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Why There Is No Liberal Atlas Shrugged

Last week, we linked to Yale historian Beverly Gage's question in Slate: "Why is there no liberal Atlas Shrugged?" As we noted at the time, this topic didn't reflect well on the denuded state of liberal education no matter how one responded to the question, but as Objectivist author Robert Tracinski writes on his Website, there are actually two liberal equivalents. Which do you prefer, fiction or non-fiction? As for the latter, Tracinski writes that the liberal Atlas Shrugged is obvious, particularly since, as Jonah Goldberg wrote in Liberal Fascism, most ideologies of the modern left are various strains of what Richard Pipes has called “heresies of socialism” -- building and rebuilding counter religions to the west’s Judeo-Christian traditions. As Jonah wrote:

The notion that communism and Nazism are polar opposites stems from the deeper truth that they are in fact kindred spirits. Or, as Richard Pipes has written, “Bolshevism and Fascism were heresies of socialism.” Both ideologies are reactionary in the sense that they try to re-create tribal impulses. Communists champion class, Nazis race, fascists the nation. All such ideologies—we can call them totalitarian for now—attract the same types of people.

Or as Tracinski wrote last week:

We can look at this question both ideologically, as Gage does, and literarily. That is, why isn’t there a book from the left with the same intellectual substance as Atlas Shrugged, and why isn’t there a book with the same literary power and appeal? The two are closely related, of course. The larger-than-life drama in Ayn Rand’s novels comes from the fact that she is dealing with big and profound ideas, and at the same time, she attracted a much larger audience for her ideas by presenting them through memorable characters and a compelling story than she would have by writing an abstract philosophical treatise.

So it’s no surprise that the answer to both questions is the same.

Let’s take the ideological question first. Why is there no equivalent work in the ideological “canon” of the left? There, the answer is easy. There was such a book: Das Kapital. Up through the middle of the 20th century, the left did have an ideological foundation and framework: Marxism. I went off to college just in time—the late 1980s—to catch the tail end of this. There was Marx, and then there were various spin-offs and tie-ins with Marx. (My favorites were the attempts to integrate Freudian psychology with Marxist economics. It was not a pretty combination.) But Marx was the center, not so much because of the details of his economics—his complex rationalizations for portraying capitalist productivity as parasitism—but because of his worldview, which divided the economy into warring classes and portrayed an individual’s every personal interest and value as defined by his economic class.

But if Marxism defined the intellectual center of the left, it is also what shattered the intellectualism of the left, because at the heart of Marx’s theory is a contempt for ideas. In Marx’s philosophy, it was economic relationships, the “class struggle,” that drove the world, and all of this lip-flapping about philosophy, religion, and values was just a useless “superstructure” constructed as a “legitimating ideology” for the real, underlying “class interests.”

This outlook permeated the left and came to hold sway far beyond the direct influence of Marx. Today, it lives on in the left’s obsession with defining everything in terms of “race, class, and gender,” a more recent extension of Marx’s class divisions. Consider the current election, in which you frequently hear the positions of the right dismissed as those of rich white men. This is part of the reason we’re seeing the left begin to openly and stridently invoke race as an issue. The latest charge? When Mitt Romney criticized President Obama for trying to dismantle welfare reform, this was immediately portrayed by the left as “injecting race into the election.” Never mind the patronizing assumption that welfare recipients must all be black (which they most certainly are not). For our current purposes, note how this is an attempt to avoid a debate on the actual merits of welfare reform by dismissing the right’s position on this issue as secret code—no, really, they actually describe it as “code”—for underlying racial animus.

What's the left's fictional equivalent to Atlas Shrugged? Click over to Tracinski's Website for the rest of his essay.

Related: "Karl Marx Makes a Strange Appearance" in the New York Times.