Return of the Primitive

Return of the Primitive
© 1971 Ayn Rand, The New Left
© 1999 Ayn Rand and Peter Schwartz
290 pages


The Return of the Primitive  collects Ayn Rand’s  written responses to the eruption of the student movement in the late sixties,  particularly as it meshed with the early environmental movement.   Rand largely condemned the philosophical origins and political aims of these groups, regarding them as irrational, destructive, and ultimately regressive.  Taken together, she suggests they constitute an ill-conceived rejection of industrialism, and a thuggish attack on  those who dare defend rationality and human progress. The original collection was titled simply The New Left, but here  Peter Schwartz  supplements Rand’s contents and core critique with some of his own Rand-inspired writing on multiculturalism, feminism, and  environmentalism,  arguing that they all constitute a resurrection of tribalistic and crippling mystical thinking.   

Perhaps ‘thinking’ is too strong word; Rand regarded the members of the student movement as moral and intellectual cripples, having been inwardly disfigured and held back by a generation of badly-conceived pedagogy and decaying universities, which promoted irrationality and subjectivism. The students were not rebelling against the establishment: they were its crowning glory, the perfect expression of its own feckless principles. Having thrown reason into the dustbin, they had nothing but whims and tribal identities to fall back on, seeking meaning not in their ability to comprehend and master the world, but in political theater. The pinnacle of their resignation from rationalism and productive effort, she writes, was in the raging drug culture. Although a sharp advocate for individual rights, Rand had nothing but scorn for drug users, who in her view muddled the greatest asset humanity had in its possession: the ability to reason. How sad the addled masses at Woodstock looked floundering around in the mud, wholly dependent on outside help from the squares they mocked, while that same year the power of reason was fully on display as human feet stepped foot on the Moon.

Beyond critiquing the student and nascent environmental movements directly, Rand also includes essays inspired by the era, like “The Age of Envy” or “Apollo and Dionysus” and they like no other in the collection allows her philosophy to take center stage, her focus on the Individual — on the promise and the responsibility of being an Individual. Rand and Schwartz contend that modern idealisms are regressive in that they promote tribalism and collectivism, declaring that a man or woman’s place within a group defines and determines them. Rand condemns racism as the lowest expression of collectivism, but her wrath is not discriminatory: she unloads on demands for affirmative action (choosing job & academic placement based on racial quotas) with the same cold fury she unleashed against the Klan. Either, she argues, reduces a man to a group and pretends to knowledge about individual persons based on impressions based on people who merely look or sound like him. In an age saturated with the hooting and growling of identity politics, Rand’s wholesale condemnation of this divisive and muddy thinking is a breath of fresh air.

The essays on environmentalism from both Rand and Schwartz don’t quite mesh with the treatment of the new left, though one can understand why they were grouped. Rand is driven by a vision of Man as the adventurer, the doer, the shaper of the world; she’s patently offended by the notion that we should subordinate human interests to the static preservation of nature’s present status quo. Life is progress, meaningful action, forward momentum, she writes — to merely accept the present is to begin to stagnate and die. If humanity didn’t see the Earth as clay its hands, fit to be manipulated and fired, we would only be less-hairy chimpanzees. living. Rand ultimately sees no value in the Earth itself, except in that it can fuel humanity’s material and spiritual progress: she does make some allowances for environmental protections, connected to her argument (made elsewhere) that property is the foundation of individual rights, and that environmental problems are crimes only when they destroy the the value of others or their work.

The most difficult aspect of this book was understanding her critique of 1960s academia, since I’m not familiar enough with the mid-century zeitgeist to connect her then-temporary newsletter articles to events of the day. I was reminded of a similar argument made in Harvard and the Unabomber, that the academic culture helped poison Kaczynski’s mind against industrial society. I’m acutely aware that the environment of academia helps create the social world that follows it: causes that were fringe thinking in 2010, when I graduated, are now pushed as mainstream, and people are not only indulged in irrationality but expected to support it.

Rand is a fascinating author, one whose work garners more of my interest the more I encounter her. She’s a unique thinker; rejecting tradition and heaping abuse on the medieval era, but arguing for an integrated philosophy of life that hasn’t been seen since the Scholastics. She swears by Reason alone, but despises the idea that man is merely an animated bag of chemicals, and wrote a book yearning for the return of Romanticism. She is admiringly, breathtakingly consistent in her critiques and even without having experienced her in-person charisma, I can begin to understand why she had a slight cult following. She offered to an audience which prided itself on being archly rational the same thing that many in cultic movements yearn for: clarity and purpose. Her vision of human destiny is undeniably invigorating; reading her makes a fellow want to destroy cancer, build a skyscraper, and ascent Olympus to steal fire from the gods once more. Her conception of Individualism, moreover, is demanding: only the independent thinker counts in her book. Mere contrarians, rebels without causes, won’t do. Only reasoned beliefs, defended with energy, and acted upon in furtherance of a goal, will do. Although I frequently disagree with her on particulars (she believes man to be born as a blank slate, for instance, without instincts — this is wholly false) her strident support of the Individual against the mob is sorely needed in our own day.

Definitely more Rand to come this year. I’ve delaying the posting of this until I’d finished The Virtue of Selfishness; it provided some background for understanding of Rand’s opinions expressed here, particularly her contempt for drug users.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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12 Responses to Return of the Primitive

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Although I’ve only encountered Rand through other people or when she’s mentioned as context for what was going on at the time I’ve never really understood her attraction. Her views on the Environment, for example, seem to me to be the height of irresponsibility (to say nothing of human centered arrogance!). I think I’d definitely have to monitor my blood pressure level to read anything by her [grin]. I think we’d definitely have to agree to disagree on what constitutes ‘Reason’. Interesting that she both wanted a life dictated by Reason AND felt a need to return to a Romanticist world view. That’s a bit messed up (or hypocritical maybe??) Not for me I think!

    • I’m planning on figuring out what she meant by Romanticism. I associate it with an art style that emphasized nature and feelings — definitely not Randian sentiments. From her discussions of art in her fiction and the two nonfiction collections I’ve read, I think for her it involves Art that engages the human mind and is a meditation on our best, heroic qualities — not art that simply depicts a landscape, or is a chaotic display of random inputs.

      When you say her views on the environment are human-centered, I suspect she’d scoff and say — “What else is there?”

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Romanticism: a movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual. That sounds like something she could sign up to… at least the last bit! [grin]

        As to her scoffing….. That’s how we’d part company forever. We’re not the only creature on the planet and the rest of them aren’t simply resources for us to use (and neither is the Earth itself to be honest – as we’re finding out more and more each year). Might does not, at least in my mind, mean right. That kind of self-regard will only lead to disaster and, if we don’t do something about it sooner rather than later, quite possibly the end of our civilisation if not our species. But at least there would be no one left to say she was wrong….. [lol]

      • The latter bit does sound close to her wheelhouse!

        I parted ways with the greens after realizing they invariably demanded for the state to be larger and more intrusive, but remain generally sympathetic to the goal of being responsible stewards of the Earth — if nothing else, then for our own continuing prosperity. There is much connected to environmental legislation that’s barking mad, though — but some of that’s associated with the EPA, not the environmental movement as a whole.

  2. She may be fascinating, but about 90% of her opinions and ideas piss me off. Good for you for reading these books. I’d just throw them out the window!

    • Hah, surely she’s not so bad? 😉 I found the idea of her unattractive until I read The Fountainhead and became curious about the rest.

      • I find her positions very selfish and very judgemental. Also, no small amount of racism there, as well. For example, you mention how she looks down upon drug users. Well, maybe it was when she wrote it, but – HELLO? – addiction is a disease, not a choice. And then she looks down on people who can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” but doesn’t ever acknowledge that too many people saddled with such heavy systemic racism and discrimination, that most often can’t even reach their bootstraps to even try to pull themselves up. Her white privilege shows in almost everything she ever wrote. I appreciate she has the right to her views, but I disagree with her the majority of the time.

      • White privilege?! She literally lost everything she had and came to a foreign country, still unaccustomed to the language, and grew not only into a successful writer but an icon of the 20th century, and she did that by sailing loudly and proudly against the wind. Straaaaaaange idea of privilege. *

        Rand is extremely judgmental, sure — but so is everyone who has an opinion and wants to share it. In one of her other books, she argues that those who use reason to navigate life, who have weighed evidence and made rational determinations, should call out error and injustice when they saw it — to pronounce judgment with vigor so that the Truth was at least heard. This is fairly common among those who believe they’ve found the meaning of life, whether they be Baptists or commies.

        I find no merit in your description of her as racist at all. She is merely consistent in arguing that people should not be collectivized, and has no more use for giving minorities special favors than she does marginalizing them. She was a victim of such behaviors in her own home.

        Addiction is complicated — but unless someone was born a crack baby or something, it always begins with a choice. Many people in my family have died from nicotine-induced lung cancer: I therefore make the choice to abstain entirely. Others in my family have struggled with alcohol: I therefore make the choice to consume only under certain conditions (after supper, on weekend, a pre-ordained amount). As a libertarian, I don’t believe it’s my business to police others provided they’re doing no harm to others, but using isn’t some passively thing that HAPPENs to people.

        I’m not going to argue against the claim that she was selfish, since she literally wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. 😉

        * (Though ‘white privilege’ is laughable to any honky like me, whose people were broken millwrights and sharecroppers, who today get to bear the onerous burden of being spit at and harped at by everyone who wants to pretend to virtue by attacking whitey. Go yell at the East coast WASPs if you want to talk about privilege.)

  3. Marian says:

    This sounds really interesting… I think there’s some truth in what she says about academia. I can only imagine how she’d lambast today’s CRT movement.

    Considering her background in communist Russia, it’s understandable why she came to the conclusions she did about individualism. That said, anytime I read about Objectivism, I can’t help but cringe. It seems to me, so far, like substituting one extreme for another, and I’m not sure how it’s sustainable at scale. (Ditto Cyberkitten on the environment – at least from a Christian standpoint, we seem to have mistaken exploitation for sovereignty when it comes to animals and nature.)

    I wish she had been able to witness and comment on the digital age. Because though we raise up individuals like Elon Musk and Bill Gates as heroes, the truth is nothing could be more collectivist than the crowd-sourced, open-sourced, international collaboration that makes modern computing as powerful as it is. At its best, it’s both helped the community and the individual, arguably in equal measures.

    That’s a tangent, but TLDR, I’m looking forward to more Rand reviews. 😀

    • Lord, yes, she’d eviscerate some of our moderns! I can only imagine her on twitter — something of an unholy terror with a very dedicated retweet army.

      I don’t think modern crowd-sourcing is collectivist at all — more, as you said, collaborative. Collectivist is more…”You are nothing, the Group is everything” while individuals collaborating are little ‘somethings’ whose interactive work allows each person to become more productive as a whole. Collaboration is individually-prompted, and the collaboration itself has no life of its own other than the purposeful decisions of the players – -whereas a collective, like an organization, a coercion union, or a corporation, takes on a life of its own and can become domineering.

      I’m mostly agreed with you and CK on the environmental angle. Writing in the seventies her short-sightedness is more excusable than someone like Lew Rockwell, who puts forth the same line (material progress = inherently good and shut up about the birds) in our own age. I don’t think human interests should be suppressed just to not make changes on Earth, but poisoning the well from which we drink is folly.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        Totally agree on the poisoning the well thing (although I was tempted to use more ‘colourful’ language!). The reason we need to look after (or at least not *intentionally* trash) the planet is because we live here too. It’s not like we can just leave any time soon [grin]. It’s those people who see us as either separate from or superior to nature that are truly mistaken. We are, very much, a part of the natural world. If we keep pushing creatures to extinction and cutting links in complex ecosystems then, at some point, an ecosystem will completely collapse. Since ecosystems interact at multiple levels there’s a risk that the collapse of one ecosystem could cause a cascade failure and bring other ecosystems down with it – and one of those ecosystems might be one that we VERY much depend on. Imagine if we hack about somewhere and, because of our ignorance (and arrogance) make wheat or rice or potatoes go extinct….. Such things are almost too frightening to think about.

      • Marian says:

        My mom was just telling me about a documentary she watched about lithium mining in South America. Apparently, it requires an enormous amount of water to extract the lithium, which is (surprise) threatening the water supply to those countries. We all use these batteries so it’s futile to moralize on this, but I was really sobered to hear the cost.

        I think our high standard of living at a cheap cost has roots deep in sketchy practices, treatment of nature, and treatment of people. It seems unlikely we’d be unwilling to give it up as a society, but I’m not sure there’s a real solution that doesn’t require that kind of sacrifice. Not to be too cheerful, but… we’re sunk if we do and sunk if we don’t.

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