Ayn Rand Lives
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
Jennifer Burns, Oxford University Press, 362 pages
By: Justin Raimondo
Ayn Rand lives. Her name is on more lips these days than when her blockbuster novel Atlas Shrugged outraged the critics, who hated it, and sold like hotcakes to hoi polloi, who loved it. It’s still selling at a remarkably brisk pace—indeed, it has consistently moved at least 100,000 copies per year every year since its publication in 1957. Today, however, sales are going through the roof: according to figures compiled by the Ayn Rand Institute, 200,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged were sold last year, an astounding figure that had already been surpassed in the first four months of this year.
The reason for Rand’s enduring popularity is readily apparent in the opening scene of Atlas, where Eddie Willers—not one of her extravagant heroes, the archetypal good-guy-of-limited-potential—encounters a panhandling bum (Rand’s word), who importunes him for a dime. “Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum’s particular despair.”
But the bum, who, we are told, had “intelligent eyes,” and a face “cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation,” keeps talking. There is an uneasy exchange, and we hear what is to be Rand’s leitmotif, an expression meant to encapsulate the sense of hopelessness that pervades the world of Atlas Shrugged—“Who is John Galt?” the bum asks. Eventually he stops talking, to Eddie’s great relief, and
Eddie Willers walked on, wondering why he always felt it at this time of the day, this sense of dread without reason. No, he thought, not dread, there’s nothing to fear: just an immense diffused apprehension, with no source or object. He had become accustomed to the feeling, but he could find no explanation for it: yet the bum had spoken as if he knew that Eddie felt it, as if he thought that one should feel it, and more: as if he knew the reason.
Atlas is set in a near-future world that, today, seems quaint in a Mid Century Modern sort of way, where railroads tie the country together and steel is a major industry, a world that seems to be disintegrating economically, physically, and spiritually. The elegiac mood is set in the very first sentences, as the bum utters the “Who is John Galt” catchphrase. “The light was ebbing,” wrote Rand, “and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face.”
The light now seems to be ebbing all over the country as factories close, Washington issues edicts to benefit a few political insiders, and an all-pervasive fog of anxiety spreads over the grim, decaying landscape like a contaminated mist. Atlas Shrugged captures the spirit of our age so precisely, with such prescience, that one might be tempted to imagine a supernatural power at work, a gift of prophecy that no biblical character could match. Ayn Rand would attribute it to her “good premises” and her own genius.
Charismatic, infuriating, compelling, arrogant, the Russian-born novelist-philosopher was—and is—a heroine to the young and the young at heart and an ogre to the dime-store Leninists and socialist snobs who dominate academia and the media. Her books were panned by the critics, disdained by the intellectual elite, and sold like ice-water in the Mojave. The Fountainhead , a story about an architect who refused to compromise his artistic ideals, climbed to the top of the bestseller lists twice, years after it was published, and is today considered an American classic. Atlas Shrugged—the story of “a man who said he would stop the motor of the world, and did”—was viciously attacked by both the Left and the Right.
Rand died in 1982, but her spirit and her novels live on. Her name is still in the headlines, with anti-tax protesters declaring that they’re “going Galt”—i.e., going on strike, limning the “mind on strike” theme of Atlas—and leftist harpies smearing her as a symbol of human evil. Since her death there have been a number of books written about her life and ideas, but the biographical accounts have, up until now, all been by authors with axes to grind: two former followers, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, once her top acolytes, churned out “tell-all” books of dubious accuracy, and there have been a number of other biographical studies, most of them either hagiographies or agenda-driven polemics.
Now, however, Rand is at last attracting the kind of attention from scholars that she always craved—and deserved. There are two new biographies out or about to be published: Anne Heller’s forthcoming Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns.
First out of the gate is the Burns volume, notable due to the fact that, for the first time, the author gained unrestricted access to Rand’s archives: her personal letters and other materials, aside from those that have been published in somewhat bowdlerized form by her estate. The result is sensational—and often shocking—at least to those who took the legend seriously and overlooked the woman.
The first thing to be said about this book is that it documents the formative influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on Rand’s thinking, which her latter-day followers have always denied. Oh sure, they averred, she identified with the German philosopher’s sense of life—his spirited individualism—in her youth, before she clearly formulated her own ideas. Yet Burns demonstrates, through quotes from Rand’s private journals—including from the period when The Fountainhead was being written—that the creator of the Overman was her intellectual godfather in many more ways than she ever acknowledged. This is a trope that is carried throughout the book, wherein Professor Burns counterposes the Nietzschean Rand—elitist, pessimistic, and prone to intrinsicism—with the later, more benevolent Rand, whose perspective was considerably widened.
Another aspect of Rand’s life and career that has not received a lot of attention is her political activism during the 1930s and ’40s. This first came out when a very selective portion of her letters was published, but Burns goes into heretofore obscure detail and illustrates an important point. Contrary to the later pretensions of Rand’s “Objectivist” cult, which took seriously her claim that she owed nothing to anyone but Aristotle, Burns shows that Rand’s political stance evolved out of the milieu in which she found herself: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s America.
Rand was a foot soldier in the small, albeit vocal, army of intellectuals, publicists, and politicians who opposed America’s rush into the arms of collectivism, a trend that, upon her arrival in America, was triumphing all over the world. It had taken over her homeland, and now it was enveloping her adopted country—and spiritual homeland—in a veritable red tide. She was readily recruited into what we know today as the “Old Right,” a collection of disparate and often colorful characters. This group included Rand’s onetime best friend, the literary critic and novelist Isabel Paterson, whose personal idiosyncracies and general dyspepsia rivaled even Rand’s, and Rose Wilder Lane, who helped her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, write the “Little House on the Praire” books. Burns details Rand’s interactions with such libertarian personages as Albert Jay Nock, Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and the ubiquitous Leonard E. Read, whose Foundation for Economic Education played a central role in organizing a loose alliance of quite different and often temperamental individuals into a coherent movement.
Read had published her short novel Anthem as a project of his Pamphleteers, Inc., which also brought out Lane’s classic Give Me Liberty , an account of her evolution away from Marxism. Read solicited Rand’s advice when FEE began publishing pamphlets, and she took the opportunity to hector him about the ideological inconsistencies of his authors. They soon fell out, but Rand didn’t give up on politics—far from it.
At one point, Burns tells us, Rand practically abandoned her novel-writing in preference for political organizing: she was obsessed with forming an effective and principled opposition to the New Deal, and there were several attempts in collaboration with various individuals to set something up. Yet she failed because even then the splits and fissures that today bedevil the American Right were beginning to break.
Her main backer and ally was one Channing Pollock, a moderately successful playwright who had connections with wealthy conservatives. Pollack went on a lecture tour and collected four thousand names of potential recruits to the new organization. However, as the war issue began to loom larger, and the America First Committee commanded the loyalty of conservatives and their libertarian brethren, the new group died stillborn. As Burns explains,
The problem was that in the political climate of mid-1941 Rand, Pollock, and [National Small Businessmen’s Association president DeWitt] Emery’s efforts were doubly marginal. As opponents of Roosevelt they clearly fell outside the liberal order. Yet because Pollock was adamant that the group steer clear of ‘any crowd opposed to our aiding Britain’ they were also cut off from the sources that were pumping funds into isolationist [sic] organizations.
Forging a unified organization out of the Old Right—a disparate and disputatious crowd—would have been “difficult at any time,” Burns avers, but “her task was all the harder because her group cut across established lines of party politics.”
(Oh, for the good old days of the 1940s, when conservative Republicans were “isolationists,” i.e., anti-militarists!)
Rand, although she opposed U.S. entry into the war, apparently was not insistent on this point and never understood the importance of a noninterventionist foreign policy as central to the struggle for liberty. Roosevelt’s drive to war was of a piece with his drive toward collectivism, and her incomprehension of this vital point led to the complete blindness of her future followers on this question. With a good many of the former Old Rightists, she segued easily into the Cold War rhetoric of the conservatives. Today, the Ayn Rand Institute calls for “total war” on Muslims worldwide and advocates a nuclear strike against Iran, disdaining any concern for innocents.
The success of The Fountainhead brought Rand fame and plenty of fans, many of whom wrote her enthusiastic letters. One missive came from a young Canadian, Nathaniel Blumenthal, whose passionate enthusiasm for her work she found impressive. A meeting was arranged: it was the beginning of a relationship that would last for many years—and end calamitously. Burns is skeptical of Branden: she sees him as encouraging all of Rand’s worst instincts, chief among them her growing tendency to disengage from the world. While Rand’s political activities had required an opening up and a broadening of her contacts with other like-minded writers and activists, after The Fountainhead and the end of her abortive attempt to create a political movement, she withdrew.
As she began the 13-year task of writing Atlas Shrugged and the project started to take on the dimensions of a magnum opus, her circle of contacts was limited to Nathaniel, his wife Barbara, and a small group of young people that gathered around her, mostly family and friends of Nathan and Barbara. They called themselves “the class of ’43,” after the year The Fountainhead was published, and as Rand completed sections of Atlas, her youthful followers were let into the fictional universe she had created, as the manuscript passed from hand to hand.
Atlas was published to blistering reviews—“hate-filled,” “monstrous,” “the author pours out her hatred for a collectivist world”—all the liberal-dominated media outlets, the corduroy-jacket-wearing intellectuals, even the conservatives were appalled. Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist spy who had snitched on Alger Hiss, pontificated in National Review that the author of Atlas Shrugged was saying: “To a gas chamber, go!” The hysteria was deafening and unrelenting. In public, Rand was defiant. “I know that I am challenging the cultural traditions of two and a half thousand years,” she averred. In private, however, she was beside herself. Where were her defenders?
She had one defender, one whom she came to depend on as her shield against the world. Nathaniel changed his last name to Branden—he denies this incorporation of “Rand” into his own name had anything to do with his idol, but this seems rather doubtful—and started the Nathaniel Branden Lectures, later the Nathaniel Branden Institute. With headquarters in New York City, and eventually moving into the Empire State Building (a whole floor, albeit a lower one), the Objectivist movement grew by leaps and bounds. At last, Rand had her own organization, one that marched entirely to her tune.
She had outstripped her old self-identification as a novelist and decided that in order to write Atlas she had to define a new morality; she had to start from scratch, acknowledging only Aristotle as her intellectual predecessor. “Objectivism” was a unified field theory that encompassed the whole of existence, from metaphysics to aesthetics. There was, as a consequence, a Randian “party line” on virtually everything. The result, Murray Rothbard noted, was that “the Collective,” as Rand’s youthful followers “jokingly” referred to themselves, was “almost lifeless, devoid of enthusiasm or spark, and totally dependent on Rand for intellectual sustenance.” To accept Rand’s system, said Rothbard, was “a soul-shattering calamity,” because—although she preached individualism in her novels—the application of her philosophy meant the denial of “all individuality whatsoever.” According to Rand, people were just “bundles of premises”: emotions and instincts were excised from her universe. Having determined what the correct, i.e., rational, premises were, and having derived a comprehensive philosophy covering virtually all subjects from these first principles, in a Randian universe all rational individuals were interchangeable. Citing a letter from Rothbard to Richard Cornuelle, Burns writes: “Therefore, Rothbard concluded, in an eerily perceptive aside, ‘there is no reason whatever why Ayn shouldn’t sleep with Nathan.’”
Perhaps Rothbard sensed something, although the “philosophical” basis for Rand’s affair with Branden was pretty clear from the beginning. Entirely too much has been made of this incident in Rand’s life—both the Brandens and Rand’s enemies have cashed in on this delicate (and embarrassing) matter, and the latter have used it to denigrate her and her ideas. It really isn’t that important, and it should never have come out the way it did. As Rand said of Branden’s betrayal, “A gentlemen would have taken the secret to his grave.” His wife (now ex-wife) Barbara made high drama out of it in her book, and then sold the movie rights to a director who made a semi-pornographic hash out of it. (Barbara was laughing all the way to the bank.)
Nathan having persuaded her to cut off relations with the conservatives, because “they aren’t really on our side,” and having broken with libertarians such as Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, Rand was determined to create her “own side.” She began to demand absolute fealty from her followers. Everyone was constantly on trial. Instead of “judge not, lest ye be judged,” Rand demanded of her admirers, “Judge, and prepare to be judged.” And she did most of the judging, egged on by her sidekicks, the Brandens.
Nathaniel was busy applying Randian philosophy to his field, and he developed a comprehensive theory of “Objectivist psychology,” the precepts of which were practiced on members of the Collective, who became his patients. Their fears, their little imperfections, their secret transgressions—all were the result of “bad premises,” and they could be purged if they underwent the purification rites of “Objectivist psychology.”
This was used as a means of control over the Collective and the by now emerging “Junior Collective” at the perimeter of Rand’s inner circle. Branden had the goods on everyone and didn’t hesitate to use the information he had gleaned in the assumed privacy of his office if and when anyone stepped out of line. To this day, the Brandens deny they were the organizers of a cult, but NBI and the self-contained “Objectivist” subculture they created had all the earmarks: a supreme leader, a high priesthood, a self-purging mechanism, and a totalistic perspective that led to dulling uniformity. Add Branden’s brainwashing dressed up as “therapy” plus the infamous “purge” trials that eerily reflected (as in a funhouse mirror) the Russia of Rand’s youth, and you have all the classic ingredients of cultism.
It all blew to pieces when Branden ended the affair and Rand broke with him, denouncing him in The Objectivist, the magazine they had started at the beginning of their crusade on behalf of “the new intellectuals.” She disavowed him and NBI. All of this loomed very large at the time—especially to her devoted young followers, of which I was one—but the passage of the years has put it in perspective as a minor detail in a life of ascending achievements.
Burns gives Rand her due: she clearly admires her subject. Her trenchant analysis of the Nietzschean strains in Rand’s novels, and Objectivism, are here validated by the extensive quotations from Rand’s previously bowdlerized letters and private papers, cited here unredacted for the first time. Yet one can’t help being annoyed by the undercurrent of academic stodginess in her commentary: at times Burns sounds like my high school English teacher, who, confronted with a classroom filled with young Randians, protested that “Life isn’t like that!”
While generally siding with Rand against her critics, Burns avers that “reviewers were right to notice that … Atlas Shrugged had a decidedly misanthropic cast.” The “negative” aspects of the novel—her “relishing” of her villains’ suffering, for example—were offputting, and here Burns states the core argument of her critique: that Atlas “dropped the populism and egalitarianism that characterized her earlier work, reverting to the language used by earlier defenders of capitalism. Although she did not use explicit biological metaphors, her arguments were like a parody of Social Darwinism.” Her magnum opus, Burns opines, was “an angry departure from the previous emphasis on the competence, natural intelligence, and ability of the common man that marked The Fountainhead.” According to Burns, this “dramatic shift” was just part of “the dynamics of pro-capitalist thought,” which cruelly and unnecessarily “emphasized (even celebrated) innate differences in talent.”
Burns forgets that Rand didn’t believe in innate anything: anyone could learn to paint or become a musician, it was merely a question of having good premises and following through with a sustained effort. Aside from that, there are grave problems with the Burns’s analysis, beginning with the indefensible claim that The Fountainhead represents egalitarianism in any form, shape, or manner. While it is true that Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead, is found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers—even after he blows up a building whose design, created by him, had been altered—if words have any meaning, “egalitarianism” hardly describes what Rand was writing about.
The Fountainhead is indeed quite different from Atlas: it is lighter, more sunlit, simpler and cleaner. It takes place in a relatively benevolent universe, one in which such a decision by such a jury was and is entirely conceivable. What Burns misses is the passage of time and a very real change in the culture. Burns’s critique is static, but 13 years—the time it took to write Atlas—brought radical changes, and not for the better, in politics and society at large. The world of Atlas Shrugged is a projection of what might happen if the trends of that time toward mediocrity and statism continued—and they did continue for all the years Rand was writing, as they have continued ever since.
Atlas Shrugged is a parable for our time. Burns complains about the “negative” depictions of Rand’s villains, but there is no more prescient depiction of our present predicament than her dramatization of the sleazy crony capitalism that has corrupted our economy and the social fabric of the nation. The bad guys in Atlas are businessmen who used their Washington connections to stifle competition and crush innovation. Rand called them “the aristocracy of pull”—a characterization that surely describes Goldman Sachs.
As previous biographical accounts have told us, and Burns reiterates, Rand fell into a depression after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, “crying nearly every day in the privacy of her apartment.” Burns, like the rest, ascribes this to various causes: the letdown after the 13-year buildup to publication, her constant use of Benzedrine (prescribed by a doctor), and most of all, “the painful absence of intellectual recognition.”
Well, the Benzedrine didn’t help, yet I would offer another theory, one that seems confirmed by her enduring fame and increasing relevance: We are living in the world Rand warned us against, where a pall of despair and growing panic hangs over the land as we await the latest government edict from Washington and bums asking for spare change are plentiful. Indeed, if one of them should sidle up to me and ask, wearily, “Who is John Galt?” I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.
No wonder she was crying in her apartment after the book came out: she saw it all coming.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Background: Essential Texts for the Conservative Mind).