Who is Ayn Rand? Jennifer Burns’ Brilliant New Biography of a Controversial Icon

March 12, 2009 | by | Topic: The PersuadersPrint Print

“Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” By Jennifer Burns | Oxford University Press, USA (October 2009) | 384 pp. | List Price: $27.95

Prior to the 1990s, few scholarly studies of post-World War II American conservatism were published. Happily, this situation has changed in recent years. Much solid academic work has appeared which takes conservative thought seriously and attempts to explain its historical and cultural context. Jennifer Burns’ new biography of Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, is a welcome contribution to this growing body of literature. Burns has produced a thoroughly researched and critical (but fair) study of one of the conservative movement’s most influential and colorful thinkers.

Like many of the intellectuals who shaped the movement in post-World War II America, Ayn Rand was a Jewish European émigré. She was born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 to Anna and Zinovy Rosenbaum, the latter an ambitious, self-made man who ran a chemistry shop in Petrograd, along with his cultured wife. Ayn’s father’s business enabled her family to live in considerable comfort, but the Russian Revolution changed everything. Bolshevik soldiers forcibly seized her father’s store, and his daughter never forgot the traumatic event.

Despite her hostility to the communist regime, Rand studied at Leningrad State University, where she first encountered philosophy, including the writings of Aristotle. Among her most formative early influences, however, was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose bracing atheism and celebration of the heroic individual she found exhilarating. Upon graduation, Rand became obsessed with motion pictures, watching a staggering 117 films in 1925 alone. The young Rand first caught glimpses of urban life in the United States in some of these silent movies, and when an opportunity to leave Russia and join relatives in Chicago came up, she jumped at it.

Ayn Rand spent only six months with her American cousins, soon making her way to California, where she sought work in the nascent film industry as a screenwriter. The ambitious and vivacious Rand made important business connections there, and found a husband (marrying bit-part player Frank O’Connor), but the industry changed with the advent of talkies. As she quietly wrote plays and screenplays, Rand also nursed dreams of becoming a serious philosopher, writing in her private journal in 1934, “I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion” (Goddess, 29).

Hoping to work on a possible Broadway production of one of her plays, Rand and her husband moved to New York in November 1934. The city’s frantic pace and intellectual life suited Rand better. During these early years in New York, Rand published her first book, We The Living (1936), which drew upon her experience in Leninist Russia. The hostile reaction to the book by many of New York’s left-leaning intelligentsia convinced Rand that all was not well with American culture. Rand concluded that the rot of collectivism was infecting the home of rugged individualism. Though she voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Rand soon became a harsh critic of the New Deal. She was introduced to the turbulent world of partisan politics by contributing to the Wendell Wilkie campaign of 1940.

In 1941, Rand wrote the booklet, “Manifesto of Individualism.” Yet, it was her two published novels, The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1957), that catapulted Rand into celebrity. The first eventually became a best-seller and won favorable reviews even from critics not fond of Rand’s philosophy. The second, though it sold well, was less fortunate; it was dismissed by many as heavy-handed and patently ideologically-driven.

Meanwhile, Rand had gathered around her a circle of adoring students in her New York apartment, where she held court on a regular basis. Among the more notable participants were the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard and the future chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. Rand assumed an even higher profile in the public arena with her support for Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964. When, however, Rand’s adulterous relationship with disciple Nathaniel Branden became public in 1968—a relationship bizarrely sanctioned by both Branden’s wife and Rand’s own husband—many followers felt betrayed by their idol and grew disenchanted with the official movement. Nonetheless, Rand’s novels continued to sell well and her ideas attracted considerable interest among college students dabbling with libertarianism and anarchism during the 1960s and 1970s.

Conservatives with Christian convictions may be inclined to dismiss Rand’s personal story as a weird aberration, while cherry-picking those bits of her philosophy they find attractive (eschewing, of course, her obnoxious atheism). That would be a mistake. Rand’s objectivism is of one piece and Burns’s biography is in part a sobering cautionary tale for conservatives. The narrative offers at least three timely lessons worth noting:

One involves Rand’s radical individualism. Americans have a well-earned reputation for being fiercely individualistic, but Rand’s system is based upon a hyper-individualism developed to its logical (often absurd) conclusion. Burns includes a chilling account of how the young Rand wrote admiringly about a brutal, unrepentant serial killer named William Hickman, praising his uncompromising independence and bold willingness to flout societal norms. “What the tabloids saw as psychopathic, Rand admired,” Burns comments (Goddess, 25).

The sort of individualism at the heart of Rand’s system was plainly toxic. For instance, Rand’s response to conservative critics of abortion was to exclaim: “An embryo has no rights.”(Goddess, p. 263) Though her critic in other respects, Murray Rothbard here agreed, contending that “what the mother is doing in abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.” (Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty [1978], 108).

Dispensing with God can leave one with either an all-powerful state, or the all-powerful self. Predictably, Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s one-time disciple and lover, later became “a leader of the self-esteem movement” during the 1970s (Goddess, 248).

Second, Rand and her circle consistently demonized the state as the principal source of evil in the world. Such a caricature has been alien to Christian political theology from Thomas Aquinas, to Richard Hooker, to Leo XIII and Reinhold Niebuhr. Rand’s anti-government stance can lead to troubling contradictions in a representative democracy, and Burns notes how Rand often slipped into an arrogant elitism. The rational faculty she increasingly emphasized in her thought was best exhibited by “the better species, the Superman,” and not by that group of mindless citizens she dismissed as mere “human ballast” (Goddess, 114, 326, note # 7).

Third, her elitism was connected to a myopic dogmatism that would have warmed the heart of any Stalinist. Sadly, some conservatives have occasionally exhibited some of the same unattractive characteristics of their opponents. The circle of students and disciples that gathered around Rand in her New York apartment (ironically labeled the “Collective”) evinced an almost cultic spirit. Curiously for a woman who professed to be fascinated by ideas, Rand ultimately became genuinely anti-intellectual in her unwillingness to see truth anywhere but within the narrow confines of her own closed system. Ideologues on both the right and the left have often fallen into this sort of blinkered sectarianism, speaking only to true believers and dividing the world neatly into enlightened individualists and crude collectivists.

During the spring and summer of 2009, a few Tea Party protestors showed up at demonstrations with placards inscribed with the question: “Who is John Galt?” The reference was to a character in Atlas Shrugged who personifies the rugged individualist battling organizational conformity and statism. Jennifer Burns’ insightful biography clarifies that Christian conservatives should be deeply suspicious of any movement that celebrates Ayn Rand’s “superman.”

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