July 19, 2010


We the Living by Ayn Rand (John Gray - 19 July 2010, The New Statesman).

In her foreword to We the Living, written for its republication in 1959 and reprinted in the new Penguin edition, Rand tells the reader that in some places she has "reworded the sentences and clarified their meaning, without changing their content. All the changes are merely editorial line-changes. The novel remains what and as it was." Her insistence that nothing of substance has been blanked out is disingenuous, to say the least. The first edition has long been a rare book. Years ago, coming across a copy while browsing in the stacks of an American university library, I was amused to read passages that had disappeared in the second edition. Most have faded from memory, but Wikipedia reminds me of some of them. The heroine tells a Bolshevik admirer, "I admire your methods. I loathe your ideals", and later asks him, "What are the masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" One of the few writers of fiction to succeed in making the Bolsheviks seem attractive, Rand did not hate the new Soviet regime because it oppressed the masses. She hated it because she believed it did not oppress the masses enough.

The Nietzschean quality of the deleted passages is not accidental. She belonged to a generation of young Russians whose view of the world was shaped largely by Nietzsche. Just about every literate Russian teenager had read or heard about the excitable German thinker. Where Rand was original was in transmuting his ideas, in her later work, into an American myth. Nietzsche's absurd Superman became a heroic entrepreneur - John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, for example - and an explicitly elitist ideology merged with the American folk religion of laissez-faire capitalism.

Reprocessed as Americanised myth, Rand's vulgar-Nietzschean world-view fuelled a publishing phenomenon (Atlas Shrugged has sold millions). More significantly, her bizarre confection had some influence on US public policy. Greenspan may have deviated from the strict Randian faith, but he retained one of its craziest tenets: get rid of government interference, and freedom and prosperity will inevitably follow. As much as reckless greed, it was this ideology that led to the crash whose first act has been playing out over the past two years.

Rand is easily mocked - and rightly so - but the type of thinking she exemplified is to be found not only on the right. Her capitalist superman is a ludicrous conception, but no more so than Trotsky's idea that, in a future socialist society, the human animal would be replaced by a higher species whose average member, he predicted, would far exceed Aristotle in abilities. It is childish to argue, as right-wing ideologues do, that the failures of global capitalism derive from there never having been a truly free market; but it is just as silly to maintain that the horrors of Soviet communism occurred only because real socialism never existed in Russia. In each case, disaster predictably followed from attempting to impose a dream of reason on society.

Left-wing progressives are not as remote from Rand as they like to think. They also aim to remake society through reason. And they, too, dream of turning the shifts and turns of history into a rational dance.

Which is why Whittaker Chambers had her number.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 19, 2010 5:32 AM
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