[ExI] Attacking Rand

Fred C. Moulton moulton at moulton.com
Wed Jun 10 04:12:05 UTC 2009

Since the question was asked about why Rand keeps being mentioned, I
thought I would write up a few notes about Rand and Objectivism.  I am
not an Objectivist or a follower of Rand.  I am not a Rand scholar such
as Chris Matthew Sciabarra.  So please double-check my comments.

First I think it is helpful to distinguish several different things:
- The person of Ayn Rand
- The philosophy of Ayn Rand
- The definitions of specific terms
- The novels and other fiction of Ayn Rand
- The non-fiction of Ayn Rand
- The scholarly, academic and organizational legacy of Ayn Rand
- The general opinions, comments, rants, delusions, great insights of
all other persons.

The reason I split these out (and this is not the only way to split
them) is that too often people confuse different categories and thus get
horribly confused.

There are various books about the life of Rand.  Some better than
others.  The key things to remember is that she was born in Russia in
1905 and saw first hand what the Bolsheviks did.  Her family suffered
although certainly not as bad as many others.  She was able to get out
of the USSR and get to the USA.  My opinion is that what she saw in the
USSR had a deep impact on her and that is why she was so strident in her
advocacy of reason and her opposition to fascism and communism and
collectivism in general.

Objectivism is the term Rand used for her philosophy.  I am not an
Objectivist but I know enough about it to know that it has its good
points and its weaknesses.  People who really want to know more about it
can find several books as well as online sources.  One big problem is
people criticizing Objectivism without really studying it.

One of the difficulties that arises when people speak of Rand and her
ideas is that Rand like many thinkers used some very specific meanings
for certain terms.  In English many words have a variety of meanings and
nuances; often the specific meaning can be determined by context.  If
the meaning is not evident from the context then hopefully the author
will specify the meaning.  Unfortunately while Rand did specify meanings
there are those who want to discuss Rand without first checking her
usage.  One term which causes some difficulty is "altruism"; when Rand
was speaking against altruism she was speaking against the idea that
concern for one's own desires and goals is evil.  There is much more to
her ideas about altruism but hopefully this gives a flavor of her usage
and I think one can see how her thought was probably influenced by her
experiences in the USSR.  Rand was not saying that being helpful or
having a sense of benevolence is necessarily wrong.  This is too complex
subject adequately cover here.  Another term that is often misunderstood
is Capitalism.  Rand was an strong advocate of a free market and used
Capitalism to refer to a market without government interference.
Unfortunately for some persons the term Capitalism means mercantilism or
some variant. 

Rand wrote several novels and shorter works.  Her most well known is
Atlas Shrugged.  It was published in 1957 and I seem to recall seeing a
comment that it has been in print in hard cover since it was published.
Which is not bad for a book over 1000 pages; there is also paperback
editions.  I just checked the Amazon sales rank and Atlas Shrugged in
#211.  Atlas Shrugged was Rand's final novel.  The novel was not
generally received with great critical acclaim; for example the
conservative magazine National Review published a harsh review of it.
The popularity seemed to be from work of mouth driving sales.

Rand wrote various non-fiction works dealing with her philosophy,
commenting on contemporary events and advocating for her ideas.  She was
an atheist and was not shy about admitting it.  Her non-fiction is not
as widely read as her fiction however I think all of her non-fiction
books are still in print. 

There are scholars who have been examining the work of Rand.  I have not
read but have heard interesting things about the collection of essays
edited by Gladstein and Sciabarra titled Feminist Interpretations of Ayn
Rand (Re-Reading the Canon).  Sciabarra also wrote a book about Rand
titled Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.  There are various organizations
focused on Rand, two of the largest are The Ayn Rand Institute and The
Atlas Society.  The Ayn Rand Institute was established by Leonard
Peikoff (designated by Rand as her heir) and The Atlas Society (formerly
known as The Institute for Objectivist Studies) was established by David
Kelley.  My understanding is that Kelly was expelled from the Ayn Rand
Institute which is why he found a rival institute.  I am not well
acquainted with the current status of either institute but from what
little I know I think The Atlas Society has a more expansive
intellectual perspective.

Now we come to all of the stuff that people write in books, blogs, email
lists, newsletters and the profound insights that occur over beers at a
bar.  This is where it gets messy.  A lot of the discussion about Rand
is done by persons who have not read Rand or even a scholarly study of
Rand but wind up repeating things which sound vaguely plausible which
they heard from someone else.  Part of the reason for this is that there
appear to be some (but not all) fans of Rand who do not have the best
social and communication skills.  However there as mentioned previously
some good work done on Rand and her ideas.  For person who do not want
to read an entire book on Rand I would suggest the essays about Rand
written by George H. Smith in his book titled Atheism, Ayn Rand, and
Other Heresies.  I have known George for about 20 years and while I do
not agree with everything he writes I find him insightful and
interesting.  In his book he has three essays about Rand and Objectivism
which try to give a critical analysis of Rand and her ideas as well as
some of the phenomena of the Objectivist movement.

Now with all of the above as background we can look why Rand keeps
popping up.  Leaving aside the attention Rand gets for things she never
said or advocated there is something that keeps her current.  One
hypothesis that I have been considering is that in Atlas Shrugged
particularly Rand attacks the idea that success is based on having
connections with those in power.  The character of Dagny Taggart is
constantly battling for resources for the railroad to be purchased in an
open market and not allocated by cronyism in Washington.  I suspect that
someone who was opposed to cronyism and favoritism and had a more sense
that cronyism was not just would be drawn to Rand and her ideas.

As to why some people do not like Rand.  I suspect that there are some
who just do not like her style of writing.  Rand had very specific ideas
about writing style and wrote a book about fiction writing.  There are
other people who might object to the issues Rand raised or the positions
Rand took.  One thing Rand did was be very outspoken and raise questions
in a sharp and sometimes aggressive manner.  Whether how a person feels
about a writer's ideas is a major factor in how that person evaluates
the plot, characters, story of novel would be an interesting study.  

During the last twenty years or so Atlas Shrugged has began to be
translated into various languages so we will see if the work does well
in non-English speaking countries.  Atlas Shrugged does have the
difficulty of being written in the 1950s and focused on trains rather
than airplanes.  So it has an "older" feel to it.

I hope these comments have been helpful.  Unfortunately these comments
only touch the surface and are very incomplete but I hope they will be
useful as a starting point.


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