Friday, July 31, 2009

The Ayn Rand Institute's War Against Reality

The forthcoming Jennifer Burns bio of Rand, "Goddess of the Market" confirms what many have claimed over the years including your ever-skeptical ARCHNblog: that the Ayn Rand Institute has been engaged in a consistent pattern of rewriting history in terms of both Rand's life and even literally her work. This pattern has been obvious for years, with examples ranging from the trivial (Peikoff fibbing about why Rand gave up smoking*) to the bizarre (James Valliant's "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics). This is hardly surprising, as the ARI, while ostensibly set up to promote a philosophy, is in practice merely an apparatchik organisation with the purpose of sustaining Rand's mythology.

Here's the recent Laissez-Faire Books review that seems to be the first to confirm this practice of rewriting reality is real, and is significant. Key grafs below the jump:

One other area that I found of significant interest is Burns discussion of the various problems surrounding Rand documents made public by the Ayn Rand Institute, Leonard Piekoff’s organization. There has been a great deal of controversy over indications that ARI doctored documents. Some of this doctoring was admitted by ARI, which asserted that they merely made clarifications consistent with what Rand had intended to say. Burns, who has seen the originals, says this is not the case.

She does say that the letters of Rand, that have been released, “have not been altered; they are merely incomplete.” But the same is not true for other works of Rand, including her Journals. Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”

The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”

The bad news is that “similar problems plague Ayn Rand Answers (2005), The Art of Fiction (2000), The Art of Non-Fiction (2001), and Objectively Speaking (2009).” Burns says all these works were “derived from archival material but have been significantly rewritten.” Rand scholars have long suspected such manipulation of documents; Burns confirms it with evidence she herself saw.

* We have a forthcoming article by Neil Parille noting some of the odder fibs the ARI have invented about Rand in order to polish the personality cult; stay tuned.


Anon69 said...

I would be interested to know what, if any, substantive alterations to Rand's philosophy have been made by Peikoff, the ARI, or others. An example I can think of right away is OPAR's formulation of volition and its incorporation of the contingent truths ("could have been otherwise") idea, as limited to volitional beings. I don't know that Rand ever embraced that exact notion or if it mischaracterizes her ideas (personally, it sounds worthy of one of Peikoff's misunderstandings and hapless attempts at gap-filling, but it also fits Rand's man-as-God outlook). If she didn't then it's possible that Objectivism as presented in OPAR is really more properly considered Peikoffism. To be sure, I may be wrong; perhaps Rand explicitly embraced the notion, and the criticism that OPAR represents "the very same snake oil that Rand peddled" is on the mark.

Of course, editing Rand's own words is horrible because it frustrates attempts at scholarship; but it might be useful, in estimating such changes, to know what, if any, of her heir's purposeful new philosophic directions, ideas, and characterizations might underlie those decisions.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave ...

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon69, recall also that OPAR allegedly records the result of many private conversations Peikoff and Rand to clarify the finer points of her philosophy. As we now know that the ARI are quite happy to rewrite Rand's words as they see fit, we can only presume that OPAR is as bad, if not worse. OPAR is thus destined to be an authorial muddle that will never be resolved, its veracity validated by Peikoff's say-so alone. This say-so is now forever marked as deeply unreliable.

Anon69 said...

I wish to add that the reason why I find the issue of volition and contingent truths so significant in this context is, as often surfaces in a debate over it, that this element of Objectivism presents as bald-faced an article of pure faith as one could possibly find. Whether one accepts (or claims to accept) it -- including that it is axiomatic -- is a sort of litmus test for whether one can be considered an Objectivist. I suspect that there are elements both in and outside of the orthodox Objectivist movement who realize its faith-based nature -- you either accept the article of faith or you don't. In doing so you cast your lot, not as a matter of reason or objective reality, but as a matter of pure political loyalty. Because of this, it becomes rather important whether Rand ever put that article of faith to paper in her own words. One may rightly disagree with this or that aspect of Objectivism, point out its gaps and contradictions, and so on. But to falsify one of its axioms in such manner as to fashion a political litmus test for the faithful would really be an intellectual and moral abomination. If anyone could cite where Rand herself endorsed the OPAR notion of volition as being both axiomatic and the exclusive origin of contingent truths, I'd be very interested.

gregnyquist said...

Anon69: "If anyone could cite where Rand herself endorsed the OPAR notion of volition as being both axiomatic and the exclusive origin of contingent truths, I'd be very interested."

At least as far as volition being axiomatic, there's good reason to believe that Rand was on board with that one. In the first place, the controversy over Rothbard's "Mantle of Science" article shows that this was the Objectivist (and hence Randian) position even back in the late fifties; and I believe, if my memory doesn't fail me, that Peikoff presented the axiom argument for free will in his lectures on Objectivism (with Rand present), which is supposed to be the main source of OPAR.

As far as the contingency issue is concerned, I suppose one could argue that the position can easily be deduced from Rand's distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made. It is, in any case, entirely consistent with that distinction.

While ARI's tampering with original source documents is obviously problematic for Rand scholarship, this sort of activity didn't start with Peikoff or ARI, but with Rand in her modifications of We the Living, which she claimed were not substantive, but merely corrections of grammar and the removal of some repetitious material. ARI is merely carrying on this tradition, probably under guise of carrying out what they (perhaps correctly) believe would have been Rand's own wishes.

Anon69 said...

Greg, thank you for that information (and for answering an off-topic question). FWIW, Rand quotations can be found here that do indeed embrace the "could have been otherwise" idea. So I was wrong, and here at least OPAR was peddling Rand's snake oil.

Neil Parille said...


Michael S. Kelly found a couple places where Rand removed Nathaniel Branden's name from her works. So you may be correct that the ARI is following Rand's wishes.


Neil Parille said...

As far as Rand's letters go, there was a post a while back on Objectivst Living by Peter Reidy, who is an architect.

The Letters contain several letters by Rand to Frank Lloyd Wright. Reidy went to the Wright archives and looked at the originals. There were many changes. I can't find the post, but I recall they were all minor (punctuation and the like).

Neil Parille said...

Let's give some credit to Chris Sciabarra for first bringing this to light:

Michael Prescott said...

OT, but readers may be interested in a recent opinion piece from, called "Why Atlas Shrugged is One of the Worst Books Ever Written."

I don't agree that "Atlas" is one of the worst books ever written, but the reviewer does make some trenchant points about Rand's junior-grade philosophizing.

Anyway, here's the link:

Neil Parille said...


He makes a few good points. For example, Rand didn't know when to get off the soap box in AS, but I imagine there are more than a few great novels that were quite preachy.

I think The Fountainhead is much better.

gregnyquist said...

Neil: "...but I imagine there are more than a few great novels that were quite preachy."

Well, maybe so—although I'm having trouble thinking of any. There are novelists with strong points of view. Stendhal, for example, makes it quite clear he despises individuals who are obsessed with what other people, especially their social superiors, think of them, but I wouldn't call Stendhal preachy. Tolstoy has a point of view as well, but with the exception of the long essay that concludes War and Peace, any "preaching" is so completely integrated with his brilliant characterizations that it's hard to criticize him for being preachy. Thomas Mann, whom Peikoff criticizes for inserting philosophical discussions that have nothing to do with the story (not true, btw), is not preachy at all, but rather satirical and ironic. He's making fun of his philosophizing characters, rather than turning them into mouthpieces for his own ideological ends. Dostoevsky is also far more sarcastic than preachy. Often the most voluble characters in his novels are either the foolish or villianous characters. Indeed, I'm hard pressed to think of any great novels that are preachy in the same way as Rand.

Michael Prescott said...

"Indeed, I'm hard pressed to think of any great novels that are preachy in the same way as Rand."

I can't think of any, either, except maybe some of Victor Hugo's works. "Les Miserables" was rather preachy in spots, if I recall correctly. Hugo, like Rand, thought of himself as more than a fiction writer; he was a world-historical figure who was going to save humanity.

There must be a few others, but I'm drawing a blank.

Neil Parille said...

The early review for Goddess of the Market look good -