Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Ayn (pronounced AIN) Rand was born as Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in February 1905, the eldest of three daughters of a pharmacist. Although her family was nominally Jewish, Rand thought of religion as a form of mysticism and became a committed atheist at the age of 14. She to grew up during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods. Several different socialist groups emerged after 1905, chief among them the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Groups of revolutionaries fell into infighting, especially during World War I, in which the Bolsheviks urged an international civil war to bring about the rule of the proletariat, or governance by the working class. The country fell into a bitter civil war between White Army and Red Army factions after Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin, and the Red Army eventually emerged as victorious, and the group later became the Communist Party, ushering in the Communist era in Russia.

Rand was 12 in 1917 when the fighting that led to the Bolshevik siezing power occurred. After the takeover, the state nationalized her family’s business and they fled to the city of Yevpatoria in Crimea, which was temporarily under the control of the White Army. After Rand graduated from high school in 1921, her family returned to Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd), where they lived in extreme poverty. Rand despaired of the corrupt Communist system, which claimed to subjugate the needs of the individual to the needs of the many but was ultimately manipulated by a few tyrannical leaders with disastrous consequences for the country’s economy and people.

Rand was able to attend the University of Petrograd, which had been opened to female students after the revolution. She fell victim to a state purge of bourgeois students before being reinstated and graduating in 1924 with a degree in philosophy and history. Rand also studied screenwriting for a year at the State Institute for Cinema Arts where she decided to adopt her pen name. In 1925, she obtained a travel visa to visit family in the United States, and she arrived there in 1926. Rand, who became an American citizen in 1931, made efforts to obtain passage for other family members out of the Soviet Union, but they proved unsuccessful.

Rand eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter. There, she met her husband-to-be, actor Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929. They remained married until his death fifty years later. Over the next several years, she moved from job to job in Hollywood. In 1932, Rand sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn, which was not produced into a film, and her first stage play, The Night of January 16th, was produced on Broadway. In 1933, she completed her first novel, We the Living, a largely autobiographical account of the Soviet Union just after the revolution, which was published in 1936. We the Living, which describes conflicts between the individual and the state, did not find strong sales in the United States (although it sold a better in Europe). Rand released a revised more successful version in 1959—after she had achieved fame for her other works.

Rand’s second work of fiction, the dystopian novella Anthem, was first published in Great Britain in 1938. She was unable to find an U.S. house willing to publish Anthem until 1946 when a slightly revised version was issued. According to the preface Rand wrote for the American edition, the only differences between the two editions were stylistic. In the American version, Rand sought to eliminate poetic and flowery language and to simplify and clarify the themes she laid out. Those themes were largely concerned with the struggles of individualism against totalitarianism and collectivism—ideas that would culminate in the theory of Objectivism (or egoism)—the notion that a person’s worth comes from themselves, not from their impact on society as a whole—which would increasingly become Rand’s life focus and legacy. Objectivism promoted her conception of rational self-interest that rejects altruism.

The first great success of Rand’s career came with her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. It was a work that she had initially begun before writing Anthem but had set aside. In the intervening years, Rand and her husband had become politically active in the Republican Party and in support of free-market capitalism. The Fountainhead is about a brilliant architect who battles against lesser individuals trying to control and water down his vision—to the point where the architect dynamites his partially-constructed building rather than seeing it completed with his opponents’ compromises incorporated into it. The success of The Fountainhead garnered Rand great exposure and prominence—especially among conservatives. Neverthless, Rand disliked being associated with either the conservative or libertarian political movements in the United States. She felt her ideas were distinct, which is why she started her own (Objectivism) movement.

It was during the writing it that Rand also first prescribed Benzedrine, an amphetamine that she would take for many years that may have contributed to a reputation she would gain for mood swings and emotional ourbursts.

Many consider Atlas Shrugged, which Rand began in 1946 and first published in 1957, to be her greatest accomplishment as a fiction writer. It is her longest and most elaborate novel as well as her final fictional work. In the novel, she traces the lives of several individuals who are involved in big business in the United States, exalting their will to succeed and self-centered egoism. Atlas Shrugged fleshes out the philosophy Rand had been developing all her life, the beginnings of which are introduced in the concluding chapters of Anthem. The world depicted in Atlas Shrugged is modeled closely on America in the 1890s, during the height of free markets and governmental nonintervention in business.

After the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand focused on writing and lecturing on Objectivism. She died on March 6, 1982. Her books—which have sold around 40 million copies—have garnered her a cult following of philosophers and thinkers, who continue her pursuit of Objectivism and egoism. In 1958 she founded an institute devoted to teaching her philosophy, which is still active today.

Background on Atlas Shrugged

Rand began writing Atlas Shrugged in 1946. The novel was published by Random House in 1957 and became a bestseller despite very negative reviews. Atlas Shrugged was her last work of fiction. Rand realized that in order to communicate the full meaning of her philosophy, she would have to identify its principles in nonfiction form, and so for the next twenty-five years she devoted her life to the development and promotion of Objectivism, her philosophy of the ego.

The events that surrounded Rand’s life, notably the rise of Communism in Russia, heavily influenced her work. Her distaste for Communism and collectivism in all forms is apparent throughout Atlas Shrugged. Although her earlier novels were criticized for their deeply anti-Communist stance, Atlas Shrugged was published at the height of the Cold War, and its message was welcomed by an America that feared and despised Communism. At the end of World War II, even when the totalitarian threat of the Nazis had been eliminated, much of Europe, followed by China, Korea, and Cuba, fell under Communism. Communism, a collectivist system that forces individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the state, threatened the personal and intellectual freedoms Rand considered essential. Although the United States opposed Communism in the Cold War era, many of the collectivist beliefs of Marxism had support among American academics and those who favored an expanded welfare state and greater regulation of private industry. Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in opposition to these views.

As a student of American capitalism—as well as person who found incredible success under the American capitalist system—Rand believed that unfettered economic freedom was the factor most responsible for the major achievements of American inventors and businessmen during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Atlas Shrugged attempts to demonstrate what might happen to the world if such economic freedom were lost, if emerging collectivist trends were to continue to their logical conclusions. The novel shows in detail the resulting collapse of efficient production and the rise of corruption among businessmen and politicians who look to live off the production of others without producing anything themselves.

In Atlas Shrugged, the system falls apart to the point that the remaining producers choose to simply withdraw rather than perpetuate the corruption. This withdrawal is the strike at the center of the novel’s action. In this strike, the thinkers withdraw their minds to protest the oppression of thought and the forced moral code of self-sacrifice that obligates them to work only to serve the needs of others. Without the minds of these thinkers, society is doomed to utter collapse. For Ayn Rand, the mind is the most important tool for humanity, and reason is its greatest virtue.