Ayn Rand Reconsidered

, Malcolm A. Kline, 22 Comments

She’s been derided in academia for decades: Panels disparaging her works are not unusual at the Modern Language Association’s annual confab.

Yet and still, her virulent atheism has made her controversial on the right, where, it would seem, she would find a more sympathetic audience.

Nevertheless, when it came to worldly matters, she was uncommonly prescient. For one thing, the Russian-born novelist had a keener understanding of the U. S. Constitution than many American Constitutional law professors do today. “The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government—as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social good,” she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Moreover, coming to America in the roaring 20s from the Soviet Union gave her a world view sensitive to early manifestations of totalitarianism. Indeed, a warning she issued in The Virtue of Selfishness sounds eerily topical today, half a century after it was written.

“A collectivist tyranny dare not enslave a country by an outright confiscation of its values, material or moral,” Ayn Rand wrote. “It has to be done by a process of internal corruption.”

“Just as in the material realm the plundering of a country’s wealth is accomplished by inflating the currency—so today one may witness the process of inflation being applied to the realm of rights. The process entails such a growth of newly promulgated ‘rights’ that people do not notice the fact that the meaning of the concept is being reversed. Just as bad money drives out good money, so these ‘printing-press rights’ negate authentic rights.”

“Consider the curious fact that never has there been such a proliferation, all over the world, of two contradictory phenomena: of alleged new ‘rights’ and of slave-labor camps…”

Speaking of money, which she touched on in the above passage, Rand had a keener understanding of it than many tenured economists. As Randians know, she liked to put her ideas into dialogue spoken by her favorite character. The uninitiated might find this literary device tedious but it’s worth bearing with her to encounter some real nuggets of insight.

For instance, in the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, copper magnate Francisco D’Anconia gives a speech that news readers in 2014 might find haunting:

“Let me give you a tip on a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it…

“Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard—the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law—men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims—then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter…”

If you think that sounds hyperbolic, visualize Detroit.

One final time-capsule moment: Read what she said about the media in 1957 and see how current it looks. “It was their daily duty to serve as audience for some public figure who made utterances about the public good in phrases carefully chosen to convey no meaning,” Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged. “It was their daily job to sling words together in any combination they pleased, so long as the words did not fall into a sequence saying something specific.”

  • Henry Solomon

    Thank you. It’s good to see Ayn Rand get some well deserved appreciation.

  • Curtis Plumb

    The appreciation is back-handed. “Virulent atheism?” I guess, as opposed to mild-mannered agnosticism.

  • Edward Cline

    Ayn Rand was never “virulent” in her atheism. It wasn’t a primary concern of hers, although she could and did write cogently and persuasively about religion’s hold on men (religion is a “primitive form of philosophy”). She was nothing like Madeline Murray, a one-issue advocate of atheism whose raving militancy was off-putting even to many atheists. And Rand certainly didn’t contribute to the notion held by many conservatives for decades that if one is an atheist, one must be a left-winger and enemy of freedom and hater of America. It was chiefly William F. Buckley, Jr., who spread that idea.

  • Rebecca

    To paraphrase V.I. Lenin, “The first step on the road to communism is atheism.” The Socialist H.G. Wells in his book “The New World Order,” and in other places states his atheism and his anti-Christian beliefs. Ayn Rand was against abortion- like a conservative and unlike most of her followers, but said in a question and answer book that in her philosophy, there was no room for children (a philosophy going nowhere). Rand’s lover Nathanial Brandon, who worked in the self-actualization movement (atheism) with people on the Left, said he invented Ayn Rand. There is no “virtue of selfishness,” and to understand the people who started America one must understand it was the most highly cooperative venture the world has ever seen, and it drew on every great idea anyone ever had. The founders were the exact opposite of the” individual against the world attitude” of Ayn Rand. Rand’s favorite authors included H. L. Mencken, a supporter of Hitler and an anti-American atheist, and Thomas Paine, a man disavowed by the founders and the writer of a book dubbed “The Atheist’s Bible.” I read somewhere that Rand supported Hitler, but haven’t verified it. If true, her politics would be national socialist, not the politics of the writers of the constitution.

  • Edward Cline

    This is one of the most bizarre readings of Ayn Rand I’ve seen, and I’ve read some top prize winners. First, please cite the statement of Lenin’s you say you’ve paraphrased. Also, I fail to see what H.G. Wells has to do with the subject of Rand. I’m not even certain she ever read his works. Rand was not against abortion; she championed the right of women to own their own bodies. She realized that the time to have an abortion was a medical issue, not necessarily a moral one. She never said that Objectivism had no room for children. What she did say is that parents have an obligation to raise their children to be rational beings. I doubt that Nathanial Brandon ever worked “with people on the Left.” The “self-actualization” psychology he taught had little or nothing to do with atheism. Rand admired Mencken, who did not support Hitler. He may have been an atheist, but more likely an agnostic. Rand’s politics was laissez-faire capitalism, not National Socialism. She praised the country’s Founders, but acknowledged that they were political philosophers and made errors in their thinking on specific issues. Rebecca, I don’t know where you’re getting your information about Rand, but I’m certain you’ve been handed a bum deal.

  • Rebecca

    O.K. , first this is a comment site, but I still threw in almost everything I know about Ayn Rand, some of which I read years ago in books which might be out of print. In a “question and answer book,” taken from a speech she did at a university, don’t remember the name of the book, she stated she was against abortion, and also stated there was no room in her philosophy for children….She could have changed her mind after Roe V Wade… If she wrote something else about abortion or children, I don’t remember reading it. Paul Kengor(sp?) wrote a book recently “The Communist,” where he used and cited the quote from Lenin, but you can read almost any book by Lenin and you will find anti-Christian pro-atheist sayings–most far worse than this. Rand was right out of Lenin’s Russia. I threw in H.G. Wells, a Fabian socialist, because he had lots to do with the philosophical and political thinking going on during the time of Rand, and even now. His book “New World Order” can be searched and read on the web…… According to Dennis Prager, who has researched Rand, her friends were left wing philosophers and she was totally anti-Christian. You are wrong about Brandon….he was the only one on the “right,” in the self-actualization movement… and it was about atheism…man being his own god…and Marxist psychology…According to the Marxist psychologists involved…. It has been a while since I read where Mencken supported Hitler, it could have been in the intro to Nietzsche’s book “The Anti-Christ,” which he translated into English because he loved it so much…. Mencken also wrote his own anti-Christian, anti-American book “Treatise on the Gods,” He was the reporter at the “monkey trials,” and went against another Leftist who happened to be a Christian. “Treatise On The Gods,” should be easy to find. There’s also a book “The Best of H.L. Mencken,” which should be readily available and says more about his anti-Christian, anti-American, and atheist ideas. Rand said he was one of her favorite authors….Brandon’s wife wrote a book about the affair between her husband and Rand, which was made into a movie….hope this helps to explain what I have said. Here’s a quote from “Treatise”: “The Eighteenth Century, rocking to its gory end there, saw the whole programme of progress challenged by the twin superstitions of democracy and evangelical Christianity, and the Nineteenth took over a burden of stupidity and folly that the so-called Anglo-Saxon race, on both sides of the Atlantic, is still struggling hopelessly to throw off.” Wells would have agreed.

  • Curtis Plumb

    Your comments are the farthest from ‘accurate’ possible. Malcolm Kline must have
    cringed as he tried to follow the reasoning in your responses.

  • Rebecca

    So what exactly do you find wrong with my comments? You haven’t said. You just don’t like them.

  • Doug Rees

    Bertrand Russell once said that there are two types of atheists: Protestant atheists and Catholic atheists. Ayn Rand was definitely of the former variety: someone who sought doggedly to convert everyone to atheism, rather than someone who just sought to live hedonistically on the premise that God does not exist. She was an evangelist. Her mission in life, as she herself defined it, was to provide an ideology to support capitalism; and that’s precisely the problem I have with her philosophy. All ideologies, including hers, are dangerous and destructive things, because they seek to force the complexities of life into the strait-jacket of an intellectual system based on a priori reasoning.

    I’ll give you an example. Ayn Rand herself, and her followers in general, were/are fond of proclaiming that no one has the right to confiscate the honestly-obtained wealth of anyone else. Usually this assertion is accompanied by long, vitriolic (and, to my mind, tedious) word-images of the Wesley Mooches of the world seizing the wealth of the John Galts. But there’s a problem here. Ayn Rand was not an anarchist–in fact, she went out of her way to attack the “anarcho-capitalists” in the libertarian movement (e.g. Murray Rothbard). She believed that some sort of government was necessary, presumably one strong enough to protect John Galt and his co-producers. But any such government has to be funded; and every such government in human history has been funded by some form of taxation–that is, by the confiscation of wealth. Even if government is nothing more than cops on the beat and soldiers on the border, cops and soldiers have to be paid, and the infrastructure to support them has to be maintained. Although Ayn Rand explicitly disavowed anarchism, her original premise leads straight in that direction. As she herself stated: “When you find a contradiction, examine the premises.”

    There is a kind of hierarchy of philosophic concerns. Something has to exist in order to be known, but it need not be known in order to exist. So ontology (the study of being) comes before epistemology (the study of knowledge). Similarly, something has to be known in order to be judged, but need not be judged in order to be known; so epistemology comes before ethics and aesthetics. Finally, something has to be judged ethically in order to be judged politically, but need not be judged politically in order to be judged ethically; so ethics comes before politics. I have said that the closer one comes to the base of that hierarchy–ontology–the more my views agree with Ayn Rand’s. At the level of epistemology, there are a few differences, but not many; but at the level of ethics, aesthetics, and especially politics, our views diverge considerably.

  • Rebecca

    My problem with Ayn Rand is very simple. This country was founded by men and women who were nothing like the heroes in her books. They built a country from the ground up, through Total Cooperation, not by “The Virtue of Selfishness.” They had strong family ties. They started schools and libraries. They went into the wilderness and built town after town from the ground up, with a church in the center of it. Here’s a quote which would have been appreciated by our founders”There is nothing that makes men rich and strong but that which they carry inside of them. Wealth is of the heart, not of the hand.” John Milton
    Not that the founders had a problem with busy hands. “In the making of our republic the deeds of the pioneers, farmers, inventors, teachers, captains of labor, captains of industry, have been quite as important as the deeds of warriors and statesmen. This history, therefore, is not of the drum and trumpet kind….it is one where a large share of attention is given to the everyday life of the people; to the movement which carried American civilization westward and built up a union of states; to the growth of our industrial system; to the topics bearing on our economic development…is a subject of transcendent importance…” S .E. Forman,Historian…Ayn Rand was a snob. Her heroes were hyper-individualists and loners. Our founders were not. She didn’t like families. They loved them. She would not have understood the pioneers. Or American style capitalism. She would not have been able to develop the systems of transportation like the Erie Canal or all the other systems America is noted for. She didn’t seem to even understand them. It took a totally cooperative effort that she was not capable of, as she expressed in her books. The planning and the capitalization of the efforts that went in to making this country and make it worth keeping seemed to have been unknown Rand. If the founders used her philosophy, instead of their own, America wouldn’t be here. They would have never been able to muster the cooperation needed to get themselves out of Europe in the first place. In this day and age, with the groundwork already done, and the prime inventions in place, we can sit on our duffs and philosophize, like Ayn Rand… and like her, we could say the founders did an okay job, but we could have done it better….yeah sure….

  • Eric

    When you just “[throw] in almost everything [you] know about Ayn Rand,” without checking the facts, you end up regurgitating a bunch of filth.

    I have to agree with Edward Cline’s comments — “This is one of the most bizarre readings of Ayn Rand I’ve seen, and I’ve read some top prize winners. “

  • Rebecca

    What exactly is bizarre about it? Where is the regurgitated filth? Can it be both regurgitated filth and bizarre?

  • Rebecca

    Oh, this gives me the chance to fix the one factual mistake I made when writing on this subject. It was Marx not Lenin that said the first step on the road to communism is atheism, and it is cited in the book “The Communist.” You do know how Lenin felt about Christians, I hope. An easy mix up.

  • Doug Rees

    It seems to me that, in discussions with Randians, we are basically dealing with members of a quasi-religious cult. Marxists and Randians have a lot in common–and not just atheism. In both cases, there is a psychological need to be intellectually shepherded by some kind of semi-divine thinker, whose writings are considered an infallible guide to life as well as an inerrant source of truth. I think both Marx and Rand are done a disservice by being cast in this role. Both had something to say, but neither is an infallible oracle.

    We shouldn’t be disciples of anyone. We should follow our own paths, and not be dragged along on somebody else’s trip.

  • Rebecca

    To Doug, we are being dragged along on somebody else’s trip. If we weren’t, none of this would matter. If you don’t stand up politically, there are others who will gladly shape your life for you, while you are on your own trip. This is some of what I was trying to say above. The founders were not on their own trip. As a group, they decided how they were going to live and what they had to do about it to accomplish their goals. Then they set about doing it as a group. All of them, from the frontiersman to the inventors to the capitalists to Washington worked to accomplish major goals. They were not individualists and they were not communists. They used the bigwig capitalists and small capitalists to finance what they did for the benefit of all….Often, a group of around sixty people would move in to an area where there was nothing and start building a town. The town might grow or die. The towns were incorporated and the town founders made money off of their towns…. George Washington started building an entire country from the ground up with the help of like minded people who worked well with each other. This country used a prosperity model different than what has been used anywhere else. We have had peace and prosperity here like nowhere else, until recently with the advent of socialism in this country. I don’t think Rand’s model counteracts socialism…I wish it did…. Over the years we have been led away from taking part in our own political life….We are strangers to our city halls and capitals…. This is not how it is supposed to be….

  • Doug Rees

    To Rebecca:

    I do stand up politically. I belong to (and contribute to) the Green Party. BUT the Green Party doesn’t ask me to be a disciple of some magically-infallible thinker. I do my own thinking, and, in that sense, I’m on my own trip. But that doesn’t mean I can’t cooperate with others who share many of my own values and beliefs.

    I grew up in rural Iowa, where there was a strong sense of community. If some farmer’s barn burned down, his neighbors got together to build him a new one. If one of their barns burned down, the farmer joined with others to build his neighbor a new one. It was kind of a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type of arrangement.

    For almost 30 years, I’ve worked with computers. In the early days, most of the people who worked with computers also programmed computers. It wasn’t unusual for computer users/programmers to get together to swap programs and share information. The computer revolution was as much a product of cooperation as it was of competition.

  • Rebecca

    Then why did you write what you did? And how can you be a member of the Green Party and not know of the influence of Karl Marx on your party?

  • Doug Rees

    I don’t quite understand your response. I’m aware that there are Marxists in the Green Party, but there are also plenty of non-Marxists (including myself). Nobody in the Green Party has ever asked me to endorse Marxism. It’s a broad-based group, with room for a wide range of philosophies.

    I did NOT attack Karl Marx, or suggest that his ideas have no validity. Neither did I attack Ayn Rand, or suggest her ideas have no validity. I simply refuse to genuflect before either one of them, or to treat their writings as a kind of holy scripture.

    I fail to see why that contradicts my statement about supporting the Green Party.

  • Rebecca

    First you made it sound like both Marx and Rand followers are cult members. Then you said you aren’t involved politically. Then you said you are –in the Green Party. Not exactly a mainstream group. You say you are on your own path, but it seems you have a lot of company on that path. Not mainstream company, but company. Your ideas are less your own than you want to admit.

  • Doug Rees

    To Rebecca:

    I never said I wasn’t involved politically. YOU said that–I didn’t. I merely said that I refuse to make a fetish out of somebody else’s philosophy.

    As far as being on a lonely path, I plead guilty. I am on a lonely path, at the present time. The Green Party isn’t exactly “mainstream” as defined by the mass media. But when Samuel Adams set out to make the American colonies independent of Britain, he was on a lonely path, and his views weren’t exactly “mainstream” either. There is a famous story about Lenin during his exile in Zurich, Switzerland. It seems that Lenin was the leader of a tiny group of revolutionaries, who met in a small coffee house. One day, someone came in off the street and joined the group. Lenin said: “The revolution is assured. Now there are eight of us!”

    We cannot force things to happen, but we can be ready for them when they come.

  • Rebecca

    You made more than one statement and they seemed to contradict each other. Now, it seems you are tying together the Green Party, Samuel Adams and Lenin? Interesting.

  • Darius

    Objectivism: One of the greatest philosophical development of the 20th century.