In 1974 Ayn Rand was invited to address the graduating class at West Point, and following her talk there was a ‘Question and Answer’ session that illuminated her views on three different topics, these being slavery, the rights of Native Americans and the situation in Palestine. Although quite short, the transcript is useful as a clear statement of her mature opinions, undistorted by her non-fiction attempts to develop a coherent ‘philosophy’ or the compromises required in her fiction by the need to tell a good story. Each set of opinions is worth a blog in its own right, and will receive one. Here, I will look at her approach to slavery. It has to be said from the outset that, to her credit, she was against it. However, this part of her answer revealed that, despite her frequent invocation of ‘History’ in what she wrote, it was a subject of which she was profoundly ignorant. She began with a quick summary of her own position, and then moved on to the Founding Fathers.
To begin with, there is much more to America than the issue of racism. I do not believe that the issue of racism, or even the persecution of a particular race, is as important as the persecution of individuals, because when you deprive individuals of rights, if you deprive any small group, all individuals lose their rights. Therefore, look at this fundamentally: If you are concerned with minorities, the smallest minority on Earth is an individual. If you do not respect individual rights, you will sacrifice or persecute all minorities, and then you get the same treatment given to a majority, which you can observe today in Soviet Russia.
But if you ask me well, now, should America have tolerated slavery? I would say certainly not. And why did they? Well, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, or the debates about the Constitution, the best theoreticians at the time wanted to abolish slavery right then and there—and they should have. The fact is that they compromised with other members of the debate and their compromise has caused this country a dreadful catastrophe which had to happen, and that is the Civil War. You could not have slavery existing in a country which proclaims the inalienable rights of Man. If you believe in the rights and the institution of slavery, it’s an enormous contradiction. It is to the honor of this country, which the haters of America never mention, that people died giving their lives in order to abolish slavery. There was that much strong philosophical feeling about it.
She might, of course, also have said that other Americans died giving their lives in order to defend slavery as an institution, but that would not have fitted in with her thesis. America had to be righteous, with slavery a minority aberration.
Certainly, slavery was a contradiction. But before you criticize this country, remember that that is a remnant of the politics and the philosophies of Europe and of the rest of the world. The black slaves were sold into slavery, in many cases, by other black tribes. Slavery is something which only the United States of America abolished. Historically, there was no such concept as the right of the individual. The United States is based on that concept. So that so long as men held to the American political philosophy, they had to come to the point, even of a civil war, but of eliminating the contradiction with which they could not live—namely, the institution of slavery.
What this paragraph displays is Rand’s truly staggering ignorance of history. As a British citizen, I was, of course, brought up to believe that it was Great Britain that first abolished slavery, which was, of course, equally untrue. The history of abolition is a complex one, with countries, or parts of countries, abolishing it and then sometimes thinking better of it and reinstating it, or abolishing it in the home country while preserving it in the colonies. What is certain is that the US, as opposed to individual states, was a very late player. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and used its command of the seas to enforce that prohibition on other countries, and full abolition followed in 1833. The US Civil War only began in 1861,
Incidentally, if you study history following America’s example, slavery or serfdom was abolished in the whole civilized world during the 19th century. What abolished it? Not altruism. Not any kind of collectivism. Capitalism. The world of free trade could not coexist with slave labor. And countries like Russia, which was the most backward and had serfs liberated them, without any pressure from anyone, by economic necessity. Nobody could compete with America economically so long as they attempted to use slave labor. Now that was the liberating infence of America.
Here Rand is getting herself in a terrible tangle. She hated altruism, so it had to have played no part in the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, she has just talked approvingly about people ‘giving their lives’ for that cause, and you cannot be more altruistic than that. There is no possible personal advantage in being dead.
It is, of course, true, that there were advantages to 19th century capitalism in using paid labourers, who could be easily fired when the next labour-saving device came along, rather than slaves, who had to be kept too busy to think of revolt, but that was just one strand in a very complex movement. Before leaving slavery, however, Rand had political point to make.
That’s in regard to the slavery of Black people. But as to the example of the Japanese people—you mean the labor camps in California? Well, that was certainly not put over by any sort of defender of capitalism or Americanism. That was done by the left-wing progressive liberal Democrats of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Evidently Rand believed that there were no ‘left-wing progressive liberal Democrats’ amongst the defenders of America during the Second World War, a rather curious belief given that it was fought entirely during a period when the occupant of the White House was a Democrat. However, it was, it seems, a belief that was widespread amongst the US military in 1974, since the transcript records that at this point there was massive applause.
Did those applauders really believe that a Republican President would have responded any differently to the attack on Pearl Harbour?
And would they, of all people, have approved if he had?