THE HEIRS OF AYN RAND
HAS OBJECTIVISM GONE SUBJECTIVE?
BY SCOTT MCLEMEE

OVER THE LAST HALF CENTURY, SCATTERED bands of American students have undergone a soul-wrenching rite of passage--typically conducted at a vast distance from family and school in an isolated clearing far above the familiar world. For there is something mountain-like about the work of Ayn Rand. And not only in the mundane sense that, say, The Fountainhead(1943) is a very sizable volume‹though dwarfed by Atlas Shrugged(1957), which fills almost eleven hundred closely printed pages. They are the first novels of ideas many people ever encounter (and often enough, the last).

To admirers, the Olympian dimensions of Ayn Rand¹s vision are manifest in even the briefest essays collected in The Virtue of Selfishness(1964) or Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal(1966). As an advocate of personal freedom and the untrammeled profit motive, Rand argues with a passion that can only be called tempestuous. (The same word describes the love lives of her characters.) Yet in pursuing the full implications of laissez-faire, Rand also climbs to the iciest summits of abstraction. Her action-adventure plots culminate in heroic speeches about the ethical, epistemological, and aesthetic necessity of free-market capitalism. And from this height, you see the whole world anew.

So generations of readers have reported‹including such figures as the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, the novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Canadian bombast-rock group Rush. (The album 2112 was inspired by her philosophy.) Rand died in 1982, but her spirit lingers in Silicon Valley, with its anarcho-entrepreneurialism. At least one dozen Playboy centerfold models have named The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged as their favorite book. And Camille Paglia has proclaimed Rand an intellectual prototype of her own bad self--than which no higher praise can be imagined, from that source.

Strong anecdotal evidence indicates that an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand usually begins in high school or the early years of college. But it is an intellectual adventure students have undertaken on their own, a discovery all the more potent for being private and extracurricular. Moreover, Rand's work is fiercely antiacademic. She did not think much of professors of literature or philosophy. And they have returned the favor.

At least, until recently. No doubt, most of her novels are still devoured on the reader's own time; but young people are increasingly likely to encounter Rand's books in the classroom. Excerpts from her work can be found in Joel Feinberg's popular philosophy textbook Reason and Responsibility, now in its tenth edition. More than twenty years ago, a paper in the journal College English suggested that Rand belonged in the women's studies canon. It was a daring notion at the time--indeed, a provocation, given that the influential feminist writer Susan Brownmiller had recently denounced Rand as "a traitor to her own sex." Yet last February, a collection of feminist papers on Rand--some admiring, others most emphatically not--appeared in a Penn State university press series alongside titles on Plato, Hegel, and Hannah Arendt. Her advancement within American literary studies is less pronounced. But her novels all remain in print and sell about a hundred thousand copies each per year, which scholars interested in popular culture cannot help noticing.

Meanwhile, adherents of Objectivism (as Rand called her worldview) have an active interest group within the American Philosophical Association. Another enterprise, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), has announced that its "important function" is "to move Objectivism into today's universities." So far, ARI has spent more than $5 million on educational programs advancing Objectivism. That includes approximately $250,000 in scholarships to high school students who win a contest for essays on Rand's novels. ARI- sanctioned and supported Objectivist clubs exist on about a hundred university campuses around the world. And a network of think tanks and journals makes it possible for academics interested in Objectivism to find co-thinkers--and funding.

But the progress of Randian scholarship has by no means been a straight line of ascent. The Old Guard who knew Rand looks with unconcealed horror at the new scholarship exploring the genesis and structure of objectivist theory. Nor would the grande dame herself have been pleased by all this academic attention: She once threatened to sue a professor for writing a critical study of her work.

And yet Rand's very status as an intellectual outsider has won her work admission into the countercultural canon. The news will not have reached undergraduates, still giddy at seeing the world from the heights of Atlas Shrugged. But Ayn Rand--already a perennial, even a classic, of American popular culture--has entered the academic marketplace, big time.

MANY OF RAND'S FORMER ASSOCIATES LOOK WITH HORROR AT THE NEW SCHOLARSHIP ON OBJECTIVIST THEORY.

ANY PORTRAIT of the author will suggest it, and film clips of her speaking drive the point home: Ayn Rand possessed not just an interpretation of the world but the charisma of a visionary--someone for whom even the most abstract ideas were visceral realities. She had complex eyes. They look black, yet her gaze is invariably likened to a laser beam. The trace of a Russian accent was not subtle, but the most evident thing about her voice was its precision, born of an absolute seriousness that precluded any sense of humor. Young admirers gathered in Rand's salon, where they emulated her use of the cigarette holder and the categorical denunciation. No other figure in American culture so closely resembles a Dostoyevsky character.

Born in St. Petersburg, Alissa Rosenbaum was twelve during the fateful events of 1917. The Communist expropriation of her father's pharmacy was perhaps the decisive experience of her adolescence. Fascinated by American silent movies--a staple of early Soviet culture--she studied filmmaking at the State Institute for Cinematography, where she was among the last students of bourgeois origin admitted. Emigrating to the United States in 1926, she changed her name and found her way to Hollywood, where she met her husband-to-be, Frank O'Connor, while both were working as extras. (The marriage lasted until O'Connor's death in 1979.) Her English improved while she was writing treatments and scripts for Cecil B. DeMille. In 1936 she published her first novel, We the Living--a tale of romantic love and anti-Communist heroism set in postrevolutionary Russia. The timing was awful: American intellectuals were at the peak of their fascination with "the Soviet experiment," for all its little flaws.

Far more successful was The Fountainhead, which became a best-seller two years after its publication, largely on word of mouth about some riveting pages in which the beautiful Dominique is ravished by a handsome stranger. The stranger turns out to be Howard Roark, an uncompromisingly brilliant architect modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright. Roark later dynamites a public housing project rather than see his design ruined. In a climactic (and lengthy) courtroom statement, he proclaims: "I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine.... I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and take no part in a slave society." The novel's villain is the improbably named Ellsworth M. Toohey, who embodies the soul-destroying collectivist doctrine of self-sacrifice, though his day job is architecture critic for a newspaper. All major characters are prone to sustained philosophical reflection, articulating their positions either as creative heroes or as "second-handers" devoted to corrupting what they cannot destroy.

One aficionado of The Fountainhead was Clark Gable, who was infuriated that his studio failed to secure rights to the novel. (Gary Cooper played Roark in the 1949 screen adaptation--a camp masterpiece.) Far more important in the long run was the enthusiasm of two young students from Canada, Nathan Blumenthal and Barbara Weidman, who read the novel dozens of times before meeting the author in 1950. The relationship between the author and her two admirers became a close one. Rand followed Nathan and Barbara to New York City, where Nathan finished his undergraduate studies at NYU while Barbara did graduate work in philosophy at the same school. In 1953 Nathan and Barbara married; the following year they renamed themselves Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Their friends and relations joined them in a circle known as the class of '43: intellectuals in their twenties intoxicated by The Fountainhead's robust egotism. One was an NYU art history student (and later art historian), Mary Ann Sures. Another was Leonard Peikoff, who, like his cousin Barbara Branden, studied at NYU with Sidney Hook, the anti-Communist liberal philosopher best known for his work on Marx and Dewey. And Rand's arguments for the free market eventually won over the young Alan Greenspan--whose nickname in the group was the Undertaker.

Rand presided over the meetings with oracular eminence. Members of the Collective (as they jokingly called their individualists' salon) were allowed to read the manuscript of her third and most ambitious novel, Atlas Shrugged. In a story with distinct science-fiction overtones, Rand created a future in which the last traces of capitalism in America (and the world) are being destroyed by creeping socialism. Railroad tycoon and stunning beauty Dagny Taggart sets out to learn why all the most brilliant inventors are vanishing. She discovers that John Galt--an industrialist of genius and great virility--has organized a strike of the world's creative minds. They have retired to a valley called Galt's Gulch as the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket. In The Ayn Rand Cult(Open Court, 1999), Jeff Walker reports that Greenspan perused the book with cautious ecstasy. "On reading this," Greenspan told the novelist, "one tends to feel...exhilarated."

By 1955, Rand was at work on a sixty-page speech in which John Galt explained, on the radio, why he had organized the strike. Into this oration Rand poured decades of notebook speculations about capitalism, communism, history, art, sex, epistemology, and heroism. Meanwhile, she was also beginning a love affair with Nathaniel Branden, who was twenty-five years her junior though obviously wise beyond his years. Their affair was kept secret from the Collective but not from their spouses, who were expected to realize that the passion of Ayn and Nathaniel was rational and undeniable, like that of Rand's heroes and heroines. Barbara went along glumly. Frank was also compliant and went to a nearby bar to begin drinking himself into decline.

The novel appeared in 1957--its dedication page bearing the names of both Rand's husband and her lover. The Soviet spy turned Catholic neoconservative Whittaker Chambers reviewed it for William F. Buckley's National Review. He complained that Rand's anti-Communism barely concealed yearnings of a technocratic and indeed totalitarian nature. "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged," Chambers wrote, "a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ŒTo a gas chamber--go!'" Other comments were not much friendlier: Russell Kirk, the conservative philosopher, groused that people read her novels "for the fornicating bits." Rand fell into a severe depression--exhausted after fourteen years' work on Atlas Shrugged and convinced that the culture was so hopeless that no one could appreciate her accomplishment. Not even the Collective's adulation lifted her spirits.

In 1958, Nathaniel Branden offered to present the quintessence of Rand's vision--the philosophy embodied in her novels--in a course of twenty public lectures titled "Basic Principles of Objectivism." Rand was not enthusiastic about the idea but gave the project her blessing anyway. It was an unqualified success. Other members of the class of '43 began to speak all over the country on how Rand's philosophy applied to psychology, art history, and economics. Only those so designated by Rand were allowed to call themselves Objectivists. But students of Objectivism around the country rented tapes from the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City and studied the philosophical essays Rand began publishing as she emerged from her doldrums.

By the early 1960s, there were Rand clubs on many college campuses--often to the consternation of philosophy and literature professors who had never read her work. Rand offered a critique of American liberalism that was sometimes shrill--she compared the New Frontier to fascism--yet by no means conservative. She despised all religion, and tradition's chains did not bind her heroines, who had sex because they wanted to. She called herself "a radical for capitalism." She offered Objectivism as the first real philosophy of freedom and reason since the days of Aristotle.

It was certainly systematic. Rand began with a simple definition of value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." By this definition, the basic value for any living organism is survival. What distinguishes human beings is that, in their pursuit of survival, they bring unique capacities to bear: the powers to reason, to learn, and to engage in productive activity--all of which greatly enhance the human being's ability to flourish in a generally indifferent universe.

There is a hitch, though. Reasoning and creative effort are difficult. They demand that individuals pay attention to reality, uncover its physical principles, and commit themselves to the rigorous work of conquering nature. Such acts are subject to volition: Human beings have the ability not just to change the world but to ignore it, to daydream about it, and to expect something for nothing. Unfortunately, people who try to evade reality in these ways do not just die off from sheer stupidity. Through force and fraud, they devour the products of those who create and manufacture.

And so the productive use of one's rational and creative potential is itself a value. Like survival, it has an objective existence in the world, and it is something human beings must act to gain and/or keep. Those who take responsibility for their own lives--through a sustained and conscious commitment to developing their abilities to learn and to produce--are in effect the only real human beings. Free trade is the natural expression of mutual respect among productive individuals. The only valid role of the state is to prevent violence, especially that of (in Rand's terms) "parasites" and "looters" against the inventors and producers. Alas, the state has always been a major instrument of the reality evaders. So has religion.

RAND'S ADMIRERS HAVE INCLUDED ALAN GREENSPAN, NORA EPHRON, HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, AND MEMBERS OF THE ROCK BAND RUSH.

Rand finds that the history of all societies has been a struggle between the devouring and the prolific. The implications of this conflict register in all spheres of culture. Creative and self-respecting souls would find in Objectivism a comprehensive explanation of how honorable and necessary their own existence was. And the reader who thrilled to the defiant speeches of Howard Roark and John Galt naturally felt himself a member of that elect.

At an Objectivist lecture in the 1960s, someone asked if such heroes as Rand portrayed could exist in the real world. Yes, she replied, there were two in the room at that moment: She indicated Nathaniel Branden and herself. She had identified Branden as her "intellectual heir," authorized to speak on her behalf regarding all matters. By 1967, the Nathaniel Branden Institute was installed in the Empire State Building, where it occupied eight thousand square feet and had a long lease. And then, in the summer of 1968--at a moment in American history when radicalism, individualism, and cultural critique were undergoing many strange permutations--it all imploded.

In August, after a lengthy hiatus in their sexual relationship, Rand learned that Nathaniel had fallen in love with an Objectivist student (who later became an actress). Rand heard the news from Barbara, whose own relationship with Nathaniel, always shaky, had finally come undone. At a meeting in New York City five days later, Nathaniel announced that he had committed an unspecified but enormous transgression against Objectivism. The intellectual heir resigned his position and moved to Los Angeles, where he began a tremendously successful practice as a psychotherapist and eventually got a Ph.D.

That same summer, the Nathaniel Branden Institute shut down, leaving students of Objectivism around the country dazed and confused. Nor were they much enlightened when, after some delay, the October issue of The Objectivist ran an open letter in which Rand charged the movement's former No. 2 with "a tendency toward non-intellectual concerns." The last straw, Rand said, came when Branden gave her "a written statement which was so irrational and offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him."

It was all terribly vague. But in her letter, Rand dropped broad hints at financial irregularities--stopping just short of insinuating embezzlement. After getting legal advice, the Brandens published their own replies. In his final statement, the former intellectual heir revealed "that which I infinitely would have preferred to leave unnamed, out of respect for her privacy": namely, that his final offense had been a letter begging her to understand that "an age distance between us of twenty-five years constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship."

Following the traumatic developments of 1968, Rand continued occasionally to lecture and appear on TV. But she became more reclusive, working (and often fighting) with a handful of associates while producing an endless stream of unpublished speculations about the deranged "psycho-epistemology" of her former protégé. The treason of Nathaniel Branden became an (almost literally) unspeakable mystery of the Objectivist movement, which had by then become a full-fledged subculture whose members socialized and did business together, shared tastes and customs, and turned to Objectivist counseling to resolve their personal conflicts. A revealing (and deeply unappealing) sketch of this counterculture appears in Ellen Pasil's memoir Therapist(1985), which recounts how her Objectivist shrink insisted that they have sex, lest she be guilty of "evasion."

Though Rand intended to compose a new novel--as well as a systematic statement of her philosophy--she never published another sustained work. The books appearing throughout the last fifteen years of her life were collections of essays. (The New American Library's paperback editions gave these books an enormous readership, but Rand's work usually first appeared in journals sponsored by her co-thinkers.) True, one somewhat influential title of the late 1960s might credibly be called Rand's work: The Psychology of Self-Esteem(1969) was Objectivist down to the commas. Rand considered it her brainchild. But, alas, it bore the signature of Nathaniel Branden, was published following their break, and so could only be called a bastard.

WHEN RAND DIED in early 1982, her work had enthusiasts in the White House, where deregulation and supply-side economics were predicated on the virtue of selfishness. The porcupine-like Rand had denounced both Ronald Reagan (for his antiabortion statements) and the Libertarian Party. Yet the Objectivist overtones of the moment were unmistakable. Jerome Tuccille's lively history of antistatist radicalism during the 1960s and early 1970s had been titled It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand(1972). Rand had admirers at small think tanks of free-marketeers, such as the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. Her portrait hangs in the Washington, D.C., offices of the Cato Institute. And on campuses, arguments against draft registration came from not just Marxist and pacifist groups but the Students for a Libertarian Society, whose members might or might not have read Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises but certainly knew economic theory à la Atlas Shrugged.

It only stood to reason that the 1980s would be the era when Objectivist intellectuals emerged from Galt's Gulch and initiated the golden age of Rand studies. Yet this never happened. And that it did not is a puzzle of intellectual history that takes us into the very heart of Rand's worldview--where contradictions abound, and A does not always equal A.

For one thing, Rand was deeply ambivalent about academia. She craved serious attention; The postpartum depression following Atlas Shrugged was compounded by a sense of neglect by intellectuals. Yet the prospect of having her work scrutinized and debated was even more unbearable.

"I AM NOT LOOKING FOR INTELLIGENT DISAGREEMENT ANY LONGER," RAND SAID. "I AM LOOKING FOR INTELLIGENT AGREEMENT."

The best testimony on this score comes from the philosopher John Hospers, now retired from the University of Southern California, whose textbooks Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics and Introduction to Philosophical Analysis are now in their third and fourth editions, respectively. In 1960 Hospers met Rand after she gave a lecture at Brooklyn College, where he was teaching. They had lunch together, and the conversation ran for six hours. "The intellectual excitement of that afternoon," he recalled decades later, "remains a high spot in my life.... Her ideas did not fit into any of the usual philosophical categories--so I had to discover more." Their marathon dialogues ran intermittently for years, with Hospers even challenging Rand on epistemology--a risky move given the fury with which she attended the subject. He encouraged her to submit a paper to a professional journal and answer other philosophers' comments. But she never did. Eventually she told Hospers: "I am not looking for intelligent disagreement any longer.... What I am looking for is intelligent agreement." (Although the friendship did not survive the mid-1960s, the encounter was decisive for Hospers: In 1972, he ran as the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party.)

Rand's feelings about academia did not mellow with age, as Mimi Reisel Gladstein of the University of Texas at El Paso learned while working on a critical study, The Ayn Rand Companion. Toward the end of Rand's life, Gladstein wrote to her, informing Rand of the project. Rand warned that, if the study appeared, she would sue. When Douglas J. Den Uyl of Bellarmine College and Douglas Rasmussen of St. John's University were putting together a collection titled The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, they faced similar discouragement from the author. (Both volumes finally appeared in 1984, unlitigated.)

But this legacy--Rand's desire to be taken seriously by philosophers and critics coupled with her active resistance--was perhaps the least of the problems Objectivist intellectuals would face after her death. At the core of her work was a knot no one could untie. Rand had not simply developed a philosophy affirming the moral necessity and inviolability of private property. Objectivism itself was a piece of property, and her concepts were not available for unlicensed use. "If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others," she warned readers, "do not call yourself an Objectivist; give proper authorship for the parts you agree with--and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own." An unauthorized interpretation of an Objectivist concept was, ipso facto, a violation of her proprietary interest.

Rand had indicated that Objectivist theory would require extensive development. But although she had designated Leonard Peikoff her intellectual heir to manage the conceptual structure, he was not someone to strike out in bold new directions. As a student, he had shown a distressing tendency to fall under the influence of non-Objectivist thinkers, to the irritation of everyone in the Collective. His many errors were rectified thanks to extensive discussions with Rand. Peikoff has indicated that these were vastly more stimulating and profound than any seminars he took before getting his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. Although he has taught philosophy at various schools (including Hunter College and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn), he willingly subordinated his academic career to the task of keeping Objectivism pure and integral.

With Rand, the hermeneutic circle quickly turned vicious. To do more than paraphrase the existing (and closed) canon of her writings put Objectivist thinkers in a double bind: They would be advocating Rand's philosophy of private ownership while, in effect, expropriating the philosophy from its rightful owner. Furthermore, Rand had clearly indicated the proper influences to be acknowledged in discussing her work (including Aristotle and Victor Hugo). So it would be folly, at best, to suggest any comparison with, say, Nietzsche or Herbert Spencer.

Little surprise, then, that the most important developments in Rand studies during much of the 1980s were posthumous collections of her writings and the authorized Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism From A to Z(1986).

But then a bomb landed. Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand(1986) was the first in-depth account of the author's life, by someone in a position to report many events from behind the scenes. The book made the national best-seller lists. For all the startling revelations--about Rand's testiness, her decades-long use of diet pills, and the unusual ménage within the Collective--it was a deeply affectionate portrait. Then Nathaniel Branden weighed in with his own memoir, Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand(1989), which differed from his ex-wife's account in details but not in its melancholy estimation of Rand's genius and her all-too-human problems. To the Brandens, very large claims for Rand's world-historical importance still seemed appropriate.

Peikoff pronounced these books "corrupt." Hence, he declared, he would not read them, and no genuine Objectivists should.

They did anyway. The sudden opening permitted Rand's admirers to glimpse the secret history of their movement's beginnings--and at last to understand the break (as the events of August 1968 were still called). And this bit of glasnost was shortly followed by perestroika of a kind that may leave monolithic Objectivism in the dustheap of history.

The restructuring came from the top--with David Kelley, a popular lecturer on Rand's ideas whose technical work on her epistemology made him arguably the most substantial Objectivist philosopher. Kelley has taught philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. And unlike Peikoff, the designated heir, his publications include articles in major professional journals, such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Some have seen the revisionism that Kelley introduced in the late 1980s as a dangerous capitulation to academic norms. A non-Objectivist may well have to concede the point.

What Kelley did was challenge a core idea regulating how Objectivists interact with those who reject Rand's system: the doctrine of sanction. Given that values are not matters of subjective opinion but features of the world, the belief in a false value is tantamount to a denial of reality--and anyone who upholds a false value is morally responsible for the consequences of his or her thoughts. A Randian intellectual thus faces extremely limited options in dealing with people who espouse a mistaken or pernicious view. If unfamiliar with Objectivist principles, they may yet be brought to reason. This is worth pursuing if the person is young and has not yet thought through Rand's ideas. But an adult who advocates, say, progressive taxation is in the grip of a malign psycho-epistemology that is probably irreversible--though this same person may well share the Objectivist stance on other issues, like abortion. To join with such people in political activity is unacceptable. That would implicitly sanction with them bad ideas. But so would any sustained dialogue, beyond the point at which it was clear they rejected Objectivism (and hence were morally culpable for all consequences of their reality evasion).

In 1989, Kelley authored a critique of the sanction idea, suggesting that it was necessary to recognize a distinction between ideas (which are true or false) and actions (which are good or evil). This had stunning implications. A Marxist professor was not necessarily the moral equivalent of, say, Pol Pot--though at some level each was opposed to capitalism. Kelley even suggested (as a kind of thought experiment) that Objectivists might benefit from discussion and debate with, for example, that Marxist professor. There was a chance they could even learn something from each other.

This, finally, was a bridge too far. In an essay titled "Fact and Value," Peikoff read Kelley out of the movement for unprincipled toleration-mongering. Kelley had even written that Rand's philosophy, however grand, "is not a closed system." To this Peikoff answered, "Yes, it is.... Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system--its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch--is laid down once and for all by the philosophy's author." So there.

The Ayn Rand Institute warned college groups not to invite Kelley to speak. He was shunned. In 1990, he launched the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) in Poughkeepsie, New York; it rapidly emerged as a pole of attraction for disaffected Randians, of whom there were many (and more on the way, since 1994 brought a fresh purge of deviationists). The IOS magazine, Full Context, began to publish a series of extensive interviews with academics and intellectuals involved with Rand--amounting to something like an oral history of the movement. The institute's program of seminars, conferences, and scholarly publications in some ways replicated the quasi-academic tone of the early Objectivist movement, but without appeals to the final authority of the author herself.

ONE FAN OF "THE FOUNTAINHEAD" WAS CLARK GABLE, WHO WAS INFURIATED THAT HIS STUDIO FAILED TO SECURE RIGHTS TO THE NOVEL.

IT IS AN AXIOM of free-market thought that competition is a good thing. And perhaps the emergence of a separate cluster of Randian intellectuals around Kelley (a group sometimes called neo-Objectivists) finally spurred Peikoff to finish a project he had been working on for a couple of decades. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand(1991) was a comprehensive and systematic treatment of the body of ideas scattered throughout her essays. Nine hundred copies were sent out to the heads of philosophy departments around the country. "To be objective," the author noted in the preface, "I identify the status of my work as follows: this book is the definitive statement of Ayn Rand's philosophy--as interpreted by her best student and chosen heir."

The response of those nine hundred department heads to Peikoff's Summa Randologica was not what you would call electric. And yet, as the 1990s draw to a close, it is clear that this decade marked the emergence of a hitherto dormant scholarly engagement with Ayn Rand. The strongest signal of this--if not in fact its catalyst--may have been an interview with someone who had no history at all in the Objectivist movement: Camille Paglia.

In 1995, the author of Sexual Personae--then at the start of her career as the media's favorite politically incorrect feminist and academic gadfly--told the libertarian magazine Reason, "I never read Ayn Rand until people started comparing me to her.... And I was struck. I could see what the parallels are."

Looking into Rand's work with the rapt fascination she ordinarily reserves for Egyptian goddesses and TV studio monitors, Paglia thought, "Oh my God, that sounds like a passage from Sexual Personae." The affinity was scarcely one any reason-worshiping Randian would acknowledge: "She was influenced by many of the same works that I was. She was reading Romantic thinkers and Nietzsche and so on." However obvious it has been to generations of readers, the notion that Rand had been influenced by Nietzsche violated Objectivist protocols. (Her few authoritative statements identify the German philosopher as a whim-worshiping subjectivist.) But in preparing his monograph The Ideas of Ayn Rand(1991), Ronald Merrill had discovered a passage in We the Living that Rand had omitted when she reprinted the novel in 1959: In it, the heroine entertains (though finally rejects) sentiments explicitly attributed to Nietzche about the justice of sacrificing the weak for the strong.

An Objectivist reviewer conceded that Rand had been influenced by Nietzsche for a while but insisted that her first novel settled the account. With the publication of Journals of Ayn Rand in 1997, however, readers learned that she had considered using quotes from Thus Spake Zarathustra as epigraphs to the three major sections of The Fountainhead. If Rand's metaphysical ethics of the profit motive did ultimately derive from Aristotle--as the authorized interpretation had it--her capitalist Übermenschen turned out to have a different genealogy.

An even greater challenge to "proprietary" Objectivism came in 1995 from NYU visiting scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, who had discovered Rand's work as a teenager. As an undergraduate, he had taken classes with the Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman--an unlikely mentor for an activist in Students for a Libertarian Society. Stimulated by Ollman's work on Marx, Sciabarra was amazed to find that Ayn Rand, too, was a dialectician. So were other libertarian theorists! Articulating the methodological and substantive parallels between Marxian and free-market thought became an epic scholarly quest--one that Ollman encouraged by directing Sciabarra's dissertation, "Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the Works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx." That project continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical(Penn State, 1995), which set out a drastic reinterpretation of her intellectual development and the structure of her system. The book, now in its third printing, has sold more than 8,000 copies.

Sciabarra's work acknowledges the importance of free-market economic thought for Rand, as well as her sense of a deep continuity between Objectivism's philosophical anthropology and Aristotle's. But he insists that Russian culture was the strongest and most pervasive influence on her vision, especially the culture of the early twentieth century (extending into the first years of the Communist era) when avant-garde movements like symbolism and futurism joined Hegelian and Nietzschean philosophical currents to generate a cultural renaissance. Sciabarra was particularly intrigued by Rand's enthusiastic memories of having studied classical philosophy with N.O. Lossky--a titan of Russian thought who sought to overcome dualisms such as materialism/idealism and empiricism/rationalism through a grand system of markedly organicist and teleological bent.

Sciabarra claims that Objectivism likewise rejects the inherited dualisms--and synthesizes a new system transcending them. (One recalls John Hospers's first encounter with Rand: "Her ideas did not fit into any of the usual philosophical categories....") The evidence that Rand knew her professor's work in any depth is slim indeed. But a painstaking comparison of their systems is justified, Sciabarra thinks, insofar as Lossky's writings embody themes and ambitions common to Russian intellectuals of the time.

Placing Rand's work in this historical context also leads to some insights that are, to put it mildly, provocative. Rand's definition of art as "the technology of the soul" has a futurist ring to it. But to anyone familiar with Soviet history, it also brings to mind Stalin's pronouncement that the writer is the "engineer of the human soul." Sciabarra notes the parallel without flinching, and finds its source in the era's more grandiose ambitions for cultural and social transformation.

"THE RUSSIAN RADICAL" SET OFF A MINOR CRISIS IN THE OBJECTIVIST WORLD--THE THIRD SUCH IN LESS THAN A DECADE.

The Russian Radical set off what one observer called "a minor crisis" in the world of Objectivism--the third such in less than a decade. The orthodox Randian philosopher John Ridpath called it "a book that is preposterous in its thesis, destructive in its purpose, and tortuously numbing in its content." Other readers, finding Jürgen Habermas and Claude Lévi-Strauss cited, drew the interesting conclusion that Sciabarra was a deconstructionist. Unlike most scholarly monographs, the book rapidly got dozens of reviews and sparked a vast amount of e-mail debate. All of which Sciabarra followed--responding patiently and at length to questions about his method and conclusion.

Controversy over Sciabarra's next Rand project started even before it was published. There was something to provoke everyone in the very title of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand(1999), a collection of papers Sciabarra co-edited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein (whose earlier book Rand had tried to stop). As convention defying as her heroines were, and as inspiring a model as many young women found her as writer and intellectual, Rand was contemptuous of what she called "Women's Lib." A fervent advocate of abortion rights, she also argued against the idea of a woman becoming president. The women in her fiction are fiercely independent--and unapologetically sexual. Yet Rand also wrote that the nature of female desire was to seek worshipful domination by a heroic male. (Rand--as Garry Trudeau has said of George W. Bush--shows a deep commitment to having it both ways.)

The nineteen essays in Feminist Interpretations range from scholarly papers treating Rand on her own terms, as a major philosopher, to the most sarcastic of dismissals. One point of contention returns with particular frequency: how to read the implications of those episodes in which Rand's heroines submit to the value-creating Objectivist heroes. Some contributors call them "rape scenes." Others prefer the term "rough sex." In either case, there is the challenge of squaring the fiction's sadomasochist undercurrents with the emphasis on autonomy in her essays.

It would be difficult to find a better symbol of the state of Objectivist intellectual life today than the responses of the two Randian camps to Feminist Interpretations. Earlier this year, a leader of the Ayn Rand Institute issued a ringing denunciation of the book, following his study of the promotional materials on Sciabarra's web site. Meanwhile, Kelley's Institute for Objectivist Studies--which will be renamed the Objectivist Center this fall-- has responded more favorably. "I am eager to set up a discussion around it," says Kelley.

But the conflict of interpretations may yet spill out of the sectarian ghetto. Ever since the original "class of '43," Ayn Rand's admirers have organized one Lyceum after another to advance her thought. That has been only one aspect of her influence, though. Readers with no interest in the architectonics of Objectivism still devour Rand's books by the ton. When historians consider the postwar rise of libertarianism in America--both as political movement and as cultural trend--Rand will be a major figure in the chronicle.

And even someone who finds Atlas Shrugged as digestible as a big chunk of cardboard might well be fascinated by Rand herself: an author who created a system of ideas, in defiance of a world with very little use for a woman committed to defining her own motives.

Was Ayn Rand just a writer of pulp-fiction sensibilities with a knack for euphemizing greed in a spirit of self-help profundity? Or was she the last of the nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals--a novelist-sage who was able to address the problems of freedom and domination in terms that readers are likely to appreciate well into the next millennium (whether their teachers want them to or not)?

If value and judgment are grounded in objectivity, it should be possible to reach some definitive conclusion. But at the risk of metaphysical evasion, the answer may be: both.


Scott McLemee is a contributing writer for LF. His article, "Under the Influence: The Long Shadow of Emanuel Swedenborg" appeared in the May/June 1998 issue.

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