20 February 2021

From Russia with love (or not) - Ayn Rand in the USA

In year 11, I read both Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead, and found them full of two revolting qualities: 1] selfish individualism and 2] destructive, laissez faire capitalism. Thus I am relying on Jonathan Freedland and others for a more balanced review. 

Alissa Rosenbaum (1905-82) was born in St Pet­ersburg, the eld­est of 3 children. Alissa was enrolled in a progressive school where she ex­cel­led academic­al­ly but was soc­ial­ly isolated. After the Russian Revol­ut­ion of 1917, her fath­er’s successful pharm­acy shop was confis­cated by Commun­ists, an event she loathed. At Leningrad State Uni, she studied history and read the works of Greek philosophers, then in 1924 enrolled in the State Institute for Cinematog­raphy.

Ayn Rand in St Petersburg
The Moscow Times

A letter from Chicagoan cousins encouraged her to leave Russia, to gain expertise that she could apply in the Soviet film industry. Upon arrival in 1926, she became Ayn Rand! From Chicago Rand went to Holly­wood, where producer Cecil B De­Mille got her work in films. In 1929 she married ac­t­or Frank O’Connor. Soon hir­­ed by RKO Rad­io Pic­tures, she continued writ­ing stor­ies, plays and film scenarios, and became an American citizen (1931).

Rand’s play, Night of January 16th (1933), was a hymn to in­dividualism in a courtroom drama. In 1934 she and O’Connor moved to New York to oversee the play’s production on Broadway. That year she also wrote Ideal, about a self-centred film star on the run from the law.

Her 1st pub­lish­ed novel, We the Living (1936), was a romantic tra­g­edy in which Sov­iet totalitarianism typified the intrinsic evils of coll­ectivism, the subservience of indiv­id­ual int­erests to those of the state. Then Anthem (1938) port­rayed a future collectivist dystopia.

Rand spent 7+ years working on The Fountain­head (1943), where a hand­some architectural genius whose ind­ividualism was shown in his total commitment to his own happiness. The hero, Howard Roark, blew up a public hous­ing project he’d designed, after it was altered against his will by government bureaucrats. On trial for his crime, he deliv­ered a lengthy speech in his own defence in which he argued for indiv­id­ualism over collectivism, egoism over altruism. And the jury voted unanim­ous­ly to acquit him!! Roark was Rand’s vision of the id­eal man who embod­ied her egoist­ic moral ideals - was he in­spired by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959)?

In 1945 she began planning her next novel, Atlas Shrug­ged (1957). The book depicted a future U.S on the verge of economic collapse af­ter years of collectivist misrule, where productive ci­t­izens i.e in­dust­rialists had been exp­loit­ed to benefit an unworthy pop­ulation of incompetents. The heroic and handsome physicist-inventor, John Galt, led a band of elite creators in a strike, to force the gov­ernment to re­spect their economic free­dom. From their Col­or­ado fort, they watched as the national econ­omy and the coll­ec­tivist soc­ial system faded.

 Top The Fountainhead, first published 1943
 Bottom Atlas Shrugged, first published 1957
 
In an appendix, Rand described her systematic philos­ophy: Object­ivism i.e the concept of a man with his own happiness as his ONLY moral pur­p­­ose, with pro­ductive achievement as his noblest activity. Objectiv­ism rejected all ideas that indicated a prim­itive cult­ure i.e fat­al­ism, ignor­ance, poverty, pas­sivity and coll­ect­­ivism. In­stead Object­ivism promoted Western civ­ilisation, cap­it­­­alism and mod­ern­ity, bring­ing individualism, science, ind­us­trialisation and wealth.

The book was attacked by a wide range of critics for its immorality, but it was well re­ceived by bus­iness leaders, men impressed by its moral justif­ic­ation of capitalism.

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged appealed widely to young people through their accessible and compreh­ensive philosophy, rejection of traditional authority and impl­ic­it invitation to the reader to join the ranks of the elite (by copying the story’s hero).

In 1950 Rand agreed to meet a young admirer, Nathan Branden; Nathan and his girlfriend became Rand’s intel­lectual follow­ers. In 1951 the couple moved to New York, married in 1953, and introduced Rand to their friends at salons at Rand’s flat. The group, the Class of ’43 or The Collective, incl­ud­­ed an economist who later headed the U.S Pres­id­ent’s Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Greenspan.

In the late 1950s, Branden established a bus­in­ess designed to teach Objectivism to Rand readers. Nathaniel Branden Instit­ute in N.Y off­ered courses in Objectivism by Branden to other Object­iv­ist centres. An educational academy perhaps, but the Institute did not permit its students to think critic­ally about Ob­jectivism; rather it guarded Object­ivist or­thodoxy against innov­ation by symp­ath­isers, espec­ially among the grow­ing U.S and British right.

Meanwhile, Rand’s fame increased with her book sales. She was invited to speak at universities and on television programmes. Growing into her role as a public intellect­ual, she published her first work of non­fiction, For the New Intel­lectual, a coll­ect­ion of philos­ophical passages from her fiction, in 1961. The Virtue of Selfish­ness (1964) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) were drawn from lect­ures and articles. But Rand was continually frustrated by her failure to win acceptance am­ong academic philosophers. She attributed this neg­lect to collectivist bias and incompetence, but it was prob­ably due to the fict­ional, unscholarly form in which her philosophies appeared.

In 1968 Rand ac­cused Branden of betraying Objectiv­ist prin­ciples, end­ed his part­ner­ship in The Objectiv­ist and de­manded that the Instit­ute be closed. The closing of the Institute allowed various self-described Objectivists to blossom, but Rand bel­ieved these young lib­ertarians were flirting with anarchism.

In 1974 she had surgery for lung cancer and survived, but she could no longer pursue major writing pro­jects. In 1979 she re-publish­ed Intro­duction to Objectivist Ep­ist­emology, a collect­ion of philos­oph­ical articles, and died in 1982.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 1991
by philosopher Leonard Peikoff

In 1986 Barbara Branden published The Passion of Ayn Rand. Despite the resulting dam­age to her reputation, Rand retained a loyal following among con­servat­iv­es. In the 1990s-2000s her works contrib­uted to the pop­ularity of U.S libert­ar­ian­ism; she was an iconic figure in the anti-government Tea Party movement (2009). These polit­ical influences, rather than her lit­er­ature or philosophy, will live on. NB Travis Kalanick (Uber), Peter Thiel (Facebook), Steve Jobs (Apple) and Pres Donald Trump all adored her thinking!









26 comments:

Not A Fan said...

Thank you for inviting me to read the story Helen. I have two questions. Did Ayn Rand see herself as a serious philosopher, since she didn't think the academics took her thinking and writing seriously? Did she personally sanction Peikoff's book, even though she died before he published?

Andrew said...

I did not warm to her and I wonder how much she influenced Greenspan's thinking.

Hels said...

Not A Fan

I think Ayn Rand's view of herself as a serious philosopher probably increased with her age. Nonetheless, she continued to publish popular books, and did not submit her work to scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. I found plenty of economists and politicians who read her theories, but I didn't find any university philosophers (except below).

Re Leonard Peikoff, this objectivist Professor of Philosopher at NY University was very close to Ayn Rand, making him heir to her estate after her death. So he co-founded the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985, and wrote his book in 1991, years after her death.

Hels said...

Andrew

The two were VERY close!

In the 1950s, Alan Greenspan was part of Ayn Rand's Collective, a disciple and acolyte of the author. But it wasn't until much later that the power shifted. During the Reagan years, when the laissez-faire, free-market philosophy became the governing doctrine of US capitalism, Greenspan became the US’s central banker. In 1987, he firmly believed that market forces were the best mechanism for the management and distribution of the nation's resources. Greenspan's views, a la Rand, rested on the assumption that economic organisers behave rationally, in their own self-interest.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - thanks for this ... years ago I read some of her works ... but I didn't know her back-history, so was interested to read this post - thank you ... Hilary

bazza said...

I read those two novels much later in life than you did and I have to say that I was not very impressed. Possibly that's because, at that time, I was interested in philosophy and had expected so much more. I suppose they stand up best purely as fiction but even then I lost interest in her. Her back-story is interesting and I was very surprised by the connection with Alan Greenspan. On reflection, maybe I shouldn't have been!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s intensely impudent Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

Hilary

back history makes all the difference, doesn't it? Either it can help explain questions that we might not have understood, or it might have us rubbing our eyes in disbelief. For example, I had no idea why Ayn Rand's first career successes in the USA were in plays and films, not in literature. Then I discovered that in 1924, she had been an enthusiastic student in the State Institute for Cinematog­raphy in Moscow.

Hels said...

bazza

I have always had a problem with artists who may produce great paintings, literature or music but whose character is flawed in a way that bothers me. Should we discount the quality of Dickens' books because he was a hideous husband to his wife? What about Gauguin who was rooting 12 year old girls and fathering more children, while producing wonderful paintings? Or the talented composer Richard Wagner who targeted the equally talented Felix Mendelssohn for destruction because of bitter anti-Semitism.

Same with Ayn Rand's very successful books, written while she dealt harshly with followers who didn't follow the Rand philosophical line exactly!

bazza said...

I have heard similar arguments against Churchill and Einstein. I suppose our in-built confirmation bias makes us forgive the ones whose work we admire!

Luiz Gomes said...

Bom dia Hels, esse texto nos traz muita reflexão.

William Schmitt said...

One of Ayn’s legacies would be the market driven Texas electric grid, as much as possible, as cheaply as possible, for as much profit as possible. Human suffering be damned. I am surprised that the electric monopoly in Oklahoma has been able to keep us from deregulating, and as bad as the cold was, actually did pretty good. I found her books to be liked a corked bottle of wine, undrinkable.

Dr. F said...

I only know Rand through the very fine film adaptation of The Fountainhead, that starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. I believe Rand did the screenplay. Politics and Philosophy aside, its basic theme is the artist's right to his or her own work. It is true that in the Renaissance patrons gave input to painters and sculptors, but the greatest artists were usually able to express their own vision. From the start cinema has been a collaborative effort as noticed by the lengthy credits at the end of modern films, but the great directors fight to express their own vision.

I don't think that you or your readers would agree with modern censorship, suppression, and cancellation tactics.

Frank

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I tired reading Rand a few times but could never get into her books. I am always repulsed by books of propaganda or otherwise telling me how to think. As you mention, just look at her supporters to see how creepy her philosophy must be. There was a scandal at Yale a while ago which involved a donation of $20 million. However, Yale gave the money back because the donor wanted veto power on professors (really a lot of nerve--basically trying to buy Yale for only $20M!) and I think they also wanted to add Rand to the curriculum reading. Ugh!
--Jim

Hels said...

bazza

our in-built confirmation bias probably _does_ make us forgive the ones whose work we admire! Otherwise there would be a lot of books not read, paintings not admired and politicians not voted for.

Hels said...

Luiz

was Ayn Rand translated into Portuguese? What did you think of her novels?

Hels said...

William

Nod. Even decades after the author's death, we can still explain what has happened or not happened or might have happened, using Randian philosophy. At least in the USA.

Hels said...

Dr F

not only was the film adaptation of The Fountainhead a popular (although not necessarily a critical) success in 1949, Ayn Rand became very well known as the screenplay writer and Patricia Neal's reputation as the lead actress was blossoming. Did Rand complain about some of the directing and acting decisions made against her wishes? Of course she did!

Hels said...

Parnassus

Ayn Rand sold millions of copies of both her big novels, even decades after her death. I have no doubt that her readers found she was a great story writer, with interesting characters, events and language. Not bad for a woman who was originally a non-English speaker, hey?

But by supporters, I assume you mean the people who were attracted by Rand's philosophies. I wonder if her serious publications, other than her two main novels, sold as brilliantly?

Wills said...

Nathaniel Branden split with her over her unwanted attentions on him personally, and his desire to pursue psychology which Rand had no respect for as a science. He wrote a book about it, “Who is Ayn Rand”. A play on Atlas Shrugged theme “Who is John Galt?”

mem said...

Yuck !! its interesting to see how the extremities of the Russian Revolution and the damage done to a family caused her to espouse these revolting (IMO)philosophies which have so infected the western world .As for her acolytes. I suspect they are just naturally nasty narcissists' who enjoy having their stance confirmed as being right. I feel though that the worm is turning as we deal with the calamities caused by rampant individualism . I just hope that it happens fast enough because we need a balance of power in this world and I would prefer the US to be strong to counter China etc. There is a lot to be said for the consideration of others and kindness to people and the planet in general. I am optimistic that this starting tote occur to more and more people .

Dr. F said...

Please excuse me for offering another comment on this subject. There is, and has always been, a middle ground between the extreme individualism espoused by Rand, and the forced altruism espoused by collectivists. At least at the core of Western civilization, and perhaps others, there was the idea of moderation or "in medias res." Christianity adopted it and claimed that in self-sacrifice, one would truly find their individual self. On the other hand, it was always against the forced altruism proposed by Communists and socialists today.

The famous story of the Good Samaritan provides an example. No one forced the Samarian to care for the beaten man, and no one expected him to give up his own business or wealth. He did it on his own without destroying the business that allowed him to be altruistic. He didn't expect others or government to do the job. Even in the Fountainhead, in expressing his individualism, Roark created a thing of beauty that would in the end benefit him as well as all people.

Frank

Hels said...

Wills

Thank you for the reference.

It all depended on when Nathan and Barbara Branden wrote the book i.e before or after the bitter Rand-Branden split in 1968. As it happened it was published in 1962, written admiringly with the full cooperation of their leader. Needless to say, the Brandens later rejected their own book.

Hels said...

mem

You suspected her acolytes were simply nasty narcissists' who enjoyed having their stance confirmed as being right. But that sounds a bit benign to me.

Rampant individualism is irritating and tedious in and of itself. But rampant individualism at others' expense is dangerous. One example will do. If anti-Covid vaccines are limited in number, they should go to the most needy, not to the most powerful sod who believes he is entitled!

Hels said...

Dr F

spot on. There is indeed a middle ground between the extreme individualism espoused by Rand, and the forced altruism espoused by collectivists. If I was on the Titanic, I would try to save my spouse and children at any cost, but I would not give up our seats on the life boats to strangers.

mem said...

in th lifeboat scenario you quote ,I was thinking what I would do . It would depend on how old I was , how much life I had to look forward to . I would give up my seat in heart beat to a person who was young and had their life ahead of them . I believe that in doing that I might die a good death , one with meaning and one I would feel ok about going through . Mind you I would come back and haunt said young person if they proceeded to be a shit !!

Hels said...

mem

the choice to save your own life Vs saving a younger person's life would be a horrible one to have to make, especially since the circumstances would be under terrible pressure. And although I don't believe in a Good Death, I would be full of admiration for you either way.

But Howard Roark was an architect who didn't approve of other architectural tastes and blew up the home _he_ designed to prevent the other architects influencing the final product. He didn't care if he went to gaol as a result of his destruction, nor did he care who else he killed in the explosion - he cared solely about his own design being honoured.