Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Oblique Smearing of Ayn Rand

Two biographies of Ayn Rand have burst upon the literary scene, both written by non-Objectivists, Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday), and Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press). I have not read either book, but will in time. I have read the first chapter of the Burns book on Amazon Books. It is a literate account of Rand’s early life in Russia, and contains details of her life heretofore unknown to me, but that appraisal in no way can be extended to the rest of her biography, not until I have read it. Of the two books, however, going by their reception in the press and the literary establishment, the Heller book is the least significant, because it is less intellectual and more biographical. Moreover, both books provide Rand’s detractors with a limitless salad bar of details of Rand’s life. This is not the fault of the authors, of course, regardless of the merits or demerits of their books.

Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, focuses on Rand’s intellectual development from her years in Russia up to her death in 1982. Heller, a magazine writer and editor for Esquire and Redbook, apparently dwells on the “story” of Rand in terms of her social and personal life and political positions. It is the latter book from which “libertarian” reviewers have filled their plates from the salad bar. They have all proclaimed their fealty to Rand’s ideas, but at the same time have tried to diminish those ideas by deeming them as strictly “libertarian” and merely part of an evolutionary process of the development of libertarianism.

The most offensive instance of this kind of treatment of Rand -- praise so qualified that it ceases to be praise at all -- using Heller’s biography as a vehicle to not-so-subtly slander Rand, is Stephen Cox’s review of the book in the October issue of Liberty magazine. His review, “Ayn’s World,” can be taken as the apotheosis of all libertarian reviews, because it is long, commits the same offenses, and is as thorough a job of “debunking“ Rand short of a Whittaker Chambers/William F. Buckley Jr. effort.

The first offense, and there are many offenses in his article, is that he continually refers to Rand as a “libertarian” or a “radical libertarian.” Well, she was not a libertarian. She stated this so many times it would be almost pointless to repeat them here. Nevertheless, here is what she wrote:

For the record, I shall repeat what I have said many times before: I do not join or endorse any political group or movement. More specifically, I disapprove of, disagree with, and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called “hippies of the right,” who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either. Anarchism is the most irrational, anti-intellectual notion ever spun by the concrete-bound, context-dropping, whim-worshiping fringe of the collectivist movement, where it properly belongs.

Moreover, she added,

Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to “do something.” By “ideological” (in this context), I mean groups or movements proclaiming some vaguely generalized, undefined (and, usually, contradictory) political goals. (e.g.,the Conservative Party, which subordinates reason to faith, and substitutes theocracy for capitalism; or the “libertarian” hippies, who subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism.) To join such groups means to reverse the philosophical hierarchy and to sell out fundamental principles for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail. It means that you help the defeat of your ideas and the victory of your enemies.

Dr. Harry Binswanger seconds Rand’s position:

The “libertarians” . . . plagiarize Ayn Rand’s principle that no man may initiate the use of physical force, and treat it as a mystically revealed, out-of-context absolute . . . .

In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshipping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy. To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future.

A “mystically revealed” absolute is a deserved opprobrium. To libertarians, that “absolute” is just floating out there in space, ready to be recognized and picked out of the air, and incorporated into an alleged political philosophy. How did it get there? Why is it there? What is its cause? No rational answers are forthcoming, or will be, for libertarians eschew a rational metaphysics. This is no better or defensible a means of validating the concept of political freedom than attributing freedom to God’s wishes or plan, as the religious conservatives do. From a political philosophy standpoint, it is equally appropriate that Rand links in substance libertarians with the religious conservatives. Libertarians -- “radical” or not -- do not subscribe to a philosophy of freedom, but instead to what one could call a cosmology absent an inexplicable “first cause.”

But Cox will have none of that. He states early on in the review, feigning a preemptive, parenthetical tiredness with the distinction Rand made between libertarians and herself (and, implicitly, between herself and himself):

(I know, she repudiated the name “libertarian,” but she did so for reasons that do her no credit for objective self-description. Instead of calling herself a libertarian, she said she was an individualist and a “radical for capitalism” — in short, a libertarian.)

Translation: Well, I don’t feel like making the distinction she made. She argued for freedom, ergo, she was a libertarian. That’s how I’m going to perceive her, mainly because it will allow me to take cheap shots at her and permit me to “humanize“ her. After all, she made a lot of mistakes, was not a nice person, and didn’t consistently live her philosophy. So, there.

It is difficult to decide which is the cheapest shot Cox takes against Rand. Bear in mind that while these shots are woven into his discussion of Heller’s biography, they are easy to detect. For example:

Rand often denied that she wrote propaganda, or even that she intended to teach her audience anything. (I believe the first claim was true; the second, transparently false.) She said that she wrote for her own pleasure, to create the kind of characters she would want to meet, in the kind of world that such characters would inhabit and deal with in their own way. Whatever her motivation, she did create a literary world in which radical libertarian ideas were embodied and found an interesting home — an intense and serious world, a world full of ideas and characters and exciting action, a world in which libertarians, self-proclaimed or only implicit, could feel that they too were at home.

It is an instance of gratuitous graciousness of Cox to concede that Rand did not write propaganda. But then he accuses her of lying, that she did indeed write to teach her audience. Again, Rand often stated that she did not write her novels to “teach” anyone anything, but for her own selfish pleasure of recreating a world in which she would want to live. (See her essay, “The Goal of My Writing” in The Romantic Manifesto.) If she had written from a motive of “service” -- to teach her audience -- her novels would have been markedly different and likely as bad as other novels written for a pedagogical purpose, such as two novels cited by Cox as literary precursors of Atlas Shrugged, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back. (Cox could have cited novels that are better literarily, such as H.G. Wells’s 1933 Things to Come, or Jack London’s 1908 The Iron Heel. As dystopian novels, these would have better served as comparisons to Atlas Shrugged -- if one regards Rand‘s novel as a purely political/economic tract, which would be the libertarian way, and wrong.)

I shall skip over other remarks Cox makes about Rand, as they are of the same insouciant tone. His praise alternates with his back-stabbing. He does get around to discussing Heller’s book, and repeats some of her own estimates of Rand, touching, for example, on how he wished she had taken Albert Jay Nock, that wistful, ineffectual individualist of the 1930’s, more seriously. In fact, Cox repeats the libertarian mantra that Rand was not a true original thinker, but that she inherited and profited from the intellectual labors of her pro-freedom predecessors and contemporaries, but refused, in some narcissistic hubris, to acknowledge it. Cox missed a chance to quote Nock, who ends his essay, “Isaiah’s Job,“ with:

If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the Unbewusstsein of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man's conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.

No, as is evident in Journals of Ayn Rand and Letters of Ayn Rand, and in her other writings, she never forgot how she came by any idea, nor why she agreed with or dismissed another’s idea. Cox asserts in his review that Rand acknowledged only Aristotle as the sole influence in her intellectual development. Wrong. She acknowledged John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, and other pro-reason thinkers from the past. She admired such contemporaries as H.L. Mencken. She was not interested, however, in addressing and consoling a “Remnant,” an idea she would have considered futile, self-defeating, and essentially malevolent because it surrendered one’s life and the world to the mindless.

After making some smarmy remarks on how long it took Rand to write and complete The Fountainhead, Cox makes this verbose crack about how and why she completed Atlas Shrugged:

After “The Fountainhead,” she started planning the novel that would be known as “Atlas Shrugged.” She supposed that she would finish it posthaste. It took her 14 years. For what reason? She put out the rumor that she spent the last few of those years getting the right tone for the endless speech about philosophy that she intrudes on the final movement of the book. The true reason, as it seems to me, is that she had come to regard “Atlas” as a philosophical Bible and was anxious to ensure that everything in the Speech would represent her ultimate, unassailable statement of reality. The result was a 60-page literary disaster — a ridiculously long prose essay, its tone arrogant, inappropriate, and repellent to the last degree, in which she repeated everything she had already made obvious in the rest of the novel. Years working on the “tone”? I don’t think so. Rand’s attitude toward this manifest literary failure is a mystery of the creative process. How could she have thought she was doing the right thing? (Italics mine)

So, not only does Cox imply again that Rand was a liar, but states that Galt’s speech in the novel was a “literary disaster.” That also was the consensus of most mainstream book reviewers of Atlas when it appeared. What Cox fails to appreciate is that Rand was a rule-breaker in literature, and that there was no rule anyway that governed the length of any speech, and that without that speech, there would have been no “libertarian” movement for him to abscond to after cherry-picking the philosophy explicated in that speech.

Cox continues later on in his review about Rand’s alleged intellectual ingratitude:

There have been important writers — Hemingway is a good example — who were not intellectuals, and who read fairly little. Rand is the only example I can identify of an important writer, and a brilliant intellectual to boot, who in her mature period retained practically no curiosity about current or classic works of literature, philosophy, or history. She had studied some kind of history at Leningrad University, but where are the accounts of her enjoying any work on the subject, outside of Paterson’s “The God of the Machine” (1943)? After that book, and some works by Ludwig von Mises, the great economic theorist, she appears to have ceased learning much from either theory or history. It was as if she were making good on her claim not to have been influenced by other people. It was as if individualism meant making everything up on one’s own.

Enough said. There is much, much more that is offensive in Cox’s review, which, as I wrote earlier, served as a vehicle through which to launch his not-so-subtly buried digs at Ayn Rand. One wonders what he would have written if, by some chance, a scholar had uncovered the complete life of Aristotle and published it as Heller has published it: when and where he was born, the professions of his parents, his foibles, loves, hates and hobbies, his relationships with Alexander the Great, his friends, students and enemies, and how he went off the deep end of rationality after publishing the Nichomachean Ethics and became a cave-dwelling recluse -- and devoting minimal attention to what Aristotle bequeathed to the world.

Someday, if Western civilization survives the double onslaught of statism and Islam, another book will appear with the same title, only it will describe the phoenix of reason and the world Ayn Rand helped to make possible. Libertarianism, as an ideology, will merit perhaps only a footnote.


Tom said...

This is a great article. I am saddened at the fact that these second handers are using the resurgence of Atlas Shrugged to slander Rand while so many new readers are just discovering her ideas.

I read a review by Mark Sanford (Governor of South Carolina, where I live) of all people where he made the overall conclusion that Rand was too extreme and her philosophy was inherently flawed because she was a totalitarian with her students and followers. I thought Sanford was a smart man, but apparently he can't grasp the concept that the students or followers had the freedom to walk out at any moment if they disagreed with the way things were being run, something none of us US citizens have when it comes to our totalitarian government.

Anyway, good work. Great article.

Anonymous said...

Tom: Thanks. About Rand's alleged totalitarian streak, Heller apparently discusses that subject, too, which was dessert for Cox. I expect to hear from him or some of his libertarian ilk, once my piece is discovered. Yes, Rand's followers and students had to freedom to walk away, if her alleged intolerance for disagreement with her was true. I could have written a piece three times the length of what I finallly concluded, but there would have been no point to it.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the majority of reviews are of Heller's book, which, as I remark in the piece here, provides a bigger salad bar (or smorgasbord) of details about Rand than does the Jennifer Burns book.

I might do a follow-up piece on these "mainstream" reviews, as well. The New Republic, for example, ran a 17-page review of both books (at least it came to 17 pages printed out), while Barnes & Noble has run a very long piece, too. Virtually every one of these mainstream reviews commits the same offenses that Cox committed in Liberty magazine.



Mike N said...

Great post. What kills me about libertarians is their concrete bound level of thinking. They are unable to grasp that the only way to protect men from initiatory force is to put retaliatory force under objective control and that's the purpose of a proper government.
Libertarianism is what happens when a pragmatist decides he likes freedom.

Teresa said...

"a cosmology absent an inexplicable “first cause.”" Well put, Ed. Unique, colorful, apt. I think that without your original style of writing I would not be able to read about such ugliness. What is being done to this icon is horrific. Still, it keeps her in the news which is good for any honest seeker of the truth.

Joseph said...

I think Ed Cline's review would have been much better if he had read Heller's biography before writing his review of the review. T

But that's a less important point. I can't agree, after reading Stephen Cox's article, that he is trying to trash Ayn Rand. The article is filled with extraordinary praise for Miss Rand. To put it on the level of Whitaker Chambers' smear is a serious misreading of the article.

True, Cox includes some tough criticism of Ayn Rand and her writing. And one can argue with him on certain of his points. (I certainly do!) But Cline chose not to address the most salient and interesting points of the article-such as Cox's comments on the importance of empathy.

I'm not a fan of Liberty Magazine, not because it criticizes Rand, but because it often does so in a gossipy manner.

But this article is not one of those types. I think it's perfectly fine to take issue with the article, but one should do so without misrepresenting it,and, also by addressing the most important points contained therein.

pomponazzi said...

Great article. I didn't understand the meaning of the Knock quote though.

This is the Barbara Branden syndrome: Eulogise Ayn Rand in a syrupy tone, which serves as the groundwork for impugning her character. This way she retains her "Objectivity," and vents her spleen too.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I have not read Cox's review, and I too have read only 1 chapter of the book.

I was particularly interested in your take on Cox's take on Galt's Speech in the novel. My daughter and I had this conversation a year ago, after she had read the novel the first time, and I had re-read it twice since summer as an adult. (My first readings were as a high schooler).

We both agreed that it was certainly an usual feature for a novel, and also that most of what was explicated in the speech was also indicated in the action of the novel. However, none of Rand's heroes talk like characters do in most novels, either. And we thought that the speech works in the novel, although some readers will undoubtedly skip it and still come away with a good read but a lesser understanding of why the characters did what they did.

We we at a loss for what to call this as neither of us have been much interested in literary criticism. To contrast our ideas from those of people like Stephen King--who called Rand's characters "cardboard"--we ended up talking about them as archetypes--though not in the same vein as that used in psychobabble.

But Rand's writing clearly makes the reader care about the characters (or hate them as the case may be--how can one not hate Wesley Mouch) and yet they are not quite like anyone that we've ever met, rather they are people one wishes one could meet.

To cut to the chase, we both thought the speech not only worked in the novel, but also that the reader who carefully reads the speech will come away with a better understanding of the action in the novel than he would if he didn't read it.

So, if two interested non-Objectivists could get it, surely Cox could have as well.

Anonymous said...

Pomponazzi: The purpose of the Albert Jay Nock quotation was two-fold: first, it (and a preceding paragraph from Nock's essay) was that one of his "Remnant" individuals wouldn't be able to remember where he got his ideas for liberty; second, Cox was claiming or insinuating that Rand denied any intellectual influence but Aristotle's, having forgotten what else she'd read in past political philosophy writings by other thinkers, and he could have used the Nock quotation to underscore that (invalid) assertion. Rand, as I point out in the piece, certainly acknowledged the influence of many thinkers. Cox after all brought up the subject of Nock.

Joseph: My focus was on the expected libertarian reaction to the Heller and Burns biographies, moved by a certainty of how those books would be received by a "major" libertarian writer. I will read both books sooner or later, but enough about them has been revealed in so many mainstream reviews that I have been given a general idea of what they are about and what they say about Rand. I have read the libertarian reviews, and that's what counted in this round. It's highly doubtful that I'll need to retract anything I said about Cox
because his focus was not on Heller's book, but on how best to excoriate Rand through his review of Heller's book -- which, by the way, is how most mainstream reviews have behaved. Neither camp can even be original in their mode of malice.


pomponazzi said...

Ed, thanks for the answer. I have an old copy of Nock's, "Memoirs of a superfluous man". Your writings discussing him has dissuaded me from perusing it.

Anonymous said...

Pomponazzi: Nock was actually a very good essayist, so I would encourage you to read his "Memoirs." He makes many valid points about the pitfalls of democracy (as opposed to a republican form of government), chiefly how a democratic one is naturally corrupting. What you will experience after a while is a sense of ennui from his pessimism, which is most discouraging!


Neil Parille said...


I have a question about this statement:


She acknowledged John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, and other pro-reason thinkers from the past.

I can't think of where Rand ever said she learned anything from Aquinas and Locke. She thought them important, but not on her intellectual development.

You mention the Journals and Letters but Burns, after comparing the published Journals with the originals, says they are not reliable.

Incidentally, it appears that Burns and Heller have confirmed most of the controversial claims in Barbara Branden's biography, including those about Frank's drinking. I'm wondering if you still support Jim Valliant's book.

Joseph said...

Ed-Thanks for responding. However, your response addresses the least important point of my post, that I believe you ought to have read Ms. Heller's book.

The most important point is that Cox's review, while at times quite tough on Miss Rand,is not intended to "excoriate" her. It is filled with lavish and not pro-forma praise.

Cox's article includes a number of interesting points that one would not know were there in reading your review of the review.

"Interesting" doesn't necessarily mean correct, and one would welcome a fuller response from you or anyone else to the actual content of the article.

Neil Parille said...


A couple additional points:

1. Just who are the libertarians you are talking about? Many I know have a natural rights approach similar to Rand's. Some names and citations here would help.

2. I think it is important to read the book before ripping into Cox. Cox apparently believes his contentions are supported by the new research in the Heller book. Unless you are familiar with that research and are contesting it, the prudent course it to wait.

For example, Heller (I gather) believes Rand lied about her past. If that's true, then Cox's claim that Rand was not up-front on those who influenced her becomes more likely. She may also have more specific info on that particular topic.


pomponazzi said...

Ed, Now that it comes on good authority I will definitely read the "Memoirs". Thank you.

Jeff Perren said...

All of the reviews I've read to date (The Economist, The New Republic, Liberty, Barnes and Nobel, and many others) make an error I've not yet seen discussed (though Ed touches on it). All of them talk very little about the book and spend the overwhelming majority of the space touting their own views, and criticizing Rand.

I.e. none of them is actually a review of the book in question, which is necessarily - if done correctly - about the author's views of Rand and her work, and not their own.

Anonymous said...

Will Objectivists ever get tired of trying to deny that they are libertarians?

Yes, Rand denied she was a libertarian. Hayek also denied he was a conservative. So what? Both of them were wrong. Rand's own writings on libertarianism and libertarian ideas reveal how little she knew about them. This isn't really a criticism of her--the libertarian movement was miniscule when she called them "hippies of the right," and no doubt her view was skewed by overexposure to Rothbard.

Today's Objectivists have no excuse for such ignorance. The word "libertarian" means someone who supports laissez-faire capitalism. That's all. The fact that Objectivists disagree with non-Objectivist libertarians about many things does not make them any less libertarian. Objectivists disagree with other non-Objectivist atheists about many things, but Objectivists are still atheists. Objectivists disagree with other non-Objectivist humans about many things, but Objectivists are still humans.

When Objectivists like Rand, Schwartz, Binswanger, and now Ed Cline, try to define the term libertarian to include particular philosophical underpinnings (including the idea that all libertarians must believe that ethics is irrelevant to politics), they are using the term in a way that nobody else does.

Again, to be a "libertarian" means you support laissez-faire capitalism--no more, no less.

Neil Parille said...

If Objectivists were consistent, they would define capitalism, reason, individualism, freedom, etc. to include certain philosophical underpinnings. The would then say, "we aren't capitalists and individualists because these people reject the only philosophy that can support such things."

Joseph said...

Here's an interesting article contrasting Obj. and Lib. written by Diana Hseih.

Anonymous said...

Having read both terrible hatchet jobs I can easily rebut Neil Parile's inane comments. The published Rand journals are accurate, any changes are minor grammatical ones. Both Burns
and Heller rely way too much on the Brandens' and Rothbard's
nonsense which has been thoroughly
discredited by James Valliant.In
fact both authors even caution against acceptance of the Brandens
and reference Valliant's great book
despite their uncritical acceptance
of the discredited Brandenite agit-prop. I went on Heller's facebook page to point out the many problems with her work.