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.