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Flawed Humans and Their Ideas

Part IV: Do people’s improprieties automatically invalidate any ideology they represent?

All of these influential people were imperfect, flawed humans who didn’t always practice what they preached.

Small minds talk about people. Average minds talk about events. Great minds talk about ideas. [1]

One of my frustrations with the state of political discourse these days, is the focus on people rather than on the ideas or principles that they are supposed to represent. For example, during the 2020 US presidential election, most of the ‘reasons’ I heard for supporting a candidate amounted to personal and character attacks against the other candidate(s). When asked what their preferred candidate actually represented ideologically, or what their platform or policy proposals were, many people drew a blank. Usually, the answer was something along the lines of, “Well, he’s not the other guy.”

It seems that the following strategy is the one most often used to discuss differing viewpoints now:

  1. Identify someone you believe represents on opposing ideology
  2. Try to dig up any ‘dirt’ on them. Indiscretions in their personal affairs are the best. If you can’t find anything, repeat steps 1-2 until you do.
  3. Congratulations, the idea you didn’t like is now rendered invalid! Never mind that the tenets of the actual idea were never discussed. It doesn’t matter. You found a ‘bad’ person who allegedly believes it, so therefore, it’s a bad idea.

This ‘strategy’ does not foster an intellectual conversation about the various merits of different ideas. It is also pointless and counterproductive, because it drags the conversation into an endless tit-for-tat muckraking arms race. For any idea humanity could ever come up with, humanity will also generate examples of adherents to that idea who are imperfect and flawed individuals. After all, we are all imperfect and flawed individuals. According to the ‘I-found-a-bad-person-who-believes-that-so-it-must-be-wrong’ logic, all ideas are wrong and invalid.

A family member—apparently concerned by my ‘evil’ socialist leanings—recently sent me this article . I think it’s a great example of an ad-hominem attack on a historical figure’s personal life. It’s used in an attempt to discredit an entire ideology and philosophy. In this case, it’s Karl Marx.

It lists several unflattering and scandalous aspects of his life, such as fathering an illegitimate child with a servant. It mentions his financial troubles, and family problems. The author (Casey Chalk) finds Marx’s acceptance of an inheritence hypocritical, since The Communist Manifesto (which Marx penned with Friedrich Engels) mentions “Abolition of all rights of inheritance” as a step towards eliminating class distinctions. The ‘allegations’ leveled at Marx—as far as I know—are all true. It’s no secret that Marx’s family struggled financially, and I don’t think anyone who’s read biographical accounts of Marx would consider shortlisting him for ‘History’s Greatest Dad’. Chalk also claims that Marx was, “virulently antisemitic” and quotes a biographer (I don’t know which one because the article doesn’t list the source) as saying that his writings were “filled with contemptuous remarks about Jews.” [2]

One misconception that I think Chalk attempts to leverage, is this idea that socialists or anyone on the ‘left’ reveres Marx as some sort of god-like figure, or prophet. Many critics of socialism attempt to frame Marx as some sort of cult leader or the ‘creator’ of socialism and communism. Chalk refers to Marx as, “a man responsible for one of the most popular and influential political and economic philosophies of the twentieth century.” Marx’s work was influential, no doubt. But the ideas of ‘socialism’ (and various forms of collectivism) have always been present throughout history, long before Marx came onto the scene. [3] Marx did not ‘invent’ or ‘create’ the idea or concept of socialism. Attempts to frame him as the ‘founder’, ‘prophet’, or ‘god’ of socialism are merely attempts to set up a ‘straw-man argument’, where the author hopes to invalidate an idea in some religious manner based on the sins and supposed ‘evilness’ its ‘creator’.

As previously mentioned, I do not wish to engage in a juvenile ‘tit-for-tat’ competition attempting to invalidate an ideology merely on the basis of ‘bad behavior’ of one of its adherents. To prove how pointless this is, allow me to give an example of how this can be played ‘both ways’.

There was another individual who—like Marx—was a writer on matters of economics and philosophy. Like Marx, her political and economic philosophy was highly influential in the twentieth century. She contributed greatly to the ideas of ‘objectivism’, and her books express her belief in unfettered individualism. Many present-day conservative and libertarian politicians, business leaders, and economists laud her work.[4] Rand Paul, and Alan Greenspan are big fans of her work. Paul Ryan is as well. According to him, “[She] makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.”

She had an affair with a young man 25 years her junior while they were both married to other people. They eventually left both of their spouses to be together (and later split). On the topic of drug use, she had this to say:

Drug addiction is the attempt to obliterate one’s consciousness, the quest for a deliberately induced insanity. As such, it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity. [5]

This is peculiar, considering that she was an addict to the amphetamine Benzedrine for at least 30 years. She also made ‘contemptuous remarks’ regarding Native Americans and Indigenous People. There’s also the disturbing account of her fawning over a convicted kidnapper and child murderer in her diaries, admiring his callousness towards other people and referring to him as “Superman” for it. So, who was this drug-addicted, psychopath-sympathizing, racist adulterer?

None other than Ayn Rand. Unlike Marx who did not ‘create’ socialism, Ayn Rand is credited with being the creator and founder of the Objectivist Movement, and gaining a devout following according to many accounts. In fact, it was accused by critics of being a cult, or cult-like, and Rand a cult figure.

Do any of these ‘tidbits’ about her personal life alone invalidate the ideas of individualism which she championed? I don’t think so. Are character-attack arguments like this going to change her fans’ minds? I seriously doubt it. Nor should they. I disagree with most of her ideas, and also most aspects of individualism and objectivism. However, I believe a strong intellectual case can be made against those on an ideological basis,[6] without resorting to ‘arguments’ such as, “Well, Ayn Rand promoted individualism and look at how degenerate she was, so individualism is invalid.”

You know who else were influential, yet ‘flawed’ humans? The ‘founding fathers’. Benjamin Franklin was an adulterer and notorious womanizer. In fact, his ‘exploits’ were so well-known, that a verse circulated about him:

Franklin, tho`plagued with fumbling age
Needs nothing to excite him.
But is too ready to engage
When younger arms invite him.

Unsurprisingly, all of this sexual gallivanting by Franklin also resulted in an an illegitimate child.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the ‘founding fathers’ that owned slaves, even though they expressed sentiments that they thought it was wrong. Hypocrites? Speaking of illegitimate children, Jefferson is rumored to have had up to 6 with one of his slaves. If Marx’s ideology is invalidated due to his one illegitimate child with a servant, then should Jefferson’s ideas be discounted sixfold? Some people are now calling for monuments of Washington and Jefferson to be removed, due to their slave ownership.

If Marx’s ideology is invalidated due to his one illegitimate child with a servant, then should Jefferson’s ideas be discounted sixfold?

As this article explains very well, there is a ‘peril’ in judging past heroes by today’s standards. The founding fathers were men of their time—and flawed ones at that, just like every other human. Karl Marx was also a man of his time with flaws. I personally think there is some merit to the ‘men of their time’ argument. Slavery very well may have been an economic necessity.[7] In Marx’s day, speaking of Jews and other ethnicities in crude terms was—sadly—the vernacular in use at the time. Does this make owning slaves or racist language acceptable? No, but it is a caveat.

Many people—especially conservatives—are willing to embrace the ideas of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin despite the sordid details of their personal lives, and their slave ownership. They’ll continue to promote the ideas of individualism popularized by Ayn Rand. Fair enough. But if Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Rand all get a ‘free pass’, and deserve to have their ideas considered on merit rather than on the basis of their behavior in their personal lives, shouldn’t Karl Marx at least be afforded the same courtesy?

It seems that not doing so would be a bit hypocritical, and hypocrisy apparently annoys people like Casey Chalk—at least when Marx is guilty of it. Either everyone gets a pass, or no one gets a ‘pass’ and all ideas are rendered invalid due to the imperfection of humans claiming to support them. Fair is fair.

I think we should give all of these historical figures a ‘pass’, and focus on debating and discussing the ideas and principles they represent as they apply to us today. Let’s not go tit-for-tat trying to invalidate ideas based on who had the most affairs or illegitimate children hundreds of years ago. No one wins that game.

Ryli Dunlap

  1. ↩︎ I have seen this quote (and variations of it) attributed to both Eleanor Roosevelt and Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. I am not sure where it originally came from, but I like it.

  2. ↩︎ For a good analysis on Marx’s actual views regarding Jews, see “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype”. This puts Marx’s alleged ‘anti-semitism’ in context.

  3. ↩︎ I remember reading Utopia years ago. It was published in 1516 (Marx was born in 1818), and depicts an imaginary civilization with a socio-political system that is socialistic in nature.

  4. ↩︎ Many conservatives admire Rand’s fierce advocacy for individualism, but she’s an odd choice for ‘poster child’ of conservatism given that she was an atheist, and adamantly pro-choice in regards to abortion as well.

  5. ↩︎

  6. ↩︎ I should probably devote a separate article to this in the future.

  7. ↩︎ The fact that Washington and Jefferson both owned slaves despite thinking it was wrong, is actually a good example of a socialist perspective. Economic systems must fundamentally change in order to eliminate exploitative social relationships. As long as a system forces people to engage in slavery, or other forms of exploitation in order to ‘compete’ for their economic survival in a ‘free’ market, then this is what they will do. Likewise, I suspect that though Marx believed that elimination of inheritances was a necessary aspect of a socialist society, the fact is that he did not yet exist in one. He still needed to survive in the system in which he found himself—a capitalist one. The economic ‘realities’ of capitalism compelled Washington and Jefferson to own slaves despite their moral proclivities against it. Today, capitalism continues to be a coercive force often necessitating that people engage in activities or behaviors they might be morally opposed to simply in order to survive.