Few philosophers or philosophies can claim the public recognition and "fan" following of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and her philosophy, Objectivism. Espoused in several novels and in countless essays and speeches, Rand's Objectivism glorifies the heroic individual pursuing his/her goals utterly free of the fetters that society, especially government, would place upon him/her. Though Rand's written works have always been extremely popular, it was the movie of her novel The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper, that made her a kind of intellectual celebrity. Rand and her philosophy have attained a kind of cult stature among college students, not least because her works narrate the process by which a person can articulate a principled rejection of the social mores in which they were raised.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by Bolshevik authorities after the Russian Revolution. The anti-semitism of the Czarist regime and the anti-capitalism of the Communist regime do not seem to have endeared her to government intervention in private affairs, something which she was to oppose throughout her political life. Rosenbaum studied history at the University of Petrograd, and left for the United States to be a writer. In America, she took the first name Ayn (rhymes with "line") and the last name Rand (naming herself after her typewriter), and ended up in Hollywood, where she worked as a movie extra and as an employee of R.K.O. Nights' wardrobe department. In Hollywood, she met and married writer Frank O'Connor.
Rand worked her way up to writing scripts for Hollywood and Broadway, moving to New York in 1934. She published her first novel—an anti-Communist work called We the Living —in 1936. This was followed in 1938 by Anthem, a story set in a totalitarian society that attempts to destroy individuality.
In 1943, Rand published her second-greatest novel, The Fountainhead. This is the story of a young architect named Howard Roark (a character apparently modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright). Roark insists on pursuing his own vision of architecture, which brings him into conflict with his teachers, his customers, and the government, and into the arms of the heroine (whom he rapes in a scene which is denounced in feminist Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book, Against Our Will). The novel's portrayal of heroic individualism seems to have hit a chord with American readers, who put the novel on the bestseller list two years after it came out. By the 1980s the book had sold over four-and-a-half million copies. The movie version of the novel, released in 1949 with Gary Cooper in the lead role, helped make a hero out of Roark and began attracting adherents to Rand's philosophy.
After The Fountainhead, Rand became fairly well known. She was a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities when it was investigating Communism in Hollywood. She also acquired many followers, one of whom, a young man named Nathaniel Branden, helped her publicize her ideas, became an important figure in the Objectivist movement she founded, and eventually became her lover. But Rand's fame was not fully secure until 1957, when she published her greatest novel.
Atlas Shrugged, over 1,000 pages long, is best described as a dramatization of Rand's philosophy. The title's reference to Atlas (whose broad shoulders, according to the ancient Greeks, held up the world) alludes to the independent, self-sustaining, productive members of society, many of whom, in the novel, move to a secret outpost where they can live in freedom without the government taxing and confiscating the fruits of their labor. By taking themselves out of the jurisdiction of the government, the freedom-fighters are basically going on strike, refusing to collaborate with an oppressive state. The characters are not so much fully fleshed-out individuals as they are embodiments of Rand's philosophy, and they have ample opportunity to give speeches outlining their (i.e., Rand's) principles. The most prominent of these speeches, hero John Galt's speech, is perhaps the best single statement of the Objectivist creed.
The political philosophy of the book cannot be called conservative, despite its celebration of individualism and its denunciation of government tyranny. Although conservatives often denounced government welfare programs, Rand was opposed to any form of "altruism," whether public or private. In fact, "altruism" was something of a dirty word in Rand's writing. Also in contrast to conservatism, Rand's philosophy is atheistic, emphasizing heroic humans and rejecting God. The leading magazine of conservatism, National Review, denounced Atlas Shrugged in violent terms. Most other reviews were also hostile, focusing on the writing style. But despite the critics, Atlas Shrugged was, and still is, a very popular novel. Most Americans who took part in a Reader's Digest /Library of Congress survey in 1991 said that the book that had the greatest influence over their lives was the Bible, followed by Atlas Shrugged. Politically, it is probably fair to say that Atlas Shrugged proved an inspiration to libertarians, especially the young.
Though Rand endorsed libertarian individualism, she insisted that her associates define individualism in her terms. If someone adopted an interpretation of individualism different from Rand's, that person was generally unwelcome in Rand's circle. Rand's relationship with her more committed followers (they called themselves "the Collective," with self-conscious irony) was similar to the relationship between a prophetess and her worshippers. Rand's atheistic religion was even given a name—Objectivism.
With the help of Nathaniel Branden (who collaborated with her until they broke up in 1968), Rand propagated her Objectivist views through lectures (especially speeches to college students), a newsletter, a newspaper column, and philosophical books. The theme was always the same: The heroic individual versus the collective, which was usually the state. She praised Canadian doctors who went on strike against socialized medicine. She denounced both racism (a collectivist philosophy) and the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 (a gross violation of property rights). She spoke of the importance of "self-esteem," meaning a justifiable pride in one's accomplishments. Self-esteem was deemed a necessary defense against altruists who wanted you to give up your liberty or property for the sake of an alleged greater good. Someone with self-esteem would not be bamboozled by false guilt into giving up the fruits of his labor to the tax government (Nathaniel Branden later became a California psychotherapist, where he also preached the value of self-esteem).
Rand has inspired some important public figures. One of Rand's fans was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. When Thomas headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s, he allegedly invoked Rand in his speeches to conservatives. In addition, he allegedly invited people to lunch with him in his office, where he treated them to the film based on The Fountainhead. Another Ayn Rand disciple who later rose to high position was Alan Greenspan, the future chairman of the Federal Reserve. While he was a budding economist and Wall Street analyst in the 1950s and 1960s, Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle. Unlike other members of Rand's circle, he exercised some independence of thinking and got away with it. British ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and tennis star Billie Jean King were also followers of Rand's philosophy.
Rand died in 1982. Her intellectual legacy is claimed by the Ayn Rand Institute, run by her follower (and legal heir) Leonard Peikoff.
Berliner, Michael S., editor. Letters of Ayn Rand. New York, Dutton, 1995.
Bradford, R. W. "Alan Greenspan—Cultist? The Fascinating Personal History of Mr. Pinstripe." The American Enterprise. September/October, 1997, 31-33.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1986.
Branden, Nathaniel. My Years with Ayn Rand. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998.
——. Who Is Ayn Rand?: An Analysis of the Novels of Ayn Rand. New York, Random House, 1977.
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Ayn Rand Companion. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1984.
Harriman, David. Journals of Ayn Rand. New York, Dutton, 1997.
McDonald, Marci. "Fighting Over Ayn Rand: A Radical Invidividualist's Followers Can't Get Along." U.S. News and World Report. March 9, 1998, 54-57.
O'Neill, William. With Charity Toward None: An Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy. New York, Philosophical Library, 1971.
Paxton, Michael. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life; The Companion Book. Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1998.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "Twilight of the Goddess." The New Yorker. July 24, 1995, 10-81.
Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York, New American Library, 1961.
——. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York, New American Library, 1964.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. State College, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Walker, Jeff. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago, Open Court, 1999.