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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Murray Rothbard, Nathaniel Branden, and Ayn Rand

Murray Rothbard
When Murray N. Rothbard met Ayn Rand in 1958, he was a great devotee of her literature and philosophy. He thought that Atlas Shrugged was the greatest book, fiction or nonfiction, ever written. But within six months Rothbard was excommunicated from Rand’s circle by Nathaniel Branden (then Rand’s main associate and lover) who was infuriated by Rothbard’s failure to acknowledge Rand as the source of some ideas on causality and free will that he had used in his essay.

Branden offers a brief description of this episode in his book My Years With Ayn Rand—but his account is not convincing, because he does not give any clue about the nature of the ideas that he believed Rothbard had picked up from Rand. In any case, Rothbard claimed (and proved) that he had got those ideas from an Aristotelian scholar in the Middle Ages and not from Rand. I think Branden got Rothbard excommunicated over a non-issue. If the ideas were originally developed by a philosopher in the Middle Ages, then there was no need for Rothbard to acknowledge Rand as the source. Rand didn’t originate those ideas; someone else did.

Rothbard’s excommunication didn’t go as smoothly as other Objectivist excommunications of that period. He was not a pushover—instead of disappearing quietly into the sunset, he retaliated by declaring an all out intellectual war on those who had dared to excommunicate him. He went on to write several articles in which he savagely attacked Rand and Branden, and brought to light a number of inconsistencies in their philosophy of Objectivism.

In 1968, it was Branden’s turn to get excommunicated from Rand’s circle. Of course, his excommunication was much more dramatic and emotionally charged than that of Rothbard.

Rothbard’s polemical essay, “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult,” is a devastating critique of Rand's Objectivist movement. He sees two parts in Rand’s movement — the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric component is attractive as it is explicitly atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of reason, but the esoteric component is problematic as it preaches “slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person’s individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.”

He notes that the “Rand cult was concerned not with every man’s individuality, but only with Rand’s individuality, not with everyone’s right reason but only with Rand’s reason.” He reveals that when Branden was excommunicated by Rand, a former friend sent him a letter proclaiming that the only moral thing that he could do was to commit suicide. From this Rothbard infers that Rand’s movement is not pro-individual but pro-Rand.

According to Rothbard, the structure of the Objectivist movement was strictly regimented and hierarchical. Here’s an excerpt:
And the Randian movement was strictly hierarchical. At the top of the pyramid, of course, was Rand herself, the Ultimate Decider of all questions. Branden, her designated “intellectual heir,” and the St. Paul of the movement, was Number 2. Third in rank was the top circle, the original disciples, those who had been converted before the publication of Atlas. Since they were converted by reading her previous novel, The Fountainhead, which had been published 1943, the top circle was designated in the movement as “the class of '43.” But there was an unofficial designation that was far more revealing: “the senior collective.” On the surface, this phrase was supposed to “underscore” the high individuality of each of the Randian members; in reality, however, there was an irony within the irony, since the Randian movement was indeed a “collective” in any genuine meaning of the term. Strengthening the ties within the senior collective was the fact that each and every one of them was related to each other, all being part of one Canadian Jewish family, relatives of either Nathan or Barbara Branden. There was, for example, Nathan’s sister Elaine Kalberman; his brother-in-law, Harry Kalberman; his first cousin, Dr. Allan Blumenthal, who assumed the mantle of leading Objectivist Psychotherapist after Branden’s expulsion; Barbara’s first cousin, Leonard Piekoff; and Joan Mitchell, wife of Allan Blumenthal. Alan Greenspan’s familial relation was more tenuous, being the former husband of Joan Mitchell. The only non-relative in the class of '43 was Mary Ann Rukovina, who made the top rank after being the college roommate of Joan Mitchell. 
I find it strange that most members in Rand’s inner circle were Branden’s relatives and friends. Even Leonard Peikoff who took over after Branden was shunted out was the cousin of Branden’s wife, Barbara. Why couldn’t Rand find better people than the friends and relatives of Branden to develop and propagate her philosophy?

Rothbard’s conclusion in the essay is that Objectivism is not a philosophy of reason; it is a philosophy for a cult. He says that “power not liberty or reason, was the central thrust of the Randian movement.” He warns the libertarians that the history of Objectivism shows that “it Can Happen Here, that libertarians, despite explicit devotion to reason and individuality, are not exempt from the mystical and totalitarian cultism that pervades other ideological as well as religious movements.”

It is on Branden that Rothbard unleashes much of his ire. He says that Branden was a gatekeeper to Rand and the enforcer of her ideals on her followers.

In his review of Branden’s book Judgement Day (the book was later republished as My Years with Ayn Rand), Rothbard accuses Branden of living his entire life parasitically off Rand, “first as a worshipful disciple and cult organizer, then as a neo-Randian shrink who set up shop in California with the solid initial base of the RandCult's Nathaniel Branden Institute mailing list. And now, too, he is parasitically living off Rand as a scavenger and kiss-and-tell calumniator. Talk about your "social metaphysician!”

He also accuses Branden of “spending all of his life amid an endless array of shmucks, creeps, lowlifes, and assorted villains and morons.” I wonder who these shmucks, creeps, lowlifes, and assorted villains and morons that Rothbard is alluding to are? 

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