Blogs > Liberty and Power > Ayn Rand's Left-Libertarian Legacy

Feb 2, 2006

Ayn Rand's Left-Libertarian Legacy

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Today is Ayn Rand’s birthday.

Last year, for her centenary, I wrote about Rand’s legacy for libertarians generally. This year I want to write about her legacy for left-libertarians in particular.

Rand’s legacy? For left-libertarians? Such a proposal might well engender skepticism. Sure, Rand’s critical attitude toward religion, tradition, and “family values” has sometimes led paleolibertarians to view her as a lefty; but on a broad range of other issues she is easily viewed as decidedly right-leaning. Consider:

  • On issues of war and peace, Rand denied that the U.S. was an imperial power; dismissed the military-industrial complex as “a myth or worse”; advocated censoring antiwar activists; favoured entangling alliances with Israel, Taiwan, and other tripwire regions; and saw no moral problem with bombing innocent civilians. (In fact she wrote an unproduced screenplay celebrating the development of the atomic bomb.)

  • On the domestic front, Rand cooperated with HUAC; sided with cops and bureaucrats against the 60s student movement; defended copyright censorship and patent protectionism; said she wished she could do for McCarthy what Zola did for Dreyfus; and – despite the corporate class’s secure hold on state power – called big business a “persecuted minority.”

  • In cultural matters too, Rand could often be profoundly conservative: she attacked feminism and homosexuality; declared environmentalism per se to be anti-civilisation; denied value to nonwestern cultures (calling Arabs “savages,” for example); promoted male supremacy (e.g., declaring man the “metaphysically dominant sex,” insisting that only men were qualified for the Presidency, and glamorizing rape in her fiction); and even assailed abstract art.
Yes, alas, all that is true; but it’s not the whole story. There is another side to Rand’s legacy that should not be lost sight of.

  • At a time when many libertarians tended to think of their movement as a sub-variety of conservatism, Rand’s insistence that she was not conservative but radical, her break with the Buckleyite right (five years before Rothbard’s), and her recognition that mainstream liberalism was fascist rather than socialist were important factors in laying the groundwork for libertarians’ ideological awakening and re-emergence as a movement separate from conservatism.

  • On foreign policy: Rand was less hawkish than she sometimes sounds – and certainly less hawkish than the Institute that today bears her name – for she opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam; and Rand’s analysis of the interconnection between militarism and interest-group politics (see Chris Sciabarra’s discussion) amounts to a quite keen understanding of the military-industrial complex, whatever she preferred to call it.

  • Likewise, the popular image of Rand as an apologist for big business obscures the fact that the majority of businessmen in her novels are unimaginative conformists, arbitrary and tyrannical toward their subordinates, and eagerly running to government for favours; the Hank Reardens and Dagny Taggarts are decidedly portrayed as exceptions. And her discussions of the rise of neofascism in America show that she recognised the sins of the business class in reality as well.

  • Rand understood and emphasised the interlocking, systemic connections between governmental and cultural factors (see Chris’s book on this), recognising, as left-libertarians traditionally have, that activism directed toward changing government is futile without a more broadly based cultural transformation; and her analysis of tribalism and the anti-conceptual mentality is invaluable in understanding how racism, sexism, and nationalism operate.

  • On feminism, Rand’s attitudes appear conflicted; yes, she said some very anti-feminist things, but she also championed women’s choice of career over domesticity; firmly defended the right to abortion; created one of the strongest independent heroines in literature (particularly for 1957!); and endorsed one of the founding classics of second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. The 19th-century left-libertarians understood the role of the ethics of self-sacrifice in maintaining the subjection of women, and Rand deserves credit for reviving, however incompletely, that diagnosis.

  • As for art: in an early draft of We the Living, Rand wrote admiringly of the infiltration of Western abstract imagery into Soviet Russia: “laughing, defiant broken lines and circles cutting triangles, and triangles splitting squares, the new art coming through some crack in the impenetrable barrier.” So it seems she was not always immune to the expressive power of abstract art. Indeed, the entire Fountainhead could be seen as a hymn to abstract art – a fact that reportedly (and unfortunately) led her in later and more rigidified life to repudiate the account of architectural art she had defended in the novel. In short, the young Rand was a good deal less culturally conservative than the later Rand. (In fact, I have the impression that in earlier years she was generally more open-minded; would she have become such a fan of the egalitarian socialist Hugo or the Christian existentialist Dostoyevsky if she had first read them in 1960?)
It transpires, then, that there are in effect two Rands, or two strands in Rand: a left-libertarian, feminist, anti-militarist, anti-corporatist, benevolent, experimental strand, and a conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, flag-worshipping, boss-worshipping, dogmatic strand. Which strand represents the “true” Rand? Well, both of them; she just is precisely the person who tried to combine these two strands.

A better question is: which strand most accurately expresses her fundamental principles? And here it seems to me that the answer is: the left-libertarian strand. The conservative strand, as I see it, is in large part (not entirely – human psychology and intellectual development are complex matters, and I don’t mean to be offering some sort of reductionist account) an expression of Rand’s understandably hostile reaction to the Soviet environment in which she was raised. I suspect that she tended to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything (well, almost anything – not atheism, obviously, or contextual analysis) that reminded her of Soviet propaganda or was associated in any way with pro-Soviet sympathies. Hence anything that championed labour against capital, or denounced the United States as imperialistic, or otherwise savoured of left-wing critiques, was likely to trigger her ire. (Maybe this is the story with regard to art also. In the 1920s and 30s, when the Soviets were denouncing abstract art as an expression of western decadence, she liked such art and even found it liberating; in later years, living in the west where leftists had embraced abstract art, she came to detest it. Might it really be that simple? Certainly the Rand who wrote The Fountainhead was eminently equipped to answer the objections to abstract art raised by the later Rand.)

But if we leave aside the influence of anti-Soviet sentiment and simply consider in what direction a radical, contextual-analysis-oriented, secular, individualist, anti-traditionalist, anti-sacrificial libertarian ethic is most naturally developed – it’s left-libertarianism, man.

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More Comments:

Steve Jackson - 2/4/2006

I meant favorite as in "most illuminating."

Roderick T. Long - 2/4/2006

FWIW, I have an article on Rand and Kripke in the latest issue of JARS:

Roderick T. Long - 2/4/2006

Yes, that quote is a good example of Rand mistaking one of her flaws for a virtue.

But why is it your favourite Rand quote? That seems like picking a painter's worst painting as your favourite work of that painter. Why not the painter's best painting?

Steve Jackson - 2/4/2006

My favorite Rand quote:

"I am incapable of switching the definitions of my concepts to fit each separate occasion and of letting them mean one thing when I use them, but another Bertrand Russell uses them, and a third when you [J. Hospers] use them." (Letters, 536)

Steve Jackson - 2/4/2006

I agree with your first two (or three) points, but even in her published writings she had a hard time discussing someone on his own terms. Her Marginalia is a good way of viewing her "unplugged" (although that it was published probably says more about her admirers).

I read Naming and Necessity recently, so I'll have to reread ITO.

Roderick T. Long - 2/4/2006

By "mystic" she meant any epistemology she considered irrationalist; it wasn't a specific reference to religion. As for the Pope reference, I reckon that was metaphorical; she (rightly or wrongly) saw Lewis as advocating a return to the medieval view where reason could operate only within boundaries marked out by faith.

In any case, a thinker should hardly be judged by what they jotted in the margins of books they were reading, rather than what they actually prepared for publication.

Certainly Rand could be guilty of philosophical sloppiness; but on the other hand she developed, independently, a theory of meaning and reference similar in many ways to the Putnam-Kripke theory (which is widely considered one of the foremost philosophical achievements of the 20th century). If that doesn't make her worth taking seriously as a philosopher, what could?

Steve Jackson - 2/4/2006

The more I study philosophy the more convinced I am that Rand wasn't particularly original or profound.

In her Marginalia she accuses von Mises (who wasn't religious) of being a "mystic" and C.S. Lewis of wanting science "subservient to the pope" (Lewis was an Anglican).

It's hard to take someone like this seriously.

Roderick T. Long - 2/3/2006

In writings after World War II she expressed opposition to US entry into both WWI and WWII; see the citations in the Sciabarra essay I linked to. I don't know what her attitude was toward either war at the time it was happening.

I'm guessing you were puzzled because you think of "opposing" as something one only does toward things that aren't past yet and are still preventable. I don't use "oppose" that way -- I find it natural to say that I'm opposed to the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest -- but now that I think about it your usage is probably closer to ordinary usage.

Paul Noonan - 2/3/2006

"Rand...opposed U.S. involvement in World War 1, World War 2, Korea and Vietnam..."

I'm not a Rand fan, reading THE FOUNTAINHEAD and a few of her essays was quite enough for me,so I'm not terrribly well informed on her views, but what does the above statement mean?

In 1917-18 when the US partipated in WW1 she was 12-13 years old and in Russia. Do you mean she LATER made some statement that US participation in WW1 was a mistake. And did she opposed WW2 before or after Pearl Harbor. It is my impression that antiwar sentiment after Pearl Harbor was limited to hardcore pacifists (mostly religious), Axis sympathizers and a few anarchists and others on the far left who took a "no war but the class war" postion.

Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

I think that's true to a considerable extent -- but on the other hand one can find pro-war and anti-war, pro-feminist and anti-feminist, etc. sentiments chronologically intermingled in her writings.

Justin Raimondo - 2/2/2006

I think if you look at this chronologically, in terms of Rand's life, you'll find that the "left" aspects were manifested in her youth, and the "right" aspects as she aged.

Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

By (a), (b), (c), I mean (1), (2), (3).

My web skills seem rather scattered today.

Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

Let's try that again:

a) Re "left" and "right," I've tried to say a bit about what I mean by "left-libertarian" here and here. See also Brad Spangler here, Kevin Carson here, Karl Hess (via Wally Conger) here, and Charles Johnson and me here.

b) I'm not quite sure what you're getting at in (b).

c) I didn't claim Rand was REALLY left-libertarian, in fact I claimed precisely the opposite. And my explanation for why, e.g., she stuck with Nixon and attacked Rothbard is just the one I gave in the post.

Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2006

a) Re "left" and "right," I've tried to say a bit about what I mean by "left-libertarian" here and here. See also Brad Spangler here, Kevin Carson here, Karl Hess (via Wally Conger) here, and Charles Johnson and me