Although now long dead, Ayn Rand (1905 –1982) lives on through her best-selling novels and her philosophy of Objectivism. The Russian born writer and thinker spent most of her life in the US where she produced her two most famous works of fiction.
The Fountainhead appeared in 1943, while Atlas Shrugged came out in 1957. Both were major vehicles to promote her thinking. She was an atheist and a radical libertarian, who hated all forms of collectivism and championed ‘the virtue of selfishness’. Indeed, she produced a work of non-fiction in 1964 by that title.
She was as influential as she was controversial, and those on the right are deeply divided concerning her views. Anarchists, radical libertarians and many secularists adore her and her work, while social and religious conservatives are quite alarmed by her.
Indeed, while I support many of her concerns about statism, big government, and collectivism, other major features of her worldview I find quite appalling. So too have many other conservatives. In fact, Rand herself was quite happy to repudiate any suggestion that she was a conservative.
Many have written critically of her views. A book-length treatment appeared back in 1974 offering a careful Christian assessment of her philosophy, theology, ethics and politics (John Robbins, Answer to Ayn Rand). He offers a detailed critique of the philosophy of Objectivism, and finds it seriously wanting.
Others have noted various negative aspects of her work. Back in 2004 Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker wrote an important volume entitled Architects of the Culture of Death. In it they discuss 23 key players, including Darwin, Nietzsche, Sanger, Marx, Sartre, Galton, Kinsey, and Singer.
Rand also gets an entire chapter. The authors point out that her philosophy is entirely focused on the individual, and that altruism in any form is viewed as the major enemy of individualism. They point out how her extremist creed is really untenable and unliveable.
And it is unlovable as well: “Rand, of course, is a dedicated enemy of Christianity. But her particular brand of selfishness, which presupposes that everyone in society is a Nietzschean Superman, makes her an enemy of love. Her writing represents an unrelenting high-mindedness that is far too Olympian for any mere mortal to live by.”
Australian writer John Ballantyne has just penned a piece examining three radical libertarians: Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Walter Block. He says this: “Atheists Rand and Rothbard had no concept of the sacredness of human life and were resolutely in favour of abortion-on-demand. Rand despised conservative American President Ronald Reagan for his opposition to abortion. She declared: ‘An embryo has no rights’.”
He goes on to say, “radical libertarians – or anarcho-capitalists as they are proud to call themselves – are as much agents of social decomposition and enemies of Judaeo-Christian civilisation as are atheistic Marxists and French postmodernists.”
Benjamin Wiker has again written a chapter on Rand, this time in his new volume, 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read. In it he also examines four others, plus “one imposter”: Atlas Shrugged. Says Wiker: “Too often conservatives make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is a dangerous principle.
“Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy. Stalin, for instance, was our ally in the war against Hitler, but he was certainly not our friend. For this reason, we need to be very clear about where Rand went wrong, and this will include some important illumination from her private life.”
Indeed, her personal life was a mess, and hardly an example to be held up for anyone. As Ballantyne writes, “Ayn Rand lived in an open marriage. Both she and her husband were repeatedly unfaithful to each other. During her marriage, Rand conducted an affair with one of her intellectual disciples, Nathaniel Branden, a famous psychotherapist best known today for promoting the psychology of self-esteem.”
He continues, “Rand’s ideology, although seeming to extol human freedom, in fact advocated misanthropy, greed and narcissism. Some of her writings remind one of that terrible scene in Shakespeare when Lady Macbeth summons the powers of darkness to divest her of any conscience and compassion.”
But back to Wiker and his new book. He lists three main features of Rand’s thought which of necessity led her to break away from the conservative movement. The first was her rugged, gung-ho atheism. The second was her ‘ethical’ system based totally on selfishness. The third was her distorted view of capitalism.
“Her defense of the free market was based on the idea of a few heroic Nietzschean figures satisfying their creative and pecuniary impulses; it was not based on the conservative understanding of the free market as primarily about freedom for families and communities to provide for themselves in their own way, unhindered by government interference.”
He summarises her philosophy this way: “Rand presents false dichotomies, either-or choices between two extremes: either collectivism or individualism, either living entirely for the state or living entirely for oneself, either complete self-sacrifice to the point of annihilation or complete selfishness to the point of narcissism. She flees the first extreme and embraces the second.”
Wiker notes how absolutely radical her individualism is, and how “it runs dead against the obvious fact of human existence (pointed out by Aristotle) that human beings are social by nature, and moral and economic life begins in a family.”
He concludes his chapter with these words of wisdom: “It should be clear that conservatism is not narcissism; it is not worship of selfishness; and Objectivism, as Rand would tell you herself, is certainly not conservatism at all.”
I am a Christian first, then a conservative. It should be apparent to those who have followed my writings that I am not a radical libertarian, nor an anarchist, nor a believer in the gospel of self. While many conservatives have embraced Rand and her beliefs, I for one cannot and will not.