Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Religion

A reader kindly sent me an article titled “How Ayn Rand Became the New Right’s Version of Marx.” Although the author of the article tries to retell a book he obviously never read (I’m a literature prof, I spot such things from a mile away)*, he does make a very interesting observation:

Ayn Rand Nation, she has become to the new right what Karl Marx once was to the left: a demigod at the head of a chiliastic cult. Almost one third of Americans, according to a recent poll, have read Atlas Shrugged, and it now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

Ignoring Rand’s evangelical atheism, the Tea Party movement has taken her to its heart. No rally of theirs is complete without placards reading “Who is John Galt?” and “Rand was right”. Rand, Weiss argues, provides the unifying ideology which has “distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose”. She is energetically promoted by the broadcasters Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli. She is the guiding spirit of the Republicans in Congress.

People need to believe and worship and they will choose the passionately atheist Rand and Marx as their deities with complete disregard for how little sense it makes.

I have thought about it and I think I have figured out why the admiration for Marx and Rand often acquires such religious overtones. This happens because both authors appeal – very optimistically, if not naively – to the better side of human nature**. Marx believes that it is possible for people to lay aside their individual interests and work together for the common good simply because that will be the rational thing to do and it will benefit everybody. I can see how this could be very attractive, especially to people who can’t wait to shed the burden of their individuality and dissolve themselves in the great Collective.

Ayn Rand appeals to the creative power within us that exists for its own sake and is its own reward. She suggests that the two best, most godly drives in us (the creative and the sexual) come from the same source, which is the love of life, and can feed each other to cleanse one of anything that distracts us from the orgasmic creative pursuits***.

After I read Rand, I always feel like I want to be this wonderful person who works and loves fearlessly and who doesn’t even know what it means to worry that your article will not be accepted or to have bad feelings towards your colleague because she has published yet again while you keep accumulating rejection letters. I’ve never been to confession or communion (or any other religious ritual, really), but isn’t this sense of renewal and liberation from the less beautiful sides of one’s personality what people look for in these religious ceremonies? Aside from the joy of diluting one’s individuality in the Collective, of course.

* This article reminded me of the following old Jewish joke.

“Itzhak, my friend, why does everybody say that Pavarotti is such a genius? I find he can’t sing at all. He’s got no voice to speak of and every single note he takes is false.”

“Oy, Shmuli, I had no idea you attended Pavarotti’s performance!”

“No, I didn’t attend. Moishe did, though, and he sang a few arias to me afterwards.”

** Yes, they do, and if you want to argue with me about Rand, I expect you to have read at least the two of her major novels cover to cover. Nothing annoys a literary critic more than people who try to discuss books that they never read.

*** Yes, there is also this very vulgar thing about the dollar sign made out of gold. Vulgarity is, unfortunately, a trait we tend to possess in Russian-speaking countries.

11 thoughts on “Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Religion”

  1. Of course, Nietzsche appeals to people in a different way from writers who seem to call for a religious mode of transformation. His idea is to look for the worst characteristics one has — those that contemporary morality and Christianity would cause you to disown. Supposing you have a fierce temper, or a violent form of hate. How can you integrate these into the rest of the personality and sublimate them so that they can become very useful overall? That is the Nietzschean project.

    Many people who don’t read Nietzsche in a psychological way presume that he thinks evil is good, that “good” is bad. But he is really trying to get people to make more of what is conventionally bad into something good. For instance, my inability to sit still or to remain interested in one particular project for long could transform me into a travel writer. You need to find a way to creatively transform the negative.

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    1. “For instance, my inability to sit still or to remain interested in one particular project for long could transform me into a travel writer. You need to find a way to creatively transform the negative.”

      – Very true. To give an example, I’m very unsociable. But I became a research scholar, a career where the capacity to be alone and concentrate on your research for long stretches of time is crucial.

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  2. Marx criticised capitalism in his day for what he saw was wrong with it. With hindsight we can see that his criticisms and predictions of its development were not all that accurate, or that somewere more accurate than others.

    Marx did, however, treat capitalism as an economic system. It did not have an ideology, though it did have an apologist in the person of Adam Smith. Lenin and Stalin tried to turn socialism into a religion. And Ayn Rand decided to give it an ideology and turn it into a religion.

    I’ve read only one “Socialist realist” novel (How the steel was tempered), and Ayn Rand’s novels read a bit like that. Can art be propaganda? Can propaganda be art?

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  3. I agree with you about both Marx’s and Rand’s appeal to the better side of human nature. I haven’t read much Marx; I have, however, read quite a bit of Rand’s works. Her novelette Anthem was my first encounter with her — it was actually assigned in my high school English class (this was in the 1970s, well before the “new right” was a mote in William F. Buckley’s eye). I was quite enthralled with the story, even though I’m not a fan of dystopian science fiction. I didn’t read anything of hers until I was in my early thirties, I think… that’s when I encountered Atlas Shrugged. For some time after I floated in a Randian haze. Let’s just say I’d found myself in an increasingly toxic and parasitical relationship (thank God it was a non-sexual relationship or I’d probably still be a basket case), and reading Rand’s exhortations on selfishness and egoism were such a relief. I mean, here was a published author beloved by millions telling me it was okay to think about myself and my needs and that the word “friend” didn’t mean “punching bag.” (As you can see I saw what I wanted to see in Rand’s writing.)

    Of course the glow began to wear off and I realized a few things. One: the very long ranty John Galt speech that cuts Shrugged in half — and was the one part of the book I could never get all the way through and had to skip — was sort of similar in form if not content to the sort of long, ranty speeches dictators liked to give — like, say, Castro and his five hour speeches. Two: all her heroes were sociopaths if not psychotic. Three: her heroes were Gary Stus and her heroines were Mary Sues — i.e., perfect author avatars that could do no wrong and that were loved by the good people and hated by the bad ones. Then I read The Fountainhead, where the main female character falls in love with the main male character after he rapes her (and wonders later on why he still thinks of her occasionally). I’ll bet you we won’t see a whole lot of signs (like, none) saying “I am Howard Roark” and “I am Dominique Francon” at Tea Party rallies.

    One book of hers I haven’t read yet is We The Living, which I’ve heard is quite good.

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    1. “(As you can see I saw what I wanted to see in Rand’s writing.)”

      – That’s the best way to read. 🙂 You take what you need and discard the rest.

      “One: the very long ranty John Galt speech that cuts Shrugged in half — and was the one part of the book I could never get all the way through and had to skip — was sort of similar in form if not content to the sort of long, ranty speeches dictators liked to give”

      – I’m professionally trained never to skip anything and read from first word to last. But I gave up on that speech and skipped it about halfway through. Repetitive does not begin to describe it. 🙂

      “Then I read The Fountainhead, where the main female character falls in love with the main male character after he rapes her (and wonders later on why he still thinks of her occasionally).”

      – She hated women with a passion and obviously considered them to be quite inferior.

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    2. I dunno, I’m an optimist and a non-essentialist when it comes to human nature. I’d like to believe that doesn’t make me a bad person, or worse, someone who would naively contribute to atrocities. I’m idealistic but I’m not stupid.

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  4. I think 20th century conservatism made a project of creating the exact opposite of Marxism, whatever that might be. Communism as implemented (as far as I know) was basically an attempt to abolish the private sector, so movement conservatism has developed into a movement to abolish the public sector, or at least the civilian public sector. Objectivism is one of many parts of this battering ram of ideas; others being the Mont Pelerin Society (the forerunner of all the conservative think tanks) the John Birch Society, the “Libertarian” movement, and of course the meme campaign to make “collective” a dirty word. 🙂 Reactionary thought in its purest possible form.

    Can’t say I read The Fountainhead. (I read Atlas Shrugged and the one where they abolished the first person singular pronoun, plus most of the essays) Saw the Fountainhead movie. Don’t remember anything about a rape, but movies in general were pretty sanitized back then. In the movie, seems she fell in love with Howard when he dropped out of architecture and opted for a blue collar career. Very reminiscent of that infamous Diet Coke commercial.

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    1. “and of course the meme campaign to make “collective” a dirty word.”

      – I wasn’t on this continent during that campaign but I do think it’s a dirty word. 🙂

      “Don’t remember anything about a rape, but movies in general were pretty sanitized back then.”

      – Oh, he raped her. And she totally fell in love with him as a result. When a jerk like Garcia Marquez writes something like that, I at least kind of get it (I don’t excuse it, of course.) But when a woman does that, it’s just tragic. Ayn Rand had a very miserable personal life. And I think she was totally autistic.

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      1. If she was autistic, then she was as much a self-hating autistic as a self-hating woman. Galt’s Gulch sounds like my idea of hell for autistics.

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        1. “If she was autistic, then she was as much a self-hating autistic as a self-hating woman. Galt’s Gulch sounds like my idea of hell for autistics.”

          – You and I are very much on the same page on this subject. 🙂

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      2. Nobody knew anything about autism when Rand was a kid; they probably just thought she was being difficult. As a matter of fact, I think now that I had quite a few autistic tendencies when I was young (I had this rocking chair I used to rock in constantly — whenever I was somewhere without it I felt physical pain! It helped me think and dream — and I was obsessively into certain subjects, and so on). I’ve adjusted, I guess, to “normal” society — as much as I care to!

        Getting back to Rand, what I’ve read of her early life indicates that she was a daddy’s girl who couldn’t stand her mother. Her mother was one of those outgoing social people who kept trying to get her daughter to leave her room and do things. (I know, ugh.) She coped, I think, by dealing with reality as if it was something she could reshape by sheer will. I kind of admire that sort of drive, though I disapprove.

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