Ayn Rand and the World She Made

By ANNE C. HELLER

When Ayn Rand addressed a meeting of her publisher’s sales staff shortly before the appearance of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, one of the salesmen asked her to summarise her philosophy while standing, as Rabbi Hillel had done to explain the Torah, on one leg. She did so: ‘Metaphysics: objective reality. Epistemology: reason. Ethics: self-interest. Politics: capitalism.’ Anne Heller tells us that the sales staff applauded, and so have many others since. Ayn Rand’s books between them regularly sell half a million copies a year, and her influence has reached high places: egregious examples of her fans are Ronald Reagan and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. The latter belonged for many years to her inner circle, and wrote articles for her newsletter The Objectivist. Her influence continues; actress Charlize Theron is said to be planning a television mini-series of Atlas Shrugged, and there is an Ayn Rand Institute which promotes her ideas and books and offers courses on her philosophy.

On the Ayn Rand Institute’s website there is a video of its heroine being interviewed. In it her emphatic, confident, heavily-accented phrases roll unhesitatingly off her tongue in perfect prose (few people, pace Moliere, speak in prose), and her interviewer appears too overwhelmed to challenge the misapprehensions that stud her remarks. In the interview she gives another encapsulation of her ideas: her philosophy, she said, is based on ‘the concept of man as an heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’ She always used the word ‘man’ in speaking of the egoistic, self-assertive, independent hero who was her ideal — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, John Galt in Atlas Shrugged — and correlatively held that it is women’s work to worship the masterful hero, even to submit with pleasure (as in The Fountainhead) to being raped by him.

Many find attractive the idea of individualistic self-interest coupled with disdain for anyone who cannot assert himself likewise. Those who embrace such views find it easy to accept their corollaries, which are that the only morally acceptable social and political system is free-market capitalism, and that individual self-interest positively outlaws altruism. ‘Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others,’ Rand wrote. ‘The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving [a beggar] a dime.’ She attacked those who located the basis of rights in need rather than achievement; for her this was to stand both reason and morality on their heads. She saw promotion of individualism and opposition to collectivism as the only legitimate morality, not only in politics ‘but within a man’s soul’. This, she wrote in her notebooks, defined the theme of The Fountainhead, the story of the morally autistic architect-hero Howard Roark’s struggle with lesser human beings.

The close identification of these ideas with Ayn Rand’s name shows how intimately her life and thought were one thing. A biography of Rand therefore has to consist largely in an exposition of her philosophy and an exploration of its effects on her personal life and those around her. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made reports both with unblinking thoroughness. She confirms what one surmises from the novels and essays themselves: that Rand was a brilliant but repulsive person, who inveighed against tyranny but was a tyrant, and who demanded loyalty from the disciples of her philosophy of individualism and independence, oblivious to the stark paradox involved. The members of her inner circle called themselves ‘the Collective’ as a joke; some of them came to realise too late just how ironic the label was, for Rand in effect organised her devotees into a cult from whose teachings any deviation — least of all into the individual independence she vaunted — was regarded as an unforgivable crime.

Indeed the microcosm of the Randian cult was a reprise of every historical example of actual or would-be revolutions that have devoured their own, most notably in the case of her standard bearer in the high years of her fame, Nathaniel Branden. At first every bit as tough and tyrannical in the cause of Rand’s ideas as Rand herself, and moreover Rand’s lover though considerably younger than she, Branden was the activist and exponent who turned Rand from a novelist-prophet into a designer label, a phenomenon, and a force. He had been at her side for nineteen years, since he was a young college student. But he crashed from favour when he no longer wished to have sex with her after falling in love with a beautiful young woman who had, in Rand’s view anyway, neither the intellect nor the spirit required to match Randian ideals. When Rand discovered Branden’s ‘betrayal’ she exploded into a jealous fury, anathematizing him as completely and violently as any Congregation of the Inquisition equipped with bell, book and candle. In the Objectivist magazine Branden had started on her behalf she wrote that he (and his former wife Barbara) were no longer associated with the magazine, with her, or with her work and thought, and that she repudiated them ‘totally and permanently as spokesmen for me or for Objectivism’.

As the Branden affair shows, Rand’s life was indeed exemplary of her thought. It was, in line with her avowed principles, an entirely selfish life, to which she sacrificed her family, her good-natured husband Frank O’Connor, her friends, and all but the last of her devoted followers, Leonard Peikoff. Whoever was not wholly with her was against her. This too was in line with her philosophy, only this time not with its principles but its character: it was black-and-white, without nuance or flexibility, harsh, angry and simplistic. Its appearance of unyielding logic was employed as a smokescreen for absence of compassion and kindness, for the inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts through no fault of their own, and that therefore an educated generosity of sentiment can and should figure among the premises of our choices and the actions that flow from them. Such a thought would have seemed to her too disgusting to contemplate; which in the view of anyone with a shred of social conscience makes her thought too disgusting to contemplate in return.

Heller shows how Rand’s beliefs emerged from her early experiences. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum to middle-class parents in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1905, she lived through the revolutions of 1917 (she supported Kerensky and the Mensheviks) and the subsequent eight years of Bolshevik hardship before getting a visa to visit America, where she had relatives. She never returned to Russia, but changed her name to Ayn (rhymes with ‘wine’) Rand, and began a career on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry. Ascending from wardrobe worker to bit-part screen writer to playwright to novelist she developed her very considerable talents to a pitch of genius, which resulted in her first major triumph, The Fountainhead, published in 1943. It was made into a film in 1949, based largely on her own screenplay for it, but she quickly became dissatisfied with it.

The reputation that the novel earned for her made her a significant enough figure to be called to testify before the House Un-American Activities committee in Washington concerning communism in Hollywood. It also initiated the gathering of supporters and admirers who became the slave army of her cult.

Rand’s principal work is Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of John Galt, a businessman who, irritated by regulations that impede getting rich, goes off in a huff to a secret valley, taking many of the business community with him. Without them the world collapses and its tiresome little lesser men, the collective-minded wishy-washy liberals, come running to ask them back. (This is scarcely a caricature.) Rand devoted many years to its composition, and her devotees believed, as she did, that it would revolutionise the world. But on publication it met with a storm of critical abuse. One critic described it as a nightmare, another as the ‘howl’ of a harpy, a third as a ‘display of grotesque eccentricity’ that one could not find ‘outside an insane asylum.’ Heller, otherwise dispassionate to the point of coolness towards Rand throughout the book, here offers an at least partial defence of the novel’s literary merits: the critics ignored, she says, its ‘breadth of scope, jaw-dropping integration of unfamiliar ideas into a drumbeat plot, Dickensian keenness of eye…’ As Rand’s sales figures permanently testify, readers did not share the critics’ views. But the almost uniformly hostile critical reception plunged Rand into a deep depression, and she never wrote fiction again.

Still, Rand’s growing celebrity — much abetted by Branden’s indefatigable marketing of her and her ideas — made her an iconic figure from the 1960s onwards. Students at universities gave her standing ovations, and some professors — most of whom were dismissive of her — rallied to her too. She was given an honorary doctorate, and appeared on prestigious television interview programmes. Decades later her books were still being cited in polls of American readers as among the most influential they had read, in one case placing Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible in a list of the most important books of the twentieth century.

I can testify personally to her influence during the heady decade of the 60s. As a high school junior I had an affair with a woman some years older than myself, who was student at a local teachers’ college. She and her peers were avid followers of Rand, and I count myself the happy beneficiary of a sentimental education that was, presumably, a by-product of the young lady’s Randian self-interest. Despite her efforts at proselytizing me into Rand’s tenets I did not succumb; I was, as all youth should be, on the Left, and too far so to find Rand’s ideas other than appalling.

What is wrong with Rand’s views is what is wrong with Gordon Gekko. The unregulated market coupled with unbridled individual self-interest adds up to something far from heroic in the would-be Roark/Galt mode; instead it adds up to the strong trampling the weak, to the callousness of the jungle — and eventually to a mightily ironic paradox, which is that the weak have to rescue the strong because the latter’s unrestricted rampaging has consumed their own hunting-grounds. Only look at the moneymen of autumn 2008, who because of their reckless gambling with other people’s money, in a market deregulated by Rand’s epigones, had to be bailed out by the sacrifice of this small guy losing his job and his home, and that small guy’s tax dollars funding the gargantuan bail-out that rescued the oh-so-heroic Galts of the financial markets.

Life is Rand’s refutation. Unless you are prepared to embrace the brutal view that you care nothing about the inequalities and injustices which make the many start their race far behind the few, you cannot see the world as a place where the individual must stand alone or starve to death. The impulse that makes a woman comfort her crying infant generalises into the impulse most people have to help someone who trips and falls, or is stricken by grief, or is starving. And that impulse is educable into one that sees the need for food aid to starving populations, and human rights campaigns on behalf of prisoners in secret policemen’s cellars in tyrannous countries. It is not one jot admirable that Rand did not grasp this, or refused to.

Heller quotes the philosopher Sidney Hook’s review of Rand’s non-fiction account of her Objectivist philosophy, For the New Intellectual, which Gore Vidal in another review described as ‘nearly perfect in its immorality’: ‘I am confident that even at some danger to herself,’ wrote Hook, ‘Miss Rand would not rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind.’ He argued that she was wrong to think free minds could not exist without free markets, and that it had to be ignorance or willfulness not to recognise that capitalism had created many evils, such as (or just one of a million examples) child labour in Victorian Britain.

Hook also pointed out that Rand misunderstood a philosopher she claimed to admire, namely, Aristotle; and one should add that she also grossly misunderstood a philosopher she claimed to despise, namely Kant. These are illustrations of what Hook meant when he remarked (as Heller reports him) that ‘although a writer need not be a professional philosopher to write an interesting book about philosophy, substituting indignation for analysis was not the way to do it.’

Contemporary followers of Rand, of whom there are undoubtedly many, will conclude that Heller’s cool and sharp-eyed portrait of Rand puts her into the Branden camp — that is, into the camp of her enemies. The Randian principle of ‘who is not with us is against us’ will apply. But that would do Heller’s deeply absorbing book an injustice. Rand could be and most often was a harpy, but Heller shows that she had her vulnerabilities and insecurities, and is scrupulously fair to her, especially in connection with her battles with critics. And there are affectionate portraits of some of the supporting cast in this tumultuous story, of Frank O’Connor and Barbara Branden especially, and of the eager young who flocked to hear about Objectivism and self-assertion, and filled the lecture halls where Rand and Branden spoke.

Rand’s novels are melodramatic — they are somewhat like circumstantial film treatments with long speeches inserted — and the ideas in them are simplistic, but (as I rediscovered on re-reading the two major works for this review) they are powerful page-turners, with much that is striking in them. One should regret the overweening sense of importance Rand encouraged some architects to acquire, to the detriment of too many urban landscapes, and the deformed morality of greed and selfishness she extolled, of the type that resulted in millions losing their jobs in the current financier-induced recession; but it ought to be possible to recognise the merits of her novels while disagreeing with the line they seek to sell. She had enormous talents, great charisma, courage and dedication — all as apparent in her work as in her life, and all acknowledged by Heller — and not all of her ideas were wrong: her secularism merits applause, as does her opposition to the use of force in world affairs, and as does her championing of liberty — or rather, this latter might merit applause if it were not in fact a coarse and callous libertarianism merely, which means liberty only for the few strong enough to trample on the heads of the rest.

Ayn Rand wore a gold dollar sign as a brooch on her lapel. At her funeral in 1982 — she died aged 77 — a six-foot high floral dollar sign was placed by her open coffin. Alan Greenspan stood nearby. She once said that death would not be the end of her but of the world. She was right that it was not the end of her; she lives on in her legacy and influence, and in her book sales, and now in the pages of Heller’s uncompromising, lucid, excoriating story of her life But Rand was wrong about the end of the world; it endures too, more than ever in need of something more humane and constructive than the crude brass egoism of her philosophy.