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Reisman on Meeting Rand

In the Preface to his book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, George Reisman discusses the intellectual background that led him to write it. After describing the formation of the "Circle Bastiat," in which Reisman participated, he discusses how his involvement with that group led to his first encounters with Ayn Rand.

At one of our gatherings, in the summer of 1954, over three years before the publication of Atlas Shrugged, [Murray] Rothbard brought up the name Ayn Rand, whom I had not previously heard of. He described her as an extremely interesting person and, when he observed the curiosity of our whole group, asked if we would be interested in meeting her. Everyone in the group was very much interested. He then proceeded to arrange a meeting for the second Saturday night in July, at her apartment in midtown Manhattan.

That meeting, and the next one a week later, had an unforgettable effect on me. In the year or more before I entered Ayn Rand's apartment, I held three explicitly formulated leading intellectual values: liberalism (in the sense in which [Ludwig von] Mises used the term, and which actually meant capitalism); utilitarianism, which was my philosophy of ethics and which I had learned largely from Mises (though not entirely, inasmuch as I had already come to the conclusion on my own that everything a person does is selfish insofar as it seeks to achieve his ends); and "McCarthyism," which I was enthusiastically for, because I believed that the country was heavily infested with communists and socialists, whom I detested, and to whom Senator McCarthy was causing a major amount of upset. By the time I left Ayn Rand's apartment, even after the first meeting, I was seriously shaken in my attachment to utilitarianism.

Both meetings began at about 8:30 in the evening and lasted until about five o'clock the following morning. When I was introduced to her, I had no real idea of her intellectual caliber. I quickly began to learn her estimate of herself, however, when I offered her two tickets to an upcoming dinner in honor of Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy's chief aide, at which Senator McCarthy would be present. (I was scheduled to make a brief speech at the event, and when I mentioned to one of the event's organizers that I was going to meet Ayn Rand, she asked me to extend the invitation.) Miss Rand declined the invitation on the grounds that to get involved as she would need to get involved, she would have to drop her present project (which was the writing of Atlas Shrugged) and do for McCarthy what Zola had done for Dreyfus. I had seen the Paul Muni movie Zola, and so had a good idea of Zola's stature. I don't quite remember how I experienced the comparison, but it was probably something comparable to the expression of a silent whistle. (After I came to appreciate the nature of Ayn Rand's accomplishments, a comparison to Zola would seem several orders of magnitude too modest.)

At both meetings, most of the time was taken up with my arguing with Ayn Rand about whether values were subjective or objective, while Rothbard, as he himself later described it, looked on with amusement, watching me raise all the same questions and objections he had raised on some previous occasion, equally to no avail.

I had a sense of amazement at both meetings. I was amazed that I was involved in an argument that in the beginning seemed absolutely open and shut to me, and yet that I could not win. I was amazed that my opponent was expressing views that I found both utterly naïve and at the same time was incapable of answering without being driven to support positions that I did not want to support, and that I was repeatedly being driven into supporting such positions.

Neither of the evenings was very pleasant. At one point--I don't know how we got to the subject, nor whether it occurred at our first or second meeting--I expressed the conviction that a void must exist. Otherwise, I did not see how the existence of motion was possible, since two objects could not occupy the same place at the same time. Ayn Rand's reply to my expression of my conviction was that "it was worse than anything a communist could have said." (In retrospect, recognizing that the starting point of her philosophy is that "existence exists," I realize she took my statement to mean that I upheld the existence of "nonexistence" and was thus maintaining the worst possible contradiction.)

Because of such unpleasantness, I did not desire to see her again until after I read Atlas Shrugged. However, I could not forget our meetings and could not help wondering if somehow she might be right that values really were objective after all. [...]

I obtained a very early copy [of Atlas Shrugged] and began to read it almost immediately. Once I started it, I could not put it down, except for such necessary things as eating and sleeping. I was simply pulled along by what I have thought of ever since as the most exciting plot-novel ever written. Every two hundred pages or so, the story reached a new level of intensity, making it even more demanding of resolution than it was before. I stopped only when I finally finished the book, four days after I had started it. When I finished, the only thing I could find to say in criticism, tongue in cheek, was that the book was too short and the villains were not black enough.

[...]

Very soon thereafter, the whole Circle Bastiat, myself included, met again with Ayn Rand. We were all tremendously enthusiastic over Atlas. Rothbard wrote Ayn Rand a letter, in which, I believe, he compared her to the sun, which one cannot approach too closely. I truly thought that Atlas Shrugged would convert the country -- in about six weeks; I could not understand how anyone could read it without being either convinced by what it had to say or else hospitalized by a mental breakdown.

The following winter, Rothbard, Raico, and I, and, I think, Bob Hessen, all enrolled in the very first lecture course ever delivered on Objectivism. This was before Objectivism even had the name "Objectivism" and was still described simply as "the philosophy of Ayn Rand." Nevertheless, by the summer of that same year, 1958, tensions had begun to develop between Rothbard and Ayn Rand, which led to a shattering of relationships, including my friendship with him.

From Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman, pp. xliv-xlvi. Reisman's footnotes are not included. Other omissions from the text are shown with bracketed ellipses. Editorial clarifications are marked with brackets. All other punctuation and spelling is from the original.

Additional keywords: Ann Rand, Anne Rand, Any Rand, George Riesman


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