Sources from The New York Times to the United Kingdom's Guardian agree that 2009 is the Year of Ayn Rand. Fortuitously surfing the wave of Rand fascination is the first thorough and largely unbiased book about her life and ideas by a serious American academic, one neither a personal friend nor a bitter enemy of the controversial Russian-born novelist and philosopher.
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns, delivers a smart assessment of Rand's life and ideas and how they influenced each other. On what her book's title promises—the connections between Rand and the American right wing—Ms. Burns is less convincing, though she does provide enough data to make it clear why Rand has never really been a "goddess" to the American right.
Why is Rand, dead since 1982, so hot again today? Ironically, big government, one of Rand's betes noires, is stimulating her sales. Her more than 1,000-page 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, sold 25 percent more copies in the first half of this year than it sold in all of last year, shipping a total of 300,000 copies so far this year—tremendous success for a 52-year-old novel.
Readers and pundits alike look at America and see a world scarily reminiscent of Rand's government-choked dystopia in Atlas. It's a world with a struggling economy where political pull matters more than success in the free market, where the government blithely takes over huge transportation industries.
Ms. Burns says Rand was "among the first to identify the problem of the modern state's often terrifying power and make it an issue of popular concern." Seeking the foundation of Rand's ferocious mistrust of government—especially government motivated by altruism—Ms. Burns skillfully re-creates the young Alisa Rosenbaum's (Rand's name before creating the "Rand" identity when she moved to America in 1926) experiences watching Bolshevism destroy her family's way of life in Russia.
Rand saw communism purportedly motivated by a desire to help elevate the downtrodden and, as Ms. Burns writes, became fascinated with "the failure of good intentions." The novelist countered communism with her own moral philosophy that elevated "selfishness"—the belief that your happiness is your proper goal and your accomplishments are a necessary means to happiness. This Randian morality was meant, Ms. Burns wrote, to "eliminate all virtues that could possibly be used in the service of totalitarianism."
Rand came to America hoping to win fame as a Hollywood screenwriter; movies formed her image of a glorious and joyous America, so different from her dismal and deprived Soviet Union. She worked various jobs in the film industry in the 1920s and 1930s. After years of struggle (though with more help from family and friends than Rand, queen of the self-sufficient, liked to make people believe) she became a fabulously successful novelist. Her first big hit was 1943's The Fountainhead (the tale of an architect who blew up a housing project he had designed, on the grounds that his rights as a creator had been violated by unapproved changes to the structure) and then Atlas Shrugged.
Rand was more than a teller of tales. She was an exponent of a philosophy she called Objectivism. Ms. Burns explains thoroughly how Rand, through relationships with many other individualist, conservative and libertarian thinkers and activists in the 1930s and '40s, forged her unique approach to small-government individualism, linked with Aristotelian rationalism.
In later life, she tired of communicating with anyone but her continually narrowing circle of acolytes, and after her affair with her chief disciple, Nathaniel Branden, ended in 1968, she largely retreated from any attempt to spread or further her philosophy, embittered with a culture she thought rejected all her values—moral, political, and esthetic.
Rand undoubtedly was a ferocious defender of free markets and a great lover of America because she saw it as the closest political embodiment of her values. But she was never, despite Ms. Burns' title connecting her goddesshood and the American right, any special darling of modern conservatives. Ms. Burns' own book explains why.
Because Rand believed only in values she thought derived logically from observable facts of reality, she was an enemy of traditional Christianity and the standard American conservative notion of "traditional values." The standard authorities of the American intellectual and political right have mistrusted, avoided or even hated Rand. One of the most ferocious attacks on Atlas Shrugged came from National Review and the pen of conservative hero Whittaker Chambers, a communist-turned-Christian (two things Rand couldn't abide).
Ms. Burns herself notes that Rand's ideas presented a "fundamental challenge to the new conservative synthesis" and "threatened to undermine or redirect the whole conservative venture." When the right lined up behind Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, as Ms. Burns writes, quoting Rand, the novelist realized free enterprise was not an absolute for American conservatives. She "knew then that there is … no help that I can expect from any of them … . I'm standing totally alone and have to create my own side." This she tried to do, and she called herself a "radical for capitalism," not a conservative or right-winger.
The reader of Ms. Burns' book will get a proper sense of where Rand really stands in American ideological history. Rand (though she herself despised the word and movement for peculiar reasons of her own) was not a member in good standing of the American right; she was far more a goddess of American libertarianism, that radical philosophy of consistent anti-statism and individualism unconnected to conservative traditionalism.
Ms. Burns, the historian, argues that Rand "can only be understood against the backdrop of her historical moment." Rand, who believed she had uncovered universal truths about human nature and the proper role of government, would have been outraged at this suggestion. Even 52 years later, hundreds of thousands of Americans are buying Atlas Shrugged and getting something—whether philosophical instruction or merely wild entertainment—out of it.
As Ms. Burns successfully demonstrates, Rand's ideas have remained an important part of the American ideological mix, especially in how she honored the creative powers of American business in a free market to improve human lives. Ms. Burns' readers will see Rand still has the power to instruct on the meaning and scary implications of government growth in the age of Barack Obama.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs). This review originally appeared in the Washington Times.