Because of her opposition to New Deal government controls, novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand started off thinking of herself as a conservative. By the time her blockbuster novel, "Atlas Shrugged," was published 50 years ago this week, she'd changed her mind. She decided she was a radical—a "radical for capitalism," that is.
Conservatives, she'd come to believe, were insufficiently principled in their defense of a free society and once the novel was out, the official conservative movement turned its back on her.
While "Atlas Shrugged" was a ferocious defense of certain values shared by many conservatives, then and now—limited government, economic liberty and the primacy of individual rights over perceived collective needs—National Review's editor and conservative movement leader William Buckley found the novel's intransigence and Godlessness, alarming. He assigned communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers to review it.
After squinting at this sweeping, thousand page-plus epic, portraying America's collapse thanks to a rising tide of unlimited government, economic restrictions and the subordination of individual rights to perceived collective needs, Chambers pronounced his judgment. With a sighing, refined hostility, he found it "silly," "preposterous" and hateful. "From almost any page," he declared, in a bizarre and oft-cited passage, "a voice can be heard . . . commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'"
Mr. Buckley and his National Review were trying to build a politically viable postwar right, including a border fence around respectable conservatism. Rand's ferocious and uncompromising opposition, not only to any government action beyond protecting individual rights, but also to religion and tradition for its own sake, put her outside that fence. She was too absolutist, too outrageous, too faithless.
After that Chambers review, Rand saw mainstream conservatism as her avowed enemy. Meanwhile, a distinctly libertarian political and intellectual movement was on the rise, one enormously influenced by Rand. Yet many conservatives still loved her, even if as a sometimes guilty pleasure, especially on college campuses
Her daring, root-and-branch assault on the postwar liberal welfare state consensus made her beloved even among a rising generation of young conservatives, without making them full-bore Objectivists (her name for her philosophy). For just one example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his new memoir that Rand's "vision of the world made more sense to me than that of my left-wing friends," although he "didn't fully accept its tenets."
And Rand was, despite her exile from the conservative movement, a fan of Barry Goldwater, the modern Right's first serious presidential candidate. She told him "I regard you as the only hope of the anti-collectivist side on today's political scene, and I have defended your position at every opportunity." For his part, Goldwater said that "I have enjoyed very few books in my life as much as . . . 'Atlas Shrugged.'"
Rand and a fair number of her closest followers were notorious for casting into outer darkness anyone who might agree with everything she advocated, but not for their reasons, properly deduced from the facts of reality. This perceived dogmatism helped make her seem a silly character to many, liberal or conservative. And yet, when it came to Goldwater, Rand wrote something wise that conservatives should contemplate, and return the favor: "If he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours."
In other words, when it comes to politics, politics is more important than metaphysics. And Rand had plenty to offer conservatives about politics that is still salient.
Even when reinforcing her exile from respectable conservatism in a 1967 National Review feature story, M. Stanton Evans recognized that "there are a number of subjects on which Miss Rand is right . . . Foremost among these is that class of issues having to do with the secular conditions of freedom." He notes her "excellent grasp of the way capitalism is supposed to work" and her "powerful" critique of "bureaucrats, planners, and social engineers." Also, her "effective" satire of "the intellectual flux and slither in which modern relativism seeks to bury moral issues."
That's a great list of virtues, and exactly what modern conservatism needs, in the political and cultural wars of today. Rand's virtues as a political thinker and polemicist touch on the most important matters of modern politics.
She recognized, not merely that government shouldn't take as much from us as it does, but also that it can't justly and pragmatically do as much as it currently tries to do. As government spending, even under Republican rule, grows faster than ever before; as new plans to further bureaucratize American health care arise; as the benefits of free trade and free movement of capital and labor are under continued assault—Rand's consistent, passionate and even heroic defense of American freedom is sorely needed.
Rand's insistence that all values be rationally chosen made her "bad," in modern conservative terms, on the family and on religion. But if the GOP can contemplate nominating twice-divorced Rudolph Giuliani (who agrees with Rand on abortion rights), conservatives should realize political movements can no longer demand agreement on matters of faith and family. They need to recognize—as Rand was, ironically, mocked for failing to recognize—that metaphysics and religion are extra-political.
Why does she matter to modern politics? It's not like she is around for conservatives to seek her endorsement. But it is worthwhile for political activists to remember that Ayn Rand was utterly uncompromising on how government needed to respect the inalienable right of Americans to live their own lives, and of American business to grow, thrive, innovate and improve our lives without niggling interference.
Her message of political freedom was enthusiastic, and optimistic, and immensely popular. No major American political party has embraced her message in full. But millions of Americans have voted for her with their pocket books, and hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year.
On the 50th anniversary of her greatest novel, her advocacy of the still "unknown ideal" of truly free market capitalism is something that America, and the conservative movement, needs to reconsider.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.