Within the circles of modern American libertarian politics, two very colorful philosophers are routinely cited as major influences by many liberty minded individuals as their inspirations. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard have each contributed decades worth of incredible material that has shaped the way a majority who ascribe to libertarian ideals in the United States and other countries as well. Regardless if it’s the fictitious novels of Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged or the comprehensive text books of Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State and America’s Great Depression, both writers have left their mark in the history of libertarian philosophy. With them being alive around the same time, one would tend to believe that if and when the two became acquainted with each other it would result in a long lasting friendship that included many frank discussions and several cocktails. However, that was not always the case when Rand and Rothbard did happen to cross paths.
Rand and Rothbard butted heads in an intellectual feud that lasted the better part of two decades between the 1950s and the 1970s. Albeit not a vicious and vulgar conflict, they managed to trade whimsical verbal jabs at each other and their followers during the course of this philosophical rivalry that resulted in a number of ideological differences within the libertarian movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While the two scholarly giants managed to set aside their differences on several occasions, they were unable to coexist for a substantial amount of time that could have created a coalition between objectivism (Rand’s school of thought) and anarcho-capitalism (Rothbard’s economic theory.) And even when they did get together to establish a dialogue, it was like, “Godzilla meets the Wolfman,” as Rothbard would put it.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russian Empire. She witnessed firsthand the effects of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that severely impacted her family. After finishing her education, Rand journeyed to the United States in 1926 and after stops in New York City and Chicago, she arrived in Hollywood to become a screenwriter for legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille. Rand would continue to write screenplays and began writing plays and novels in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She acquainted herself with journalist Henry Hazlitt, economist Ludwig von Mises, and female libertarian writer Isabel Paterson and entered politics in the United States working for the campaign of Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willke in 1940 and even volunteered to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. She also joined the Motion Picture Alliance of American Ideals and the American Writers Association and remained active in politics through the 1950s. During this time, Rand wrote The Fountainhead (1942) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), two fictional novels that laid the groundwork for her philosophy, objectivism.
Murray Newton Rothbard was born on March 2, 1926 in Bronx, New York City to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. He attended both public and private schools growing up, but preferred the private ones because they seemed more focused on education rather than egalitarianism. He was raised as a right winger, in the old sense, and admired his father who was a rugged, hardworking individualist who embraced American values and the importance of “rising by one’s own merits.” After he graduated from high school, Rothbard attended Columbia University receiving a Bachelor’s in mathematics in 1945 and a Doctorate in economics in 1956. During his time at Columbia, Rothbard felt like he was one of only two Republicans in a school full of extreme leftists and even horrified his peers by creating a Students for Strom Thurman chapter on campus during the Presidential Election of 1948. Despite Thurman being a Democrat, he supported him as he was a staunch believer in states’ rights. Rothbard later read the works of Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, and H. L. Menken and acquainted himself with libertarian writer Frank Chodorov. He would also study the works of Mises and was enthralled with Human Action (1949). Rothbard caught the attention of the William Volker Fund and was commissioned to write a textbook version of Human Action as an introduction to college undergraduates along with other contributions. His work on the text book was approved by Mises himself and his continuation with the organization led to the publication of his first book, Man, Economy, and State (1962).
After years of making their presence known within libertarian groups, Rand and Rothbard finally met in 1954. Rothbard attended a Mises seminar with a group of friends and, through them, joined Rand’s circle, ironically called “the Collective.” The introduction platform (which Rothbard referred to as the “exoteric stuff”) intrigued him enough to be a part of the group as some of their ideals were an adherence on property rights and staunch individualism. After being involved with them for several weeks and meeting Rand in person, talking on a number of occasions, he soon found the philosophy of the Collective to be superficial. Rothbard discovered that a lot of Rand’s ideas were not as “original” as she and the group proclaimed and perceived it to be a cult-like atmosphere. To Rothbard, a lot of what Rand was preaching mimicked the ideas of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Herbert Spencer and also sensed an our-way-or-the-highway attitude from the other members. This persuaded Rothbard enough to make his first exit from the Collective. Rand and the others felt no loss from his departure as it is seen as not being worthy enough to comprehend and preach objectivism.
Several years later in 1958, Rand released what she considered to be her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. Rothbard managed to obtain a copy of the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. He wrote Rand a fan letter extolling the book, calling it “and infinite treasure,” and one of the greatest literary pieces of all time. He claimed that Atlas Shrugged introduced him to the theories of natural rights and natural law which inspired him to study the philosophies in depth. Rothbard rejoined the Collective and had a more pleasant experience that lasted longer. However, the reunion didn’t end on a high note as the two discovered vast differences within their personal beliefs such as Rothbard defending anarchism and Rand considering such a philosophy to be abhorrent. Other issues also came about outside of politics. Rothbard claimed that Rand and others within the group encouraged him to take up smoking and divorce his wife for a more rational mate, which he felt insulted by. While the sources for these claims were very faulty and even prominently disputed by Rand herself, it didn’t mask the fact that there was still animosity between the two ideologues. Rothbard would once again leave Rand’s circle to pursue work on his own philosophy, anarcho-capitalism.
The bickering wouldn’t end after Rothbard’s second departure from the group as over the next decade and a half, both he and Rand would continue to deride each other and their followers with no sign of armistice in sight.
So much tension between the two reached the point that Rand denounced those who considered themselves “libertarians,” and claimed that they stole many of her ideas. At a seminar for Objective Communication in 1971, she was asked what she thought about the libertarian movement. Rand replied:
“All kinds of people today calling themselves ‘libertarians,’ especially something calling itself the ‘New Right,’ consists of hippies who are anarchists instead of leftists collectivists; but anarchists are collectivists capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet libertarians combine capitalism and anarchism. That’s worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology…”
When asked about the Libertarian Party, she answered:
“I’d rather vote for Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, or Jerry Lewis. They’re not as funny as John Hospers and the Libertarian Party. If Hospers takes ten votes away from Nixon (which I doubt he’ll do), it would be a moral crime. I don’t care about Nixon, and I care even less about Hospers; but this is no time to engage in publicity seeking, which all these crank political parties are doing…”
It is apparent that her interactions with Rothbard and those inspired by him left a sour taste in her mouth with many claims of debauchery and misinterpreted plagiarism.
Rothbard sought responses in a more creative manner. He first tried his hand as a playwright, satirizing Rand and her group of followers in the play Mozart Was a Red in the 1960s. He parodies Rand through the character Carson Sand and her friends holding a get together at the leader’s grandiose apartment in New York City. They are visited by an avid fan of Sand’s recent novel, The Brow of Zeus (a reference to Atlas Shrugged), Keith Hackley (a character based on Rothbard himself.) The play starts off with pleasant exchanges between Hackley and Sand and her group but it soon becomes hostile when he considers famous authors like Ernest Hemingway as “impressive” and shedding light on the fact that he doesn’t smoke. The play is essentially a fictionalized account of Rothbard’s second stint with the group. In 1972, he wrote a polemic essay titled “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” It was the first piece of revisionism on Rand and her philosophy from a libertarian standpoint and was as equally scathing as it was witty. In the piece, Rothbard describes the followers of Ayn Rand as a personality cult and, sarcastically, equates them with the Marxist-Leninists of the Soviet Union. He would go on to explain how those within the Collective were basically under a trance by Rand, describing her as a cult of personality with members, laying out strict guidelines for them to follow, pointing out that a vast majority of the members were young and ignorant, making it easy for them to follow the teachings without much protest. The Collective were educated to be against religion and to honor Rand like an icon. They were given an index of permitted books to read that were carefully selected; enough to argue against detractors of objectivism, but not enough to question the ideology themselves as it was against policy to give moral sanction to the enemy. The higher members of the Collective established a psychological hold on the younger and novice ones. They would conduct purges of those who seem to go astray, order them to check in with headquarters routinely, and even be interrogated over minute differences in personality such as why someone would not smoke, coinciding with Rand’s theory of “rational tobacco.” These are a number of the reason, along with others, Rothbard detailed in his polemic as to why Rand’s Collective was inherently a cult.
While there is more in-depth speculation as to why Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were not able to get along, the topic would be better suited for an essay or book as it was something Rothbard could, “spend at least two days on.” Despite objectivism and anarcho-capitalism being tied to libertarian politics, the two philosophies, and their originators, differ greatly. Perhaps one day there will be an ideological truce conducted between believers in the two theories, but as of right now it doesn’t seem as plausible, or ethical, as it could be. It’s unfortunate that neither Rand nor Rothbard could get along given the fact that the two are both well respected in American libertarianism, but their feud did provide us with a spectacular intellectual fireworks show.
You can read more from Mack Fox on Think Liberty here.