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Is Objectivism a Cult?

by Jim Peron

This four-part series was originally published in The Laissez-Faire City Times. Because that magazine's archives are no longer online, we are republishing the material here to make it available to interested readers and researchers. This is Part Two. The remaining articles of the series are also available:

Part 2: Rothbard Unmasked

Many of the rumors of cultism within Objectivism originate with the person of Murray Rothbard. Rothbard was a student of Ludwig von Mises. He was an anarchist of a rather odd variety with an unstable history of dancing all over the political spectrum seeking alliances. He attracted a small number of young students, all students of Mises, and called them his Circle Bastiat. When he read Rand's Atlas Shrugged he wrote her a fan letter. His first attempted alliance was when he brought his Circle Bastiat to Rand's Objectivism.

Rothbard, contrary to the impressions he has encouraged, had a very limited dealing with Rand. According to Barbara Branden, who was present on all the occasions when Rand and Rothbard were together, the total number of times they met were no more than half a dozen. Branden says that Rand immediately was uncomfortable with Rothbard and didn't particularly like him. Contrary to the stories Rothbard had allowed to flourish, if not encouraged them himself, he and Rand parted over an issue very non-cultic.

Rothbard, Plagiarist?

Rothbard presented a paper on scientism to a conference which Nathaniel Branden, Barbara, and Ayn felt was, to some degree, plagiarized from Barbara's thesis. Nathaniel wrote Rothbard a letter concerning the matter. The two of them corresponded over it but Rothbard insisted he didn't plagiarize while Rand and Branden were convinced that he had. After this incident Rothbard had no dealings with Rand and immediately launched into attacks on Rand and Objectivism. Rothbard often had violent quarrels with others and individuals who he once praised as wonderful were immediately cast into conspiracy with Satan himself. For an example, see how he turned on Ed Crane and the Cato Institute after he was removed from the Cato board.

Unfortunately I was not able to obtain a copy of Barbara Branden's thesis, Human Freedom and Human Mechanism, on free will. But even a cursory reading of the Rothbard article reveals arguments and terminology which one would expect from an Objectivist-oriented paper. At the very least they are arguments picked up from Rand and her circle, since these are not arguments within the tradition of the Austrian school of economics of which Rothbard was an advocate. Rothbard's foundation is clearly Objectivist-oriented. Here are some of his comments. Anyone familiar with the argumentation of Rand and the Brandens will recognize them immediately:

Both fields [human action and physical science] of inquiry must, it is true, be studied by the use of reason -- the mind's identification of reality. But then it becomes crucially important, in reason, not to neglect the critical attribute of human action: that, alone in nature, human beings possess a rational consciousness. Stones, molecules, plants cannot choose their courses; their behavior is strictly and mechanically determined for them. Only human beings possess free will and consciousness: for they are conscious, and they can, and indeed must, choose their course of action. To ignore this primordial fact about the nature of man -- to ignore his volition, his free will -- is to misconstrue the facts of reality and therefore to be profoundly and radically unscientific.

...Man is born with no innate knowledge of what ends to choose or how to use which means to attain them. Having no inborn knowledge of how to survive and prosper, he must learn what ends and means to adopt, and he is liable to make errors along the way. But only his reasoning mind can show him his goals and how to attain them.

...But while most things have no consciousness and therefore pursue no goals, it is an essential attribute of man's nature that he has consciousness, and therefore that his actions are self-determined by the choices his mind makes.

There is a a great deal in Rothbard's piece that could easily have been lifted from Barbara's thesis. Now, of course, there are other explanations as well. It is possible that Rothbard picked up some of these arguments in his few sessions with Rand and the Brandens. It is also possible that he might have picked them up elsewhere as well -- he says he attended the first lecture series of the Nathaniel Branden Institute on Objectivism. But the two main intellectual sources for Rothbard, at this time of his life, were Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand. These positions taken by Rothbard are not particularly Misesian in nature. The most likely explanation is that they did come, in one form or another, from Rand or from her circle.

One writer to Liberty responded to Rothbard's account and his perceptions were almost identical to my own. Philip Baltimore wrote:

I had read Rothbard's "The Mantle of Science" before learning of the controversy; my response to the the controversial section was: "Boy, this is solid Ayn Rand -- how does he get away with that?" I take issue with Rothbard's statement that "to anyone with brains it was obvious that the paper was written in the Misesian framework" since in the previous column he says it was "expanded to be grounded in an Artistotelian-Thomist defense of free will." Do you have to be a rocket scientist to know that this did not come from Mises? And then we are told that Murray took detailed notes of Barbara's master's essay. Nowhere in his article does he deny getting his ideas from Rand, and he admits that his footnotes were added after the fact. Where did you get your ideas, Murray? Not from Mises and not from the sources you quoted. Did you channel them?

Add to this the claims made by the Brandens and there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to make the plagiarism theory the more likely of the alternatives. The most likely countervailing theory is that Rothbard took Rand's (or Branden's) arguments indirectly and used them without credit. In this scenario he wouldn't have purposely plagiarized a paper. But he might have used the same arguments in a rewritten form without acknowledgment. The reason that Branden contacted Rothbard was to clarify this issue. But Rothbard refused to deal with Rand and the Brandens concerning the matter. If this were simply a misunderstanding Rothbard's cooperation would have helped immensely in clearing it up.

Rothbard's own account of the issue adds credence to the charges from Branden. First Rothbard admits that he had read Barbara's paper at the urging of Nathaniel. He also admits that the Brandens charged that there were several witnesses who would verify that Rothbard "took exceptionally detailed notes on it, which are still in your possession". Rothbard also says that the "entire disputed portion of my paper consisted of only five out of twenty-five manuscript pages of the article". Rothbard might wish to minimize the accusation with the word "only," but in fact this amounts to 20 percent of the entire manuscript.

Rothbard's defense of these charges was published in 1989 in Liberty magazine (Sept.). In this article, "My Break With Branden and the Rand Cult," the arguments offered are interesting. Rothbard does not claim that there were no similarities between his arguments and the ones offered by Barbara in her paper. One would think that he would immediately deny this if he wished to avoid the charges of plagiarism. Instead Rothbard argues that Barbara's arguments are not unique and are a part of traditional philosophy. He then admits that to prove this point he went out of his way to find sources to footnote his article after the fact. He first wrote his argument and then later found footnotes to support it. He does not say that he didn't get the arguments originally from Barbara's paper. Instead he simply argues that he later added footnotes as a sort of rebuttal to the charges.

It doesn't strike me that Rothbard's argument is successful. Even if we take his account as fully truthful there are some problems. He did read Barbara's paper prior to writing his own article. He could easily have taken the arguments from Barbara because of this. He admits that he only sought out non-Objectivist sources for the arguments after he was charged with plagiarism. The most likely scenario is that Rothbard did read Barbara's paper and had her arguments in mind when he wrote his article. Thus he used the same arguments without attribution. When asked why he didn't attribute the paper as his source he doesn't deny that he got the ideas from Barbara's work; instead he only claims the arguments are not unique to Barbara's paper. But whether they were unique or not is irrelevant. The question was whether her presentation of those arguments was in his mind when he wrote his paper or not.

Rothbard, Playwrite

One of the first attacks on Rand, and the source of false rumors regarding Rand, was a play that Rothbard wrote, entitled Mozart Was a Red. The widely spread myth that Rand argued that smoking was a requirement for rationality is clearly stated in Rothbard's play. The main character is Carson Sand (Rand). Keith seems to be Rothbard while Greta is Barbara Branden and Jonathan is Nathaniel.

CARSON (turning to KEITH): Keith, would you like a cigarette? Here, this is a particularly rational brand.

KEITH (a bit bemused): "Rational...?" (A slight pause) Oh, I'm sorry, thank you. I don't smoke.

(Exclamations of disapproval from JONATHAN and GRETA .)

GRETA (lashing out): You don't smoke! Why not?

KEITH (taken back): Well, uh...because I don't like to.

CARSON (in scarcely-controlled fury): You don't like to! You permit your mere subjective whims, your feelings (this word said with utmost contempt) to stand in the way of reason and reality?

KEITH (sweating again): But surely, Miss Sand, what other possible grounds can you have for smoking than simply liking it?

(Expressions of fury, dismay from GRETA, JONATHAN, and CARSON, "Oh!", "Ah!", etc.)

JONATHAN (bounding up): Mr. Hackley, Carson Sand never, never does anything out of her subjective feelings; only out of reason, which means: the objective nature of reality. You have grossly insulted this great woman, Carson Sand, you have abused her courtesy and her hospitality. (sits down)

KEITH: But...but...what possible reason can there be...?

CARSON: Mr. Hackley, why are you evading the self-evident fact? Smoking is a symbol of the fire in the mind, the fire of ideas. He who refuses to smoke is therefore an enemy of ideas and of the mind.

In another section of the play Rothbard has the Nathaniel Branden character haranguing the Rothbard character because he liked the wrong character from Sand's novel.

JONATHAN (bounds to his feet, comes to center and declaims at KEITH): Enough! Keith Hackley, you have had the rare privilege of spending an evening with the greatest minds you can ever hope to meet: Carson Sand, Greta Landsdowne, and myself. And above all you have met Carson Sand, the greatest, the most original mind of our time and of all times, the greatest human being who has ever lived or shall live. And how have you treated this privilege? Above all, how have you treated Carson Sand? I have sat here while you have committed a series of irrational, unforgivable sins against Carson Sand. You interrupted her continually, hardly giving her a chance to speak; you openly evaded every question which Carson or I put to you. You have tried to kowtow to us and to the mystics, to us and to Mozart, to us and to all the depravities of our society. You criticized, instead of asking questions. You mocked like a hooligan, instead of showing proper reverence. And to whom? To this woman who has brought to the world the knowledge that A is A, and that 2 and 2 equal 4. And finally, after your rudeness had driven this woman with the patience of Job from this room, you capped your crimes by saying that your favorite character is Joey Fontana, the mediocre, the nice guy (with absolute contempt), the second-hander. Thereby, Keith Hackley, you damned yourself forevermore.You have made your choice, Keith Hackley, and therefore you leave me with but one alternative: to demand that you leave this house never to return.

After failing to impress Rand, Rothbard tried to forge an alliance with the so-called New Left. He presented himself as something of a guru to the extremists in radical Left groups like Students for a Democratic Society. His willingness to lead them into an anarchist paradise was shunned. He then joined the new Libertarian Party but also had a falling out with the LP because he accused them of selling out to the Right. He then split from the LP and joined the very Right wing he had recently attacked. He, along with Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute, announced that they were paleo-libertarians and actively courted the Right. One of Rothbard's contacts and friends on the Right was Samuel Francis, a man who easily worked with various racialists and anti-immigration activists. He was, for some time, a conservative newspaper columnist, but his dealings with racists lost him much of his support.

Rothbard Pulls the Christian Card

In a 1996 column Frances launched an attack on Rand. And to paraphrase Jerome Tuccille's book "it usually begins with Murray Rothbard." In his column Frances denounced Rand as an anti-Christian cultist. He offers two pieces of evidence for this attack. First, "the characters in her books are always sketching the symbol [of the dollar sign] in the air like early Christians sketching the sign of the cross." Now, of course, as is widely known Rand wrote four novels. Together they total around 2,500 pages which easily amounts to somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million words. In three of these books the dollar sign isn't mentioned at all. In Atlas Shrugged the main character John Galt sketches the dollar sign a grand total of one time. Yet Frances has the characters [plural] in Rand's books [plural again] always sketching the sign. In fact one character, in one book, sketches it once.

Frances, the anti-immigrant activist, accused the immigrant Rand of turning "herself and her ideas into her own private church." He says that a story "about my late friend Murray Rothbard" shows how this was true. Frances wrote:

Murray, one of the world's leading free market economists and libertarian thinkers, was a lifelong agnostic, but his wife, Joey, was and is a Christian. When they were younger, they had some truck with Rand and her circle of worshipers, but then the Great One found out about Joey's faith.

Rand gave Joey six months to soak herself in Rand's own screeds against religion. If, at the end of that period, Joey abandoned her beliefs, she and Murray could sign up with the Source of All Truth Herself. If not, Murray would have to divorce Joey, or else they would be exiled to the outer dark. Murray, quite properly, told Rand to go take a flying jump in the lake (or words to that effect). He kept his wife, and his wife kept her faith, and somehow they managed to live happily without the benefit of Ayn Rand's wisdom.

This story has been making the rounds for decades. And if true it would certainly show Rand in an extremely bad light. If the "exile" of Rothbard had to do with an edict to divorce his wife because of her beliefs, then his attacks might be justified. But the correspondence between Rothbard and Nathaniel Branden, which still exists, showed the "exile" was over the charges of plagiarism. Rothbard's story makes him appear the victim while the documentation which exists in the form of letters would indicate a certain lack of honesty on his part. One can understand why Rothbard might have a motive to create a very different account for his departure from his very brief stint in Objectivist circles.

Once told a story can't be untold and takes on a life of its own. Propagandists have always known this and Rothbard was a propagandist. Unfortunately he was always most successful at "smashing" his opponents than he ever was at building up support for a free society. Sociologist Ted Goertzel used Rothbard's false claims in his book Turncoats & True Believers (his discussion of Rand is amateurish and filled with absurd claims). Goertzel alleges:

When economist Murray Rothbard's wife could not be persuaded to give up her Christian beliefs, Rand and Branden suggested that he leave her and take a more rational mate. He refused. At a later meeting, Rothbard was denounced for not smoking cigarettes. A purge trial was held, which Rothbard refused to attend. Rothbard left the cult and continued to fight the Randians in the Libertarian Party.

Not only did Rothbard lie about Rand demanding he divorce Joey but he covered up the real reasons. He also seems to be the source for the completely false claim that Rand argued that a good Objectivist should smoke. She didn't! I think that Rothbard's anti-Rand satirical play was used by Jerome Tuccille as a source for some of the scenarios which he used in his fictional, satirical book It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. At one point I even published Tuccille's book thinking that no one would confuse it with reality. Regretfully I was wrong. Several alleged scholars, including James Baker and Ted Goertzel, took this book seriously. For the record: it was a satirical fictional work. It was not fact! And what is based on fact in the book is so intermeshed with the satire and Tuccille's own imagination that no serious scholar would bother using it as a source. Rothbard even admits that Tuccille's work "was not always historically accurate."

Rational Smoke, Rational Fire

The comments in Rothbard's play regarding smoking don't come from a meeting between him and Rand at all. They come straight out of the words of a very minor character in Atlas Shrugged. The character is so minor he isn't even named. He is described as an old man who once owned a cigarette company that went bankrupt. He collected cigarettes from around the world. Dagny Taggart is walking through the terminal lobby where the man sold his wares. She stops to ask him if he had anything new in his collection. He says nothing new is being produced anymore. He then says to Dagny:

I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of the fire held in a man's hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come in his mind--and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.

Dagny, who represents Rand far more than this minor character, says in response: "Do they ever think?"

This passage doesn't say one must smoke to be rational. Rand was a smoker for most of her life. And for most of that time the medical evidence wasn't available to show any great harm from the habit. I can imagine where the thoughts of this character came from. It's not hard to imagine Rand sitting in her study, day in and day out, working on her novel. She would lit a cigarette and think. Perhaps she did see fire tamed in her hand but I think she was speaking about much more here. I think she was discussing the fire of the mind more than anything else. Perhaps on a particularly difficult passage she would stop, smoke and think and then resume writing. That is all I can find in this passage. I find no insistence that smoking is rational. It may describe what happened to her during the process of writing but it wasn't a moral edict for the world to follow.

Certainly the circumstantial evidence points to Rothbard's account as being the false one. Let us start with the Circle Bastiat, all of whom, were Rothbard's friends. These young students, who included Robert Hessen and George Reisman, were brought to Rand by Rothbard. If anything they had a prior allegiance to Rothbard. And I find it hard to imagine that these friends of Rothbard's wouldn't stick by him if Rand had insisted that he divorce his wife because she was a Christian. In fact several of the members of the Circle Bastiat stayed with Rand when Rothbard was "exiled." The fact that he lost some of his supporters in the split would be another reason that Rothbard might vindictively make false accusations. And it indicates that some of his closest friends didn't accept his version of events.

Roy Childs, who had been friends with Rothbard, gave an account of Rothbard's feud with Rand that is substantially different from what Rothbard later spread. Childs said that Rand, "broke with Murray Rothbard, for example, because he refused to appear at a 'trial' at which he was to be accused of the crimes of plagiarism and making fun of her at a party." Childs also mentions that Rothbard ridiculed Rand at a party. As I understand the issue, what had happened was that Rothbard and a few friends performed an anti-Rand skit and taped it. Rand, when she heard of the tape rightfully found it insulting. Add the plagiarism issue to Rothbard's ridicule of Rand and it is no wonder that she didn't want anything more to do with him. The account by Childs is important. He was no Rand sycophant and was closer to Rothbard's anarchism for much of intellectual life. And as Joan Kennedy Taylor points out "he was probably the only person on earth who was a close friend of both Nathaniel Branden and Murray Rothbard." But Childs clearly believes the major issue involving Rothbard was plagiarism and his ridiculing Rand. Childs never once mentions Joey's religious beliefs as having anything to do with the so-called excommunication of Rothbard.

Rothbard, Buffoon

Rothbard also gives his own account of his attack on Rand and he basically admits that he and his friends were quite unkind in their remarks. Rothbard says that on March 2, 1958, he and his friends had a party. They turned on the tape recorder: "We started fooling around with the tape and the microphone, and what emerged was a true epiphany, a purely spontaneous, improvised skit satirizing the Rand Cult." Rothbard and group heaped ridicule on Rand and her closest friends. When Branden heard of this he asked for the tape but Rothbard refused to give it to him. Rothbard admitted the tape existed and said he wouldn't hand it over. Branden conceded the tape was Rothbard's property but requested that he give it to him. It seems to me that most of us would have done something similar if someone produced a tape recording ridiculing us. If we were in the position to do so we would probably express our anger and ask for the tape. What surprises me is that Branden continued to be friendly with Rothbard after this. Had it been me I would shown the man the door and closed it before his posterior had exited fully. Rothbard implies that one major reason for the split was that he refused to hand over the tape: "I had flatly refused a direct order from the Fürhrer. From then on, it was just a question of what issue would constitute the official excuse form my expulsion."

Branden seemed much more tolerant than Rothbard would have us believe. He knew that Rothbard and company had held him and Rand up to scorn in early March. At the very least this would indicate that whatever fondness Rothbard was expressing for them in his infrequent meetings was feigned or exaggerated. In spite of this, four months later Branden, according to Rothbard, requested that they see each other "more" often.

On July 15, 1958 Rothbard received a call from Branden who then outlined his concern about the possibility that Rothbard had plagiarized from Barbara's paper. Rothbard was asked to meet with them and explain himself but he refused. On July 16 Branden wrote a detailed letter to Rothbard explaining what he believed had been plagiarized. Rothbard again refused to respond. On July 20th Branden again asked for an explanation.

Instead of responding privately, Rothbard started building support for his own account by writing various individuals who were dealing with the seminar at which his paper was presented. Only after he had contacted these people did he finally respond to Branden, using the arguments mentioned earlier. In fact Rothbard already had responses from these other individuals in his hands before he wrote his first response to Branden. While refusing to respond to Branden's letters Rothbard was spreading the issue far and wide, including dragging von Mises into the issue. Instead of simply responding to what had, up to this time, been a private matter, Rothbard engage in strategic alliance building. It was he, not Branden, who made the issue a public one. Instead of relying on the strength of his arguments and the facts, he consciously sought to build support for himself. I can understand such tactics if one is guilty, but I'm not sure they make sense if one is innocent.

Other friends of Rothbard obviously continued their friendship with him and seemed to believe his charges against Rand. One close friend of Rothbard's repeated this story to me. However, he says he was not present when the demand was made. He seemed under the impression that the demand was not made by Rand at all but by Nathaniel Branden. He also said no one was present when the demand was made, because it was supposedly during a private therapy session which Rothbard was having with Branden. It appears that the only source for this accusation still remains Rothbard himself. Without evidence to verify the charge the basic principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty would mean that this charge against Rand should be dismissed. Rothbard's account indicates that it was Branden who allegedly made the statement except the statement was more like a subtle hint not a demand. Neither does Rothbard mention any therapy sessions.

More Canards

If Samuel Frances accurately recounts what he supposedly heard from Rothbard then another piece of evidence arises. He wrote that Joey Rothbard (Murray's wife) was to "soak herself in Rand's own screeds against religion." Now what screeds are these? Rand rarely wrote on religion. The three major papers she wrote were "Faith and Force" which was done in 1961, "Requiem for Man" published in 1967, and "On Living Death" published in 1968. All of them written long after the incident with Rothbard. The latter two essays were mainly discussions of Papal Encyclicals on economics and on abortion. Rand never wrote an essay explaining her views on religion or atheism.

The publication of a large portion of her personal correspondence shows she rarely discussed the subject of religion there. The publication of her intellectual journals shows no substantial discussion of the subject there either. The only in-depth discussion of the subject in Objectivist circles was a lecture given by Nathaniel Branden. But Frances makes it clear that Joey was to read, not listen, to Rand's, not Branden's, own screeds. Since there were no such papers or essays for Joey Rothbard to read then we can once again find another reason for doubting Rothbard's account.

In a discussion with Barbara Branden, I asked her about the claim that Rothbard was told he should divorce his wife unless she became an atheist. Barbara said that she sat in on every meeting where both Rand and Rothbard were present and that the subject was never discussed. Joey Rothbard was present but not actively involved in any discussion. Barbara said that everyone had a vague knowledge that she was religious but it was never discussed. She made it clear that, in her opinion, the entire story was fabricated by Rothbard without a shred of truth. While researching her biography The Passion of Ayn Rand, interviews were done with Rothbard. Barbara says that on tape Rothbard admitted he couldn't comment very much on Rand herself as he didn't know her very well and had only limited encounters with her. Nor did he mention this alleged incident. Barbara said she could understand why he didn't mention it on tape: "He knew I was there and no such thing happened." If Rothbard had any validity to his accusations it would seem plausible that he would have restated them to Barbara. He didn't.

Nathaniel Branden confirmed Barbara's recollection. He said Rand and Rothbard "met a few times" which is consistent with Barbara's statement that it was maybe five or six times in total. Nathaniel said: "His wife's religion was never discussed by us and was never an issue. He made that up out of whole cloth." He said: "Rothbard told so many lies regarding Rand and myself, I don't know where to begin." The Brandens both say that Rothbard had limited interaction with them and Rand. Rothbard allegedly says as much in his taped interview when Barbara was writing the Rand biography. But Rothbard elsewhere makes it sound as if he had a great deal of interaction with Rand's circle. He says there was "intense interaction between the two groups" (Circle Bastiat and Rand's Collective.) Now this is carefully worded since it doesn't say that Rothbard had "intense interaction" with Rand or Branden. All it actually says, if read carefully, is that someone in Rothbard's circle may have had intense interaction with someone in Rand's circle. Considering that two of Rothbard's circle were Robert Hessen and George Reisman, both of whom split with Rothbard and became long-time associates of Rand, this statement is obviously true even if it is a bit misleading. As best as I can put it together Rothbard first met Rand in the early 50's but did not strike up a friendship or anything remotely similar. After Atlas Shrugged was published he wrote her a fan letter and tried to introduce his circle to her. In a very short span of time after this, literally amounting to just a few months, Rothbard split with Rand. During that time he had very few meetings with her. He may have had additional interaction with Nathan. But he was never a member of Rand's circle of friends. Rothbard, however claimed to the contrary:

In my last meeting with him before the break, on July 14, 1958, Branden, with elaborate casualness asked me: "By the way, why is it you don't see us more often?" ("Us," of course, was the group.) I was a bit startled, since I was seeing these people twice a week, which I was coming to consider at least two times a week too many. More?

In fact this paragraph indicates that the entire time period for "intense interaction" between Rothbard and Rand was quiet short. He wrote her a fan letter after the publication of Atlas. The book was only published in October 1957 and by July 1958 their "interaction" was over. Rothbard's account says this period was "about six months" in duration. He also doesn't make it clear who is the "Us" to whom he refers. He says it was the "group" but again this isn't defined. And both Brandens deny they were meeting Rothbard with much frequency, let alone the twice a week he claims.

What Rothbard may or may not have told Samuel Francis and other friends is hard to pin down. But his article in Liberty did go into detail. And that article is not quite the story that has been recounted. In his own account Rothbard doesn't actually say he was told to divorce his wife by Rand. In fact he makes Branden the villain and instead of being "told" to divorce her he only claims that it was hinted at and never specifically stated.

In his account Rothbard says that the most serious reason for his break was his wife's religion. He says:

My wife Joey was and is a practicing Christian. I knew from the very beginning that the Randians were fanatically antireligious, that Rand hated God far more than she ever hated the State. So I put it squarely to Branden at our very first meeting: "Is it your view that I should divorce Joey because she's a Christian?" "Of course not," Nathan replied, "how could you think we were such monsters." Branden's answer lulled me into a false sense of security. As the months wore on, however, I came to realize that while Branden was technically telling the truth, the Randian attitude was, if possible, even worse. For no, I was not supposed to divorce Joey because she was a Christian; I was supposed to spend several months hectoring the poor girl to convert her to atheism; if that failed I was supposed to divorce her.

Now how was this allegedly done? Rothbard says that Branden "casually" asked if Joey would like to attend his lecture on theism or at least listen to the tape of it. Even Rothbard says this was "reasonable." He says later that Branden was surprised that the tape had no effect on Joey and that he mentioned if Barbara were showing signs of being religious he would sit her down and talk about it. Rothbard then claims he was told he should do the same with other Christian friends.

Now this differs significantly from what other people claim Rothbard had told them. In Rothbard's written account Rand had nothing to do with the issue, contrary to the claims of Samuel Francis. There was no demand to read Rand's non-existent "screeds" on the issue. And instead of being ordered to divorce Joey if she didn't become an atheist, he only charges that Nathan hinted as much. In my opinion the discrepancies between the various versions of this story are probably attributable to Rothbard. I think it likely that the story evolved or changed depending on who was told and under what circumstances. Samuel Francis obviously believes that the version he recounted is exactly what Rothbard told him. Yet that account and the one printed in Liberty are rather different.

Rothbard, Teller of Tales

Most of Rothbard's account is a litany of name-calling. He says Objectivism was "a totalitarian Cult." He compares his own Circle Bastiat with Rand's group of friends. His group was a "high-spirited" informal gathering of friends who "combined learned discourse, high wit, song composing, joint moviegoing, and fiercely competitive board games. It all added up to a helluva lot of fun." On the other hand Rand's friends were "robotic" and "humorless." They were "ignoramuses" who trumpeted "their own greatness." He says that he and his friends "came to look at all these trumped-up jackasses as figures of ridicule." Branden, in particular, is the target for much of Rothbard's venom. He refers to him as a "pompous ass," a "strutting poseur and mountebank" and a victim of "his own enormously excessive self-esteem." Throughout his article Rothbard spends a considerable amount of time in similar name-calling.

Having been actively involved in libertarianism and Objectivism for some two and a half decades I have, on more than one occasion, run into Rothbard. I have seen him in action. And I can't help but conclude that he was perfectly capable of inventing stories to support his own agendas. In one incident, which I know very well, Rothbard wrote a horrendous plank on AIDS for the Libertarian Party platform which he managed to get through the Platform Committee at the Seattle convention.

The next day AIDS activists were planning a picket of the convention. Tonie Nathan, who was working media relations for the convention, called me into the office and told me what happened. She had the organizer of the picket on the phone and asked me to speak to him. I persuaded him to hold off the picket for one more day. I explained that the plank hadn't been accepted by the convention and that I would offer a substitute motion. I assured him that if it failed that I, along with many LP members, would join his picket.

I wrote a substitute motion which was introduced to the convention by LP presidential candidate Ed Clark. The motion, which required a two-thirds majority to replace Rothbard's plank was easily adopted. Rothbard was furious and launched into attack mode.

In an opinion piece he wrote for Liberty magazine Rothbard attacked me by name, along with about two other people, as being hippie opponents of the Ron Paul candidacy. Ron was then the LP candidate for president and had won the nomination easily over Russell Means, the American Indian activist. In fact Rothbard knew the entire claim was false. Top officials of the Ron Paul campaign privately credited me with winning the LP nomination for Paul.

Russell Means was attracting a lot of support at the state LP conventions. I was horrified and assumed that this was a result of a lack of knowledge regarding his history. I researched the subject and released a booklet entitled Do the Ends Justify Means? The booklet caused an immediate reaction. Some of Ron Paul's top supporters contacted me and asked for more booklets. In the meantime I had expanded it greatly with more and more evidence. Everything was footnoted and documented. Hundreds of copies were purchased by Ron's supporters and distributed at state conventions. Up until the release of the booklet, Ron and Russell were running neck to neck. After the release of the booklet Ron started gaining most of the delegate support.

Means countercharged that I had misquoted an article of his which appeared in the quasi-Marxist Mother Jones magazine entitled "For the World to Live the West Must Die." Mother Jones magazine, by coincidence, was just a few blocks from my bookstore in San Francisco. I went to them and got permission to reprint the article exactly as written. This was then distributed to all the Seattle delegates along with a short note saying: "Russell Means contends I have misquoted him. Here is the entire article as it appeared. Judge for yourself." Every delegate got a copy and Russell lost the nomination in a landslide. Throughout the campaign I worked with the Ron Paul campaign people -- especially Burt Blumert and to a lesser degree Lew Rockwell. When I wrote my AIDS plank for the LP platform I did so on a typewriter in the Ron Paul campaign suite. Had I been the vocal opponent of Paul that Rothbard described, I doubt they would have let me in the suite to use their equipment unsupervised as happened.

Rothbard has a history of creating false stories. He held to a Stalinist interpretation of political strategy and believed that a "vanguard" of radicals would lead an anarchist revolution. Rothbard saw himself as the intellectual center of the vanguard. For this purpose he helped form a radical group entitled the Radical Caucus which published a newsletter Libertarian Vanguard. Oddly, all of these people pretty much followed Rothbard into the Republican Party when the LP rejected his ideas. One of the favourite phrases of RC members was "smash." They always wanted to smash something. Sometimes they wanted to smash the state but all too often then just smashed other libertarians.

The radical vanguard didn't hesitate to attack other libertarians because they vied with them for control of the party. Under their Stalinist strategies they were required to control the party. Thus they frequently spent a great deal of time attacking anyone who competed with them for control of various libertarian organizations and the party itself. This strategy seemed to be behind Rothbard's constant attacks on competing influences within the libertarian movement. And, in my opinion, explains his attacks on Rand after he was unceremoniously rejected by her.

Rothbard Was No Scholar

I will also discuss one other incident with Rothbard because it is one reason why I accept the story of plagiarism. A few years back I worked at the Pacific Institute in San Francisco. One new book we were publishing was The American Family and the State which included essays by many different individuals including Rothbard. I was the only person at the Institute with any understanding regarding the competing brands of evangelical Christianity. The proof-reader there had no idea what the differences were between being "born-again," "filled with the Holy Spirit" and being "sanctified." Some groups alleged all three happen at the same time (Baptists for instance). Other groups, mainly offshoots of Weslyianism, say the first two are the same but that the third is a unique experience. The combinations of theologies regarding these matters is almost endless.

Rothbard's paper discussed how religious beliefs effect political beliefs. And while I would agree with him in general, his specific examples were filled with errors. It was quite clear that he had no concept how the various religious groups differed with each other. While over the years I had become disillusioned with Rothbard, having seen him in action making accusations and constantly splitting the party, this paper was almost a Damascus Road experience for me. I had, up until, this time respected his scholarship while becoming highly critical of his political strategies. Now as I read about a subject on which I was very informed it dawned on me that his scholarship wasn't that hot either. This fact has been confirmed to be by specialists in many different fields. The Rothbard fraud was built on the fact that people who knew he was wrong in one field simply assumed he was right in all the other fields which they didn't know. Thus legal experts accepted his views of history while historians didn't but were willing to trust him when it came to legal theory.

While reading Rothbard's manuscript I had a constant nagging suspicion that it was, to a very large extent, based on the work of a student's doctoral thesis. It seemed to me that Rothbard had taken this paper and put his own interpretation on it for his own purposes. I was also under the impression that other quoted sources were actually quoted out of the student's paper as well. I was not in a position to have the paper pulled or completely rewritten. Had it been my option I would have removed it completely. I corrected the obvious errors and could do no more. At the time I didn't know anything regarding the original dispute between him and Rand and the Brandens. In fact I didn't know they ever knew each other. I didn't know they accused him of plagiarizing a paper by Barbara. In light of what I now know I find the Brandens' account of the split with Rothbard consistent with the evidence.

Why Rothbard split with Rand does have a bearing on whether or not one should accept his claims regarding Objectivist cultism. I reject Rothbard's account for the following reasons:

  1. He had a clear motive to cover up allegations of plagiarism or to divert attention away from such charges.
  2. The letters which survived do show that such allegations were a matter of controversy at the time, a point which Rothbard admits.
  3. Rothbard's paper on scientism is very similar in its argumentation to those being made by Rand and the Brandens at the time.
  4. Rothbard has a history of making false allegations to support his own political strategy. And his own account just doesn't ring true.
  5. The fact that some of Rothbard's closest friends remained with Rand after his "exile" indicates that they didn't find his story convincing or found Branden's allegations to have some substance.
  6. In my proof-reading of his paper on religion I was under the distinct impression that it was largely based on a single paper by a graduate student. This was before I knew of the allegations regarding his plagiarizing Barbara's paper. It's not proof but it is circumstantial evidence for myself.
  7. The allegations as recounted by Rothbard's friend Samuel Francis allege that Rand demanded Joey Rothbard read her "writings" on the subject. Yet no such writings exist.
  8. Participants at the meetings which Rand and Rothbard both attended said no discussion of Joey's religious beliefs took place.
  9. No one present at these meetings can confirm the accusation. Friends of Rothbard who believe him have no first hand information themselves.
  10. Rothbard, in taped interviews with Barbara Branden, said he couldn't say very much about Rand because he didn't know her very well and didn't have a great deal of contact with her.

In light of the fact that the few meetings where both Rand and Rothbard were present were not taped it is not possible to come to a firm conclusion. But what evidence does exist seems to consistently repudiate Rothbard's account. For the reasons I have outlined I don't accept his version of events as being accurate. My own conclusion is that he fabricated the allegations. I think he had several motives. First, to cover up the real reason for his "exile". Second, because he was unhappy that some of his friends choose Rand over him. Third, because he wanted vengeance against someone who had rejected him and his idiosyncratic ideas. And fourth, because he had a political strategy of trying to side-line anyone who didn't hold to his theory of the "radical vanguard." Twenty-five years of experience in the libertarian movement have led me to conclude that Rothbard's "evidence" on Rand and Objectivism is something to be taken with a very large grain of salt. Ronald Merrill, who had far more interaction with Objectivism than did Rothbard, virtually dismisses all of Rothbard's claims:

The leading purveyor of the "Ayn Rand Cult" allegations is Murray Rothbard, whose polemic describes an Objectivist movement that I somehow never saw. Some of his assertions are provably incorrect (for example, "Rand's whole-hearted endorsement of Goldwater, Nixon, and Ford"). Others are merely astonishing. That the NBI recommended reading list functioned as "an Index of Permitted Books" was a secret well kept from me and the Objectivists I knew; most of us were enthusiastic admirers of Rothbard's own Man, Economy, and State. The smokers I knew within the movement would certainly have been surprised and pleased if they'd only known that "smoking, according to the cult, was a moral obligation"; they were used to being criticized by the rest of us for irrational and self-destructive behavior.

Rothbard recites a series of anecdotes about unnamed people--"young Randians", "a Randian girl", "high-ranking Randians"--to back up his claims of cultist-like behavior. I met some fairly flaky specimens in the movement but none as bizarre as his acquaintances. Maybe I just didn't travel in the right circles.

The central point of Rothbard's essay is the claim that the Randian movement was strictly "hierarchical" and "totalitarian". Certain there were--and are--those within it who would like to make it so. But let me cite an anecdote of my own. In the mid-Sixties, a friend of mine took some questions to Nathaniel Branden personally. This direct approach was criticized by another student of Objectivism, who said he would have gone through channels. ("First take it to Harry Binswanger. If he thinks it's worthwhile, he'll allow you to see Allan Gotthelf, and if he....") Branden on being informed of this, called that attitude "intellectual feudalism" -- which of course it was. That is how the "Randian cultists" were regarded within the movement.

Merrill didn't travel in the wrong circles nor did he just happen to miss all the incidents which Rothbard recounts with glee. The cumulative evidence points to another theory: Rothbard distorted the facts when they existed. And when the facts didn't exist to support his accusations he invented them.

There is much in Rothbard's account that cannot be verified by any independent sources. The only honest response then is to dismiss these charges as unreliable. Without evidence we cannot "convict" Rand on Rothbard's statements. Where other facts relevant to the evidence exist they tend to contradict Rothbard. The only eyewitness testimonies we have are in direct contradiction to him as well. The only choice before us is to dismiss the charges. We haven't proven Rand "innocent" but then no such thing is possible. But on these counts we can find her "not guilty." We can never prove the innocence of someone: all we do is weigh the evidence regarding guilt. And in this case the evidence is lacking.

Jim Peron originally published this series in the The Laissez-Faire City Times, and subsequently agreed to having it reproduced here. The inclusion of this material on the ORC site should not be taken as an endorsement of any other ORC material by him, or as an endorsement of his work by the ORC.

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