Re-Reading and Re-Appraising Ayn Rand

Howard Gold Founder & President, GoldenEgg Investing

I first read Ayn Rand in an unlikely place—that bastion of Democratic liberalism, the Catskill Mountains.

There, I spent a summer between junior and senior year in high school reading Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s epic philosophical novel about the fall and re-birth of capitalism in America.

It was a thrilling experience—I had never read anything that ambitious or challenging—but it turned out to be a summer romance. It just wasn’t the life-changing epiphany for me that it became for millions of others.

But when Terry Savage wrote a terrific blog posting for MoneyShow.com last year about Atlas, I decided to reacquaint myself with this important thinker.

So, since March, I’ve been re-reading Ayn Rand—Atlas, which I finished over Memorial Day; essays from various collections, and a fine biography by Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

My conclusions: Rand was a much better writer than the critics acknowledged. Her philosophy deeply reflected her childhood experiences in Russia. She gave us a brilliant defense of the moral basis for capitalism and a scary account of how, step by step, liberty can be taken away by a power-hungry government. 

But for me, she falls short in her ultimate goal: to create in Objectivism a universal philosophy of economics, politics, ethics, and epistemology. Why? Because she focuses almost exclusively on a small elite of high achievers and has little interest in the aspirations of ordinary people. And she wants to change, not accept, human nature.

This subject deserves an extended treatment, so I will devote this column and the next two to it. To Rand’s many adherents who are reading this, I don’t claim omniscience; I’m here to raise questions. So, I welcome your comments. And I’m still reading.

But we must begin where Rand did—in Russia.

She was born Alyssa Zinovievna Rosenbaum to a Jewish family in St. Petersburg on February 2, 1905. Her revered father, a pharmacist, was a self-made entrepreneur who shrewdly navigated the many restrictions Jews faced in Czarist Russia.

“In those years, it was dangerous to be a Jew [in Russia,]” writes Heller.

The routine pogroms and persecutions left their mark on Rand, who was irreligious but remained sensitive to anti-Semitism her entire life. They created in her a loathing for the oppressive power of the Czarist state and what she saw as the “mysticism” of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“She hated the passivity, brutality, and primitive religiosity of the Russia of her youth,” Heller writes. 

She also hated the Bolsheviks, who came to power after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Communists expropriated her father’s pharmacy, setting the family on the road to economic ruin.

Rand, who had already graduated from university, left for the United States in early 1926, never to return.

She quickly headed for Hollywood, where a chance encounter with the famous director Cecil B. DeMille got her work as a screenwriter. She also met her future husband Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929. They remained together until his death a half-century later.

Rand was determined to be a writer. While still earning her living in Hollywood, she proceeded to write a series of novels: We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), and her breakthrough work, The Fountainhead (1943), which she later adapted for the screen. In the early 1950s, she left Hollywood for good and moved to New York.

In 1942, Heller reports, she began taking amphetamines to meet publishers’ deadlines, and probably used them for the rest of her life. In the 1950s she began a disastrous affair with Nathaniel Branden, her much-younger protégé, apparently with both spouses’ permission. Branden was eventually banished from Objectivism after Rand found out about a later relationship of his.

Atlas Shrugged brought her fame and fortune. It was her last work of fiction, but she continued to write non-fiction and give popular lectures. A chain smoker, she contracted lung cancer and died in 1982, having lived to see a fan of hers, Ronald Reagan, become president.

Next: All About Atlas

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Atlas was published in 1957 to scathing reviews, the most infamous from Whittaker Chambers (yes, that Whittaker Chambers) in William F. Buckley’s National Review, who deplored the novel’s godlessness and “shrillness beyond reprieve.”

But it became a huge best seller: Atlas and The Fountainhead have sold more than six million copies each since their publication, and Rand’s titles still sell in the hundreds of thousands each year. The financial crisis and government bailouts have greatly increased interest in her work.

A 1998 poll by The Modern Library put Atlas and Fountainhead at the top of readers’ choices for the top 100 novels of the 20th century. The literary critics named James Joyce’s Ulysses. (I’m with them.)

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing in Atlas, and (with one big exception) find many criticisms unwarranted. The edition I read was a hernia-inducing 1,168 pages—a mere 50 less than Tolstoy’s War and Peace—and it can be pretty slow going.

But its narrative is sweeping, compelling, and well-constructed. Rand’s depiction of the corrosive destruction of freedom through ever-stricter government fiats is a chilling exploration of the dark heart of totalitarianism.

Rand has a real gift for physical and natural descriptions. And her main characters come alive, especially the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, who runs operations for the great railroad her grandfather founded. Taggart struggles with her own role in a rotting system and with conflicts of the heart and soul.

Also compelling is Francisco d’Anconia, the heir to a Chilean copper fortune, who was Dagny’s lover but now seems to be a worthless playboy. Hank Rearden, the great industrial entrepreneur who created a super-metal, Rearden Metal, comes across pretty flat to me, and some of the villains are cartoonish.

My big problem with the writing is the dialog. Rand has produced page after page of speechifying, words and sentences no normal human would say.

Here’s a brief example from dozens I could have chosen:

Hank Rearden: “ ‘I like giving things to you, because you don’t need them...’”
Dagny Taggart: “‘That is the way I do need them, Hank. From you.’”
Hank: “‘Do you understand it’s nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.’”
Dagny: “‘If you’d given me those things just for my pleasure, not yours, I would have thrown them in your face.’”
Sounds like something scooped up from Hollywood’s cutting-room floor, doesn’t it?

Most important, however, is the substance. Atlas Shrugged tells the story of a society in crisis. One by one, productive people have been dropping out of sight as government bureaucrats and their industrialist collaborators institute more and more rules and regulations aimed at redistributing wealth from the able to the needy.

Dagny Taggart is trying to keep the railroad running (her brother James, the company’s president, is incompetent), and she contracts with steel magnate Hank Rearden to buy a revolutionary new metal he’s created, Rearden Metal. They also begin an affair (he’s married to an unbearable shrew), which has some unforeseen consequences later on.

As the bureaucrats tighten the screws, more skilled people disappear and the economy  crumbles. The talented decamp to a secret town in the Rockies, where they establish an alternative economy and prepare for their return. Among them is John Galt, a brilliant engineer who has vowed to “stop the motor of the world.” Rand’s original title for Atlas was The Strike.

Next: Rand’s Philosophy

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Near the climax of the book is a 60-page-long radio address by Galt. It reiterates a lot of things the novel has already said, but it’s the most complete statement of Rand’s mature philosophy.

In a nutshell, that is: 1. The world is as we see it. A is A. 2. Human beings must rely on their rational minds to survive. 3. Man exists for his own sake, and his happiness is his highest moral purpose. 4. People achieve the greatest fulfillment by using their reason and talent to accomplish their highest goals.

“To live,” says Galt in his radio speech, “man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-Esteem.”

Capitalism, wrote Rand, is the only moral economic system, because it “leaves every man free to choose the work he likes,...to trade his product for the products of others, and to go as far on the road of achievement as his ability and ambition will carry him.”

Money and free trade are the only moral and rational ways to establish value; their alternative is violence and barbarism.

Government’s role is to protect individual rights. Its efforts to assist the needy at the expense of the successful are immoral and doomed to failure.

Much of that sounds reasonable, but I do have a couple of problems.

First of all, Rand’s ambitious effort in Atlas to find a philosophical/scientific basis for her moral and political vision is a bridge way too far, in my view.

It also veers into Utopianism, as she repeatedly talks about throwing off the centuries of ignorance and mysticism and transforming man into a totally free and rational being.

Chapter II of Part III is called “The Utopia of Greed.” Former hard-charging businessmen like aircraft magnate Dwight Sanders seem perfectly content doing routine jobs like raising pigs and curing bacon in their Utopian community.

And the ex-philosophy professor Hugh Akston tells Dagny there: “Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves—or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth.”

Excuse me, but isn’t the effort to transform human nature “for the better” and achieve heaven on earth part of every ideological movement that ultimately ends in tears?

I think Rand said it much better in her earlier writings, like in 1941, when she wrote (according to Heller): “Capitalism, unlike Communism, doesn’t demand the impossible…Capitalism gives man’s ‘natural, healthy egoism’ the scope and freedom to allow him to enrich himself, if he so wishes—and as a result enriches others.”

Finally, her philosophy claims to be universal, but she’s not interested in ordinary people, who in Atlas usually avoid taking action while the heroes strut across the stage. Often they’re called “looters” or “moochers”—cowardly parasites on the accomplishments of the great.

In a 1946 letter to a fan, Rand wrote (quoted by Heller): “‘If there is such a thing as an average man, who cares about him or why should anyone care? What I am interested in is the great and the exceptional.’”

Her admirer, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, once wrote her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you [the masses] are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

So, is it any surprise that I can’t recall seeing the word “democracy” used approvingly in Atlas’s 1,168 pages? Would someone please find it for me?

The problem is that you can have reason and logic completely on your side. But in a democracy, if you don’t show that your ideas are in the best interests of most people, you’ll either lose or have to impose your policies by deception or force. 

And it’s pretty hard to show “the average man” you respect and care about him if you’re constantly preaching the superiority of the elite, the virtues of extreme selfishness, and the evils of altruism. That’s where we’ll pick up next week.

Howard R. Gold is executive editor of MoneyShow.com. The views expressed here are his own.