This essay is a slightly revised version of a chapter from Tibor Machan’s memoir, The Man Without a Hobby (Hamilton Books, 2006). It had an earlier life as an essay in Liberty Magazine, although in a much-shortened version.
IN RETROSPECT, despite my strong desire to connect with Rand and her clique, I am glad I was blackballed. I might have become a dependent as so many others did.
I am glad, too, that being cut off was not so devastating a blow that I renounced the good ideas I found in Objectivism. In the years since, I have become one of the most prolific of the neo-Objectivist thinkers, probably giving more scholarly exposition to Rand’s ideas than anyone else (with the exception, perhaps, of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, and more recently of Chris Matthew Sciabarra).
It is too bad that the folks in the inner circle have not done better at promoting Objectivism themselves. When Leonard Peikoff finally came out with his long-awaited book, The Ominous Parallels, I wanted it reviewed in Reason. I no longer had much say in those matters, though, and could only get a very brief review scheduled. I ended up writing it myself, chiding Peikoff for missing a chance to produce a truly scholarly work that took alternative explanations, compared them with his own, and thus showed the superiority of his own thesis. I was disappointed-we had all hoped that this book would help to show the philosophical community that there is real substance to Objectivism. Rand’s essays, even her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, had been too polemical to qualify as scholarship, although they certainly had a big impact on the scholarly world both directly and indirectly: directly, on younger scholars who could absorb her polemics with relative equanimity; indirectly, through the use they then made of her insights in their own scholarly work and dialogue.
Rand had urged those who agreed with her to get out there and become the “new intellectuals.” But there is no value to “new intellectuals” who cannot talk to the old intellectuals. And there surely are some who could have been reached, had the effort only been made. Instead, Peikoff and the rest of them-except for David Kelley, who in the end also got kicked out of the official circles-were content merely to ape Rand’s style and thereby do injustice to her substance. Even so, it should be conceded that Peikoff’s book is a crisp and provocative read that offers plenty of leads to readers inclined to pursue the ideas further.
I had a final word with Ayn Rand on July 4, 1976. I called to express my thanks for being the most crucial contemporary thinker to stand behind and strengthen the meaning of the Bicentennial. Her husband Frank O’Connor answered. I asked for Miss Rand and she came on the line. Here is our conversation verbatim, as best I can remember it:
“This is Ayn Rand. Who am I speaking to?”
“Miss Rand, I am a long-time admirer and wish to simply thank you on this day for what you have done to keep the idea of the American Revolution alive.”
“Who is this?”
“My name is Tibor Machan.”
In my view there is nothing peculiar about Rand’s persona or impact, including the more negative aspects. Obviously, some of her prominent and not-so-prominent followers did forfeit their independence to a degree. But many emerged easily enough from that dependency. I think that the emphasis on the cultism is misplaced, and it often amounts to little more than an ad hominem from people who really should not be tossing around accusations in any case when it comes to the phenomenon of exaggerated personal and ideological loyalties. (It is often the most rabid factionalists who decry the rabid factionalism of others!) Almost all great intellects-Marx, Freud, Jung, Sartre, Wittgenstein, Popper, for starters-have generated the kind of social upheavals around them that Rand did. And most have been tempted to lord it over their students or disciples. There is nothing terribly surprising about this, given how large the egos are of such people, and how reasonable it is that they should fear being exploited. In the end, what counts most will still be who, if anyone, is right on the crucial questions that these innovators address. And little of the material that has emerged from discussing their triumphs and foibles instructs us about that.
Ayn Rand’s work changed my life significantly. It helped me to see it coherently and to identify its purpose. Especially given my awful childhood, which involved much belittlement and self-doubt, Rand’s affirmation of the value of life and the virtue of living it in accordance with one’s nature as a rational animal-as she put it, “a being of volitional consciousness”-is very welcome to me. I doubt that I could have lived as happily as I have, even with all my stumbles, without Rand’s genius to draw upon. I will always be grateful to her for what she has done to support the uniquely American political tradition, one that enabled me and millions of others to stay free of at least the more Draconian forms of tyranny.