by Neil Parille
Like many people who don't consider themselves Objectivists, I've long had an interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism. And like many such people, I have read Barbara Branden's biography of Rand, The Passion of Ayn Rand ("PAR"). When I read it shortly after it was published, I assumed that it was an accurate portrayal of a brilliant, if flawed, woman. I don't recall reading Nathaniel Branden's memoirs Judgment Day ("JD") and My Years with Ayn Rand ("MYWAR"), although I had heard that they contained much that wasn't flattering.
In 2005, James Valliant published a book entitled The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics ("PARC"). PARC claims the alleged mistakes, fabrications, contradictions and hidden agendas of the Brandens are so great as to render their books "useless" as scholarship. PARC was even more noteworthy because Valliant included, with Leonard Peikoff's permission, substantial portions of Rand's private journals concerning her relationship with Nathaniel Branden. Since this book had prompted some people to reevaluate their view of Ayn Rand and the Brandens, I considered it appropriate to discuss the book. I began a series of posts on my weblog and also on SoloPassion.com which were critical of the book's methodology and use of sources. James Valliant kindly responded to many of these posts and the interested reader may find his responses to some of the material gathered in this essay.
By way of background, by the time I had read PARC, it had been years since I read Branden's biography. In fact, I didn't even own a copy of it. My impression of PARC was mixed. Although I disliked the style of the book,(1) it appeared to me that Valliant had made a number of good points and legitimately called into question the accuracy of the Brandens' books. At the same time, it seemed that even on Valliant's own representations of the books, many of the points he made (roughly a quarter) were weak. For example, Valliant's attack on Barbara Branden's apparent mistake concerning the origin of Rand's name, or some of the alleged contradictions in the books (e.g., whether Rand liked physical activity or to cook) represent an unfortunate tendency on Valliant's part to nitpick and refuse to give the Brandens the benefit of the doubt. Valliant even turns a surprise party thrown to celebrate the publication of Atlas Shrugged into a sinister attempt by the Brandens to control Rand's "context through deception." (PARC, pp. 49-50.)
In the months following its publication, PARC generated substantial discussion on the internet. While some critiques were published on the web, none went into great detail concerning Valliant's use of the Brandens' books as sources.(2) By that time I had become suspicious that Valliant's representation of their books was not entirely accurate. For example, with respect to the origin of Rand's name, Valliant claims that Official Objectivist(3) Allan Gotthelf found that, contrary to Barbara Branden, it could not have originated with a Remington Rand typewriter. Valliant wrote that Gotthelf would provide his research in a new edition of his book On Ayn Rand. I recalled, however, that in the 2000 edition of this book, Gotthelf also claimed that Rand's name originated with a Remington Rand typewriter. I then grabbed my copy of the book and saw that Gotthelf explicitly claimed that he had checked all the biographical facts in his book with archivists at the Ayn Rand Institute. Certainly this was information that Valliant should have shared with readers before accusing Branden of dishonesty.
My curiosity piqued, I ordered copies of the Brandens' books and began comparing what Valliant claimed they said with what they actually said. What I found was surprising. Quite often Valliant misrepresents what the Brandens say. On some occasions what the Brandens say is the exact opposite of what Valliant claims.
In this essay I have not discussed all the examples of mistakes, contradictions, and fabrications that Valliant purports to find in the Brandens' accounts. I do believe I have analyzed a representative sample. I will not discuss in detail the personal relationship between Nathaniel Branden and Rand because even Branden has conceded that it involved deception and many issues surrounding it (such as the legal and financial disputes that erupted in 1968) cannot be resolved based on the evidence that is currently public. My concern is more with Valliant's use of the Brandens' books as sources than it is with his "case" against the Brandens' conduct prior to the split.(4) I am the first to concede that Nathaniel Branden's admitted deception of Rand should be considered in weighing the accuracy of his memoirs.
I should mention that I am not a friend of either of the Brandens, nor do I consider myself a "supporter" of either of them. I am not even vouching for the accuracy of their books. My contention is that James Valliant's case against the Brandens' books as detailed in PARC is weak.
As a final note, while I often refer to "the Brandens," it is important to keep in mind that their books are not collaborative efforts and that they have been divorced for almost forty years. Their relationship post-1968 has not always been friendly. Their accounts should not be uncritically grouped together, much less conflated with those of various (and generally unnamed) "critics" as Valliant often does.
Cash for Trash?
Valliant first focuses on what appears to be a minor point in MYWAR: Nathaniel Branden's claim that Leonard Peikoff has personally profited from publishing "Rand's private journals." Attempting to make Branden out to be stupid or disingenuous, Valliant thunders: "the practice of publishing notes of literary figures is quite common . . . ." (PARC, p. 11.) I'm sure Branden knows this. What he said was "[f]or example, he [Peikoff] published highly personal notes of Ayn's, taken from her journals, that were never meant to be shared with the world." (MYWAR, p. 364.) Branden does not object to the publication of Rand's journals, but only certain portions of them (the personal parts). Valliant does make a valid point: virtually all the journal material published (up to his book of course) is of a non-personal nature, so Branden should have provided some examples.
Back to the Pumpkin Patch
Valliant's first claim concerning any substantial errors in the Brandens' works is Barbara Branden's contention that Rand took her name from a Remington Rand typewriter after her arrival to the United States and that she didn't tell her family in Russia her new name out of concern for their safety.
Branden writes in PAR that she heard the Remington Rand name-change story from Rand's cousin, Fern Brown. It is unclear what evidence Branden bases her account that Rand didn't tell her family in Russia her new name. Valliant claims both of these stories are incorrect, contending that Allan Gotthelf had recently discovered that it wasn't until 1927 that the Rand Kardex Company merged with the Remington Typewriter Company and that it wasn’t until several years later that Remington Rand typewriters began to be produced. In addition, it is now clear that Rand used her new name as early as 1925, and in letters to her family in Russia. He says that Gotthelf, in a future edition of his 2000 work On Ayn Rand ("OAR"), will discuss the results of his research. Valliant is willing to give Branden the benefit of the doubt that she legitimately believed Brown's story, but then claims she has turned this mistake into an attack on Rand, viz., the claim that Rand didn't tell her family her new name. He claims that Branden fabricated this to make Rand look secretive or neurotic.
Branden's mistakes appear to have been honest. First, that Rand's name came from the Remington Rand typewriter was believed by Official Objectivists until relatively recently. As Gotthelf said in 2000: "[Rand] probably first spotted 'Rand' on a Remington Rand typewriter in Russia." (OAR, p. 19.) Not only that, he states at the beginning of the chapter: "In this paragraph and in what follows in this and the next chapter . . . I draw on . . . other material housed in the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute . . . ." (OAR, p. 17.) And in the book's introduction: "Michael Berliner, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, kindly supervised the checking of biographical information for me in the Institute's Ayn Rand Archives."(5)
Second, until relatively recently even the ARI suspected Rand created uncertainty about the origin of her name out of concern for her family's safety. This is from the ARI's web site:
So while Branden is mistaken here, it is simply a version of a mistake believed at one time by those with access to Rand's archives. Why mistakes once believed by Gotthelf and the ARI become evidence of Barbara Branden's dishonesty is not explained by Valliant.
One lead to the actual source of the name comes from Ayn Rand herself. In 1936, she told the New York Evening Post that 'Rand is an abbreviation of my Russian surname.' Originally, we thought that this was a red herring in order to protect her family from the Soviet authorities.
Concerning Valliant's allegation that Branden used the Remington Rand story to concoct a story that Rand didn't tell her family in Russia her new name out of a desire to paint Rand as secretive or neurotic, Valliant is the one doing the embellishing by editing Branden's words:
What Branden said in full is:
Ms. Branden also tells us: "Ayn Rand never told her family in Russia her new name . . . they never knew she became Ayn Rand." Ms. Branden may be trying to insinuate that Rand was being neurotically secretive, perhaps even turning her back on her family. This is the sort of vague impression we will see the Brandens persistently attempt to create. Ms. Branden certainly claims that this was an important reason why Rand lost contact with her family shortly before World War II—they did not know her name. (PARC, p. 12, Ellipsis in the original.)
Valliant creates a totally different impression of what Branden wrote through the use of the ellipsis. He omits Branden's assertion that Rand (allegedly) did not tell her family in Russia that here new name was "Ayn Rand" for concern for their safety. Had this been true it would have been a perfectly reasonably concern on Rand's part. So while Branden may be mistaken on the name issue, nothing she says implies that she considers Rand to have been "neurotically secretive" much less "turning her back" on her family in Russia. In fact, Branden is saying the opposite. Rand corresponded with them often and would have continued had it not been for a change in Soviet policy shortly before World War II. Had Valliant included the material in the ellipsis this would have been clear. There is no evidence to support a claim that Branden used the Remington Rand story as a jumping-off point for an attack on Rand's personality.
Ayn never told her family in Russia the new name she had chosen. She had no doubt that she would one day be famous, and she feared that if it were known in Russia that she was Alice Rosenbaum, daughter of Fronz and Anna, her family's safety, even their lives, would be endangered by their relationship to a vocal anti-Communist. Through all the years that she corresponded with her family, until just before World War II, Russia refused entry to mail from the United States and she lost track of them—they never knew she had become "Ayn Rand." (PAR, pp. 71-72.)
After PARC was published and the name issue became a topic of debate, Branden stated not only did she hear the story from Fern Brown, but from Rand herself. Valliant sees this as an additional lie by Branden. However, given the uncertainty about Rand's name, it is more likely that either Rand said something tending to support Brown's story or that Branden misunderstood something Rand said as confirmation of the story.
The first part of chapter 2 is a lengthy discussion of various alleged contradictions within and between the Brandens' accounts. Valliant starts with two quotes from Barbara Branden where she describes Rand's view the value of intelligence. One quote appears to say that Rand didn't value people unless they had unusual intelligence. The other quote indicates that Rand believed that simple people could understand complex ideas with some help and she greatly valued the simple person who wanted to learn. (PARC, pp. 15-16.) Only taken in the most wooden manner are these quotes contradictory. Here is what Branden says: "where she saw no unusual intelligence—nor the capacity for dedicated productive work that she believed to be its consequence—she saw no value that meant anything to her in personal terms."(6) (For some reason, Valliant places ellipsis in the place of "nor the capacity for dedicated productive work that she believed to be its consequence.") She then discusses how Rand never said as a significant compliment such things as "He's generous" or "He's kind." (PAR, p. 7.) I take this to mean that Rand did not value people with average intelligence who weren't interested in learning. And if Branden meant what Valliant claims she meant, it is hard to imagine her loving description of Rand explaining metaphysics to a student, a gardener, or a housekeeper.
Only You, Lu
On page 43 of PARC, Valliant discusses Rand's comments that she wrote about Ludwig von Mises in the margins of his books that she read, as well as Nathaniel Branden's reactions to them. Rand was on friendly terms with the great Austrian economist and free-market liberal. She recommended his books in her magazine. Von Mises, it should be remembered, was a Kantian in epistemology and a utilitarian in ethics, two positions with which Rand sharply disagreed, much as she agreed with his economics. In spite of these differences, Nathaniel Branden relates that he (Branden) was "shocked" when Rand showed him her comments in which she referred to von Mises as a "bastard." Valliant contends that Branden considered Rand a "hypocrite" to be nice in public to von Mises, but so critical in private. Valliant considers this "small" and "petty." Indeed, criticizing Rand for her marginal notes is a "new low" for Branden. (PARC, p. 43.) As is typical, Valliant's summary omits certain key points. Branden first notes that Rand was polite to von Mises. When Rand showed him her marginal notes, he was surprised that they were so harsh. He asked her if she considered him a "bastard," (note, not a "goddamned fool" as Valliant has it) and she said "As a total person, no, I suppose I don't. But if I focus on that aspect of him, where he goes irrational, yes, I do." He says that it didn't occur to him to accuse Rand of "hypocrisy" (whether he does now isn't stated). (JD, p. 136.) This is the context of Branden's comments. Branden doesn't say that Rand shouldn't be "passionate about ideas," nor does he deny that Rand legitimately believed that capitalism needed a different foundation from that provided by Mises. It's Rand's tone and what Branden thinks it means that bothers him. Even if Branden is a bit harsh on Rand, this is a good example of a purported piece of evidence that does nothing to undermine the accuracy of his memoirs.(7)
Rand the Self-Delusional: We the Living
Valliant accuses Barbara Branden of erroneously claiming that Rand engaged in "self-delusion" with respect to the influence of Nietzsche on We the Living and her claims concerning the uniqueness of her philosophy. (PARC, p. 44.) Valliant should tell his readers where Branden claims that Rand was self-delusional. I did a search of PAR on Amazon.com and the phrases "self-delusion"/ "self-delusional" don't appear.
In 1936 Rand published We the Living, which shortly went out of print. After the success of Atlas Shrugged, Rand republished the book in 1959 in a revised version. Although Rand made numerous changes, she claimed in the new introduction that they were "editorial line-changes" and specifically denied changing the novel's content. Most Rand scholars have found the changes substantial, reflecting a desire by Rand to eliminate certain elements of Nietzschean thought that remained in 1936.
Barbara Branden is among those who consider the changes substantial and thus believes Rand's 1959 statement inaccurate. Branden says she removed the Nietzschean element from the book. Branden says Rand "evidently considered it a defect" and decided to "ignore" the reason for the changes rather than explain it to her readers. (PAR, pp. 114-15.)
In any event, Branden is not calling Rand self-delusional. She accuses Rand of deliberately refusing to admit the extent (and the reason for) the changes. It might not be too strong to say that Branden is accusing Rand of lying, but doesn't want to come out and say it.(8)
Rand the Self-Delusional: Aristotle
Valliant's second example in which he finds Barbara Branden alleging Rand to be self-delusional concerns Branden's report that Rand's claimed "the only thinker in history from whom she had anything to learn" was Aristotle and that she "would dismiss most of the history of philosophy, with the sole significant exceptions of Aristotle and aspects of Thomas Aquinas . . . ." (PARC, p. 46; PAR, pp. 271, 311.) I don't know where Rand ever said in print that she had nothing to learn from any thinker in history. Of course, Rand is well-known for her claim that her only philosophical debt was to Aristotle and I suspect this is what Branden is getting at.(9) Granted that by the use of this quote Branden may not have accurately summarized Rand's views here, but again it's important to note that she does not claim that Rand was "self-delusional." Valliant also attacks Branden for limiting Rand's praise to Aristotle and aspects of Thomas Aquinas, arguing that Rand praised Locke and the Founding Fathers in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. However, Branden said "the sole significant exceptions." (Emphasis added.) She is not limiting Rand's influences to only Aristotle and Aquinas. And Valliant concedes that Rand saw the philosophies of Locke and the Founding Fathers as of lesser importance. (PAR, p. 48.) So again one wonders why Valliant is making a big issue of something that doesn't appear to be all that significant.
In any event, I think it's clear what Branden is saying. First, that Rand (like any philosopher) inevitably absorbed ideas from other thinkers. So while Rand may have said that her sole philosophical debt was to Aristotle, she was likely influenced unconsciously by other thinkers, even if she didn't remember exactly whom and when. Second, Rand had an excessively negative view of the history of philosophy and, contrary to what she thought, could have learned from other philosophers and perhaps incorporated some of their ideas into Objectivism. Now, say what you want about Branden's point, this is her opinion about the enterprise of learning and how it likely worked in Rand's case. Even if Branden is in error concerning her summary of Rand's self-description, nothing that Valliant says shows that Branden is deliberately misrepresenting Rand.
The Surprise Party from Hell
Both Brandens recount a surprise party that was thrown for Rand to celebrate the publication of Atlas Shrugged. Barbara writes that it was thrown by "the collective." (PAR, p. 295.) Nathaniel says that he and Barbara decided to have the party. For some reason, Valliant twice says that Random House (Atlas' publisher) threw the party. (PARC, pp. 48-49.) The Brandens report that Rand was unhappy and made it clear that she didn't like surprise parties. She was rather gloomy for most of the party, but eventually Random House's Bennett Cerf (who doesn't discuss the incident in his memoirs) was able to cheer Rand up. Both Brandens engage in a bit of speculation relating to the reasons for Rand's reaction to the party. Granted, one might find this speculation excessive, but Valliant's assertion that Nathaniel Branden is claiming some sort of "special (i.e, unverifiable)" knowledge is off the mark. Branden knew Rand quite well and his (and Barbara's) analysis of Rand is entitled to some deference. Particularly odd is Valliant's claim that the party represented an attempt to control Rand's "context through deception." (PARC, p. 50.) In any event, if Random House did in fact throw the party as Valliant contends, that makes the Brandens somewhat less culpable. Interestingly, Frank O'Connor (Rand's husband) was part of the "deception"; but if Rand's husband didn't think she would get upset, I don't see how the Brandens can be blamed.
In chapter 3, Valliant discusses the alleged representation of Rand by the Brandens as an authoritarian who demanded complete allegiance. As Valliant tells it, the Brandens would have their readers believe that Rand excommunicated numerous one-time followers such as Murray Rothbard, Edith Efron, the Blumenthals, the Holzers, and the Smiths.
Barbara Branden says that starting with the publication of Atlas Shrugged many people entered Rand's orbit. "Some of her new friends circled in her orbit for only a few weeks, some remained for months, some remained for years; but with very few exceptions, the relationships were ruptured in anger as Ayn felt her friends to have failed reason, morality, and herself." (PAR, pp. 311-12.) I don't read PAR as alleging that Rand never had good reason to split with anyone, that every split was Rand's fault, or that every split ended in some sort of excommunication. Valliant has caricatured Branden's biography. Certainly it doesn't undermine PAR to point out that Rand had good reason to sever her relationship with, say, John Hospers if she felt offended by something he said.
Another problem with Valliant's account is that it alleges a level of coordination between Barbara Branden and those she interviewed that he doesn't establish. According to Valliant, PAR represents a "collective best shot" against Rand and that all the people who "broke" with "share precisely the same bias . . . in presenting Rand as an 'authoritarian' . . . ." (PARC, p. 76.) There is no evidence that Rand's sources collaborated. It's important to note that some of those whom Branden interviewed (the Holzers and the Blumenthals) stayed with Rand after the 1968 split.
Murray Rothbard and Rand broke in 1958. Their split has been the subject of some dispute. Barbara Branden mentions Rothbard only twice, and makes no mention of their break. Nathaniel Branden discusses Rothbard in some detail, claiming that he launched a "campaign of lies" against them for years. (MYWAR, pp. 229-31.) Yet even he doesn't describe Rothbard's split with Rand as an "excommunication." Given this, it isn't clear why Rothbard is mentioned in Valliant's "case against the Brandens."
Although Valliant doesn't share with his readers the rather limited use that the Brandens make of Rothbard in their works, Valliant does use the opportunity to repeat the claim that Rothbard "plagiarized" from Rand:
He adds that when Rothbard discussed something that Rand also discussed, "[his] own first source for the point was invariably (and quite obviously) Rand." (PARC, pp. 71, 73.) He accuses Rothbard of "plagiarism" and "intellectual larceny."
Murray Rothbard, apart from being an anarchist, was clearly using ideas he got from Rand in scholarly articles without crediting his own source for the material, and he continued to do so throughout his career.
Rothbard met Rand in the early 1950s and died in 1995, writing until the end. Valliant apparently contends that Rothbard had been stealing from Rand for approximately forty years without attribution. In footnote 44, Valliant gives his only examples: a work called "Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences" (particularly on the "validation of free will") and also chapter one of Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty, particular the phrase "the fusion of matter and spirit" in production. Valliant does not give any sentences from Rothbard's works that were allegedly lifted from Rand's writings.
The claim that Rothbard plagiarized Rand's ideas has been raised before, but generally revolves around Rothbard's 1958 essay "The Mantle of Science" and a claim this essay borrowed from Rand's ideas generally and Barbara Branden's master's thesis on free will specifically. Valliant is mistaken or has made a typo. There is no essay by Rothbard entitled "Individualism and the Methodology of the Social Sciences." The Cato Institute did publish a work entitled Individualism and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences which contains "Mantle" and another essay called "Praxeology as the Method of the Social Sciences." In any event, Valliant seems to be referring to the discussion of free will in "Mantle" but neglects to mention that Branden was the alleged principle victim of Rothbard's supposed plagiarism.
Plagiarism is a strong claim. It does not mean using a few ideas without attribution but literally stealing words. Valliant should present the evidence that Rothbard copied material from Rand if he is going to make this allegation.(10)
PARC came out in February 2005. Valliant did not have the benefit of hearing George Reisman's August 2005 speech at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in which he discussed this incident. Reisman was on friendly terms with both Rand and Rothbard at the time. According to Reisman, Rothbard did not plagiarize from Rand or Branden, but should have mentioned that he first heard certain ideas from Rand. However, when PARC came out, Joseph Stromberg's discussion of the plagiarism allegation was available on the web. In addition, in 2000 Justin Raimondo published a biography of Rothbard entitled An Enemy of the State, which has the most extensive discussion of Rothbard's relationship with Rand and the Brandens. Unfortunately, neither is mentioned.
During the writing of Atlas Shrugged, Rand struck a friendship with philosopher John Hospers. Their friendship ended in 1962. I will discuss Valliant's use of the Brandens' books in detail because it is a particularly good example of how Valliant distorts them.
Barbara Branden's discussion of Rand's relationship with John Hospers is four paragraphs on pages 323-324 of PAR.
In paragraph 1, Branden talks of their first meeting. Hospers said that Rand had a "tremendously powerful intellect." (p. 323.)
In paragraph 2, Branden says that they soon became friends and had many lengthy philosophical conversations. They agreed on moral and political philosophy, but not epistemology. Hospers recalled that their arguments became heated at times and that Rand easily grew angry. Hospers describes her "sudden anger" as "bewildering." (pp. 323-324.)
In paragraph 3, Branden says that Rand "broke" with Hospers. Hospers invited Rand to speak at an academic symposium and Hospers criticized some of Rand's presentation. "Ayn took violent exception to his criticisms--and he never saw her again." (p. 324.)
In paragraph 4, Branden writes that Rand's relationship with a professional philosopher "made her eager to write a nonfiction work on epistemology." (p. 324.)
Here is Valliant: "Professor John Hospers, according to the Brandens, was taken to task for certain 'sarcastic' and 'professorial' criticisms of Rand in an academic setting, although, once again, neither of the Brandens chooses to relate any of the specifics." (PARC, p. 71.) Valliant drops a footnote and references both PAR and Judgment Day. Nathaniel Branden says Hospers "challenge[d] her viewpoint with the kind of gentle sarcasm professors take for granted and Ayn found appalling." Barbara Branden does not use similar words to describe Hospers' comments. Valliant should not present the two accounts as if they were one.
In any event, Nathaniel Branden appears to believe that Hospers' tone was liable to be misunderstood. (JD, pp. 307-8.) Barbara Branden appears to think that Hospers' comments were appropriate to the forum and Rand overreacted. There is a minor discrepancy over Hospers' tone, but other than that what is the big dispute here?
According to Nathaniel Branden, Rand directed him to read the "riot act" to Hospers. Valliant is upset that there is no description by either Hospers or Nathaniel Branden of what the "riot act" consisted. Branden probably assumed by that point the reader could figure out for himself what happened.
Valliant next claims that "Mr. Branden's total failure to provide any of the actual content of the issues involved in her break with Hospers is another glaring instance of Branden suppressing important evidence." (PARC, p. 72.) Valliant doesn't tell us what evidence Branden has "suppressed." Personally, I am satisfied that after the passage of roughly 25 years (from the time of the event until the two books) that we know basically what happened.
Valliant ends his discussion of the break with Hospers with a one paragraph discussion of how Rand and Hospers had significant disputes concerning philosophical issues, including epistemology. However, both the Brandens concede that there were sharp philosophical disagreements between Rand and Hospers. Valliant leaves the impression that this is something the Brandens know but aren't telling. Then there is a brief discussion of how Hospers and the Brandens allegedly disagree with Rand that philosophical disputes should be grounds for "moral indignation." (PARC, p. 72.) While I don't have Hospers' articles on his relationship with Rand, neither of the Brandens indicates (in the relevant sections of their books) that philosophical disagreements shouldn't be grounds for "moral indignation." Even if they do, I don't see how this makes their recounting of the break suspect.
Incidentally, neither of the Brandens describes the split as "excommunication" or indicates that Rand demanded philosophical loyalty from Hospers.
The Blumenthals and Henry Holzer
On pages 74-75 of PARC Valliant discusses Rand's breaks with Henry Holzer and Allan and Joan Blumenthal as related by Barbara Branden. (Henry Holzer was Rand's attorney; Allan Blumenthal is Nathaniel Branden's cousin.)
Valliant says "One could never have guessed it from reading Ms. Branden's book, but it was they [Allan Blumenthal and Henry Holzer] who left Rand." (PARC, p. 75.)
But let's look at Ms. Branden's book. With respect to Holzer, she says that Rand "broke" with him. (PAR, p. 385.) With respect to Allan (and Joan) Blumenthal, Branden explicitly says that it was the Blumenthals who broke with Rand. She quotes Allan Blumenthal: "I telephoned Ayn and said that we no longer wished to see her." (PAR, p. 388.) Valliant has mischaracterized PAR with respect to the Blumenthals.
Incredibly, Valliant doesn't even cite PAR concerning Rand's breaks with Holzer and the Blumenthals. His source is Jeff Walker's book The Ayn Rand Cult ("TARC"). What does Walker say? Concerning the Holzers (Henry and his wife Erika), he implies that Rand broke with them, but "she explicitly left the door open." (TARC, p. 35.) On page 37, Walker quotes the Holzers as saying that it was hard to walk away. Taken as a whole, I don't think the account in TARC contradicts Branden's account. And it doesn't support Valliant's claim that Holzer broke with Rand.
Valliant also implies that Branden contends that Rand's break with Holzer and the Blumenthals constituted an "excommunication." (PARC, p. 75.) But that certainly is incorrect as far as the Blumenthals go, and Branden doesn't claim that Rand "excommunicated" Holzer.
You wouldn't have guessed it from reading Valliant's book, but Barbara Branden quotes the Blumenthals extensively.
Branden quotes Allan Blumenthal: "She [Rand] was relentless in her pursuit of so-called psychological errors [concerning judgments on art]. If an issue were once raised, she would never drop it; after an evening's conversation, she'd telephone the next day to ask what we had concluded about it overnight . . . It was becoming a nightmare." (PAR, p. 387.) She quotes Joan: "but, often, she would seem deliberately to insult and antagonize us." (Id.)
Although Valliant didn't have space to mention what the Blumenthals told Branden, he does quote what Allan Blumenthal told Walker, viz, that he believes that Objectivism was created by Rand as self-therapy. Now, Walker doesn't indicate when Blumenthal came to this conclusion. Even if we assume that Rand had good reasons for breaking intellectually with the Blumenthals (because, for example, she believed they were drifting away from Objectivism) does that make Rand's conduct any less unfortunate? And PAR's discussion indicates that, regardless of whatever differences existed between Rand and the Blumenthals, the Blumenthals wanted to remain friends.
When I asked Valliant about the Blumenthals, he said that PARC doesn't dispute that Branden has accurately quoted the Blumenthals or their version of events. So what's the issue? Personally, I felt sorry for Rand after reading this section of PAR.
Henry Mark Holzer, Strict Constructionist
Let's return to Henry Mark Holzer. Valliant suggests that their split might have had something to do with Holzer's belief in strict construction of the Constitution. Rand, Valliant tells us, had a more flexible approach to constitutional interpretation. (PARC, p. 74.) That's about all that Valliant says. There are two footnotes to the paragraph in question (numbers 52 and 53).
Footnote 52 references Holzer's book Sweet Land of Liberty?, where Valliant notes that Holzer didn't agree with the "right to privacy" underlying such decisions as Roe v. Wade.
Footnote 53 references: (1) Rand's Marginalia at pages 203-205; (2) An article by Harry Binswanger concerning the Bowers v. Hardwick decision (a 1986 Supreme Court case in which the court upheld a state's right to criminalize sodomy); and (3) Stephen Macedo's 1986 book The New Right v. the Constitution.
I don't have Holzer's and Macedo's books, but from their titles I doubt they contain information on the Rand/Holzer relationship. Certainly Rand's Marginalia and Binswanger's article don't.
In fairness to Valliant, he doesn't claim to know the reason for the split, but he leaves the impression that philosophy might have been an issue. Based on these footnotes I see no reason to think that Holzer's judicial philosophy was a factor, or even that it was a subject of dispute between him and Rand.
On pages 69-70 of PARC, Valliant discusses Rand's disapproval of libertarianism and the Libertarian Party ("LP"). According to Valliant, "[t]he Brandens, along with many others, believe that Rand was intolerant and 'close-minded' because she denounced the Libertarian Party." (PARC, p. 70.) In support of his claim that both Brandens and others disagree with Rand's denunciation of the LP, Valliant cites to PAR once and to an article on libertarianism by Official Objectivist Peter Schwartz.
Let's look at the two citations Valliant provides. The first is Peter Schwartz's article "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty" published in The Voice of Reason. Its principal targets are Murray Rothbard and Walter Block and doesn't mention either of the Brandens. The second citation is to page 391 of PAR, where Branden discusses two younger writers who wrote about her philosophy. (PARC, p. 70.) Branden references Mimi Gladstein's The Ayn Rand Companion and Doug Rasmussen's The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. According to Branden, Rand had letters sent to them threatening lawsuits. (PAR, p. 391.) The libertarianism of these authors (if they are both indeed libertarians)(11) isn't mentioned, so again this citation does not help Valliant's case.
Valliant's discussion of Rand and libertarianism is yet another example where he fails to present evidence to support his claim.
After making his unsupported claim that the Brandens consider Rand intolerant for her views on libertarianism, Valliant proceeds to discuss Rand's perceived need for "systematic honesty in forming political and intellectual alliances." He mentions those libertarians who are anarchists and advocate unilateral disarmament. He claims that the differences between Rand and the libertarians were "not so trivial as the critics suppose." (PARC, p. 70.) It isn't clear who Valliant claims the "critics" are -- Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, LP officials, libertarian intellectuals, all of them, some of them?
What the Brandens say concerning libertarianism and what Valliant implies they say is quite a bit different.
According to PAR's index, the LP is mentioned on three pages and the libertarian movement on one page. Barbara Branden notes that the LP has been divided by those who advocate limited government and strong defense on one hand and anarcho-capitalists on the other. Branden's conclusion is: "In the opinion of many people, the anarchist wing has deeply undermined the effectiveness of the Libertarian Party in recent years. That wing was the particular source of Ayn Rand's indignant repudiation of the party that had been formed in the image of her political philosophy." (PAR, p. 413.) This quote doesn't indicate to me that Branden believes that Rand's repudiation of the LP was "intolerant" or "close-minded." Nor does it indicate that Branden thinks Rand was wrong to disassociate herself from the LP due to the presence of anarcho-capitalists and advocates of unilateral disarmament. If Valliant is basing his contention on something Branden said someplace else, then he should cite it.
Nathaniel Branden in My Years with Ayn Rand discusses Rand's position vis-à-vis the LP and doesn't criticize her for it. (MYWAR, p. 231.)
Incidentally, the Ayn Rand Institute has a collection of Rand's statements concerning libertarianism and the LP. The reader is free to decide for himself if Rand's statements are intolerant or close-minded.
The Virtue of Anger
"Mullah Rand" ends with a discussion of Rand's anger, particularly as reflected in some of her answers in question and answer sessions. Valliant concedes that this is the Brandens "strongest case" because it is so well documented. Even Leonard Peikoff concedes that there were times that Rand's anger "was not justified." If one were using the same "hermeneutics of suspicion" that Valliant employs against the Brandens, one might argue that he only admits to negative things about Rand when he is left without a choice. Valliant does claim that the Brandens have exaggerated Rand's anger, particularly during question and answers. However, in a recent issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Robert Hessen states: "As an eyewitness to many such outbursts [Rand's interactions with questioners], I can verify that Ms. Branden's claim was accurate and not exaggerated."(12) In any event, rather than simply concede that Rand overdid it at times and move on, Valliant lectures his readers about the virtue of anger and the inability of the Brandens to discern that Rand's anger was really the righteous rage of a moral prophet.
For example, he takes issue with Nathaniel Branden's asking rhetorically what benefit was there to Rand starting her "Introduction" to The Virtue of Selfishness by calling selfishness a virtue "[f]or the reason that makes you afraid of it." Valliant claims that Branden is "intentionally omitting" the answer, apparent as it is to any reader of Rand's books. Of course, Branden knows Rand's reason and isn't hiding anything. He is expressing his disagreement with Rand. This appears to be Valliant's real dispute with the Brandens – they disagree (or allegedly disagree) with Rand:
So far as I can tell, the Brandens believe that it is necessary at times to make ethical judgments of others. But even if the Brandens have departed from Objectivism in this respect, what does this have to do with whether PARC's readers should accept their accounts as accurate?
Pleasant or unpleasant, according to Objectivism, it is morally necessary to make appropriate ethical judgments of others. If this is what the Brandens and their friends now dispute, then they no longer believe in the basics of Rand's ethics and should say so far more plainly, rather than accuse Rand of hypocrisy. (PARC, p. 85.)(13)
A few conclusions may be drawn based on our critique of PARC. First, Valliant says a great deal about the people who broke with Rand, and questions their commitment to Objectivism and the like, but virtually never relates the rather substantial difficulties they had in getting along with Rand. I got the impression from reading PARC the first time that Valliant questions most the stories about Rand that her former associates related. He describes the Brandens' "biographical efforts" as "useless to the serious historian." (PARC, pp. 85-86.) If the Blumenthals and others are telling the truth about their interactions with Rand, then I think it's fair to say that Barbara Branden's biography is far from useless.
Second, Valliant sees lurking behind virtually every dispute that the Brandens have with Rand an unspecified criticism of Rand's philosophy or the denial of the importance of philosophy. Any critique of the harshness of Rand's language is turned into a denial of the need to make moral judgments, minor inconsistencies in the Brandens' books raise the implication of whether they believe in the law of identity. Even a surprise party becomes an attack on Rand's autonomy. Valliant is certainly entitled to criticize the Brandens for anything they say; he is not entitled to fabricate a motivation for their criticisms of Rand. If Valliant believes that any criticism of Rand the person is in reality an attack on Objectivism, then he should say so.
Third, Barbara Branden's biography/memoir and Nathaniel Branden's memoirs share the strengths and limitations of their genres. As two of the people who knew Rand best during what was perhaps the most important part of her life (the maturation of her philosophy and the launch of the Objectivist movement) their recollections are of great benefit in understanding Rand's life and personality. They are inevitably colored by the impact of a tragic personal split. However, their biases are no greater than those who remained with Rand, and Valliant has not provided any reason to conclude their books are so colored by either bitterness or a personal agenda to render them suspect.
January 14, 2007
1. For example, the endless cheerleading ("Bullseye, Miss Rand"), the personal attacks on Nathaniel Branden ("the soul of a rapist"), and the implicit claim repeated ad nauseam that the Brandens are heretics whose every disagreement with Rand is in reality a veiled attack on Objectivism and the importance of philosophy.
2. Wendy McElroy took issue with Valliant's writing style, but seemed to accept at face value Valliant's claim that the Brandens' books contain errors and inconsistencies. Chris Sciabarra published a lengthy critique of PARC on the web which focused on larger questions such as to what extent PAR's description of Rand has become accepted, the appropriateness of publishing Rand's personal journals, Rand's view of homosexuality, and the like. He did however point out certain mistakes by Valliant, such as his erroneous suggestion that Sciabarra doubted Rand's account of her university studies. Sciabarra also analyzed Valliant's poor use of sources in describing Rand's break with Kay Nolte Smith and some other issues. David Brown's review of PARC was brief and dismissive, apparently finding it so blatantly partisan as not worthy of great discussion. Perhaps the most interesting critique to date is Jordan Zimmerman's "PARC database" in which he argued that many of the allegations made by Valliant are unpersuasive, even on Valliant's own description of the Brandens' books.
3. By "Official Objectivist" I mean an Objectivist associated with Leonard Peikoff's Ayn Rand Institute.
4. In addition, I will not discuss Valliant's claim that Barbara Branden is in error in asserting that the affair between Rand and Nathaniel Branden led to Rand's husband allegedly becoming an alcoholic. Not having access to the sources upon which Branden relied, I have nothing to add to the already contentious discussion of this topic.
5. Valliant now asserts that Allan Gotthelf has told him that, contrary to what he indicated in On Ayn Rand, he did not check the name issue with archivists and instead relied on what Branden said in her biography. According to Valliant, there is nothing in the archives to support the Remington Rand story. I don't dispute any of this, but it does not change the fact that the Remington Rand story was widely believed. For example, Gotthelf says in On Ayn Rand that Harry Binswanger (the number two in Official Objectivism) read the drafts of all the chapters.
6. I have quoted Branden accurately here. This sentence isn't very clear.
7. Incidentally, in the published version of the marginalia Rand does not call von Mises a "bastard." Many people who have read the published version of Rand's "marginalia" consider her comments harsh and frequently unfair. See the critique by Michael Prescott.
8. Valliant asserts that Official Objectivist Robert Mayhew, in his study of the changes in the two editions of We the Living, has shown that they were not substantial. Even if Mayhew is correct (and most who have looked into this issue disagree with him) it shows at most that Branden is in error concerning the extent of these changes. Is Valliant seriously arguing that anyone who considers the changes major is launching a personal attack on Rand? Mayhew's essay is found in Robert Mayhew, ed., Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living (2004). Susan Love Brown has written an informative critique of Mayhew in "Essays in Rand's Fiction" in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Fall 2006).
9. Branden may be accurately quoting something Rand said (although it's not presented as a literal quotation). However the general tenor of Rand's published comments is that there were only a handful of philosophers qua philosophers from whom she had anything to learn. I don't believe Rand denied that there many thinkers (historians, economists, scientists, etc.) from whom she learned a great deal. Branden does discuss some of these people, so she isn't trying to hide anything.
10. Valliant responded by claiming that he did not intend to imply that Rothbard literally lifted sentences from Rand. Even so, he does not provide any specific ideas of Rand's that Rothbard allegedly borrowed, with the exception of "free will" and the "'fusion of matter and spirit' in production" claims. Since Valliant does not tell us when Rand developed her ideas and where (if at all) they may be found in print, it is impossible for the reader to determine whether there is any substance to Valliant's claim. Valliant also has another minor misquotation. Rothbard writes: "man's nature is a fusion of 'spirit' and matter. . . ." Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 31 (1982). Contrary to Valliant, the idea that man's nature is a combination of matter and spirit is hardly original to Rand, being a staple of Thomistic thought. See Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Thomism, pp. 33-60 (1960). The theory that ideas drive the capitalist system is not original to Rand either, being found in Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine (1943). In addition, Valliant claims more generally that Rothbard drew on Rand's ethical thought in developing his natural law theory as set forth in the opening chapters of [i]The Ethics of Liberty. Although they sound similar, the differences are quite profound. Rothbard's emphasis on teleology and the belief that the morality of actions is evaluated in reference to man's nature (not "life" as Rand would have it) place Rothbard in the classical natural law tradition. While Rothbard does say that life is "an objective ultimate value", he does not assert that it is the ultimate value, as did Rand. His argument that the value of life is axiomatic is also contrary to Rand, who rejected the claim that ethical truths are axiomatic.
11. Rasmussen is a libertarian. I have no idea whether Gladstein is.
12. Justin Raimondo, in his biography of Rothbard, quotes a 1954 letter from Rothbard to Richard Cornuelle. Rothbard writes:
, p. 110.)13. One wonders who the "friends" of the Brandens are and why they are mentioned.
[George Reisman] found himself under a typical vitriolic Randian barrage, according to which anyone who is not now or soon will be a one-hundred percent Randian Rationalist is an 'enemy' and an 'objective believer in death and destruction' as well as crazy. ([i]An Enemy of the State