Tag, you’re Hitler

The 7 June 2010 issue of The Nation includes a review of some book about Ayn Rand. 

The part of the review that I wanted to note came about halfway in, where the reviewer, Corey Robin, quotes some remarks from Hitler and Goebbels that sound eerily like things Rand and the heroes of her novels habitually said.  Applying the Führerprinzip to the world of economics, Hitler in 1933 told an audience of business leaders:

Everything positive, good and valuable that has been achieved in the world in the field of economics or culture is solely attributable to the importance of personality…. All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the select few.

Robin has an easy time finding examples of Rand saying very similar things.  Robin goes on:

If the first half of Hitler’s economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize “the outstanding achievements of individuals,” Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that “people are not of equal value or of equal importance.” Private property “can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different.” An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. “The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another.”

Again, Robin can open Rand’s works almost at random and find passages that are almost identical to these translations. 

Robin attributes these similarities to the common influence of Nietzsche on Rand and the Nazis.  Certainly Rand did study Nietzsche’s works; and certainly there were periods when the Nazis tried to use Nietzsche’s name.  But I think that there is a simpler explanation. 

The Nazi party existed for about 25 years.  It ruled Germany for half that period.  During those years, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi princes made speeches and issued other public statements numerous enough to fill a library.  That Robin can rummage through those countless pages and find a few remarks that sound eerily reminiscent of the works of Ayn Rand tells us nothing about Rand and next to nothing about the Nazis. 

As a critique of Rand’s ideas, Robin’s argumentum ad Hitlerem is ludicrously unfair.  As a way of playing a game with Rand and her acolytes, however, it can be justified by the old maxim “turnabout is fair play.”  In 1963, Rand gave a speech titled “The Fascist New Frontier.”  In this speech, she claimed that the strongest influence on the ideology of the administration of President John F. Kennedy was not Marx or Keynes or Harold Laski, as the president’s right-wing critics sometimes claimed, but that the Kennedy administration was a fascist group.  To support this claim, she juxtaposed snippets of President Kennedy’s public statements with snippets of similar-sounding statements from Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.  So, if President Kennedy or his spokesmen said that ideological labels were of little importance, or that personal sacrifice was the index of patriotism, or that strong leadership is essential for national greatness, she would track down some remark from some Nazi or Fascist making the same point.  That the Nazis and Fascists did not invent these ideas, that they have been commonplaces of political discussion for centuries and may very possibly be true, did not seem to her to matter very much.  In Rand’s view of history, Naziism was simply an unfolding of ideas that were already fully developed in the philosophies of thinkers like Kant and Plato.  So, the fact that an idea was familiar long before the end of the First World War doesn’t excuse it from being a symptom of Fascist orr Nazi ideology.   

Robin’s invocation of Nietzsche may suggest a similar theory of history, but the rest of the piece shows a different view.  Robin praises Aristotle at length:

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

So Robin praises Aristotle precisely for his sense of change and development, his attempt to explain how the same action or idea can have different significance in different circumstances.  Robin thus jettisons the idea that gives Rand an excuse for her method of using quotations from historical villains to play “gotcha” with her adversaries.  The comments Robin quotes may drip with menace when we reflect on their source; spoken by another person in another setting, the same words might be rather anodyne, or even true.  For example, the claim that “Private property ‘can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different'” would seem to be eminently defensible, even if words to that effect once appeared in a speech delivered by history’s least defensible man.

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