“To a gas chamber—go!” This was the ultimate logic of Atlas Shrugged, concluded Whittaker Chambers in his review of Ayn Rand’s novel when it appeared in 1957. Rand was aghast: she believed herself to be the apostle of absolute human liberty—the goddess of the market—how had it come to this? What tendency towards tyranny had Chambers detected in her thinking? Had he found any such tendency, or was his hostility merely another example of the weak resenting the achievements of the strong?
The resurgence of interest in Atlas Shrugged and the recent release of the first part of a film trilogy adapted from the novel provide an occasion to consider her legacy. And a remarkable legacy it is. Not only was Atlas Shrugged a phenomenal commercial success, it also elevated Rand to a singular position in American culture, attracted followers to her philosophy of Objectivism, provided a moral case for unfettered capitalism, offered a withering critique of collectivism, and energised a new form of libertarianism in American politics. Nevertheless, Chambers had identified a critical flaw: a ferocious wilfulness and a compulsion towards absolutism lurked within Rand’s thinking, vitiating her philosophy and driving the emotionally and intellectually suffocating cult that surrounded Rand and dissipated her impact, ultimately consuming her and all those closest to her.
Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 in Russia to a middle-class Jewish family. She studied history and philosophy at Petrograd State University during the tumultuous times of the Civil War, the New Economic Policy, and its brutal reversal:
University life in those years was primitive. The school lacked heat and light. Reports of death by starvation, disease, and suicide [amongst students] proliferated … Professors were engaged in compulsory manual labor during the day, and students were struggling to earn a living.
(Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical)
Amidst this squalor, Rand fell under the spell of Nietzsche, attracted by his ideal of self-overcoming, his exaltation of the Will, his uncompromising atheism, his analysis of the master–slave moralities, his disdain for the masses, and his promotion of the heroic, solitary Übermensch: “From this point on, her major characters would be more or less overtly Nietzschean” (Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, 2009, p. 42). Eventually she was expelled for “bourgeois tendencies”, although she was subsequently allowed to graduate, in an ordeal that featured in her first novel, We the Living (1936).
As the death grip of communism began to tighten, Rand decided to escape. Since childhood, she had been a devoted fan of American silent films, and later worked as a translator of articles about American plays and cinema, while also studying scriptwriting. And so, in 1926 she left her family forever and emigrated, finally arriving in Hollywood. There she worked as a seamstress and junior scriptwriter before achieving fame with her Nietzschean novel The Fountainhead (1943), which was subsequently made into a stylish and controversial film. She attracted a devoted group of followers, fascinated by her quasi-existentialist philosophical outlook (later called “Objectivism”), which she claimed was based on the following premises: man is an inherently heroic being; his own happiness must be the moral purpose of his life; productive achievement his noblest activity; and reason his only absolute.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand “fulfilled the mission she had lived for: to create her ideal man and a microcosmic ideal world in which she and all other ‘real people’ could breathe freely … and love most passionately those whose strengths and values most resembled her conception of her own” (Heller, p. 287). The 1168-page epic set in a dystopian America has been variously described as a masterpiece, a prolonged tantrum against socialism, a gigantic showcase for Objectivism, a philosophical detective story, an intricate, cleverly structured thriller, and a science fiction apocalypse. It is also a gargantuan, immensely detailed thought experiment into which Rand plunged in one of her innumerable moments of frustration when she reflected upon what would happen to society if “the minds”—the creative, driving spirits like her; the “prime movers” of the world—withdrew their labour. Originally called “The Strike”, Atlas Shrugged has a number of interwoven threads that together expound a philosophy that she believed was unique to her and was in fact a vision, “a kind of revealed truth” (Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, 2009, p. 234).
The story begins with a question, “Who is John Galt?”, which has a dual significance: for the reader it sets up what emerges as the core issue of the book; while within the narrative it serves as a common saying of the despairing masses, signifying a shrugging of the shoulders, and the pointlessness of asking questions that can have no answers in an increasingly opaque world. Ultimately, these two threads come together as the plot is resolved.
Its principal protagonist is a beautiful and resourceful railroad executive, Dagny Taggart, who is trying desperately to save her family company as the economy and society collapse around her in an all-pervasive entropic process that nobody seems to understand. In her struggle she meets some kindred souls who share her inner strengths and also face the same dangers and threats from the novel’s principal villains: the parasitical “second-handers”, “moochers”, “looters”, politicians, bureaucrats and functionaries who infest a corporate world grown too comfortable with ever-increasing state intervention. For its part, the government is desperately trying to forestall the Day of Judgment by introducing intrusive, expensive and counter-productive laws and regulations, seeking control over every aspect of industry, destroying individuality, violating property rights, stifling entrepreneurial spirit, threatening to destroy Taggart’s railroad and all other private corporations, and promoting a corrosive collectivism that is quickly converging with the worst excesses of communism.
Meanwhile, the most creative and productive people throughout society are inexplicably vanishing, in what eventually transpires is a gigantic plot engineered by the shadowy John Galt and his growing army of followers. These people have set out to “stop the motor of the world” by convincing the elite of intellectual titans who are the true driving force of the economy that their continuing participation in the system is simply supporting an economic and social monstrosity that has no right to exist. Only if the servile masses and their parasitic politicians realise the true nature of their dependency upon “the minds” may this elite return to rescue and resuscitate the world. Failing this, they may retreat to their mountain redoubt and allow events to reach their cataclysmic conclusion.
Towards the end of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s didactic purpose breaks through as Galt takes control of a radio network and makes a speech to the country. Over three hours, he discloses his identity and motivations, describes the strategy of the strike, explains its rationale, and reveals to the general public the reasons for the devastating disintegration of their society. The speech is some 40,000 words long, occupying sixty-five pages in the standard paperback edition. It took Rand over two years to write and was meant to be an accurate and succinct statement of her philosophy. Consequently, Galt begins by expounding Rand’s Morality of Life—based on reason, selfishness and individualism—which he and his followers have embraced. He then expounds and demolishes society’s conventional Morality of Death—based on irrationalism, altruism, mysticism and collectivism—which is used to exploit its productive members.
Galt also shows that the only system that satisfies the political ideals flowing from the Morality of Life is laissez-faire capitalism because it alone recognises a man’s need for liberty and protects his right to the independent use of his mind, body and property. All alternative systems deliver humanity into the tyrannical clutches of socialism, fascism, communism and other dread forms of collectivism. He calls upon his listeners to examine their morality and the false premises on which it is constructed. Now alerted by the broadcast to the cause of their problems, the authorities capture Galt and (rather unwisely) torture him in a futile attempt to bend him to their will, leading ultimately to the novel’s final denouement.
Integral to this tale of secular apocalypse is a set of brilliant technical inventions, which represent the infinite capacity of human creativity, while also illustrating how it can be stifled and misused. At the human level, the mendacity of the prevailing economic and political leadership is drawn in stark and intimate terms, with central characters revealing their capacity for cowardice, duplicity, immorality and inadequacy. But amidst it all flares the purity of the truly authentic passion accessible only to the Übermenschen, and this is represented by three romances involving Taggart and a series of commanding men who progressively exemplify the values that Rand exalts, climaxing with Galt himself, the pinnacle of everything she desires, sexually and intellectually, in a man.
Published in October 1957, Atlas Shrugged carried the hopes of Rand, her large circle of devotees, and her publishers, who had invested a great deal of money and taken a big chance on what was obviously going to be a controversial book. It had been nine years in the writing, and when, in March, Rand’s secretaries had knocked timidly on her office door and then dared open it a fraction, the author’s raspy voice exclaimed, “If you come in here, I’ll kill you!” (Heller, p. 278). Alarmed, they ran off to find a telephone and returned with one of Rand’s trusted lieutenants, to witness Rand dancing gaily and proudly waving a manuscript page declaring, “The End”. But it was really only the beginning.
Despite (or because of) its negative critical reception, exemplified by Chambers’s review, Atlas Shrugged quickly found a market among a readership characterised by contemporary observers as “the intelligent common man” and “the largely abandoned class of thinking non-intellectuals” (Heller, p. 287), as well as among the professional classes and the cohort of idealistic young people on the threshold of the 1960s. Within six weeks the dauntingly large and expensive book had sold 70,000 copies. Competing with other culturally iconic works like On the Beach, Peyton Place and On the Road, it quickly rose to number four on the New York Times best-seller list, remaining on the list for seven months.
Within five years it had sold over a million copies, and continued to average sales of 150,000 copies a year for decades until sales increased sharply in recent years. It has also been translated into seventeen languages (including Chinese!). In one poll, Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible as the book that had most influenced readers’ lives; while in another, it and The Fountainhead were ranked first and second in a list of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century, with Rand’s other two novels, We the Living and Anthem, also in the top ten. (A similar list, chosen by literary critics, found no room for any of Rand’s books.)
After the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the ensuing recession in America, Atlas Shrugged began to attract renewed media attention, with Rand’s followers, politicians and commentators claiming it offered a warning against economic measures that would only further socialise the economy, entrench and reward commercial incompetence, stifle individual initiative and exacerbate the crisis. After all, Rand was railing against the state at a time when US government expenditure had expanded from 20 per cent to 27 per cent of GDP over twenty years, and the American economy was booming: in just four years (2005 to 2009) it expanded from 36 per cent to 42 per cent and America is teetering on depression, so the timeliness of these concerns cannot be denied.
“Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years”, was the title of an influential article published in January 2009 in the Wall Street Journal. Written by its senior economics writer, the article observed:
many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that Atlas Shrugged parodied in 1957 … The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you.
Echoing such fears, a Republican Congressman has suggested that “we’re living through the scenario that happened in [Rand’s book]. We’re living in Atlas Shrugged.” As sales sharply increased, the Economist reported that these “spikes” apparently coincided with the release of alarming economic data. Sales of the novel in 2009 exceeded 500,000 copies.
However, this new alertness to Rand’s warnings might not happen soon enough to prevent irreparable damage to the American economy, according to Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, in a recent article in International Finance. Greenspan is a lifelong devotee of Rand and believes her magnum opus offers a desperately needed perspective on the consequences of government interference in the economy. However, as one commentator has observed, while Greenspan’s technical economic assessment about the causes of the crisis may be correct, its full implications are not getting through to the American people: “what has been missing is a popular vehicle to barrel through and make explicit what many Americans—right, left or center—already know intuitively [about the economy]. All of which makes you wonder whether the release date for Atlas Shrugged [the movie] will come soon enough” to help alert Americans to the dangers they face.
Aside from politics, the apocalyptic dimension of Atlas Shrugged is influential in popular culture. For example, BioShock, a very popular survivalist video game, derives many of its concepts and elements of its back-story from the novel and Objectivism; while the release of the film trilogy of Atlas Shrugged will further increase interest in Rand’s ideas. The internet also provides the perfect forum for discussion and outreach by the various well-resourced organisations promoting her thought. These include the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society, which compete acrimoniously for her legacy. The former insists that her thought constitutes a closed system that needs only to be maintained in its purity, promoted and promulgated; while the latter believes that it is an open system available for development and adaptation to new challenges. Significantly, the Atlas Society has played a central role in the production of the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged while the Ayn Rand Institute ignores it. There is also an academic Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which has recently published a special issue on the relationship of Rand’s ideas to those of Nietzsche, who so profoundly shaped her thinking as a university student in Russia.
Despite its prolonged prominence, Atlas Shrugged was a critical disaster. Rand and her adoring circle had expected her tome to transform the consciousness of the nation and to confirm their view of her as a literary and intellectual colossus, “challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years”. Her followers “foresaw a renaissance of political liberty”, and believed her arguments “were so ‘radiantly exact’ as to compel agreement”, while she herself was confident that her vision would easily “triumph over small-minded schemes devised by the irrational and the power hungry” (Heller, p. 275).
Instead, with few exceptions, the reviews “were not merely critical, they were hateful and dishonest” (Heller, p. 282). There were references to Hitler and dictatorships, immorality and greed, with the New York Times reviewer declaring that although Rand “proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate”, that it was “a demonstrative act rather than a literary novel”, and a Nietzschean product of a demonic will “to crush the enemies of truth”. Time wondered: “Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare?” In the Los Angeles Times, the chief critic observed that “it would be hard to find [another] such display of grotesque eccentricity outside an insane asylum”. The New Yorker reflected on the novel’s graphic depiction of the vengeance wrought on an ungrateful society by radically disaffected corporate entrepreneurs, concluding that by the end “the globe’s two billion or so incompetents, having starved to death, [will] know better than to fool around with businessmen” (Heller, pp. 282–4).
Worst of all was the denunciation by Chambers in the Christmas issue of National Review. Only recently founded, this had become a leading conservative journal and a publication that Rand had hoped would recognise “the kinship [of her ideas] to the ideals of America’s Founding Fathers” (Heller, p. 275), and support her monumental exaltation of uncompromising heroism, liberty, free enterprise, individualism, rationality, science, creativity, passion, property rights and unfettered capitalism. Instead, she was confronted by a review entitled “Big Sister Is Watching You” that launched a devastating attack: Atlas Shrugged was not a novel at all but a messianic message, a sophomoric literary and philosophical nightmare offering a primitive and preposterous caricature of society, and advocating a new form of Orwellian despotism in which “Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world” (George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 1979, p. 157).
According to Chambers, Rand aspired not to liberty but to an authoritarian state run by a privileged, self-selecting technocratic elite, ruling by diktat and answerable only to itself. In Rand’s world ordinary people are relegated to a profoundly subordinate status, trapped there by their cowardice, lack of ingenuity, and unacknowledged and presumptuous dependency. Above all, they are incapable of recognising the true worth of the elite of Übermenschen that deign to live among them, but who could withdraw at any moment—as the novel demonstrates—leaving the intolerable and ungrateful plebs to their well-deserved fate. The uncompromising libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises found this a refreshing feature of the book, commending Rand for possessing “the courage to tell the masses what no politician [has] told them: you 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” (Heller, p. 283).
Chambers, in contrast, was appalled: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal … It consistently mistakes raw force for strength.” Frighteningly, “it supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated [and so] from almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard … commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” (Nash, p. 157). Other conservative intellectuals agreed. Russell Kirk described Objectivism as an “inverted religion” and denied that material success was “the whole aim of existence”, as he took Rand to be claiming. Frank Meyer condemned her “calculated cruelties”, and “arid subhuman image of man”, while Garry Wills pointed out that John Galt’s repudiation of all obligations to his fellow man attacked the foundations of conservative theory (Nash, pp. 157–8).
Parts of this animosity arose from the fact that these reviewers were traditional conservatives and were reacting to Rand’s militant atheism. At issue was the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement in America, and whether this was to be based on an atheistic libertarianism, as they took Rand to be advocating; or a more restrained conception of capitalism grounded in the values of Christianity and the Western tradition, as they were proposing. As National Review’s editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., later concluded, Rand’s “desiccated philosophy” was inconsistent with the emphasis placed within the conservative tradition on transcendence, “while her ideological fervour was profoundly distasteful” (Nash, p. 158).
Rand and her circle of acolytes couldn’t comprehend or accept the critical reaction. Her coterie responded by mobilising a letter-writing campaign protesting against the critics’ assessments, cancelling their subscriptions to the offending journals, and severing ties with those who failed to support Rand. Rand herself was bewildered and depressed: “She had expected attacks, but she had not expected her worldview to be confused with Marxism or Fascism, or for herself to be accused of advocating mass murder” (Heller, p. 285). How had Chambers so misunderstood her? Why had Buckley set her up? Why were there no prominent intellectuals entering the lists to defend her? She could never accept that she may have contributed to this view of her work, and in the end concluded that the state of intellectual decadence in America was much worse than even she had suspected; that clearly “she alone understood the truth”; and that her critics were nothing more than a ragtag bunch of “mystics, savages, looting thugs, beggars, parasites, gibberers, carrion eaters, cavemen, and headhunters” (p. 286).
“Her life’s mission” had been to “create an ideal man and delineate the ideas and worldly conditions that would allow him to live, love, create, and produce”, but now she felt brutally rebuffed. The critical backlash “darkened her outlook and shriveled her spirit”, while “her sense of estrangement from others deepened”, as depression and even delusion took a grip on her life: “Ayn had disappeared into [the] alternate reality of [Atlas Shrugged] and was not coming back”, her principal lieutenant later observed. “Her hope for literary justice … permanently died away and was replaced by a taste for loyalty and adulation, at least from the young” (Heller, pp. 287–9). And this adulation was not to be denied her, as for several years she gave talks to sell-out crowds on campuses across the country. There, “many right-leaning college students were untroubled by her atheism, or even attracted to it. As Rand’s followers drew together in campus conservative groups [and] Ayn Rand clubs, her ideas became a distinct stream of conservative youth culture” (Burns, p. 189).
Behind this success was Rand’s principal lieutenant and anointed intellectual heir, Nathaniel Branden. Their special relationship was critical to the spread of Rand’s ideas and the success of the Objectivist movement, and its spectacular collapse did massive harm. Indeed, when it occurred, “the titanic Rand–Branden split … was the moral equivalent in miniature of, say, a split between Marx and Lenin, or between Jesus and St Paul”, as a supporter later recalled.
Branden was invited to meet Rand in 1950, after he had impressed her with the intelligence and devotion to her values that she found expressed in his fan letters. Only nineteen, Nathan Blumenthal (as he then was) and his slightly older girlfriend, Barbara Weidman, became close confidants of Rand, with whom they discussed their sexual difficulties. “The children” or “the kids”, as Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor, came to refer to them (Heller, pp. 225, 234), became welcome visitors to the older, childless couple’s ranch in California, but then Nathan followed Barbara to New York to continue their university studies, where he eventually qualified as a psychologist. Rand and Nathan kept in constant contact via telephone and mail, and in late 1952 Ayn and Frank also moved to New York.
In New York Rand quickly established a circle of admirers, which she (bizarrely) called “the Collective”, and which came to be the centre of her social life. Membership was conditional upon the implicit acceptance of seven propositions, as Branden later recalled, with only a touch of hyperbole. These involved accepting the view that Rand was the greatest human being who had ever lived; Atlas Shrugged was the greatest achievement in the history of the world; Rand, by virtue of her unparalleled genius, was the supreme arbiter on any issue; the moral worth of a person was measured by the extent to which they recognised these facts; none of these propositions was to be explicitly acknowledged (except for the first two points); and one was to appear to have realised their truth by reason alone (Heller, p. 302–3). In such fashion are cults formed.
Rand anointed Branden as her intellectual heir, and he became central to her life in many ways, scheduling Rand’s media and speaking engagements, organising and sitting in on her interviews, screening her visitors, and arbitrating ideological and personal issues within the Collective with all the authority of Rand herself. He also played a major role in her writing, regularly reading and commenting (judiciously) on the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged. Once, he suggested that the John Galt character might be too cold and remote to attract readers; “One does not approach a god too closely”, Rand revealed in a very telling explanation (Heller, p. 239). Ironically, Galt emerged as the least compelling of all the principal characters in the book.
Branden played his role well, filling a void in Rand’s life, and soon he and Rand—twenty-five years his senior—became lovers. In this, the rationalist principles of Objectivism were applied carefully, with the pair explicitly seeking the “permission” of Frank and Barbara, who had recently become Nathan’s wife. As Barbara later recalled about this excruciating discussion: “With Ayn’s mind, once you accepted her premises she’d spin out a deductive chain from which you just couldn’t escape” (Heller, p. 257). Remarkably, all this was kept a secret from the Collective and the public until it was revealed by Barbara in 1986 in her remarkable book The Passion of Ayn Rand, further devastating the already fractured and fractious Objectivist movement.
Branden’s marriage to Barbara had not been successful sexually, and he confided to Rand that he felt he possessed a capacity for sexual passion that could never be realised with his new wife. Indeed, he saw himself as sharing the fate of Dagny Taggart as she encountered in John Galt the only man who would liberate her into a realm of sexual ecstasy. “Was Branden suggesting that Rand was his John Galt?” (Heller, p. 254) Was he suggesting such a gender reversal, that Rand should be his sexual mentor, the “god” who would initiate him into the rare delights of titanic passion? At any rate, he soon made the question even more psychologically complex by deciding to legally change his name to “Nathaniel Branden”, with “Branden” being an anagram of the common Hebrew formulation for “son of Rand”, “ben Rand” (Heller, p. 254).
Emotionally, as the moment of consummation approached in early 1955, it seemed the twenty-five-year-old Branden, for all his talk and flirtatiousness, “was out of his depth”; while the fifty-year-old Rand “had been rehearsing just such a moment of triangulated passion for at least half her life”, fantasising and writing about how a husband should accept his wife’s infidelity with a superior man, taking pleasure in the fact that she so inflamed such a titanic figure (Heller, pp. 255–8).
Once settled in, Branden quickly came to take pleasure “in playing the role of sexual aggressor with a woman who was ravenous for the experience of sexual surrender”; while Rand’s “progressive loss of control in [their] encounters disclosed the depths of her desire to be ravished and submit”, finding “both pleasure and release in the act of a master taking … possession of her” (Heller, p. 259). For her part, Barbara felt some relief that she no longer needed to feel guilty about her sexual indifference towards Nathaniel; while Frank agreed to make himself scarce twice a week so that Rand and Branden could take advantage of his absence, and his bed. Even without knowing of the affair, one observer noticed that Frank served as Rand’s “gelded companion” (Burns, p. 196).
This secret affair seemed a workable arrangement, sanctioned by Objectivist doctrine, and certainly nobody was inclined to thwart Rand in the matter. As Rand would explain in 1964 to a large radio audience: “Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts among rational men” (Heller, p. 260). Unfortunately, this principle yielded in 1968, when she learned that the ebbing of her lover’s ardour for her was to be explained not by impotence, as he had for several years claimed, but by his long-term affair with a vivacious young woman, of decidedly Aryan appearance. Sundered to the very roots of her being by Branden’s revelation, Rand unleashed a monumental wrath upon her former lover that destroyed most of what they had built together. Enraged, Atlas had become Electra.
They had built a great deal, and there was much to destroy, for Branden had emerged as an innovative entrepreneur. He had published The Objectivist Newsletter, organised speaking and other engagements for Rand in New York and around the country, and also developed a twenty-lecture course on “The Basic Principles of Objectivism”. These were based on Rand’s philosophy, augmented by his own applications of them in the realm of psychology, with a special focus on developing self-esteem. Because Rand was reticent about the use of her name, the “Nathaniel Branden Institute” was established to administer the series and undertake other initiatives, including the provision by Branden of psychotherapy for members of the Collective.
The public had responded to Rand’s charisma, and soon Newsweek was describing her as the “she-messiah” as her talks drew enthusiastic crowds across the country. In 1959 she was invited onto The Mike Wallace Show on CBS television, where Wallace devoted the entire thirty-minute program to an interview with her. At the outset he asked: “Miss Rand, would you agree that, as Newsweek put it, you are out to destroy every edifice in the contemporary American way of life?” “Yes,” she replied calmly, “I am challenging the moral code at the base.” He then asked, “Whence did this philosophy of yours come?” “Out of my own mind,” she explained without hesitation: aside from some assistance from Aristotle, she had devised the entire system—the culmination of human wisdom—herself (Heller, p. 308).
To take this message to the public, Branden had pioneered the use of compact audio cassettes as a publishing medium for the various lecture courses, reaching an ever wider audience. In a few short years he had organised Objectivism “into a detailed philosophic system, a national movement, and, briefly, a familiar national brand” (Heller, p. 290). The sale of Rand’s books, her public profile, and the commercial activities of the Nathaniel Branden Institute all thrived until 1968, when the entire creation was put to the sword as Rand liquidated all traces of Branden’s involvement with her and her movement. Consumed with a nihilistic fury, Electra had become Samson.
Rand’s fearsome reaction to Branden’s behaviour revealed the unyielding wilfulness and unalloyed self-regard that shaped her personal life, energised her career, informed her writing, and made it virtually impossible for her to tolerate dissent or develop friendships on equal terms with other people. It also illustrated why she could never form part of any organised political force on the right. As events showed, time after time, her tendencies towards intellectual absolutism, totalism, paranoia, and an obsession with intellectual purity and the ownership of ideas destroyed the possibility of any productive alliances.
This was particularly the case with the American conservative movement at a crucial moment in its development. As its leading historian points out, “in 1945 no articulate, coordinated, self-consciously conservative intellectual force existed in the United States” (Nash, p. xvi), but in the following decade three distinct streams of activism and ideology began to converge, attract an audience, and assume the form of an intellectual movement promoting conservative ideals. First, there were the libertarians or classical liberals, who were primarily concerned with the massive expansion of the state since the New Deal and the Second World War. They wanted to curb the power of government, and maximise personal and economic freedoms, even at the cost, critics felt, of destroying traditions and undermining the organic moral order that held society together. Second, there were the traditionalists who were concerned with the preservation of moral, social and political order, and were prepared to accept an expansion of state powers in order to achieve this, even at the cost of some freedoms. Third, and overlapping with the other two categories, were the militant, crusading anti-communists, who shared “a profound conviction that the West was engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable enemy—Communism—which sought nothing less than conquest of the world” (p. xvi).
This situation led to calls for a policy of “fusionism”, as conservative intellectuals like Buckley and Meyer sought to bring these divergent tendencies together within a unified political organisation. This was felt to be particularly important because of the Cold War. For Meyer, who tended towards the libertarian end of this continuum, the conservative ideal was “reason operating within tradition” and he set out to demonstrate how this was possible in 1964 by editing What is Conservatism?, an anthology of essays by prominent conservative theorists of various persuasions who could be reconciled around a number of shared principles, as Meyer attempted to show in the Conclusion of the book.
Propelled by the success of Atlas Shrugged, Rand therefore rose to prominence at a propitious time in the history of American conservatism, and the popular response to her writings showed the extent to which she could play a catalysing role amongst people looking for ideological leadership on the Right. Within this context, the natural home for Rand’s philosophy was libertarianism, which could be coupled readily with anti-communism, as Rand had consistently displayed a hatred of communists and their fellow travellers and supporters.
Unfortunately, she would have nothing to do with the established political parties and ideologies, invariably finding reasons to pronounce anathemas against people and organisations that were actually or potentially very sympathetic and accommodating towards her and her ideas. For example, Friedrich von Hayek was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, in economics, politics and philosophy, and he has had immense influence on conservatism, neoliberalism and libertarianism, winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. None of this mattered for Rand, who sustained a life-long hatred for Hayek that seems to have had its origins in her resentment at the attention Hayek received in the 1940s when his philosophical attack on collectivism, The Road to Serfdom, appeared at the time The Fountainhead was making its fictional assault on the same target. While The Fountainhead was successful, the reception of The Road to Serfdom was unprecedented, with critics lauding it as “one of the most important books of our generation”, comparable to Mill’s On Liberty and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. It was subsequently published by Reader’s Digest in a condensed version, with the Book-of-the-Month Club distributing over a million reprints (Nash, pp. 8–9).
For Rand, Hayek was “pure poison” and “an example of our most pernicious enemy”, because while Hayek could be “considered conservative” he nevertheless accepted that government had an important role to play in the provision of health care, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage. Consequently, Hayek was “an ass, with no conception of a free society at all”, and little understanding of either competition or capitalism. His conception of individualism was also faulty: “It had no real base, no moral base. This is why my book is needed”, she insisted (Burns, pp. 104–5).
Rand also had little time for Ludwig von Mises, the other great Austrian thinker, and Hayek’s mentor. They had met at a party in 1941 and immediately fallen into an argument over the doctrine of natural rights (as you do) (Heller, p. 248). A decade later Rand attacked Mises for rejecting her assertion that there had to be a moral argument for capitalism—“Bastard”, was her judgment. They also collided once again at a party over the rationale for the military draft. Mises defended it because his objection to the state arose from a concern with its distorting effects on the economy, and he accepted that it did have a vital role in national defence. Rand denounced the draft as an intolerable imposition on individual rights. Still seething the next morning, Rand telephoned people who were either friends or supporters she shared with Mises, demanding to know where they stood in a dispute that they may not even have known about. Those who sided with Mises or even just claimed neutrality were cut off: “You’re either with me or against me,” she declared (Heller, p. 249).
A similar thing happened with Murray Rothbard, a protégé of Mises and an important figure amongst the younger generation of economists of the Austrian school. As a professor of economics, he subsequently wrote over twenty books and became extremely influential as a theorist of individualist anarchism, libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. In the mid-1950s he and other postgraduate members of Mises’s seminar at New York University were anxious to meet Rand and explore areas of common interest and potential agreement, and so a meeting was arranged with Rand and members of the Collective. Failing to recognise that this was an opportunity to reach out to a vital intellectual constituency, Rand entered into the type of scorched-earth intellectual interrogation at which she excelled, systematically wiping the floor with the young economists.
Responding to one young interlocutor, Rand attacked the Misesean position that values are subjective, declaring that only a person without a moral foundation to their thought could think such a thing. She also exploded when another visitor mused that because no two objects could occupy the same space at the same time, there must be a moment when voids or empty pockets of space exist. For Rand, such a proposition was “worse than anything a communist could have said”, leaving her young audience bewildered, as they were unaware of Rand’s ontological view of the primacy of existence and of the moral consequences that flow from its denial (Heller, p. 252).
One participant later reflected that arguing with Rand was like being before “the Voice of Judgment on Judgment Day”. For his part, Rothbard observed how, for Rand, “anyone who is not now or soon will be a one-hundred-percent Randian Rationalist is an ‘enemy’ and an ‘objective believer in death and destruction’”. Ultimately, he concluded, “the famous individualist actually denies all individuality whatsoever”, perceiving and judging people entirely in terms of their relationship to her, while running her philosophical system as a one-party state (Heller, p. 253).
Rothbard himself later became the direct target of her wrath, when Branden alleged that he had plagiarised Rand and Barbara Branden’s work in a speech he was proposing to deliver at an academic symposium. After an exchange of letters, including one from Rand’s lawyer, Rothbard was summoned to a trial before the Collective. When he refused to appear he was expelled from the movement and Rand and her acolytes set out to ruin his reputation.
Rothbard himself reciprocated by denouncing the group to everybody in the libertarian movement and elsewhere, ridiculing Rand and her ideas, and by publishing a vitriolic attack in The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult in 1972. There he made the telling point that Rand deliberately set out to keep her followers in a state of “blissful ignorance”, by insisting that they must avoid “giving their moral sanction to the Enemy”, by actually reading anything that critics have written. As he pointed out, “this book-banning reached its apogee after the titanic Rand–Branden split in late 1968 … Rand cultists were required to sign a loyalty oath to Rand [and] any Rand cultist seen carrying a book or writing by Branden was promptly excommunicated”, and this tendency persisted in the Objectivist movement for decades to come.
The same process occurred with the adoring young people who had flocked to her banner after the advent of Atlas Shrugged. For example, in 1960 Buckley had sponsored Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) as an attempt to create a cadre of young activists who subscribed to the fusionist consensus advocated by National Review. However, from the outset the organisation embraced a decidedly libertarian ideological perspective in which Objectivism played a major role, serving for many as a substitute for the Christianity that the sponsors had hoped to make central to the movement. As the 1960s unfolded, elements within YAF became increasingly radical and embraced forms of anarcho-capitalism, symbolised by a black flag embellished with a gold dollar sign inspired by Rand. Ultimately, the movement split and the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL) emerged, with an explicit commitment to Objectivism. By 1972, SIL boasted 100 chapters and over 4000 members and supporters, along with thirty-three institutes, four foundations, twenty-nine booksellers, thirty-one sympathetic publishers, six educational organisations, thirteen community projects, and hundreds of magazines (Burns, pp. 257–8).
None of this energy, enthusiasm and potential political support for her ideas meant anything to Rand. Instead of offering her support, she publicly called libertarians “scum”, “intellectual cranks”, and “plagiarists”, who had stolen her ideas and were “cashing in” on her thoughts (Burns, p. 258). Sympathetic academics who dared to teach Objectivist ideas were excoriated, on the basis that they were merely students of Objectivism who “cannot be and must not attempt to be theoreticians of the subject”, a role that belonged to Rand alone (Burns, p. 252). When the Libertarian Party was formed to contest elections Rand denounced it as a “cheap attempt at publicity”, seeking to feed off her fame, while she again described libertarians as “a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people”, who were stealing her ideas (Burns, p. 268).
Eventually, the targets of this abuse turned their backs on Rand, denying that her best ideas were original to her and ultimately parodying and ridiculing her appearance and behaviour. For them, she had become part of the establishment and they saw this confirmed when President Ford invited her to the White House, including to a state dinner in honour of Malcolm Fraser, then Prime Minister of Australia, whose favourite author was Rand. There is a photograph of Ayn and Frank meeting the President on another occasion: Frank—clearly disorientated by the dementia overcoming him—looms over the diminutive Rand, who had recently lost a lung to cancer caused by the smoking she still insisted was “life affirming”. She looks shrunken, frail and edgy. The blazing meteor had passed its apogee and was beginning the plunge to earth.
Ultimately, those idealists who were seeking to transform Objectivism into a political platform didn’t recognise that Atlas Shrugged was really offering a vision. Instead, they thought that Rand was proposing a political program, a manifesto for those committed to remaking the world in the name of radical libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, what Rand was offering was an astoundingly detailed alternative reality, as Branden had noted; a vast, rich, fantastical world of great machines and heroes, of makers and traders, looters and traitors; a libidinous realm driven by power and desire, in which readers are invited to immerse themselves, as she had done while she was creating it. This is why she couldn’t countenance people appropriating and applying ideals and concepts derived from her novel. She saw such people as despised “second-handers”, parasitical “looters”, who were cheapening and diluting her creations. To her fury, they simply didn’t get it. They weren’t honouring her or her work by taking up her concepts and using them in their own way. On the contrary, they were robbing her creations of the power they possessed for her in the imaginative universe that she had laboriously created over nine long years of writing, and over decades of thinking and fantasising. Ultimately, her creation belonged to her, and could only ever belong to her. She recognised this; they didn’t. They thought she was offering a philosophy that led to political activism; she believed she possessed a vision that demanded reverence and even worship. They were operating on one plane; she was operating on another.
And on that plane she was supreme, a genius at her craft. Rand herself, along with her two great novels, The Fountainhead and especially Atlas Shrugged, were great and singular cultural phenomena. She offered a powerful and unique vision, an empowering myth that has great appeal to people who feel stifled by an unresponsive, bureaucratic and un-heroic world, a world where irrationality and dishonesty reign, where sycophancy trumps talent, where initiative is punished, where creativity and imagination are de-valued or exploited by those who lack both, and where the masses allow themselves to be manipulated by “leaders” unworthy of the name. For people despairing at such a dystopia, Rand offered, in her own public persona and in her novels, both an exemplar and an escape. The enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged is a measure of how much both of these are still required.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication, at James Cook University.