Ayn Rand

The Ayn and Only

Cult-empress or great thinker?

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It's not hard to imagine Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, at the Tea Party rallies that swept the nation this summer. She'd be smoking, of course. Stalking around in a cape and sensible shoes, this avatar of individual liberty and rationalism would accost cheerful, tubby Midwest Republicans and baffle them with her favorite greeting: "What are your premises?"

Perhaps the anti-tax, limited government Tea Partiers would recognize the stocky, intense philosopher/novelist with the large dark eyes as one of their own. She could even clamber up to the podium to address the crowd in her strong Russian accent. "Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution," she might say, for she was fond of quoting herself. "The only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off."

Ayn Rand is no longer around to mingle at political rallies, but she is increasingly present in current political debates, as her readers find parallels between 2009 America and the world of Atlas Shrugged, in which the creative thinkers and entrepreneurs go on strike, refusing to work in a totalitarian near-future dystopia where they are forced to labor for masses that hate and fear men of genius. A small but visible cluster of bloggers and businessmen are threatening to "Go Galt"–a reference to the book's striker-hero John Galt, who simply vanishes one day, taking an ever-larger number of the socially useful with him as the global economy crumbles.

At the Tea Parties, banners blare "Atlas Is Shrugging," and there are undeniable parallels between the current political scene and the scenario described in Atlas. In both cases, major transportation industries are being nationalized, government infrastructure is falling apart, unemployment is high, and protectionism is in the air. Rand's books, which have shown consistently impressive sales for decades, tallying almost 25 million copies in print, are suddenly experiencing a spike in demand. In 2008, sales of Atlas hit an all-time annual high of 200,000 copies sold. That would be a more-than-respectable showing for a new book; it's almost unheard of for a 50-year-old tome.

An additional sign of the Rand revival: the release of two new Rand biographies. Despite the fact that she has been famous for well over a half-century, these are the first biographies produced by impartial scholars. Both books follow Rand as she leaves behind a difficult childhood in revolutionary Russia (and her birth name Alisa Rosenbaum) for sunny, materialistic California. She wins a gig as a screenwriter after a memorable encounter with Cecil B. DeMille and meets her handsome husband. They chart her flirtation with politics, many missed book deadlines, and her rise to national fame with The Fountainhead in 1943. As she works to cement her place in history with Atlas Shrugged, a movement grows up around her. She begins to write nonfiction and names her philosophy of individualism and rationality: Objectivism. She conducts a clandestine affair with her much-younger intellectual heir, Nathaniel Branden, browbeating her husband and Branden's wife into assent and oaths of secrecy which they maintain until after her death in 1982. Rand dies famous, under an avalanche of hundreds of thousands of fan letters, yet bitter over broken personal relationships and unrealized political and philosophical ambitions.

Before continuing, it's worth noting that Ayn Rand would hate both of the new biographies. But she would be wrong to hate them, because both books are very good. Journalist Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made personalizes Rand, offering gossipy details about Rand's life and loves without the usual dose of malice that taints the memoirs of Rand's onetime inner circle and designated heirs. Historian Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market–the stronger of the two–situates Rand in the 20th-century American political scene, painting her as an influential advocate for capitalism and freedom.

Both biographers are interesting women who chose to write about Rand, in part, because she was an interesting woman. Neither author–and this would be the real killer for Rand, who was not tolerant of dissent–is an adherent to Rand's philosophy. In fact, neither book treats Rand as a philosopher, a title she preferred in later years, or offers literary analysis of Rand as a novelist. Rand would say that they are missing the point. But in a way, it was Rand who failed to see her own significance: "Rand's Romantic Realism has not changed American literature, nor has Objectivism penetrated far into the philosophy profession," writes Burns. But "for more than half a century Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right."

If William F. Buckley Jr. is the father of the modern conservative movement, Ayn Rand is the worldly aunt. While Buckley was busy providing for the future and setting rules for postwar conservatism, Rand breezed in, scattering cigarette ash and dollar bills everywhere. When she parted ways with the movement in disgust, she left a trail of crumpled stockings, fur-lined handcuffs, and ideological confusion in her wake. While willing to get on board with her principled and thorough denunciation of communism, conservatives have long had an uneasy relationship with Ayn Rand. Buckley more or less booted her and her growing contingent of followers out of the movement in the late 1950s. And Whittaker Chambers's review, published in National Review in 1957, contained the most famous (and most quotable) condemnation of her novels: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard .??.??. commanding: 'To a gas chamber–go!'"

But no matter how many times Rand is thrown out of political movements, she always comes back. Her followers can be found at nearly every large gathering on the right; long after communism is a dead letter, Rand keeps showing up at conservative parties. And even when she's refused admission at the front door for her obnoxious atheism, her utopian tendencies, or her insistence on her own greatness, she turns up inside anyway, smuggled in by the many people she introduced to ideas of liberty and personal responsibility.

Of course, the disdain between conservatives and Rand was mutual, as Burns ably chronicles in her book. Her imperious style, borrowed a bit from Nietzsche in the early years, and her tendency to give the cold shoulder to Objectivist apostates, made her hard to love. Rand denounced the conservative-friendly classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek as "pure poison," primarily for his limited concessions to state planning in certain sectors of the economy. And she had harsh words for Milton Friedman as well: His casual use of the economic term "rationing" to mean "allocation" infuriated her, as did his preference for pragmatic argumentation over appeals to moral absolutes of individual liberty and reason. (Ludwig von Mises, a founding economist of the pro-market Austrian school, called Rand "the most courageous man in America," which delighted her immensely.) Her demands for ideological purity extended to atheism as well. The first time Rand and Buckley met face to face, she casually mentioned that he seemed far too intelligent to believe in God. She denounced Christianity as "the perfect kindergarten for communism." Rand's fondness for including kinky sex scenes in her novels–and her excoriation of altruism–didn't do much to endear her to Christian conservatives, either.

But there was a moment when American politics inspired Rand. The 1940 Wendell Willkie presidential campaign, which took place while she was missing one of the many deadlines for The Fountainhead, unexpectedly brought out her political fervor. A fierce opponent of Franklin Roosevelt, Rand became a Republican campaign stalwart, going door-to-door with a Willkie button pinned to her coat. She even went to movie theaters where Willkie newsreels were airing, and then stayed behind to answer questions.

"I was a marvelous propagandist," she later recalled.

Before her days as a Willkie volunteer, Burns writes, "Rand was suspicious of both democracy and capitalism, unsure if either system could be trusted to safeguard individual rights against the dangers of the mob." This was the moment when Rand became part of the American political scene, crossbreeding her self-generated individualist philosophy with the uniquely American understanding of individual rights and personal freedom. After the campaign was lost, diehards organized into grassroots-style Willkie Clubs, not unlike the Tea Parties. Rand had high hopes for the clubs as a way to keep the ideas of individualism and freedom alive. But after organizational scuffling, fundraising difficulties, and personal conflicts, she dropped out of practical politics. (Rand broke this rule only once later in life, when she was briefly enamoured with Barry Goldwater, though he soon disappointed her as well.)

With FDR back in office for a third term, Rand threw herself back into finishing The Fountainhead. When it was released in 1943 there was one positive and insightful review–in the New York Times–but most early notices were critical and dismissive. "Anyone who is taken in by [The Fountainhead] deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing," sniped Diana Trilling in the Nation. In fact, Rand was battling wartime paper rationing: She signed her contract days before Pearl Harbor. If negotiations had taken another week, Rand's editor later told her, such a paper-intensive project would probably have been junked. Rand trimmed out a subplot or two–something she never would have done in later years–to get the book down to 754 pages. But she still had to figure for more than her "fair share" of paper. The irony was not lost on this crusader against centrally controlled economies and egalitarianism that both were arrayed against her in a fight to convey her words to the public.

Worse still, many reviewers were complimentary for the wrong reasons. When it was released, Americans bought The Fountainhead in droves. But nearly everyone seemed to think it was book about architecture. Heller writes that it took "half a decade before most readers of The Fountainhead consciously noticed that it was a tract as well as a story," which Rand found baffling because, as she told a friend, "it's practically in every line." But appreciative letters from fans who cottoned to Rand's message came in steadily, and eventually Rand won recognition for the heavy lifting she was doing to link freedom and self-actualization to capitalism in the American mind, offering a principled and appealing alternative to the New Deal before the war, and socialism/communism afterwards.

Rand was always confident in her own talent, predicting sales of 100,000 copies for The Fountainhead. As it turns out, however, she was far too modest. Yet her confidence was also the reason she was shocked and hurt by the pointed way academic reviewers failed to welcome her works. Heller is particularly adept at capturing the novelist's heartache as the negative reviews poured in, and her elation at discovering the book's slow ascent to bestsellerdom.

The months after she finished The Fountainhead were probably the lowest ebb of Rand's elitism. Her books are about supermen, heroes operating on an epic scale. But in The Fountainhead, she makes a place for the common man. In a climactic courtroom scene in which the hero, architect Howard Roark, makes a speech defending his decision to blow up a housing project, the jury consists of "two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener, and three factory workers." The jury hears Roark's explanation of why he blew up the project–his vision had been corrupted, and it was his right as creator to also be destroyer–and acquits him. This particular crowd sounds like the folks you might see at a Tea Party–and the post-Fountainhead Rand might have felt at home among them after being rejected by the leftist academic elite and the gatekeepers of intellectual conservatism.

Rand wasn't alone in feeling alienated by both the left and right. The American libertarian movement of the 1960s and '70s was made possible, in part, by a generation of Rand readers looking for an individualist alternative on the American political scene. But she didn't take a shine to her strange capitalist hippie offspring, and soon returned to her previous skepticism about politics, equally scorning the unphilosophical and irrational elements of the libertarian and conservative movements.

By the 1957 publication of her second novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand was showing evidence of her pessimism about the state and the masses. She was never one to say that commercial success indicated true worth: Her heroes are often in financial trouble because the world fails to recognize what they are offering as superior. Wealth is just as often a signifier of corruption as achievement. Financial success came to Rand herself late in life, thanks in part to her decision to build an alternative delivery system for her philosophy, outside the usual worlds of academia and politics. Rand authorized her sometime lover Nathaniel Branden to establish a newsletter-publishing operation and lecture series, which proved decently profitable and supplied Rand with a steady stream of converts. After their falling-out–Branden was keeping a girl on the side–Rand passed the mantle to another follower, who has been overzealous in his protection of her papers and name.

And yet–despite critical PR blunders and excoriation from both sides of the political aisle–Ayn Rand endures. People keep buying her books and, perhaps more important, giving them to each other. Republican congressmen Paul Ryan (Wis.) and John Campbell (Calif.) give out copies of Atlas Shrugged to their staff. So does the head of BB&T bank, John Allison. Talk about a film version of Atlas has gotten louder in recent months. The same force that made Rand a cult phenomenon in her own time still sends people into the streets with Atlas Shrugged banners 50 years later. Her strange blend of populism and elitism continues to leave its mark in the right-wing world, like it or not.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason. This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on November 9, 2009.

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47 responses to “The Ayn and Only

  1. Can everyone please take Ayn Rand’s dick out of their mouths for just one second. Please? If I see one more article on her I may puke.

    1. Already puked; now on second round of gastronomic suffering

  2. Here’s a quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

    “I quit when medicine was placed under State control, some years ago,” said Dr. Hendricks. “Do you know what it takes to perform a brain operation? Do you know the kind of skill it demands, and the years of passionate, merciless, excruciating devotion that go to acquire that skill? THAT was what I would not place at the disposal of men whose sole qualification to rule me was their capacity to spout the fraudulent generalities that got them elected to the privilege of enforcing their wishes. I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward. I observed that in all the discussion that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything ? except the desires of doctors. I have often wondered at the smugness with which people answer their right to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind ? yet what is it that they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Let them discover, in their operating rooms and hospital wards that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of doctors whose livelihood they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of doctor who resents it ? and still less safe if he is the sort who does not.”

    Does that sound at all similar to the health care reform discussion? Sound anything similar to government health bureaucrats? Does it not give you a hint as to what people are currently experiencing in Canada, UK, France, etc.?

    Naaa … theres no connection at all. Its just words, just her opinion.

    1. Are you posting this from an undisclosed location in Colorado?

    2. all that sounds really good in theory. But I wonder then why it is that the great majority of people in those countries are pleased with their healthcare.

      1. The great majority of people in the US are pleased with their health care. Why are they wrong, statist?

        1. Who is more pleased with their health care – Americans or Canadians, Europeans, and Australians?

          I doubt that the great majority of Americans are pleased with their health care. Btw, you referred to me as a statist; is your argument then that the U.S. system is *not* a statist system?
          In any case, you mistook my meaning. I actually would prefer a non-state system, something like we had before the HMOs ruined everything and the system became overly-regulated. My point was that while despite the Randian rhetoric, it’s not clear to me that people are suffering more in systems that are even more (or just differently) regulated than they are in America. In fact, people might be fairing better, compared to what we have now here in the U.S.. So, that particular argument does not strike me as a good one.
          Carry on though with thoughtless, mantric chanting of the creed.

          1. Lots of people are satisfied that they don’t have to exert themselves to think about things like health care. They don’t even worry that that might be better off otherwise.

            1. Sam Grove, I say you are correct, but only because most people find it easier to slide than to Reason.

    3. And here, in contrast, is what the English Language is supposed to sound like:

      “The novel My Laura was begun very soon after the end of the love affair it depicts, was completed in one year, published three months later, and promptly torn apart by a book reviewer in a leading newspaper. It grimly survived and to the accompaniment of muffled grunts on the part of the librarious fates, its invisible hoisters, it wriggled up to the top of the bestsellers’ list then started to slip, but stopped at a midway step in the vertical ice. A dozen Sundays passed and one had the impression that Laura had somehow got stuck on the seventh step (the last respectable one) or that, perhaps, some anonymous agent working for the author was buying up every week just enough copies to keep Laura there; but a day came when the climber above lost his foothold and toppled down dislodging number seven and eight and nine in a general collapse beyond any hope of recovery. ”

      http://entertainment.timesonli…..906456.ece

      Written by another Russian expat and a truly great writer.

    4. Very telling quote! It is quite scary to see the similarities between this quote in Atlas Shrugged and what is going on with the socialisation of our government and in particular our medical care in this country. Makes me want to pick up this book and re-read it as well as the Fountainhead which I have yet to read.

  3. Katherine, your offerings had diminished for sometime and I was saddened. But now they have returned and I am overjoyed. Keep up the good work. It is great to have you back.
    – JRT

  4. I like it. Ayn exposed altruism for what it is…a sacrificial oblation to those crippled by superstition on the one hand and statism(both socialism and fascism)on the other. Critics usually resort to feral ad hominem and ad caplandum statements leaving many to wonder if they are either unread or just plain illiterate. As a 63 year-young person and having just re-read “Atlas Shrugged” for the 3rd time, I must state I’m as inspired by her intellect and authorship as I was after my initial reading.

  5. I like it. Ayn exposed altruism for what it is…a sacrificial oblation to those crippled by superstition on the one hand and statism(both socialism and fascism)on the other. Critics usually resort to feral ad hominem and ad caplandum statements leaving many to wonder if they are either unread or just plain illiterate. As a 63 year-young person and having just re-read “Atlas Shrugged” for the 3rd time, I must state I’m as inspired by her intellect and authorship as I was after my initial reading.

    1. I think your definition of altruism
      differs from that usually found in the dictionary.

      Good article though.

      1. Thank you, George Stephanopoulos.

  6. I think Ayn would fit right into that crowd whining that we aren’t doing enough to exterminate the subhuman Muslims. “Help! They’re all among us!”

    1. Brandybuck, you are a dope.

  7. Will Reason Magazine soon change its name to Ayn Rand magazine?

  8. What is that Dianetics ad doing in my right margin?

  9. Yeah, I know Randy! It’s almost like they’re doing a ten-part special on her.

  10. She denounced Christianity as “the perfect kindergarten for communism.”

    Ha! I love that quote. There is a great deal of truth in what she said.

  11. “After their falling-out–Branden was keeping a girl on the side”
    Their falling-out was because he was freaking crazy and not because he had a girl, there are years between one and the other.

  12. oh… besides that, I liked the article actually, best Reason had on Rand in some time

  13. If William F. Buckley Jr. is the father of the modern conservative movement,
    Ayn Rand is the worldly aunt

    And KMW is the mongoloid idiot. Rand was never a “conservative.” Not even close.

    1. click this link to find out what Ayn Rand thought of conservatism

      http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexi…..tives.html

  14. I wonder if the Left has some equivalent for these internal quarrels?

    If I go to Rachel Maddow’s site right now, will I find a furious debate over who forged the true path to modern statism?

    Will someone tell me not to waste my time reading Rousseau because he had a bizarre sex life and tried to build a cult around himself? Will they assure me that genuine liberal sophisticates prefer to take their cues from Amartya Sen?

    Funny that it’s we who now worry about how to mark the difference between Mensheviks and genuine radicals…

    1. The only feasible solution to these internal political disagreements is to declare an Emperor of Freedom.

      Of course, I graciously except your nomination, and here is a list of people I think should be voluntarily relocated to rape-um-liberty camps near the Mexican border.

    2. Actually, if you go to the really leftist places, you will find people arguing about which ultra-leftist with funny facial hair had the most straightforward way of exterminating individual rights and prosperity. Think about Trotsky, they still fight about that..

      Put in perspective, Rachel Maddow seems to be to the left what Sean Hannity is to the right. I doubt you’d find much debate there either.

      1. Good point – they do fight about Trotsky, or at least the really academic types do.

        Though I challenge you to find any Left equivalent to the more outrageous attacks (found here) on Rand’s personal appearance and sexuality, etc.

        They save that pap for their enemies. You won’t hear them saying “Bukharin was wrong about collective agriculture, and he looked like a bitch, too.”

  15. “Cult Empress or Great Thinker?”

    Ah, the use of the ever-popular false dichotomy. It warms the cockles of my heart, it does, it does. The bread and butter of mediocre term-paper theses everywhere. Because we all know that false dichotomies are the cause of– and solution to– all of life’s problems.

    But I shall select answer C: “What is Philosophical Perv and Bad Writer?” for the win, Alex. (With as much hackneyed prose and pop-cultural winks and nudges as I am able to manage …)

    1. You are substituting an ad-hominem argument fallacy for a rational critique of Ayn Rand’s writing. In the end, people dismiss comments like these as irrelevant due to lack of substance

  16. All the philosophy I ever needed, I got from Bioshock.

  17. Thank you, Robert Taylor, for the delightful characterization: “Critics usually resort to feral ad hominem and ad caplandum [sic] statements.” I hadn’t seen the Latin in the second adjective and looked it up. Appears the correct spelling is: ad captandum, meaning meretricious attempts to win popular favor, a unsound specious argument, a kind of seductive casuistry.

    I like it, especially with the word “feral” as a modifier. BTW, I also read Atlas not too many years ago for the third or fourth time, and each time find myself startled by the insight derived from consistently applying a valid principle to the facts of reality.

  18. Don’t those liberal elitist philosophers see how brilliant Ms. Rand was for endlessly and stridently repeating “A is A?”

    1. No, they don’t even realize how brilliant Aristotle was for originating it.

    2. I wasn’t aware that liberal elitism was elevated to the level of ‘philosophy’

  19. I’ve yet to find Kinky Sex in Rand’s novels. If I were Dagney Taggert I would have kept both Reardon and Gault, and hooked back up with Fransisco. And when I wanted kinky I would have invited the Wyatt oil guy to join us.

    As for the actual sex life of Miss Rand; why do people keep discussing it? Ick!

    I cannot think of a single real person whose sex life I’m interested in. (other than the person I share a sex life with)

  20. Call me a John Steinbeck Libertarian, but the laissez-faire charcters of CANNERY ROW planted the seed for the do-as-thou-wilst characters of Ayn Rand.

  21. The only “poitical aspiration” Ayn Rand ever had, was to live in a world where men could be free to produce and consume.

  22. Anyone who takes a look at the demography of Europe, its massive debt (worse than ours as % of GDP), its unfunded liabilities, and their shrinking budgets, they would realize that the statist health care systems of Europe, Canada and Japan could not last another 20 years. People are happy because they receive “free” care, they do not understand that just because they aren’t paying for it out-of-pocket doesn’t mean they’re not paying.

  23. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  24. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  25. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  26. Anyone who takes a look at the demography of Europe, its massive debt (worse than ours as % of GDP), its unfunded liabilities, and their shrinking budgets, they would realize that the statist health care systems of Europe, Canada and Japan could not last another 20 years. People are happy because they receive “free” care, they do not understand that just because they aren’t paying for it out-of-pocket doesn’t mean they’re not paying.

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