One of the opponents of a mawkish altruism was the libertarian writer Ayn Rand. But she seems to have veered toward an excessively radical individualism and selfishness as an alternative.
One illustration of this is her strange attitude to William Hickman, a sociopathic child murderer of the 1920s. Hickman seems to have inspired Rand, not because of his crime, but because he stood as an individualist against the crowd.
Rand seems to have approved of the sociopath Hickman's credo:
In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)
What is good for me is right? That's on the unacceptably selfish end of the spectrum. It's difficult to square with many of our commitments. What about my commitments to my family? Or to my tradition? Can't I act for the good of these? And what about my sense of what is intrinsically right? If something dishonest were good for me, should I then go ahead and do it, even if my conscience tells me it's immoral?
And then there's this:
At the time, she was planning a novel that was to be titled The Little Street, the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan. According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan - intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man - after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should." (Journals, pp. 27, 21-22; emphasis hers.)
Again, it's not being claimed that Rand approved of Hickman's crimes. But it does seem to be the case that she thought that something very positive, "a wonderful, free, light consciousness," could be derived from a selfish and individualistic consciousness, "no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people".
Some on the left have picked up on these journal entries of the young Ayn Rand and used them to attack prominent politicians who have claimed Rand as their political inspiration, including Paul Ryan who has just been named as Mitt Romney's running mate for the presidential election.
These leftists then claim that their own philosophy is less individualistic and selfish than those on the right who follow Rand.
And it's true that leftists do lurch at times toward a dissolving preference for the "other". I quoted a South African liberal recently who asserted the following:
What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.
What he's saying is that solidarity is not based on loyalty to real forms of community, but on compassion toward and identification with those who aren't part of my group. So I can't by definition have solidarity with those I am most closely related to, or with whom I share a communal tradition. It's a dissolving altruism.
But in other contexts leftists do support selfishness and individualism. For instance, feminists have for many years supported the idea that women should act selfishly in the pursuit of power and status. In the early 1900s, a male feminist by the name of W.L. George wrote exuberantly of modern woman that "at last aggressiveness and selfishness are developing her toward nobility." More recently a feminist by the name of Elizabeth Wurtzel has declared that:
For a woman to do just as she pleases and dispense with other people's needs, wants, demands, and desires continues to be revolutionary.
And in the larger sense the leftist project is based on the aim of individual autonomy, which has been popularly summarised as "be who you want to be, do what you want to do" - which doesn't exactly prioritise commitments to others. It should be noted that the most left-liberal society that exists, namely that of Sweden, also has by far the largest number of people living alone (47%).
So leftism manages to combine a dissolving altruism with a radically individualistic focus on autonomy. It's not a viable alternative to Randism.