Ayn Rand and the World She Made. By Anne Heller. Nan A. Talese; 592 pages.
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. By Jennifer Burns. Oxford University Press; 384 pages.
FOR all its faults socialism is manifestly superior to capitalism in one area: the making of myths. Capitalists can never equal the emotional appeal of socialism’s martyred heroes. Ayn Rand, however, is a conspicuous exception to this rule. She has been given short shrift by the intellectual establishment. Literary critics bemoan her cardboard characters and tabloid style. Political theorists dismiss her as a shallow thinker whose appeal is restricted to adolescents. But such disdain has done nothing to damage her popular appeal.
Rand’s books have enjoyed impressive sales since her death in 1982. But America’s shift to the left—the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama’s election two years later—has put her back at the heart of the political debate. Conservative protesters carry posters asking “Who is John Galt?”, referring to one of Rand’s heroes. Conservative polemicists suggest that Mr Obama, by stepping in to rescue the banks and industrial behemoths such as General Motors, is ushering in the collectivist dystopia that Rand gave warning against. Sales of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” have surged. Rumours swirl that a film based on “Atlas Shrugged” is in the works.
So the publication of these two books could not have been better timed. Anne Heller is more informative on Rand’s early years in Russia. Jennifer Burns is better versed in conservative thought. Both are well worth reading, partly because Rand’s life was so extraordinary and partly because the questions that she raised about the proper power of government are just as urgent now as they ever were.
Rand was the single most uncompromising critic of the collectivist tide that swept across the capitalist world in the wake of the Depression. For her, government was nothing more than licensed robbery and altruism just an excuse for power-grabbing. Intellectuals and bureaucrats might pose as champions of the people against the powerful. But in reality they were empire builders who were motivated by a noxious mixture of envy and greed. Rand’s heroes were a different breed: the businessmen and entrepreneurs who felt the future in their bones and would not rest until they had brought it to life.
This might sound like libertarian boilerplate: Nietzsche repackaged for the Chamber of Commerce crowd. But three things gave her work its hypnotic power. The first was her background as a Russian Jew—she was born Alisa Rosenbaum—who witnessed the revolution and its aftermath at first hand. This filled her with contempt for the Communist fellow-travellers she encountered in Washington and Hollywood, and sensitised her to the similarities between the New Deal and central planning. The second was the absolutism of her vision. Confronted by an almost uniformly hostile elite, she went out of her way to pick a fight with a possible ally, Friedrich Hayek, dismissing his “The Road to Serfdom” as pure poison because he conceded there might be a limited role for the state.
But her most important attribute was her talent for myth-making. Rand perfected her literary art as a screenwriter in Hollywood. And she dealt in Hollywood-style dichotomies between good and evil, between white-hatted capitalists and black-hatted collectivists. Greys don’t interest me, she once said. “Atlas Shrugged” conjured up a world in which all creative businessmen had gone on strike, retreating to Galt’s Gulch in Colorado, and culminated in a dramatic court scene in which Galt detailed the evils of collectivism.
The woman behind these right-wing myths was exceedingly odd. She had “a glare that could wilt a cactus” according to a writer in Time, and wore a broach in the shape of a dollar sign. She was even odder to live with. Ms Burns points out that she obliged her long-suffering husband to wear a bell attached to his shoe so that she could hear him come and go. She all but obliged her leading acolyte, Nathaniel Branden, to meet her for sex twice a week, informing both her husband and Mrs Branden that the arrangement was rational. She picked fights with “frightened zombies”, as she called her fellow intellectuals, and yet was mortally offended when anybody dared to criticise her writing.
Ms Heller and Ms Burns both dwell on the contradictions of Rand and Randism. Rand was an uncompromising rationalist. But she was also the plaything of powerful emotions. She devoted her life to fighting collectivism. But she would not tolerate dissent among her followers—and even playfully called her inner-circle “the collective”. There was more than just a right kind of politics, one of her followers recalled. There was also a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. She loathed communism. But many of her readers reacted to her writings in much the same way that leftists reacted to reading Marx.
Both authors point to the tragedy of her career even though her book sales turned her into a multimillionaire and a cultural icon. She lived to see laissez-faire triumph over collectivism and one of her leading acolytes, Alan Greenspan, appointed to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. But nothing was ever good enough for her and she felt surrounded by traitors. Ms Heller is particularly informative on the way that the “collective” fell apart when she fell out with Branden.
Yet Rand’s appeal has been undimmed by either the vituperation of her critics or the peculiarity of her admirers. Her insight in “Atlas Shrugged”—that society cannot thrive unless it is willing to give freedom to its entrepreneurs and innovators—has proved to be prescient. Even if John Galt is under threat once again in the West, he is back in business in China and India.