Book Essay: The strange world of Ayn Rand

By Henrik R Clausen 25 Dec 2009

Like many others, I've been fascinated by the magnum opus of Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged. This huge tale of Good vs. Evil, workers vs. looters, entrepreneurs vs. moochers starts off slow, but once one gets the plot, this tale of a future USA descending into the evils of Soviet-style Socialism is gripping and eerily relevant.

This is also a seductive novel. One easily gets a feeling that the solution to all major problems can be found in this tome, and then becomes an Objectivist, an adherent of the philosophical system created by Ayn Rand.

Possibly the best cure for this feeling (note a subtle paradox here) is reading the Rand biography Goddess of the Market (subtitled “Ayn Rand and the American Right”) by Jennifer Burns. Respectfully adorned with dollar signs opening each chapter, this is the book to set the ideas of Rand into the interesting perspective of her own life. These comments of mine will hopefully inspire interested readers to pick up the volume and learn for themselves.

It is also walkthrough, for her life is interesting and illuminating.

Evil in Russia
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father was running a drugstore and her Jewish family was generally very well off. The first defining event of her life was when heavily armed Communists walked into the store and confiscated it “for the good of the people”, neglecting entirely that her father had run the drugstore for the good of his customers for decades. This was, in the clear perception of the 12-year Alisa, Wrong.

Not that this deterred her from consuming everything she could get access to of culture, music and movies. Movies in particular, of which she watched hundreds. But freedom was being curtailed rapidly. To the backdrop of once-immaculate but now decaying St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, renamed Leningrad, Alisa would seek out whatever education was possible in a university system increasingly under Communist control. Eventually it became obvious to her family that to protectd the life of their outspoken daughter, they needed to get her out. Preferably to America, where the freedom, and the Hollywood movie industry in particular, were strong attractions.

From Alisa Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand
The decision to change her name was her own. She had devoured the works of Friedrich Nietzsche in Russia, and was heavily influenced by his philosophy. On the boat to America, she simply decided that this was what she wanted. No reason to look back.

Once in America, she moved to relatives in Chicago. The Jewish family and community were not quite to her liking, nor was her late-night typewriting of stories late at night conductive to family harmony. After six months, she moved on to California, to be her destiny.

Once there, Ayn worked from the ground up, with diligence and audacity, to become a name in Hollywood. A loner from birth, she would not waste her time on socializing or parties, preferring instead to stick to her passion for movies, plots and characters. One can't help but admire the stark discipline of this woman, hiding from her date Frank the extent of economical distress she was going through during the 1930's. Their marriage lasted until his death.

Scriptwriting became a breadwinner, enabling her to spend time on her first novel, “We, the Living” set in Soviet Russia. 3000 copies sold won her a royalty of, ehm, $100. A second novel, “The Fountainhead”, became sidetracked due to her involvement in politics, where she worked for the Republican side against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which she considered a collectivist assault on what made America great. This is where she understood the greatness of capitalism as the driving force of a free, prosperous society.

After several false starts and rejected submissions, Ayn Rand finally secured a contract to publish “The Fountainhead”, assuming she could finish it on time. Increasing her stamina with a daily dose of Dexamyl (an amphetamine-based drug), she managed to get her breakthrough novel out on time, and in spite of reluctant reviews, it became a solid and profitable success, supported by a 1949 movie adoption. Her continuous use of Dexamyl through three decades was some price to pay, though, as she stuck to it to increase her ability to work and debate through the night.

The libertarians vs. The Collective
The powerful individualistic message of “The Fountainhead” earned Ayn Rand the friendship of the emerging libertarian movements. Persons like Rose Wilder Lane (editor of the “Little House on the Prarie” book series), Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and Murray Rothbard would be regular contacts of her. The odds and ends of defining a libertarian philosophy were not easy. One source of controversy was that of compromise: If a fully libertarian society is not attainable, should one compromise? Ayn Rand passionately asserted: “No way!”.

Her passionate and uncompromising style of argument didn't exactly win her many friends. A close circle of persons interested in her philosophy would meet with her on a regular basis. This circle would call themselves “The Collective”, in a striking paradox to the philosophy taught by Rand. The young Alan Greenspan was one prominent member of this inner circle, earning Rands respect by teaching her formal economics. The staunch libertarian Murray Rothbard had the offer of joining the circle, but become appalled by The Collective and the noticeable draining effect it had on his mood and energy.

The Collective was Rands main social environment while working on her ultimate novel, “Atlas Shrugged”. She would read it to the members for their feedback and reactions, and rely on the reaction of this narrow 'echo chamber' – instead of doing what would seem obvious, consulting with her scholarly libertarian contacts Mises, Hazlitt and Rothbard. Their analysis of the fine points of economics as social interactions surely would be able to contribute more to her novel than the unquestioning adoration from The Collective.

The obsession of “Atlas Shrugged”
“Atlas Shrugged” was released in 1957, with great expectations from Ayn Rand and The Collective that it would achieve widespread critical acclaim and usher in a new era of Objectivism and rationality, finishing off suffering and needless diversions. The reviews were damning. Partly in a reflection of her alienating large parts of the conservative community, major conservatives slammed her book, sending her into the depths of depression.

Yet sales of her tome picked up, as word of mouth was much more favorable than the formal reviews. Readers liked the passion and the unusual plot, becoming a more powerful marketing force than the initial advertisement blitz. A full-blown defense of Capitalism was a novelty in literary circles, where the influence of Roosevelt and the Capitalism-condemning New Deal and the ensuing Great Depression were still in living memory. A work of literature condemning sacrifice 'for the greater good', encouraging thrift and self-fulfillment was a welcome breath of fresh air.

A lacking assertion of capitalism
For all the refreshing qualities of the book, I have several points of contention with “Atlas Shrugged”: When doing a passionate 1300+ page tribute to Capitalism, one would expect that the main underlying premises are threated in detail and with finesse. That would include not only the importance of hard work (Communist Russia knew that, too), which Rand handles extensively through her main characters.

Other vital subjects include the necessity of saving, the wisdom of investment, the subtle, profound evil of inflation, nor the seductive danger of states controlling the money supply by means of central banks. These are hardly touched upon, though they should be reasonably easy to express in the context of fiction.

While the 60-page speech of John Galt near the end of the book is supposed to be the pinnacle of the work, to me the most impressive piece of writing is the 'Money speech' by Francisco d'Anconia, which in a mere four pages sets out the quintessential features of genuine money. The speech is available at Capitalism Magazine. Atlas Shrugged is breathtaking and obsessive – but in its narrow focus on the heroic entrepreneur also comes across as elitarian and narrow-minded. The inspiration Rand took from Nietzsche in her early days shines through, at the expense of the more sophisticated case for Capitalism made by her contemporaries in the libertarian movement.

Another point concerns one of her basic premises, that man in his basic nature is selfish. This is a core premise of her writing and philosophy, yet caused her some of her hardest challenges in debate. One example of a contradiction is that parents care for their children, often at the expense of their own desires. It does take some explaining on her part to state the obvious: That caring for our children is natural, not self-sacrifice. Another would be that of your neighbor's house catching fire, or a stranger getting hurt in a traffic accident. In both cases, everyone save the psychopath would instinctively step in to help, utterly ignoring the assertion by Rand that man has no higher purpose than himself.

Other thorny issues are her fierce atheism, possibly influence by her Jewish upbringing in Orthodox Russia far from thrifty Protestants. She simply doesn't 'get' the civilizational influence of Christianity, nor its importance in the formative years of Capitalism, 12th century Italy and 17th century Netherlands. There is the amoral sexual behavior of her heroes, and her refusal to acknowledge the value of tradition. These three all have to do with personality and identification, and are sacrificed on the altar of Rationalism for the sake of creating a consistent philosophy.

This is a minefield of trouble, including the fact that her abstract philosophy makes humans interchangeable like machine parts. With the obvious consequence, observed by the ever-perceptive Murray Rothbard: “There is no reason that Ayn should not sleep with [her student] Nathaniel instead of [her husband] Frank.”

Further, anyone should be able to learn any skill he or she would desire – an assertion put to the test in The Collective by everyone taking up the fine art of painting. Ideally, and according to Objectivist ideals, there should be no significant difference between the artistic output of each member, the art of painting being merely a skill to acquire. Yet Ayn's husband Frank turned out to have a genuine natural talent and rapidly outpaced everyone else in the circle. Ayn did not take any philosophical consequences of this experiment.

These events prove one point: Ayn Rand was not a Conservative, by any reasonable understanding of the word.

Still, “Atlas Shrugged” rightfully remains a classic. It forcefully asserts the right of everyone to chose his own style of life, the good of individual responsibility and the evils of being coerced into a mock 'compassion', in reality exploitation by a corrupt and undeserving ruling elite pretending to work 'for the benefit of the public good'.

Control freak
One striking feature of Objectivism is it outspoken support of intellectual property. A key scene in Atlas Shrugged is where metallurgist genius Hank Rearden is compelled by the government to hand over his intellectual rights to his innovative metal alloy, and Ayn Rand acted in kind. She passionately used the copyright on her works to bar people from forming “John Galt Societies”, citing that the name John Galt is her creation and her intellectual property.

For a person bent on propagating her ideas to the maximum extent possible, this would seem eerily counterproductive. Stealing an object from someone is obviously depriving the original owner of his property, but copying it isn't. It may or may not be harmful to potential income, but that income remains potential, in the realm of the unprovable. This is a debate that incites extreme passion.

While Objectivists, libertarians and conservatives strongly agree on the principle of physical property rights, the picture is much more divided when it comes to 'intellectual property', a catch-all phrase for several different items, including patents, copyright and trademarks. In a landmark essay by Stephan Kinsella, Against Intellectual Property, argues that 'Intellectual property' is not only meaningless and harmful, it is in direct violation of the general principle of private property, and primarily constitutes a state-sanctioned creation of artificial scarcity, leading ultimately to poverty, not job creation and wealth.

The wider libertarian movement accepted the argument, put it into action (see www.mises.org/books) and moved on. Objectivists, on the other hand, maintain that what Ayn Rand spoke and practiced on the subject remains the unalterable truth.

The ultimate oxymoron: Objectivist psychology
Back on the track of Objectivism, it is time for another sidetrack. Nathaniel Branden (Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Branden), a young student of psychology, had quickly become a close member of the Ayn Rand Collective, and proposed the creation of an Objectivist Psychology. This apparently silly idea was met with approval from Ayn herself, and was set into practice. After the publication of “Atlas Shrugged”, Nathaniel Branden created an institute in his name with the purpose of propagating Objectivism through tape recordings and seminars.

Having a psychologist being the main proponent of a rationalist, pro-Capitalism philosophy, would seem the ultimate in paradoxes. Yet NBI turned out to be a highly successful venture, growing at an exponential pace from its 1958 founding to the full stop collapse in 1968. What caused the collapse was utterly embarrassing:

As Rothbard had noted, there should be no objective (pun intended) reason why Ayn Rand would not sleep with Nathanial rather than her husband Frank, and it turned out that the relation between the two was not easily kept platonic. Adhering to her strict principles of rationality, it was agreed with their respective spouses that they could have frequent time in private together. This was particular painful to Barbara Branden, as noted in her biography “The Passion of Ayn Rand”.

Affairs, like most events in life, are temporary, and so was this. What eventually pulverized the thriving Objectivist movement was another affair, between Nathanial and a young associate of his, Patrecia. Affairs as such should be no problem, humans not expected to handle every aspect of life through rationality, not emotion. The affair between Nathanial and Ayn had ended, yet Ayn was interested in reviving it. Rather than coming out truthfully with the fact that he was having another affair outside his marriage, Nathanial for a full five years pretended to have psychological reasons for being sexually dysfunctional towards Ayn.

Ayn Rand had been a consistent critic of all kinds of fraud, and did not expect that the closest associate of hers would systematically lie to her for a full five years. When she finally learned the truth, she pulled the plug on his Objectivist organization. All of a sudden in 1968, the formal Objectivist movement was no more.

Nathaniel has detailed his differences with Ayn Rand at NathanielBranden.com.

Notice the passion?
Throughout this essay, the word 'passionate' appears several times. This is no coincidence, for Ayn Rand was a very passionate person, not least compared to her more academic contemporaries Mises, Hazlitt and more. She strongly asserted the right of the individual to judge for themselves, and spared absolutely nobody her judgment of them. This may seem odd, for a core tenet of Objectivism is that man has no right to force his views on others.

Ayn Rand lived and breathed her views, and did all she could to spread them. The distinctive feature here is the use of 'force'. Is personal intimidation, as in an authority passing final judgment on a lower member of a community, a use of force? Certainly, Ayn Rand would passionately disagree. Others, in particular those who withdrew from the Objectivist movement, did not subscribe to har judgment on this issue.

The legacy of Ayn Rand
It is all but impossible to ascertain exactly the impact Ayn Rand eventually had. Born Russian, her vision of America was put into powerful personal action. Her books and her uncompromising stand on many an issue earned her controversy and exposure in the most surprising circles, including the free thinkers of the late 1960's.

Formally, her legacy is upkept by the Ayn Rand Institute, which not only administers her original materials. The institute is a strong supporter of the “Tea Party” movement against Big Government, as well as a sharp commenter on the financial crisis, The War on Terror. Enviromentalism and more.

Her emphasis on work and honesty may have laid the intellectual groundwork for Reaganomics to be accepted as the cure for the stagflation of the 1970's, and her relentless focus of rights being for individuals, not groups, is an enduring legacy in movements for civil liberties and citizens' rights. Her variant of the minimalist state is one of several, and remains a bold attempt at maintaining that responsibility is personal, not collective.

Yet at the current time, her beloved United States of America is moving in a distinctly socialist direction. The Keynesian policy of replacing saving with cheap credit, investment with stimulus and gainful employment with government created jobs is having a profound effect on the economical structure of the United States, setting the government in firm control of major branches of business.

As recently as yesterday (December 24th), the controversial health care (by conservatives nicknamed 'Obamacare') passed the Senate, further absolving Americans from responsibility for saving and personal conduct in general. Stimulus and government deficit are the Keynesian order of the day, while the systematic expansion of the money supply is leading towards a round of inflation that would dwarf the experience of the 1970's.

Simultaneously, sales of “Atlas Shrugged” and other of Rands books are rising rapidly, and it would seem that the stage is set for a confrontation in which the ideas of Ayn Rand still play a vital role. Will be most interesting to watch, not to mention participate in.