“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
Those are the words of Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, as quoted by Gary Weiss in “Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul.”
And Ryan is not the only Rand devotee in today’s political landscape.
Alan Greenspan, perhaps the most influential economist today, was a member of Rand’s inner circle. At Tea Party rallies many participants can be seen wearing shirts or carrying signs saying “I (Heart) John Galt,” the hero of Rand’s massive “Atlas Shrugged.” And the Ayn Rand Institute offers free copies of her work to any high school teacher who wants to include it in the curriculum.
But few people actually know who Ayn Rand was. (Or is, considering her influence, which is as strong today as it ever was, perhaps stronger.) Her theories are seldom discussed by academic critics, and the few who do are, by and large, dismissive. But her novels are perennial best sellers, and recent polls on the most influential books of all time place her works in the top 20.
Many people who disagree with Rand and her followers are often surprised to find themselves liking both her and them, finding them charming, articulate, and passionate. That contradiction mirrors the contradictions in Rand’s own life.
(Rand herself would deny this. As she wrote in “Atlas Shrugged,” “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”)
Rand was born in Russia as Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum and grew up during the upheaval of the Russian Revolution. (Most of this information comes from “Ayn Rand and the World She Made” by Anne C. Heller.) She witnessed first-hand the turmoil caused by the Communist takeover as she watched her father, a small businessman, stripped of everything he had built as the economy was nationalized.
Making her way to America, Rand changed her name, although exactly why she choose Ayn (pronounced with a long “I” sound) Rand is not clear, and began making her living writing plays and later movie scripts. Once again contradictions appear as her plays were written under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government program of the sort she would later oppose. An illegal alien, she married an actor, Frank O’Connor, and became a citizen. She also began writing novels.
Rand’s first book, “We the Living,” was a semi-autobiographical account of her experiences from the Soviet Union, although the heroine died while trying to escape. Her next was a slim volume titled “Anthem,” which told the story of a futuristic society in which the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” were forbidden. In it, a young man escapes to find the ruins of the past and learns from books the forbidden and sacred word “I.”
Page 2 of 3 - In many ways, “Anthem” was a key to Rand’s purpose as a writer. In Russia, both before and after the Revolution, literature was used as a way to obliquely express ideas forbidden by the government. Her political and philosophical ideas were clothed in heroic characters and, she believed, novels could be the catalysts to change the world.
Anne C. Heller compares Rand to Charles Dickens, calling her a 19th century novelist using her work to illuminate 20th century social conflicts. Rand, however, was the opposite of Dickens, who spoke for the poor and downtrodden, in almost every other aspect.
The book which made Rand’s name was “The Fountainhead,” published in 1943, in which an architect blows up a public housing project he designed because the government bureaucrats in charge of the program changed his design. The heart of the novel was a long courtroom speech by the architect, Howard Roark, defending his actions as a right to his own work and a demand that his work (and the work of any other creative man) not be tampered with by lesser minds.
“The Fountainhead” has been called the greatest word-of-mouth success in publishing history. While many readers were initially drawn to it as a study of architecture, others were intrigued by its (for the time) racy sex scenes. But as time went on, many readers began to identify with the ideas expressed.
Rand then wrote the book most of her followers consider her masterpiece, “Atlas Shrugged.” Published in 1957, the massive volume follows the story of a man named John Galt who leads a strike of the men of intellect and creativity against the world of those Rand called looters and parasites who appropriated their work and made them feel guilty about their ability.
The tag line of the book, “Who is John Galt?”, became a rallying cry for those who felt victimized by government and other institutions which place restrictions on the actions of individuals following their own interests. Young people especially saw Rand as a teacher and spokesperson who addressed their deepest longings and gave them a framework on which to build their lives.
Rand was decidedly pro-American, seeing it as the stronghold of the individual against the collectivism of Europe and the barbarism of undeveloped countries. She wrote the highest executives in the Soviet Union did not enjoy the material comforts available to the most humble laborer in the United States and argued that the only function of government should be to protect individuals from force so they could develop their talents and abilities as much as possible without any outside interference.
But while her novels sold well, Rand was not always pleased with her notoriety. She was upset that people were often more interested in the stories than the ideas behind them, and complained about the criticism her work received, which often commented on the long-winded speeches of her main characters and noted her work was often strident and one-sided. She was particularly irritated when she was accused of promoting totalitarianism, the very political idea she was writing against.
Page 3 of 3 - As time went on, Rand became trapped by her own reputation. She gathered about her a group of young disciples, humorously calling themselves the Collective. As time went on, the group began to engage in the same type of ideological trials used by the communists, with individuals grilled on their lives and thoughts and subjected to harsh criticism and punishments for unorthodox thinking. Many of them were banished from Rand’s inner circle for not following her line completely.
The Collective was particularly rocked by news of an affair Rand was having with one of her younger followers, Nathaniel Branden, who was married at the time and considered to be Rand’s heir apparent. Branden was expelled when Rand found he was having an affair with a younger woman and wanted to end his personal involvement with her. Supporters of Rand to this day consider Branden a non-person.
In happier times, Branden and his wife Barbara presented Rand with a gold pin of a dollar sign. To Rand, the dollar was a symbol of a free mind.
To cope with her fame, Rand began taking amphetamines. Amphetamines supply energy but also affect a person’s moods, making them erratic and paranoid. She also refused to exercise, smoked for years, and had a tendency to gain weight. After years of ill health and the death of her husband, Rand herself died on March 6, 1982.
In spite of her declaration there were no contradictions, Rand’s life was full of them. An enemy of state-run programs, she voted for FDR. She was against Prohibition and anti-drug laws as infringements on individual rights. She considered the atomic bomb a symbol of human greatness and an instrument of man’s salvation, remarking that only rational men in a free society could construct one. She championed rationality and a realistic view of the world, but she also was a believer in UFOs.
Rand opposed U.S. involvement in World War II and the Vietnam War, endorsed Goldwater but opposed Reagan because of the influence of the Christian right on his policies. She saw Eisenhower as soft on communism. She supported abortion rights and championed Israel, not because of any religious feeling or racial solidarity (many of her followers were surprised to find that Rand was born Jewish) but because she saw Israel as a bastion of Western civilization in a barbaric part of the world.
Above all, Rand, who declared that every individual must think for him/herself, became the leader of a cult-like group who were required to bring their thinking in line with hers. A firm denier of any religious system, she herself became a sort of religious prophet.
But today her ideas are more popular and influential than ever. What were her main beliefs? That is the subject for another article.