Reflecting on the Ayn Rand Centenary, Part II
Back in the fall of 2002, I wrote a survey of Rand's impact on certain progressive rock bands, including, especially, Rush. That article,"Rand, Rush, and Rock," inspired a full-fledged symposium in the Fall 2003 issue, which dealt with Rand, progressive rock, and the counterculture. Among the contributors to the symposium were Durrell Bowman, Ed Macan, Bill Martin, and our very own Steven Horwitz, whose piece can be found in PDF here.
On L&P, we've been talking quite a bit of late about the need to build bridges to left and right. Some of what I say in the newly posted essay is relevant to this issue, since it deals with a certain ironic affinity between Rand and the 60s"nihilistic" counterculture that she despised:
The basis of that affinity lies in their shared anti-authoritarianism. Even as [musicologist] Ed Macan defends the “countercultural” roots of progressive rock, he argues persuasively that its typical left-wing politics “were never monolithic, or without self-contradictory tendencies.” Indeed, the counterculture’s anti-authoritarian elements transcended traditional left-right categorization. Macan notes that “a strain of libertarianism analogous to Rand’s was probably present in incipient form in the hippie movement,” though “it was not fully evident until after the dissolution of the hippie movement around 1970, that is, after progressive rock had already emerged as a full-blown style.” It is this same “incipient” libertarian streak that led writer Jeff Riggenbach to identify the counterculture as among the “disowned children” of Ayn Rand—disowned by Rand largely because of what she perceived as their nihilism and subjectivism. Of Rand’s renunciation of New Left counterculture, I wrote in Russian Radical:
Rand criticized the student movement for its acceptance of Hegelian and Marxian theoretical constructs; however, Rand recognized that many students ran to the Marxist camp because it was more intellectual and systematized than its social science counterparts. She claimed that if the students had been offered the Wall Street Journal and Southern racism as examples of capitalist politics, they were correct to sense hypocrisy and to move further to the left. But the New Left did not embrace the more reputable Marxist synthesis, which had retained some respect for reason, science, and technology. The New Leftists rejected ideological labels, and proclaimed the supremacy of emotionalism and immediate action. Nourished on a poisonous diet of Kantianism, pragmatism, logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and existentialism, the New Left mounted an anti-ideological assault on a system that was fundamentally anti-ideological as well.
Educated in the halls of Progressive education, the New Leftists thus reflected the bankruptcy of the Establishment they despised; for Rand, they were “the distilled essence of the Establishment’s culture, . . . the embodiment of its soul, . . . the personified ideal of generations of crypto-Dionysians now leaping into the open.”
Interestingly, however, Riggenbach argues, like Macan, that the student movement was not monolithically New Leftist. In fact, Riggenbach finds that “the student political activists of the 1960s were never except briefly and incidentally, fighting for the values and ideals of the Left. The problem was, the values and ideals they were fighting for no longer had any generally agreed-upon name of their own at the time.” For Riggenbach, those ideals were fundamentally libertarian. It is therefore no surprise to discover that Rand herself was “one of the central figures in the youth rebellion of the ’60s." For example, in the 1978 “Woodstock Census” survey of attitudes among people who were students in the 1960s, Rand was ranked number 29 out of 81 individuals named as among those who had most influenced—or who were most admired by—that generation. Among authors, she was tied for sixth place with Germaine Greer, behind Kurt Vonnegut, Kahlil Gibran, Tom Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (tied for fourth), and Allen Ginsberg. Riggenbach concludes that the survey results make “obvious how little influence the leaders of the New Left actually exercised over their supposed followers."
To what was the counterculture responding in Rand’s works? Riggenbach maintains that Rand’s novels, filled with youthful characters, routinely attacked social authority figures and the “drivel” of contemporary education. Atlas Shrugged, for example, “contains perhaps the most acid-etched portrait of establishment intellectualdom ever published in America” (60). Moreover, says Riggenbach, Rand paints a portrait of a corrupting nexus of government, big business, and a scientific establishment hellbent on “employ[ing] stolen resources in the invention of loathsome weapons of mass destruction” (61)—something against which the counterculture had reacted with great ferocity. And even though Rand had rejected the concept of anarchism in her nonfiction writing, Atlas presented an alternative utopia steeped in human creativity and “without government of any kind” (63). The hippie rebels who were casual readers of Rand’s fiction, says Riggenbach, had applied her anti-authoritarianism to the context of their own lives. They presided over a form of decadence embodied in the decay of authority and the decay of the traditional—a decay to which Rand’s works contributed. It is no coincidence that their countercultural “revolution,” which called for individual autonomy and authenticity, was manifested in a style of music that was a “hybrid genre,” an “eclectic” blend of jazz, classical, and folk, transcending the racial divide of black and white.
So much remains unexplored in the affinities between Rand and the counterculture from which progressive rock was born, affinities that challenge the very distinctions between left and right. It is my hope that this forum will have contributed toward the advancement of this long-overdue exploration. That Rush and other progressive bands have embraced a visionary libertarian lyricism gives expression to Rand’s ultimate hope for the unity of those “homeless refugees” of American political culture: the “non-totalitarian liberals” and the “non-traditional conservatives.” In their shared repudiation of authoritarian social relations, freedom beckons.
Tomorrow, I'll post another recent article of mine detailing Rand's impact on the wider culture.
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Jeanine Ring - 2/2/2005
Well, I certainly most agree. Those with an Anglo-Byzantine's elitist half-education in history have long underestimated the hippies, whose intellectual parentage they would do well not so easily to mock. There are those who believe one cannot be joyous, light, enthusiastic (or gay), without a loss of artistry and intellectual seriousness. I would suggest they look a little more closely at the literature and lives of their Great Conversationalists; they have a lot to learn.
And as for a spirit of liberty, I agree. The primary political instinct of the hippie movement was "let a man live his own life", and their much harrangued egalitarianism was more a belief that there is a brighter flame of creativity in all people- black, white, and red, woman and man, poor and rich, than a heirarchical society oft allows to flourish or to flower into being. That is a spirit most compatable with libertarianism- and onw which, perhaps, has something to teach it. I myself see no conflict between an admiration for the Howard Roarcks of this world and a suspicion that there is a lot more of a Roark submerged inside the 'common' man. Or in fact, not so submerged- too easily blind and ethnocentric eyes that search for that spirit do not allow us to see it.
in Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,
Jeanine Ring )(*)(
Roderick T. Long - 2/2/2005
My own Ayn Rand centenary notice is here:
(I'm posting this in the comments session because it's the only part of HNN's blogging function that's working.)
Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 2/2/2005
Checking in on L&P for two days now, I felt like I was in that movie "Groundhog Day," in which the main character is stuck living the same day over and over and over and over again.
Alas, in light of the technical difficulties here at HNN, I've posted the conclusion to this Rand Centenary series at my own "Not a Blog." Today, February 2nd, is, after all, the actual day of the Rand Centenary:
Reflecting on the Ayn Rand Centenary, Conclusion
Also, check out this index:
Index to Essays on the Ayn Rand Centenary
Though these links are available on the index, I should mention that two other print essays have been published online as well:
From The Freeman:
Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation
From The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies:
The Illustrated Rand
I will most likely cross-post the conclusion to the series on L&P when the technical problems have been resolved.
Oh, and, uh, Happy Groundhog Day!
Andre Zantonavitch - 2/1/2005
Chris writes: "So much remains unexplored in the affinities between Rand and the counterculture from which progressive rock was born, affinities that challenge the very distinctions between left and right. It is my hope that this forum will have contributed toward the advancement of this long-overdue exploration."
This is so true. A large minority of Hippies way-back-when were natural allies which were ripe for the plucking. And their free-thinking, fun-loving, optimistic, idealistic, rather joyous attitude could have done the dowdy, dour, sour, grim Objectividst Movement a world of good. It would have been a win-win scenario. How did Rand and Branden in the 1960s ever miss this?
This argues strongly that there was something diseased about the Objectivist Movement from the start. On the surface, the early Objectivists were against irrationality, faith, obedience to authority, "second-hander" conformism, etc. But deep down those early Objectivsts were mostly CULTISTS who took Rand and Objectivism on faith, embraced Rand's "collective," followed mindlessly in her train, and enslaved their minds and souls in a way ~most~ unacceptable to the light, gay, free Hippies.