Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner, New York: Penguin Dutton, 1995, 681 pages, $34.95
On November 7, 1943, Ayn Rand issued a prophetic warning to Ruth Alexander, a prominent conservative writer and lecturer: "God save capitalism from capitalism's defenders! Nobody can defeat us now–except the Republicans." For Rand, the Republican Party had exhibited an awful penchant for political compromise: It had never seriously challenged the "collectivist premises" of the New Deal, nor had it fundamentally opposed the country's march toward statism. Ultimately, Rand thought, the GOP merely sought to slow the march toward collectivism, rather than to reverse its direction. For Rand, its betrayal of principle engendered the rise of the theocratic right, a movement that, in Rand's view, undermined the rational and moral case for capitalism.
Rand characterized the "conservative" defense of the free society as half-baked, for just as the liberals had embraced intellectual freedom while seeking to regulate economic life, the conservatives had embraced economic freedom while seeking to regulate moral life. Rand's whole approach to politics sought to transcend this dichotomy and to embrace a consistent vision of human freedom in all its incarnations. Her admonitions should be seriously considered today by those friends of liberty who rush to celebrate any recent Republican victories. For within GOP ranks, Christian conservatives have combined a rhetorical commitment to the free market with a steadfast belief in government promotion of "family values"–even if this means, among other things, state repression of alternative lifestyles, restraints on the First Amendment, opposition to abortion, and a renewed war on drugs.
Especially since the Russian-born novelist and philosopher had once counted herself among the "conservative writers," her gradual disillusionment with conservatism is one of the most important leitmotifs to be found in the Letters of Ayn Rand, a newly published collection of the author's correspondence from 1926, six months after her arrival in the United States, until 1981, approximately two months before her death. The book encapsulates more than five decades of ideological strife in nearly 700 pages of frank and varied exchanges. It is divided into eight primarily chronological parts, with special sections devoted to Rand's correspondence with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, author Isabel Paterson, and philosopher John Hospers. Much of the material derives from the turbulent 1940s, prior to Rand's deep immersion in the writing of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
Editor Michael S. Berliner has assembled correspondence that will delight–and sometimes shock–readers. Whether writing to relatives, friends, fans, critics, publishers, Hollywood producers, actors, agents, politicians, priests, industrialists, professors, teenagers, or senior citizens, Rand's language is always refreshingly candid. And the diversity of correspondence is truly astonishing, featuring letters to such people as philosopher Brand Blanshard, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Barry Goldwater, Dashiell Hammett, Henry Hazlitt, Alexander Kerensky, Rose Wilder Lane, H.L. Mencken, Leonard Read, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Spillane, Robert Stack, and Barbara Stanwyck. There are also early letters to Nathan Blumenthal (Nathaniel Branden) and Barbara Weidman (Barbara Branden) long before their tumultuous split with Rand in 1968. Even astronaut Michael Collins shows up here–with Rand thanking him for his praise of her article on the significance of Apollo 11.
Many of these letters confirm that Ayn Rand was given to theatricality and hyperbole. For instance, in her early overtures to Frank Lloyd Wright, Rand wrote to the celebrated architect that he was "the only one among the men of this century" who had lived a life of integrity. The only one? Surely, the 20th century has been tragic, but it has not been that tragic.
Still, what is most startling about the collection is how well it humanizes Ayn Rand. It replaces the popular caricature–the intolerant "cultess" who had piercing eyes, a black cape, and a long, intimidating cigarette holder–with a living, breathing woman who could be furious for sure, but empathetic and affable as well. Here is Rand writing love notes
to her "Cubby Sweet," husband Frank O'Connor, a man she met in 1926 on the set of King of Kings, of all movies. Here is Rand pontificating on her love of cats, or giving advice to the lovelorn. To her longtime friend, Marjorie Hiss, who had suffered the breakup of a relationship in 1949, she wrote: "Every person develops and learns as he grows, so it is foolish to reproach yourself for not having had eighteen years ago the knowledge which you have now. You have done the best you could, according to your judgment of that time….If there's one thing I have learned by personal experience and by observing the people around me, it's that a person's life actually starts from about 35 on….Up to that time one merely learns and accumulates experience."
And here is Rand struggling in "overcrowded, vulgar, cheap and sad" Hollywood. In her early years in Tinseltown, she wrote novels and short stories while laboring at odd jobs to support herself. She never lamented the strain of working 12-hour days, and was proud to call herself "a proletarian defender of Capitalism." She sensed the hypocrisy of those in the entertainment industry–we'd call them members of the "cultural elite" today–who used their riches to support an egalitarian politics that would have wiped out the very system that made their wealth possible. "If I were a defender of Communism," she remarked with amused irony to DeWitt Emery, head of the National Small Business Men's Association, "I'd be a Hollywood millionaire-writer by now, with a swimming pool and a private orchestra to play the Internationale."
Although Rand expounded on the "virtue of selfishness," her letters suggest that her fame and fortune led to a corresponding growth in the levels of her generosity. For example, in a series of exchanges with attorneys and refugee organizations, Rand tried desperately to facilitate the immigration of Marie Strachow, a long-time family friend, who had been her first English teacher in Russia. Strachow emigrated to Austria in 1918, and lived there until after the Second World War. As a refugee, she could have faced instant deportation to Russia. With the U.S. Congress limiting the number of immigrants, Rand sent food parcels and CARE packages to her old friend, and offered to pay for Strachow's medical supplies. I found myself very absorbed–almost tensereading this correspondence, which ends in October 1948, upon Strachow's successful immigration to America.
Letters is at its most provocative when it details Rand's growing disenchantment with the right wing in American politics. She confided in Isabel Paterson, from whom she'd learned much of the historical and economic case for capitalism, that she was disgusted with those "goddamn 'conservatives'" who had attempted to justify the free market on the "collectivist" premise that it promoted the "common good." These conservatives had not lifted a finger to defend The Fountainhead, a book, said Rand, that had done "more for free enterprise than the N.A.M. [National Association of Manufacturers] with their million-dollars-a-year-budget…." And in 1946, to Rose Wilder Lane, Rand admitted that she felt "sick" whenever she came "up against a compromising conservative."
She was angry that many conservatives had sanctioned various forms of corporate welfare and protectionism. For instance, instead of advocating the repeal of the Wagner Act, which had created the problem of monopoly union power, conservatives were quick to support the Taft-Hartley Act in an effort to shackle American labor. In Rand's view, conservatives, no less than liberals, had participated willingly in the growth of government power. And, as each intervention by the state engendered social problems, still more intervention was regarded as the only way to counteract the effects of previous government actions. Like Hayek, who had sensed a procession down the "road to serfdom," Rand believed that the only "winner" in such a political con game was "the Bureaucrat."
For Rand, labor laws were hardly the only instance of conservative complicity in the expansion of statism. She was even more aghast that in their battle against communists, conservatives were demanding the death penalty for political offenses. She asserted "that the crucial steps on the road to dictatorship, the laws giving government totalitarian powers, were initiated by Republicans–such as the draft bill, or the attempt to pass a national serfdom act for compulsory labor."
Rand is at her libertarian best in such moments–opposing military conscription for sure, but also defending the rights of criminals against "liberal humanitarians" who advocated state-enforced "psychiatric therapy" that would subject prisoners to "psychological" and "physical mutilations…electric shock therapy, pre-frontal lobotomies, and anything else that neurologists might discover."
In Rand's view, there was an intimate connection between personal, intellectual, political, and economic freedom. Hence she scolded Leonard Read, the founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, that it is a "great mistake" to assume "that economics is a science which can be isolated from moral, philosophical and political principles, and considered as a subject in itself, without relation to them."
While there's no doubt that Rand's opposition to conservatism was tied to her atheism, it is also true that Rand did not hate conservatives simply because they were religious. In fact, what comes through in the letters is anything but an "in-your-face" atheistic militancy. She remarks to Sylvia Austin, a fan, that, "Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism–the inviolate sanctity of man's soul, and the salvation of one's soul as one's first concern and highest goal…."
But such a principle could not be served by the Christian's altruist code of morality that demanded the sacrifice of the self for the welfare of others. This tragic internal contradiction led, in Rand's view, to continuous civil wars between sects and nations, and within each believer's soul–a civil war between the right of a person to exist for his or her own sake, and the alleged "duty" of that person to live an ostensibly "Christian" lifestyle.
In politics, today's Christian conservatives often seem to exhibit the tensions of this unresolved contradiction. They are torn between the individualist principles of Jesus and the notion that the state must make people moral. On the one hand, they sense the need for greater individual self-responsibility. But on the other hand, they would willingly undermine the individual's autonomy by seeking state enforcement of their own moral precepts. It was this conservative attempt to enforce Christian dogma that Rand condemned as an affront to liberty.
Thus, while one will find in Rand's letters surprising tolerance in her intellectual exchanges with serious religious thinkers, one will also find an unabashed opposition to the linking of religion and politics. Undeniably, she opposed religious notions such as Original Sin, as well as religious figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. But her most trenchant criticism is reserved for religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, which she likened to the Soviets, except that the Church sought "a form of Statism run by the Church–which simply means that [they] hope[d] for a return of the days of the Inquisition." And despite her initial support for the future Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, she warned him in 1960 that she considered the conservative attempt to integrate religion and politics a moral abomination.
Twenty years later, in one of her final letters, Rand reaffirmed that she was not a "conservative," but a "radical for capitalism." The woman who had initially befriended many on the Old Right was now telling television producer John E. Marshall that she rejected the New Right, with its anti-abortion stance and its assault on individual freedom.
In an age characterized by resurgent religious fervor on the right, Rand's letters retain relevance, especially for those of us who puzzle over the link between "free minds and free markets." While scholars such as myself would enjoy seeing all of Rand's extant correspondence in completely unedited form, this masterful collection remains required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the history of American social and political thought, as well as the future of individual liberty.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar at New York University and is the author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State Press, 1995) and Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY Press, 1995).