And the Rand played on: Ayn Rand's paeans to commerce

Books Global capitalism may wobble, but the ideas of its original Iron Lady still sell books by the millions. Scott McLemee contemplates the apparently timeless appeal of Ayn Rand's paeans to commerce.

Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American novelist, is shown in Manhattan with the Grand Central Terminal building in background in 1962.
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Global capitalism may wobble, but the ideas of its original Iron Lady still sell books by the millions. Scott McLemee contemplates the apparently timeless appeal of Ayn Rand's paeans to commerce. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right Jennifer Burns Oxford University Press Dh102 Ayn Rand and the World She Made Anne C Heller Nan A Talese Dh126 Amidst the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, sales of Ayn Rand's books have reportedly tripled. This seems an unlikely development, for Rand's novels and tracts all assert the justice and inner moral grandeur of unregulated capitalism. Even the former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (for more than two decades a member of Rand's inner circle, and the disciple who tried to carry her doctrines into the very heart of the American economic system) has been obliged to admit that he overestimated capitalism's capacity to foster its own best interests. How, then, can the appetite for Rand's work have grown?

To be sure, the Rand market has never been anything but robust in the years since her death in 1982. Every year, her melodramatic novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1958) have sold at least 100,000 copies each. Rand's other fiction remains in print; so do her ventures into philosophical speculation and political commentary. From time to time, an opinion poll in the United States will show that she is among the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Intellectual historians do not recognise this, but then her influence is on the lower levels of the culture, where they seldom venture.

All of this might be construed as an American peculiarity, like miniature golf or the bacon cheeseburger. But that is too narrow a view: Rand's perspective is not nationalistic, and her philosophy has a properly cosmic dimension. To put her in perspective it is helpful to consult, of all things, The Communist Manifesto. When Marx and Engels describe the world-churning dynamism of unfettered capitalism - its capacity to unmake and remake the world in its own image - they write with a verve and vividness that make recent paeans to globalisation seem timid. It is fitting that they might have some prophetic insight into the author of The Virtue of Selfishness.

"The intellectual creations of individual nations," write Marx and Engels, "become common property....and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature." They do not say all of it will be good literature. With that proviso in place, one should not hesitate to cite Ayn Rand's work as an example. A Russian-Jewish émigré who wrote in English, Rand shows the influence of Victor Hugo, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudyard Kipling, Yevgeny Zamiatin and Cecil B DeMille, to give no more cosmopolitan a list than that. She was a transnational writer, and it seems appropriate that her work is now available in Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

Marx and Engels also write that the constant flux of innovation and crisis generated by the world market will leave a lasting effect on human consciousness. Capitalism shatters traditions and undermines mythologies; it reduces all consoling fantasies to dust. This, according to the revolutionaries, is a good thing: "Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

But here Marx and Engels overestimate just how much reality the human psyche can bear - and they certainly underestimate Ayn Rand. Her fiction is a sustained effort to create for capitalism a grand mythology that is too solid ever to melt into air. Her approach to doing so was sui generis and even, in its way, avant garde - most conspicuously in Atlas Shrugged, her final novel, in which didacticism and tempestuousness combine in a truly epic work of propaganda.

In it, a group of viciously exploited capitalists decide to "go on strike" by withdrawing from a decadent society that is on the verge of total collapse. They gather to form a kind of commune where they engage in long ideological discussions about the system they have left behind. The climax of the novel is an extremely long speech on the radio by John Galt, who is in effect their general secretary. As the book closes, the individualists are ready to return to civilisation, for they have a world to win.

This, in effect, is a Socialist Realist novel, minus the socialism. As with the rest of Rand's fiction, it is a piece of heroic fantasy - and it comes tinged with the erotic sort. (Her fictional universe is curiously childless, but enthusiastically copulative.) Rand grasps that there is more to the market than cold rationality interrupted by the occasional panic of collapse. In her vision, it is where supermen can prove themselves, and superwomen can enjoy mild consensual sadomasochism. A Marxist would insist that capitalism strips social reality of its mysteries and illusions. But when one of Rand's heroines is ravished by a rugged individualist obeying no law but that of his own untrammeled will, the world is being re-enchanted again.

She may not be part of the domains of literature or philosophy, but Rand certainly belongs, in her way, to history. The audience for her work has included two or three generations of right-wing activists in the United States. (Recent screeds comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler offer an homage to Rand, who denounced John F Kennedy in an article called The Fascist New Frontier.) She must be taken seriously, if only for her influence.

Even someone who feels only aversion for her prose and ideas may find the figure of Rand herself strangely captivating. She possessed charisma and deep reserves of will, and projected the image of being both self-created and self-assured. Her personality was hard, like a knot pulled very tight. It is the work of a biographer to examine the threads, and to determine what forces did the pulling. Of the several books on its subject now available, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, a new biography by Anne C Heller, is the most focused upon the tangles of her personality. Heller draws on and extends the work of two early and prominent followers, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, whose Who is Ayn Rand? (1962) was the first - albeit hagiographical - account of its subject's life. Later, having broken with Rand, each of the Brandens published a book revealing her less Olympian aspects. Heller writes with greater distance and more documentation, but largely confirms their account.

Rand saw herself as a supremely logical person. She called her philosophical doctrine Objectivism; it was not so much a product of her mind as its systematic articulation. Beginning in childhood, she said, Rand worked out a lucid and exact understanding of the world, including the assessment that very few people were as consistent, rational, or self-sufficient as she was. The rest of her life, then, was a syllogistic deduction from first principles. For Rand, and for the ardent Objectivist, her books, and indeed her very existence, had been hewn from one solid block of absolute knowledge.

This is not an interpretation likely to survive efforts at corroboration. Heller's biography does not offer a single alternative key to understanding Rand's life or personality, but she compiles abundant evidence that neither were perfectly transparent. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in Russia in 1905, Rand seldom identified herself as Jewish, but Heller makes a plausible case that her sense of being uniquely rational in a world full of unthinking and impulsive people was in part a response to the reality of anti-Semitism. Likewise her hostility to any form of egalitarian politics was a response to the social upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution.

She emigrated, changed her name, taught herself English, and set out on a career in film and as a writer - but not without support from members of her family in the United States. That could never be admitted, though, given her claims to transcendental self-sufficiency. It was in her romantic life that Rand's claim to perfect rationality had its most painful and tragicomic effects. She insisted that her husband, Frank O'Connor, was a living embodiment of the hyperindividualistic and ruggedly virile qualities attributed to her fictional heroes: he must be, she believed, because it would have been impossible for her to be in love with someone who failed to embody that ideal. O'Connor was by all accounts strikingly handsome, like a proper Randian hero; but unlike one, he was passive. His greatest virtue was clearly his patience. But he was no Randian Übermensch, and her stringent idealisation amounted to ignoring his real personality.

In her forties, Rand began an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a disciple half her age. That, too, was a matter of pure reason and absolute knowledge in action. She insisted on explaining this to her husband and to her lover's spouse. During the same period Rand was using amphetamines, which tend to make everything seem like a good idea. The figure emerging from Heller's account is a solipsist in everything but theory - acknowledging the existence of other people, but treating it as a matter of little consequence. Precisely that quality is manifested by Rand's heroes, and it makes the fiction appealing to some readers. In a strictly Objectivist notion of sovereign individuality, messy emotions and complicated ties of interdependency are abolished. This is inhuman. But the desire for it is all too human.

While covering much of the same ground, Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is not a portrait of the artist as megalomaniac. Burns has instead undertaken the long-overdue job of situating Rand within the history of the American conservative movement. Apart from a brief period of campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940, she was not much of an activist; her most important public intervention was to serve as a friendly witness during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Communist influence in Hollywood. Her influence was chiefly intellectual - spread through her books and the Objectivist milieu, but also in unpublished manuscripts that circulated within conservative networks. Burns gives these texts close attention, alert to the catalytic role they played in shifting the American right from a largely defensive posture (decrying the New Deal without being able to successfully challenge its legacy) to something much more aggressive and effective.

Rand did so almost in spite of herself. At heart she was a sectarian. Her interaction with other intellectuals and strategists within the political right (figures including FA Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard and William F Buckley) tended quickly to shift into the polemical mode. Her ideological entourage developed cultish ways, employing a combination of psychotherapy and internal show-trials to keep its cadres on track. Objectivist doctrine was not open to modification by anyone but Rand herself.

She could inspire a political movement, then, but not lead one. She had a passion for ideas, and this made her a distinctive and powerful force at a time when the American right seemed content to be, in the strictest sense, reactionary. Marx wrote that ideas become a material force when they grip the masses. Untold thousands of young readers, in several languages, are feeling that grip even now. The long shadow of Ayn Rand continues to fall across the generations, inspiring the heroes who will create the next bubble.

Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.