The Virtue of Gaslighting

There are times when I read a passage of Ayn Rand’s and find myself rubbing my eyes to make sure that what I’m reading is real. I take a perverse pride in knowing my way around the Randian corpus, but I just read a passage of hers that I somehow seem to have missed before today, and am having trouble processing what I’ve read. It’s excerpted in a piece on the ARI website on the “moral foundations of the Berlin Wall.” The two prefatory sentences are by Tom Bowden, the author: 

In the ensuing decades, Rand never stopped reminding the world of Soviet Russia’s evil and of that evil’s source in the morality of altruism. During her last public speech, in 1981, the Q&A session featured this exchange:

Interviewer: . . . Is Russia a real threat today?

Ayn Rand: Russia as such was never a threat to anyone. Even little Finland beat Russia twice during World War II. Russia is the weakest and most impotent country on Earth. If they were in a war, most of the miserable Russians would defect. But Russia has one weapon by default which we have surrendered, and that is the morality of altruism. So long as people believe that Russia represents a moral ideal, they will win over us in every encounter. That is one of the reasons for dropping altruism totally, consciously, as the kind of evil which it really is.

I can’t make heads or tails of this passage. Can anyone?

Five questions:

  • Suppose that we accept Rand’s (tendentious) claim about “little” Finland’s having “beat” the Soviet Union during World War II (“twice” in a single war, whatever that means). If the USSR’s having been defeated by “little Finland” proves its impotence, doesn’t the United States’s having been defeated by “little North Vietnam” prove its impotence? It ought to, but Rand didn’t think it did.
  • If “Russia is the weakest and most impotent country on Earth,” how did the Soviet Union end up defeating the Third Reich?
  • If our belief in the morality of altruism is the explanation for Soviet predominance over us (assuming, also tendentiously, that it did predominate), why did the Soviet Union fall despite our consistent adherence to that morality?
  • How could someone as putatively intelligent as Ayn Rand say things this stupid? Have we over-estimated her intelligence, or is there another explanation?

7 thoughts on “The Virtue of Gaslighting

    • Somewhat more seriously, I suspect she was thinking of the thesis of this book:
      — which was touted in The Objectivist, and which held that all of Russia’s military and technological might was either stolen from the West or given to Russia by the West.

      As for Finland, Rand is more or less right that the Finns did successfully fight off the Soviet Union twice during World War II (1941 and 1944), though the details are much messier than she implies — in particular, Finland had help from Nazi Germany on the first occasion, and Russia was distracted by its final assault on Germany on the second occasion:


      • I doubt you’ll disagree, but I don’t think any of that helps her. In fact, it makes things worse.

        I tried to punt on the Finland issue precisely because it is such a complicated mess, but there’s no construal of the Soviet defeat in Finland that helps her case. My snarky parenthetical comment about the Soviets being beaten “twice” by Finland was intended to question the idea that someone can be defeated “twice” in the same war. The only way to make such a claim is to count victories and defeats by individual battles, or even more absurdly, by the outcomes of individual maneuvers within individual battles. But a war is not the sum of individual battles (much less maneuvers). If it were, the jury might still be out on who won World War I. You don’t get to double count the Finnish victory as two victories within one war. You might as well say that North Vietnam “defeated the West three times”–once at Dien Bien Phu, once with the US withdrawal, and once with the final defeat of the South Vietnamese.

        Anyway, that’s a quibbling point, because I admit that Finland defeated the Soviet Union. But for the very reasons you give, this proves little to nothing relevant to what she says. In the first case, as you say, Finland was allied with the Nazis. So Rand has to decide: if we’re assessing X’s power, but X gets substantial outside assistance (or is a proxy of those doing the assisting), how do we think about the outside assistance? Do we regard X’s power to attract outside assistance as part of X’s military strength, or not?

        In the case of Finland, she takes the outside assistance for granted. Finland’s Nazi resources are to be thought of as Finnish resources, tout court, so that Finland’s capacity to ally itself with the Third Reich was part of its (Finland’s) military strength. If so, then Finland wasn’t so “little”; it was effectively a proxy of the Third Reich. In that case, Rand can’t use Finland to claim that the Soviets were defeated by some penny-ante power. They were defeated by Finland + Germany. For her claim to make any sense, (Finland + Germany) must really reduce to Finland.

        Suppose then that she relies on Keller’s thesis: Soviet power is a function of our assistance to them or their theft of us; otherwise, it’s an illusion. Well, the same issue arises about external assistance. Take the assistance we freely gave them. If we apply the principle to the Soviets that Rand applies to Finland, then the assistance we gave them is to be regarded as Soviet power, full stop. If she wants to object that our voluntary assistance must be factored out of the Soviet case, then Nazi assistance to Finland ought to be factored out of that case. But it’s not obvious what happens if we run those counterfactuals. Would the Finns have defeated the Soviets if they hadn’t been allied with the Nazis? Who knows? But if we treat the Soviet case as she treated the Finnish case, that doesn’t matter. If Finland + Germany = Finland, then the USSR + the West = the USSR.

        As for the stuff the Soviets stole from us, it’s obvious that that’s a part of their military power. Adversaries with ICBMs pointed at each other can’t complain that espionage or theft is unfair and should be factored out of military equations. “They’re not so strong; they just ran a really good espionage service and stole our stuff. No fair! But in a fair fight…” Come on. (In any case, even if we grant that they stole a lot, it’s not obvious that the theft is what explains Soviet military victories.)

        So the Finland example is hopeless, and this is even before we ask how her inferences apply to Vietnam and the United States, or Lebanon and the United States, or Somalia and the United States, or Algeria and France, or Israel and southern Lebanon, etc. etc.

        But in a way, given what she actually says, the Werner thesis is totally irrelevant. The Werner thesis doesn’t deny that the Soviets are militarily powerful. It regards that fact as an explanandum and offers up a morally deflationary explanans (namely, they don’t deserve credit for their strength). Well, surely acceptance of the explanans entails acceptance of the reality of the explanandum? That they don’t deserve credit for their power obviously entails (presupposes) that they are powerful. It’s as though you and I were in a fist fight, and I said, “You’re only as strong as you are because you’re on steroids. But since I don’t believe in moral luck, that’s of no moral significance, and since it lacks moral significance, why–it doesn’t exist at all! So I’m going to kick your ass!” Famous last words. At best, this shows that their power will degrade over time. It doesn’t show that their power is illusory at any given time.

        I hadn’t previously encountered the particular passage that Bowden quotes above, but she says something similar in Ayn Rand Answers (which I have read, and which was the beginning of the end for me re Objectivism):

        Do not believe in Russia’s power; do not believe their threats. They would run, as they twice ran in their war with Finland (p. 47).

        I simply can’t get my mind around this claim. How could someone write this (or say it) as though the Soviet counter-offensive against the Nazis–the Eastern Front itself–had never happened? Four years of fighting? Thirty million casualties? Hundreds, maybe thousands of miles of maneuvers? At least half of the causal explanation for the outcome of the European theater of the war? The sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad? They…ran? That’s a claim morally on par with Holocaust denial. It’s worse, in some ways, since sophisticated Holocaust deniers often quibble with micro-level issues rather than engaging in wholesale denial of the event. But to say that the Soviets simply run away from a fight is so crazy that it makes David Irving or Greg Johnson seem reasonable by comparison.


        • Yeah, I wasn’t trying to justify her claim, merely to offer a (partial) explanation of it.

          She was committed to the view that the strength of evil is merely parasitic on that of good. Which, fair enough. Very Augustinian of her. But that claim comes in stronger and weaker forms, and she tends to slide back and forth between stronger and weaker versions as suits her purpose at the moment (e.g., even assuming that the Soviet Union’s strength depends entirely on western altruism, that doesn’t mean it would instantaneously vanish if the altruism were withdrawn).

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          • I figured as much. Agree on the “evil parasitic on good” issue.

            I guess I’d add that there’s a problematic idealist strain in Objectivist conceptions of historical causation: a very reductive sort of cognitivism (“ideas cause actions”) is hitched to a reductive sort of methodological individualism (“only individuals exist and act”). The relevantly explanatory cognitive variables are then whittled down to “the essentials,” and out plop these seductively simple-minded explanations of complex events: Kant is the root of all evil in the modern world. Totalitarianism is the logical implication of Kantianism. Evil is parasitic on good. And that’s why the Soviet Union gave the impression of being a superpower for a few decades.

            She slides between stronger and weaker versions of the Augustinian thesis as polemical demands require, true, but her doing so always seems to function within a certain framework that’s robotically brought to bear on any event, whether it’s the Finnish defeat of the USSR or it’s Mario Savio at Berkeley. The very thing that seemed most attractive about Rand at the outset seems the most problematic to me now: the imperative to integrate across the widest possible contexts. Claims that once seemed novel and unconventional now just strike me as crazy.


        • I overlap some remarks of Irfan below, but worth stressing, I think.
          Rand: “Russia as such was never a threat to anyone. Even little Finland beat Russia twice during World War II. Russia is the weakest and most impotent country on Earth. If they were in a war, most of the miserable Russians would defect.” I realize this was not a written composition, rather, an oral spontaneous exchange, but what thought is that “as such” tending to. Russia but for its nuclear capabilities at the time of her remark? It was only because of those capabilities that Russia was really noteworthy to this country or to Western Europe at that time. Concern over Russian export of communist ideology and their arms assistance to communist insurrections in other countries was of tertiary importance for us and for every other country who had their nuclear missiles trained on the Soviet Union at that time (however not-talked-about the nuclear shadow might be at times). Nuclear weight of Russia is what keeps major powers out of direct-confrontation intervention against Russian conventional-weapon pushovers to this day, such as in the takeover of Crimea. (Contrast with West response to pushover of Kuwait by a country without nukes.) The real “Russia as such” was and is nuclear Russia first and foremost. Same for “America as such.” Nuclear weapons are not some inessential sidebar of the greatest military powers in our lifetimes (or in any later human time). / This kind of talk from Rand reminds me of her earlier puffing up (in talk to the children, if not in her own, reflective, considered view) of the power of victims withdrawing their sanction of their oppressors.

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          • I certainly agree. I believe (but am not 100% sure) that the Q&A that Bowden quotes came after she delivered her talk, “The Sanction of the Victims.”

            The only quibble I’d pick is with this sentence, which strikes me as overstated: “It was only because of those capabilities that Russia was really noteworthy to this country or to Western Europe at that time.” I’d replace “only” with “primarily.” “Only” is too strong. American strategy was governed by “containment” from 1947 until the fall of the Soviet Union. Containment doctrine explains most of what we did during the Cold War, including our military involvement in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and Afghanistan. It also explains our support for right-wing dictatorships throughout the Cold War. So I’d say that fear of Soviet expansion (and the need to contain it) was a major driver of American policy in many contexts besides nuclear weapons strategy.

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