|The Rational Argumentator
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XV-- June 18, 2003
|Mixed Premises: A Critique of Murray Rothbard’s “Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult”
G. Stolyarov II
| In 1972, a renowned and insightful libertarian economist of the Austrian School and a former associate of Ayn Rand, Dr. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), composed a purported analysis of the “cult dynamics” of Ayn Rand’s personal associations wherein he compared the early development of Objectivism to a Soviet-like hierarchy of unquestioned subordination and an essentially religious acceptance on faith of the positions upheld by a master “guru.” While Rothbard does validly pinpoint some of the foibles which lay within even so ingenious, industrious, and intellectually colossal mind as Rand’s, his exposition should by no means be interpreted as a refutation of any of the fundamental principles of Objectivism, nor of the literary and philosophical stature and accomplishments of Rand herself, nor the immense value that each individual can gain by fathoming and applying those tools for life on Earth which Rand had discovered.
This analysis shall delve into the text and underlying assumptions of Rothbard’s critique and filter the gold from the dustpan, to speak figuratively. Rothbard’s work in the realm of economics is commendable, but in his stance on ethics he does err toward the side of traditional dichotomies of passion versus reason, hedonism versus stoicism, and upholds the former while attributing the latter to Rand. This trend, perhaps, is one that most substantially underlies his criticism and causes many of the erroneous observations that either Rothbard himself had made or was aiming for readers to accept.
There is another direr undertone in Rothbard’s commentary, which can only be detected by reference to others of his writings. Its essential crux is Rothbard’s revisionist historical position and his wanton anti-American stance in politics and international relations, a party line that smacks of a disciple of Howard Zinn, not Ludwig von Mises.
It is my hope to venture thoroughly into each of these fields and to subject Rothbard to a scrutiny more concordant with absolute facts and values of reality than his critique of Objectivism had been.
The Reason-Passion Dichotomy
Almost as a sacred given do both religious a priori dogmatists and nihilistic hedonists treat the doctrine of an essential antagonism between mind and body, and its derivative, reason and emotion. According to the dogmatists, via a philosophical framework subtly initiated by Immanuel Kant, personal passions and fervent pursuits of goals held in ardent desirability by the individual mind are a manifestation of “inclination,” and the “petty” selfish concern of man with his own survival above all else. Kant urged this calculus to be abandoned in favor of an absolute albeit divinely ordained “duty,” which negated inclination and acted based on an a priori framework wherein the individual tried not to fathom his emotions, but to act in direct opposition to them. For even an objectively beneficial act for oneself and/or others was not moral, according to Kant, unless duty was at its origin. On the other side of the coin were the hedonists, who rejected reason as stale, stolid, and arbitrary, frameworks as purposeless, and all truth as subordinate to the individual’s desire for “happiness.” Yet the hedonists, the New Left of the 1960s being their prime representation, having forfeit all principles, were unable to define what precisely constituted happiness, and what preconditions were necessary. Hence, their philosophy (or lack thereof) collapsed into acting on the random spurs of the moment, on frivolous caprices of intermingled lust, rage, and stupor.
Ayn Rand had refuted both of these seeming extremes and demonstrated that these are in fact not extremes at all, but rather two sides of the same philosophical coin. The Kantian framework emerges from the premise that the mind of man exists in a vacuum apart from the body, as a “ghost,” and that it can act upon preconceived dictates of divine law without considering the survival needs and impulses of the body. The Hippie framework emerges from the proposition that the body of man exists as disjoint from its mind, a “corpse,” controlled by mere perceptual concretes, sensations of the present second, with further abstraction, categorization, and the application of principles derived serving no constructive purpose. This is the predominant mindset of the late twentieth century and one that Rothbard generally upholds throughout “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” Yet be not surprised if an occasional Rothbardian excerpt should exposit a so-called “ghost” facet of the “cult.” The consequences of either mindset are approximately equal in their detriment and quite more compatible than their advocates might conceive. Acting on “duty” contrary to inclination results in self-abnegation. Acting on whim contrary to reason results in self-destruction. But another reason why Rothbard can argue from both sides of the dichotomy is, as shall be explicated later, the nature of Objectivism itself.
Rothbard describes the initiation of most into the “Ayn Rand cult” as emotional residue following the reading of Atlas Shrugged shortly after its release in 1957. “Entering the movement through a novel meant that despite repeated obeisances to Reason, febrile emotion was the driving force behind the acolyte’s conversion.” This statement seeks to create a conflict of motives where none exists. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is unique amid a sea of traditionalist dichotomies in that it integrates reason and emotion in a manner that the capacities of both can be utilized to optimal gain, and mind and body can be conceptually unified into a single complete entity, Man. An emotion is not some arbitrary subjective urge that is “just there.” In Rand’s own words, it is a “lightning-swift integration” of the sum total of a man’s value-premises concerning that, which has sparked the reaction. Because man’s knowledge is so vast, and the sum of it can never wholly be retained within the brain’s attention span simultaneously, the brain must possess a “shortcut” to employ it nevertheless, without relinquishing hold of its essence. Hence, the value-premises which one derives via the concerted effort of his own mind are automatized into a complex, multi-faceted emotional reaction which is capable of yielding grand inspiration or sordid despair, depending on the value-premises behind the integration. So, an emotion is not an antagonist of reason. It is a tool for employing the products of reason. Long as its origins are traced, its grounding proven, it ceases to be a derivative of the fluid hash within hippie minds, but rather becomes an extension and support of one’s rational faculty. A work of fiction such as Atlas Shrugged is a prime means of illustrating the unity of the two. It can employ characters’ emotions and interactions as a means of insight into fundamental value-premises and their dynamics in the realm of existence. It can utilize description to refer to a premise or a quality in its concrete embodiments. It can serve as a framework for principled action, whether it is action one wishes to emulate, or to avoid. A novel ventures beyond just stating ideas (although a good novel will do that also) to demonstrating them. And the masterful interplay of ideas that is Atlas Shrugged henceforth answers a question beyond “What is Objectivism?” This question is, “How can I apply Objectivism to my life?” Given the fortitude and innovativeness of Henry Rearden, the dedication and drive of Dagny Taggart, and the incorruptible integrity of John Galt, it is no wonder, and no fault, that readers of this phenomenal literary triumph had yearned to further exchange values with its author.
Rothbard’s attitude toward Atlas Shrugged demonstrates a contempt for ideas that befits one subscribing to the Naturalist School of Literature, a movement that embraces photographic descriptions of every detail of a novel, no matter how minute and insubstantial to the development of the plot and theme. Rothbard refers to the “wooden, posturing, one-dimensional heroes and heroines” who were “explicitly supposed to serve as role models for every Randian.” To this I reply that I would prefer to learn of the content of a man’s mind over the color of his shoelaces any day. The characters of Atlas Shrugged do reflect philosophical values, as they are set in motion in a world not unlike our own, a world where need calculus and statist domination seek to subdue the sovereignty and autonomy of the producers’ minds. The protagonists of the book are supremely productive, physically vigorous, dynamic individuals whose actions are not those of a chance statistical common denominator, but of purposefully, volitionally-driven persons in the truest sense of the word. They are in every respect far more colorful, multi-faceted, and intriguing than the average “Joe Couch-Potato” Naturalists and Rothbard would wish to see portrayed in writing.
Of course, this misevaluation of Rand’s magnum opus is another offshoot of Rothbard’s reason-passion dichotomy. Because the dichotomy cannot conceive of a unity between what it deems essential antagonists, and because Rothbard essentially emerges from hedonistic “corpse” metaphysics, any intense and intricate integration of reason and passion will inevitably seem to him as artificial, as “posturing and one-dimensional,” neglecting the wholly as important facet of shoelaces and nail clippers in world-class literature.
Rothbard takes issue with Randians asking themselves the question, “what would John Galt have done” in a given situation? John Galt is Rand’s projection of the consistent, reasoning value-producer. Rothbard deems it ludicrous that Objectivists emulate a non-living, non-historical character, but is it a flaw to establish standards for oneself that few in history have attained? Is it delusional to establish an ideal and strive toward it? Only in the world of perceptual reductionism and the spur of the moment.
Rothbard writes, “The Biblical nature of Atlas for many Randians is illustrated by the wedding of a Randian couple that took place in New York. At the ceremony, the couple pledged their joint devotion and fealty to Ayn Rand, and then supplemented it by opening Atlas – perhaps at random – to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.” If a reader admires a book and perceives it to be a guide for living, is it not proper to revisit it, especially upon monumental turning points within one’s life, such as a marriage, where rational planning and the establishing of goals, expectations, and intellectual bonds is of paramount importance? But, of course, to the adherent of the hedonist/perceptual reductionist side of the reason/passion dichotomy, principles are either worthless or transient and dispensable, and any attempt to consistently employ them must smack of that other a priori dogmatic side of the split, i.e. of the religious notions of duty and obedience to divine authority, which are all too often equated with genuine reason. Hence, Rothbard’s comparison of Atlas Shrugged to The Bible. Rothbard mistakes principles applied at one’s own volition and discretion, fueled by the conclusions of one’s own reasoning mind, for the dictates of a supreme authority accepted on faith.
Perhaps the most lucid illustration of Rothbard’s adherence to the reason/passion dichotomy can be witnessed in the following passage: “Personal enjoyment, indeed, was also frowned upon in the movement and denounced as hedonistic ‘whim-worship.’ In particular, nothing could be enjoyed for its own sake – every activity had to serve some indirect, ‘rational’ function. Thus, food was not to be savored, but only eaten joylessly as a necessary means of one’s survival; sex was not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but only to be engaged in grimly as a reflection and reaffirmation of one’s ‘highest values’; painting or movies only to be enjoyed if one could find ‘rational values’ in doing so. All of these values were not simply to be discovered quietly by each person – the heresy of ‘subjectivism’ – but had to be proven to the rest of the cult.” Essentially, this paragraph presumes that an activity is only pleasurable if committed for no particular reason whatsoever, on some seemingly arbitrary emotional incitement, and serving no constructive purpose. But this is the hedonism that views emotions as the prime motive force in, and neglects their derivation from reason and their employment as a means for an end dictated to each man by his own rational mind. Rothbard does not wish to grasp the immense happiness that emerges from an individual who strives successfully toward an aim which he has calculated to attain the benefit of his existence. He considers only chance minor values, the sensations of the moment, the transient stimulations of the organism as the only genuine means of enjoyment. Note that Rothbard does not accuse Objectivists or members of “the Ayn Rand cult” of rejecting the experience of these, which is quite accurate. Rothbard, however, criticizes them for pursuing something in addition to them as well, in the realm of ambition and aspiration, of principled value pursuits, the euphoria induced by whose accomplishment is far more monumental and lingering, as well as truly savorable as a reward, for the individual’s quality of life is genuinely elevated by their accomplishment. Rand’s message to her adherents was twofold: to harness emotions and thereby enjoy them in the proper role intended them by the nature of man, as well as to ensure that every act one undertakes is not severed from the rest, that one should integrate it into the sum total of his life, and what he wishes his life to become. It is not Rand who seeks to limit the degree to which a man may obtain happiness and fulfillment; it is Rothbard.
As for proving the value of a work of art to one’s colleagues, this is a mere instance of value-trading. If one discovers an exhilarating theme or a beneficial idea where none had previously been found, does Rothbard wish him to merely be accepted on faith, or go by his “gut” or “the general drift” of his sensations instead of attempting to lucidly pinpoint the source of his approbation? Instead of integrating the art with the sum of one’s knowledge and value premises, Rothbard, in the manner entirely consistent with his embrace of the mind-body dichotomy, suggests that it be treated as a disjoint perceptual concrete of the moment. Rand and her colleagues merely attempted to foster the integrated approach through discussions amongst themselves and to benefit from the fruits of each others’ minds and observations.
Ultimately, Rothbard’s conclusion that the Randians became robotic and grim in their demeanors can only allude to Rothbard’s own misunderstanding of one of Rand’s crucial principles, the integration of mind and body. Rothbard writes that “many ex-cultists remain imbued with the Randian belief that every individual is armed with the means of spinning out all truths a priori from his own head—hence there is felt to be no need to learn the concrete facts about the real world, either about contemporary history or the laws of the social sciences.” But Rothbard neglects the fact that Rand synthesized the emphasis by rationalism on logical derivation from principles with the emphasis by empiricism on the acquisition and systematization of external data. Rand in no means encouraged anyone to view the entirety of the world as a priori; she merely contended that certain a priori foundational truths exist, something that Rothbard, the disjoint perceptually-bound mind, seems to deny. A priori truths include the absolutism of reality, the validity of reason, and the individual’s life as the ultimate value, each derived from the other in that order. These lay the very groundwork for scientific observation and empirical study. That Randians rejected certain modern absurdities as “social history” (the study of the lowest common denominator of a time instead of its essential dynamics) and post-modern revisionism (which is, as will later be seen, at the crux of Rothbard’s stance even here) is merely testimony to the fact that the former has zero conception of what is metaphysically significant, and the latter is a blow to the aspirations and nobility of man.
What is Humor and What is Sacrilege?
“Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It’s simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humor is an unlimited virtue. Don’t let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul—and his soul won’t be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man. One doesn’t reverence with a giggle.” So declares Ellsworth M. Toohey, the arch-collectivist from Rand’s other literary epic, The Fountainhead. Humor within certain bounds can be employed as a means of comprehension or enjoyment. An innocent joke, a paradox, a satire sharpen an individual’s reasoning ability while amplifying his rightly gained pleasure. Humor can be employed to expose the horde of fallacies, buffooneries, and hypocrisies plaguing modern society, and is thereby a potent educational tool. However, humor must not be employed to sneer at a man’s self-image, at, in Rand’s words, “the sacred temple of his soul,” his genuine ambitions, his sense of life, and the joy that he takes in living by principle and practice. This is the difference between a laugh and a giggle. A laugh is the call of a giant, resonating with an ecstatic appreciation of his own existence. A giggle is the buzzing of a pest around the giant’s head, in preparation for inserting a stinger where it hurts, the most sacred reaches of a man’s mind.
Rand had always advocated a human being who is radiantly happy in his productive endeavors, and uses humor without abusing it. But what says Rothbard? In reference to the incident wherein a newlywed couple sought inspiration from the pages of Atlas Shrugged, “wit and humor, as might be gathered from this incident, were verboten in the Randian movement. The philosophical rationale was that humor demonstrates that one ‘is not serious about one’s values.’ The actual reason, of course, is that no cult can withstand the piercing and sobering effect, the sane perspective, provided by humor. One was permitted to sneer at one’s enemies, but that was the only humor allowed, if humor that be.” What “sobering and sane effect,” Dr. Rothbard, is derived from renouncing one’s guiding principles, one’s tools for living, with mocking contempt, from posing not an open intellectual challenge to another’s values (assuming one disagrees with them, which, Rothbard, to an extent, does) but an underhanded, contemptuous “low blow” to any dignity and esteem? How can renunciation of all principles and all of the elevated faculties of man in favor of a giggle be considered “sane?” It is such only to a perceptually-bound mind embracing the side of the mind/body dichotomy that repudiates all consistency and integrated living.
Another instance of so-called “cultist repression” is documented by Rothbard. “Thus, one time a Randian, walking with a girl friend, told her that he had attended a party at which several Randians had made an impromptu tape imitating the voices of the top Randian leaders. Stricken by this dire information and after spending a sleepless night, the girl rushed to inform the top leadership of this terrible transgression. Promptly, the leading participants were called on the carpet by their Objectivist Psychotherapist and bitterly denounced in their ‘therapy‘sessions: ‘After all,’ said the therapist, ‘you wouldn’t mock God.’ When the owner of the tape refused the therapist’s demand to relinquish it so that it could be inspected in detail, his doom as a member of the movement was effectively sealed.” What sort of lowly, vile demeanor does it take to mimic, apparently in derisive tones, the voices of those who had served as ideological guides and assistants to oneself? This is a clear instance of humor’s abuse. One purportedly agrees with the ideas, upholds the reasoning, yet, in an infantile, relishingly nihilistic manner, proceeds to denounce their originators based on so circumstantial and metaphysically insignificant a quality as tone of voice! The value-judgment implicit in such a moral transgression is that no matter how insightful, how aspiring and successful a person is, it is the happenstance of his or her voice that will determine his or her worth. And, apparently, because they were mocked, Rand and her “inner circle” were not held in high esteem by the perpetrators of such an insult. With friends like these, one needs no enemies!
Revisionism and the Hatred of the Good
The historical and political views of such an avowedly right-wing advocate of laissez-faire capitalism as Rothbard can hardly be termed consistent with his titanic accomplishments in the realm of economics. Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn come to resemble patriotic champions of American unilateralism in the face of the following excerpt from Rothbard’s For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. “Taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States… Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of ‘peaceful coexistence’ as the basic foreign policy for a communist state…” Murray Rothbard, during the undertaking by the Viet Minh of a grievous blow to American commercial and security interests in South Asia in 1975, praised “the will and determination of the mass of Vietnamese (and Cambodians)” against which “none of America’s superior might and firepower could in the end prevail.” The murders of forty million “counterrevolutionaries” by Stalin, the gruesome anti-intellectual purges of the Khmer Rouge, the barbaric war crimes of the Viet Minh, all pale in comparison to the “bellicose imperialism” of the United States, contends Rothbard. By some twisted and inhuman calculus, the freest country in the history of mankind must now be blasted while some of the world’s most grotesquely totalitarian tyrannies showered with laudation! And this, let the reader be reminded, originates from a self-proclaimed apostle of liberty and individualism. Such is revisionism at its worst.
What is the connection between this rabid anti-Americanism and Rothbard’s criticism of the Objectivist movement? It can be discovered by some of the undertones of Rothbard’s discussion of conditions in the “cult.” ”And so the young convert – and they were almost all young – began to buckle when he learned more about his own chosen subject. Thus, the historian, upon learning more his subject, could scarcely rest content with long outdated Burkhardtian clichés about the Renaissance, or the pap about the Founding Fathers. And if the disciple began to realize that Rand was wrong and oversimplified in his own field, it was easy for him to entertain fundamental doubts about her infallibility elsewhere.” Rand’s view of the Renaissance, in summation, was of an age in which the human spirit was at last liberated from millennia of stale dogmatism, and the scientific and philosophical accomplishments of Greek and Roman thinkers were extrapolated to result in a new age of dynamic prosperity. Her analysis of the Founding Fathers was of a group of men who embodied the rationality of the Enlightenment in the framework of government that they had established. Of course, to Rothbard the revisionist, the hurler of defamatory smears at the United States and at this radiant view of the Renaissance, from which the Enlightenment had sprung, and America, which had sprung from the Enlightenment, is intolerable. He likely would not dub any comment concerning these to be accurate unless it asserted that the Renaissance was an age dominated by butchery and Machiavellian machination and that George Washington was a slave-owning bigot and Thomas Jefferson a vile rapist. The fact remains: Rand’s analysis of the historical evolution of Western civilization and her lucid demonstration of the relevance thereof to happenings of modernity are accurate and as specific as a philosopher needs to get (which is far beyond the scope of this essay. Suggested readings on Randian historical analysis include For the New Intellectual, The Voice of Reason, The Virtue of Selfishness, Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, and Philosophy: Who Needs It). The so-called young historians who took post-modern revisionism on faith and thought they had discovered a refutation to Rand’s entire edifice of ideas were sorely misled into the quagmire of spiteful irrationalism.
Rothbard’s revisionism is evident, although more subtly, even in the remarks he allows against Rand herself. Rothbard contends that Rand’s charisma was “buttressed by her air of unshakeable arrogance and self-assurance.” A pride taken in living, and a confidence in the validity of one’s ideas (rightly dubbed self-assurance) has been mixed by Rothbard with term defining an unwarranted and overly elevated opinion of oneself. Concerning the aim of Objectivism, Rothbard writes that “power, not liberty or reason, was the central thrust of the Randian movement.” Further down in the paragraph, Rothbard refers to Objectivism as a “virus” and hopes that “Libertarians, once bitten by [it], may now prove immune.”
Now that the reader is aware of Rothbard’s scornful deprecation of the ideology which has come closest to arguing for the validity of reason and necessity of individualism, he is likely to consider Rothbard an immensely scrutinizing thinker for whom nothing but perfection in the intellectual realm will do. If this is Rothbard’s denunciation of Objectivism, it may appear, then he must be casting other frameworks of thought into the depths of intellectual Inferno! But, what does Rothbard truly say about the irrational modes of thought?
“As a political theory, Libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or nonphilosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking this position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork and basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the Libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of Libertarianism rather than about the doctrine itself,” writes Rothbard in Modern Age magazine. Whereas Rothbard terms Objectivists (who are closest even to his own fundamental positions) to be viral, he takes no essential issues with all those ideologies which fall into the traps Rand’s had avoided, the reason/passion and mind/body splits, the empiricism/rationalism antagonism, and the delusion that the spur of the moment is the guiding force within man.
Why this, and especially from such an accomplished and insightful economic thinker? Why does Rothbard, in the macroscopic realm of global politics, assail the most free and prosperous nation in favor of the most monstrous autocrats? Why does he, similarly, in the comparatively microscopic realm of individual relations and ideological discourse, denounce the ideology that advocates liberty and accomplishment most, while pandering to the ones riddled with fallacies and the inevitable disastrous consequences thereof? There can be no rational justification for this; it is rather a fault of post-modern revisionism and its essential antecedent, nihilism, the hatred of the good for being the good. Rothbard, unlike the leftist party-liners, is not a thorough, across-the-board nihilist, but rather a man of mixed premises, a character who is willing to place rubbish on equal terms with brilliance in his intellectual arsenal. When reading his works, and especially “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult,” one must take care to separate the gold from the blinding dust.
The “Gold” of Rothbard’s Analysis
Thus far, the conclusions drawn by this commentary have been overwhelmingly negative, and deservedly so. The very notion of an Objectivist movement becoming a cult, especially in the lifetime of the founder, defies reason. However, this is not to say that Rand and her followers had not, and frequently in a too rash a manner, propagated certain fallacies. Rothbard does accurately depict some of the minor defects and foibles in early Randian ideology, which should serve as a caution to individuals truly consistent with the essentials of Rand’s philosophy never to take any matter on faith, no matter how credible a source it emanates from, but to always accept only the conclusions validated within one’s own mind. For, while Rand was closer to ideological perfection than any before her, she did not reach it, and did occasionally thrust some of her imperfections upon her associates.
Most glaringly evident is the Randian circle’s perception of smoking as a near-duty. Rothbard writes, “In my own experience, a top Randian once asked me rather sharply, ‘How is it that you don’t smoke?’ When I replied that I had discovered early that I was allergic to smoke, the Randian was mollified: ‘Oh, that’s OK, then.’ The official justification for making smoking a moral obligation was a sentence in Atlas where the heroine refers to a lit cigarette as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas.” Today, the gruesome and devastating health hazards posed by tobacco smoke are well known, and any rational man, who upholds his life as the supreme value, will abstain from it as he would from a supreme detriment thereto. However, the early Randian movement (1958-1968) was oblivious, as was the general public, to these consequences. It was as late as the mid-1990s that tobacco company executives swore under oath (and were believed) that nicotine was not addictive. Therefore, we can only attribute an error of knowledge to the Randians (which is pardonable). As for representing the fire within one’s mind, Rothbard himself agrees that there are other means to do so. “One would think that simply holding up a lit match could do just as readily for this symbolic function.” When selecting a symbol for one’s values, it is essential that the symbol represent only them and not possess harmful side effects besides, although if the symbolic act is in itself of physical benefit, then it is even more preferable. (For example, jogging can be employed as representative of the systematic productivity of the individual, dependent only on his own exertion and determination.) When Objectivists of today consider the philosophical and practical ramifications of their undertakings, they should learn from history and ensure that these are concordant.
When encountering a person of a rationality, intellectuality, and discipline beyond all but a few of her time, it is all too easy to assume that she is infallible, and that every minute aspect of her character is just as absolute as the essentials of her thought. This, to a degree, was a mistake made by Rand’s early associates, and, in Rothbard’s view, tacitly allowed by Rand. “One suspects that the actual reason, as in so many other parts of Randian theory, from Rachmaninoff to Victor Hugo to tap dancing, was that Rand simply… had the need to cast about for a philosophical system that would make her personal whims not only moral but also a moral obligation incumbent upon everyone who desires to be rational.” In this statement, gold and rubbish exist side by side. Being an admirer of the literary works of Victor Hugo and the music of Rachmaninoff, as well as recognizing the intricacy and immense physical skill inherent in tap dancing, I would not dub adherence thereto “a personal whim.” Numerous objective qualities can be traced that would render Victor Hugo superior to Gertrude Stein and Rachmaninoff worlds above Stravinsky. But when one is criticized for preferring Bach to Rachmaninoff, this is analogous to denouncing someone as irrational because he enjoys trigonometry to a greater extent than statistical analysis. Bach and Rachmaninoff both composed intricate, complex, inspiring, rhythmical, harmonious works, and both should, absolutely, be held in high esteem. But just as the individual’s peculiar talents and experiences incline him toward a particular mathematical discipline, so do they implore him to select a favorite composer amongst the greats.
But, it should be clarified that, contrary to Rothbard’s portrayal of her in his criticism as well as in the satirical play, “Mozart was a Red,” Rand did not dislike the classical composers; she merely preferred those of the Romantic period to a greater extent. In The Romantic Manifesto, a book particularly devoted to aesthetics, Rand does not direct a single disparaging remark toward Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, nor does she in any other works. She writes of all high Western music, “the modern diatonic scale used in Western civilization is a product of the Renaissance. It was developed over a period of time by a succession of musical innovators.” Note that Rand does not limit her approbation to the Romantic period itself, but rather to all music derived from the Renaissance onward, with the Romantic period as its culmination. (Afterward, the diatonic scale was abandoned in favor of grotesque perversions of harmony.) Hence, the peculiar incidents that may have infrequently occurred amongst the members of Rand’s circle, as well as Rothbard’s grossly over-exaggerated depiction of Rand’s aesthetic rigidity, do not in any manner reflect on Rand’s theoretical accomplishments or the philosophy of Objectivism per se.
There is another concern that Rothbard voices in regard to allowance for nuances of language in the Randian circles. “Another [means] was to insure that every spoken and written word of the Randian member was not only correct in content but also in form, for any slight nuance or difference in wording could and would be attacked for deviating from the Randian position. Thus, just as the Marxist movements developed jargon and slogans which were clung to for fear of uttering incorrect deviations, the same was true in the Randian movement. In the name of ‘precision of language,’ in short, nuance and even synonyms were in effect prohibited.” Rand was a staunch adherent of precise definitions as a defense against arbitrariness and package-dealing. This is indeed a proper stance. Before advanced philosophical concepts can be discussed to any satisfactory or productive extent, the parties must agree upon terms used. Otherwise, a hodge-podge of misinterpretations (especially of malice where none exists) can occur. However, to advocate precision and to discourage variety are not the same course of action. Various contexts require the use of similar, but not quite the same, vocabulary (one can call grass verdant, but a Mountain Dew can would be more concordant with the description, “lime” or “neon-green”). And perfect synonyms—say, selfishness and egoism—are never at a detriment to precision. Quite to the contrary, they enrich the form of language by constantly keeping the reader tied to every word and avoiding the perception by the reader of repetition, except where repetition is intended for reinforcing effect (such as here). Except in these cases, it is not generally proper within scholarly writing or discourse to encounter the same noun, verb, or adjective twice in the space of several sentences. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that a particular nuance may possess precisely that key toward further exploration of a concept that a similar, originally employed word did not contain.
Even a false assertion, such as the one concerning the totalitarian nature of the “Ayn Rand cult” is often imbued with tidbits of truth. One of the greatest stains on the image of Rand, and one of the most formidable weapons employed against her by the critics of Objectivism, is the notorious split between Rand and her primary intellectual protégé, Nathaniel Branden, in 1968. The split resulted from a horrific jumble of personal love affairs, deceptions, equivocations, secretiveness, and outright slander from all parties. A brief timeline is available from the Objectivism Reference Center at http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/bio/brandens.html. The factors behind the split were personal squabbles, but to the fully unexposed circle of Rand’s associates, they were conveyed as immense ideological differences and accusations aimed to defame the moral integrity of Branden.
Rothbard describes his own version, “In a development eerily reminiscent of the organized hatred directed against the arch-heretic Emanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984, Rand cultists were required to sign a loyalty oath to Rand; essential to the loyalty oath was a declaration that the signer would henceforth never read any future works of the apostate and arch-heretic Branden. After the split, any Rand cultist seen carrying a book or writing by Branden was promptly excommunicated. Close relatives of Branden were expected to – and did – break with him completely. Interestingly enough for a movement which proclaimed its devotion to the individual exertion of reason, to curiosity, and to the question ‘Why?’ cultists were required to swear their unquestioning belief that Rand was right and Branden wrong, even though they were not permitted to learn the facts behind the split. In fact, the mere failure to take a stand, the mere attempt to find the facts, or the statement that one could not take a stand on such a grave matter without knowledge of the facts was sufficient for instant expulsion. For such an attitude was conclusive proof of the defective ‘loyalty’ of the disciple to his guru, Ayn Rand.” Ignoring Rothbard’s infantile and abusive name-calling and comparisons, it is doubtless true that the ideals of independent individual judgment based on the facts and evidence of any given matter (or the acceptance after close scrutiny of reasoning presented by another) have indeed been breached by this incident. Rand’s response to Branden was horrid; one of the most innovative and commercially dynamic members of the Objectivist movement was accused of financial parasitism and lack of productivity. His genuine offense had been to write a letter explaining that their vast difference of ages would prevent the continuation of their affair (as well as to initiate another affair in the meantime). While dishonesty in any realm is counter-Objectivist, reciprocal dishonesty is by no means the solution. Nor do evasions in a realm so private as love ever discredit the scholarly, public merit of a philosopher. While Rand’s behavior had been by no means commendable, it was understandable at least. Emotionally, she almost undoubtedly encountered extreme betrayal from someone whose truthfulness and confidence she thought herself most capable of enjoying. Her anger was justified; her response was not. A personal alienation may have been proper, but not a threat against non-involved associates, false defamation, and any aggressive response in the realm of ideas.
Rand was less than perfect, both in her actions and in some of her non-fundamental preachings. Additionally, her personal life was more turbulent than most. This, to a rational reader, is what Rothbard’s commentary reveals. But this does not imply that, in Rothbard’s vitriolic manner, we must reject the promethean philosophical leaps that Rand’s mind had accomplished. Nor does it imply that, in the regular dynamics of her circles, any cult-like authoritarianism existed. Passion for ideas, their ardent advocacy, and the entwinement of feeling with logic were characteristics of the early Randian movement that only a dichotomy-mired mind can misinterpret for the breeding of passive zombie troops. Applying Rand’s philosophy with full consistency, as well as discovering new concepts and applications by derivation and observation, will render us more perfect human beings in practice, perhaps exceeding even the charismatic general moral purity of Objectivism’s founder.
As for Rothbard himself, his legacy shall remain one of mixed premises, a paradoxical coexistence between forthright laissez-faire advocacy alongside a grim mysticism and totalitarianism. and it is doubtless that much of his work is a valid supplement and extension of Objectivism. However, a scholarly effort should be directed toward determining precisely which ideas these are. The length of this commentary has approached that of its subject, but many more claims and examples within that very document remain to be analyzed. Be prepared for a quagmire of non sequiturs and faulty premises, but also scout the same sentences which contain them for grains of truth and insight from what cannot be but another highly proficient mind.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right and SoloHQ, writer for Objective Medicine, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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