Book Review: Exasperating But Necessary

Ayn Rand was a kind of 20th-Century Jonathan Swift, with a keen eye for the inhumane underbelly of the humanitarian project

By PHILIP BOUNDS
Published :1 November 2010

AYN RAND WAS ONE OF THOSE WRITERS who exert immense influence in spite of being burdened with an unenviable critical reputation. The consensus among literary types is that her novels and essays are utterly derivative, two-dimensional and dogmatic. This has not prevented her from becoming a heroine to thousands of activists on the libertarian wing of conservative politics in the USA and elsewhere. No other apologist for ‘free markets and free minds’ has been loved quite so ardently by the battalion of youthful ideologues who regard capitalism as God’s greatest gift to mankind. The likes of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman are all more highly esteemed by academics, but their work remains the property of the few. Only Rand has won the hearts of the rank and file.

One of the reasons for Rand’s cult status is the epic sweep of her life, which has now been recreated with great facility in Anne C Heller’s fascinating biography. Born in St Petersburg in 1905 to an affluent Jewish family, Rand spent her early years in a Russia traumatised by the decline of Czarism and the rise of communism. She seems to have been ferociously intelligent and unashamedly weird from early childhood onwards. Solitary, bookish and contemptuous of her mother’s social pretensions, she responded to the October Revolution with horror but took full advantage of the Soviet government’s policy of expanding the number of Jews in higher education. She had already sketched the outlines of what she would later call her ‘objectivist’ philosophy by the time she graduated from Petrograd State University in 1924.

American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand espoused her philosophy of objectivism and ‘rational selfishness’ in her novels, which included The Fountainhead.

Granted a visa to leave the Soviet Union in 1926, Rand fled immediately to the USA and remained there until her death in 1982. Her first three decades in the States were devoted to a tireless effort to achieve success as a writer of fiction. While working as a playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter she set out to dramatise her ideas in a series of novels, two of which—The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—became runaway bestsellers and remain her most widely read works. The latter in particular illustrates her enormously melodramatic cast of mind with great vividness. Set in an America where the smooth workings of the free market are increasingly undermined by industrial militancy, it lovingly depicts a co-ordinated attempt by the ruling elite to rid itself of the working-class menace. Its simple but arresting premise is that the best way for the capitalist class to reclaim control of society is to bend the strike weapon to its own purposes. Led by the improbably Promethean John Galt, Rand’s heavily idealised clerisy of industrialists, financiers and scientists simply remove themselves to a mountain retreat and refuse to put their talents (or their money) at the disposal of the common herd. The result is that America grinds to a halt as the limits of ordinary people’s competence rapidly become apparent. No other book has ever communicated love for the rich and contempt for the poor as vehemently as this.

Rand’s success as a novelist emboldened her into trying her luck as a leader of men. In the early 1950s she began to surround herself with a small group of disciples, each of whom was expected to play a role in popularising her objectivist philosophy. Among the most able of her early acolytes was the young Alan Greenspan, whose obdurate devotion to free-market principles came close to sinking the American economy when he served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006. Inspired by the thought that she was doing more than anyone else to inoculate the public mind against socialism, Rand wrote voluminous amounts of non-fiction in her later years and eventually became the high priest of a substantial libertarian subculture. More than one writer has commented on the tension between her ostensible principles and her treatment of her followers. She was clearly the sort of person who loved the idea of individual liberty in the abstract but expected iron discipline from her associates in practice. As the British philosopher John Gray has recently reminded us, she even insisted—or at least was rumoured to insist—that her fellow objectivists use the same sort of cigarette holder as she used herself. Nor was she averse to inflicting terrible pain on the people closest to her. In her late 40s she openly embarked on an extramarital affair with Nathaniel Branden, the author and polemicist who later founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute in order to promote objectivist ideas. Rand’s position was that Branden’s wife and her own husband should accept the affair without demur. Why should the gifted be bound by the same standards as everyone else?

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