Review: Goddess of the Market, by Jennifer Burns

This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 4, No. 4.

Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 384 pp. $27.95 (cloth).

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography. . . . Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. —Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1891)
goddess-marketAyn Rand (1905–1982) was a great novelist and philosopher, who, in her lifetime, attracted what could be called “disciples,” and it was Judas who wrote the biography. Mr. and Mrs. Judas, in fact, as the first biography was The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden (1986), followed by ex-husband Nathaniel Branden’s memoir, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand (1989).1 The Brandens broke with Ayn Rand and her philosophy in 1968, and their accounts of her life are riddled with the bias and smears one would expect from embittered ex-disciples. Whereas formerly they coauthored a book in which they treat Rand as a hero,2 in these later works they vulgarize her.

Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is the first biography to appear since the Brandens’.3 As Burns has no personal ax to grind, is a professor of history, and had nearly unprecedented access to the Ayn Rand Archives, those interested in Rand had reason to expect Burns’s book to tell much about the life and thought—especially the political thought—of the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And although, in the 21st century, it may be too much to expect an academic biography that “canonizes”4 Rand, it is reasonable to hope for a portrayal that steers clear of vulgarization. Unfortunately, those who have such expectations will be disappointed.

What readers might have expected—what such a book could have been—is a presentation of the development of Ayn Rand’s political thought and its basis in her more fundamental philosophy, a history of her political activities and interactions with others on the right explained largely in terms of her philosophy, and a discussion of how she compares to others on the right in terms of essentials. The successful execution of such a project would not require agreement with Rand’s philosophy or political views; but it would require at least a basic understanding of, and interest in, her philosophical fundamentals and her arguments for her political ideas. Burns, however, has no grasp of or interest in Rand’s philosophical ideas or arguments, and chose to write a different sort of biography. Consider just a few of the book’s major problems:5

(1) Burns’s determinism. In his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Karl Marx wrote: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”6 Although I could not discern Burns’s own political views in the pages of her book, and I assume she is not a Marxist generally, she is a determinist with respect to the source of a person’s ideas. As Burns describes them, Rand’s political views are not the result of her own, firsthand thinking and a genuine attempt (whether successful or not) to arrive at the truth; rather, they are consequences of external forces. At the outset of the book, Burns writes: “Rand’s defense of individualism, celebration of capitalism, and controversial morality of selfishness can be understood only against the backdrop of her historical moment: All sprang from her early life experiences in Communist Russia” (p. 2). Taken on its own, this could simply be an imprecise formulation of the fact that every thinker has a historical context and that every good thinker treats his observations and experiences as facts to be considered and explained. But, in fact, throughout the book (and especially in the early chapters), Burns treats Rand’s experiences as causes determining her views. For instance: “Consistency was the principle that grabbed her attention, not surprising given her unpredictable and frightening life” (p. 13); and: “At Petrograd State University Alisa [Rand’s given first name] was immune to the passions of revolutionary politics, inured against any radicalism by the travails her family was enduring” (p. 15).

In addition to asserting that some of Rand’s ideas were caused by her social experience, Burns implies that others were caused by her encounters with the ideas of other thinkers. One instance of this is Burns’s unsupported claim about Rand’s relationship to the noninitiation of force principle. Understood in the context of Rand’s distinctive epistemology and ethics—including her unique understanding of the role of the mind and the nature and consequences of force—this is arguably an original feature of her political philosophy and an advance in philosophical support for individual freedom.7 But that is not how Burns sees it. Ignoring such fundamentals, Burns implies that Rand simply got this idea from earlier thinkers, dusted it off, and placed it in the center of her political theory. “The noninitiation principle, sometimes called the nonaggression principle, can be traced to thinkers as varied as Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and Herbert Spencer. Placing it at the center of her natural rights theory, Rand breathed new life into an old idea” (p. 118). Unfortunately, and typically, Burns provides no discussion of the details of Rand’s views, nor of those of Aquinas or Locke or Spencer, by which we could assess this statement. She simply asserts it, as she does most of her claims pertaining to Rand’s political ideas and the sources that allegedly caused them.

(2) Politics without philosophy. Related to Burns’s determinism and her consequent failure to appreciate Rand’s originality is Burns’s disregard for fundamental philosophy. . . .

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Endnotes

1 Published by Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin respectively.

2 Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, Who is Ayn Rand (New York: Random House, 1962).

3 I exclude Jeff Britting’s Ayn Rand (New York: The Overlook Press, 2004), a brief pictorial biography. Goddess of the Market preceded by a couple of weeks Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009). In her blog, Burns reports, “The primary stipulation [of the Ayn Rand Archives] was that I not use the archival material to write a full length biography, since the Ayn Rand Institute had commissioned an Objectivist literary scholar, Shoshana Milgram, to write an authorized biography. Because my focus was on Rand in relationship to a particular aspect of American history—the American right—my work was classified as a ‘special study’” (http://www.jenniferburns.org/blog/64-in-the-rand-archives-part-1-gaining-access [accessed November 22, 2009]). In fact, her book is as much a biography as it is such a special study (especially with respect to selectivity).

4 I take this in the way I believe Wilde intended it: to celebrate the greatness of a hero, and not the flaws discovered or invented by the biographer.

5 These are by no means the only problems. The book is filled with errors—major and minor —concerning Rand’s life and the nature of her thought. For example, Burns claims that according to Rand “the state is always a destroyer, acting to frustrate and inhibit the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals” (p. 3). This is patently false; and that Burns thinks it is true explains (in part) her failure to appreciate the significant differences between Rand and libertarians. See also note 8 below.

6 David McCellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 389.

7 See Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin-Dutton, 1991), pp. 310–23; and Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 94–99, 171–72.