Ayn Rand and the world she made, Anne C. Heller, Tranquebar Press, Chennai, 2010,567 pages, Rs 495, ISBN 978 93 80658 01 8.
It is not easy to connect a writer’s life with her ideology. Most biographers assume that there is an obvious and intimate connection and get on breezily with the job. Too often the connection turns out forced and the reader feels that she has been taken for a ride. Anne Heller’s excellent biography of the Ayn Rand is an exception. Her great achievement is to have connected Rand’s extraordinary legend and individualistic philosophy of unbridled capitalism to her life as a youngster, Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, an awkward and wilful Russian Jewish prodigy, who had written four novels by the age of eleven. Heller makes you believe that that Rand’s excessive self-absorption and vehement protest against any form of collectivism are rooted in her family’s suffering in early-twentieth-century Russia, where Jews were violently persecuted and personal freedom died when the communists came to power.
‘Call it fate or irony, but I was born, of all countries on earth, in the one least suitable for a fanatic of individualism, Russia,” wrote Ayn Rand. Her father owned a prosperous pharmacy in St Petersburg and she and her two sisters grew up in an upper middle class home with a cook, a maid, a nurse, and a Belgian governess. Rand made good use of her advantages but disapproved of her mother’s social climbing ways.
It was always dangerous to be a Jew in Russia, however, and as the economy deteriorated during World War I, the Czar grew more repressive and the brunt of popular anger fell upon Russia’s five million Jews. Anti-Semitic bloodshed rose. Czarist gangs groups roamed the countryside, spreading rumours that Jewish profiteering was responsible for war losses and shortages. As the Russian army retreated from the advancing Germans, Russian troops were ordered to round up residents of Jewish villages in the Pale and herd them east to Siberia.
The war created unimagined hardships for all Russians, but especially Russian Jews and its toll in lives and penury led to the revolution. Rand’s family were battered and starving. Lenin’s government after the war consciously initiated the red Terror by encouraging acts of proletarian plunder against the city’s bourgeoisie and twelve-year-old Rand was in the family store on the day Bolshevik soldiers arrived, brandishing guns. In an instant her father was out of business and out of work. The anger and helplessness that Rand she remembered seeing on her father’s face remained with her all her life.
Rand escaped to America at twenty-one by lying to the U.S. consular official that she was engaged to marry a Russian man with whom she was in love and to whom she would unfailingly return. The truth was that she never planned to return to Russia. Ironically, Rand would become famous for celebrating honesty and integrity as indispensable virtues of the capitalist hero. Later she continued to invent, exaggerate, and hide things in order to bolster her public image, and this may be due to her experience as a Russian Jew where small deceptions were a matter of survival.
In America she began life as a middling script writer in Hollywood, where she encountered the same envy, conformity, and mediocrity that she had loathed in Russians. She found the same ‘collectivist motivation’ by which ordinary people sought life’s meaning outside them and looked to someone to tell them what to do. It reinforced the grand theme of her life: the exceptional individual against the mob. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead became Ayn Rand’s first full-fledged individualist hero: a gifted architect who yearns to create bold new building, but is stopped endlessly by frightened conformists and envious schemers. With this novel, Rand became a cult hero. Atlas Shrugged followed, and together the two books have sold more than 13 million copies, and continue to sell 300,000 per year after three generations.
A good biography makes us look within, and Ms Heller’s book has made me reflect, especially on why I became a libertarian and a vigorous supporter of free enterprise. This book also served as a mirror, making me conscious of the flaws that I share with Ayn Rand, in particular an excessive and unhappy self-regard, and an insatiable desire to be ‘somebody’ and not ‘anybody’.
Like many, I read Rand’s The Fountainhead as a teenager, and could not help but be moved by Howard Roark, who is as American as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. He is determined, defies authority, hates mediocrity, and does not seek the world’s praise. He is ‘inner directed’ in an ‘outer-directed’ world, (a distinction I learned from the Harvard sociologist, David Reisman, who had used it to describe the conforming, salaried, American white collar office goer of the 1950s).
I quickly forgot Ayn Rand when I went to college and read serious philosophy. When her name came up in undergraduate conversations, I dismissed her as a writer of potboilers and propaganda. Like everyone around me in the mid-1960s, I passionately believed in Nehru's dream of a modern and just India. But as the years went by, I discovered that Nehru's economic path was taking us to a dead-end. Having set out to create socialism, he had created statism. Later when I was working as a manager I found myself caught in the thick jungle of Kafkaesque bureaucratic controls, a story that I have told in India Unbound.
Thus, I came to admire free enterprise after decades of living under the inefficiency of Nehru’s ‘mixed economy’ or License Raj, as many call it. Whereas I turned against state control from economic compulsions, Rand came to free enterprise from her collectivist Russian experience. I rebelled against the inefficiency of socialism; she revolted against its lack of human freedom and individuality. My embrace of markets was a pragmatic decision; she sought in capitalism a moral foundation. Both of us ended in a suspicion of state power but our paths were different. For me political liberty was not an issue because India had uniquely embraced democracy before capitalism. Democracy came to India soon after 1947 but our love affair with capitalism only began seriously after the 1991 Reforms when we began to dismantle the socialist institutions of the License Raj.
Ayn Rand understood that free markets brought phenomenal productivity and prosperity, but to her it was a side effect. The real deal was that capitalism gave a person’s ‘natural, healthy egoism’ the freedom to enrich himself and others. ‘Selfishness is a magnificent force’, she declared. ‘I decided to become a writer – not in order to save the world, nor to serve my fellow men—but out of the simple, personal, selfish, egoistical happiness of creating the kind of men and events I could like, respect, and admire’, she wrote in 1945.
I must confess that I was not able to go as far as Ayn Rand in embracing individualism as a creed; nor did I become a votary of unbridled, laissez faire capitalism. I also think that her use of the word ‘selfishness’ was unfortunate (perhaps, because she learned English late in life after coming to America). She would have been more effective if she had distinguished between ‘self-interest’ and ‘selfishness’. One would not wake up in the morning if one is not self-interested; but selfishness in ordinary English usage suggests the pursuit of one’s ambition at the expense of others. I suspect she meant the former sense of ‘self-interest’, which is a natural, rational instinct and which leads to healthy ambition without trampling on others (implied in more negative ‘selfishness’).
Unlike Rand, I set great store by enlightened regulation in the free market—regulation that brings transparency in transactions, ensures competition, catches crooks, but does not kill the animal spirits of entrepreneurs (as we did during the License Raj). Like ancient Greeks, Ayn Rand looked to human reason to distinguish the moral from the immoral to guide and protect human beings in this uncertain world. I look to the ancient Indian idea of dharma. My thinking on capitalism has been tempered by my encounter with the epic, The Mahabharata, which I read between 2004 and 2008.
Capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India and I believe players in the marketplace have a great responsibility to act with restraint, unlike Wall Street bankers in the recent global financial crisis. ‘Restraint’ is one of the meanings of dharma; so as is ‘balance’; both meanings of dharma appear in the Mahabharata. If human beings act with ‘balance’ there is harmony in society and the cosmos. India is still a half-reformed economy--huge sectors like real estate and infrastructure are still unreformed--and we need to keep reforming it, reducing the discretionary power of officials and politicians.
Successes of capitalism produce over time enervating influences when a generation committed to saving is replaced by one devoted to spending. Ferocious competition is a feature of the free market and it can be corrosive. But c
ompetition is also an economic stimulant that promotes human welfare. The choice is not between the free market and central planning but in getting the right mix of regulation. No one wants state ownership of production where the absence of competition corrodes the character even more, as Ayn Rand pointed out repeatedly. The answer is not to seek moral perfection which inevitably leads to theocracy and dictatorship. Since it is in man’s nature to want more, the notion of dharma teaches us to learn to live with human imperfection, and seek regulation that not only tames crooks in the market but also reward good behaviour.
I was particularly distressed by Ayn Rand’s support for Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt of American communists in the 1950s. Rand felt alienated in New York, ‘which was such a politically liberal city in the 1950s that Saul Bellow descried it as an intellectual annex of Moscow’. Anne Heller adds, ‘the post-war Right tended to view McCarthy’s Senate hearings as not only necessary on their face but also as payback for earlier leftist allegations that the antiwar, pro-capitalist Old right conservatives were Nazis and Fascists. Rand’s support for McCarthy, as for HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee], may have had as such to do with her fragile understanding of American due process as with her principled abhorrence of Communism’.
I too abhor Communism but I have never felt the need to punish Communists for their convictions. I also feel alienated in a gathering of Left-leaning intellectuals in India as Rand did in the America of the New Deal. I have always believed that Senator McCarthy was a vicious and undemocratic American. He was driven by an intolerance that was deeply un-American in its temper, and he diminished his country in the eyes of the world. Soon after McCarthy died from alcoholism in the 1950s, Rand innocently asked Joan Kennedy Taylor, ‘Tell me, what did people have against McCarthy?’
Taylor replied, ‘Well, Ayn, it’s primarily because he wasn’t truthful. He said all these things and couldn’t back them up.’ And Rand said, ‘Oh, I see. The Big Lie’.
Rand liked McCarthy and detested Eisenhower, ‘a conservative who lacked principles and backbone’. She was indignant over a 1957 Time Magazine article recounting a 1945 meeting between General Eisenhower and his Russian counterpart, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, in Berlin. The two had been debating the strengths of their respective forms of government. The article quoted Eisenhower as saying, ‘I was hard put to it when [Zhukov] insisted that [the Soviet] system appealed to the idealistic and [that ours appealed] completely to the materialistic, and I had a very tough time trying to defend our position because he said: “You tell a person he can do as he pleases, he can act as he pleases, he can do anything. Everything that is selfish in man you appeal to…. We tell him that he must sacrifice for the state.” The fact that Eisenhower couldn’t defend ‘the noblest, freest country in the history of the world’ as a matter of principle against a puppet of ‘the bloodiest dictatorship in history’ infuriated Rand.
I agree with Rand’s conclusion. Without a morality of rational self-interest capitalism cannot be defended. The problem of capitalism is the inability and the lack of courage of its defenders to defend it. It is difficult to defend the capitalist idea of the ‘invisible hand’ (made famous by Adam Smith) because the hand is, in fact, ‘invisible’. In contrast, equality and sacrifice for the masses are visible ideals.
As a libertarian, I have always admired the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. I agree with him that political liberty is founded on private property, free markets, and limited government. A Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied Austria, he had been a great social and economic theorist in pre-war Europe but was unknown in America. Mises met Ayn Rand in the early 1950s in New York and they quarrelled immediately over the government’s right to impose conscription or forced military service or ‘draft’, which was then underway in America. Mises, who had a purely economic aversion to state power, supported it. Rand called it a violation of individual rights. Rand became angry and said, ‘you treat me like an ignorant Jewish girl!’ Henry Hazlitt, their host, tried to make peace, ‘Oh, I’m sure, Ayn, that Lu didn’t mean it that way’. Mises jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘I did mean it that way!’
The following day she met one of the guests who had been present at the dinner party, and asked him to take sides in the dispute. When he pleaded neutrality, she replied, ‘That’s not possible. You are either with him or against me.’ He refused to choose and she never spoke to him again. In her copy of Mises’ famous book, Human Action, Rand wrote ‘bastard’ in the margin because Mises preferred a practical, economic argument for capitalism rather than a moral one.
Rand emerges somewhat diminished from Heller’s vivid and affecting account of this great champion of liberty and individuality who insisted on obedience and conformity from her followers (including from Alan Greenspan). A friend of John Hospers tried to console him after their falling-out: ‘Well John,’ the friend said, ‘You were a scholar. She was a revolutionary’.