Why a Pinko New Ager Loves Ayn Rand
The website Big Think recently ran a beautifully illustrated and fairly predictable assault on writer Ayn Rand on the grounds that she’s not a “serious” philosopher.
I am not a follower of Rand’s economic ideas: I believe in a mildly redistributive social democratic state with single-payer healthcare, labor unions, and consumer regulations with teeth — if you rip off mortgage payers or working people, you join a chain gang. I am also a historian of mysticism and the occult, topics that the ardently materialist Rand dismissed as delusive.
Yet I read and defend Rand. Why?
I believe that the writer has been misunderstood and misappropriated. In an aspect of Rand’s career that is largely unseen, she was, in many ways, an avant-garde intellectual whose greatest act of creation was herself.
Not unlike another Russian malcontent and seeker of an earlier generation, occultist Madame HP Blavatsky (1831–1891), Rand, born in 1905 as Alisa Rosenbaum, used a combination of wit and careful planning to escape from the gravitational pull of her youth. At a time when few women even travelled alone — and this being decades after Blavatsky began her globe-trotting sojourn— Rand escaped from pre-Stalinist Soviet Russia at age 21 in 1926 to pursue her dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.
Wending her way to Southern California in the late 1920s, the accented writer changed her name, mastered English, broke into screenwriting (going without food during the leanest of times), and eventually mastered the art of storytelling, all in a language not natively her own. By the late 1950s, Rand was being interviewed by Mike Wallace, profiled in national magazines, and emerged as one of the most talked-about and debated female writers in literary history. There is a heroic dimension to Rand’s personal story that should not be overlooked.
Critics call her a hypocrite (the die-hard capitalist accepted Social Security payments in old age); a racist (she sometimes directed demeaning language at native cultures); a merciless bully (she ruled over her circle of followers with inconsistency and spurts of iron rage); a hack (her philosophy was anti-collectivist and anti-Marxist to the point of reductionism); and an apologist for greed (she bolstered the myth of self-made individualism among rightwing money-grubbers and politicians). All of this, in some greater or lesser measure, contains truth.
But these points obfuscate an equal truth: which is that Rand, perhaps more than any other intellectual of the twentieth century, fixed in her psyche a north-star image of how she wished to conceive of herself and, spanning barriers of geography, language, gender, economics, and politics — forces that weigh decisively and even crushingly on most people — vaulted almost to the exact place dreamed of by a young Soviet Jewish girl desperate to elude the hardening bonds of a terrifyingly authoritarian society. How many social-media scolds or keyboard political warriors today can cite even one such act of asserted individuality in outer life?
More so, I suggest that critics revisit some of their assumptions about Rand’s political views. Rand despised (and, in fairness, sometimes invented) notions of people feeding at the public trough; she called them “looters.” Yet she reserved some of her deepest spleen for counterfeit capitalists who benefited off family connections, government giveaways, and greased-rails on their way to success. (Yes, I’m talking to you Eric Trump.) She would have been unforgiving toward today’s predatory lenders, bailout-collecting bankers, and political donors who line up for favors.
In an overlooked facet of her work, Rand also defended, and demanded, artistic integrity. She sharply observed how an artist could quickly lose himself in compromises, writing in 1962:
One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite. One cannot offer a literary masterpiece “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash. If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals — which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight — will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.
In this regard, Rand proved a decisive influence on one of the most accomplished and independent-minded visual artists of the twentieth-century, illustrator Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Unlike other novelists and artists who thump their chests about artistic integrity while simultaneously denouncing and cashing-in on movie adaptations of their work, Ditko has remained silent about the screen epics made of his heroes, and, by several accounts, the notoriously private artist has refused payment from studios for creations that he neither participated in nor countenanced.
The charge of racism is sometimes leveled against Rand for her demeaning references to Native American or non-Western cultures. But consider: some of today’s most vocal activists on the white-nationalist right actually began their political journeys as acolytes of Rand’s ideas — and grew disgruntled, if not disgusted, with her position on racism, which was, ultimately, one of unwavering rejection and absolute insistence on individual merit.
It is worth reading Rand’s 1963 essay, “Racism,” written at a time when some liberal thinkers were equivocating over the appropriateness of Martin Luther King’s policies of nonviolence and non-compromise, and conservative apologists were busy raising the banner of “states’ rights,” a practice still used inconsistently and cynically today. Rand observed:
The Southern racists’ claim of “states’ rights” is a contradiction in terms: there can be no such thing as the “right” of some men to violate the rights of others … One of the worst contradictions, in this context, is the stand of many so-called “conservatives” (not confined exclusively to the South) who claim to be defenders of freedom, of capitalism, of property rights, of the Constitution, yet who advocate racism at the same time.
One of the greatest barriers I personally find to Rand’s work is her ardent atheism. She espoused positivistic materialist values of cause-and-effect, and rejected any question of mystical or extra-physical causality. In this respect, I think Rand might have modified her views had she taken fuller account of how philosopher William James (1842–1910) married his own principles of pragmatics, empiricism, and positivism to research into ESP and mediumship (topics in which I take deep interest). James justified his pursuits without reference to belief but as a search for anomalous causes; if an inquiry or experiment is well structured, it withstands the test of pragmatism. In any case, I find succor in Rand’s total unwillingness to weasel out of questions of non-belief. Consider this exchange with Mike Wallace from 1959:
WALLACE: “….let me start by quoting from a review of this novel, Atlas Shrugged, that appeared in Newsweek. It said that, ‘You are out to destroy almost every edifice in the contemporary American way of life. Our Judeo-Christian religion, our modified, government-regulated capitalism, our rule by the majority will.’ Other reviews have said that, ‘You scorn churches, and the concept of God.’ Are these accurate criticisms?”
RAND: “Uh, Yes.”
In the end, Rand’s finest philosophical accomplishment was, in my view, her absolute refusal to regard people in terms of group identity. She would write and think in terms of individuals, pro or con — but almost never in terms of their claimed or assigned identity.
“Just as there is no such thing as a collective or racial mind,” Rand wrote in 1963, “so is there no such thing as a collective or racial achievement. There are only individual minds and individual achievements…” This is why Rand would have rejected classifications of herself as a feminist icon or even, philosophically speaking, as a woman. This can be a frustratingly limited way of viewing the world, when all of us carry the burdens and benefits of identity. Group configurations are every bit as real as, and often realer than, some of the classifications Rand did consent to use, such as wealth-generators and wealth-pillagers. But in an era gone halfway mad with identity politics, both on the nativist right and the trigger-happy left, it is refreshing to encounter a thinker who almost entirely opts out of those schematics.
So, yes, read Ayn Rand — but do so not to find an ideology, an economic system, or a means of self-justification. Do so to discover the thought of a figure who elevated the search and possibilities of the individual, and who embodied her ideas in her own remaking of herself.