Johann Hari On Ayn Rand

Johann Hari On Ayn Rand November 8, 2009

Johann Hari has two exquisitely written and detailed pieces on Rand, one from 2005 and one from this past week.  I have to admit that she is held with so much contempt by philosophers that I have never bothered to read her, even if only to understand the influence of her infamously crude appropriation of Nietzsche, so a lot of what Hari brings forth is frankly stunning and revealing to me about why her reputation is really that bad.  Just a few clips to convince you to go read the articles in their entirety:

Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote “a scathing denunciation of childhood,” headed with a quote from Pascal: “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”

But the Rosenbaums’ domestic tensions were dwarfed by the conflicts raging outside. The worst anti-Jewish violence since the Middle Ages was brewing, and the family was terrified of being killed by the mobs—but it was the Bolsheviks who struck at them first. After the 1917 revolutions, her father’s pharmacy was seized “in the name of the people.” For Alisa, who had grown up surrounded by servants and nannies, the Communists seemed at last to be the face of the masses, a terrifying robbing horde. In a country where 5 million people died of starvation in just two years, the Rosenbaums went hungry. Her father tried to set up another business, but after it too was seized, he declared himself to be “on strike.”


While Rand is (rightly) appalled when the state kills people, she considers businessmen taking risks with the lives of ordinary people or government bureaucrats to be actually heroic. In ‘Atlas Shrugged’, the heroic Nat Taggart “murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him” and (ho, ho) “he had no trouble with legislators from then on.” And that’s not all: “He threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government.” Anybody who tries to impose regulations to protect ordinary workers is “a louse”. This is partly because she really does seem to see the rich as more deserving of life than the poor.


She did not understand that the kind of pure selfishness she advocated would quickly corrode capitalism itself. The economist Alfred Marshall has shown that without “economic chivalry” – a willingness to stick by the rules, even when they work against your selfish interests – markets become unworkable. Only regulation by (cue thunder) the state can guarantee this chivalry. Rand’s philosophy would simply create an unsustainable Enron economy of rip-off merchants – much as the Bush administration’s bonfire of regulations has. But Rand could not see the dense interconnection between the market and the state: she spoke absurdly of establishing “a separation between government and economics” analogous to the constitutional separation between church and state. But without institutions of government like the police and courts, who would enforce contracts? Nor could she admit that the corporations she lauded as heroic were just as often beneficiaries of government subsidy as of market innovation. Wal-Mart, for example, is often supposed to be an icon of the success of the free market, when in fact it has – according to Multinational Monitor’s investigations – received over $1bn in state subsidies.

Although Rand despised Russia, she was far more shaped by her Russian adolescence – and her interaction with Bolshevism – than she could ever have imagined. Even as she preached freedom, she created a personality cult around herself – sardonically dubbed The Collective – which permitted no dissent and even adhered to her list of banned books. Any dissent from the Leader’s opinions was punishable by excommunication – a fate that even befell her lover, Nathaniel Braden, when he withdrew his sexual favours. She ended up creating a Leninism of the market fundamentalist right, based on the need for a small cadre of true believers to enact a violent revolution against the state (democratic or otherwise) that will usher in a utopian society without conflict, modelled on the Ideal Man of her own creation. Even her Objectivist epistemology reeks of Lenin’s dialectical materialism.


The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She called him “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,” shimmering with “immense, explicit egotism.” Rand had only one regret: “A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough.”

It’s not hard to see this as a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder. Rand believed the Bolshevik lie that they represented the people, so she wanted to strike back at them—through theft and murder. In a nasty irony, she was copying their tactics. She started to write her first novel, We the Living (1936), and in the early drafts her central character—a crude proxy for Rand herself—says to a Bolshevik: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them.”


For her longest novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand returned to a moment from her childhood. Just as her father once went on strike to protest against Bolshevism, she imagined the super-rich in America going on strike against progressive taxation—and said the United States would swiftly regress to an apocalyptic hellhole if the Donald Trumps and Ted Turners ceased their toil. The abandoned masses are described variously as “savages,” “refuse,” “inanimate objects,” and “imitations of living beings,” picking through rubbish. One of the strikers deliberately causes a train crash, and Rand makes it clear she thinks the murder victims deserved it, describing in horror how they all supported the higher taxes that made the attack necessary.


Alan Greenspan – who was considered by many people to be the most powerful man in America for the decade he headed the US central bank – was a fervent Randroid. He wrote that Atlas Shrugged is a great novel because it shows how “parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish, as they should.”



Her heroes are a cocktail of extreme self-love and extreme self-pity: They insist they need no one, yet they spend all their time fuming that the masses don’t bow down before their manifest superiority.


In the end, Rand was destroyed by her own dogmas. She fell in love with a young follower called Nathaniel Branden and had a decades-long affair with him. He became the cult’s No. 2, and she named him as her “intellectual heir”—until he admitted he had fallen in love with a 23-year-old woman. As Burns explains, Rand’s philosophy “taught that sex was never physical; it was always inspired by a deeper recognition of shared values, a sense that the other embodied the highest human achievement.” So to be sexually rejected by Branden meant he was rejecting her ideas, her philosophy, her entire person. She screamed: “You have rejected me? You have dared to reject me? Me, your highest value?”

And the articles are just chock full of more quotes, anecdotes, and analysis.  Read them here and here.

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