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Monday, October 05, 2015

My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden

Having read and reviewed Barbara Branden’s biography of Ayn Rand and several of Rand’s books, I thought it might be very useful to get the perspective of someone Ayn rejected, Nathaniel Branden. One does get a different sense of Rand from this rather self-absorbed, but very interesting, memoir. Clearly Rand delighted in having young acolytes falling on her every word and interpretation, and she was not particularly tolerant toward ideas that sprang from other brains. 

This book provides a detailed insight into how she wrote, why, and a further explication of many of her fascinating ideas. For example, several people expressed concern over Rand’s ideas of altruism and selfishness. Ayn considered altruism, “the tradition that equates morality with self-sacrifice, . . . [that:] man has no right to exist for his own sake,” incompatible with capitalism, which rests on the recognition of individual rights. “When I,” Ayn said to Nathaniel, “tell people I’m opposed to altruism, they go crazy. They think it means I’m opposed to kindness, charity, benevolence, and respect for the rights of others — and yet altruism means none of those things — and people miss what it actually does mean. . . : selfsacrifice to others as the highest good. . . .I wonder what people would think if someone told them that imprinted on Nazi coins was the slogan, ‘The common good above the individual good.’ No one spoke more passionately than Hitler about the nobility of the individual sacrificing himself for the tribe — only he called it the ‘race.’ ” The critical reaction to Atlas Shrugged was often vicious, yet by word of mouth the book took off. Branden accuses the critics of not just "getting it wrong," but also misrepresenting the ideas in her work. "To me her opponents were debating with straw men. They equated her philosophy with that of Spencer or Nietzsche or Spinoza or Hobbes, thereby exposing themselves to the charge of philosophic illiteracy. What they did not do was identify accurately and then challenge the ideas for which Ayn in fact stood. No one wrote, 'Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his values and actions by reason; that the individual has a right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing self to others nor others to self; that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force, or impose ideas on others by physical force — and I consider such ideas wrong, evil, socially dangerous.' " 

Rand was equally contemptuous of both liberals and conservatives, noting that each wanted to apply social controls. “In my philosophy,” Branden quotes her as saying, “ the government’s only proper job is to protect individual rights against violence by force or fraud — to provide courts for the protection of property and the peaceful settling of contractual disputes — and a military for protection against foreign invaders. . . .The greatness of the Founding Fathers was how well they understood this issue and how close some of them came to understanding it perfectly.” 

The Brandens — not married yet, but dating in a somewhat peculiar manner — were in school in southern California during the McCarthy period, when there was concern expressed by the left wing that their views were being suppressed, and when professors were afraid to speak their minds. The Brandens observed otherwise, noting that their views supporting laissez-faire capitalism were anathema to their teachers, who virtually uniformly promoted Marxist and socialist ideology. Eventually, the Brandens fell under the intellectual sway of Ayn Rand and became part of a group that quite ironically called themselves “the Collective.” This group would gather regularly “at the feet of the master” to discuss issues. Among the more prominent members were Alan Greenspan and Allan Blumenthal. Branden later suggests that the group’s often unquestioning allegiance to Rand and her rejection of those who failed to accept her wisdom without question had cultist implications. The relationship between Nathaniel and Ayn was to become quite weird. Rand insisted that women should ideally subsume themselves to men, yet she seems to have totally dominated her husband, Frank. 

One day she announced that she and Nathaniel were to have a love affair. This was presented calmly in the presence of Frank and Barbara in a “rational” manner. The idea was that Nathaniel and she were in love and would therefore meet often to indulge their sexual desires for each other (she was quite a bit older than Nathaniel, who by this time was training to become a psychotherapist, but people have a tendency to specialize in their deficiencies). Obviously, this was stressful for the other partners; then the inevitable break came, and Ayn’s reaction when Nathaniel finally rejected her over was vicious. Nathan’s relationship with Barbara, always a bit odd, had soured and he had been smitten with a nubile young model, Patrecia who just admired him immensely. BY this time, he was the de facto spokesman for Objectivism as the creator of the Nathaniel Branden Institute — a rather narcissistic name for it — that was spreading the “gospel” throughout the U.S. Ayn was still urging Nathan to return to her romantically, but when he wrote her a long letter explaining his love for Patrecia, she exploded and cut him off from her and the Collective. 

I suspect her participation in the Objectivist movement and the Institute was an unintentional way of trying to keep him attached to her. It appears she desperately needed “adoring followers” although she had been taking large doses of amphetamines for many years by prescription to control her weight and it now appears that long-term use can make one paranoid. As he was forced out of the movement, Nathan later came to see some of the pitfalls of a movement dominated by a charismatic figure: “fanaticism, dogmatism, [and:] oppressive moralism.” It’s a fascinating story, well-told. I find Rand’s ideas appealing, particularly her emphasis on individualism and selfishness (as she defines it) and rejection of coercion of any kind. All movements eventually suffer from hardening of arterial thought that prevents growth.
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