I had a brief flirtation with Ayn Rand the year I turned twenty. The most torrid part of the relationship lasted only about as long as some of Dagny Taggart’s warm-up love affairs in Atlas Shrugged. Officially, I broke off the romance; but it remains a memorable phase in my formative years.
Twenty is probably the perfect age to have a fling with Ayn Rand. In the enclosed terrarium of your teenage years, it is easy to hold any hifalutin concept of yourself that you can imagine. When you are twenty, though, things begin to change. The adult world looms large in the windshield. You realize that you aren’t quite as special, quite as brilliant, or quite as destined for spectacular success as you fancied yourself to be, only a few short years ago.
Ayn Rand, with hyper-individualist titles like Anthem and The Virtue of Selfishness, is the perfect salve for the twenty-year-old who suddenly fears that he might turn out to be quite ordinary, after all. The twenty-year-old’s brief burst of Ayn Randian egoism is a final cry of rebellion for the self-important teenager that is slipping away.
I first heard of Ayn Rand around 1983, when I was in high school. My favorite rock band was Rush. Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer and main lyricist, wrote at least two songs based on Rand’s novels and philosophical tracts.
The first of these, Anthem, contains the blunt lines:
“Live for yourself
There’s no one else more worth living for
Begging hands and bleeding hearts
Will only cry out for more”
The Randian philosophy in 2112 is a bit more symbolic. 2112 is a musical space opera in which the narrator rebels against a quasi-Marxist future dystopian government. 2112 contains a number of mixed metaphors. For example, the dystopian government employs the communist red star, but it also has a mystical priestly caste:
“We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls
Look around, this world we’ve made
Equality, our stock in trade
Come and join the brotherhood of man
Oh, what a nice contended world
Let the banners be unfurled
Hold the Red Star proudly high in hand.”
So while I had an idea of what Ayn Rand’s philosophy might be about while I was still in high school, I didn’t know for certain until 1988, when I started reading both her fiction and her nonfiction. Over the course of about a year, I read more or less everything she ever wrote for publication. I read her three major novels, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Altas Shrugged, as well as the aforementioned novella, Anthem. I read all of her essay collections: Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, Philosophy: Who Needs It, etc.
I’m a conservative. Many conservatives seem to embrace Ayn Rand without fully understanding what she actually said and wrote. As a result, they don’t realize that many of her chief ideas are at odds with conservative values.
For me, at least, the heart of conservatism has always been compassionate conservatism. The idea here is that by removing the shackles of big government, by taking the hyper-controlling social engineers out of the picture, you create the most prosperity for the most people. Socialism, in other words, is evil because it creates misery. It doesn’t work as promised.
Ayn Rand, on the other hand, focused almost exclusively on the freedom of the individual to be “free from others”, as she often put it. But she took this a step further. She stated that the individual has “no moral obligation” to help the less fortunate.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Ayn Rand also rejected Christianity. She was an avowed atheist. She rejected all forms of spirituality, and any appeal to concepts of divinity, the soul, or the afterlife. She was a reductive materialist.
And these are the points on which she lost me. I would therefore not describe myself as an Objectivist (a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy). I believe in God, first of all. I also believe that each of us has a moral, spiritual duty to help others.
It is one thing to say that the government, in the form of a Che Guevara or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has no right to confiscate and redistribute property (as the power-hungry politicians see fit, of course). It is quite another thing to say that as sovereign individuals, we have no moral obligation toward our fellow man (and woman, of course).
Ayn Rand lost me there. But she really lost me when I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The problem with these books is not so much the ideas they attempt to convey, as the fact that the characters aren’t really characters. The characters are, rather, personifications of abstractions that Ayn Rand both loved and hated.
Ayn Rand’s best novel is We the Living. This is an honest, unpretentious story about three young people grappling with the no-win contradictions of life under Soviet communism. The story is based on Rand’s own experiences in the early years of the Soviet Union. It was her debut novel, written and published before she became a household name, as a famous iconoclastic philosopher with legions of devoted followers.
Ayn Rand rejected not only the Soviet Union, but also her Russianness. (She once wrote that failure is a particularly Russian outcome.) Yet Ayn Rand was herself very Russian in her “sense of life” (to use a Randian term). Namely, she saw the world in cold, mechanistic, zero-sum terms.
This isn’t surprising, given the time and place of her formative years. Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, in St. Petersburg in 1905. The terror and misery of the Bolshevik Revolution dominated her youthful experience. Prior to the revolution, her family had been upwardly mobile. The Bolsheviks cast the Rosenbaums—along with the rest of Russia—into abject poverty.
Rand’s personal life was also odd, and oddly self-indulgent. Although married, she never had any children. (Rand was an early proponent of legalized abortion—another fact that her Republican fans might not be aware of.) In middle age, she began an affair with one of her young acolytes, Nathaniel Branden. Branden was twenty-five years her junior, and both Branden and Rand were married to other people at the time. Though neither of their spouses were keen on the idea, Ayn Rand convinced them both to tolerate the hanky-panky for three years. (Read the passages of Atlas Shrugged that discuss Dagny Taggart’s peripatetic sex life, and you’ll be able to imagine how Ayn Rand “pitched” the affair to both her husband and Branden’s wife.)
This doesn’t mean that I completely reject Ayn Rand, mind you. She is one of those polarizing figures who tend to command either hero worship or loathing, when in fact, she deserves neither. Ayn Rand was a writer and thinker who was more human than she thought she was. She had some good ideas, and some ideas that were not so good.
Ayn Rand died in 1982. But some of her better ideas are still relevant. She was against collectivism and groupthink of all kinds, including what we now call “identity politics”. She asserted that a group, as such, has no rights. Only individuals have rights.
This means that there is no such thing as white pride or Latino pride, or Black Lives Matter. Each of us has unalienable rights as citizens of the United States, and as sovereign individuals. Full stop.
Much of Ayn Rand’s political writing is now dated. As the 1970s drew down, her output began to dwindle. Richard Nixon was the last U.S. president she discussed in much detail. But her final essay collection, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, published posthumously in 1982, is still well worth reading.
The opening, titular essay of this book is actually a transcript of a speech she gave at West Point in 1974. She opens the talk with a metaphor for the mental laziness of modern life:
“Since I am a fiction writer, let us start with a short story. Suppose you are an astronaut whose spaceship…crashes on an unknown planet.”
The astronaut then tries to assess the new environment. But his instruments don’t work, and he has no familiar reference points, so:
“Now you begin to wonder why you have no desire to do anything. It seems so much safer just to wait for something to turn up…Far in the distance, you see some sort of living creatures approaching…They, you decide, will tell you what to do.
“You are never heard from again.”
This passage describes the mindset of the Twitter mob, forty years before such a thing existed. The rest of the essays in Philosophy: Who Needs It? are similarly thought-provoking.
Herein lies the source of my longterm gratitude and appreciation for Ayn Rand, much as I see the flaws in some of her conclusions. Ayn Rand held that “ideas matter”. She taught me that all ideas need to be examined for their underlying premises.
She also taught that emotions aren’t “irreducible primaries,” and we can’t accept them as laws of physics. We have to ask ourselves: “What do I feel, and why do I feel it?” This is a message that could much benefit all those “triggered” Millennials and Zoomers, who complain endlessly about “microaggressions”, and clamor for “safe spaces”.
Philosophy: Who Needs It?, in other words, is a primer on critical thinking. It is perfectly fair to note the undeniable and cringeworthy pomposity of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The zero-sum grimness of The Virtue of Selfishness is also fair game. But in Philosophy: Who Needs It? Ayn Rand is a writer who forces you to examine what you really believe about the world—and why.
For that reason—and that reason alone—she is still very much worth reading. The reader should not open her books with the expectation of finding either a savior or a devil. As stated above, Ayn Rand was brilliant, in her best moments. But she was also very human and very flawed, as both a private individual and as an author.