Alice in Wonderland
A Review of The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986, 455 pages.
1. The Ayn Rand Phenomenon
alk into any decent bookshop in any part of the English-speaking world, and you are liable to find a shelf or two entirely taken up with the works of Ayn Rand. Week in, week out; year in, year out. If you're a bookseller, this is a sight better than Erich von Daniken or Leo Buscaglia.
Some of Rand's books are novels, some are on aesthetics, some on political philosophy, some on epistemology and metaphysics. These are books which, in the words of the old sixties ads for Catch-22, "will change your life". They make converts. Typically, the future Randist begins with that bulky mega-seller, The Fountainhead. Reading the Fountainhead is an overpowering emotional experience. It is a spellbinding story with a certain amount of preaching sprinkled in. The reader may find the ideas, and even more, the hints of ideas, alluring. The novice moves on to Atlas Shrugged, even bulkier (1,084 pages) but still phenomenally popular. The story is less spellbinding, indeed, less than spellbinding, and there is much, much more preaching sprinkled in, but by this time the reader has acquired a taste for Rand's distinctive form of rhetoric, and is ready to graduate to her nonfiction works, For the New Intellectual, The Romantic Manifesto, The Virtue of Selfishness, even Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Here the budding Randist finds, declaimed in strident, bad-tempered prose, a new gospel, a system of ideas, a creed applicable to all aspects of life. Among the articles of this creed are: that there is no God; that laissez-faire capitalism is the best possible economic system; that limited government is the only correct political order; that the United States of America is the best society in human history and virtually always entirely in the right in its conflicts with other powers; that cigarette-smoking is both harmless and morally virtuous; that Hume and Kant are loathsome villains, whilst Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand are the great heroes of philosophy; that Rachmaninoff is a hero of music, while J.S. Bach and Richard Wagner are among the villains, with their " malevolent sense of life"; that Dostoievsky and Hugo are great novelists; that, in more recent times, Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane are also outstanding writers - and of course, Ayn Rand; that a photograph can never be a work of art; that liking horror stories always indicates a mystical outlook and therefore mental sickness. And, most famously, that altruism or self-sacrifice is the great vice and source of all vices, whilst egoism or selfishness is the great virtue and source of all virtues.
There are many readers of Rand who graduate in this way, just by reading the books, without authoritative guidance, and they will perhaps tell you that the above is a caricature, that there is no creed, that some of these items are just Rand's personal opinions, with which they (the readers) happen to disagree. But in the old days there was an organised Randian church. It was called the Nathaniel Branden Institute. It lasted from 1958 until 1968, when it terminated due to the messy and spiteful falling out of Rand and Nathaniel, the rock upon which she had hoped to found her church.
When the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) was in operation, there could never be any doubt in the minds of its apostles, adherents, apostates, or excommunicates that Randism or Objectivism was indeed a creed. If you didn't smoke, you had better have a damned good reason - a certificate signed by several Objectivist physicians might be safest. If you were married to a theist, you had better get a divorce. If you were depraved enough to enjoy Bach, better change your musical tastes pronto.
Like many cults, the Randist network of NBI (which existed only in North America) used group pressure, scorn, and contempt to humiliate and degrade those individuals who betrayed wretchedness by signs of deviance - in this case, by liking Tolstoy, feeling a duty to help one's relatives, growing a moustache, entertaining the thought that there might be a God, feeling tolerant towards homosexuality, or being concerned about the disappearance of living species due to industrial pollution.
Ayn Rand is, on many counts, a remarkable figure. The mere sales of her books constitute an outstanding achievement, but I cannot think of any historical parallels for someone who used a popular art form to successfully promote an all-encompassing doctrine, especially one that was so eccentric a mix of disparate elements, and one that was so out of fashion when she began to propound it. We have to imagine something like Ferdinand Lasalle writing Jack London's novels, but even this does not come near the prodigious strangeness and strange prodigiousness of Rand's accomplishments. She has had a significant impact upon the world, but there are unmistakable signs that the impact is only beginning. She has had a traceable influence upon the Reagan administration, which might have pleased her (she died in 1982) even though she fiercely opposed Reagan, because - and if you don't know already, shut your eyes and see if you can guess - he was anti-abortion, a clear demonstration that he was evil and sick, even though he might be posing as an anti-communist.
It is often claimed that Rand gave birth to the modern libertarian movement. This is an exaggeration, but it is true that the overwhelming majority of leading lights in the early libertarian movement of the 1960s had earlier gone through a Randist phase, and even today the peculiar quirks of Randist jargon ("facts of reality", "whim-worshipper", "Robin Hood ethics", "blank out") pop up occasionally.
2. A Riveting Tale
The tale told by Barbara Branden is absolutely riveting. It is considered high praise to say of a book that, having once begun it, you can't put it down, but for me the more significant accolade is that having .finished it you can't put it down, and that is certainly true of this amazing and fascinating story. It recounts Rand's life, partly on the basis of personal recollection and partly on the basis of detailed research. The portrait of Rand is outrageously vivid, yet patchy. There was something abnormally potent and enthralling about Rand, and although those who never met her can hardly reconstruct exactly what it was, Branden's book is impressive testimony to its existence and approximate contours. Yet there are puzzling gaps and murky areas.
The organism which was later to denote itself as "Ayn Rand" was born in St Petersburg during the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905, and given the name Alice Rosenbaum. The daughter of a self-made chemist, she emerged as a distant, precocious child. By the age of 10 she was already making snap judgements about everything and everybody in the world, turning these judgements into unshakeable dogmas, demanding as the price of non-belligerence that people accept these dogmas, and seething with violent indignation against anyone who denied, or for that matter, failed to personify, these dogmas. In one of the taped interviews which Rand gave Branden decades later, Rand says: "By fifteen, my sex theory was fully formed." (34) As the context makes clear, the 15-year-old's theory of sex incorporated views she had held passionately since at least the age of 10.
Alice and her family suffered hardships during the civil war following the Bolshevik putsch. Bolshevik repression served only to encourage in her breast precisely those counter-revolutionary feelings the persecution was designed to extirpate. By chance, Alice avoided the liquidation which the heroine of her first novel, We The Living, could not escape, and in 1926 she contrived to visit relatives in Chicago. Like droves of others before and since, Alice had to lie to get into the US, pretending her visit was intended to be temporary. Despite this, immigration controls were not prominent among the state interventions later denounced by Rand.
On the boat over, Alice changed her name to Ayn (rhymes with MINE!). In one of Branden's many infuriating omissions, she explains that "Ayn" was taken from the name of a Finnish writer whom Alice had not read, but says nothing more about this writer, or whether Rand subsequently read her - or him. It goes without saying that the Finnish Ayn was a ferociously evil, mentally sick, whim-worshipping mystic, like everyone else, but readers need to be told how this discovery was made, and any little details associated with it. Some years later, Ayn Rosenbaum selected the name "Rand" from her Remington-Rand typewriter. As Rand remarked, criminals and writers usually keep their initials when they change their names.
From Chicago, Rand moved to Hollywood in search of fame as a screen writer. Awkward, pathetic, and still far from fluent in English, she seems to have aroused feelings of warm altruism and Christian charity in many people, who went to great lengths to help her. In Russia she had admired De Mille's pictures, so she went to the De Mille studio, to be given the usual polite brush-off. In the street she spotted De Mille in the flesh, and stood gawping at him, provoking his curiosity. De Mille got her a job, and the De Milles took the little Russian waif under their protective wings. Working as an extra on "King of Kings", she instantly fell in love with, and later married, another extra, Frank O'Connor, who was to spend most of his life boozing and living off her books, the epitome of the "mooching bum" she was always cursing in her apoplectic writings. With De Mille's help again, she got a job summarising and adapting screenplay proposals. During the thirties she became aware of the strong bolshevik sympathies of Western intellectuals, and worked on her first novel and her play, Penthouse Legend (better known as Night of January 16th) which introduced the gimmick, since imitated several times, of having more than one ending, with the choice made by the audience or, as in this case, by a jury selected from the audience. Both novel and play were modest successes, and Rand became known as that then freakish creature, a writer and intellectual who was a strong anti-communist and in no way sympathetic to socialism.
In the late thirties and early forties she worked on her second novel, The Fountainhead, and worked for the Wilkie campaign against the re-election of Roosevelt. She met many of the leading figures of American conservatism, which in those pre-Buckley days still contained strong elements of classical liberalism. She was later to fall out with all these conservative acquaintances. With the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead for fifty thousand dollars, Rand moved from obscurity to fame and from poverty to comfort. In 1947 she appeared as a 'friendly witness' before the House Un-American Activities Committee, investigating Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Branden makes some gestures towards defending Rand for this discreditable activity.
As The Fountainhead was beginning its delayed success, and while working on Atlas Shrugged, Rand heard from two young admirers, who were to change their names to Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. (It has been contended that the name "Branden" is derived from "ben-Rand", but Branden doesn't confirm this.) They both became worshippers of Rand, and introduced her to other acolytes. In 1958, NBI was formed to indoctrinate enquirers and followers into the complete system of Ayn Rand: her opinions on art, politics, and metaphysics were presented to the "students of Objectivism" as sacred truths. But even before the formation of NBI, Nathaniel had first married Barbara on Rand's recommendation, then commenced a once-a-week sexual arrangement with Rand, 20 years his senior, with the full knowledge and consent of his and Rand's spouses. This "rational" affair continued for a decade, as NBI expanded, Rand's fame grew, and Rand and Nathaniel lectured together to the unsuspecting flock. The great break between Rand and Nathaniel came after an interregnum in the affair, following which Nathaniel refused to recommence it because of his involvement with another woman, an involvement which he had kept from Rand's knowledge. Rand's discovery of how she had been deceived led to the expulsion and anathematising of Nathaniel, the break-up of NBI, and the demand that all true followers of Objectivism should join Rand in pouring scorn, hatred, and lies upon the Brandens. Apparently, Rand's theory was that since Nathaniel had behaved so immorally, he had forfeited any right to decent treatment, so any kind of stories could be fabricated about him - including the charge that he had misappropriated the funds of NBI. The question was even raised at an Objectivist discussion of whether it would be moral to have Nathaniel assassinated. (Bear in mind that these "rational" people were kept in the dark about what Nathaniel was supposed to have done, and were expected to follow Rand blindly in attacking Nathaniel.) Much, one supposes, to Rand's vast annoyance, her denunciations of Nathaniel and intrigues against him did not halt his extraordinary success as a pop psychologist. His fame as both writer and therapist has grown remarkably. His Psychology of Self Esteem (21 impressions since 1969) deals at length with problems of insufficient self-esteem, but says nothing about the problem of excessive self-esteem.
The soap opera continues. Some of it you can catch up on by reading The Passion of Ayn Rand. The orthodox Randists, led by Leonard Peikoff, have put it about that anyone who utters a word in praise of the book is to be shunned, boycotted, and cut off root and branch. Outside the ranks of the Elect, voices have been raised that Branden's omissions and misleading emphases call for correction, and we can expect numerous further memoirs and polemical commentaries. I very much doubt that any of them will be half as well-written or gripping as this one.
3. A Selective Picture
I am not one of those blessed by past personal contact with any of the original Randist apostles. I cannot pronounce on the numerous allegations and counter-allegations which Branden's book has stirred up. But it is clear from a modest amount of background knowledge, plus a careful examination of The Passion of Ayn Rand, that it is a piece of special pleading. The author is, I am sure, telling the truth and nothing but the truth, as she remembers it, but she is not telling the whole truth. She places facts in that light which best suits her purposes. On my first reading, I concluded that Rand had treated Branden very badly, and Branden had responded with continuing adoration, despite some criticisms. On my second reading, I concluded that the author was all the time working very hard to give me exactly that impression - which by no means implies that it is untrue, but does put it in a different perspective. The attitude Branden has towards Rand is one that individuals generally hold only towards their parents: a burning anger, a rage for self-justification, contained by a rigid insistence that the parent is good and worthy. In Branden's case, this seems to be bound up with her urgent need to deny the patent fact that Rand had a blighting effect upon her (Branden's) life, as Rand did on the lives of most of those she knew.
This book contains many statements describing Rand as an extraordinary intellect - "the brilliance and intricacy of her mind" (173), "her astonishing intellectual powers ... vast intelligence" (303) - yet it contains no evidence for these statements. It is asserted that Rand's conversation was tremendously high-powered and persuasive, but no attempt is made, by this veteran of hundreds of these conversations, to reproduce any of the searing insights or masterly analyses. I conclude, on the evidence of Rand's writings, that this is because there were none: undoubtedly Rand possessed an uncommon personal magnetism, especially for docile souls who craved for someone to tell them what was what, but she was no great thinker in any field. (There are two or three isolated witticisms. Asked who, in her proposed kind of society, would "look after the janitors', Rand replied: "... the janitors.").
Branden does mention Rand's "series of angry ruptures with people who had been her friends" (153) but somewhat plays this down. Rand fell out nastily with almost everyone, a propensity which some Randists have inherited. There is no mention here, for instance, of Rand's breaks with Rose Wilder Lane or Edith Efron.
Branden's angry worship of Rand is revealed in her constant desire to catch Rand out in mistakes, and yet defend Rand strenuously against the unpleasant inferences which might be drawn from these mistakes, though such inferences are often all too obviously warranted. Branden's apology for Rand's behaviour over the alterations to We The Living (114-15) is noteworthy. The first edition of We The Living reflects Rand's political ideas shortly after her arrival in the US, including her Nietzchean contempt for the fate of the common herd. Some time later, Rand brought her views more into conformity with Anglo-Saxon liberalism. She removed from later editions the passages praising ruthless elitism, but stated in her foreword: "I have not added or eliminated to or from (sic) the content of the novel ... all the changes are merely editorial line-changes." Branden tries to defend this by a soft-focus exegesis of the shrill anti-common man message of the first edition. This not only glosses over Rand's lack of candour about the changes; it leaves unexamined the broader question, Rand's reticence about her own change of views and therefore about the sources of that change of views. For any non-Randist with an interest in fiction there is also something quaint about the assumption, undoubtedly made by Rand and shared by Branden, that a speech by a "good" character must coincide with the author's own opinions.
Rand had a very poorly developed sense of humour, which she defended by being almost opposed on principle to humour. She had great scorn for the notion that one should be able to laugh at oneself. By taking up this position, she deprived herself of many long hours of rich amusement. Rand and all her circle were people who took themselves too seriously. Her laissez-faire liberal views aside, she is typical of a certain kind of left-wing intellectual who tries to subject her whole life, including her sexual relationships, to "rationality". Rand's affair with Nathaniel was supposed to be rational. According to Rand, the person one loves represents one's highest values. Since Rand was the noblest person Nathaniel knew, as well as being the most rational person in human history, it was right and proper for them to go to bed once a week. When it came out that Nathaniel no longer wanted an intimate physical involvement with his intellectual mentor, because she was too old and he had found someone else, Rand's sexual jealousy was rationalised in the verdict that Nathaniel was morally depraved. This sort of thing would be merely comical, if it were not that the personal misery was magnified by everyone's determination to be, as they thought, rational.
Human sexual impulses are largely the outcome of past competition among genes. Human feelings and responses are those which have tended in the past to cause some genes to reproduce themselves more rapidly than others. Our endowment of sexual emotions did not come about in order to enhance the happiness of individuals or the well-being of society, but in order (as it were) to enhance the copyability of little bits of DNA. If you try to make something rational out of that, you make a fool of yourself. Behaviour may be legitimately described as "rational" or "irrational" insofar as the means chosen are well or badly suited to achieve the ends sought. It makes no sense to speak of ultimate ends (like whether or not you wish to stay alive or to avoid suffering) as rational or irrational.
4. The Randist Legacy
Branden tries to defend Rand's humourlessness by relating it to her singularly logical mind. She was inclined to sloppy thinking. She took herself too seriously, partly because she was humoured by the likes of the Brandens, who tolerated her cantankerousness on the mistaken grounds that she was a great thinker - though even great thinkers should not be humoured when they take themselves too seriously. This did a disservice to Rand, as such humouring generally does, because it enabled her to live increasingly within her own world of fantasy, unchallenged by effective criticism. Perhaps she was too set by her twenties for any criticism to be effective. Be that as it may, gullible followers are never scarce.
Branden's desire to place Rand's tantrums in a favourable light often leads her to make dubious judgements. Branden remarks upon "how rare it had been in her life that a hand was held out to her in simple human kindness." (169) On the evidence of Branden's own book, this is far from the case in her 1957 autobiographical note to Atlas Shrugged ("About the Author"), Rand asserts: "I had a difficult struggle .... No one helped me..." It appears from Branden's account that Rand was a constant beneficiary of charity and kindness until she started making big money from The Fountainhead. When she arrived in Chicago, she was looked after by the relatives who had made it possible for her to get out of Russia. She declared then that when she became rich, she would buy her aunt a Rolls-Royce. When she did become rich, she didn't even reply to these relatives' letters. On arrival in Los Angeles, Rand stayed at the Studio Club, a philanthropically-subsidised home for young women seeking their fortunes in Hollywood. She was often behind with her rent, but was not evicted. After We the Living was published, Rand gratefully sent an autographed copy to the Studio Club's director. The Studio Club subsequently had to close for lack of funds. At every turn, people went out of their ways to help Rand by recommending her writings and finding her jobs and contracts. She habitually repaid kindness with indifference or with venom.
The most unsuccessful part of Branden's book is the final chapter, a listing of numerous people of prominence in many fields who have been influenced by Rand. Many of these people are prominent and avowed libertarians. Surely Branden should have mentioned the fact that Rand despised and detested libertarianism? (She does mention Rand's hostility specifically to the Libertarian Party, attributing this to the fact that some LP members were anarchists.) Rand always denounced the libertarian movement, its philosophy, its methods, its goals, and its personalities. Among other things, she castigated it for "plagiarism" of her ideas, an instance of her colossal presumptuousness, since a political movement is free to be influenced by any published writer, libertarians have always been frank or over-generous about what they owed to Rand, and Rand herself took the ideas from others.
Although Rand's influence is indeed enormous and still growing, Branden overstates it. This is part and parcel of the ostinato "rooting for Rand" theme in Branden's book. It only spoils the absorbing account of an intrinsically fascinating figure to keep insisting implausibly that she is a world-shaking genius. The method of listing people prepared to say "Rand changed my life" is not convincing. The majority of confirmed meat-caters in the US had some early contact with McDonald's, but this doesn't mean we can confidently attribute the prevalence of meat-eating to the influence of McDonald's. People with an appetite for certain kinds of ideas will gravitate to the purveyors of those ideas. Alan Greenspan does not appear to owe any of his economic ideas to Rand - economic theory was apparently the one area where she did not personally hand down the total truth. Murray Rothbard was a libertarian before he met Rand, and would have been a prodigious free market propagandist aside from his brief association with Rand. The fact that Billie Jean King was inspired by reading Atlas Shrugged is not of great consequence for anyone else. Some of the most effective proponents of libertarian ideas, like Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, do not show evidence of the slightest Randist influence. (Mises met and admired Rand, but there is no taint of Randism in his writings.) As for the relationship between Randism and Reaganite conservatism, it should be obvious which is the flea and which is the dog.
The major effect of Rand upon libertarians has been to favour the doctrine of natural rights, though most libertarian writers who do accept natural rights (Rothbard, Nozick, David Friedman, for example) adhere to forms of the doctrine which aren't particularly close to Rand's, and to date this preoccupation with natural rights has not borne any fruit in the shape of a coherent explanation or defence of the doctrine (that is any advance upon Spencer). I doubt that Randism will ever have any appreciable direct impact on philosophy or politics, though it may perhaps have some small impact on literature, by helping to rehabilitate the supreme importance of a good story. The Randist influence on the libertarian movement has slumped in the past 10 years, a thoroughly healthy development, but also an inevitable one, as young people first captivated by Rand find the dogmas beginning to chafe. Randism will never have any influence on National Review/American Spectator conservatism, enmired as that is in its own equally threadbare, but more popular and more intelligently-argued dogmas, associated with religion, traditionalism, and state-worship. Randism's influence within the libertarian movement will continue to dwindle away: Rand is becoming to libertarianism something like Fourier to socialism. The only home for born-again Randists will be in the narrow church of Peikoff and Schwartz, The Ayn Rand Institute and The Intellectual Activist. While pouring abuse on libertarianism (mainly because it permits a wide range of philosophical and strategic views, encompassing approval of God, anarchy, sexual and chemical deviation, and the natural rights of dispossessed Palestinians) the Objectivist cult offers a warm embrace only to those who swallow the Randist creed in every detail. After all, how could a rational person co-operate politically with anyone who didn't like Rachmaninoff. Given the vast readership of Rand's writings, and the dazzling appeal of a creed which offers a solution to all intellectual, personal, and social problems by learning to mouth a few catch-phrases, I expect that the cult will achieve a very large membership during the next few years, comparable to Scientology or La Rouchism - with about the same intellectual level, the same deleterious effects on the minds and lives of the cult members, and the same, absolutely negligible amount of influence on political thought.