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Branden's recent writings on Rand and Objectivism

by Eyal Mozes

This is a critique of several of Nathaniel Branden's recent writings about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, published on the Objectivism WWW Service ( http://www.vix.com/Objectivism). My theme is to point out the highly negative and hostile tone of a lot of Branden's writings, and the many unbased accusations he makes against Rand and against Objectivists in general. Sections 1 and 2 discuss two of the charges Branden makes against Objectivists in general in his paper "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" - originally published in 1982, and recently published again on the Objectivism WWW Service. Section 3 discusses Branden's persistent habit, present throughout his writings, of making unsupported personal accusations against Ayn Rand.

1. The accusation of "dogmatic religion"

Ayn always insisted that her philosophy was an integrated whole, that it was entirely self-consistent, and that one could not reasonably pick elements of her philosophy and discard others. In effect, she declared, "It's all or nothing". ... This is insistence turned Ayn Rand's philosophy, for all practical purposes, into dogmatic religion, and many of her followers chose that path.

The true believers might respond by saying, "How can you call it dogmatic religion when we can prove every one of Ayn Rand's propositions?!" My answer to that is, "The hell you can!" Prior to our break, Ayn Rand credited me with understanding her philosophy better than any other person alive -- and not merely better, but far better. I know what we were in a position to prove, I know where the gaps are. And so can anyone else -- by careful, critical reading. It's not all that difficult or complicated.

Branden claims that anyone who agrees with Rand's philosophy in its entirety, viewing it as an integrated whole (a category of people which definitely includes myself), is approaching it as dogmatic religion. And rather than give any evidence to support this accusation, or any example of any tenets of Objectivism that he believes can't be proved, Branden appeals to authority coming from Rand's assessment of his understanding, and tries to intimidate anyone who agrees completely with Rand's philosophy into thinking that they're unable to do "careful, critical reading" which is "not all that difficult or complicated". This is a blatant use of argument from authority and intimidation as a substitute for evidence and reasoning. To the extent that an accusation of dogmatism can validly be made against the Objectivist movement in the NBI days, and against some parts of it today, it is precisely for the tendency to use the methods of argument that Branden uses here.

Note also Branden's obfuscation in the paragraph quoted above. When he puts in the mouth of "the true believers" the claim that "we can prove every one of Ayn Rand's propositions?", what exactly does he mean? Does he mean that they are claiming to be able to prove every statement Rand ever made on any subject? Or does he mean they are claiming to be able to prove every proposition of Rand's philosophy?

If the former, then Branden's accusation is clearly contrary to fact. In my sixteen years of involvement in the Objectivist movement, I have never encountered, neither in private conversation or in any public talk, any Objectivist who claimed to be able to prove every statement Rand ever made. If such Objectivists exist at all (which I doubt), they are a totally unrepresentative handful.

If the latter (i.e., if Branden is attacking the claim of Objectivists to be able to prove all of Rand's philosophy - a claim which many Objectivists, myself included, do in fact make), then Branden's only pretense at an example - Rand's "woman president" article - is clearly irrelevant. The question of whether a woman would want to be president of the United States is far too concrete an issue to be part of Rand's philosophy; and it is a point on which hardly any Objectivists, in either the ARI or the IOS parts of the movement, agree with Rand (having discussed this issue with many Objectivists over sixteen years, I personally have encountered only a handful of female Objectivists, and not one male Objectivist, who agree with Rand on this point).

To support his charge of "dogmatism" by rational argument, rather than by appeals to authority and by intimidation, Branden would have to begin by providing some examples of propositions of Rand's philosophy that he claims can't be proved, and refute any arguments that Rand or other Objectivists have given for these propositions. Such examples would not be sufficient to support his accusation, that those who completely agree with Rand's philosophy are motivated by "dogmatic religion" rather than simply by honest errors of thinking; but these examples would be a necessary first step. In the fifeen years since Branden first published "The Benefits and Hazards", he has never supplied any such example.

Had Branden clearly specified what he means by the ambiguous phrase "Ayn Rand's propositions", either way, the falsity of his charge, and the fact that he has not supported it at all, would have been obvious to any reader familiar with the Objectivist movement. Branden resorts to obfuscation by using this vague phrase, thus making it appear as if he has made some case for his accusation.

2. Reason vs. "the reasonable"

There is a difference between reason as a process and what any person or any group of people, at any time in history, may regard as "the reasonable". This is a distinction that very few people are able to keep clear. ...

The consequence of failing to make this distinction, and this is markedly apparent in the case of Ayn Rand, is that if someone disagrees with your notion of "the reasonable", it can feel very appropriate to accuse him or her of being "irrational" or "against reason".

Branden claims to have discovered an important distinction, that "very few people are able to keep clear"; and he specifically asserts that Rand was confused regarding this distinction, between reason and "the reasonable". And yet he presents no evidence that Rand, or anyone else, in or outside of Objectivism, ever actually had this confusion.

Regarding Rand, Branden's pretense at supporting his claim consists of: a. the fact that Rand, not having studied the theory of evolution, declined to express an opinion on its truth - i.e., the fact that Rand did not form opinions based on ignorance; b. Rand's perfectly justified rejection of claims about ESP; and c. a story about Rand's attitude towards hypnosis, a story for which there is no evidence or documentation, and which, even if true, is given with so little detail or context that it is objectively impossible to draw any conclusions from it about Rand's thinking.

Branden's claim that this is a common historical error is just as baseless. There are many examples in history of rational ideas explicitly attacked in the name of faith; but I am not aware of examples of rationally supported ideas that were called "irrational" simply for being new, and Branden provides no such examples.

In the 15 years since he first published "The Benefits and Hazards", Branden has repeated his "reason - the reasonable" distinction on several occasions; but not once has he provided any evidence that Rand, or any other Objectivists, or anyone in history, ever made this error. On at least two occasions on which Branden reiterated his "reason - the reasonable" distinction, he was directly challenged to provide some evidence to support his claims (these two occasions were Branden's postings on this subject to MDOP and to Paul Vixie's Objectivism list, on both of which I challenged him to produce evidence); he reacted to the challenge with extreme hostility, but never even tried to meet it. It is clear that Branden simply has no evidence that anyone ever made this error; the "reason - the reasonable" distinction is merely a vehicle for making baseless slurs against Rand's rationality, and for trying to intimidate anyone who agrees with her.

3. Branden's personal attacks on Rand

Branden has repeatedly made personal swipes at Ayn Rand, and generally seems to have a need to attack her character at every opportunity.

Personal attacks on Rand, and on people close to her such as Frank O'Connor, can be found throughout Branden's Full Context interview, reprinted on the Objectivism WWW Service. Branden tries to portray Rand's marriage as miserable; presents Rand's break with him as thoroughly irrational, dishonest, and motivated by resentment at his romantic rejection of her; tells an unverifiable story about ridiculously irrational statements that Rand allegedly made to his sister; and tries to rationalize away his own role in the break, ignoring Rand's perfectly justified anger at his nine-year-long deception of her and insisting that had he been honest with Rand "the ending would have been the same - the denunciations, the break-up, and the hysteria that came afterward".

Another of Branden's papers on the Objectivism WWW Service - "Devers and Ayn Rand" - is entirely devoted to smearing Rand, telling a story accusing her of evasion and of "lack of simple humanity". There is nothing of constructive value in the paper, and the attack on Rand is its only purpose.

Even in a paper on the innocuous subject of "reflections on happiness", Branden can't resist interjecting the remark:

...during the years of my association with Ayn Rand (who was enormously preoccupied in her personal life with negatives)...

a gratuitous statement which adds nothing to the intellectual content of the paper.

Given that most of these statements are supported by nothing other than Branden's word, this forces all readers concerned about the truth to evaluate Branden's credibility. In historical and biographical research, in deciding whether a witness's word can be relied on, the two relevant questions are: a. does he have a past record of dishonesty? and b. does he have a bias on the matter at issue? When we examine Branden's negative statements about Rand with these criteria, he clearly fails on both counts; he has an admitted record of engaging in deliberate, systematic deception, both of Rand and of Barbara Branden, over a period of nine years; and he is biased by his bitterness and resentment towards Rand and his need to rationalize his part in the break with her. Some Objectivists seem to think that Branden should be exempt from the usual standards of examining credibility, that both his record of dishonesty and his bias should be ignored, and any facts he alleges accepted as credible even when there's no other support for them; but there's no rational basis for granting Branden this sort of exemption.

One specific example, which is a good indication of Branden's degree of respect for truth, is the allegation of Frank O'Connor's drinking problem, originated by Barbara Branden and repeated by Nathaniel Branden in Judgment Day, and again in the Full Context interview. Here, since Branden was not in personal contact with Frank O'Connor at the time, he can't claim first-hand knowledge, and so we can observe the evidence he has, and the standards he uses in drawing conclusions from it. Branden asserts, as an established fact, that Frank O'Connor had a drinking problem; he states that "I can't tell how severe the problem was" - thus admitting that he has no factual knowledge on this matter - but still insists that "it was serious". It is clear that Branden's assertion is based on nothing other than the fact that some empty liquour bottles were found in Frank O'Connor's studio; and he ridicules Rand's explanation for these bottles, when Rand, as Frank O'Connor's wife, is clearly in a better position than Branden to know the reason why the bottles were there. When asked about this in the Full Context interview, Branden has nothing to say to support his claim other than "the necks are rather small"; and yet he repeats his assertion as if it were established. Given such demonstrated disregard for standards of evidence, there seems little reason to rely on any of Branden's factual assertions.

While Branden's specific factual claims are suspect, his generalizations about Rand are doubly so. A statement like "Rand was preoccupied in her personal life with negatives" is not even an allegation of a specific event; it is Branden's interpretation of events which he does not disclose, thus making it impossible for us to judge for ourselves whether they support his conclusion or not, having to rely on his interpretation, which, given his bitterness towards Rand, is likely to be highly biased.

In this category, again, we have an example in which we can observe both Branden's evidence and his conclusion, both Branden's recounting of an event and his interpretation of it, thus giving us the opportunity to assess his objectivity in drawing generalizations about Rand; that is the example I discuss in section 2, Branden's story about Rand's declining to express an opinion regarding the truth of the theory of evolution. Here we have a story that has an obvious interpretation, one that is simple, reasonable, and completely consistent with the few public statements Rand made about evolution: namely, that while she was fully aware that this is the only scientific theory on the issue, given her ignorance of the area she did not wish to form an opinion regarding its truth without knowing what she's talking about. But Branden doesn't consider this obvious interpretation, instead jumping to the conclusion that "there was something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable"; from this to the more general claim that Rand was uncomfortable with anything in science "more recent than the work of Sir Isaac Newton"; and from this to his claim about Rand's failure to distinguish reason and "the reasonable". There seems to be no reason to suppose that other general claims Branden makes about Rand - e.g. the "preoccupation with the negative" claim - are any better supported.

4. Conclusion

The history of the Objectivist movement has been full of animosity and schisms, distracting Objectivists from the enormous value they can derive from Rand's philosophy. Branden's writings, with his accusations of "dogmatic religion" against Objectivists, his arguments from intimidation, and his personal swipes at Rand, are certainly no help. They serve no useful purpose; given how little reason there is to lend credibility to his assertions, they do nothing to help our knowledge of Rand as a person; and their only effect is to further inflame the animosities and hostilities within the movement.

Branden has recently expressed sympathy for the Institute for Objectivist Studies, and has appeared in IOS's 1996 summer seminar. IOS is devoted to fostering an atmosphere in which it is the philosophy, not fights about Rand's personality, that are important; and in which dissent is welcomed, and different views are debated using reason, not arguments from authority and intimidation. Branden could demonstrate the sincerity of his support for IOS, and do a big favor for the entire Objectivist movement, by abandoning the hostile tone he displays in the pieces I discuss above; withdrawing from publication pieces such as "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" and "Devers and Ayn Rand", and editing others to remove the gratuitous swipes at Rand; and focusing in the future on the positive, not on attacking Rand and other Objectivists or on events of 30 years ago, but on doing his work in psychology or philosophy.



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