Formidable, irascible, incorrigible, and eerily prescient: Ayn Rand.
In a recently released biography of every misanthropic, libertarian college student’s favorite philosopher, Jennifer Burns captures both Rand’s undying fervor for her philosophy as well as her personal failings. "Goddess of the Market; Ayn Rand and the American Right" is a must read for both Randophiles and political conservatives who have heard of Rand, but who may not have the time or perseverance to slog through "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged."
Burns clearly holds admiration for Rand, but is not mired in the sycophancy one often finds with self-identified Objectivists, making "Goddess of the Market" the most even-handed discussion of Rand I’ve ever read.
Three areas of Burns’ biography of Rand were especially interesting to me: the discussion of Rand’s early childhood and move to the states; an explication of Rand’s personal life with her husband and paramours; and Rand’s atheism.
CHILDHOOD TO EARLY AMERICA
Born Alisa Rosenbaum, Rand came into this world in Russia, at a time when millions of Jews were emigrating from that country due to rising antisemitism. Rand’s father was apparently an erudite, irreligious man who owned a chemist shop. As the Bolsheviks took over czarist Russia, they took Mr. Rosenbaum’s chemist shop, in the name of the burgeoning dictatorship of the proletariat. Mr. Rosenbaum was permitted to reopen his shop at some point, only to have it confiscated once more. At this point, portending John Galt, he refused to work.
Rand was a precocious child, and her parents encouraged her education. At some point in her teens, Rand discovered Aristotle and his syllogisms while a student in Russia; she was never the same. Rand even attended university in Russia, studying history and philosophy. Of course, all of her classes had a Marxist tilt, but Rand was able to overcome pedagogical brainwashing. She was exposed to Herbert Spencer, Plato, and began reading Aristotle and Nietzsche, her two greatest influences. The only thing Rand loved as much as Nietzsche and Aristotle was the movies.
Through a family connection in Chicago, Rand was given the opportunity to flee Russia in favor of the land of the free. It was on her way to the states that the Alisa Rosenbaum transformed into Ayn Rand, taking on the new name just as would a Hollywood starlet. Eventually, Rand matriculated from Chicago to Hollywood, armed with the hopes of someday having a script made into a movie. Rand had a knack for script review, but a face for radio. She was probably on her way to becoming a spinster until she met Frank O’Connor, a young actor with Hollywood looks.
Ultimately, her big break, professionally, came when a producer saw potential profit in a gimmick employed by Rand in a play she wrote. The climax of the play was a courtroom scene with an impassioned plea by the protagonist, a person who broke the law standing up for his individualism. Rand wrote two alternate endings to the play, depending on whether the jury (made up of audience members) found the hero guilty or not-guilty.
AYN, FRANK, AND NATHAN BRANDEN
Frank O’Connor, it turns out, was a dutiful wife to Ayn Rand. It was clear early on in their marriage that Rand was going to have a brighter future than O’Connor. Every time the couple moved from one city to another, it was at Rand’s behest, even before the couple was wealthy. Once Rand became the breadwinner, O’Connor found solace in gardening, and later painting. Rand loved entertaining at her house, especially when college kids or twenty-somethings were on the guest list, and O’Connor was always the amiable host. Rand was inevitably mercurial at her salon, exploding at those who deigned to disagree with her. O’Connor was always there to smooth things over and douse rhetorical fires, usually sparked by Rand’s incendiary treatment of friends or admirers.
Rand’s philosophy was as near a complete worldview as a single person could develop, complete with political, religious, and even relational precepts. At the core of Rand’s philosophy were a rejection of altruism and an embrace of selfishness. Holding selfishness as a first principle, of course, led Rand to become an impassioned defender of capitalism, especially in light of her Bolshevik experience. She fancied herself a philosopher in the mold of those predicted by Nietzsche, who could offer a moral code sans religion. Although Rand’s morality, such as it was, made her a friend to capitalism, it impelled her to views of love and sexual expression that were abhorrent.
As Rand reached her fifties, she was idolized by tens of thousands of college students who rejected the status quo, but were not taken in by beatnik culture. One such young man was Nathaniel Blumenthal, who later changed his surname to Branden in honor of Rand. Branden, at one time, was tapped as Rand’s philosophical heir, and was the only person other than Rand permitted to be called an Objectivist, as opposed to a student of Objectivism. At some point, Branden and Rand shared a kiss. Rand called a meeting at her apartment, requiring the attendance of Branden, his wife, and Frank O’Connor. At that meeting, Rand stated that she and Branden would require a few hours alone each week. Bam! Rand made Frank a cuckold right there to his face. He sought solace at a local bar.
The flame burned out, and Rand was left confused. According to Burns, Objectivism taught "that sexual love was a response to values and a reflection of self-esteem." In Rand’s mind, to be shunned romantically was to have her whole philosophy rejected. This was unbearable for her, and she could not accept that a man thirty years her junior might simply be more attracted to a more nubile gal.
All that is not to say Rand wasn’t devoted in some way to Frank O’Connor. She needed him, and he was the emotional rampart the outlandish Rand required.
RAND AND GOD
Like many with a libertarian bent, I’m a great admirer of Rand, and tend to disregard her atheism. After reading "Goddess of the Market" I’m now convinced that Rand’s atheism is an essential part of her philosophy, and makes Rand a dangerous influence on the political right. (On the flip side, Rand hated the idea of Ronald Reagan, arguing that his religion made him far more dangerous liberalism.)
Rand sought to make capitalism and individualism distinctly moral issues, but did so in the Nietschean mold: atheistically. However, as much as Rand fancied herself a rational Aristotelean, accepting only what she could observe and deduce logically, her view of rights was more a premise than a deduction. Rand seemed to start from the premise that men have rights and are equal, without proving it up. She stated, "all men are free and equal, regardless of natural gifts." She held as a principle the immorality of the initiation of force, but her atheism prevented her from being able to support that precept. While traditional conservatives like Buckley could support their values with their religion, Rand was attempting to be the philosopher of the ubermensch. Her philosophy contained no room for a god, other than her.
Objectivism was a quasi-religion in Rand’s day. Rand was constantly followed around by The Collective, a group of youthful disciples. Branden started an organization to disseminate Rand’s ideas all over the United States. In New York, Branden’s seminars were presented by him in person, while in other cities students gathered to hear Branden’s instructions from a tape recorder placed on a table in the front of a room. And like most religions, Rand, as the leader, was not to be questioned negatively. Rand loved interacting with students of Objectivism, but she would denounce questioners she disliked by having them removed or dismissing them as having low self-esteem. One student wrote to Rand, "Last spring I discarded my religion, and this past fall I took the Principles course in Washington. Two better choices can hardly be imagined."
Rand maintained her atheism to the end. When Frank O’Connor died, she told Phil Donahue that she would commit suicide to be with him if she believed in an afterlife. I would add that after reading "Goddess of the Market" I found the Donahue interview on You Tube, and I have to admit that I didn’t realize that Donahue was such a good interviewer 30 years ago.
I highly recommend reading "Goddess of the Market." Someone, I can’t remember who, once stated that history affords great men and women one sentence: Lincoln freed the slaves; Washington was the first president; Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I reckon Rand’s sentence would be, "She was the author of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’" She would have preferred to be remembered as a great philosopher, but both in life and in death it’s difficult for scholars to take Rand seriously as a deep thinker. She never published in academic journals, and the greatest expressions of her philosophy are contained in her fiction. But she did predict the big-government nature of environmentalists almost 40 years ago, and of course foresaw the exponential growth of the nanny state.
I’m certain Rand was brilliant. And her success story is truly American—Russian girl from an impoverished country comes to America to follow a dream. But she traded godless communism for godless capitalism. In the former, men are the highest order of creature; in the latter, Man is (to paraphrase from the book).
Go here for part 3 of Phil Donahue's first interview with Ayn Rand. Go to the 2:30 mark for a discussion on sin. Go to the 8:15 mark to see Rand's vitriolic response to a questioner who disagrees with her.