What is it about Ayn Rand?

Posted by Helen Saturday, June 21, 2008 ,

To be quite precise, the question should be what is it about Ayn Rand’s followers? Supposedly libertarian, freedom loving, objectivist individuals they tend to be the angriest, most intolerant branch of the right or the conservative movement both in Britain and in America (and probably everywhere else, if they exist).

I was a little stunned by the reaction some Randroids (oops, one mustn’t call them that as they get really upset) displayed at Bill Buckley’s death. There was gloating and rejoicing around because the “evil genius” of the right had finally gone. Why? Because as editor of National Review, he published Whittaker Chambers’s rather negative review of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”.

The story is that Rand had not bothered to read the review but proclaimed a kind of furious fatwa on it and on Chambers, one that her followers have faithfully adhered to ever since. What annoyed her more than anything, or would have done, if she had bothered to read the review, was Chambers’s conclusion that over the whole novel there hangs the miasma of fascistic intolerance and one hears a voice cry “Into the gas chamber, go”.

As a matter of fact, this is not inaccurate and Chambers had very finely tuned antennae for this sort of thing. Rand is intolerant of anyone who is too weak to enter her particular brand of utopia. What will happen to those? Chambers’s conclusion is not wrong.

The hatred for Chambers and Buckley has persisted to the point when Libertarians of the Randian persuasion were seen dancing metaphorically on the latter’s grave. Weird.

Now I have picked up traces of another bitter row. There has been a certain amount of unexplained movement around the conservative film site Libertas. The man, who under the moniker Dirty Harry has been the main blogger on it for a couple of years, has gone and set up his own extremely lively conservative film blog, Dirty Harry’s Place. (Highly recommended, incidentally, for anyone interested in film and shenanigans around it.)

Libertas, meanwhile, is being reclaimed by the founders Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, also founders of the conservative Liberty film festival. So far, the result of that has been twofold. One is that the blog is not updated as regularly as it was under Dirty Harry (and how I understand that problem) and the other is a mega-row on the subject of Libertas and its two founders, now main authors, on its readers’ forum.

I shall pass over the apparent dislike Apuzzo and Murty have engendered in their readers and viewers of the film festival because I know nothing about the truth of it. What was extraordinary is the venom brought out by Apuzzo’s casually critical reference to Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” and Randroids. The posting was about yet another delay in the filming of that book but Apuzzo was less than complimentary about novel and author.

That was enough to invoke howls of rage and cries of betrayal both on Libertas and on Dirty Harry’s Place. If they could, they would boil Jason Apuzzo in oil. But why?

Why cannot one criticize Ayn Rand exactly the same way as one criticizes other authors one agrees with in general terms but not in every way?

For what it is worth, here are my views on the subject: I have never managed to get through her novels, which are turgid and verbose. I know other people find them wonderfully inspiring but there is no accounting for tastes. The idea that they are among the greatest in modern literature with Mikhail Bulgakov, Anthony Powell or Robert Musil out there, strikes me as ludicrous.

I have, however, read a number of Rand’s essays and agreed with almost everything she said. In fact, let me go further. I agree with all the main ideas but find some of the details worrisome. In particular, I find the intolerance, clear in her writings and even clearer in her followers, deeply unpleasant and frightening. But much of her analysis of socialism and hypocritical corporatism is absolutely accurate and it would do our politicians a good deal of good to read those essays.

The point is that her ideas are very simple and straightforward. This makes her very popular and turns her followers into fanatics; it also makes her essays, after a while, uninteresting. When you read the fifth one and find that the same half a dozen ideas are being churned out in exactly the same way, you find yourself putting the book aside with qualified admiration.

Does that make me a traitor to the cause?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Being described as a branch of "the conservative movement" is enough to wind any libertarian up.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. That works both ways. The Libertarians seem to assume that the conservative movement should accept them and their ideas without precondition. Otherwise why would they get so hysterical about people who do not pretend to be Libertarin criticizing Ayn Rand?

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. By its very nature conservatism is valueless. It dresses it self in the ideology of others to conserve, to keeping things as they are, even when these ideologies are mutually exclusive. Bill Buckley typified this position by both holding libertarian and militaristic socialist views - that's enough to annoy any libertarian and socialist.

    By chance over at Carpe Diem blog today. Milton Friedman explains why he is not a conservative.

  7. Helen Says:
  8. In which case it really should not matter to a Libertarian what Bill Buckley says about anything, let alone what Whittaker Chambers says about Ayn Rand. Why this unseemly hysterics? I know that essay of Milton Friedman's - it is hardly new - and it is very interesting. But I don't think the Friedmans were Libertarians either.

  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. Fanaticism surrounds Ayn Rand, both for and against. Unfortunately people get tainted by her. Robert A. Heinlein was well represented by the film 'Starship Troopers' but his political explorations were down played.
    'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' is a fascinating book with a character straight from the Age of Enlightenment, but often as I say Heinlein I get 'the Right-wing guy', 'Eh?' 'Something to do with Ayn Rand'.
    Odd person in history, Ayn Rand.
    On a lighter note a 'Death Match' of Polly Toynbee and AR would be most entertaining.

  11. Anonymous Says:
  12. The Chambers review was indeed a ridiculously dishonest hatchet job, and no one who has read her novels can be under the illusion that there is *any* whiff of fascism.

    Even so, Ayn Rand's main reason for condemning Buckley to the lowest rung of hell was the fact that he championed the marriage of religion and capitalist ideals.

    Nothing could be more damaging to the case for capitalism than proclaiming that it rests on some primitive irrational dogmas that just have to be taken on faith. What greater gift could the enemies of capitalism ask for?

  13. Helen Says:
  14. By no stretch of imagination was Chambers dishonest. You may not agree with his views, which is a very different thing altogether but Rand's followers often elide the two, thus proving their critics to be correct. Rand's intolerance of all weakness and ordinary lack of genius is disturbing to put it mildly. All utopias have a "whiff of fascism" about them.

    The idea of condemning anyone you happen to disagree with (and theology is not irrational, as she would have found had she bothered to study it) to the lowest rung of hell is in itself irrational. Sadly, all these comments in Rand's defence prove much of what critics say about her followers.

  15. On target, RT!


    Rand has one single political principle covering all human interactions: no man may initiate the use of physical force either directly or indirectly (fraud) to take, withhold, or destroy a value owned by another man. Voluntary exchange is the only moral form of human interaction.

    So, do you detect any fascism in those lines? That principle alone separates Rand's radical capitalism from every political position, left, right or middle, that has ever existed, from the wings of the Libertarian Party to the pits of Pol Pot's regime. They just differ in how much coercion they think it's absolutely necessary to retain.

    If you think that adherents to Objectivism are going to sacrifice that principle to gather under the big tent with people unable to grasp how life could go on without using force against each other to get what they want, you have way underestimated us.

    You are most welcome to foreswear all use of force for gain and join us up here in our sanctimonious self-certainty, but don't hold your breath waiting for us to condone the very politics of coercion from which we work so hard to free ourselves.

  16. Helen Says:
  17. Dear me, what a lot of screaming and gnashing of teeth. Rather proves the point of the posting. Criticize Ayn Rand at your peril. For your information, Michael M, RT is not on target as Chambers's review was not dishonest. It merely took a different position from the one Randroids cling on to with such vehement obsession.

    Secondly, the point about much of Rand's writing and even more so, the writing of her followers is that all those who cannot be exceptional people and join the utopia being envisaged for them, are to be dismissed as of little significance. Chambers (and others) was reacting to that rather than the basic principles.

    Thirdly, nobody is asking you to sacrifice anything and nobody is particularly bothered by your condoning others. My point was that I could not understand why Ayn Rand and, much more so, her followers find it so hard to debate in a civilized fashion and why they need to write off everyone as the offspring of the devil (in whom they are not supposed to believe) who disagrees with them or dares to criticize the great leader. You have just demonstrated all that.

    Oh and by the way, she was not a great novelist, merely passably good. Her essays are extremely good but repetitive. Her ideas are daring and exciting as well as being often absolutely right. Once again, they are repetitive.

  18. Anonymous Says:
  19. "Even so, Ayn Rand's main reason for condemning Buckley to the lowest rung of hell was the fact that he championed the marriage of religion and capitalist ideals."

    There is something delightfully ironic about the wording here.

    While I found Atlas Shrugged a very illuminating book in many ways, I do see something of the intolerance discussed here. She starts by disliking the attempts to drag the most talented down out of misguided ideas of fairness to the less talented, but seems to end by despising charitable feeling of any kind.

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