Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“I'm in favor of legalizing drugs. According to my values system, if people want to kill themselves, they have every right to do so. Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal.”     Milton Friedman

November 14, 2009

Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead Of The Modern Libertarian Movement

by Doug Mataconis

atlas_02

There are few figures in the American libertarian movement that gave rise to as much controversy or passion as Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, it’s hard to find a libertarian who doesn’t have an opinion about the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. For many of us, she was the one who lit the spark that sent us down the road toward becoming a libertarian. Even after her death, some still consider themselves hard-core Objectivists in the model of those who gravitated around the Nathanial Branden Institute in the 1960s. For most libertarians, though, while Rand is arguably the most influential moral philosopher, she is also someone who’s flaws, both personal and philosophical have been acknowledged, debated, and argued about for decades.

There’s always been a missing piece of the puzzle, though, and that was that nobody had really undertaken a full-scale intellectual biography of someone who, even today, can sell 200,000 copies a year of her 1,000+ page magnum opus. There were personal biographies by Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden, but those both seemed to concentrate on the more lurid details of Rand’s personal life and the circumstances behind the 1968 Objectivist Purge. The heirs of Rand’s estate, meanwhile, have guarded her papers closely in an obvious effort to protect her legacy and reputation. Someone wanting to learn more about Rand’s life, the development of her ideas, and her impact on American politics, had almost nowhere to go that wasn’t totally biased in one direction or the other.

That’s why Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is so welcome.

Instead of dwelling on the lurid aspects of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, and without taking sides regarding the many controversies that followed Rand in years after Atlas Shrugged was published, Burns provides a thorough, well-written and well-researched survey of how Ayn Rand went from Alisa Rosenbaum of St. Petersburg, Russia, born just as Czarist Russia was beginning it’s decent into chaos, to Ayn Rand, the woman about whom more than one person has said “she changed my life.”

For people versed in the history of libertarian ideas, the most interest parts of the book will probably be Burns’s documentation of Rand’s interaction with the heavyweights of both the Pre World War II Right and the conservative/libertarian movement that began to take shape after the war ended. She corresponded with Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken and, most interestingly, developed a very close personal and intellectual relationship with Isabel Patterson, best known as the author of The God of the Machine. For years, especially during the time that Rand was writing The Fountainhead, Rand and Paterson exchanged ideas and debated philosophy, and it’s clear that they both contributed to the others ideas.

The Rand-Paterson relationship, though, also foreshadowed something that would happen all too frequently later in Rand’s career, the purge. Paterson was among the first libertarian-oriented writers to experience Rand’s wrath for the perception that she was not sufficiently orthodox. Over time, that would continue to the point where, at it’s height, Objectivism displayed a level of orthodoxy and denunciation of perceived heresy that rivaled the religions that it rejected. It was, in the end, the reason why the movement’s downfalls was largely inevitable.

Burns also goes into great detail discussing the process and the ordeal that Rand went through while writing both of her great novels. After reading that part, one marvels at the fact that she even survived.

In the final chapter, Burns shows that, even though Rand herself had flaws that led to the demise of Objectivism as a formal movement, her ideas have a staying power that has permeated throughout the conservative and libertarian movements in the United States. There is hardly a libertarian in the United States who has not read at least one of Rand’s books and, it’s clear that her ideas have taken hold in a way that she probably never expected and definitely would not have approved of. That, however, is the power of ideas, the creator can’t control what people do with them once they’re out there.

Burns does a wonderful job of filling in the missing pieces about Rand’s life and her place in the wider context of the political and social history of Post World War II America. Whether you love or hate Ayn Rand – and I don’t think you can have no opinion about her once exposed to her idea – this is a truly fascinating book.

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2 Comments

  1. “That, however, is the power of ideas, the creator can’t control what people do with them once they’re out there.”

    No, Doug, the power of ideas is that they stand or fall on their own merit, and what others do with them is never relevant. Take, for instance, a few of Burns’s false assumptions that you too have embraced.

    1. The phrase, “Objectivist orthodoxy” is a contradiction in terms. That is an accusation supported not by the content of the ideas of the philosophy, but rather by what some people allegedly did with them. To be an orthodoxy, there has to be an authority, some god, individual, or collective granted control of the truth. In Objectivism, the only final authority is not Rand, but rather the actual nature of existence that is unequivocally specified to be facts of reality wholly independent of all authorities, including herself. Objectivism imposes only an “orthodoxy” of reality, as it were. But that statement is nonsense on the face of it since “orthodoxy” applies only to the intellectual tyranny of human beings.

    Grasping, as Objectivists do, the independence of reality from their own consciousness sparks their obsession with the pursuit of precise knowledge — consistency with that reality — that appears to uninformed onlookers to be an orthodoxy, but only because they are unable to distinguish certainty based on proof from certainty derived from blind faith in an authority.

    Rand routinely condemned those who would accept her ideas on face value. She regarded Objectivism as her personal philosophy, and disliked the term “Randian”, and recommended that those who adopted her ideas as their own call themselves “students of Objectivism”, not “Objectivists.”

    2. Exacerbating the above is the ubiquitous outrage over the so-called excommunications. As a philosopher, and in particular that philosophy, Rand’s life task was a quest for objective truth — most of which turned out to be a radically new formulation of it. When interest exploded in the early 60′s over Atlas, she gathered some of her brightest fans into her inner circle and helped them to fully understand her ideas so they could then apply them in their respective fields of endeavor. When their writings were published in pamphlets and papers, they would be regarded as approved by her, and so they became an extension of her own ideas.

    The problems that ultimately gave birth to the disassociations and excommunications from the inner circle were not envisioned at first because so many assumptions were made by Rand and them about the degree to which these people understood and/or agreed with the implications of the philosophy. I embraced the philosophy in 1966 and attended all of the Institute taped lectures between then and 1968, but sandwiching philosophy into my young career slowed my progress significantly. It took me a decade or more to fully digest it. And I was in the minority, because most who are infatuated with it do not have the time or the will to pursue it thoroughly, and even fewer have the courage to adopt a philosophy that is counter to that of all their peers and family.

    Now imagine a member of the group who are her extensions, or Patterson whose writings she had endorsed suddenly promulgating ideas that contradict positios they had previously exhibited and contradicting her as well. What other than immediate and total disassociation from them could protect the integrity of the philosophy that was the single product of her life. To us who had spent most of our lives in a society that kept truth in a quagmire of ambiguity and contradictions, Rand’s unflinching integrity was exhilarating and motivating.

    3. Although there is a context in which the phrase “formal Objectivist movement” could have a real referent, in general — and specifically here — it is a misrepresentation. The Nathanial Branden Institute was not a movement, it was a school. Note how brief were her two lapses into political advocacy. By the mid 60′s her message was clear and consistent. Objectivism was “for the new intellectual.” History, including political change, can only be achieved by a change of ideas — of philosophy. Political advocacy other than support for the least of all evils was roundly condemned. Even today, the Objectivist blogs and forums warn that association with the Tea Parties beyond utilizing them to access whatever honest minds are about is counter productive.

    Objectivism has not failed to be a viable political movement. It has not even started. That is the fact that baffles libertarians. They cannot grasp that in Rand’s view, capitalism is not a primary goal. It is a natural consequence of living by an ethics of egoism that itself is a consequence of recognizing the supremacy of reason as our access to the facts of an independent reality. Once you grasp that the ideas are the goal, not the politics, and you count the Objectivist professors that have in recent years breached the fortifications of academe, you will stop reporting the demise of Objectivism.

    Comment by MichaelM — November 14, 2009 @ 1:13 pm
  2. Post modern to the 19th century, but modern in the 21th?
    The rats will succeed us.

    Comment by VRB — November 14, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

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