Who was Ayn Rand?

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.

The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Man in crowd: I’m not…

The Crowd: Sssh!  


 From Monty Python’s The Life of Brian



I have recently finished Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I didn’t read the book because of its glowing reviews. Published on October 10, 1957, the novel was about as well received as a Klan march through Harlem. Here are some of the reactions to the book:

It would be hard to find [another] such display of grotesque eccentricity outside an insane asylum.

Loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate.

One thousand pages of ideological fabulism; I had to flog myself to read it.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’

Ayn Rand would never write another novel. What book is capable of inspiring such unadulterated hostility? Rand’s previous work, The Fountainhead, had stated slowly but through word of mouth a substantial following had developed. By 1950 a half a million copies had been sold.  This commercial success gave her the time, twelve years, and the freedom to write her 1000-page magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, which was finally published in 1957. The novel attacks what Rand sees as the evils of collectivism. It is a dystopian vision set in the United States at an unspecified time in the future. The country’s economy, which is bedevilled by nationalisations, central planning and state diktats, is going to the dogs. John Galt, the hero of the book, has a simple philosophy: “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine“. He leads a protest of the country’s most creative minds, who sick of the government interference in the economy, start going on strike. This is the strike of the mind. They all go off to a mountain hideaway in Colorado. With the economy on the verge of collapse John Galt, the hero of the book, gives a speech outlining his philosophy. (The speech, which tales up some sixty pages in the book, would have taken three hours to deliver.) Soon, the country’s collapse is complete and the strikers get ready to return. I missed out a particle destroyer, an electric torture machine that doesn’t work, a character with the wonderful name of Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia and some kinky sex. The critics may have hated the book, but I couldn’t put it down. It is certainly quite unlike anything I had read before. And it was a big hit with the general public. To date some ten million copies have been sold. Compared to A Tale of Two Cities with 200 million and Lord of the Rings, which has sold 150 million it may seem a modest success, but it is still quite an achievement.

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, a Russian Jew, on February, 2,1905, inSt. Petersburg, which was then the capital city of Russia. At that time Russia was in political turmoil and home to a virulent strain of anti-Semitism.Randdid not feel comfortable in her native country, and it would get worse for her when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Her father’s pharmacy was taken over by the communists. He too would go on strike refusing to work under the communists. However, Rand was able to get out of the country and enter the United States in 1926. She had an unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, where she would meet the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. But it was as an author and public philosopher that she would achieve fame.

What did this Russian émigré believe? She provided a muscular defence of capitalism. She did not defend it in a mealy-mouthed way; she believed it was the only system compatible with individual rights.Randcould at times have a low opinion of the masses, believing that they were living off the creativity of society’s most talented individuals.Rand’s moral society is a society of independent individuals who respect each other’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property. They should live by what she calls “the trader principle”. The trader principle defends voluntary, mutually beneficial trade between independent equals: If a man has something to offer to another man, he should be able to convince the other of this through the use of reason. The exchange should not take place through force or parasitism. She profoundly distrusted altruism but she wasn’t a Gordon Gekko type. What she valued was productivity, not consumption.

The name she gave to her philosophy was Objectivism. This derives from the idea that existence is an objective fact – human knowledge and values are objective: they exist and are determined by reality itself and can be discovered by rational minds.  She had been planning to call her philosophy Existentialism, but that particular name had already been taken. With the negative reaction to Atlas Shrugged Rand became more ensconced in her own world. She was joined by a group of disciples she called “The Collective“, a group which included the future Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. They would meet of a Saturday night to discuss life, the universe and everything. What alienated Rand from conservatives was her frontal rejection of religion, which she saw as a weakness, a parasitical worldview that convinces people their purpose is to work for the good of others.

I findRand’s personality absolutely fascinating, much more interesting than the rather wooden characters she created. In particular, what intrigues me are the contradictions she embodies.Randwas a prophet of individual freedom and yet she demanded total intellectual obedience from her followers.

Her personal life is another source of contradictions. Her husband, Frank O’Connor, could hardly be described as the kind of rugged masculine hero who populated her novels. She would often claim that Frank was the power behind the throne. On one occasion the mild-mannered O’Connor is said to have replied: ‘Sometimes I think I am the throne, the way I get sat on

She needed someone who could give her what O’Connor couldn’t. She wanted somebody who would dominate her – at her command. The man she chose was 19 year-old Nathanial Branden, a man 25 years her junior. They were both married but this didn’t stop them carrying on an affair with the consent of their respective spouses. The affair could ultimately be justified as the two of them were without doubt the two greatest intellects in the world. However,Brandon’s passion for his mentor would soon fade and he would begin seeing a young aspiring actress behind her back.

Meanwhile Branden went about creating the organisational structure of Objectivism. He founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) in 1958, which sponsored lectures and courses on Objectivism, first in New York and then nationally. He wanted to train the followers, also providing them with tapes and books. He also circulated an infamous list of rules for her followers, which has led many to define objectivism as a cult. Here are a few of them:

Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational or moral.

Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.

Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and /or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.

No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.

No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.

Then in 1968 it all fell apart. When Rand finally discovered Branden’s “infidelity”, she went ballistic and completely disowned him. For a woman who believed that every emotion she felt could be explained, she certainly reacted extremely viscerally:

I’ll tear down your facade as I built it up! I’ll denounce you publicly. I’ll destroy you as I created you! I don’t even care what it does to me. You won’t have the career I gave you, or the name, or the wealth, or the prestige. You’ll have nothing. … If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health—you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” Nathanial Branden would go on to become one of the pioneers of the self-esteem movement but his relationship with Rand would never recover. A heavy smoker, Rand underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974. The last few years of her life were uneventful. She even took up stamp collecting. Rand died of heart failure on March 6, 1982, at her flat in New York City. A six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket

Rand has remained influential especially in North America. She has many devotees in Hollywood including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and one I don’t get – Oliver Stone. Rand was also the inspiration for a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who see themselves as Randian heroes. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal, was so inspired by Atlas Shrugged that he’s trying to create his own Rand-style colony. Thiel has put up $1.25million for the Seasteading Institute, an organisation which hopes to launch a floating libertarian colony in international waters. (No secret mountain hideaways are currently available.)

References to objectivism can be found in the lyrics of the Canadian rock group Rush, in such songs as Anthem, 2112 and The Trees. Tennis stars Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert are all said to be fans. Not long before she died, Farrah Fawcett described Rand as a “literary genius” whose iconoclasm had inspired her own experiments in painting and sculpture. Their admiration was mutual as Rand was apparently a fan of Charlie’s Angels; she never missed an episode. She said that saw it in the romantic tradition – three attractive girls doing impossible things.

How relevant is Rand today? She is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for the Tea Party. The bank bailouts and the election of Barrack Obama have led to groundswell of opinion against state intervention in the economy.  Tea party protesters hold placards reading “Ayn Rand was right” and “Who is John Galt?” And In September 2011, House Speaker, the Republican John Boehner, seemed to be channelling Rand when he declared that the economy wasn’t improving because “job creators in America, basically, are on strike.” Of course the conservatives conveniently ignore her atheism and her defence of abortion rights.

What do I think of Rand? As a half-baked libertarian I find Rand’s ideas are a bit beyond the pale for me. I do share her dislike of collectivism, and I am sceptical of government intervention in the economy. I do believe that “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs” is dangerous nonsense. However, I think her vision of humans is just too misanthropic and her absolutism really puts me off.  If I want a defence of liberty and the free market, I think I will stick to Adam Smith, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.

One Response to Who was Ayn Rand?

  1. Alberto says:

    At least you’ve awoken my curiosity about the book.

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