Corey Robin’s new article in the Nation is about as entertaining and frankly harsh as anything that’s recently been written on Ayn Rand. What has always baffled me the most is the reverence that she gets among her modern admirers as a serious thinker whose Objectivist “philosophy” (philosophy used here in the most broad terms) made genuine discoveries about human nature. People who know the least bit about Rand must have come across her admiration of Aristotle and Nietzsche, and her dislike of Kant. Of course, this is not to say that she had more than a cursory understanding of their thought. For example, as Robin points out:
Rand also liked to cite Aristotle’s law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand “A is A”—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state. That particular transport sent Rand’s admirers into rapture and drove her critics, even the friendliest, to distraction. Several months before his death in 2002, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the most analytically sophisticated of twentieth-century libertarians, said that “the use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic…is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.” In 1961 Sidney Hook wrote in the New York Times,
“Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth…. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.”
The fact that both Nozick and Hook – two immensely knowledgeable people about philosophy, neither of whom one would confuse for socialists – were able to call out Rand for her lack of knowledge about the topic must stand for something.
Admittedly, Robin becomes too overzealous in his critique when he attempts to link elements of Rand’s thought to fascism, tracing both of their origins to Nietzsche. Rand’s fascination with the heroic figure who stands head and shoulders above the faceless masses has a topical resemblance to the fascist cult of the leader. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical about going too far with this association. For one, fascist ideology held to a largely organic view of society, where economic concerns were to be secondary to the principles of national homogeneity and loyalty to the state. In this manner, fascism attempted to suppress class conflict by rooting it in a deeper, more fundamental notion: alternately, the Nation, the State, or the Race. The fault lines of class are much more prominent in Rand’s work, where one’s survival becomes inseparably linked to success in a market economy. And although she doesn’t always paint class hierarchy in economic terms, preferring instead to justify it on some basis of moral superiority or virtuosity, class antagonisms remain implicitly fundamental.
Another reason why it isn’t very accurate to call Rand a fascist is because it seems to me there’s a much more obvious intellectual tradition she was drawing upon – classical liberalism. Although these notions first originated in England, the fascination with property rights and possessive individualism of a most radical type makes Rand an inheritor of a uniquely American strand of Whig thought. The Anti-Federalist political tradition would have been a welcome comparison if not for their blending of rugged individualism with an un-Randian emphasis on community. Nineteenth-century anarchist individualism could be a more likely analogue, particularly since American anarchism of that time period was far more individualist in focus than its European, leftist counterpart. Of course, to get at the root of Randism, either of these these intellectual sources would have to be updated to provide the peculiar Cold War context that undoubtedly influenced her. Throw in some Nietzsche for the purposes of philosophical credibility and the self-establishment of a Randian cult of personality, and what you have is a “philosophy” whose popularity today reveals the low standards for what passes as insight in our times.