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.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made Anne C Heller Tranquebar, 572 pages, Rs 495
01 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.

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?

Heller’s book contains a lot of new information and more than holds its own against Barbara Branden’s pathbreaking biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986). As Heller herself acknowledges, its most innovative feature is its attempt to relate the Russian phase of Rand’s life to the later American phase. Unlike the majority of Rand scholars, Heller argues that Rand’s mature thought was powerfully influenced by the catastrophe that enveloped upper-class Russian Jewry in the turbulent years after the abortive revolution of 1905. There are some especially interesting remarks about the impact of anti-semitism on the mind of the young Rand. As the Czarist state struggled desperately to see off the challenge of the liberal bourgeoisie and the Marxist Left, it was common for apologists for the existing order to blame the flowering of revolutionary politics on some sort of Jewish conspiracy. One of the things that distinguished the new forms of anti-semitism from the older variety was the tendency to equate Russian Jews with the miseries of modernity. Whereas Jews had previously been seen as bestial exponents of rural barbarism, they were now portrayed as sinister entrepreneurs intent on ruining Mother Russia with their taste for democracy, industry and usury. Heller’s point is that Rand’s work simultaneously preserved and subverted these anti-Jewish calumnies. Taking the equation of Jewry with entrepreneurship at face value, Rand sought to turn it to her people’s advantage by portraying industrialists and financiers as the luminous benefactors of a new civilisation. In this sense her books were less a celebration of the USA than a settling of accounts with the prejudices of Europe.

Heller’s evocation of Rand’s childhood and adolescence provides a timely reminder of how much European Jewry suffered, even before the rise of Nazism. After Rand leaves Russia the book becomes much less claustrophobic. Its second half leaves us in no doubt that the truly important thing about her was her contribution to the emergence of the New Right. At the time when she produced her most impassioned defences of the free market—roughly between 1935 and 1970—it was widely believed that laissez-faire capitalism had disappeared forever. The political classes took it for granted that a combination of the welfare state, Keynesian demand management and selective public ownership had humanised the market system and put an end to the poverty and inequality of an earlier age. It was this state of affairs that Rand, Hayek, Robert Nozick and the other savants of post-war libertarianism set out to overturn. Their achievement—if that is the right word—was to pave the way for a renaissance of free-market politics by making more extravagant claims for capitalism than anyone either before or since. Rand’s encomiums to the power of the market make Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Vilfredo Pareto seem faint-hearted by comparison. Her most startling argument, enunciated in classic essays such as ‘What Is Capitalism?’ (1965), is that the market is not merely the most efficient means of allocating goods and services but also a peerless instrument of self-realisation. Rand clearly regarded the successful entrepreneur as a sort of Nietzschean Übermensch, steadily moving towards a peak of creativity by pursuing a unique moral vision untrammelled by outside intervention. If arguments such as these now seem insanely credulous, it is nevertheless the case that Rand and her co-thinkers could only wean the public from its dirigiste sympathies by exaggerating the merits of capitalism to an absurd degree. The age of Reagan, Thatcher and George W Bush would never have occurred without the rhetorical excesses of the theorists who inspired it.

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

Heller makes it clear early in her book that she is “not an advocate for Rand’s ideas.” This raises the question of whether someone who is not ideologically sympathetic to right-wing libertarianism can get anything out of her writings. The answer is surely yes. Quite apart from its intrinsic historical interest, Rand’s work retains its relevance because it forces those of us on the socialist and Left-liberal wing of politics to confront the weaknesses, gaps and blind spots in our own ideas. Like Jonathan Swift before her—though at a much lower level of literary achievement—Rand has a deeply unnerving capacity for exposing the inhumane underbelly of the humanitarian project. There are two places in particular where this capacity is shown off to maximum effect. The first is in the superb novella Anthem (1938), which Rand wrote in a few weeks when work on The Fountainhead had temporarily stalled. Set in a Stalinist hellhole in which the majority of men and women have been reduced to the level of slaves, Anthem tells the story of a disaffected individualist known only as Equality 7-2521. The book’s case against socialism is at once childishly simple and irritatingly difficult to refute. The big problem with the idea of equality, or so Rand implies, is that it is inimical to the human instinct for friendship. No socialist government can tolerate intimacy between friends, relatives or lovers, since to do so is to encourage the sense that some people are worth more than others. Nor can a socialist regime allow any of its citizens to follow a vocation. Men and women who immerse themselves in a special interest invariably strike the Stalinist mind as dangerous subversives, immune to the lure of community. Rand gets her point across with some memorable touches of absurdist humour. At one point, Equality 7-2521 speaks of his love of science and expresses the hope that the regime’s Council of Vocations will send him to work in a laboratory. When he appears before the Council to be told what job he has been allocated, its eldest member utters only two words before sending him on his way: “Street Sweeper.”

The other place in which Rand’s attack on the Left really catches fire is in her writings on ecological politics. Appalled by the emergence of the so-called ‘New Left’ in the 1960s, she was one of the first writers to identify the hidden dangers of what she called its “anti-industrial” agenda. It was not simply that Rand set herself up as the spiritual ancestor of today’s climate-change sceptics, rejecting the idea that industrialism necessarily despoils the environment. Her broader point was that green politics posed an incalculable threat to civilised life. Once people begin to scale back their economic activities in the interests of saving the planet—once they regard science and technology as enemies rather than agents of liberation—they risk unleashing a wave of irrationality that ultimately imperils the very survival of industrial society. Things start with a well-meaning attempt to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and end with human beings living in mud huts. Let me be controversial for a moment: it seems to me that no member of the green movement has ever responded to Rand’s arguments convincingly.

It was John Stuart Mill who famously observed that people cannot know their own minds until they defend their beliefs against sustained attack. The great virtue of Ayn Rand is that her writings on progressive politics are so provocative, so steeped in satire and sarcasm that they force conscientious Left-wingers to shore up their ideas with more convincing philosophical ballast. Anne C Heller’s book is a fine monument to an exasperating but necessary writer.