A hundred years after her birth and nearly 25 years after her death, Ayn Rand remains a fascinating and enigmatic presence. She has been "mainstreamed" enough to have been honored by a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 1999 and to have been featured on C-SPAN's American Writers series in 2002. Her novels figure prominently in readers' lists of the 20th century's greatest books. Notably, in a 1991 survey of more than 2,000 Book-of-the-Month Club members about books that made a difference in their lives, Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, came in second--albeit a very distant second--to the Bible. Rand, a devout atheist, might have seen that as an insult rather than an honor.
Yet in many ways Rand remains an outlier and an oddity on the cultural scene, a cult figure with plenty of worshippers and plenty of desecrators. No other modern author has had such extravagant claims of greatness made on her behalf: Followers of her philosophy, Objectivism, regard her as the greatest thinker to have graced this earth since Aristotle and the greatest writer of all time. Mainstream intellectuals tend to dismiss her as a writer of glorified pulp fiction and a pseudo-philosophical quack with an appeal for impressionable teens. Politically, too, Rand is an outsider: Liberals shrink from her defiant pro-capitalist stance, conservatives from her militant atheism, and conservatives and liberals alike from her individualism. Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand's ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild. In her insistence that political philosophy must be based on a proper epistemology, she rejected the libertarian movement, which embraced a wide variety of reasons for advocating free markets and free minds, as among her enemies.
In recent years, at last, some analysis of Rand has appeared that is neither uncritical adulation nor unrelenting bashing. Some of it has come from unorthodox neo-Objectivists, such as the feminist scholar Mimi Gladstein or the political philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra. (The two edited the 1999 book Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and Sciabarra wrote 1996's controversial Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.) The five-year-old Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, co-founded by Sciabarra, often features essays by mainstream intellectuals that treat Rand's legacy in a non-hagiographic way. Two controversial books about Rand the person remain a good place to start for an understanding, but not adulatory, look at her life and work: The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986) by Barbara Branden, no doubt the first-ever sympathetic biography whose subject slept with the biographer's husband, and Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand (1989) by Nathaniel Branden, the husband in question.
In 1962, when they were still among the faithful, the Brandens co-wrote a book called Who Is Ayn Rand? More than 40 years later, the question still stands.
The Appeal of Ayn Rand
Reading Rand's philosophy can be an exhilarating, head-turning experience; it was for me when I first picked up her nonfiction manifesto For the New Intellectual at the age of 19, two years after coming to the United States from the Soviet Union. (Rand herself was an American immigrant from the Soviet Union, leaving her family behind to move here in 1926.) Rand's rejection of the moral code that condemns selfishness as the ultimate evil and holds up self-sacrifice as the ultimate good is a radical challenge to received wisdom, an invitation to a startlingly new way to see the world. While Rand was hardly the first philosopher to advocate an ethos of individualism, reason, and self-interest, no one formulated it as accessibly or persuasively as she did--or as passionately. In Rand's hands, the "virtue of selfishness" was not a dry, abstract rationalist construct with a bloodless "economic man" at its center. It became a bold, ardent vision of defiance, struggle, creative achievement, joy, and romantic love. That vibrancy, more than anything else, accounts for her extraordinary appeal.
Politically, Rand wanted to provide liberal capitalism with a moral foundation, to take on the prevalent notion that communism was a noble if unworkable idea while the free market was a necessary evil best suited to flawed human nature. In this she succeeded brilliantly (even if the notion that socialism failed because it has never been properly tried is still alive and well among the intelligentsia). Her arguments against "compassionate" redistribution--and persecution--of wealth have lost none of their power in the decades after they were made.
Yet there is a reason Objectivism remains, for most people, a
way station on a journey to some wider outlook. Even Nathaniel
Branden, who still espouses most Objectivist tenets, has been
severely critical of Rand's judgmental and contemptuous attitude
toward all emotions she deemed "irrational," her tendency to
emotional repression, and her lukewarm support even for voluntary, non-self-sacrificing mutual aid.
The Limits of Ayn Rand
Perhaps Rand's biggest error was the totalism of her philosophy. Having rightly concluded that the values of the free market were moral, she went on to make the sweeping assertion that those values were the only moral ones, and that all human relations must be based on the principles of "trade." Yet there is nothing unreasonable and nothing anti-market or anti-individualist to the belief that individualistic and market-based values need something to complement them.
The Victorians emphasized the importance of charity and viewed family and community as "havens in a heartless world." This value system had its serious drawbacks--from preachy sentimentalism to fairly rigid gender roles, with women virtually excluded from economic and intellectual endeavors and relegated to the complementary sphere of love, care giving, and charity. But at least the Victorians recognized the need for a balance and variety of virtues.
Politically, too, Rand's insistence on de-emphasizing, or even denigrating, family, community, and private charity is not a particularly clever tactic for capitalism's defenders. These are the very institutions that can be expected, in the absence of a massive welfare state, to meet those human needs that people prove unable to satisfy through the market. Rand did claim to be in favor of "benevolence," in contrast to altruism; but it would be fruitless to look for providers of private charitable aid among her "good guys," except for those who lend a helping hand to a friend. When charity is mentioned in Rand's fiction, it is nearly always in a negative context. In The Fountainhead, the chorus of "second-handers" eager to condemn her heroic, individualist architect protagonist, Howard Roark, include "the society woman dressing for a charity bazaar" who uses charity as an excuse to flaunt her virtue; in Atlas Shrugged, a club providing shelter to needy young women is mocked for offering help to unworthy sufferers such as drinkers, dope users, and unwed mothers-to-be.
Family fares even worse in Rand's universe. The virtual absence of children in her work has been noted by many critics, starting with Whittaker Chambers in his infamous roasting of Atlas Shrugged in National Review. Actually, John Galt's private utopia in Atlas features a nameless young woman who makes it her career to raise rational children; but this brief passage comes across as little more than a pro forma nod to motherhood. In her 1964 Playboy interview Rand flatly declared that it was "immoral" to place family ties and friendship above productive work; in her fiction, family life is depicted as a stifling, soul-killing, mainly feminine swamp.
It's noteworthy that in The Fountainhead, the heroes--Roark, newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, and Roark's troubled lover, Dominique Francon--have all grown up motherless, while the arch-villain, critic Ellsworth Toohey, spent his childhood as his mother's pet and the worthless Peter Keating, who relies on Roark to do his architecture work, has a grotesque caricature of a "selfless," smothering, tyrannical mother. The only Randian heroic couple to actually reproduce is the hero of Anthem and his girlfriend, who is pregnant at the end of the dystopian science fiction novelette; but they have the excuse of needing to breed a new race of free men, since the world around them has regressed to post-apocalyptic primitivism and slavery.
In its pure form, Rand's philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own. Thus, it's hardly surprising that so many people become infatuated with Objectivism as teenagers and "grow out of it" later, when concerns of family, children, and old age--their own and their families'--make that fantasy seem more and more impossible.