Stealth Marxism in books - a pet peeve

I collect books. I don't mean to be a collector, I simply can't resist buying particular books, week after week. I've developed some pet peeves about books.

One pet peeve is stealth Marxism. I'll pick up a book that purports to be about this or that topic. I open it up, and it turns out to be Marxist (or more generally familiar-academic-leftist) analysis of society's ills.

Here's an Amazon commenter who has succeeded in turning me off a book. He writes:

Expecting a fun book reflecting on images of the future, I was disappointed to read things like "The visual cacophony of the advertising-laden landscape was for him [Edward Bellamy of Boston in the 1880s]...the most palpable of symbols for the general depravity of the capitalist system."

And how about this quote from the section on space toys of the 1940s and '50s: "Girls who yearned to project themselves into a fantasy future through their toys had few media role models beyond the stereotype of the hero's girlfriend. The dual message to the younger generation seems clear enough--the future will be violent [too many space guns], and it will belong to men."

And here is how the book reviews the "Star Trek" series: "Though the crew, with black Uhura and the Asian Mr. Sulu, seemed to reflect newly enlightened attitudes, the program, like its 1930 relatives, was dominated by brave white males."

In discussing the future of housing, the book diverges from any discussion of future technology, and instead offers: "We ask whether the home of tomorrow will be inhabited predominantly by single-parent families, by working mothers and children. Will it contain greater numbers of couples without children at all, couples of the same sex, or other groups of adults living together, and if so with what social consequences?"

And as a final example of the social messages of the book, how about these phrases from the section "The Weapons and Warfare of Tomorrow":

"Although Americans have long cherished the myth that they are an unusually peace-loving people..."

"...just one more instance of the American habit of believing in that ultimate weapon, a technological fix, as a substitute for politics in eliminating world conflicts."

And finally: "...it ironically symbolized the country's broader policy on Viet Nam, an effort to refashion a foreign environment better fit to American needs and expectations." [from an Amazon review by Bernard K. Skoch]

To check Bernard's comments, I opened up the book to a random page (it participates in the "Look inside this book" Amazon feature) and read some text. The text read:

For the middle-class readers of the late Victorian era, Looking Backward and other utopian novels of the day allayed fears of imminent class warfare.

In hindsight, there was something odd about the title of the book: Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. The American future? Why not just the future? Now I know why. The book was an opportunity to bash America and capitalism on the pretext of exploring the history of science fiction illustration.

 

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I admit I find stealth

I admit I find stealth anything irksome in my books. Good fiction can have themes and messages, be they Marxist or anything else, so long as it's done well (Grapes of Wrath is, no matter your affiliation, a damn good book, and Atlas Shrugged is not). But non-fiction books where the authors purport to address one subject but find themselves unable to control the urge to drop snide political asides are despicable. E.g., Matt Ridley isn't above the occasional libertarian barb, and Dawkins's little forays into criticizing American foreign policy in The Ancestor's Tale are positively insufferable.

Opposite reactions

I'm not going to pronounce on the books objectively, but I hated The Grapes of Wrath and I thoroughly enjoyed Atlas Shrugged - probably due to the circumstances in which I read these. The Grapes of Wrath was forced on me in junior high school, and not as a work of literature, but in essence as a documentary about American history, which it really was not. It should be read as the Marxist fever dream that it was, and had it been presented to me as the untrustworthy, warped image of America that it was, on a par with the Wizard of Oz, I might have found it a bit more fun. I read Atlas Shrugged some years later, which was interesting to me primarily in being the first significant written work that did not violently disagree with my politics (I had absorbed the ideas of the libertarians in face to face conversations, not from books).

 

Grapes of Wrath Vs Atlas Shrugged

Both actually bored me to tears. Now we need to find someone who loved both and we'll have every combination.

I cherished Atlas Shrugged

I cherished Atlas Shrugged (well, the second half of it) but barely stayed awake for The Fountainhead.  Maybe it's because trains are more exciting than post-modernist architecture.  Or because John Galt was hot with his copper-gold hair and his body hardened from physical labor, whereas Howard Roark was a self-righteous dork.

Atlas Shrugs :b

Well I couldn't read past the first couple of pages of Atlas Shrugged, and I love Dawkins' science writing but also find his remarks on the US insufferable but semi-ignorant. He makes it sound like I live in a theocracy when in actuality the UK is a lot closer. Don't they have an official religion. ;)

I have read most of Rands non-fiction books and found some of her criticisms of some other philosophies compelling but find much wanting in her own philosophy also.

I have no disagreement with

I have no disagreement with your assessment of either's book politics or history, and from what little I've heard, Steinbeck did romanticize the era of American life he was portraying. Indeed, I probably enjoyed Atlas more than I did Grapes. Nonetheless, his writing craft is infinitely better than Rand's. That said, it's been a while since I've read either work. Rand reads worse and worse as time goes on. I should pick up some Steinbeck again (last time I read him was the same time you did apparently) and see how well he's held up.

No desire for Ayn Rand

I feel no desire to re-read Ayn Rand. Once for each of her two enormous novels was enough. I'm not much of a re-reader generally (I have a friend who re-reads old science fiction books, Larry Nivel and so on, so I know people do that, but I've never felt the urge). My sense of Ayn Rand is that her fiction was above all about political ideas, and makes no sense to read if you're not interested in the ideas or disinclined to share her general views. It might be compared to Pilgrim's Progress or to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I don't read it as a story intended in the usual sense (e.g., with characters you are supposed to think of as real individuals and care about).

 

I seldom reread either.  In

I seldom reread either.  In fact, I can't think of a single example at the moment. 

I liked Atlas immensely, because the message was new and exhilirating.  Two years later I read the Fountainhead, and found it transparent, dull, and shoddy.  I've not gone back over either, but my guess is not that Rand's writing style changed immensely between the books--rather I just developed better taste.

Served a purpose

Or perhaps Atlas served a purpose, but by the time you got to The Fountainhead you were beyond the stage where it would be of use to you.

Overt awesomeness

Constant,
I happen to own that book, and yes, the commentary is not that great, but then again it's not the kind of book you buy for the commentary. The pictures are great. I still recommend it.

Okay then

Thanks. I may get it. By "the kind of book", I take it you mean that it has a high picture to text ratio. I've just ordered two similar books (there are a few books out that cover the same general topic) and may end up ordering that one in as well, for the pictures. I'm particularly intrigued, for example, by the everything-on-stilts picture spanning pages 4-5.

Protect Your Mind

Constant is just exhibiting a well developed Bull Sh-t detector. An effective Marxist would get across the point without beating you on the head. They act like they think they are reinventing the wheel every time they utter a thought. This would require a little creativity. After a while you know what’s coming after a few words. The thought patterns become so transparent you can spot the buzzwords in the first sentence at which time your brain shuts down and you go into safe mode like my computer does all the time. Dave

Point of inquiry

Though the crew, with black Uhura and the Asian Mr. Sulu, seemed to reflect newly enlightened attitudes, the program, like its 1930 relatives, was dominated by brave white males.

Isn't this an accurate description of Star Trek?

Question of focus

There are any number of true things one can say about Star Trek. One can correctly say that Captain Kirk was a brave white male. However, is this really the most interesting and worthwhile thing that one can say about Star Trek? You can write a whole book that is made up entirely of true statements about race, sex, and class as they are manifested in the genre of science fiction, but I'm not necessarily going to want to read it.

Re: Question of focus

Fair enough, but then why describe the observation as "Stealth Marxism"? It's not a distinctively Marxist claim; it's an observation that anyone watching the show could have come up with, given a passing familiarity with recent American history.

At worst it seems like an example of "stealth banality," or, perhaps just "observations on topics outside my interests."

Because it is

then why describe the observation as "Stealth Marxism"? It's not a distinctively Marxist claim

Isn't it? It's not the sort of observation most people would make. A leftist would be more likely to make the claim than a random person. It is not merely their falsehoods that distinguish leftists.

it's an observation that anyone watching the show could have come up with

But would be less likely to. And when you add all the claims together (and remember that they are only a sampling), the probability that just "anyone" would make all those points in a book becomes vanishingly small. While the quotes might have been cherry-picked, my independent check of the text confirmed the pattern. Furthermore, not all the claims merely showed an obsession characteristic of leftists; some of them were tendentious, displaying a leftist opinion.

On second glance, the quote is not purely factual, by the way. By implication, the show is evaluated as "not really newly enlightened".

At worst it seems like an example of "stealth banality," or, perhaps just "observations on topics outside my interests."

A leftist social critique is not what the average reader would expect from the way the book is presented on the cover, nor would he want it. That is probably why that two-star Amazon review achieved something that I have almost never seen a strongly negative Amazon review achieve. According to Amazon, "33 of 35 people found the following review helpful." That is practically unheard of for such a negative review.

I feel a bit weird making this argument. There's such a thing as "protesting too much". The more effort you put into proving a point, the less obvious the point must be (by implication). But in fact the point was sufficiently obvious to several readers, including Amazon visitors. It hardly needs a vigorous defense. This reminds me of the times I argued strenuously that conditions in North Korea are bad. Seriously, I did that.

By the way I ordered the book because Randall suggested it was worth it.

Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel

This reminded me of a kids book my dad used to read to me and that I picked up for my kids. My favorite "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" had a heavy unionist slant that I didn't even recognize as a kid.
Another favorite of mine was "Swiss Family Robinson" which I read three times as a kid. My son read it for school at age 13 and pointed out something I hadn't really noticed when I had read the book the first time, or didn't remember from third grade. There was an appalling amount of animal slaughter in the book. They were killing at a rate they couldn't possibly eat it all. My son was joking that the stench of all the rotting corpses laying around on the ground was why they had to live high in the tree house.