (unmentioned) beneficiaries of state slavery (Zionists). The real issue is and has always been the central bankers, whether Marxist or capitalist. Not one of you seems to realize that these are just forms of tyranny the Zionists employ. Everyone is a slave. The few countries without central banks or Zionist masters are not much better, but they have to fight the economic hit men and/or the U.S. military non-stop. The real shocker is that none of you know of our long struggle against the central bankers. The Bolsheviks were funded by Wall Street bankers, such as Schiff–that means the U.S. taxpayers. Armand Hammer and others had private airports in the U.S.S.R. Marx/Rand are for idiots. Study Rothschild and Rockefeller.

  35. These are your (and Obama’s) overlords: Rahm and Ezekial Emanuel, Summer, Rubin, Bernanke, Paulson, Greenspan, et al. Dual-citizen Israelis are 85% responsible for all the so-called terrorist attacks. Chertoff created the police state. Dov Zakheim masterminded 9/11. You can debate right/left paradigms while the Zionists have stolen all your money, homes, gold, and lives. Who is ultimately behind the murders of 44 microbiologists and the resurrection of the 1918 pandemic?

  36. At the top of the list of things Will should be embarrassed by is this post, and the (lack of) reasoning therein. Those agreeing with this post should also be embarrassed, because they are willing to agree with hack reasoning clothed in a message they like to hear: “Marx is crap!”
    Confirmation bias is just that easy and natural for all of us.
    Points to William, Gavin Sullivan, Michael Drake, dfstearns, Groucho Engels, and fatsteve for calling out this blunder.

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