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Ayn Rand and the World She Knew

The title of this blog entry is a take-off on Anne Heller's biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. The reason for this will become apparent.

I've been having a conversation with a few friends, and among the issues we were discussing was why it seemed that the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand set herself up against so many on the left and the right, and burned so many bridges to folks across the political spectrum, who might have been her allies.

It is as if Rand and her acolytes created a world, a "Galt's Gulch" of their own, which became hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Even as Rand warned against the fallacy of "thinking in a square," too many of her devoted followers have been incapable of stepping out of that box and critically engaging with the wider intellectual world.

This is not just a debate between those who have advocated a "closed system" approach, which views Rand's thought as consisting only of whatever she wrote or endorsed in her lifetime, versus those who have argued that Rand's philosophy is an open system: that is, we can agree on the fundamentals she set forth in each of the major branches of her philosophy, but that with intellectual evolution over time, there will be many additional contributions that will fill in the many gaps that were left by Rand and consistent with her fundamentals.

On this point, I've always had one major question for those on either side of the divide: Where do we draw the line as to what is "essential" or "nonessential" or "fundamental" or "not fundamental" to Objectivism?

o Her views on why a woman should not be President?
o Her views on the "disgusting" character of homosexuality and on the sexual roles played by men and women?
o Her views on Native Americans?
o Her very specific tastes in painting, sculpture, film, literature, and music?

And the list goes on and on and on. I've never quite heard a satisfactory answer to these questions. It is ironic, too, that so many advocates of the "closed system" approach almost always find a way to bracket out of that closed system the very real contributions made by both Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden---when Rand herself argued that the work of these individuals, prior to her break with them in 1968, were among "the only authentic sources of information on Objectivism."

And regardless of whether one ascribes to a "closed" or "open" system approach, what is the ultimate goal of those who claim to be Rand's intellectual progeny? To be consistent with "Objectivism" or to be consistent with reality? In one sense, the work of anybody influenced by Rand may not be consistent with "Objectivism" but consistent with a "Randian" approach to philosophy and social theory, broadly understood. To this extent, "we are all Randians now."

One thing I think is fairly clear, however: Over her lifetime, Rand definitely became more and more insulated and isolated, unwilling to engage those on the left or the right. And even though she clearly had no problem with "purges" during the days of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, today, those associated with the Ayn Rand Institute have turned such "purges" into an art form.

But I think that at least with regard to Ayn Rand, too many people on either side of the "closed" or "open" system debate tend to be extremely ahistorical in their understanding of Rand's intellectual evolution, which sheds light on why she became more isolated and less ecumenical in her approach to her perceived opponents.

I have argued in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, that, despite her claim of challenging the ideas of 2,500 years of cultural and philosophic thought, neither she nor anyone could possibly extricate themselves from the culture in which they were embedded as they came to intellectual maturity. Every thinker---every person---is of a particular time and place.

On this point, it must be understood that there was always a genuine Russian streak in Rand insofar as she was both a novelist and a philosopher. Throughout the history of the Russian literary tradition, especially during the Silver Age, when Rand was born and came to intellectual maturity, writers were almost always considered both novelists and philosophers (or at the very least advocates of a certain set of intellectual ideas), and virtually all of these writers found themselves on the outskirts of power, using literature as a means to struggle against various kinds of social oppression. Dostoevsky comes to mind and Rand, of course, was a great admirer of Dostoevsky’s methods, especially his penchant for using various characters as expressions of certain ideas.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when asked whether she was a novelist or a philosopher, Rand answered: "Both." She is also on record as saying that virtually all novelists are philosophers whether they wish to be characterized as such or not; it is just a question of whether they choose to express their philosophical ideas or assumptions explicitly or implicitly. Most, of course, were writers of implicit "mixed" premises. For Rand, the realm of ideas was inescapable for novelists. She was a master of projecting philosophical ideas in the context of fiction---a very Russian project. And like all the Russian dissident writers before her, those ideas were almost always opposed to the status quo, seeking to alter it fundamentally. In the end, Rand may not have become a full-fledged technical philosopher, but she was a fully radical social theorist, much like her Russian forebears.

Rand did say that the goal of her writing was the projection of the ideal man (and whether she meant it or not, the ideal woman as well). She realized that she had achieved at least a certain aspect of that goal in her creation of Howard Roark, the triumphant architect in The Fountainhead. But she turned to the larger social questions in Atlas Shrugged because, as she has written, there could be no projection of ideal men or ideal women without also projecting the kinds of social relations that such individuals required in order to fully flourish, to bring forth their talents and creativity in a social environment. Sociality was inescapable. Don’t be fooled by all her comments about how “society” doesn’t exist, that only individuals exist. She stated many, many times that “society” must be treated as a unit of analysis, insofar as it constituted the various social relations among individuals. These relations were expressed in organizations, institutions, and throughout civil society. So the reason she became such an unbending advocate of capitalism “the unknown ideal” was because she recognized that the fullest flowering of ideal individuals could not occur under social conditions that were anything less than free. Even in her essays on the conflict of men’s interests, she says that in a less-than-free society, conflicts are a necessary part of the kinds of social relations that both reflect and perpetuate the various forms of statism that had so distorted the character of human social interaction.

Rand may never have wanted to become a technical philosopher, but she was writing nonfiction essays early in her career and the equivalent of philosophical tracts within every novel she authored. You can find these in Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and, of course, Atlas. Her first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual, basically extracted all of the philosophical speeches from her works of fiction to show the kinds of ideas she was projecting, even if she had not yet reached the point of full integration. But it is there, right in her novels.

So many people from so many political persuasions were attracted to aspects of her thought. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama admitted to having gone through a "Rand" phase. But Rand would have had none of it. Over time, she had systematically demonized conservative, liberals, libertarians, and socialists. But she once stated that her appeal was ultimately to the nontraditional conservatives and the nontotalitarian liberals. I think that as she aged, she realized there were fewer and fewer representatives of those groups.

Among conservatives, she became increasingly frustrated by the ways in which they seemed to “water down” the defense of a free society: she watched as the conservative movement, so committed to the Old Right ideas of noninterventionism both at home and abroad, morphed into a group of rabid anticommunists, hell-bent on fighting a Cold War without end, endorsing everything from military conscription and the emergence of the National Security State to fighting in wars that she opposed (from World War II to Korea and Vietnam). And then there were those conservatives who embraced the Jim Crow laws of apartheid in the South as a means of perpetuating institutional racism, which utterly disgusted her. As the years went by, and her close relationships with those among the Old Right collapsed, she witnessed how conservatives increasingly embraced a religious defense of capitalism, while she was fighting for the idea that capitalism must be defended as the only rational and moral social system (an odd parallel with those atheistic, secular leftists who fought for "scientific socialism").

As for the libertarians, I think a lot of Rand's falling out with that group was due to her experiences with folks from the Circle Bastiat (Murray Rothbard chief among them). I think she was so appalled by the idea of anarcho-capitalism (as both ahistorical and acontextual) that she ended up branding all libertarians as anarchists, something she did not do in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when she even referred to Mises as a “libertarian” and was apt to consider herself a libertarian strictly in terms of her politics). But she lived during a time when, to her, "libertarianism" was as much of a mixed bag as conservatism. And when Rothbard became Mr. Libertarian, she became increasingly hostile to a group of fellow travelers in politics (most of them advocates of limited government rather than of anarcho-capitalism). She repudiated libertarians as "hippies of the right," who then turned around and attacked her with as much ferocity as the religious and traditional conservatives.

Finally, I should add that Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case that Rand had a decisive impact on those among the New Left, those he termed the “disowned children of Ayn Rand," but who were, at various points in their lives, inspired by her call to individualism and to activism (and this included an impact on the emergence of individualist feminism and the gay liberation movement). But, of course, Rand was just as adamantly opposed to the New Left as she was to the conservatives and the libertarians.

So what are we left with? We’re left with a woman who wanted very much to reach the minds of people on all ends of the political spectrum, in the hopes that she could decisively alter the trajectory of American politics. And in the end, she had made so many enemies on the left and the right that it became almost impossible for her---or any of her acolytes---to truly engage their philosophical opponents. And those opponents became so hostile to Rand that they sought to remove her from the canon as a thinker worthy only of disdain and dismissal.

Rand's acolytes have only dug-in their heels in response to such attacks, clinging to a siege mentality that cultivated isolation from the wider world. Either you were for Rand in toto or opposed; either you were among the Chosen or the Damned.

For those of us who are so inclined, I think it is essential to address those on the left and the right in a spirit of critical but respectful engagement. That has been the strategy of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. This was a woman who fought the Welfare-Warfare state, who battled on the front lines against U.S. entry into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and who understood the institutional workings of the warfare state---as much as she fought against the regulatory state that enriched certain business interests at the expense of others and a welfare bureaucracy that became inevitable.

Rand reminded us that those who fight in the future must live in it today. She fought for that future and advocated the kinds of ideas that she believed were essential to the fundamental social change that was possible---and necessary---to the survival of the human species.