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Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


George H. Smith


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From New Libertarian, Vol. 5, No. 5, June 1990, 4-5. 


Nathaniel Branden’s Judgment Day:

Reviewing the Reviewers 

George H. Smith

It was 1971, and I had just moved to Los Angeles.  With the self-assurance that only a 21-year-old can possess, I decided to visit Nathaniel Branden.  I had never met the man before; he didn’t know me from Adam.

I jumped on my 250cc Yamaha motorcycle and drove to Branden’s office on Sunset Boulevard.  Sporting long hair, clad in boots and an old leather pilot’s jacket, and with helmet in hand, I walked unannounced into the reception area.  And there, all by himself, stood Nathaniel Branden.

I introduced myself and told Branden that I had just arrived from Tucson.  He was extremely cordial and invited me into his office to talk.  We chatted for about 45 minutes.  Over the next three years I saw Branden frequently, and I became a regular participant in the monthly “Seminar” recordings produced by Academic Associates.

One day I suggested a two-record “Seminar” on the NBI years.  Branden was initially reluctant, but finally agreed.  I wrote the questions, and he answered them candidly.  I believe that was the first time Branden had gone public with some of the material which would later appear in Judgment Day.

During the early ‘70s, the basic story behind the Rand-Branden split was generally known in Los Angeles circles, but I never heard Branden condemn Rand or gossip about her.  He tried to bring some dignity to an undignified mess.  That fact alone should earn him some respect, whatever his past sins.

Judgment Day has been savaged in the libertarian periodicals Reason and Liberty.  Or, more precisely, Branden himself has been savaged with the information contained in his own book.  The moment Judgment Day hit the streets, Nathaniel Branden distributed guns and ammunition to his critics, helped them load, stood ten paces away, and invited them to take aim at a gigantic bulls-eye painted on his forehead.

In the Reason review (August-September, 1989), Paul Weaver claims that “Judgment Day is an exercise in self-aggrandizement.”  This is a peculiar comment, considering that Weaver’s criticism of Branden is based on facts revealed in Judgment Day.

Moreover, Weaver could not have read the book very carefully, as we see by this remark: “[Branden] says that in the effort to satisfy their need for ecstasy, people should do whatever turns them on . . . . If religion, athletics, drugs, or war is what you get off on, he declares, do it and don’t look back.”  

Exactly where does Branden “declare” this?  Search as I may, I have been unable to locate this elusive passage.  Branden, according to Weaver, has a “credibility problem.”  So, it seems, does Weaver.

According to Murray Rothbard (Liberty, Sept. 1989), Branden “wove the seductive net of a cult around [Rand].”  Branden, Rothbard charges, was the “enforcer” of the Rand cult.  (I assume that this means that Branden did for Rand what Bill Evers does for Rothbard.)  

An earlier review in Liberty also suggested that Branden was to blame for the cultish isolation of Ayn Rand.  So far as I know, however, Rand was not an invalid confined to a wheelchair.  Nor was she a mental defective in need of a guardian.  Ayn Rand was a big girl; she could walk, talk, chew gum—why, she could even take a cab somewhere if she didn’t like her isolation.

Rothbard has remarked on the “numerous lives that the [Rand] cult wrecked or crippled.”  Other people have commented on how Rand and Branden led them astray, but what are we talking about here--sheep?  Did these tortured souls lack free will? Were they feeble-minded?  Maybe “the enforcer” put a shotgun to their heads.  Or maybe he hypnotized them unawares.

Branden-bashing seems to have become popular lately, so let’s get some perspective.

NathanielBranden established NBI—a free-market school, in effect.  Branden was a market intellectual; he did not draw a paycheck from a tax-funded university.  How many libertarian intellectuals, government paychecks in hand, can say as much?  If, as Rothbard claims, Branden was a “strutting poseur and mountebank,” at least he did his strutting in the marketplace.

According to Rothbard, “the problem with Rand, Branden, and the rest of the crew is that these were dazzlingly ignorant people.”  Oh?  Did that “ignorance” manifest itself in the NBI book service, which introduced thousands of readers to the works of Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard’s beloved mentor?  Ironically, through the book service, Branden got Human Action into the hands of more people than has Rothbard.  There seems to be a misconception that, during the days of NBI, Objectivists read only other Objectivists.  A look at an old NBI book catalogue should lay that myth to rest.  The titles include Human Action, Socialism, and Planned Chaos, by Mises; Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson; first-rate histories of philosophy by Jones and Windelband; Blanshard’s Reason and Analysis; Joseph’s book on logic; an excellent book on Aristotle by Randall; Spencer’s Man Versus the State; Snyder’s Capitalism the Creator; and some works of Bastiat.  All in all, not a bad reading list for people who, according to Weaver, had “pretensions to scholarship.”  

Rothbard may have started a trend with his memoir of Branden.  I knew Branden much longer than Rothbard did—so, as a counterweight to Rothbard’s scathing sarcasms, I offer my own brief memoir.

If Rothbard’s portrait of the early Branden is even remotely accurate, then Branden had changed significantly by the time I met him in 1971.  (I will speak in the past tense, referring to the Branden I knew.)  

Branden was an extraordinarily charismatic person.  Former Objectivists flocked around him seeking his time and attention.  He was always on stage whether he wanted to be there or not.  Young admirers, in particular, were an enraptured audience, hanging on his every word, sensitive to his every gesture, and longing for his approval.

Branden, the great cult-maker, could have formed aBrandencultquite easily.  He didn’t.  On the contrary, he discouraged such behavior and often remarked on its deleterious effects.  (One day at lunch he told me that I was too deferent to him—an interesting remark from a man who, according to Rothbard, is insufferably arrogant.)  

Branden had a theatrical manner, and this probably earned him some enemies.  But Rothbard, too, is theatrical—that is part of his charm.   Strong personalities like Branden and Rothbard evoke in others strong reactions: very hot or very cold, with nothing in between.  Branden’s critics don’t just dislike him—they hate him.  The same is true of Rothbard.  This is the curse of charisma.

After the split, Branden, unlike Rand, made himself accessible to people.  For many ex-Objectivists, there were two Brandens: “Nathaniel Branden” of NBI fame; and “Nathan” or “Nathaniel,” the flesh-and-blood person who stood before them.  (He disliked being called “Mr. Branden.”)  Branden could not escape his past.  While he was forging a new life and establishing himself as a psychologist, those around him wanted to talk about the old days.  They wanted “Nathaniel Branden” the man who would tell them about Ayn Rand.  They were an ever-present reminder of his past.

With the wisdom of age, I can now appreciate how difficult that must have been for Branden.  Yet he was gracious to questioners and patient with their never-ending stream of questions.  At times, Branden was overly critical of himself, as he expressed fear that he may have hurt people psychologically during his days at NBI.  I always found this curious, considering the many intellectual benefits he had bestowed on me, my friends, and thousands of other young persons.

Branden was a complex person, full of energy and never dull.  He was eager to discuss ideas, and not once did I get the feeling that some topics were forbidden.  For example, he arranged a historic private “debate” on limited government versus anarchism.  Roy Childs and I defended anarchism, while Nathaniel and Barbara Branden defended limited government.  The four of us convened at Barbara’s apartment.  After several hours of discussion, we agreed to another meeting, which consumed three hours more.

When I mention that debate to anarchist friends, they are sometimes surprised.  For they (like Rothbard) have Branden pegged as an intellectual lightweight (outside of psychology) who would never take on two anarchist heavyweights.  These friends are even more surprised when I tell them that, at one point in the first discussion, Branden upbraided Roy Childs for not defending anarchism vigorously enough.

The rantings of Rothbard notwithstanding, Branden was not (and is not) an intellectual phony.  The Psychology of Self-Esteem, for example, is a brilliant book by any standard.  Moreover, Branden is a superb lecturer, and he can write rings around most of his critics.  These skills are not a “gift.”  They require dedication and countless hours of hard work.  When I knew Branden, he could converse intelligently in various fields.  He listened carefully to arguments, and, if he was unsure of something, he said so.  Indeed, on more than one occasion, I saw him revise his opinions when confronted with new information.  He was delighted when he discovered a fresh approach to an old problem, and he always displayed a healthy skepticism toward so-called “authorities” and “experts.”  Branden did not engage in psychobabble when discussing ideas.  Intellectually, he was one of the most fair-minded people I have ever known.

As a communicator of ideas, Branden was second to none.  The previously mentioned “Seminar” recordings are a good illustration of his art.  Several dozen “Seminar” records were produced which collectively contained hundreds of questions.  Branden’s answers were concise, well-organized, and often insightful.  They were also spontaneous.  Participants wrote their questions—any questions—on file cards a few minutes before the recording.  Branden looked through the questions briefly and weeded-out only those which duplicated previous seminars.  Then he began.

Anyone who doubts Branden’s intellectual abilities should listen to his unrehearsed answers on those records.  I have met many brilliant intellectuals and academics during my career.  Not one, I submit, could have done a better job in similar circumstances.

When Samuel Edward Konkin III asked me to review Judgment Day, I read the book twice; my reaction was mixed, and I began work on a fairly critical review.  Then, interrupted by a few weeks of conferences, I returned home to find the scurrilous articles in Reason and Liberty.  The punishment they sought to inflict on Branden seemed wildly disproportionate to his alleged crimes.  The person they described was not the person I knew.  Hence this article.

I know the libertarian movement well.  It, like all movements, has its fads and social pressures.  Branden-bashing is fast emerging as the latest trend, and no self-respecting anarchist would be so gauche as to defend him.  Well, this isn’t the first unpopular cause I’ve defended, and it probably won’t be the last.  C’ est la vie.

Posted March 1, 2008

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