Holiday Reprise - Symposium 1: A Woman for All Seasons

James S. Valliant's picture
Submitted by James S. Valliant on Mon, 2010-01-18 22:08

Since her death in 1982, Ayn Rand’s ideas have enjoyed nothing short of a Renaissance. Serious analyses of her philosophical insights and system of thought have now appeared in numerous academic journals, a growing list of important books, and conferences of university professors.

Then, of course, there are the double-take-worthy sales figures for Rand’s own books. Half a century after its original publication, a quarter century after its author’s death, Atlas Shrugged is selling faster than ever—and is being invoked by a new generation of activists.

However, as Jennifer Burns accurately notes in her new biography of Rand, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, the life of this unique figure has not enjoyed similar attention. Apart from Jeff Britting’s short work, Ayn Rand, previous biographies were written by those who had fallen out with Rand, and are subject to distortion through the biases one must expect from such witnesses. The need for a more accurate picture of Rand, an individual considerably more interesting than either a goddess or a monster, is urgently needed. As Burns observes:

"Work in Rand's personal papers has enabled me to sift through the many biased and contradictory accounts of her life and create a more balanced picture of Rand as a thinker and human being." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 4)

Since this was the conclusion of my own analysis of these biographies and Rand’s papers, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, I am obviously in gratified agreement with Burns on this point: previous biographies were indeed, “biased and contradictory.”

Rand's "critics," Burns also writes, "were often unfairly harsh and personal in their attacks." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 5)

Again, Burns has stated an important truth that is often missed: Rand, especially during her lifetime, was the victim of ad hominem arguments—often hysterical ones—which have helped to shroud her life in mythology.

Burns’s research should also be appreciated for bringing to light a number of previously unpublished details of Ayn Rand’s life. For example, Rand’s crush on actor Hans Gudegast, in her seventies, reveals that she never stopped longing and looking for the sight, at least, of her Ideal Man. (I had previously heard the story of her effort to acquire a clean-shaven photograph of the actor only from Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s heir.) More than this, Burns can display a sensitivity to Rand’s personal context that is sorely missing from previous efforts.

Goddess of the MarketGoddess of the MarketMost importantly, however, Goddess provides—for the first time in detail—an account of Rand’s relationship to what has been called the “right wing intellectual movement of the 20th Century.” Before The National Review, before Human Events, a small group of writers was emerging after World War II that was critical of the New Deal and which urged a strong opposition to Soviet Communism. Ayn Rand was one of these writers, and she personally knew many of the rest. To a largely unacknowledged degree, Rand exerted significant, if limited influence on this nascent movement, both in Hollywood and on journalists and other writers such as John Chamberlain.

By the 1930s, free market liberalism was scarcely to be found among American writers and, for a time, could only be seen in the self-imposed exile of Albert J. Nock or the against-the-grain iconoclasm of H. L. Mencken. Communism and socialism were then the standard text among intellectuals, if not the American public. In the 1940s, with the work of three women, Rand, Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, the American concept of liberty was to find passionate new champions. Future Nobel Prize-winning F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom would shortly follow. And from this point forward, although still a diverse minority, a new era for intellectuals on the right had commenced.

By the 1960s, William F. Buckley had mostly succeeded in equating the American Right with religious conservatism, however, and, as Burns observes, one of his principal tools for doing this was through his magazine The National Review’s infamous smearing of Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Still, the 1964 Barry Goldwater Presidential campaign bore traces of Rand’s influence, an influence privately acknowledged by Senator Goldwater himself.

In that decade as beatniks devolved into hippies a new kind of “capitalist” emerged, one uncomfortable in Buckley’s Religion-and-Tradition straightjacket, claiming Rand as their foremost ideological inspiration. A small but influential group of these, led by economist Murray Rothbard, advocated a new kind of anarchism or “anarcho-capitalism.” Before long, many of these new activists would also become uncomfortable with Rand’s secular ethics. These would soon form a new sect and a new Party: contemporary libertarians.

By the 1970s, students of Ayn Rand had even begun migrating to Washington and played an instrumental though previously a largely uncredited role in ending the Draft, to which Rand was vehemently opposed. One of Rand’s students would become a principal advisor to President Ronald Reagan; another went on to become a long-serving Federal Reserve Chairman.

Through all of this history that is meticulously unearthed in Goddess of the Market, Rand’s influence went unheralded in most circles, although her public differences with conservatives and libertarians were quite well known. For this reason, the history of her positive influence has never been told in much detail—from any political perspective. Burns takes on the challenge and has produced a comprehensive treatment of how Rand’s life intersected and affected these people and events, and how Rand steered an independent course through it all. And a dry intellectual account it is not, thanks to Burns’s engaging prose, occasional humor—and her fascinating subject.

The book is deeply flawed in two important respects, however, the first being a common problem with those attempting to write about Ayn Rand: a failure to understand or appreciate Rand’s thought. The second major weakness of the book, also sadly common, stems from the author’s willingness to uncritically accept primary accounts that are themselves deeply flawed. Even so, Burns’s biography is superior to previous efforts, and Burns’s recognition of “bias and contradiction” in previous biographies raises the standard of Rand scholarship higher in several important ways.

Unlike Barbara Branden’s impressionistic portrait in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Burns does not paint a humorless, joyless Rand, or one alienated from the physical world itself. Much of the psychological speculation about Rand from the Brandens is simply and properly disregarded and makes no appearance in Burns’s text. Rand’s self-praise is quoted along with Rand’s unusual modesty. No mention whatever of the post-Atlas surprise party, made infamous by the Brandens, is to be found. Burns never doubts the importance of Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, to the author’s work and happiness, or that he actually saved The Fountainhead, and she gives us a more sympathetic treatment of O’Connor himself than had either of the Brandens. Burns discusses Rand’s use of Benzedrine, but she fails to associate it with any alleged “paranoia.” The prescribed amphetamine may have helped power her inhuman bursts of energy—as well as her “crashes” afterwards—although even this is somewhat speculative. From the available evidence, however, minus the obvious ax grinding of the Brandens, this much makes coherent sense at least. And there are other interesting omissions of Branden-sourced speculations, as well.

One of the noteworthy improvements over previous biographies is Burns’s account of Rand’s break with her business partner and one-time lover, Nathaniel Branden, in 1968. Explaining why Rand would never forgive Mr. Branden, Burns states:

"More than the fury of a woman scorned, it was the fury of a woman betrayed. For nearly five years, Nathan had lied to Rand about his feelings for her and his relationship with Patrecia. Their hours of intense conversation and counseling, so painful and taxing to Rand, had been a pretense and a ruse to distract her from his deceptions. In the meantime, NBI had grown from a small lecture series to a national institution. Nathan had become famous and wealthy speaking in Rand's name." (GOM, pp. 241-242)

Burns appreciates the layers of complexity within Branden’s dishonesty to Rand, and she acknowledges the most exploitative aspect of Branden’s fraud. Since the publication of my own analysis, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC), many defenders of the Brandens have been unwilling to admit this with equal clarity, despite the evidence.

Some critics of PARC have gone through especially Byzantine contortions in order to evade another simple observation made by Burns regarding Branden's 1968 public statement about the break:

"Sent out in tandem with Barbara's statement, his letter suggested that it was Rand alone who had acted inappropriately." (GOM, p. 243)

Thus, they blamed Rand for everything while simultaneously hiding Rand’s real motive in the break. In short: they misled their readers.

Again, scholar Chris Sciabarra, along with other critics of PARC, have refused to admit this dishonesty with the directness Burns has now offered, understanding the implication that Burns herself does not reach and may not have seen: if Nathan and Barbara lied not just to Rand but to their readers and continue to stand by those statements to this day, then their credibility on the subject of Rand is profoundly undermined. Under these circumstances, trusting them as sources about Rand, whether they are criticizing, remembering or even praising her, is impossible unless their accounts are corroborated by reliable sources.

In that “Open Letter” about the break, published on both of the Brandens’ personal websites to this day, Branden had denied Rand’s accusation that their relationship had become either therapeutically or (in any way) professionally exploitative. Burns recognizes the opposite to have been the case, acknowledging that the Rand-Branden relationship had indeed become "therapeutic,” despite Branden's 1968 denials. Burns also quotes from the rather unctuous letter to Rand that Patrecia, then Branden’s lover, wrote to her while participating in deceiving her. Burns also reports that the supposedly jealousy-crazed Rand suggested to him that an affair with someone else might be good for Branden during the course of their own relationship. She also notes that Rand had suggested a "partial" break to preserve their business relationship prior to learning the scope of Branden’s deceptions—and that Rand had soured on any continued romance with Branden many months before their break came. All of this confirms what PARC first revealed about Branden’s elaborately fraudulent accounts.

Burns notes PARC’s "vigorous" argument against Frank O’Connor's alleged alcoholism. (GOM, p. 322, note 54) Interestingly, Burns cautions that “[f]irm diagnoses of the dead are always tenuous,” but concludes that it is "not unreasonable" to believe that his drinking was "at the very least unhealthy." However, she also acknowledges that this conclusion hinges on the credibility of witnesses (who, it must be added, are very few indeed.) Curiously, while no new witnesses are offered, Burns makes it seem as if Frank's ability to paint vanished over night, which it did not.

In her “Essay on Sources” at the end, she writes, "Though it often goes overboard in its attacks on the Brandens, James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics subjects both books to intense scrutiny and offers an alternative account of Rand's break with Nathaniel Branden." (GOM, p. 296) Yet, in Burns’s own account of the Brandens’ conduct, a negative evaluation is amply proven, if not directly leveled.

Far more important is that a new era in the scholarship of Rand’s life and work has begun with the opening of her papers to independent scholars. These papers have been available to scholars for some time, and as more volumes utilizing the material are released, all of it will be available for use in published work. However, Goddess represents the first use of this material by a non-Objectivist scholar. Indeed, the praise Burns gives Jeff Britting and the Ayn Rand Archive for their openness to a non-Objectivist, even an Objectivism-critical, scholar stands in sharp contradiction to many assertions by critics of the Ayn Rand Institute, such as Professor Robert Campbell of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, who routinely accuses that organization of harboring the most nefarious motives. On page 287, Burns writes that Britting was "unfailingly professional, endlessly informative, and always willing to go the extra mile."

While she severely criticizes David Harriman and Michael Berliner for their editing of the Rand material in The Journals of Ayn Rand and Letters of Ayn Rand, PARC, which had made clear even the smallest omission or addition from Rand’s original text, pointedly avoids this. It is obvious that as historical documents the usefulness of these other volumes is limited, as Burns is right to point out. However, there are other purposes these works serve for the student of Rand’s philosophy seeking a deeper understanding of Objectivism and the rest of the author’s mature thought. Burns does not seem to appreciate the value of this. (It could be added that, in comparison to the efficiency with which the papers of Albert Einstein and Walt Disney—both of whom died years earlier than Rand—have been made available to scholars, the Ayn Rand Archive has been moving at light speed.)

Significantly, and despite the concept’s dismissal in some quarters, Burns recognizes a valid and on-going Objectivist "oral tradition” making known the many unpublished philosophical insights of Rand, especially through the work of Dr. Leonard Peikoff. While it is not clear that the Archive material serves as her evidence for this, there is copious evidence there to demonstrate it. For example, Peikoff’s development of “rationalism” and “empiricism” as psycho-epistemological syndromes in his 1983 course Understanding Objectivism is thoroughly rooted in Rand’s own thought, as her diagnosis of Mr. Branden published in PARC confirms.

However, as previously mentioned, Burns’s most important errors lie in her poor understanding of Rand as a philosopher. She does caution that her focus is political, but failing to understand Rand’s system of thought leads her into some very bad misstatements.

Strikingly, she has no appreciation for Rand's psychological insights, or even the dimmest awareness of the cognitive theory of emotions Rand was exploring as early as her private philosophical musings in 1934. For Burns, Rand was simply hostile to emotion, and her refusal to use emotions as a means of cognition is proof. For Burns, emotions are autonomous (GOM, p. 225) or what Rand would have called “irreducible primaries.” For Burns, “scorn” for emotions is shown when Rand describes a character who “does not suffer, because he does not believe in suffering” (GOM, p. 62) Rand’s conviction that emotions have a cognitive component is entirely unexplored and undefined by Burns—and as a result Rand’s closely-related and intensely passionate celebration of emotion is missed and unmentioned, along with its philosophical significance.

This might not have been a vital omission in a political biography, except that, for Burns, the great contradiction, paradox and even tragedy of Rand’s life was the unresolved tension between her emotions and her mind, between her romantic art and her quest to live by logic, between her deep passions and her sharp thinking. (GOM, p. 6 and 159)

Following the Brandens’ lead, Burns maintains that Rand and Branden were “trapped” by what she thinks are Objectivist “theories of love” (GOM, p.224), but, then, she does not broach the actual details of these alleged theories. Since that would have required, among other things, a consideration of the previously mentioned Understanding Objectivism, and the full scope of Rand’s nuanced views, it would have taken her far away from politics and beyond her intended scope. Under such circumstances, then, it would have been best to avoid a topic the author was not prepared to consider fully and fairly.

From Burns’s account, the reader does not know that Rand had an original and systematic answer to the alleged dichotomies between reason and emotion, mind and body, fact and value, theory and practice, abstract thought and actual survival. Rand’s detailed reasoning on these fundamental matters goes unmentioned. Though this last is the very theme of Atlas Shrugged, though such insights power The Fountainhead, though these ideas are implicitly present in a hundred ways in We the Living, though their outline was present in the first pages of Rand’s first philosophical notes—and although these matters directly bear upon Burns’s own theme—she ignores these aspects of Rand’s thought, to the detriment of some of her central conclusions.

An analysis of Rand’s more abstract ideas, whether Burns agrees with them or not, is necessary before one can draw many of the other broad conclusions about those ideas or Rand’s philosophical originality that Burns permits herself. Indeed, it might have been a corrective had she engaged in such an analysis.

This philosophy-vacuum results in Burns’s failure to identify even Rand’s principal motivation as a philosopher, although it is one Rand explicitly spells out in her first philosophical journals, which Burns quotes extensively.

For Burns, Objectivism employs deductive logic exclusively, and that it is only “syllogistically derived.” (GOM, p. 237) It is no excuse that others have shared Burns’s error here, including apparently Isabel Paterson (GOM, p.127), for Rand’s writing was clear and consistent about this. If that was not enough to convince, then surely the growing secondary literature on Objectivism would have set her straight on this score, such as Peikoff’s masterful, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Thus, with little appreciation of the role and function of deduction itself, she necessarily misses the bulk of Rand’s argumentation, as so many before her have missed it. Yet, the first lines from those earliest philosophical notes show Rand seeking to “gather the facts” which would “illuminate” her dualism-busting hypotheses, and, further down, her stated desire to study subjects like physics and psychology as adjuncts to her understanding of politics of all things. (Journals, p. 66 and p. 72) Rand’s unique brand of empiricism is not recognized. Therefore, the expansive and open-ended dimensions of Rand’s thought are missed by Burns altogether. Again, this might not have been a serious problem if Burns did not also claim that Rand had a “narrow idea of how reason should be used.” (GOM, p. 234)

While it is true that the lectures on Objectivism which Branden, and later Peikoff, gave under Rand’s supervision did not employ Socratic debate or dialogue, they were not ipso facto mind-closing recitals of catechism, either. They were designed to help students get straight what Rand was actually saying—a prerequisite to any criticism and something that her critics kept (and keep) getting wrong. This lack of “university” methodology was not an opposition to such methods, either. As Burns recognizes, these lectures filled an important gap left by contemporary higher education in the humanities. While this approach also contributed to the unfortunate aspects of Branden’s school, a simple understanding of Rand’s ideas for what they are is often still badly missing, ironically, a tradition that Burns’s own misunderstandings unfortunately continues.

On the topic of ethics, Burns is equally misguided. By using “altruism” in Auguste Comte’s sense, according to Burns, Rand “seemed to be attacking kindness itself“ (GOM, p.193) and was claiming the “natural human sympathy for the downtrodden [to be] unacceptable.” (GOM, p.173)

Rand had an answer to this, of course, in her explanation for using the term “selfish”—even though it usually means something very different from Rand’s intention—in her “Introduction” to The Virtue of Selfishness (and throughout that volume). It is the essence of such terms that has to be reclaimed, according to Rand, or the truth will be left unnamed, undefined and undefended. True self-regard is the opposite of the savagery meant by the only definition we are otherwise permitted. True self-sacrifice is the opposite of genuine goodwill, despite the usual meaning given to “altruism.” Bearing so closely on Burns’s point, Rand’s own argument should at least have been mentioned.

At times, Burns’s misunderstandings of Rand’s ethics are, sadly, inexcusable. She writes that, according to Rand, “[i[t is immoral to ask anything from others,” (GOM, p.167) and that Rand was simply “untroubled by the idea of economic wants going unsatisfied.” (GOM, p.220) For Burns, Rand is the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

At other times, her assertions are simply free-floating assumptions, like this one: “After all, by renouncing charity as a moral obligation [Rand] had voluntarily opted out of any traditional expectations of politeness or courtesy.” (GOM, p.173) Rand’s careful arguments—and the benevolent implications on page after page of her art—not to mention Rand’s practice of and repeated calls for good manners, are entirely ignored.

Given her misunderstanding of the fundamentals of Rand’s philosophy, it is not surprising that Burns’s account of Rand’s political thought is also sometimes inexcusably erroneous. It is in the interplay between ethics and politics that Rand’s social thought is so strikingly original. For Rand, unlike so many defenders of capitalism, there is no “Invisible Hand” magically coordinating human interests, and there is no “paradox” to private selfishness resulting in common welfare. Rand’s case for selfishness is both a forthright defense of the absolute right of an individual to pursue his own happiness—the profit motive itself—and a defense of capitalism as the most productive and prosperous system precisely because it alone is consistent with a morality of reason and individual rights.

Ayn Rand would readily say that White House Communications Director Anita Dunn got it right in June of last year in her speech to those students: Chairman Mao and Mother Theresa are connected under the skin. Dunn is only the most recent example of clarity on the relationship between Christian altruism and socialism. Rand herself would have coupled the two, and for the same reason. Burns may resist drawing this relationship herself, but understanding it is essential to understanding Rand’s case—the most direct defense of the profit motive ever made. Its radical insights are perforce rendered invisible to Burns.

Other errors are cringe-worthy. On Francisco d’Anconia’s famous money speech in Atlas Shrugged, we are told that he misquoted the Bible. (GOM, p.170) Since Rand does not quote the Bible there in the first place, the “misquoting” is all Burns’s. In fact, the speech addresses both of the commonly used forms of the “money is the root of all evil” or “the love of money is the root of all evil” adage. The second is true to St. Paul and it, too, is explicitly addressed by d’Anconia. Burns is just factually wrong on this criticism of the speech.

Burns writes that, for Rand, “competition [is] the meaning of life” and that her work ”appeared” to support “Darwinian capitalist competition.” (GOM, p.175) This is extraordinary, for Atlas Shrugged actually illustrates how it is the “weak” or less talented who are the ones most benefited by capitalism—and why they fared so poorly in previous ages.

Also according to Burns, the State is always a “destroyer” for Rand (GOM, p. 3), even though a judge made the cut into Galt’s Gulch, the novel’s “utopia of greed,” and from there proceeds to articulate the positive role of objective law. Rand’s praise for America’s Founding Fathers—and the tradition of West Point—among many other examples, also contradicts this notion.

Far worse, Burns alleges:

"Her vision of society was atomistic, not organic. Rand’s ideal society was made up of traders, offering value for value, whose relationships spanned only the length of any given transaction." (GOM, p. 209)

Quite the reverse is true: for Rand, relationships of significance span the entire length of a human lifetime—along with the plans, the values and the ambitions of all of her heroes. (“Once granted,” we are told in one memorable case, her hero Howard Roark never “withdrew” his love.) This long-range perspective was one of Rand’s consistent attributes, both as a novelist and as a moralist.

In Burns’s text, some terms are intentionally left vague, such as “conservative,” to little effect, while her use of terms such as "elitism," are so vague that they become truly meaningless. If it is “elitism” to believe that it takes a Michelangelo to paint a Sistine Chapel, then, yes, Rand was a lifelong and forthright “elitist.” (GOM, p. 93) The term connotes something else, of course, something dark, and it is the exact parameters of that something else which are vital to any fair account of Rand’s ideas. “Elitism,” in the sense that Burns seems to use it, could to refer to the act of valuing anyone who achieves more than anyone else—something everyone does all the time, whether by choosing a favorite artist, chef, hairdresser or grocery store.

However, the most repulsive of Burns’s open implications is her description of Rand’s heroes or heroines as being of “Aryan” features. (GOM, p. 147 and 227) Apart from being false—Dagny Taggart’s dark hair, the Latin Francisco d’Anconia, and the somewhat Irishy look (like Rand’s husband) of the red-haired Howard Roark, all spring to mind—Burns’s word-choice conjures something Nazi in Rand’s soul, an inexcusably gratuitous allusion. Burns text suggests that Rand’s early thought was little more than Nietzscheanism, leaving the implications of such a term still more ominously undefined. Burns will report the slanders of reviewers like Whittaker Chambers (“To the gas chambers—go!”), and even be critical of them. But this is one instance where she commits the same injustice, if in a subtler form.

Burns had complete access to Rand’s private journals, and has likely seen Rand’s opposition to Nazi censorship in her writing as early as 1935. (The Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 79)

Which brings us to what is by far the single most important error of Goddess: its treatment of Rand’s intellectual development. And, once more, the error directly flows from Burns’s shallow understanding of Rand’s philosophy.

Burns, perhaps too used to the template of right wing intellectual trajectory, mistakenly sees sharp elbows in the evolution of Rand's thought. For example, she says that her “contact with Paterson and others had helped [Rand] move beyond the narrow Nietzscheanism that defined her early work.” (GOM, p. 132) This is a doubly ironic error for such a brilliant scholar of 20th Century conservative thought to make, for the story of conservative intellectuals of the last century is nothing if not the story of sharp elbows in thinking—especially in comparison to the stalwart and straight line of Rand’s own intellectual career.

As the late Professor John Diggins suggested in his important work, Up From Communism, one needs only to look at the list of contributing editors to The National Review magazine in its first decade or two of operation with one thing in mind: who among them was not a former communist or socialist? John Chamberlain, James Burnham, John Dos Passos, Max Eastman and the notorious Whittaker Chambers whom Buckley assigned to review Atlas Shrugged for that magazine, were just some of the ex-Reds and ex-Pinks populating the American Right in those days. (Almost alone, Rand’s friend Henry Hazlitt must be excluded from that list.)

Some, like Eastman, never found religion like Chambers did, and had difficulties in their relationship with Buckley as a result. Many went from hardcore Marxist to hardcore Conservative, although a Chamberlain or two moved from a milder Leftism to a semi-principled if also mild libertarianism.

Later, many Social Democrats who took grief for their anti-Stalinism as they remained on the Left began to find a comfortable home on the Right, including Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, and a raft of neo-conservative opponents of communism, as has been well-documented. But for former Leftists, there would be precious few conservative intellectuals in the last century.

Now, these individuals had some serious “elbows” in the development of their thinking. Any comparison to them is entirely unfair to Rand. Whittaker Chambers swung all the way from atheist and Soviet spy to Christian with a reverence for tradition. Eastman remained an atheist, but he went from being an editor of The Masses to being an editor of Reader’s Digest, famous for its anti-communism. Many of these intellectual converts lost close friends, like Dos Passos. The stories of “conversion” in the wake of Stalin’s horrors, at least among honest intellectuals, are too numerous to list here.

To measure the radical dimensions of Rand’s thought, it is important to observe that, for Rand, a conversion such as Chambers’s—from committed Communist to pious Christian—is actually a relatively superficial one, since he remained both a mystic and altruist throughout.

One has to squint very hard to find any similar change in the values of Ayn Rand during her lifetime. Burns will speak of Rand’s “deepening interest in philosophy” in the 1960s (GOM, p. 227), when all that can be found is a new interest in writing about it. Burns will write about the “dawning importance” of reason to Rand in the 1940s (GOM, p. 84), her “turn to Aristotle” at this time (GOM, p.112), and allege that “Aristotelian rationality” had “captured her interest after she completed The Fountainhead.” (GOM, p. 147, emphasis added), when the evidence of her methodological commitment to Aristotle and to logic can be found in her first notes on philosophy written when she was still in her twenties.

Burns is right to observe that these early notes show Rand tentatively asking herself questions, and sometimes show her making a speculation later dropped from her mature thought. However, these journals are noteworthy for their dramatic foreshadowing of nearly the entire outline for the philosophy Rand would come to call “Objectivism.”

Burns implies that Isabel Paterson was the source of Rand’s desire for logical system-building, even though she quotes from those same sections of Rand’s early notes in which Rand explicitly calls for such a logical “system” of ethics, and which were written long before she knew of Paterson’s work. Paterson is even seemingly credited with Rand’s use of the formula “A is A” (GOM, p.112), although it can be found in the earliest version of We the Living, when Kira states in an ominously Aristotelian preview of Rand’s mature thought that “Numbers are numbers. Steel is steel.” This is why, as an engineer, Kira notes, she would not be forced to “lie” in the new Soviet world, unlike other professionals, directly tying her meaning to Aristotelian metaphysics.

Burns thinks of Rand as little more than a Nietzschean until her contact with Paterson and other conservatives. Along with Paterson’s biographer, Professor Stephen Cox, she exaggerates the importance of Isabel Paterson as an influence on Rand’s thought. None of Rand’s ideas seem to have changed at all during her relationship with Paterson, indeed, it was their agreement on so much about politics that drew them together, but the language Rand used is no longer mostly Nietzschean. This stems from a new confidence in her new language and in her own originality, and this last, indeed, may be associated with her relationship with Paterson.

However, in reality, Rand’s commitment to logical and systematic methodology, and to Aristotle, are not only seen to be important in her first philosophical musings, and as early as her twenties, they can be seen to trump Nietzsche’s influence altogether at that early age. At 29, Rand has rejected Nietzsche’s “genealogy” or “history” of ethics, in favor of logical system-building, has argued for a cognition-based kind of free will, and has rejected the idea that human beings are the determined slaves of their own passions and subjective perspectives. (The Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 66-74) Burns herself quotes many of these highly anti-Nietzschean passages from Rand’s earliest notes.

Burns acknowledges that Rand had differences with Nietzsche, but, from the forest-perspective, as opposed to the tree-perspective, she opines, Rand’s entire career may be seen as one huge “Nietzschean Phase.” Unless she would be willing to lump all egoists into that same category—from Aristotle to Hobbes to Spinoza to Rand—this is egregious mental sloppiness. Differences as profound as the differences that separate Spinoza from Nietzsche also separate Rand from Nietzsche. It is as absurd as saying that Friedrich Nietzsche was going through one giant “Hobbesian Phase.”

And it is particularly unfair to Ayn Rand. Rand sensibly regarded metaphysical and epistemological questions to be far more fundamental issues that will inevitably condition and shape our thinking on all the others, and, therefore, she held them to be far more important than ethical or political questions. By Rand’s standard of importance, these were the most vital subjects, and it is with regard to just these matters that Rand’s radical differences with Nietzsche are to be found, even in her earliest notes.

While he was no fan of socialism (or German nationalism or anti-Semitism), Nietzsche not only explicitly opposed observational “generalization” and logical system-building in ethics, he never seems to have observed anything he liked in democratic America, either. If it is difficult to give Nietzsche’s ideas a political definition beyond his admiration for ancient tyrants and Renaissance thugs, it would be utterly impossible to classify Nietzsche as a political liberal in the classical sense.

On the other hand, Rand seems to have always been the political liberal Nietzsche never was. As Burns notes herself, Rand’s first political affinities were influenced by her father, who was an admirer of Victorian British liberalism, and her early admiration for Alexander Kerensky, precisely because she saw him as the most liberal choice available to Russia. In her very first notes on philosophy in 1934, Rand mentions “liberal democracy,” as if that is the standard from which she will work to distinguish her own thought, writing of “the fault of liberal democracy,” (Journals, p.74) as if it is that which needed the tweaking. Rand cast her first vote for a U.S. President for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, believing from his opposition to Prohibition and from his campaign rhetoric that he was the candidate for liberty. Having betrayed that expectation, FDR lost her support quickly. In January of 1937, Rand wrote, in private correspondence:

"I am glad to know that there still are people and a mode of thinking that can be opposed to Communism in a true, sensible democratic spirit. I have met so many people who declared bluntly that anyone criticizing Soviet Russia is automatically a fascist and a capitalistic exploiter. And it was gratifying to read a voice in refutation of that preposterous nonsense." (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 40)

Later, Rand actively campaigned for Wendell Wilkie, a chapter of her history first explored in detail in Burns’s book. It was through this activism that Rand came to know several prominent conservatives. All the while, Rand was never tempted into even the slightest flirtation with socialism, fascism, religion or nearly any other fashionable idea of the day.

Compared to most other thinkers, compared even to the most consistent of them, Rand was a rock of intellectual changelessness and consistency in a tumultuous sea. From her ideas about religion, to her taste in literature, to her love for America, it’s actually hard to find any sharp “elbows” in Rand’s thought of any kind beyond the stylistic adjustment to differing venues for her thought.

Of course, at first Rand’s terminology was overwhelmingly that of Nietzsche, but it did not and could not fit even her first musings on philosophy, nor her ambitions in the field. The process of Rand’s development was largely the process of finding the right words to express her original intention and the language to fit her unique vision with precise clarity. Thus, in her first novel, We the Living, in the main character Kira’s commitment to honesty and her passionate cry to be “left alone”—in Rand’s first notes calling for a “system of ethics” built on “logic”—and in her first political sympathies, one hears the same anti-Nietzschean philosopher of ethical principles and individual rights that we find in Atlas Shrugged.

Is it even possible to imagine a theory of natural rights emanating from a true Nietzschean?

In a number of other important instances Burns is quite unfair to Rand. In contrast to Burns’s assertion, Rand never “denigrated” the “profession of philosophy” (GOM, p. 185)—just the opposite—in the process of denigrating its current practitioners. One of her sources for this, Professor John Hospers, in fact, has related how Rand gave him a new appreciation for the critical importance of his own chosen field.

Burns’s conclusion that Alan Greenspan was of material assistance to Rand on the economics articulated in Atlas Shrugged is highly dubious—Rand had written more than two-thirds of the novel before she moved back to New York, where she met Greenspan—who, as Fed Chairman, seems not to have understood those economics, even after Rand’s death.

Rand’s attack on modern philosophy is not only implicit in the substance of her ideas, but also long predated her relationship with Leonard Peikoff, despite Burns’s contention (GOM, p.186). Paterson and Nietzsche must share at least some of the credit for this enmity, ironically enough.

How Burns can also claim that after their relationship had soured Paterson was no longer an “important thinker” to Rand (GOM, p. 132)—when Rand’s majestic public recommendation of her book actually put it back into print for many years¬—is also a mystery. (I suspect that I am not alone in having to credit Rand with “turning me on” to Paterson’s work in the first place.)

Readers of the first edition of Rand’s short work, Anthem, written in 1937, and prior to any relationship with Paterson, will note the fundamentality and stress, for example, Rand placed on reason and free will, and can even observe the subtle relationship between reason and volition that she would develop later in Atlas Shrugged. Even at this level of technicality, Rand’s ideas were unchanged, just enormously expanded with new insights, arguments and applications in her magnum opus.

Anthem’s passionate cry against totalitarianism is that of Atlas Shrugged. Dictatorship squelches reason, an attribute of the individual, when it erases the word “I,” and civilization itself recedes into pre-technological barbarism. Discovering the Self comes with the rediscovery of the light bulb, according to this work by Rand, in a line of reasoning that led straight to Galt’s Motor—and one that is indistinguishable from her later, far more elaborate political theory. And this work is one that also preceded in time her relationship with most of the American conservatives she would come to know.

Also remarkable is the consistency of thought between Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead and Galt’s radio speech in Atlas, the latter merely expanding the scope of its consideration.

One might confidently conclude that Rand had a darker sense of life in her twenties, if the same hand, which had written “The Little Street," had not also penned O. Henry-inspired stories like “Good Copy” and “Escort” during roughly the same time period.

Burns will describe the “newfound appreciation for the average American” that is expressed in The Fountainhead (GOM, p. 82)—despite also acknowledging how, even in Russia, she “idealized America” (GOM, p. 63). Burns then later claims that in Atlas Shrugged Rand had “returned” to her earlier bitterness and disillusionment about “the mob.” Burns gleans this from Rand’s description of how the passengers aboard the doomed train speeding toward disaster in Atlas Shrugged had been complicit in the cultural and political degeneration that led to the disaster. Too conveniently, this is not the occasion for Burns to mention Rand’s account of how philosophy has vital, life-and-death consequences, whether one evades them or not, but for a discussion of Rand’s alleged return to “bitterness.”

However, the workers who cheer the first running of the John Galt Line, and the popular reaction to Hank Rearden’s defense at his show trial, among many other examples, serve precisely the same function in Atlas Shrugged that Roark’s jury verdict (and his friendship with Mike the construction worker) had in The Fountainhead, and these descriptions spring from the same appreciation for ordinary Americans and what Rand called “the American sense of life.” It was an affection that she continued to express until her last public appearance just months before her death in 1982.

Certainly, Rand went through periods of depression, but the light, benevolent spirit she had found in reading O. Henry in her twenties, the same spirit that loved her “tiddly-wink music” from the start, never really died in Rand and continued to resurface until the end.

Even the most sophisticated expressions of Objectivism, such as Peikoff’s Understanding Objectivism, are simply the drawn out implications of Rand’s original musings about the relationship between “thinking” and “living” that we find in the very first lines of those earliest philosophical notes.

In the 1960s, Rand was of course more eager than Buckley to draw the differences between her ideas and those of conservatives, just as by the 1970s Rand was equally eager to draw the differences between herself and Libertarians, but the substance of her opinions does not appear to have changed from period to period—just her emphasis, according to the contemporary context.

Burns observes that Rand’s earliest political manifesto does not proclaim her later criticisms of altruism and mysticism, but this is hardly surprising as it was designed to be a statement to which a broader range of intellectuals could also assent. Rand knew her ideas to be controversial. Again, Rand may not yet have had the confidence to publicly assert the more fundamental ideas that she had already been exploring in her private journals for some time, but even this early effort is still remarkably consistent with those ideas.

And, certainly, Rand’s purposes changed from writing project to writing project. A political manifesto is not an ethical treatise, and a novel is neither. Thus, one can see shifting emphases, but in Rand’s intellectual career it is hard to find any kind of conversion or fundamental epiphany that is otherwise a cliché among thinkers on the Intellectual Right. Instead, we can now see that very few writers have ever been so unchanged by the passage of time—from top to bottom—as was Rand. This should be one of the obvious take-away points from any fair biography of this unique American thinker.

An understanding of Rand’s development as a thinker is an important topic, for, as Objectivism itself implies, she was not born an Objectivist. Rand was moved to write about the ideas and events of her time, and it is absurd to believe that she was unaffected by those events and the wider culture. But Rand remained loyal all her life to certain fundamental ideas and values that endured to the end, retaining an almost childlike lack of guile about the profound questions she had posed to herself as a youth. This innocent courage and honesty, more than any other aspects of personality, help to explain her consistency—and why Rand’s thinking was so challenging, so revolutionary.

Perhaps it “goes without saying” that Rand’s philosophy was the product of independent thought, but, in providing only psychological explanations for Rand’s intellectual development—and in unjustifiably reducing her ideas to a hybrid of those of Nietzsche and Paterson—it is almost as if Burns, an intellectual historian, does not recognize an independent causal role for the human intellect.

Ayn Rand’s growing importance is marked by the publication of Burns’s serious treatment—in itself a step forward in Rand scholarship. In the face of academic headwinds of hostility, Burns’s massive undertaking must have taken equally massive courage, something also to be celebrated, and her sometimes brilliant use of previously unpublished material from the Archive makes this book necessary reading for the serious scholar. Unfortunately, however, a true rendering of Ayn Rand’s life and ideas, indeed, her very spirit, still awaits its muse.

( categories: )


James S. Valliant's picture

Yes and yes.

Now, it's painfully obvious.

No We Don't

Neil Parille's picture

"We also know BB first claimed to have heard it from Rand only after NB made his report..."

Your evidence?

-Neil Parille


Neil Parille's picture

Just so I'm clear:

1. You stand by your claim that what Fern Brown told Barbara was a lie (in other words it was untrue and Brown knew it was untrue); and

2. Nathaniel and Barbara are lying when they claim to have heard it from Rand.


No, Neil

James S. Valliant's picture

I have already told you. Research indicates that Brown never had the opportunity to discuss this with Rand after the introduction of the R-R typewriter. We know from BB that Brown was a source for her. So, how could Rand have ever told this story to the Brandens, as they now claim, unless both Brown and Rand had independently invented this impossibility?

We know Brown's report was faulty and erroneous. We know BB bought her claim. We know NB claimed to have gotten it from Rand after BB had published her story. We also know BB first claimed to have heard it from Rand only after NB made his report...


Neil Parille's picture


Why don't you just tell us what you know and believe about this?

Are you saying that the Brandens are lying in their report of having heard the typewriter story from Rand? Do you think Fern made it up, as opposed to having a faulty memory of something she heard from Rand or someone else?


To Repeat

James S. Valliant's picture

Burns is mistaken if she thinks that Rand invented the typewriter-origin story. There is nothing at the Archive -- period -- suggesting that she did, only evidence that Brown's claim is impossible. No, just solid reasons to doubt that Brown and Rand could have ever discussed it with one another.


Brant Gaede's picture

typewritter story is trivial as no one any longer thinks or proposes it's true. Give Ayn Rand the grace of protecting her family, if that was what was involved.


Typewriter Story

Neil Parille's picture


This what Dr. Burns wrote:


That said, there were several aspects of Barbara Branden’s memoir which material in the archive definitely falsifies: the most famous of these is the typewriter story. Material from the archive indicates this legend is long established in family history and originated with Rand herself, though it is unclear if the youthful Rand was experimenting with tales of origin, or if the distortions of memory played a role (think of a game of telephone, stretched across generations).


You dispute Prof. Burns' statements about the typewriter?


No, Neil

James S. Valliant's picture

"Anyone can see" that what NB wrote in 1968 was mostly a pack of lies.

As to the name, more research has been done. Fern Brown, Ms. Branden's original source, claims that she saw Rand discovering the name from her typewriter -- which she could not have, of course. Nor could Fern have ever discussed this with Rand, as she never had the chance to do so after the advent of the Remnington-Rand. Yet, the Brandens now claim to have heard this impossibility from Rand herself, not just Brown.

Then, tell me: how could this story have originated with Rand? Could both Rand and Brown have each independently invented this odd tale?

No, BB's more recent claims are merely cover for NB claim to have heard it from Rand. (She did curiously fail to mention Rand as a source at all in her book.)


Neil Parille's picture

Jim, do you agree with Dr. Burns that the typewriter story goes back to Rand?*

As far as "misrepresentations,"anyone can see you distorted what NB wrote.




James S. Valliant's picture

No, recapitulating PARC here for your benefit alone makes no sense. Nor will I answer again questions answered already, nor respond to any of your previous misrepresentations of my work such as the one you link to.


Neil Parille's picture


Please explain how NB "conceded" that Rand's claims concerning the 67 loan were correct --

Neither biographer agrees with you on this.

By the way Jim, do you agree with Dr. Burns that the typewriter story goes back to Rand?



James S. Valliant's picture

My review forthrightly criticizes Burns for accepting much of the Branderns' accounts uncritically. It is the "impression" one gets from your instant post that is misleading, suggesting otherwise, and ignoring what the quotation from Burns flatly states. And, what "biographies" of Rand do you suppose Burns could have been referring to -- not Heller's, yet, so...?


James S. Valliant's picture

No, Rand did not claim any criminal wrongdoing on Branden's part, nor is this accusation, by any stretch, the "most serious." Moreover, Rand's important facts in this context were conceded by Mr. Branden in 1968.

Clarification, Please

Neil Parille's picture

Jim writes:


"Work in Rand's personal papers has enabled me to sift through the many biased and contradictory accounts of her life and create a more balanced picture of Rand as a thinker and human being." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 4)

Since this was the conclusion of my own analysis of these biographies and Rand’s papers, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, I am obviously in gratified agreement with Burns on this point: previous biographies were indeed, “biased and contradictory.”

Rand's "critics," Burns also writes, "were often unfairly harsh and personal in their attacks." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 5)

Again, Burns has stated an important truth that is often missed: Rand, especially during her lifetime, was the victim of ad hominem arguments—often hysterical ones—which have helped to shroud her life in mythology

TheBrandens and their books are not mentioned on pages 4-5, contrary to the impression one might get from Jim's discussion.

Dr. Burns has, in fact, a relatively high opinion of the Branden books. Or that's how I interpret what she has said about their books here and on her blog.

Burns cites the Brandens' memoirs as her exclusive source for various accounts, which is a de facto rejection of Jim's claim that the books are "monuments of dishonesty."

-Neil Parille

Correction, Please

Neil Parille's picture

Jim writes:


Burns appreciates the layers of complexity within Branden’s dishonesty to Rand, and she acknowledges the most exploitative aspect of Branden’s fraud. Since the publication of my own analysis, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC), many defenders of the Brandens have been unwilling to admit this with equal clarity, despite the evidence.


This is misleading. Burns rejects the implication in To Whom It May Concern that Branden engaged in (financial) fraud, her most serious allegation. See p. 335 - "According to Rand's attorney and accountant, her veiled accusations of Branden's financial misdealing and theft were baseless."

-Neil Parille

Woman For All Season

altorraires's picture

Congratulations on writing an excellent and informative review of Jennifer Burns’ book. Previous to your review, I read a review by Robert Mayhew, who was very critical of the book and concluded that Burns was distant from a philosophical understanding of Rand, and thus didn’t understand her writings and her work. Apparently, your views are similar to his, although you take a much more admirable stance about her book, and give her credit for what she did.

Although I have only read the first few pages of her book available on Amazon, I would say, by the tone of your review, I would give her book a try. The fact that someone of good will is writing about Ayn Rand is always an encouraging sign. Back in the early seventies I remember rushing over to a Fifth Avenue bookstore because I heard there was a book called, "It Usually Starts with Ayn Rand." Such was the hunger in those days to read anything about Ayn Rand (AR), I would have walked over broken glass to find a reference to AR, and in fact reading Tuccille’s book was akin to the same.. Nowadays, of course, all of this has changed. Not only is AR a phenomenon in English, she has made quite a splash in the Spanish-speaking world in such places as Mexico and Argentina.

You have written a very expansive review but I only want to touch on a two points. You point out in your review that Burns alludes to the fact that rather than a woman scorned it was a case of a woman betrayed. This is, of course, something you illustrate in your own book, and to which you are due much credit. Until I read your book a few years ago, I always assumed the Branden side of the story was correct, and it was a case of spurned love. Your book, of course, with the addition of Rand’s own writing, makes clear that her anger and rage was that of someone betrayed by a confident over a long period of time. Thus, through your effort the focus goes from a jealous, older woman venting her rage to that of someone, in the middle of a war, betrayed by one of her own lieutenants. Quite a difference and a very important and crucial difference at that. In this sense, you have done much to defog the image of Ayn Rand in the eyes of even those, like myself, who were inside the circle of events.

The other point I would make in regards to Jennifer Burns, who is accused of not knowing and understanding the philosophical roots of Objectivism, is that many so-called Objectivists are in the same category. In fact, much of what I see of modern Objectivism, centers on political events, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam Tea Parties, etc., and does not deal with Objectivism as a philosophy. As an example of this, I offer up the case of altruism, one of the most important components in AR’s war against modern society. How many Objectivists know and understand what she was talking about in regard to altruism? How many Objectivists will even acknowledge the existence of the moral component, and how altruism serves as the basis for the collectivism of the welfare state?.Even further, how many Objectivists are able to articulate a rational explanation of the concept of Objectivist egoism?

In my years on Objecitivist forums, the discussions about altruism have been almost non-existent, especially from the so-called open or libertarian segment of Objectivism. Even on the ARI-oriented forums such as Binswanger’s HBL, I was amazed to discover the lack of knowledge in regard to altruism from the participants. For example, many people saw Peter Keating as an altruist and thought that anyone who follows the crowd or conforms to the culture is an example of altruism.

Once again, thanks for an excellent piece of writing in regards to the review.

P.S. Please excuse my absence of photo and my poor choice of username which I didn't realize should have been my own name, which is Alan Tucker

A Response to Jennifer's Response to James

Andy George's picture

Thanks to Jennifer for her biography and James for your review. I always look forward to a better appreciation of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. I had the pleasure of attending Burns' recent lecture and book signing of GOM in NYC.

Burns' point regarding the need for a biography from outside the Objectivist movement is noteworthy, but doesn't prove to be a guarantee to be neutral either. While inadvertently proceeding to protect Rand form the left's "hostility against Rand" she paradoxically claims to "at least create a more informed hostility." While I comprehend her implied political intent, her choice of words is none the less perplexing. Rand's work has stood the test of time better than any considering the almost universal hostility she has always gotten from all sides. Rand understood this better that anyone during her own lifetime which's why she continuously improved the words she chose so carefully to express her original ideas. Rand understood that her words would primarily have to defend her thinking long after she was gone.

The Branden's accounts are well refuted in Valliant's work. In a very meticulous expose, Valliant goes into great lengths to expose specific examples and contradictions that not only bare out Rand's arguments, but also bring new light to such an incredibly difficult topic. Considering the intimacy and gravity of the situation, his work does an extraordinary job of being objective.

Burns' retraction of her term Aryan to describe Rand's characters is noteworthy not only in its misapplication but in her analysis. I'd speculate that Rand was being as vigilant as ever to protect her relatives back in Soviet Russia from reprisals by avoiding ethnic Jewish references. Rand was making her work as universal as possible while creating the idealized reality she craved. Rand was a champion of Western ideals and chose a specific variety of ethnic types to portray it.

Rand's notes and her finished novels are entirely different works. The variety and variations found in her notes are the very things she omitted in order to craft the finished novels. These were sketches and test writings used to explore her ideas so of course they would differ in scope from her novels. How else could she work them out? I agree with Valliant that Rand was addressing the wide assortment of questions that her work would attract. And most likely doing her best to answer them well too.

If there's anyone who has an apprecaition of the meaning and significance of language, it would be Valliant. It's a serious mistake to associate Valliant with the omissions made to Rand's notes since he didn't make them. Valliant actually took on the responsibility to point them out in his own work. Being one of the first scholars to have access to Rand's notes, he had the added task of correcting the omissions while addressing there disclosure. All in the context of such a difficult topic.

Rand's influence by Nietzsche is again well described by Valliant's critique in specific philosophical terms. Rand is obviously so different in her epistemology that little similarity remains. Nietzsche may have inspired Rand, but she already had a clear idea of what she thought otherwise she would have followed his thinking. Rand integrated the best thinking wherever she found it and applied it to her work.

I agree that scholars from all walks should explore Rand's work. I constantly amazed to hear the enormous variety of interpretations, questions and insights both right and wrong inspired by Rand's ideas. As more people become exposed to Rand, the job of clarification just increases exponentially along with the rewards.

Valliant's point regarding Burns' "failure to appreciate Rand's thought" is correct unfortunately. The proper application of Rand's radical thinking is indeed a challenge. Valliant's central point identifies the core issue regarding Burns' mistake that Objectivism is deductive exclusively and "syllogistically derived". Burns' statement reveals much about her own mostly deductive mode of thinking. The perfectly balanced relationship between the inductive and deductive conceptual process is an open ended system essential to all human survival and happiness. Whether it be philosophy, art, science or history. Rand's own use of inductive and deductive reasoning applied to history is one of the more astounding accomplishments of her work. It's fundamental to most of Rand's insights which's where Burns basically differs with Rand's methods.

Theory and practice. This' is Objectivism's main link to reality by properly integrating its axioms with that of already existing successful reasoning processes. The fact that reason works so well is why it's so often abused and/or taken for granted. This' why Rand was so exact in organizing her ideas to describe the true nature of man's relationship to reality and to defend the truth of her reasoning.

Rand often gets smeared for reminding us of reality's absolute nature while her more humane side is ignored if not used outright against her. A ridiculous example of not just shooting the messenger, but slandering while plagiarizing Rand as well. Yet all this misrepresentation of Rand hardly matters compared to her achievements.

As Jennifer Burns biography shows us, Ayn Rand was very human and also capable of making mistakes. And when Rand made mistakes they were also on the fundamental level of her own thinking so she paid dearly for them as a result. But she also made the difficult corrections required to set things straight. So while we can't overlook Rand's errors, we should also give her due credit for admitting to and correcting them. We also shouldn't forget that we have the advantage her own thinking to help us overall.

It's odd that Burns denies her appreciation of Objectivist thought while giving so many examples of it in her work. I learned a great deal from GOM and am very grateful to her for it. Yet I can't help but wonder why she wouldn't want to get the benefit as well. She might want to check her premises. Perhaps now she'll get a chance.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Both threads are part of the same Symposium. Like the dialectics of that? I'd suggest to folk that they post on the thread of whomever they are addressing, or on both threads if appropriate.

I note Ms. Burns's thread has overtaken Mr. Valliant's in number of reads. I presume that's because she's prettier. And people say SOLO is gay??!!

Thank you both, James for

Aaron's picture

Thank you both, James for your insightful review, and Jennifer Burns for your response.

I appreciated the thoroughness of the review and delving into the book's approach to the history and philosophy, especially discussion on Nietzschean influences. Most of the topics of concern I'd follow up with Burns have already been taken up by others.

Mrs Burns-
I'm not a fan of biographies in general, but both the review and your response impressed me and made me likely to put this biography on my list. Despite what criticisms of the book I also care about based on the review, the breadth, depth and hitting so much positive makes me more interested in your writing. I found your response very strong as well, and even with places where I'd likely disagree with your approach or analysis it sounds like the work overall would be intriguing and informative. Others have taken up a couple of the specific criticisms I'd have, such as the 'Aryan' and focus on race, and I don't need to tackle that discussion. The only comment I'll make there is that reading Atlas I know I didn't remember physical descriptions of the characters when done reading, and likely forgot them while still reading the book - but remembered well their actions and values. I know Rand's aesthetics also emphasizes caring about specific word choice, but for me concern about the characters' race seems foreign since physical descriptions seemed completely overshadowed by the ideals they embodied.

There's one critical point I want to ask you about that James mentioned and I didn't see addressed in your review. The point about D'Anconia's money speech and the Bible verse sounds pretty clearly like there's a mistake on your part concerning the verse or the speech. Do you have further comment about this, or recognize it as an error? Thanks.

Again, excellent write-ups both of you.


(since there are two symposiums I wasn't quite sure where to post this, particularly with a question for Burns. if the other symposium is more appropriate, please let me know)

Thanks James, I'll take a

Howard's picture

Thanks James, I'll take a look.


James S. Valliant's picture

Your issue has been taken up on the related discussion thread by young Objectivist scholar Angel Munoz.

Thank You Jim

gregster's picture

Your review reads wonderfully. Jennifer's "I appreciate the opportunity to respond to James Valliant’s thoughtful review of my book." From my perspective "thoughtful" somewhat downplays it.

I haven't read Burns's book yet. Haven't bothered to finish Heller's as yet. So I won't comment further except to say this thread has the makings..

This is exciting. I have no

Mark Hubbard's picture

This is exciting. I have no time to read this until 'some time', but great to see you back posting James. Really looking forward to reading your piece, then Jennifer Burns reply.

What "Changed"?

James S. Valliant's picture

The bottom line is that the content of the ideas which Rand espoused does not appear to have changed much over time. In this context, an off-line reader of this thread has suggested that my reply to Howard was misleading, so let me clarify: those aspects of Nietzsche's writing Rand found worthwhile never involved his basic philosophy. But those aspects of his writing which she did admire were always admired by her, as Burns's quotation from the "Introduction" to The Fountainhead, in her Reply amply shows.

The sincere question I would pose to anyone who thinks that Rand at some point abandoned a form of Nietzschean philosophy is this: which specific idea, principle or position did she abandon?

This, of course ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... is the long-awaited "symposium" promised late last year.

James has furnished a comprehensive and compelling critique of Prof. Burns's effort, in a mainly friendly manner which the book deserves—Goddess is not the Brandroid attempt at a hatchet-job that is Babs Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and it behoves an honest reviewer to acknowledge the fact. But I think he's way too harsh in portraying Burns's "errors" from a strict Objectivist viewpoint as "inexcusable," "egregious," etc. James, it's simply too early to expect non-Objectivists to grasp the "nuanced" rebutting of the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy that Rand provided—after all, Rand herself said little about it and most Objectivists don't get it to this day, falling squarely into the rationalist camp and believing they're being unimpeachable Objectivists in the process. Ditto, by extension, the relationship between reason and emotion. Yes, Burns has fallen for the caricature of the Objectivist view, but given the behaviour of many Objectivists and many of Rand's own utterances, that's scarcely surprising. I don't believe Burns's shortcomings in these matters resulted from negligence. Her book reeks of good faith in the way Heller's reeks of bad.

At the end of my own brief review of Burns, I said:

Ms Burns—job very, very well done. I'm a journalist by profession, and know whereof I speak. I'd say you're conventional, but sympathetic, and above all, honest. "Conventional" in the sense that you don't quite get "total passion for the total height," do you?—specially in this "cool" world—and so of course you find us Objectivists overwrought and The Fountainhead "strange." You yourself probably don't realize the way in which "Rand the Hero remains intact" in your hands. But hang in there, dear. You too can get passionate about reason and freedom! Eye

I hoped this would get her thinking about the true Objectivist position on reason and emotion. Whether or not I succeed, I believe my approach to be more rational than Binswanger's blanket condemnation. Honest critics should be enticed rather than bludgeoned, and Ms. Burns is honest, as well as having crafted a riveting account of the American Right and Rand's role in it (and out of it). I don't regard any of her omissions or commissions as "inexcusable."

With that proviso, James, congratulations on a stellar effort. It's a great exposition of Objectivism into the bargain!


Howard's picture

"Also, the substance of my own objection was simply to the use of the "Aryan" label, the problems with which I hope you can see."

Oh yes, "Aryan" is a very-very poor choice of words, James, with that I emphatically agree,. Rand's characters were simply the classic, and stereo-typical, "waspy" American types - the word "Aryan" denotes something altogether different, and has an almost "sinister" suggestion to it. No argument from me, James. I was merely applauding the fact that Mrs. Burns addressed the racial/ethnic aspect at all, since this is commonly ignored by many Objectivists.


Of Course

James S. Valliant's picture


I also agree that Nietszche was a profound influence on Rand. Since Rand herself had acknowledged this, repeatedly, it takes no great insight to see it. Rand even described how and why she became disillusioned with FN, as a philosopher. As a poet, it is clear that he very much "spoke" to Rand.

The issue I raised concerned the nature of that influence. Rand had rejected the substance of his metaphysics, epistemology and ethics in her earliest philosophical notes written in her 20s. And the simple fact remains: there is no Nietzschean idea or principle in her thought which Rand later abandoned. Burns does not identify any, nor have any others who claim Rand to have been a substantive Nietzschean.

Also, the substance of my own objection was simply to the use of the "Aryan" label, the problems with which I hope you can see.


Thank you very much.

May I be the first...

Ellen Stuttle's picture

to applaud your article, James?

It looks as if I am the first, although there are two other posts now, which weren't there when I started reading the article. Eye

For the moment, I'll just quote one paragraph as doubly resonating with my own view of Rand:

An understanding of Rand’s development as a thinker is an important topic, for, as Objectivism itself implies, she was not born an Objectivist. Rand was moved to write about the ideas and events of her time, and it is absurd to believe that she was unaffected by those events and the wider culture. But Rand remained loyal all her life to certain fundamental ideas and values that endured to the end, retaining an almost childlike lack of guile about the profound questions she had posed to herself as a youth. This innocent courage and honesty, more than any other aspects of personality, help to explain her consistency—and why Rand’s thinking was so challenging, so revolutionary.

"[A]n almost childlike lack of guile [...]. This innocent courage and honesty [...]."

It's a characteristic by which I was repeatedly struck on occasions when I observed her. It's a special characteristic, so hard to describe: that intent, innocent *directness* of hers. I think it was key -- along with her enormous brilliance -- to the course of development of her thought, to why she was able to see, as if on a straight ray of light, to the center of issues which for others were "seen through a glass darkly."


Bravo Mrs. Burns, I greatly

Howard's picture

Bravo Mrs. Burns, I greatly enjoyed reading your response !

Just a couple of points, firstly, you said, "...Nietzsche was a thinker who spoke to her, aroused her to great thought and disagreement, shaped her views and her goals and her vision of herself."

I cannot agree more, and have from my first reading of Rand, detected the echo of Nietzsche's voice and influence on her work. Personally I think it's apparent to anyone that has even a modest familiarity with Nietzsche's writings.

Later you stated, "Still, I believe the ethnicity of Rand’s characters is striking. Her two major novels are set in New York City, a polyglot metropolis with a nearly half the population of Eastern European Jewish origin, yet her massive novels are populated almost exclusively with characters who from their names and physical descriptions are of Northern European or Anglo descent. Perhaps as an individualist Rand wished to avoid any association with ethnic particularism. If so, why is the default ethnicity for Rand a bland Anglo-Saxon type? Surely this was a deliberate decision; reflecting upon her first months in Chicago, Rand characterized her Jewish relatives as not being really American. This is yet another piece of my larger argument that Rand did not stand apart from her time, but was influenced by the larger historical context in which she lived and worked. In a politically charged and moralistic novel about life in America, the absence of ethnicity is striking." Another wonderful observation on your part, and one that is often missed, and sadly, sometimes purposefully ignored by many of Rand's admirer's.

At any rate, before this thread devolves into its inevitable destination as a tiresome argument over "the Brandens", I just wanted to thank you for your book ( I am one of your readers!), and for taking the time to post on an internet chat forum.


Response to James Valliant's review of Goddess of the Market

Jennifer Burns's picture

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to James Valliant’s thoughtful review of my book. Unlike many reviewers of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Valliant does not use the review solely as a pretext to put forth his own ideas about Rand. Instead, much like reviewers who wrote for Rand’s own Objectivist Newsletter and Objectivist, he characterizes my book’s methodology and approach, grapples seriously with the issues the book raises, and then advances his own Objectivist critique. While I don’t agree with many of his criticisms, I do agree with the spirit in which he writes. In this response, I will briefly touch upon a few broad themes his review covers.

Goddess of the MarketGoddess of the MarketValliant’s attention to the context in which my book was published is welcome. In contrast to most hostile and appreciate reviewers of Goddess of the Market, Valliant is well versed in both the secondary literature about Rand and the historical literature about twentieth century conservatism and libertarianism. Thus he is willing to take my book on its own terms, as a contribution to this specific body of knowledge rather than a comprehensive treatise on all aspects of Rand’s thought. This enables him to understand that my book “provides – for the first time in detail – an account of Rand’s relationship to what has been called the ‘right wing intellectual movement of the 20th century’” and that it is “necessary reading for the serious scholar.”

Valliant also understands how unpopular Rand is in academic circles, and congratulates me on my “massive courage” for writing such an account. While I’ll accept part of this complement, it’s worth noting that my decision to study Rand was perhaps less a leap of faith than he implies. From the start of my project, I have received a great deal of interest and encouragement from most of my fellow historians, including many who consider themselves firmly on the left. Much of academia remains hostile to Rand, though at least in my discipline, the growing body of work about the political right makes her impossible to ignore. My goal was not to dispel the hostility against Rand, which is more than one book can accomplish, but I did hope to at least create a more informed hostility.
Though Valliant in general praises my research, we do disagree about the reliability of some sources I used, namely the memoirs of Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. Of course the Brandens’ memoirs inform my account: it would have been irresponsible of me as a historian to write off the accounts of the two people closest to Rand for nearly twenty years. I don’t agree that because these books have their limitations, they are irredeemably damaged as sources of information about Rand. Indeed, one of the benefits of working in the Ayn Rand Archives was that I was able to, as Valliant suggests, corroborate much of their description of Rand and their relationship with her. If my research had revealed a personality or series of events profoundly different than what the Brandens described, I would have said so: it did not. Valliant refers to the Brandens’ 1968 letter “In Response to Ayn Rand,” as evidence of their unreliability, but both Brandens have clarified in later work the very significant omissions of fact in this letter. Ultimately, all of history is a secondhand account and as Rand might say, a selective recreation of reality. Casting a wide net and reading sources with a critical eye is the best strategy for approximating the past, and accordingly I believe the testimony of all figures who knew Rand, no matter how difficult their relationship, needs to be integrated into the story of her life and development.

Valliant takes me to task for my use of the word Aryan to describe Rand’s characters, and given the historic slur that Rand is a fascist, I should have been more careful in my terminology. Still, I believe the ethnicity of Rand’s characters is striking. Her two major novels are set in New York City, a polyglot metropolis with a nearly half the population of Eastern European Jewish origin, yet her massive novels are populated almost exclusively with characters who from their names and physical descriptions are of Northern European or Anglo descent. Perhaps as an individualist Rand wished to avoid any association with ethnic particularism. If so, why is the default ethnicity for Rand a bland Anglo-Saxon type? Surely this was a deliberate decision; reflecting upon her first months in Chicago, Rand characterized her Jewish relatives as not being really American. This is yet another piece of my larger argument that Rand did not stand apart from her time, but was influenced by the larger historical context in which she lived and worked. In a politically charged and moralistic novel about life in America, the absence of ethnicity is striking. It is also unfortunate, for as I show in Goddess of the Market, many readers were quick to read their own ideas about race and ethnicity into Atlas Shrugged.

The chief thrust of Valliant’s critique, however, is that I depict Rand’s ideas as evolving rather than static, failing to appreciate “the stalwart and straight line of Rand’s own intellectual career” and to understand that “Rand was a rock of intellectual changelessness and consistency in a tumultuous sea.” In comparison to the figures Valliant cites, who made some of the wildest swings in ideology imaginable, Rand was a paragon of consistency. It is to her credit that she saw Communism for what it was right from the start – though she had “inside information” that most American intellectuals lacked – and I do not believe any attentive reader of my book would miss this aspect of Rand’s thought.

Yet for Valliant Rand is more than consistent, she is unchanging, even when her own writing indicates otherwise. Some of this may come from Valliant’s focus on her published work, when most of my book looks at the spadework that went into Rand’s publications. In these unpublished materials, I find marked differences in tone and temper – which are important to any discussion of Rand’s ideas. But for Valliant, these differences are nothing more than “stylistic adjustment to differing venues for her thought.” If Rand began writing more about philosophy in the 1960s, that fact is insignificant to Valliant and indicates nothing more than “a new interest in writing about it.” For Valliant, “The process of Rand’s development was largely the process of finding the right words to express her original intention and the language to fit her unique vision with precise clarity.”

Here we are at an impasse about the meaning and significance of language. For Valliant, language does not precisely express concepts or meaning: if Rand changed the language she used, it was not because her ideas changed but because she simply expanded the repertoire of words she had at her disposal. This argument sheds some light on why editors at the Ayn Rand Institute consider it perfectly acceptable to alter Rand’s language in compilations of her writings, speeches, and interviews. It is not, however, convincing to me, particularly when we are discussing a novelist who was legendary for her precise use of language and her desire to painstakingly craft a stylized universe. Nor is it an adequate explanation for philosophy, a field that hinges upon the precise usage of language. As Rand might say, if words don’t express meaning, then we are lost in a sea of subjectivity.

On the issue of Nietzsche, again, there is a fundamental difference between how Valliant and I characterize intellectual influence. I certainly would not lump all egoists into the Nietzschian category. But the evidence of Nietzsche’s importance to Rand is irrefutable: not only in drafts of The Fountainhead, where each section of the book is prefaced by a headnote from Nietzsche, but in the book’s 1968 twenty-fifth anniversary edition, where Rand meditates on Nietzsche as an inspiration, and in her final 1975 message in The Ayn Rand Letter where she wearily quotes his dictum “it is not my function to be a flyswatter.” Thus we see that throughout her life, Nietzsche was a touchstone for Rand, and she was profoundly influenced by his work – yet this does not mean she was a “true Nietzschian” or in agreement with the fundamentals of his philosophy. It means that Nietzsche was a thinker who spoke to her, aroused her to great thought and disagreement, shaped her views and her goals and her vision of herself.

That Valliant and I have profoundly different understandings of what it means to say one thinker influenced another comes clear in the end of his review, when he rather unfairly claims that “It is almost as if Burns, an intellectual historian, does not recognize an independent causal role for the human intellect.” My exegesis of Rand’s thought comes from eight years working in her unedited personal papers, reading her diaries, drafts, notes, correspondence, articles and books she read, daily schedules, all the ephemera of her personal and professional life. What I found in this material was not a solitary and isolated woman living atop an intellectual mountaintop, but a deeply engaged and passionate thinker who worked her way through many of the most pressing ethical issues of her time. And she did it by reading what others wrote, thinking about what others said, and then refining her own responses over time. Her intellect was the driving causal force in her life; but it drove through a landscape populated with significant others who left their mark.

In the conclusion of his review, Valliant writes that “a true rendering of Ayn Rand’s life and ideas, indeed her very spirit, still awaits its muse.” I fear here a hint that Rand’s life ought properly be written by those who accept her philosophy. This idea does disservice to Rand by claiming her for a narrow slice of her readers, those in search of a systemic philosophy and willing to embrace the one Rand created. There is far more to Rand than Objectivism, and it is not necessary to accept her philosophy in order to understand her singular contribution to American thought. Luckily as Valliant notes, with the opening of the Ayn Rand Archives, “a new era in the scholarship of Rand’s life and work has begun.”

-Jennifer Burns

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