Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Ayn Rand Worship

In Ayn Rand, Book Review, Libertarianism on April 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

According to Jeff Walker, followers of Ayn Rand, who like to call themselves Objectivists, can revere their idol in an unhealthy cultish way. He comments (The Ayn Rand Cult [Open Court, 1999), p.145):

While not official doctrine, Objectivists were nonetheless expected to believe that (1) Ayn Rand is the greatest mind since Aristotle and the greatest human being who ever lived; (2) [Ayn Rand’s novel] Atlas Shrugged is not just the greatest novel of all time, but the greatest achievement in human history; (3) Rand is the ultimate authority on what thoughts, feelings, and aesthetic tastes are appropriate to human beings.

I have just finished reading Allan Gotthelf’s book, On Ayn Rand, published in 2000 as part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Given that I enjoyed Edward Feser’s book, On Nozick, published in the same series, I had high hopes for this volume. How wrong I was. If there is anything that makes one think that Walker might not have been making up his claims, this book would be an example of something to read. Below I copy some extracts:

From page 1:

It is high time that academic philosophers accept the responsibility of understanding, thoroughly and with full, professional expertise, this highly original thinker and the scope and content of her often groundbreaking thought.

From page 2:

This book is dedicated to the memory of Ayn Rand, for her inspiration and her genius.

From pages 13-14:

On the course’s oral final exam she was disappointed to be asked only about Plato. Her answers earned her the highest grade possible, but her professor, discerning her lack of sympathy with Plato, asked her why she disagreed with him. “My philosophical views,” she said, “are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be.

From page 18, note 6:

Her cousin’s remark is of some interest, suggesting (as one might well expect) that Nietzsche’s influence on Ayn Rand was not a matter of her absorbing whole a body of ideas new to her. Rather, Nietzsche articulated and expanded upon ideas she had already formulated and had been presenting to others–and indeed she was aware of important differences from the beginning.

From page 48:

I venture to suggest… that there is no thinker in the history of philosophy who has as profoundly developed and integrated a view of the harmony of mind and body as Ayn Rand.

It is not just the idolisation of Ayn Rand that makes this book worthless as an objective (in the true sense of the term) source to find out about Ayn Rand and her philosophical views, but the content. While the book is only 100 pages long, and it is therefore understandable that Gotthelf had to leave a lot out, it doesn’t mean to say that within the space available he should not have given fair weight to different aspects of Rand and why she is of interest.

After the preface and introduction, the next two chapters are devoted to biographical details of Rand. Excluded from what can only be called a hagiography is the fact that Rand had a long affair with her top student, but the much younger, Nathaniel Branden. When Gotthelf states that “in 1968 [Rand] terminated all relations with Branden,” (p.24) readers would not know that the reason she did so was because Branden informed Rand he no longer sexually desired her and that he was romantically attached to someone else. (Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, [Doubleday, 2009], pp.365-373.)

Gotthelf finds the space to mention that Leonard Peikoff was designated Rand’s heir (p.25), but not the space to mention that she had previously, in her dedication note at the end of Atlas Shrugged, dubbed Branden her “intellectual heir.” (Heller, p.277.)  I do not think it a coincidence that this is the case. Gotthelf is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute that was founded by Peikoff. Following Rand’s excommunication of Branden, Peikoff and others pledged loyalty to Rand and renounced any further contact with Branden. Moreover, Peikoff, who had unquestioning loyalty to Rand, made his own students sign a waiver promising that they would not contact Branden or purchase any of his books. (Heller, pp.381-382.)

It is not just the biographical detail that is poor, it is also the discussion about her views. A reason many people become interested in Ayn Rand is for her pro-capitalist political philosophy. Her ideal society would get rid of a welfare state and leave the government in control of the minimum things that she believed necessary: “the police, to protect men from criminals—the armed services, to protect men from foreign invaders—[and] the law courts, to settle disputes among men according to objective laws.” (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, [Signet, 1964], p.131). According to this view, “taxation—or to be exact, payment for government services—would be voluntary.” (Ibid., p.135). As mentioned, Gotthelf’s book is 100 pages long. The complete discussion of Rand’s political views is no more than one page. (Gotthelf, pp.91-92).

If someone wants to understand what Ayn Rand was about, they are better off reading something other than Gotthelf’s book. I am surprised that Wadsworth published it.


Off With Their Heads!

In Philosophy, Punishment on April 20, 2013 at 9:18 AM

The debate on the death penalty is an interesting one. There are many who wish it to be retained in the USA and those in the UK who would like it reinstated. I suspect that even of those who are in favour of the death penalty, not many would go so far as the late American philosopher, Louis P. Pojman:

My proposal is to broaden, not narrow, the scope of capital punishment, to include businessmen and women who unfairly and severely harm the public… the executives in the recent corporation scandals who bailed out with millions of dollars while they destroyed the pension plans of thousands of employees may deserve severe punishment and, if convicted, they should receive what they deserve. My guess is that the threat of the death sentence would have a deterrent effect in such cases. Whether it is feasible to apply the death penalty to horrendous white-collar crimes is debatable. But there is something to be said in its favor; it would certainly remove the impression that only the poor get executed.


Louis P. Pojman, “A Defense of the Death Penalty,” in Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman, Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p.121.

Richard Seymour, the SWP, and Antisemitism

In Antisemitism, Trotskyism, U.K. Left on April 20, 2013 at 9:11 AM

This is a a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on April 5th 2013, 12:09 pm

Richard Seymour had been a long term, high-profile member of the Socialist Workers Party until his recent resignation. He now believes everyone on the left has to confess to their crimes:

If you have never, as a socialist activist, found yourself defending a line you later regretted, kept quiet about something you shouldn’t have, rationalised away a feeling of unease, then you’re either still deluded or a fucking liar.

He comments on his own crimes:

Shall I start the ball rolling? What mistakes did I personally make as an SWP member? Not making my objections to our hosting of the antisemitic crank Atzmon, and the preposterous rationale for doing so, explicit – particularly when it was made clear to me that the paper wouldn’t host a letter on the subject. Party members can attest that I and others took this up within the party, and that I trolled Atzmon’s talk at Bookmarks, but it really wasn’t enough.

We can list the facts:

1. Richard Seymour believed that the SWP was hosting an antisemite

2. He admits that didn’t kick up too much of a fuss about it.

3. He stayed in the Party despite the fact that he thought the Party hosted an antisemite.

We can therefore conclude that antisemitism in his party didn’t bother him too much, certainly not enough to leave the party. I would not be surprised to hear him say that he is bothered about antisemitism, but that he did not want to “have it as a shibboleth.” Throw the Jews into the sea. What does it matter if there is a greater good: revolution?

The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (A 2 Part Article)

In Feminism, Trotskyism on April 4, 2013 at 7:34 AM

These posts have been cross posted from Harry’s Place – here and here.

The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (Part I.)

Michael Ezra, March 17th 2013, 5:51 pm

The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party has brought an issue for Trotskyists to the forefront: that of feminism. Richard Seymour has commented “students, are yelled at in [SWP] meetings, denounced for ‘creeping feminism.’” Feminism has become a dirty word, a pejorative with which to denounce the non-ideologically sound. That is the position of the SWP, what about leftists who do not identify as a Trotskyist? Here is Laurie Penny, La Pasionaria of the radical left : “Socialism without feminism, after all, is no socialism worth having.” It does not take a genius to work out that the position of Penny and the position of the SWP are incompatible.

A problem for the SWP is that many of the people, especially students, whom it wishes to attract into its party read and admire what Laurie Penny has to say. This is recognised by the SWP. For as one SWP Central Committee Central Committee member told Richard Seymour as the crisis in the party unfolded: “The nightmare scenario is an attack piece by Laurie Penny.”

Ignoring all the other issues in the SWP regarding their handling of a rape allegation against a senior party member, some commentators are making observations on this ideological difference. A line on feminism is becoming a litmus test. Blogger Harpy Marx puts it, “let’s be clear this isn’t an internal matter for the SWP this has impacted on the whole of the Left.” Andrew Coates, for example, has cheered on Laurie Penny: “Three cheers for comrade Penny.” But others would and have come down on the side of the SWP, the one that views feminism as a dirty word.

In response to Soviet Goon Boy who posed the following question: “The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place?” and answered it that “on the face of things” it wasn’t, Paul Demarty of the Communist Party of Great Britain had an apoplexy: “the notion that the SWP is ‘unsafe’ for women is almost entirely balderdash.” (I do like the use of “almost entirely”; perhaps Demarty concedes the SWP is a little unsafe for women.)  Those who want safe places for women are “idiotic feminists.” At any rate “safe places” are “profoundly useless politically.” Feminists suffer from “a myopic obsession with ‘violence against women.’” He is proud to admit that feminism and Marxism are “utterly incompatible.” He therefore comes down to the inevitable conclusion: “Feminism is a threat.. because it is wrong, and Marxists should be rigorously critical of it.” And as for the SWP: “Far from being insufficiently feminist, the SWP has been too soft on feminism.” One wonders if Paul Demarty is just waiting for the revolution so he can kill all feminists.

Marxists do not tend to develop very much. What they say now is what they said a hundred years ago. To understand the SWP and CPGB  hatred of feminism one has to have an idea of what Frederick Engels said in 1884 when he wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. For Engels, the oppression of women began with the emergence of a class based society. The SWP’s solution is therefore simple: get rid of a class based society and you get rid of women’s oppression. And as the SWP are Leninists, they are of the opinion that this can only occur through a violent revolution. (They are very reductionist, their solution to everything is a violent revolution.)

Feminists differ from this approach: they see the oppression of women as a gender based question and not a class based one. If a Trotskyist party focuses on matters that do not lead directly to revolution, they are deviating from the class struggle. Because feminism which is not class based can appeal to “bourgeois” women as well as working class women,  it becomes, in Trotskyist language, a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle. It is for this reason that Paul Demarty and the SWP hate feminism.

(Part 2, which is the final part, will appear tomorrow.)


The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (Part 2.)

Michael Ezra, March 18th 2013, 8:48 am

I concluded in Part 1 that the SWP view feminism as a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle. It might be argued that Marxist feminism exists and the question can be asked as to whether such an ideology is supported by the  SWP. In response to that question, one can say that the term “Marxist feminism” is a con: it is really just Marxist. The view of Marxist feminists to the question of women’s oppression is that same as that as Marxists. They view women’s oppression as Engels did as a function of class as opposed to gender.  Someone does not need to say that they are a Marxist feminist, they could just say that they were a Marxist and their position should be known.

What can be said about Marxist feminists is that the focus is on the area of Marxism that deals with women. As well as the view that women’s oppression is a function of a class based society, Marxist feminists, as Marxists, are of the view that women are domestic slaves within the nuclear family. The argument being that women stay at home and do the house work and raise children for no pay. This is all in the interests of capitalism because capitalist bosses exploit men’s labour. This exploitation is made easier because the man does not need money to pay his wife to cook his dinner. The capitalist bosses therefore receive the women’s labour for free.  The “bourgeois” women can be dismissed in this analysis because the servants do the cooking, cleaning and looking after the children at home while the bourgeois wives are lounging around at the tennis club. The solution to this is, as Trotskyists see it, in simple terms: “Smash the family!”

In order for this to occur, using the repetitive reductionist politics common to Trotskyists, there must be a revolution.  And in order for there to be a revolution, there must be a vanguard party to lead it. As the SWP sees itself as a vanguard party, it has to grow to lead the revolution. In order to grow it needs to recruit. In order to recruit it believes it needs to sell newspapers. Hence standing outside Sainsbury’s  for two hours on a Saturday afternoon selling Socialist Worker is a necessary precondition in the fight against women’s oppression. This is what members of the Socialist Workers Party are told to believe.

The SWP look for other opportunities to recruit members. These are called, not surprisingly, opportunistic strategies. They look for areas or campaigns that might be fashionable, or they can try and make fashionable, set up front groups or become involved in groups that they can ideally dominate, and recruit in that method. An example was the anti-Nazi League to fight racism. Behind the ANL was the same SWP reductionist politics: racism is in the interests of the capitalists. If white workers are fighting black workers, it distracts them from fighting the real enemy: the capitalist bosses. Hence they can sloganise: “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”  If it had rhymed, you could be willing to bet that when it comes to women’s oppression an SWP slogan would have been “Men and Women, Unite and Fight!” They are completely predictable.

A relevant example of an opportunistic strategy was the setting up of Women’s Voice. This was during the 1970s when there was a rise of interest in women’s liberation in the wider society. The party set up a magazine called Women’s Voice and then groups with the same name. The idea was that working women interested in feminism could be drawn away from the Spare Rib crowd and other feminist groups into the arms of the SWP, the party that knew that the way to end women’s oppression was not via bourgeois feminism, something which would not work, but by a socialist revolution. The wider women’s movement could be denounced asLindsey German did in the pages of the SWP’s journal International Socialism in 1981:

[T]he pages of Spare Rib are not where you will find out about the latest strikes involving women, but rather where you can reflect on whether celibacy is your personal answer to the problem of sleeping with men….  An occupation by 200 women at Lee Jeans has been largely ignored by the women’s movement.

A problem developed with this turn to the women’s movement: Women’s Voice became not just a vehicle for taking the SWP’s Trotskyist ideas into the women’s liberation movement, but women in it saw it as a vehicle for bringing feminist ideas into the SWP. The Party could not tolerate this and moved to shut down the magazine and the groups. I have it via a reliable authority that when it came to the vote, a number of women who voted for the closure of Women’s Voice were sleeping with members of the party’s Central Committee. Women’s Voice was shut down and with its closure was the end of the SWP’s foray into the women’s movement.