Jennifer Burns’s entry into the burgeoning set of recent Ayn Rand books — Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market — has to be received with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, it is wonderful to see a mainstream professor of history from the University of Virginia writing a full-scale biography of Rand, and to see Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious university presses in the world, publishing it.
Furthermore, Burns generally takes her subject seriously and provides a great deal of information not previously available about Rand. On the other hand, Burns frequently misinterprets Rand the person and does not seem to care very much about the details of Rand the thinker’s ideas.
Burns obviously put in an enormous amount of research on her book, but it suffers from some of the same faults that plague many biographies. Think for a moment about your own life: Did you ever write anything down about its pivotal moments? Is there anyone who 25 years after your death could be interviewed about them? Probably not for the most part. So how could anyone reconstruct your life from available evidence?
This problem is ameliorated to a large extent by Rand leaving a wide trail of writing and interviews, but we still don’t know very much about her first love(s) or her Nietzschean phase, and (to my knowledge) we know only the Brandens’ side of the story about the early days of her love affair with Nathaniel.
The alternative would be to simply throw a mass of source material at readers and let them do the job themselves. But interpreting requires understanding; it requires suppressing one’s own agenda, to some extent, in favor of the subject’s. Here, Burns has a serious problem.
We can see this as early as page three, where Burns reduces Rand’s opposition to the philosophy of self-sacrifice (or altruism, as Rand usually called it) to Rand’s own experience with communism. This is a common misinterpretation of Rand, a clear case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Rand saw how bad communism was and she became an anti-altruist, therefore that’s why she became an anti-altruist. This is patronizing and logically fallacious.
Many people who lived under communism did not oppose altruism; some even became communists as did many who did not live under it. And many people who didn’t live under communism opposed its philosophy, as did many who did. Living under communism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for opposing the morality that underwrites communism. To know why Rand opposed altruism it would probably be more fruitful to look at her hero-worship, which predated the Bolshevik Revolution, and of course at her arguments.
Another, more distressing, fault in Burns’s biography is that she does not engage the issues as well as she should. Like a journalist, she often simply reports both sides of a controversy without getting into the substance of the matter, leaving us ill informed.
One example of this is where she discusses Rand’s break with libertarian economist Murray Rothbard (pp. 183–4). Rand had accused Rothbard of plagiarizing one of her ideas. Burns tells us that Rothbard replied that the idea in question had been in circulation for hundreds of years. Nowhere does Burns tell us what the idea was, whether it was an established idea, whether Rothbard most likely did get the idea from Rand (even if she did not have priority), etc.
This story is presented as a part of a pattern of Rand’s contentious manner; but without knowing whether Rand was justified in demanding that Rothbard give her credit, we cannot say whether Rand’s anger was rational or irrational. This is a dangerous loose end, one we must suppose that Burns left lying around because she had already made her mind up on the matter.
This prejudice, if that’s not too strong a word, is one of several handicaps that Burns suffers as Rand’s biographer. But larger by far is that she simply does not understand Rand’s philosophy. She is so ready to reduce it to politics that it does not seem to have occurred to her that the philosophy might have merit in its own right.
Take for example Burns’s summary of Rand’s pivotal essay “The Objectivist Ethics” (p. 211). First she complains about the “heavy slogging” through Rand’s definitions of “percept,” “concept” and “abstraction.” Then she quotes the trader principle of human relations. Nowhere does Burns discuss man’s life as the source and standard of value; nowhere does she mention reason, purpose and self-esteem as cardinal values; nowhere does she give Rand’s list of the virtues.
Here, as in several other places, we are left with the impression that Rand is a mere social/political thinker. You don’t have to agree with Rand to believe she tried to derive her philosophy from first principles deeper than politics.
This focus on politics mars the whole book. From the title on, Rand is presented in relation to American politics. That was certainly not what Rand thought was important about her own work and it is not why hundreds of thousands of copies of her books still sell every year, half a century after Atlas Shrugged was published.
Burns has an inkling of this when she says that the kernel of Rand’s ideas was “be true to yourself” (p. 285). This echo of Hamlet’s Polonius should be accompanied by Shakespeare’s evaluation of Polonius as a tired windbag who’s out of his depth. What Rand, and probably most of her readers, are after is a vision of man the hero, not man the Jimmy Stewart character.
I suppose Burns is entitled to write a book about Rand and the American right if she wants to, even if doing so is letting the tail wag the dog on a cosmic scale. If we regard the book on its own terms, it can be quite interesting.
Burns’s treatment of 1940s libertarian and Rand-mentor Isabel Paterson was fascinating and makes me want to read Stephen Cox’s biography of her. It is easy to forget that there was a conservative/libertarian movement before the religionists — starting with William F. Buckley, Jr. — poisoned it, and Burns is gracious enough to recognize that Buckley’s obituary of Rand was “mean-spirited.”
Burns’s tour through the modern libertarian movement (starting in the 1960s) was quite interesting, even though she never does give an adequate treatment of Rand’s (and associates’) opposition to anarchism.
Fortunately, the bulk of the book really is about Rand and only the last quarter is dominated by a discussion of political movements influenced by her. There are a lot of great stories about Rand’s early years in America. And Burns is independent enough to see that Rand, so often accused of not having a sense of humor, was having great fun with the “stunt” aspects of Atlas Shrugged.
Goddess of the Market is by no means the definitive “outsider” biography of Ayn Rand. But it is worth a read, if you read it critically — as you should read everything, including Rand herself.
Just remember that Rand’s top priority was not politics. I believe a more accurate view of Rand’s vision of herself would start with “man-worshipper,” then “novelist,” then “philosopher,” and perhaps only then “political/cultural theorist.” If Rand looked upon herself as a goddess at all, it was no doubt only in relation to a god she never met, but so vividly dreamed of.