Thursday, December 26, 2013

Two factions of the Ayn Rand cult

Barbara Branden died December 11 this year, according to the NYTimes. The obituary didn't say much I didn't know about Branden, but it did clarify for me the two different factions of what remains of the Ayn Rand cult:
Beginning in 1953, when Ms. Rand was nearly 50, Ms. Branden wrote, the intellectual mother of principled self-interest had ardently pursued an interest in Ms. Branden’s husband, Nathaniel. Though 25 years apart in age, they had an affair for about 15 years.
Ms. Branden knew about it because Ms. Rand had insisted from the start that both spouses — Ms. Branden and Ms. Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor — give their consent. 
Ms. Branden revealed the story, she said, partly to set the record straight about Ms. Rand’s sudden banishment of the Brandens from her circle in 1968. She had denounced them in a widely circulated essay, claiming they had exploited her financially. The couple denied the accusation.
In fact, Ms. Branden wrote, Ms. Rand expelled them because she had learned that Nathaniel Branden was involved with a third woman. She faulted Ms. Branden for not telling her about that other woman. The Brandens divorced soon afterward. 
The revelation led to a rift among Ms. Rand’s acolytes. Philosophical differences underlay the dispute, but by most accounts, opinion about Ms. Branden’s book became the stand-in for the disagreements. Ultimately the Ayn Rand Institute, established in 1985 by the Rand estate to promote her ideas, split in two. 
On one side were followers who rejected the book as heresy (though not as a lie, since private letters in Ms. Rand’s estate confirmed the story). Others, who saw the book as an important chronicle of movement history, formed the Institute for Objectivist Studies in 1990 (later renamed the Atlas Society). In their view, Ms. Branden’s book paid tribute to Objectivism, which at its root defines reality as a set of objective, absolute (rather than relative) observable truths. And the story Ms. Branden told was the objective truth, they said.
I hadn't realized that The Atlas Society and the Ayn Rand Institute had split over Branden's book. Clearly the Ayn Rand Institute is the more conservative of the two, refusing to accept the fact that Rand had a meltdown over a man. And it's not surprising - the Ayn Rand Institute is run by Rand's "intellectual heir" Leonard Peikoff, who, as the beneficiary of all the profits of Rand's work, has a financial stake in Rand's reputation. But what I have to wonder is, who is Leonard Peikoff's intellectual heir? He's 80 years old now, and doesn't appear to have any biological heirs - like virtually all members of Rand's "collective."

One thing the Times obituary got wrong though in claiming the Nathaniel Branden-Rand affair lasted for 15 years. According to Nathaniel Branden's memoirs they stopped having sex after the publication of "Atlas Shrugged" in 1957 after Rand fell into a depression, and as the depression lifted, Rand began to hint and then badger the unwilling Branden to continue the sexual component of their relationship. So by my count the actual affair only lasted about 5 - 6 years.

This Rand-Branden timeline by a Rand obsessive appears to agree with me about the length of the affair - actually his estimate is that the sexual relationship lasted only 4 years.

But that was the part that Rand really cared about as she made clear to Branden according to this exchange from 1967 reported by Branden:
"Getting tired of a serious, philosophical life?" she asked sharply. "You're on your own now in every way that counts. Unless you mean you want to be rid of me."
"Free of you? I want us to be friends forever." 
"Friends is not what I'm talking about! What new irrationality is this? Do you think I would have dedicated Atlas Shrugged to a friend? I've told the whole world that you are Objectivism. Do you think I would say that about a friend? What's the matter with you? Don't you attach meaning to the words you speak? Where has your mind gone?" 
The message was clear - if I were not in love with her, that meant my mind was gone and I was a traitor to our philosophy. This was Ayn's notion of giving me every chance to withdrawal from our "romance."
As far as Rand was concerned, if Branden didn't want to have sex with her, their relationship was over. And so when Branded did admit he didn't want to have sex with her any more, their relationship was over and Rand "denounced" Branden.

The Atlas Society offers its view of the split with the ARI. So far I haven't found the ARI view of the Atlas Society.