Ayn Rand in Historical Perspective

by Peter Saint-Andre (2005)

In section 338 of La Gaya Scienza, Nietzsche counselled: "Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries." So you can imagine my excitement when I received an email from the year 2405, containing a retrospective on Ayn Rand posted to the interplanetary internet on the five-hundredth anniversary of her birth. The writer appears to be one Jan-Pieter Kroon, a "technosophist" of Dutch extraction who was (will be?) living on Mars at the time. Given the historical value of this essay, I have included it in full below. Unfortunately, my reply to the message bounced, presumably because today's email system cannot send messages forward in time, so I have been unable to contact the author or verify the accuracy of this work. --Peter Saint-Andre

From: "Jan-Pieter Kroon" <jpkroon@relay.ii.mars>
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2405 21:12:03 -0700 (MST)
Subject: Ayn Rand in Historical Perspective
To: recipient-list-suppressed

Today marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982), one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century (author of The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, etc.). Although she is relatively unknown today, since I have a few idle moments I thought it would be worthwhile to record one technosophist's perspective on her place in history.

During her lifetime, Ayn Rand was seen in the broader culture as nothing more than the high priestess of industrial capitalism (perhaps because she wrote essays with titles such as "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business"). Within the short-lived "Objectivist" movement that formed around Rand during the turbulent decade of the 1960s, her followers generally cleaved to an "Aynocentric" theory of intellectual history and saw her ideas as the climax of all previous intellectual development, substituting the person of Ayn Rand (or, more generously, her philosophy of Objectivism) for the place held by the Prussian state in Hegel's historiography. With the hindsight of five hundred years since her birth, we can see now that Rand was a relatively minor figure in the history of ideas. Although her novels provided sustenance for the libertarian economists of her time and are still considered to be representative of one strand of twentieth-century American fiction, her ideas have fared less well. In general, we can paraphrase Gertrude Stein's famous line about the city of Oakland and state that mostly "there is no there there" when it comes to Ayn Rand's impact on the course of intellectual history. The problem is that Rand's philosophical insights were less suggestive than Nietzsche's and less foundational than Aristotle's (her two main influences), many of her writings were too topical to be of enduring interest (who cares now about American presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon?), and she and her followers never progressed beyond the level of ideology and thus missed out completely on the final substitution of science for philosophy.

From a cultural and civilizational perspective, Rand was a fascinating mix. She was culturally Jewish and socially bourgeois, born and raised in the Westernizing capital (Petersburg) of the core state of Orthodox Christian civilization (Russia), came of age intellectually in the tremendous ferment of life after the world's first communist revolution (whose resulting Russo-Soviet Empire represented the imperial last gasp of Orthodox civilization), was strongly influenced by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (the most individualistic and pagan of Western thinkers to that point), escaped to America at age 21 to make a considerable fortune as a novelist in the heart of the capitalist West, and fought some of her hardest battles in America not against the Socialist Left but against the Christian Right (who agreed with her anti-communism but loathed her atheism and egoism).

Given Rand's life experiences, it's not surprising that she formulated an ideology to oppose both communism and convervatism. But it's important to realize that her philosophy (and its political offshoot, libertarianism) was the "last ideology" of the highly ideological twentieth century. The other ideologies -- communism, fascism, existentialism, and all those other "isms" -- had faded from the scene by the time of the collapse of the Russo-Soviet Empire in 1989. Yet, far from presaging "the end of history" or the triumph of secular humanism and market liberalism, the collapse of those ideologies brought new tensions, most of them intercivilizational (a level of historical analysis with which Rand was uncomfortable given her simultaneous advocacy of methodological individualism and philosophical determinism -- as evidence of the latter, note that she attributed the scientific and industrial revolutions to Aristotle through the mediation of Thomas Aquinas, when even Francis Bacon recognized the importance of inventions such as the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder!). Even more fundamental -- and despite Rand's lip service to the "sciences" of politics, ethics, and even aesthetics -- her ideological proclivities blinded her to the then-nascent explosion of scientific knowledge about human beings (e.g., she never admitted the importance of evolutionary processes) and also wedded her to outdated notions about the primacy of the state over the market (thus preventing her from seeing the potential of a post-state world).

Some of Rand's principles were core principles of Western civilization: respect for reason and for the individual, freedom of thought and action, and the like. But there was always more to the Western intellectual tradition than one finds in Rand. For example, because of her ideological bent she gave short shrift to phenomena such as cultural and political pluralism. Further, her heroic invidualism was inconsistent with what twentieth-century historian Carroll Quigley called the gradual and communal search for truth in the form of scientific advancement and the evolutionary improvement of technology.

Rand's ideological individualism led her to miss the significance of both history and science. She did not realize that civilizations are bigger than philosophies: they are not merely theories or ideas, but consist of whole structures of practices and attitudes and technologies; if successful (as Western ones were), such structures and their constituent parts can exercise an irresistable pull on individuals throughout the human cosmosphere. More than abstract philosophy or ideology, the West became such a powerful force in human history because of things like economic freedom, legal competition, choice in marriage, efficient timekeeping, eminently practical and often downright fun technologies (eyeglasses, guns, printing presses, washing machines, phonographs, telephones, and computers), forms of entertainment such as sports and theatre and movies and popular music, fast means of travel (including the invention of tourism), freedom first for slaves and then for women, and in general a culture that made personal fulfillment not a distant possibility but a living reality for the vast majority of people in the Western countries. As we now know, that living reality eventually attracted growing numbers of people throughout the world through movements for "modernization" (the term "Westernization" was understandably taboo, but the effect was the same). Compared to the juggernaut of Western civilization and modern ways of living, specific ideologies such as Objectivism and libertarianism never exercised great influence, even though they were consistent with much of "the idea of the West"; rather, they were at most one ingredient in a big stew.

Worse than her ignorance of historical processes (this despite the fact that she studied history in university!), Rand seems to have considered intellectual hygiene and ideological purity to be more important than facts and science. This tendency was especially strong in her followers, who listened to the master while huddled around analog tape players rather than pursuing scientific insights, inventing new technologies, creating significant artworks, or building innovative businesses as the heroes of her novels had done. The lack of connection between Rand's philosophy and the rapid scientific advances of the age is especially disappointing. Unfortunately, Rand and her followers, with their love of Aristotle, were just as reluctant to "look through the telescope" as the Aristotelian opponents of Galileo had been. By the end of the twentieth century, the main field of scientific innovation had shifted to biology, where the Randian preference for broad generalities such as "Man" and "Reason" (still capitalized!) was no match for the radical advancement of genetic and evolutionary knowledge about human beings. By contrast with those scientific results, Randian notions such as the impossibility of conflicts of interest among "rational" individuals appeared increasingly Ptolemaic, and her epicycles were showing.

What Rand failed to see was that philosophy functioned historically as something like a nebula from which sciences were born; one after another, cosmology, economics, psychology, and more emerged from the hot if gaseous cloud of philosophical discourse into the cold clarity of scientific knowledge. Yet the gradual and communal search for truth found expression not only in science but, as we know, in markets as well (indeed, what are markets but a form of knowledge?). In parallel with her predilection for centralized knowledge in the form of a philosophical movement (which she paradoxically considered "objective"), Rand thought that a centralized state or government was necessary in order for law to be objective, too. She thus missed completely the fact that law could be provided solely through market processes and therefore much more objectively than was ever possible under regimes of state subjectivism. In fact, in a classic case of refusing to look through the telescope, she and her disciples dismissed early political scientists studying polycentric legal orders as proponents of "competing governments", which was as absurd as labelling the manifold diversity of the sciences a form of competing religions!

Not surprisingly, the Randian "movement" petered out quickly after her death (indeed even before that, given her penchant for schisms and purges). Despite efforts by isolated scholars to adapt her ideas to scientific advances ("biocentric" psychology) and even then-current academic fashions (quasi-Marxist dialectics, if you can believe it!), the fundamentally ideological nature of Rand's ideas left them increasingly out of place as scientific, technological, and economic advances continued their ever-increasing acceleration in the centuries after her death. (Speaking as a Martian, I take special umbrage at the fact that she called her viewpoint "a philosophy for living on Earth" -- how parochial can you get?) It's unfortunate that ideas with so much promise (especially in the area of epistemology) were formulated in the age of ideology, because one has the sense that Rand almost got quite a few things right. Thankfully, given how far humankind has advanced since those benighted days of authoritarianism, we don't have to fret about whether there is or is not enduring value in Rand's ideas, and can simply enjoy her novels as occasional twentieth-century indulgences.


Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections