Monday, December 27, 2010

Ayn Rand by Anne C. Heller

Ayn Rand originally expressed her system of ideas in her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, other works of fiction and in her magazines The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter . Because of Rand's criticism of contemporary intellectuals, Objectivism has been called "fiercely anti-academic". Although her work remains popular and highly influential in some quarters, most academic philosophers in their turn have dismissed her works as "sophomoric", "preachy", and "unoriginal". They primarily consist of a defense of the 'virtue of selfishness' in which altruism is considered a psychological disability and a moral defect. She was a great proponent of classic economy policy as embodied in 19th century laissez faire capitalism. The progress of humankind is born on the shoulders of those of superior reason and will, at war with the rest us liberals, religious, mystics of the spirit, savages, moochers, looting thugs, beggars, parasites, gibberers, carrion eaters, cavemen and headhunters.'

Like many conservatives in the late 1930s , Ayn Rand viewed FDR as a madman, a traitor to his class, a warmonger maneuvering America into World War II and worse. It would be impossible to exaggerate how bitterly he was hated. Many on the Right voted for him in 1932, when he appeared to be fiscally conservative and friendly to business. Once in office, he declared a need for extreme measures to lift the nation out of Depression. He assumed large new presidential powers, transforming the economy from a minimally regulated free-for-all into a federally regulated system that his adversaries regarded as a European-style socialism. He kept his promise to repeal Prohibition, but to the fury of some business interests and the political right, and the relief of many unemployed and working people, he also established the first minimum hourly wage, guaranteed unions the right to bargain collectively, created Social Security and unemployment insurance, and enacted 550 separate regulatory codes that capped industrial production, set wages and prices, limited competition, and gave rise to government-backed manufacturing cartels, all of which Rand would parody to the verge of surrealism in Atlas Shrugged.

Most threatening of all, perhaps, to Rand, FDR prohibited the private ownership of gold, which made it possible for the U.S. Government, like the Bolshevik government in Russia of her teens and the Nazi regime then ruling Germany, to inflate the currency and, she thought, arbitrarily redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. For her, the rise of the welfare state and a managed economy smacked of Fascism. It looked very much like a covert transfer of power from the old free capitalist class to a new all-powerful government elite, a fatal undermining of property rights and 'the old reliance on the free action of individual wills' which Rand believed was embodied in the original constitutional intent of the founders of the American Republic and the basis of the country's prosperity. Ayn Rand maintained this unreserved view of the American political economy to the end of her life.

Beginning in 1944 with the publication of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand became widely popular author. Though dismissed by the book review and university establishments, her fictions and philosophical essays struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of millions of Americans. Fan mail poured into her publisher's mail box, from lawyers, teachers, librarians, bookstore owners, chemists engineers, housewives, active-duty military personnel, artists and musicians. These letters would continue for as long as she lived. Many readers thanked her for giving them the courage and inspiration to flout the stultifying expectations of their families and communities and to act according to their hopes and dreams; or they timidly asked her advice on how to become more like Howard Roark of Fountainhead, a passionate woman's erotic rendition of a rugged male hero.

To be perfectly fair the author notes that while her underlying message assailed the communitarian spirit which took hold of America in the 1960s, her specific positions on many of the issues of the day were often classically liberal, even farsighted and brave. As an extension of her commitment to individual rights, she consistently championed minority civil rights and equal opportunity between the sexes ( though she believed that every woman should properly worship a man, or men). Condemning the first use of force in any context, she opposed the Vietnam War long before her contemporaries did. And she spoke plainly and forcefully against State governments bans on abortion. “Abortion is a moral right- which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved.” Her reasoning was original and often, in its peculiar and eccentric way, progressive. She was a passionate and able public speaker who enjoyed tremendous acclaim on college campuses across the nation; always worth hearing.

Ayn Rand's worldview was based on the wishful thinking of her old style, epic romantic fictions. She often quoted her own characters as intellectual and moral authorities in her philosophical arguments. It was a 'black and white' world. Anyone who was not or would soon be a one-hundred- percent Randian Rationalist was her 'enemy' and an 'objective believer in death and destruction' as well as crazy. In the 1950s one of her intimates, Murray Rothbard- a quick-witted twenty-eight-year-old intellectual prankster and self-styled 'anarcho-capitalist'- divined a flaw in her approach that others wouldn't discover for a decade, if at all; the one-party nature of her philosophical system. The famous individualist “actually denies all individuality whatsoever" he exclaimed. Given her rejection of the relevance of family background, temperament, and personal preference in the formation of values and ideas, a Randian utopia 'would be a place where all men are identical, in their souls if not in their personal appearance'. In 1957 this was an eerily precise forecast of the busy uniformity of Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, where everyone agrees on almost everything. Indeed, to disagree with Ayn Rand inevitably evoked her censure, and ostracism from her 'inner circle'. Very few of her intimate friends or business associates survived the test.

This aspect of Ayn Rand's character is perhaps best expressed in the story of her sister Nora. In 1972, half a world away in Leningrad, her youngest sister, now in her sixties, stumbled on a copy of a Russian language magazine published and distributed by the U.S. Information Agency. The magazine contained an article about the range of political opinion in America and included a thumbnail sketch of Rand. Nora was familiar with her older sister's pen name but had heard nothing about her since 1937, when Ayn had stopped writing to her family in Russia. The decades-long Soviet barricade against Western influences had insulated Nora and her husband, a retired factory engineer named Fedor Andreyevich Drobyshev, from all knowledge of Rand's best-selling novels and her fame as a polemicist. Nora contacted the U/S. Embassy in Moscow and, with its help, sent a letter of inquiry to the USIA magazine. Eventually the sisters re-established contact and a campaign was begun to fulfill Ayn's old and treasured dream to show Nora the splendors of America.

Finally, at Kennedy airport, the two sister's embraced each other and wept in greeting. Ayn's husband Frank and Fedor shook hands. But it wasn't long before the first discordant notes crept in. Having live most of their lives under a Communist system in which neighbors and shopkeepers might be government agents, Nora and Fedor were suspicious of the driver of the limousine Rand had arranged to take them into the city, then Rand's cook and housekeeper and later a guest at dinner, thinking of them as possible informants planted by the U.S. Government. Never one with much empathy for others, Ayn began to take it amiss that they couldn't or wouldn't recognize that America was a free country. For their part, the Drobyshevs were disappointed in Rand's austere standard of living. They had expected a “rich, noble lady” in a three story house, not a modest apartment in Manhattan.

If Rand hadn't fundamentally changed, Nora had. Rand remembered her as a spirited girl of sixteen who admired Western fashions, loved to draw, and worshipped her older sister. Now she appeared to be an average, aging Russian woman, satisfied to be cared for by the state. She and Fedor were childless, and they lived in a one-room apartment that was regarded as a luxury in a period when many Russian families had to double or triple up. After teaching for a few years, Nora had made a career in display design. Fedor had invented a piece of factory equipment that earned him a larger than ordinary pension. When Rand or one of her circle argued against Soviet totalitarianism and in favor of individual liberties, Nora responded, “What good is political freedom to me? I'm not an activist.” She quarreled with her sister over the benefits of capitalism and the evils of altruism, about which she later said, “It was the altruism of our entire family that enabled Ayn to get out to the United States in the first place.”

Worse, perhaps, Nora didn't approve of America. She disliked American conveniences, which left her with nothing to do all day; she preferred her old routine of waiting in food lines and gossiping with her friends. When asked what she and her friends talked about, she said they discussed freedom and what it would be like to do and say anything they wanted, adding, however, that they didn't really mind the Soviet way of life. One day, she went into a store to buy toothpaste and found herself over-whelmed by the number of brands and sizes and became angry when a clerk wasn't willing to help her choose. Why were there so many kinds of everything? How did New Yorkers stand the crowds of strangers? Why was Central Park so dirty?

The one thing Nora wanted to do was to visit Hollywood, and Rand disappointed her in this; the writer had a deadline to meet for The Ayn Rand Letter and, besides, she lacked the physical stamina to travel or act as a tour guide. “But you are a rich and famous person!” Nora objected. “You can do whatever you want!” Naturally, Rand was indignant. How dare this opinionated woman criticize America and make demands? What happened to the little sister who had shared her love of Western values?

Worst of all, Nora did not admire Rand's novels. Rand had proudly presented the Drobyshevs' with copies of all four: taken together they were the heart of Rand's life achievement, which until now no one in her family had ever seen or read. Rand had fulfilled her youthful promise, in every sense. But she gained no recognition from Nora. With the exception of part of We the Living she later said that the little she had read was offensive and contrived. “My sister had just artificially constructed everything,” Nora told and interviewer in 1997. “She made up all of our lives.” Setting aside Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, Nora borrowed or bought a volume by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose more subversive works were unavailable in Russia and who in 1974 would be charged with treason and forced to emigrate, eventually settling in Vermont. Rand hated Solzhenitsyn for his outspoken anti-Western views and his religiosity, and when she discovered that Nora preferred his writing to her own, she demanded that Nora return her books. Nora complied. All told, the little sister pronounced her older sister's writings to be “fake” and “lacking in talent” and she paid no more attention to it.

In the third week of their visit Fedor collapsed with a sudden heart attack. By then, Rand had stopped speaking to her sister and did not come to the hospital either that day or during the two weeks of her brother-in-law's hospitalization. After he had been discharged and taken a few days to recuperate, Rand suggested that the pair return to Russia. She did not see them off. She did call her lawyer to assure herself that Nora would not automatically inherit any of her money when she died. Nora would not, he told her. Nor, as it turned out, did Nora wish to; the younger sister resembled the older in her stubborness and her propensity to mix anger with contempt.

Even after Nora's return to Russia, Rand avoided speaking of her sister. Yet she must have sorely felt the loss – if not of the living Nora, then of a long-cherished illusion that, once upon a time, she had possessed a girlhood soul mate. “She had hoped that the idea of freedom was still burning in her sister,” recalled Elayne Kalberman. But the lure of freedom may never been as powerful for Nora as it was for Rand. Although childhood had been a time “when I liked everything about my sister,” Nora recalled in 1997, “I was merely her shadow and yes-man...She always wanted adoring fans.” Nora died in St. Petersburg in 1999, at the age of eighty-eight, without ever again speaking to Rand.

Rand's sole legal heir, Leonard Peikoff, at seventy-six remains her most faithful adherent. In his 1982 book, The Ominous Parallels, he traces the causes of the Holocaust to collectivism and altruism, his mentor's betes noires. In 1985, he co-founded the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) with Philadelphia Eagles owner Ed Snider. ARI promotes Rand's books and ideas and provides support to approved Rand study groups around the world. It also acts as a repository for the author's papers, which, according to Rand's stated wishes in the 1960s and 1970s, the Library of Congress had expected to receive upon her death. Peikoff did make a donation of the original manuscripts and galley proofs of her four novels and accepted a million-dollar tax deduction for it, but delayed making further gifts of her papers.

Peikoff's dispute with the Library of Congress smoldered for a few years, but he eventually agreed to relinquish the remaining manuscript pages, and in 2002 the library sent a conservator to Peikoff's Los Angeles home to remove the framed pages from the wall on which they hung. The next day, hundreds of angry e-mails sent by Objectivists arrived in the mailboxes of library staff members and assorted others, including employees of the congressional committee that oversees the libraries operations. The Peikoff supporters were furious at what they regarded as government theft of private property. The libraries were 'thugs with guns”, the e-mails claimed, using one of Rand's favorite designations for government officials. This is one of the many peculiar incidents I heard about that indicate the Ayn Rand cult endures into the twenty-first century.


  1. When Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, Alan Greenspan ( who would go on to become Chairman of the Federal Reserve) was the oldest and most sophisticated member of Rand's inner circle. Despite the reservations of Rand's experienced publisher (Bennett Cerf )about the public's reception of the book Greenspan couldn't shake off the conviction that her arguments in Atlas Shrugged were so 'radiantly exact” as to compel argeement by all honest men and women. He often said that Ayn Rand put the moral basis under capitalism for him. Until 2008, he never changed his mind. In October of that year, then eighty-two, Greenspan told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of the lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” That testimony constituted his retraction of assertions he'd made in a 1963 essay he published in Rand's “The Objectivist Newsletter”, “The Assault on Integrity”, in which he wrote, “It is precisely the 'greed' of the businessman, or more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.”

  2. The Nora episode sounds like Ayn Rand's worst nightmare: The Soviet Union showed signs of becoming a functional society in the 1970's; Rand's sister had adapted to life there; and her sister's husband had even enjoyed some success and status as an inventor, despite Rand's fantasy that inventors in that kind of society would all take their minds of the market and go on strike as a form of resistance.