The Magazine

The Ayn and Only

Cult-empress or great thinker?

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Both biographers are interesting women who chose to write about Rand, in part, because she was an interesting woman. Neither author--and this would be the real killer for Rand, who was not tolerant of dissent--is an adherent to Rand's philosophy. In fact, neither book treats Rand as a philosopher, a title she preferred in later years, or offers literary analysis of Rand as a novelist. Rand would say that they are missing the point. But in a way, it was Rand who failed to see her own significance: "Rand's Romantic Realism has not changed American literature, nor has Objectivism penetrated far into the philosophy profession," writes Burns. But "for more than half a century Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right."

If William F. Buckley Jr. is the father of the modern conservative movement, Ayn Rand is the worldly aunt. While Buckley was busy providing for the future and setting rules for postwar conservatism, Rand breezed in, scattering cigarette ash and dollar bills everywhere. When she parted ways with the movement in disgust, she left a trail of crumpled stockings, fur-lined handcuffs, and ideological confusion in her wake. While willing to get on board with her principled and thorough denunciation of communism, conservatives have long had an uneasy relationship with Ayn Rand. Buckley more or less booted her and her growing contingent of followers out of the movement in the late 1950s. And Whittaker Chambers's review, published in National Review in 1957, contained the most famous (and most quotable) condemnation of her novels: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard .  .  . commanding: 'To a gas chamber--go!'"

But no matter how many times Rand is thrown out of political movements, she always comes back. Her followers can be found at nearly every large gathering on the right; long after communism is a dead letter, Rand keeps showing up at conservative parties. And even when she's refused admission at the front door for her obnoxious atheism, her utopian tendencies, or her insistence on her own greatness, she turns up inside anyway, smuggled in by the many people she introduced to ideas of liberty and personal responsibility.

Of course, the disdain between conservatives and Rand was mutual, as Burns ably chronicles in her book. Her imperious style, borrowed a bit from Nietzsche in the early years, and her tendency to give the cold shoulder to Objectivist apostates, made her hard to love. Rand denounced the conservative-friendly classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek as "pure poison," primarily for his limited concessions to state planning in certain sectors of the economy. And she had harsh words for Milton Friedman as well: His casual use of the economic term "rationing" to mean "allocation" infuriated her, as did his preference for pragmatic argumentation over appeals to moral absolutes of individual liberty and reason. (Ludwig von Mises, a founding economist of the pro-market Austrian school, called Rand "the most courageous man in America," which delighted her immensely.) Her demands for ideological purity extended to atheism as well. The first time Rand and Buckley met face to face, she casually mentioned that he seemed far too intelligent to believe in God. She denounced Christianity as "the perfect kindergarten for communism." Rand's fondness for including kinky sex scenes in her novels--and her excoriation of altruism--didn't do much to endear her to Christian conservatives, either.

But there was a moment when American politics inspired Rand. The 1940 Wendell Willkie presidential campaign, which took place while she was missing one of the many deadlines for The Fountainhead, unexpectedly brought out her political fervor. A fierce opponent of Franklin Roosevelt, Rand became a Republican campaign stalwart, going door-to-door with a Willkie button pinned to her coat. She even went to movie theaters where Willkie newsreels were airing, and then stayed behind to answer questions.

"I was a marvelous propagandist," she later recalled.