Goddess of the Market
Ayn Rand has become fashionable again. The current economic crisis inspired a second look at Rand's prophetic novel, Atlas Shrugged, creating renewed interest in Rand herself. However, any study of Rand is sure to create controversy and Jennifer Burns' new study of Rand's politics is no exception.
One controversial aspect of Burns' work is the title: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. It seems to be a play on another article by Burns entitled: Godless Capitalism: Ayn Rand the Conservatives. I suggest the title to be badly chosen, unless intended to chase away admirers of Rand.
Rand fans ought not let the title scare them away from this book. If books should not be judged by their covers, they also should not be judged by their titles.
This is not to say that the many admirers of Rand are going to applaud everything Burns has to say. They won't. Still, they should recognize the significance of this work and ought to read it.
Burns certainly does not appear to be an Objectivist or libertarian herself. If she is, she did a good job of hiding it. There were times I thought she misunderstood something or failed to appreciate the full context of an incident, but most of those are minor flaws.
I'm reluctant to expand on those problems, however, because the final book is not due out until October. This means there is plenty of time for changes to be made; discussing flaws here may prove embarrassing, as the flaw may not appear in the final version. One small example is when Burns refers to F.A. Hayek as a conservative, a label he strenuously resisted.
For the most part, Burns has assembled a book that will interest anyone influenced by Ayn Rand. Some of the most hard-core Randians will be upset at sections, which could blind them to the importance of the work. When a major academic publisher, such as Oxford University Press, sets out to explore to the impact of Ayn Rand on American politics, that alone is a significant event. If some positions of Burns offend true believers, the mere existence of this book will send many on the far Left into frothing-at-the-mouth fits, especially since they are unlikely to find Burns negative enough to satisfy their rabid hatred of all things Rand.
Anyone who actually cares about the impact of Ayn Rand on the political scene will, however, love this book, even if they quibble with the author in various areas. What readers get out of the book will depend on their interests. Here are the areas I found most interesting:
Early in the book, Burns discusses the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on Rand. Clearly, the first edition of Rand's semi-biographical novel We the Living had strong Nietzschean elements to it, elements Rand purged when the book was reissued two decades later. Burns explores and documents the extent of Nietzsche's influence. One major advantage Burns had was access to the full collection of the Ayn Rand Archives.
Under the influence of Rand's heir, Leonard Peikoff, archives were off-limits to many scholars for years. Peikoff has a history of wanting to protect Rand's reputation, even at the expense of facts short-shrift. That Burns had full access to Rand's papers is a good sign for future Rand-related scholarship -- though Burns does warn that scholars who were involved in "Objectivist controversies" may still find themselves barred from seeing the papers.
Because of her access, Burns was able to document the influence of Nietzsche on Rand. One of the great modern myths regarding Rand is that she emerged from Russia with a fully formed philosophical system, at least in all the essentials. Burns is able to document that Rand was in the process of forming her ideas over a period of decades. And while I found her discussion of Nietzsche's influence on Rand fascinating, I thought she should have given equal emphasis to the whys and hows of Rand shifting away from Nietzsche.
There were similarities between Rand and Nietzsche, but significant differences evolved as well, as aptly illustrated in the friendship/conflict between Gail Wynand and Howard Roark, in Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Wynand is the personification of Nietzschean philosophy and Roark the symbol of mature Objectivism. In particular, Rand made clear her break with the more noxious elements of Nietzschean thinking. Wynand, who thought he could control the masses, learned he was himself at their mercy. As Rand later explained: "A leash is a rope with a noose at both ends." Roark triumphed, not Wynand. Rand emerged; Nietzsche retreated.
Burns places the evolution in Rand's views to her dealings with a wide-range of Americans she encountered as part of her campaigning for Wendell Willkie, but it is clear that this shift was well in place before the campaign began. It may be that her experiences with "middle America" cemented those changes, but I doubt the campaigning was the prime reason.
Burns also clarifies the obsession that conservative William F. Buckley had with Rand, which was mainly over religion. Buckley, being religious, decided he had to make war on the non-believer, Ayn Rand. Buckley laid the foundations for the Religious Right in America, the most noxious element of conservatism in a very long time. He may have helped revive the Right with his magazine National Review, but he also turned the Right into what it is today. One could argue that the last President Bush was Buckleystein's monster; a president so awful that even Buckley was unhappy with his own creation.
Buckley decided that a fusion of politics and religion was necessary and saw Rand, quite correctly, as a major obstacle to his goal. Yet, today, it is precisely that fusion of church and state that has alienated so many Americans from the Right, especially over the eight years of the Bush presidency. When Rand died, Buckley quite viciously wrote: "Ayn Rand is dead. So incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn." Today William F. Buckley is dead. The religiously motivated conservatism he created is in tatters and Ayn Rand's novels are enjoying a revival. Mr. Buckley spoke too soon. That cool breeze you feel is Buckley spinning in his grave.
Another area of interest was the detailed discussion of Ayn Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson. Paterson had been something of a mentor to Rand, but the two had a bitter parting of the ways. It is often assumed that Rand was probably responsible, but in this review's opinion, the facts don't support this. While there were certain philosophical differences that couldn't be glossed over, the relationship only broke after Rand's success.
After reading Burns, I concluded the break was primarily the due to Paterson. Paterson, who had considered herself to be Ayn's teacher, saw their works as competing. Also, she believed Ayn's optimistic take on the success of The Fountainhead, before it was even published, was naive at best. When Rand's book, and Paterson's work, The God of the Machine, were published, it was Rand who raced ahead in sales. Rand had said she would only consider the book a success when it sold 100,000 copies, something Paterson thought wildly optimistic. The Fountainhead is still selling that many copies each year, 60+ years after its publication.
Paterson became increasingly unpleasant as Rand succeeded. My personal impression, from descriptions offered by Burns, is that Paterson was not happy that the student had surpassed the teacher. At one point, she went so far as to tell Ayn she didn't like Jewish intellectuals -- knowing full-well that Ayn was Jewish. I think the periodica portrayal of this incident, as an "Objectivist excommunication," is wrong. At worst, if it were an excommunication it was, to paraphrase Rand, "excommunication by engraved invitation."
I found the section dealing with the reception of Atlas Shrugged fascinating to read. Many of us have long heard of the vicious and unfair reviews Rand had to endure, which Burns lays many of them out for inspection. Most have heard of the vile review William F. Buckley solicited from Whittaker Chambers, a review Chambers was reluctant to produce, but did so upon Buckley's repeated urging, but few have read in detail how pervasive similar reviews were. Rand's thesis was grossly distorted in review after review. One consequence, in my opinion, was that Ayn became far less tolerant of what she perceived as hostile questions. When one is the victim of intentional distortions it is often tempting to assume that all distortions of one's views are maliciously motivated, even when such is not the case.
One other area I found of significant interest is Burns discussion of various problems surrounding Rand documents made public by the Ayn Rand Institute, Leonard Peikoff's organization. There has been a great deal of controversy over indications that ARI doctored documents, some of which was admitted by ARI, which asserted they merely made clarifications consistent with what Rand had intended to say. Burns, who has seen the originals, says this is not the case.
She does say that the letters of Rand which have been released "have not been altered; they are merely incomplete." However, the same is not true of other works of Rand, including her Journals. Burns writes "On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand's original writing. In the book's foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand's words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many cases, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand's meaning." She says sentences are "rewritten to sound stronger and more definite" and that editing "obscures important shifts and changes in Rand's thought." She finds "more alarming" the fact that "sentences and proper names present in Rand's original have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change."
The result of this unacknowledged editing is that "they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear." She concludes that Rand's Journals, as released by ARI, "are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution."
The bad news is that "similar problems plague Ayn Rand Answers (2005), The Art of Fiction (2000), The Art of Non-Fiction (2001), and Objectively Speaking (2009)." Burns says all these works were "derived from archival material, but have been significantly rewritten." Rand scholars have long suspected such manipulation of documents; Burns confirms it with evidence she herself saw.
The great problem with such editorially imposed distortions is that they make the volumes they produce far less valuable. I hope, now that ARI has actually allowed access to the documents by scholars not guaranteed to toe the ARI line, that they will also release unedited versions of these documents. It may be fine for them to add footnotes explaining why they believe a passage shouldn't be read as written, but they should not change the passage and expect readers to take those changes on faith.
What readers get out of Goddess of the Market depends on their individual interests. Certainly, one will come away with broader understanding of Rand. At no point was I tempted to fling the book across the room, even if a few times I did sigh with annoyance. However, when the final edited version is produced later this year, I do intend to re-read the book and make notes. There are many gems in Burns' badly titled volume. The value of those gems will vary from reader to reader, but any serious Rand scholar or fan will find his or her own gems in the book.
Jennifer Burns has produced a fascinating work. It is the first serious study of Rand's ideas that had full access to Rand's own papers. As such, it is valuable. I recommend anyone interested in Ayn Rand, and Objectivism, to place their order for the book today.
Warning: This review is only about this book by Ms. Burns and does not apply to anything she has written. Recent writings by Burns made accusations that we know are false, and which we think are also cruel. The above book is still worth reading, even if Ms. Burns is not as fair as we had hoped she was.