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