Review of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right"

My sense of irony compelled me to read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Anne C. Heller after having just finished Marx’s biography. Especially considering that both of these thinkers have an upsurge in their popular reference in discussions on the current state of the economy, I think it’s not just amusing but fitting. I’d read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead a few years ago and found myself impressed and underwhelmed. Impressed at the creation of true heroes without some sort of existential angst, the self-help aspects inserted amongst Rand’s prose and defining her characters as well as her ability to tightly plot a novel of ideas such that it wasn’t completely boring, but also critical due to it’s highfalutin style, one dimensional characters, and the dangerous potential for readers to deploy a mimetic adoption of a character’s qualities via worship of them without incorporating a properly developed critical, historical consciousness. Thus while I am empathetic to Whitaker Chamber’s review of Rand, I also see several positive aspects worthy of recuperation.

Heller’s biography of Rand starts by immediately peeling back the aura of mysticism around her philosophy. Attending to her early childhood, we learn Rand experienced similar dynamics as other Russian exiles, such as Vladimir Nabokov, that led them to rail against the system of social relations in Russia following the end of the civil war once they’d moved to America. The privations created by civil war and the repressive political environment it created, crop failure, brain drain, trade embargoes and experimentations in production processes led those who fled to holistically decry the new Soviet state. This position is completely understandable: When market forces aren’t abstracted into an invisible force and cited as the justification for the behavior of police agents upholding “property laws” but are instead decided by a centralized planning authority and it’s agents one comes to resent the government for causing shifts in relations that lowers one’s status. This aspect of Rand’s history in Russia is then expanded by examining her first forays into philosophy. By quoting her notebooks, we see an early Rand who was wrestling with Nietzsche’s celebration of the aristocratic – something that a highly cultured, intelligent, secular Jewess with upper class upbringing would have easily identified with. It’s also worth noting that during her time enrolled in university in Russia she was given an elementary education in Marxism, reading such works as The ABC of Communism and found the logic of Aristotle to be particularly attractive (in fact “A is A”, a logical presupposition popularized by Aristotle, would later be the name of a directory for Objectivist oriented projects). Also in Russia we see Rand, like so many other people across the globe following the second world war, absolutely enthralled by Hollywood cinema. She watches them and loving them so much considers going to Film School, but knowing that this would mean she would create Soviet propaganda, decides to escape to the USA via an educational visa and then breaks ties with her family.

Once Rand makes her way to L.A. after a brief stay with distant family relatives, she reads Nietzsche more and begins writing using many of the the themes founds in his writings, even attempting to adopt his aphoristic style. She gets film work by being in the right place at the write time and soon starts to see “pinks” and “reds” everywhere and decides that it is of the utmost importance that the United States doesn’t go down the collectivist path of Russia and so writes and donates her time to fight this. It is this activism that starts to expand her view, albeit slightly, in the realm of political economy and more so in the way of America in general. Rand, in contact with several prominent intellectuals, is shown to repeating a similar process throughout her professional life. At first a connection is made between points upon which Rand and this other person agrees, Rand then goes through an almost Socratic like process of finding out their “premises” and then berating the other person each time theirs differs from hers, even if in the end they are at a similar position, and then tries to show them how they should adopt her position wholesale. This is the case both with her friends, such as Isabel Paterson, her “false friends” (conservatives that used the rhetoric of altruism or pragmatism to justify their positions) such as F. A. Hayek, and the people whom she wanted intellectual recognition from such as Sidney Hook. Indeed to a large part the biography is a retelling of two major themes: how she personally kept pushing people away from here that were able to intellectually match her and keeping around orbit younger people that were more open to her influence and how she would get involved in an organization and due to one issue or another denounce it as insufficiently “reactionary”, a term she used with positive valuation as she saw those that would restrain capitalism, the ideal economic system, as evil people.

One of the biography’s more interesting revelations to me, which speaks to this very process of alienation, was the fact that Ayn Rand was addicted to benzedrine. While the amphetamine was prescribed to her, Heller shows how it was this drug that fueled her late night discussion sessions, gave her the energy to write sometimes for over 12 hours at a time, kept her thin, and assisted in her habituation to a two pack of cigarettes a day habit (which according to Rand wasn’t unhealthy as the doctors weren’t trustworthy as they used statistics to provide their evidence, a fact that Rand’s lungs must not have been aware of as she died of cancer). I find this especially interesting given this similarity between her and Sartre, who she despised and who also ruined his health with uppers while writing Critique of Dialectical Reason at the time as Rand was ruining hers writing Atlas Shrugged. This clearly had a role in intensifying Rand’s negative personal characteristics, but also assisted her when she held court amongst her disciples once she decided to turn her own though into a school as the universities weren’t giving it sufficient attention.

Once Rand has finished her fiction and she devotes her time solely to essays, she also focuses solely on maintaining the apparatuses that she helped build with Nathaniel Branden. Thankfully Heller devotes only a small part of the book to their affair, pointing those interested to the autobiographical exposes, and does most of her writing on how the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) formed into it’s very own cultural grouping of likeminded people that would socialize almost exclusively with other Objectivists and would study Rand’s works and Leonard Peikoff’s and Branden’s exegesis of them. Clearly placing these groups within the milieu of the 60’s and 70’s and showing their evolution following the dissolution of the NBI amidst the schism caused amongst her inner circle following Rand’s discovery that Nathan had been involved with someone else other than her for four years is where Heller truly shines.

As a historian of the American conservative movement, she is able to deftly chart some of the influence of the Objectivists and show their populist appeal despite “trad”, traditional, conservatives disdain for their atheistic appeal to human rights. She shows how the Volker Fund paid for economics professors to get teaching positions at universities expire their marginalization from the profession, a fact under reported in my conversations with others about Von Mises or Hayek, and how it was the Koch brothers who created the Cato Institute on principles charted by Rand. Rand’s role as inspirer for the creation of the Libertarian Party is acknowledged, as is the wealth of student activism and publications against various policies such as the draft, drug laws and taxes. Young Americans for Freedom and Students for Individual Liberty are cited as prominent outlets of Objectivists related activism and it is her reaction and attempts at “reigning in” those that were inspired by her that she loses them. The anarcho-capitalist versus minarchist state positions controversy are outlined here as well, though it would have been to the benefit of the book to go into more detail on this considering this is a debate that continues to have relevance amongst libertarians today.

At the end of her life Heller shows Rand largely discredited amongst her early followers as her personal character alienated them and her pronouncements on morality had moved from the daily interactions to commentary on the world-historical. Lacking the background to make such judgements, many made fun of or rightly decried her racist or genocidal positions that she deemed as moral (for instance her claim that the Native American’s received what they deserved as they had no private property). Indeed this was at a time when Libertarianism was gaining the intellectual recognition that Rand would have loved. Robert Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia and won the National Book Award for it in 1975 while Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. By the end of the biography we can clearly see why Rand continues to get cited in American politics today as a person of inspiration, but also why those who uncritically laud her should be someone to watch out for.

Review of "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution"

Considering how much of my grad school reading was Marxist in orientation, I decided to pick up a copy of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution to provide a more thorough biographical background. While I think the intensive study sessions gave me a thorough insight of his work, as Goethe inveighs, one best understands the idea by comprehending the milieu in which it emerged.

One of the books flaws, or strengths depending on how you interpret it, is it’s sparsity of exegesis of the qualities of the scientific socialism which differentiated Marx from his utopian or opportunist contemporaries. One could argue that Gabriel’s purpose is solely to write a biographical love story, but as is evidenced by books such as Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on the life of Trotsky, this doesn’t mean that one must give only scant attention to the analysis of the subject’s contributions to human thought.

It is especially a flaw considering that Karl and Jenny’s motivation for getting up everyday for some forty years was the push towards the emancipation of humankind through the understanding of the laws of historical development and it’s harnessing by the proletariat and that because of this they lived an at times extremely precarious, impoverished and dangerous life this would be elementary. However as these distinguishing characteristics are given such scant treatment, Marx can be read as just another radical amongst many at the time and deserving only of attention for his ability to politic and stay alive, he can almost seem like a sick and neurotic intellectual with delusions of grandeur fed by, literally and figuratively, a small number of enablers such as his wife and Engels as well as those merchants that made the mistake of giving him items on credit.

Instead of this sort of treatment, she substitutes topical observations while predominantly relying upon the family, the motley revolutionary characters immediately around Marx and the various government infiltrators trying to probe his intentions and actions. This is of course done as a means of humanizing Marx, something that Mohr would not have been against, yet there is a certain type of banality to it that I find at times reminiscent of reality television. In this regard, it is extremely successful as the people depicted are not mere characters, but a whole coterie of individuals who helped bring about a greater level of freedom in world history.

These reservations noted, it should be said that Gabriel does an excellent job most likely not despite of but because of these stylistic choices prioritizing the microscope over the telescope. In the Marx family dynamic we see a profound love that takes the shape of rage and struggle against oppression. Through Jenny and Karl’s first flowering of romance to their later battles against German autocracy, French monarchism, Belgian appeasement of it’s mightier neighbors and British imperialism, not to mention the iniquities of a burgeoning and yet terribly powerful international capitalism, Gabriel writes in a highly involved manner. She vividly exhibits the grand passions of Karl and Jenny as lovers of themselves and as those involved in the nascent socialist movement. While in the streets there may be a raging battle, or a storm in the press or a uproar at an organizational meeting – their love acts a place of safety for both of them. And while Marx’s willingness to sacrifice comforts and security to arm and assist workers or further research on Capital seems to be evidence of his taking his wife for granted, she understands, commiserates and assists in such a way the shows that the nobility into which she was born was not just one of title but of character.

Marx’s other major assistant, besides his daughters, is of course Engels. After reading this book, I’m much more interested in following this up with Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. He is in many ways a scene stealer due to his joviality, rakishness, revelry, insightful commentary on Marx’s personality and of course because of his seemingly paradoxical position as capitalist and revolutionary. When Marx was together with Engels they behave like college students – drinking heavily and getting in fights, though of the literary kind. When Gabriel writes of their writings against those they dislike, displays of wit, sarcasm, irony, perspicacity and invective that is admirable. No wonder he was nicknamed “the General”.

Gabriel stings together a number of interesting anecdotes leading the attentive reader to see connections that would do disservice to the type of “neutral” biography she is trying to write (though she does interject at several points in a moralizing fashion). One of them that I particularly like was how Karl, even though wracked with bodily ailments due to the stresses of poverty, would give what little pocket change he had to neighborhood boys. This example of love, this habit of his seems easily juxtaposed against the love which similarly motivated him to call for international solidarity amongst workers and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a phrase amply misused by those who’ve not taken the time to read when he meant by it). She is also explicit in several points about the rupture of continuity. Specifically in the fate for the Marx daughter’s, who each look for and marry men of socialist inclinations that they imagine to be strong-willed like their father but instead turn out to be poor approximations in character and intellect.

A number of prominent spies, socialists, assassins, anarchists, artists, aristocrats, counts, communards, and prominent 19th century intellectuals provide fascinating cameos amongst the betrayals, set-backs, triumphs and family drama. And while the devastating family drama here would likely not happen were it not for Karl and Jenny’s decision to pursue the life of career revolutionaries that they did, it is interesting aspect to note is despite all of the personal tragedies, neither gave in to despair and decided to abandon what they felt to be their calling. Though they may have desired changes in certain aspects, their incredible intellectual life and belief fortified them against poverty, illnesses and death.

The book closes with a then exiled V. I. Lenin addressing the spectators at the 1911 funeral of Marx’s last remaining daughter and her husband, Paul Lafaurge, Marx’s son in law and author of The Right to be Lazy. In just six short years Marx would see the successful application of his theories in the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy, followed by their revision and degeneration into something that was a horrific caricature that no longer resembled the first form of the subject. What he could and would have done had he witnessed it and was able to participate is the stuff of pure speculation, but what he did do, paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, is change the way we see the world.

Review of "Goethe, Kant and Hegel: Discovering the Mind Volume 1"

I decided to purchased Goethe, Kant, and Hegel: Discovering the Mind. Volume One by Walter Kaufman to see if the book could work as a text for an Introduction to German Philosophy course for which I’m currently preparing notes. In this first of a three part history of the major intellectual vein leading to the creation of the discipline known as psychology, Kaufmann subjects the Goethe, Kant and Hegel to an assessment as to their contributions to the understanding of the mind both by analyzing their propounded ideas as well as their lives. In this latter task, he embodies the Nietzschean form of philosophy that has not been widely adopted by professors of philosophy but which he sees as being an insightful means of intellectual exegesis.

The profound but unacknowledged impact of Goethe’s thought on German philosophy is the first issue which Kauffman seeks to illustrate. He does this not only by quoting important thinkers praising Goethe’s genius, but also by showing the popular reaction to his writing, the development of his ideas by others and how his life was in accordance with them. As a gentleman poet/philosopher, Goethe does not fit the mold of the professors that follow him but instead follows his joys and finds outlet for his thought in such a way that it has a profound effect on all subsequent literature and even parts of the scientific community. Though his contributions he helped define and defend a non-mathematical model of science that was based on qualitative rather than quantitative measurements. This is, of course, the manner in which psychoanalysis operates, by prioritizing narrative accountability and discussion over testing via numbers. Kaufmann shows that Goethe provided a model of autonomy that rejected the rule of concepts but was instead run by experience and development. While many of these may be commonplace today, Kauffman is clear to show that at the time of their dissemination they were clearly revolutionary approaches – especially in the context of the Newtonian revolution in epistemology.

From here to Kant a number of lesser luminaries are mentioned and their general lack of new or innovative research into the mind are glossed over. Once Kant is arrived at, he is subjected to a devastating but deserving critique. His lack of rigor, ahistoricity, structural and epistemological absolutism, poor writing style masked in absurdly long sentences, the prioritization of concepts over experience and generally poor subject of human autonomy and the mind is thoroughly upbraided. It is by combining the analytics of his major and minor works with a biographical sketch of his life that Kauffman finds the source of these errors, for Kant is shown to have embodied many of the contradictory or ridiculous ideas. While ridiculing Kant casuistry, he shows how powerful a model he is for what NOT to think, what NOT to do. Indeed, it is his divorce of the heart, mind, body and natural inclinations from duty we can see the philosophic foundation for alienation later explored by Hegel, Marx, Freud and others.

Goethe the Great and Kant the Confounding are, according to Kauffman, synthesized by Hegel. While a more thorough account of Kauffman’s position towards this can be found in his book Hegel: A Reinterpretation, he provides a concise account of the success and failing in what he conceives to be Hegel’s project. While finding Hegel’s guilty of accepting of some of Kant’s flaws, such as his poor organization of material, his prolix form of address and the creation of a “comprehensive system,” he also sees more to be admired in him than to be disregarded. Thus while the attempt at a scientific series of psychological/epistemological stages in Phenomenology of Spirit is not up to Kauffman’s standards of rigor, he does say that it does provide an inspiring method of autonomy informed by profound self-knowledge and states that even Hegel, for all his attempts at showing absolute necessity, “…realized that all he could hope to show was various developments were not totally capricious, that there were reasons for them, and that one could construe them as organic”. Additionally insightful is Kauffman’s tripartite conceptualization of Hegel’s Phenomenology as science, poetry and encyclopedia via philological research. One can thus take a multitude of perspectives, as Hegel did in his research, in order to gain insight into oneself, one’s culture, nation and history. Indeed, to a marked degree much more so than even Goethe, Hegel is shown to incorporate close historical readings and illustrate it’s primary role in human development.

While an excellent text, the book is at times redundant. Additionally, Kauffman does not proffer a positive conception of the psyche amidst the critical expositions. This should not, however, be judged a fault as this is one part of three volumes and it is by finishing the rest of them, and thus familiarizing oneself with the other greater and lesser luminaries of German thought that one can garnish better insight into the human mind and subsequent developments in psychology and therapy practices.

As a final point of consideration it is worth mentioning how Kauffman closes this book with an insightful thought: “Those who would discover the mind cannot afford to ignore poetry and art”. As new research into the brains biological responses to reading literature shows, this is not just some refrain of an academic seeking to justify their position in the face of neo-liberal cuts to arts education, but a verifiable fact. The brain, conceived of solely as an organ grows, develops and becomes more agile while reading. But as Kauffman illustrates, it is not just an exercise for the brain but also one for the self – for by familiarizing oneself with the life and thought of others, which are not two different aspects but sides of a coin, we are able to learn more about ourselves.