Ayn Rand at 100

Loved, hated, and always controversial, the best-selling author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is more relevant than ever.


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 glorify
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.

The Darkness in Ayn Rand

In the heyday of the Objectivist movement, Rand used to brush off charges that her Übermensch heroes were unrealistic by pointing to herself and the Brandens, at one point shouting during a debate, "Am I impossible?" In fact, what is revealed of Rand in the Brandens' biographies dramatically illustrates the gap between ideology and reality in her own life. In the Randiverse, a man whose beloved left him for another would manfully accept her rational decision–may the best Übermensch win!–and remain friends with her and her new partner. In real life, Rand's "rational" affair with Branden, whom she fantasized as a Galt or Roark come alive, caused devastation all around, to themselves as much as to their spouses. Rand's unshakable belief in the power of the human mind led her to refuse to recognize the mental deterioration of her husband, Frank O'Connor, and she tormented him with exercises in "psycho-epistemology." When she herself was diagnosed with cancer, she refused to disclose her illness publicly, evidently because she believed, according to Barbara Branden, that cancer was the result of philosophical and psychological errors.

Rand's detractors often brand her a fascist. She is not, of course; but does her work have overtones of a totalitarian or dictatorial mentality? This charge irks even ambivalent Rand admirers, such as Nathaniel Branden, who fully recognize the dogmatism and intolerance in the Objectivist movement. They point out that Rand decisively rejects the use of force except in self-defense. True; but as Branden has observed on the topic of emotional repression, it would be wise to pay attention not just to what Rand says but to what she does–in this case, in her novels. Near the end of Atlas Shrugged, when the heroes go to rescue John Galt from the baddies, female railroad magnate Dagny Taggart calmly and quite unnecessarily shoots a guard who can't decide whether to let her in or not. The man, you see, "wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness"–obviously a capital crime.

Still more troubling is an earlier passage in Atlas in which bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance lead to a terrible train wreck. Many would say, Rand wryly notes, that the people who died in the accident "were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them." Then, in a series of brief portraits, Rand endeavors to show that the passengers were guilty indeed: All of them had benefited from evil government programs, promoted evil political or philosophical ideas, or both. Rand does not advocate their murder, of course (though she sympathetically depicts a trainmaster who chooses not to avert the disaster, partly in revenge against the regulators); but she does suggest that they had it coming. In Atlas and the nonfiction essays she turned to in her final decades, political and ideological debates are treated as wars with no innocent bystanders, and the dehumanization of "the enemy" reaches levels reminiscent of communist or fascist propaganda.

One inevitable consequence of this attitude toward most other human beings is, to quote the title of a George Orwell essay, "the prevention of literature." There can be no question that Rand was a highly talented writer with a great gift for plot, description, and yes, characterization. The Fountainhead is a brilliant book, and so is Rand's often underappreciated first novel, We the Living, a richly textured, passionate, moving story of life in post-revolutionary Russia.

But in these novels Rand's philosophy has not yet petrified into dogma. Even the larger-than-life romantic heroes have recognizable human emotions. (Rand's detractors often claim that Roark is a robotically unfeeling superman, but consider this passage, when Dominique tells him of her marriage to Peter Keating: "It would have been easy, if she had seen a man distorting his mouth to bite off sound, closing his fists and twisting them in defense against himself. But it was not easy, because she did not see him doing this, yet knew that this was being done, without the relief of a physical gesture.") Rand's moral scale in The Fountainhead still allows for shades of gray. The power-seeking Gail Wynand is a tragic figure whom Roark loves despite the error of his ways; Dominique's father, Guy Francon, is basically a good guy despite exemplifying none of the Randian virtues; even the despicable Peter Keating merits some sympathy, and his failed romance with his true love, Katie, has some dignity and poignancy.

But in Atlas Shrugged, Rand's final novel, the ideologue crushes the writer almost completely. While a few characters show occasional glimpses of humanity, most of the heroes are abstractions of greatness, while the villains are subhuman vermin. The story suffocates under endless speechifying and analysis in which each point is flogged to death and each un-Randian idea is reduced to a straw man the heroes can easily beat down and shred. In this effort, all life and beauty are drained from Rand's prose style, and we are treated to passages like this one, when industrialist Hank Rearden's wife tries to hurt him by telling him she has slept with a man he despises: "There, he thought, was the final abortion of the creed of collective interdependence, the creed of non-identity, non-property, non-fact: the belief that the moral stature of one is at the mercy of the action of another."

The Paradox of Ayn Rand

For all her flaws, Rand remains a towering figure on the last century's cultural landscape. She arose in an era of competing totalitarian ideologies and declared that communism and Nazism were not opposites but evil twins, and that their true opposite was freedom. In an era when collectivism was seen as the way of the future, she unapologetically asserted the worth of the individual and his right to exist for himself, and declared the spiritual dimension of material achievement. In an age of existential doubt, she offered a celebration of creativity, of the human mind, of the joy of life on this earth. (The Fountainhead has a glorious passage in which a young man who is starting to despair of finding beauty or purpose in life is moved and inspired by the sight of Roark's just-finished construction project.) Atlas Shrugged, clunky and extremist though it is, contains some brilliant and powerful pro-capitalist polemics–such as Francisco D'Anconia's speech on the meaning of money and the tale of one factory's disastrous experiment in implementing the slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Rand zealots, and even moderate fans such as the Brandens, are often prone to credit her with almost single-handedly rolling back the tide of socialist ideology in the 20th century. That's quite an exaggeration, as is the notion that her philosophy sprang whole from her mind like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Still, Rand was the most successful and widely read popularizer of the ideas of individual liberty and the free market of her day. In the 21st century, as we face Islamist terrorism abroad and when public discourse at home often seems dominated by religious conservatism on the right and politically correct pieties on the left, Rand's message of reason and liberty, if it's stripped of its odder features, could be a rallying point for what the neo-Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, who runs the Objectivist Center, calls "Enlightenment-based values."

From yet another perspective, Rand can be seen as a great eccentric thinker and writer whose work is less about a practical guide to real life than about a unique, individual, stylized vision, a romantic vision that transforms and transcends real life. Rand's philosophy admitted no contradictions or paradoxes in reality; but reality is full of apparently irreconcilable truths. The truth of what Rand said about the heroic human spirit and individual self-determination does not negate the truth that human beings often find themselves at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control and dependent on others through no fault of theirs. The truth of the self-sufficient soul coexists with the truth of the vital importance of human connections.

Rand herself was a creature of paradox. She was a prophet of freedom and individualism who tolerated no disobedience or independent thought in her acolytes, a rationalist who refused to debate her views. She was an atheist whose worship of Man led her to see the human mind as a godlike entity, impervious to the failings of the body or to environmental influences. (Nathaniel Branden reports that she even disliked the idea of evolution.) She was a strong woman who created independent heroines yet saw sexual submission as the essence of femininity and argued that no healthy woman would want to be president of the United States because it would put her above all men.

This is perhaps how Rand is best appreciated: as a figure of great achievement and great contradictions, a visionary whose vision is one among many, whose truths are important but by no means exclusive. Rand, it is safe to say, would have regarded such appreciation as far worse than outright rejection. But that's just another paradox of life.?