Ayn Rand


I’ve written about Ayn Rand before, partly because I dislike a lot of the people who claim to be inspired by her, partly because I never cared much for her novels, which a lot of people like. But in reading The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden who knew her intimately in the 1950s, it becomes clear that she was in many respects an admirable person who accomplished a great deal, but also lived a tragic life.

One of her misfortunes was to be born in Russia just as the country was beginning to descend into revolution. That was just after the revolution of 1905 that made some sweeping political changes in the country, but not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that ushered in Communism. Her family, being moderately well off, suffered more than some from the dislocations of revolution and civil war, but survived. She was also Jewish, but told Barbara Branden that she never encountered anti-Semitism in Russia, though the country was notoriously inclined that way.

By that time Alice Rosenberg, as her family named her, had decided she wanted to be a writer, and that liberty and heroism were perhaps the values most important to her. When relatives in the USA contacted her family, concerned about how and whether they had survived the civil war, Alice Rosenberg told her family she HAD to go to the USA. Her family wasn’t enthusiastic, but agreed to arrange it, if possible. It turned out to be possible, though she came close to being refused.

By 1926, when she immigrated, she had seen less than wonderful things in Russia. Lots of hungry people struggling to survive, violence, people prevented from attending university or getting good jobs because of the social class they belonged to, rather than any crime they had committed. Unsurprisingly, she became a committed anti-Communist, having seen the way the system operated close up. Things got worse in Russia after she left.

Once in this country she began to work at becoming a writer in an unfamiliar language. She went to Chicago first to stay with the relatives who had helped her immigrate, then to Los Angeles to attempt screenwriting. She happened to meet Cecil B. DeMille,  who was impressed with her, and gave her work as an extra and other odd jobs before allowing her to write screenplays. She was moderately successful at that.

In Hollywood she also found her husband, who physically incarnated the fantasies of a hero she had had, though his character wasn’t particularly heroic. Marrying him provided her with citizenship so she didn’t have to return to Russia, where she could in no way have had the writing career she had visualized. She wanted to write about heroic individuals. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in Stalin’s Russia (unless they were Communists–and Communism was unheroic, in her view), and it took a long time for what she wrote to become acceptable here.

There was sympathy for Russia among American intellectuals of that time, a feeling that Communism just might help save the world. Rand knew it would not, but few people she tried to tell would listen in the twenties and thirties. Her first novel, We the Living was set in Russia and somewhat autobiographical. The main male character of the book catches tuberculosis, and has to go to a sanatorium; the heroine takes an unwanted lover so he can stay there, which sets up an unhappily dramatic climax. She is then killed trying to escape the country. The book sold poorly at first, but eventually sold more, especially after her better-known novels became popular.

The Fountainhead was next, about an architect unsuccessful because his work is too original. He has a friend, also an architect, who has little originality, and tries to succeed by copying. He gives this friend the design for a housing project which no one will allow him to build himself. His condition is that the project must be built exactly as he designed it; when a change is made, the architect blows the project up. He won’t allow his design to be watered down, nor allow anyone to have his work without meeting his price.  There’s a happy ending after that, too. The architect is prosecuted, but declared innocent.

Rand said the hero of that novel was her ideal man: in conflict with society, but not with himself. She contrasted him with three other men. One, the untalented architect friend who wasn’t the ideal man, but didn’t know it.  Another, stronger and more intelligent, runs a newspaper that tells the lowest common denominator what they want to hear. He could have been the ideal man, but wasn’t. A third is a critic who is not the ideal man, and knows it. He’s the villain of the novel.

The hero’s friend, unable to be the ideal man was, Rand told Branden, based on a woman she met who was obsessed with her career and very hard-working, but who rubbed Rand the wrong way, not because of her ambition or her work-ethic, but something else. When she asked the woman what was important to her, the woman replied that if no one else had a car, she wanted to have one; if everyone wanted a car, she wanted to have two. Rand was disgusted, but felt this pointed up a distinction between frivolous selfishness and actually HAVING a self that wants to accomplish something worthwhile. She called the latter “selfish” in a truer sense of the word. She saw the woman as being what she called a “collectivist” rather than an individual. A “collectivist” because for her success was strictly in relation to other people rather than a course chosen and pursued because of its meaning to the individual.

The Fountainhead became popular enough to have a somewhat successful movie made of it. But her REALLY popular novel was the next one, Atlas Shrugged. The idea behind this one is that the talented people, the ones whose ideas–translated into reality–are crucial to making society work, go on strike. Their complaint is they’re being told to work for the good of society (including those who deserve nothing, being unwilling to make efforts themselves) and are made to feel guilty for wanting their talent and work to be recognized and celebrated. This aspect of the novel is deliberately obscured at first, while Rand sketches in the decadence of the society which makes demands of its most talented members. Only towards the end does it become clear what is happening.

My memories of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unclear, as it’s been fifty years or more since I read them. I didn’t really buy into Rand’s views, but what I remember most about Atlas Shrugged in particular is its insistence that its readers MUST agree with its point of view. For me that was off-putting, to say the least. It seemed almost like Stalin’s “correct line”, which all Communists were expected to believe.

Rand saw Communism and Socialism, both popular in America in the twenties and thirties (at least among intellectuals), as collectivism, and capitalism as individuality. She identified collectivism with the idea of the nation being more important than the individual, as seen in the Germany and Soviet Union of the thirties. These weren’t very attractive to those aware of the people they persecuted, though their propaganda deceived some into thinking they were positive phenomena.

Capitalism Rand liked much better because it gave people from almost any social class a chance. She found technology thrilling as a demonstration of what rationality and intellect could achieve, and saw this as examples of individuals being true to themselves.

But to what extent is this true? The production of technology is dependent on large organizations, just as totalitarian governments are. Is individualism encouraged in these organizations, other than at the very top? Why does the history of large corporations include intense hostility to unions, including the willingness to wound and kill strikers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Have not the leaders of industries been as intoxicated with power as have dictators? Their aims haven’t been exactly the same, but they still required power over others to achieve them. Rand saw slavery as being inefficient, and if one’s aim is innovation, that’s certainly true. But slave-owning societies are stratified, which means innovation happens among the upper classes. Is this why industrialists hated unions? Industrial workers weren’t slaves, but weren’t far from being enslaved, having to work extremely long hours, often in dangerous working conditions. Their opinions weren’t wanted. Contemporary conservatives like to differentiate between “makers and takers”. Just who is in each group?

Does it make sense to identify genius and innovation with free market capitalism as Rand does? Capitalism has encouraged innovation, as Rand says, but is it the only system under which innovation can occur? The ancient Romans were notable builders. The ancient Egyptians even more–we still can’t duplicate some things they built. Did either society have free market capitalism? Both were slave states.

Which raises the question, for whom is the free market free? For the owner of the means of production and distribution, but is that true for the ordinary worker too? Historically, it hasn’t always been.

And technology isn’t all positive either. Rand didn’t approve of environmentalism, claiming that industrial civilization had lengthened human life, which was true–just not the entire truth.

‘”City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific technological problem, not a political one, and it can be solved ONLY by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

Actually, we have discovered that filthy rivers and smog ARE in part political problems because the people causing the pollution are often unwilling to clean it up, and are willing to lobby to assure they don’t have to. How would Ayn Rand analyze the recent issue in Flint, Michigan, in which many people, including children, suffered lead poisoning, which causes serious neurological damage? Or instances where a poisonous insecticide is often found on produce? Technology will fix it, but technology also caused the problem, and will not fix it without the political will to do so.

Rand points out that average human life-span increased in the industrial age. Again, partly true. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Crete had sewage systems, which later European cultures did not, until relatively late. Life spans increased, at least in part, because humans discovered that antisepsis prevented sickness, something realized by medical science, which also contributed antibiotics, as well as medicines to control diabetes and heart disease. This is the same science that tells us pollution is bad, not only for us but for the other forms of life on which our lives ultimately depend. Ecology is thus the justification of altruism and collectivism, both dirty words in Rand’s lexicon. We can’t survive without nature, and our powers are now great enough to be able to destroy large numbers of plant and animal species in greater numbers than since the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. To say that we have not yet destroyed ourselves in this way is not to say that it can’t be done, nor that we’re not in the process of doing so. It’s instructive how easy it is to fall into a false dualism in which nature is seen as something to be conquered rather than to be cooperated with, and human achievements are to be celebrated even though they may poison humans, plants, and animals. The world’s ecosystem is flexible, but human activities on a massive scale affect it, and seem likely to ultimately have regrettable consequences. That dualism would see the extinction of plant and animal species as nothing to be concerned about, since that point of view sees humans as more important than the rest of the world.

“Ecology as a social principle condemns cities, culture, industry, technology, the intellect, and advocates man’s return to ‘nature’, to the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands.”

Some say science doesn’t care what you believe. Nature REALLY doesn’t care. It would be nice to be able to retain and expand our current standards of living, but that may not be practical. There are only so many natural resources of the type we use to power our urban civilization, and if we’re unwilling to change our lifestyles, nature may do it for us. The outcome of that conflict remains to be seen.

Rand sees rationality, the most important tool of the intellect, as being more important than any other aspect of humanity. But another view sees the instincts and emotions as being fully as important, so that when their development is neglected, the person, culture, or society becomes unbalanced. This imbalance causes unnecessary conflict within individuals, between them, between them and the larger cultures and societies. Rand’s view of ecology is this conflict writ rather large. An example is the overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An obvious way to redress the imbalance would be to plant more trees. Instead, we clear-cut forests for profit. Profit is not inherently immoral, but there are ways of achieving it which are.

A recent article in the New Yorker presents evidence that rationality wasn’t evolved to assess truth, but to make sure we didn’t get screwed by others, since our most effective means of survival has been cooperation–a way to argue better, in other words. If so, this perspective makes Rand’s position special pleading on the basis of identity–she was a genius, and deserved to be treated better, as do all geniuses. This may be true, but it’s interesting that conservatives (the main group to whom Rand has appealed) generally dislike identity politics.

The conflict, writ smaller, was shown when Rand embarked on an affair with a man 25 years younger, in spite of his wife (her biographer). and in spite of her husband. She had the power to persuade everyone to go along with it, though neither her husband nor the wife was really comfortable. Ultimately, this led to a break between her and many of the young people who gravitated to her and her views after the publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She exacerbated the problem because she couldn’t admit she was in any way to blame.

Barbara Branden makes clear that Rand’s views were very rigorously thought out, and that her novels were very carefully written to express just what she meant, and in a language of which she was not a native speaker. Her view of man as a potentially heroic being who often falls short of that level can be seen as admirable, though I quarrel with her view of man being superior to nature. Not many individuals have the strength to choose their own path and persist in it despite conflict with or disapproval from their society. I would suggest that not all such individuals are on a productive path, nor do all of them agree with Rand’s views.

There seem, for instance, to be alternatives to Rand’s lone genius view of creativity. Collaboration may occur more frequently in music than in writing. Collaboration between a composer and a lyricist isn’t unusual, and in a band context a piece may evolve from communal input instead of being shaped only by one person, and even be seen as being superior because of that input. That’s not to say one form of creativity is superior to another, only that there’s more than one approach.

Rand considered religion (or mysticism) to be a chief hindrance to rationality. But at least two 20th century men attempted to approach the apparently immaterial spiritual world scientifically, ie, rationally. One man who did so made much the same comment as Rand put in the mouth of one of her characters: that he would love to be able to have acquaintances with whom he could interact as equals. He wasn’t jealous of anyone approaching his level, he wanted them to do so, contrary to some popular narratives. His intellect was not inferior to hers, but he recognized other aspects of the human being, and taught them, as well as the intellect.

Rand accomplished a great deal in writing novels of ideas that interested and influenced a great many people. Not everyone will agree, but I think it’s tragic that she drove many people away from her because of her insistence that she was right and others were wrong, as well as her misuse of her power to persuade others to allow her behavior that hurt them. And while I think she had great insight, I think some of her views were tragically misguided, and are likely to have tragic consequences. She was more determined and powerful than most, but just as capable of being mistaken.