Thank You Ayn Rand, and Goodbye
Remarks by Nathaniel Branden at REASON's tenth-anniversary banquet
When REASON's editors first got involved in the production of the magazine, they didn't have the foggiest idea how it was going to come off. Just so with the tenth-anniversary dinner.
Sure, they'd arranged for a cozy meeting room. They'd planned a nice dinner and chosen good wine. They'd managed to get the editors and a comfortable 20 or so guests together in one place. They'd lined up Dr. Nathaniel Branden to give the keynote address. But they didn't know whether, or how, it would "gel," as Bob Poole said later, confessing his jitters.
But everyone arrived, even Dr. Branden, who had been ill. After a round of drinks and congratulations and conversation, all sat down to a pleasant dinner. The waiters didn't spill anything—in fact, did a fine job of serving everyone. Banter was flying about the room: smiles and laughs prevailed.
Well, it looks like everything is going OK, even well, thought Poole—until, halfway through dinner, Dr. Branden turned to him and asked, "What would you like me to speak about tonight, Bob?" Panic: Oh, God. You mean our main speaker, the culmination of the festivities, doesn't know what he's going to talk about? In fact, Branden had prepared himself for several topics but had not yet settled on one and was probing for a push in one direction or the other. But now it was his turn to be surprised, for Poole gulped down his panic and came through with an unexpected question, one expressing his own, and what he knows to be a widely shared, puzzlement.
"Well, here we are," he replied, "gathered together with people who respect individual liberty and capitalism, celebrating the survival and prospering of a magazine that has promoted those ideas. Why isn't Ayn Rand here? She's been one of the inspirational lights for many of us. Why wouldn't she be found at anything like this? And perhaps you've thought about this and could shed some light on why it's so." Dr. Branden had and did.
In a way his comments were so appropriate for an audience of the small size assembled that night, that the editors at first shied away from publishing them. But, believing that his insights and the personal force of his statement do come through in the printed word, they decided to go ahead and share Dr. Branden's comments with the REASON audience.
It was very exciting to listen tonight, and I felt all of your excitement as you were listening, because it's nice to see some people do something crazy and pull it off. Ten years ago, let's face it, most of us were younger than we are now! And starting this magazine just in the manner that's been described—it's very exciting to think where it's come in the last 10 years.
And of course, I relate it to my own experiences when I started NBI in 1958, because, as you may or may not know, Miss Rand was not enthusiastic at all over the whole notion of Nathaniel Branden Institute, or Nathaniel Branden Lectures as it was called originally. And that's relevant to mention by way of preparing the ground for the subject I've been asked to talk about this evening.
She had been receiving for many years a great many letters of inquiry about her philosophy, and I formed the idea of preparing a basic lecture course on her philosophy. Since the story is told in Who Is Ayn Rand? I won't go into it now. But it was very interesting psychologically that here was a woman who, in her writing and in her philosophical thinking , is very, very daring and innovative and certainly knows how to think off the beaten track and to think outside of ruts; but in the ordinary practical conduct of real-life affairs, her thinking was and is in many ways very conventional.
The idea—that you'd offer lectures, there'd be no university accreditation, for a philosophy conceived by someone whose reputation was as a novelist—it is crazy right? It was totally crazy. Except that it worked. It worked because there was enormous interest in her books, which was not only a response on a literary level, as powerful as that response was; it was also, as you know, a powerful intellectual interest. But I didn't know the magnitude of that; I didn't quite conceive in 1958 that when I closed the Institute in 1968 we'd be in 80 cities offering courses. Still, what was terribly interesting is that all along the way she was watching this with a kind of fascinated, increasingly happy but somewhat incredulous, gaze.
Being kind of young and cocky at the time, I was too pleased with what was happening and the excitement of making it happen to really pause on the strangeness of it—because I didn't think it was all that strange, just as the people who started REASON didn't think it was all that strange. You begin with an attitude, Well, it seems like a good idea; why not? And if you're using your brains and you're not reckless or irresponsible, you have a reasonably decent chance of succeeding. Which is really the ideal way to think.
One of the things, especially as a psychologist, that I'm very interested in and sensitive to is that a lot of the things people daydream about and think, Gee, wouldn't it be fantastic if I could do that? really are nowhere near as complex or difficult as they imagine. The most difficult step is the first—the belief that you can do it. And it occurred to me as I was thinking about my remarks this evening that in a way I'm echoing some of the themes that Jack Wheeler talks about in his book on adventure [The Adventurer's Guide]. This is Jack's message, that if you think about going into the jungle or climbing the Matterhorn or doing some of these other things, it's really not all that difficult. The biggest hurdle is the first one—to get it through your head that if you really want to do it and are willing to put in a reasonable amount of effort to make it work, there's a very good chance that you can succeed. Now naturally, as we get older, most people tend to rigidity somewhat in the thinking and cockiness and willingness to try things that you often see among young people. It's sometimes said that the young have less to lose, and maybe that's true.
Coming now specifically to Ayn Rand, the first thing to understand about Miss Rand is that she may be unique in her genius and in her positive contributions, but not in her particular problems or blind spots. Her problems or blind spots are very frequently found among intellectual innovators or leaders of new intellectual positions. Look, for example, in my own field, at one of the great geniuses in psychology and psychiatry, Wilhelm Reich. Now he had a lot of the same suspiciousness, the same super preoccupation with loyalty, the tendency to view himself perhaps as a martyr and almost to create his own martyrdom. Or one thinks of Freud and the rings that he gave to his select circle; they were to be the keepers of the faith and to protect the purity of the original position.
The history of thought is replete with examples of this pattern. Whether it's a way of handling the terrible intellectual loneliness or isolation of the starting years; whether it's a consequence of having absorbed a great deal of hurt, or intellectual or personal rejection, in the early years and not knowing how to process it—whatever the reasons, nothing is more common among intellectual innovators than increasing suspiciousness of the slightest deviations among followers and a tremendous preoccupation with protecting "their baby." And I've got a lot of sympathy for that, a lot of understanding.
So we have to look at Ayn Rand in context and realize that we may be disappointed, personally, that some of her attitudes are what they are regarding the libertarian movement, for example—because she happens to operate in an intellectual arena of great interest to us. But it isn't that we have been singled out for bad luck! Or that she represents a rare species of perversity. If you have created a new intellectual system—or new in important respects—which rightly or wrongly you perceive as a highly integrated structure, the desire to preserve it in its totally undiluted form is as understandable as it is unrealistic. To me it is totally understandable and totally unrealistic.
Friends ask me, "Nathaniel, how do you feel when you train certain young psychologists who begin as great admirers of yours and reach a point where they are ready now to correct you?" This to me is so much the nature of life that it's absolutely nothing to get into a fit about. The one thing we should be able to do, it seems to me, is to be at least realistic about the inevitability of the fact that when people are young, and you open up a new world to them, in the beginning you are everything. You are so rich in what you have to offer, you open up such vast continents, that there are early years when followers and admirers are quite content to play entirely within your field.
But there comes a point, especially when the followers are bright—and this tends to be less true in proportion as they are less bright—where some reasonable degree of assimilation and integration has taken place and all of us…part of being mature means leaving home. Now leaving home does not mean rebelling against intellectual positions that one is rationally convinced are true. And there are a lot of pretentious persons who do try to make their names, reputations, or self-esteem by gunning down whoever was the big figure before them. But I'm not talking about those types, some of whom unfortunately, are quite prominent in the libertarian movement. But if you subtract any malevolent motivations, there remains the fact that people want to move into new territory and to feel free to do so.
At this point, the leader has got a choice—three choices. He can say, "You're a bunch of disloyal traitors and sons of bitches, and curse you all." Or he can say, "I respect your need to move along this path. I don't agree with some of the conclusions you are drawing, and I think we should here go our separate ways without ill will." Or he/she might be able to say, "I understand why this is happening. I'm taking the position that I take, and I can handle these differences." Now, positions two and three are preferable to one, because one is very unrealistic. It can never be the case that you are going to create a living intellectual system and everybody who comes after you will never say or write anything whose truth you don't instantly perceive. To make that demand is so unrealistic that it's very, very sad that we should see it implicitly made by a champion of autonomy and independent thinking. So that's what makes the case of Ayn Rand perhaps depressing—because she specifically has made such an issue of the importance of independent thinking.
Now, let's talk more specifically about her attitude toward libertarianism, as I understand it. I remember when the word "libertarianism" first came out, and it's very interesting. I said, "Hey, Ayn, the word is new. It's a bit awkward, but I like it." She said, "I don't. I think it's a terrible word. It's a coined word." And I said, "The reason I like the word 'libertarianism' is that I don't like to define our social philosophy by reference to capitalism. Because capitalism, specifically, historically, stands for an economic system—to say nothing of the fact that it was coined by capitalism's enemies as a smear word. What I like about 'libertarianism' is that it names something more philosopically fundamental than economics, which is the issue of social and political freedom. So it may take a decade for the word to sound comfortable on our lips, but it's worth it because we're missing a word to stand for that in the language." Well, I remember having this disagreement, and it goes back to the fact that it's not something that already exists.
Now, when people come out in favor of libertarianism, judging from her published and stated comments, they are in a very difficult position. If they are totally committed followers of her philosophy, they tend not to get involved in political action. For the message which was clearly sent out—through the pages, for example, of the Objectivist Newsletter—was that people who like or agree with the philosophy of Ayn Rand should best devote all of their energies to (a) studying and understanding it and (b) encouraging others to do likewise—totally ignoring the fact that for a great many people, after a certain point, that is not yet a career. It just isn't.
Suppose that your arena were not theoretical philosophy, or even if it were, you were really interested in political philosophy and you even wanted to move back and forth between political philosophy on the academic level and some form of social education or political action of a more popular orientation. Now, you had three possibilities relative to Miss Rand, all of them filled with trouble. You could argue for freedom, political rights, and capitalism without reference to her arguments, in which case you were very foolish indeed, because you were not availing yourself of some of the most powerful arguments available in support of social and political freedom and capitalism. And if you don't say, "Well, I'll just steer clear of this altogether," then you run the risk of making mistake number two, which is: you use her ideas. Now you are, to use her phrase, a "plagiarist." But you can't plagiarize ideas; you can plagiarize statements. And for her to use such a phrase as "plagiarizing my ideas" is really incredible for a person who ordinarily thinks as carefully as she does. But if you made the third move, which is to quote her, you are now using her to boost activities that she doesn't approve of. The point is that you're locked into a no-win position.
Now, I can understand a thinker saying, "What I'm really interested in is my own intellectual creation. That is my life. That is my love affair; that is my mission to do this work; and the truth is I don't really give a damn about the arena of direct political action. It doesn't suit me temperamentally; it doesn't suit me emotionally; it's not my game." I can practically make that speech, so how can I not be sympathetic to it? It's a completely acceptable position, so long as you know it's a personal preference, so long as you know you're talking as a human being saying, "Look, here is what I want to do. If you want to learn from me, fine; if you want to use me, fine. Please don't quote me out of context." But she's not the first thinker in history and she certainly won't be the last whose primary obsession was to have total control over the content of any use of any part of her philosophy.
Now for me, one of the great misfortunes is that a lot of people today are not using her when they need to be, because often she has much more powerful arguments than the arguments which are in use. And too often people use her arguments but conveniently forget where they came from, or at least do not acknowledge them in contexts where it's clearly required. There are outrageous examples of this—prominent libertarian thinkers who take positions which no pre-Ayn Rand writer ever took, specifically with regard to her ethical orientation. But we won't get into that story.
I remember when John Hospers was the candidate and Rand was talking at Ford Hall Forum, and somebody asked her, what did she think about the Libertarian Party? And I'm sure many of you are familiar with her answer. I can no longer quote it verbatim, but the essence of her attack then was that these are irresponsible mediocrities who are trying to "cash in" on her name and work and reputation. And I was thinking, what could anybody have done then not to earn that appellation? If you didn't use her ideas, you really were a lunatic. And if you did, you were cashing in on her work. So by setting up an alternative of that kind, the message is clear: Look folks, you are pouring your energy into the wrong activity. Instead of running for president or educating the public about capitalism, you should be getting the world to read Atlas Shrugged. I don't know of any other way to understand her message.
As it happens, I think that getting the world to read Atlas Shrugged is one of the most worthwhile political activities I can think of, because I doubt if any other single book, certainly in the 20th century, has converted so many people to capitalism. I know that for many liberals—Edith Efron being one—the biggest intellectual event of their lives, in terms of a reorientation, was reading Atlas. But getting the world to read it is not the only worthwhile political activity, so it would have been better had she said, "Look, I'm really not interested in these other activities. It's not my mission." But there was this great concern with protecting the baby. So that the intellectual world, in the end falls into three categories: the totally loyal, who generally originate or create almost nothing—and I offer the public record; the explicit intellectual enemies; and the totally "depraved"—the admirers who go their own way.
AYN RAND'S MISSION
But there's no point in getting mad at Miss Rand. I think one has to accept the fact…here is my deepest view of Ayn Rand. Carl Jung speaks a great deal of his notion—for which I have a deep emotional sympathy; in fact, I think I could even give you a scientific argument for it—that human beings have a mission and that the task of life for each one of us is to learn what we are to do and do it. And not to run away from our destiny. And that enormous courage is sometimes required, first to discover what one's reason for being here is, and then to follow that path. I really feel—I won't say from the day she was born, but from very early in her life—her personality crystallized in such a way that her destiny was to write Atlas Shrugged. In a very profound sense, that's what she came here for. And in a very real way, she died when she finished it. And no superficial popular explanations or even the jargon of professional psychiatrists and psychologists is ever going to begin to encompass the complexity of her personality or the complexity of the factors that lie behind her choices and responses. But I really feel, when you add it all up, that the luckiest beneficiaries of her work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.
So in a certain way, my advice to the editors of REASON and the writers for REASON, and to libertarians in general, is not to curse her, certainly not to get one's feelings hurt, but to say, "OK, she made an incredible intellectual contribution. My job is to understand it and to use it, when I think it's valid, and to follow my own growth and my own development—but acknowledge what my sources are when they are indeed my sources, and don't lie to myself or to anybody else about it."
Don't expect anything of her as a person. Don't expect help. Don't expect understanding. Don't expect sympathy. Don't even expect sanity. Say, "Thank you," and let go. Which is what I have done. Then you can feel comfortable to quote her, to pay her the compliments she deserves, to disagree with her when that's necessary, and from her, the person, to count on nothing.
It occurs to me that on one level this should sound tragic, but that's not how I'm feeling. There's something more profound here. Perhaps I owe it to her that I understand this issue as clearly as I do. It's a respect for what is. This is just the way it is. And the most holy, sacred thing in the world is a fact. And if any of us feel or believe that, she's probably made some contribution to our feeling or believing it.
Nathaniel Branden, for many years associated with Ayn Rand and the Nathaniel Branden Institute, is the author of Who Is Ayn Rand?, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Thank You Ayn Rand, and Goodbye".