The curious cult of the friend of fascism

Ayn Rand’s vile philosophy was one of the crudest ever to be taken seriously, but attracts the devotion of fundamentalists for whom she could do no wrong


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Cults have their comforts. Membership persuades their adherents that they are an elite, party to the secret workings of the world, unlike everyone else who exist in a benighted condition of original ignorance. Adherents are saved, non-adherents are damned. 

One of the most curious of modern cults is surely that of Ayn Rand. Well before the advent of social media, cult members turned on heretics, renegades and unbelievers with the virulence of extremists, and one editor tells me that never in the 40-year history of his publication has anything aroused such fury as an article dispraising Rand. For members of her cult, she must be perfect, a kind of Mohammed or Lenin. 

A cult needs its guru, and gurus comes in different shapes and sizes; but Ayn Rand is surely one of the least attractive of them. Intolerant, humourless, lacking in irony, incapable of self-doubt, arrogant, single-minded, hard and inflexible, it is difficult for those not under her spell to think of anything that accounts for the absolute loyalty that she inspired. 

But just as some are inclined to believe that the lengths to which fanatics are prepared to go to further their cause reflects favourably upon the justice of that cause, so, perhaps, the very qualities of Rand that repel most people assure a tiny and at one time influential minority that she must be right. Why else would anyone have made herself so deeply unattractive? 

She was highly intelligent, of course, but her intelligence was a narrow beam

She was highly intelligent, of course, but her intelligence was a narrow beam, a undirected laser sent into the void. She was a prime example of an ideologist, a person who looked at the world through the lens of a simple theory and makes evidence out of confirmation bias. Not for Rand is Matthew Arnold’s world “so various, so beautiful, so new”, but a world already fully understood, needing only the application of her philosophical principle to be made perfect. 

Alas, the ill-intentioned, the corrupt, the parasites, the inferiors of this world refused to immolate themselves on her altar, which explained its current gross imperfections. Remove the obstacles, by whatever force necessary, even violent revolution, and at last there would be progress to full humanity, even of the helots of existence. 

Rand’s philosophy was one of the crudest ever to be enunciated seriously. She divided people under the present dispensation into the creative, productive and valuable on the one hand and the parasites, looters and worthless on the other, the latter of course being by far the more numerous. Full of resentment, they did everything to stymie the former, under the pretext or pretence of altruism. It was therefore necessary to destroy the illusion of altruism and replace it with the unadulterated and untrammelled egoism and pursuit of self-interest by the highly talented that would lead to progress for mankind. 

Rand hated, feared or failed to notice the ambiguities of man’s existence. She had no conception of the tragic dimension of life that imposes dilemmas without any perfect resolution. She had a Nietzschean worship of power and ruthlessness, turning what was an aperçu into a whole world picture. 

Sheer size and prepotency were to her virtues in themselves. Witness the supposed heroism of Roark, the architect in The Fountainhead whose only discernible quality of brilliance was that he outdid the Franco-Swiss fascist architect Le Corbusier in the matter of size, by many times. Alas for Palladio, alas for Christopher Wren, they were but primitives on the path to Roark, Lilliputians to Roark’s Brobdingnagian. Bigger is better, biggest is best. It would be difficult to think of a viler aesthetic. 

It is certainly true that apparent altruism can cover or even motivate a multitude of self-serving policies and brutalities: but that no more proves the impossibility of real altruism than does the existence of tinsel prove there is no such thing as silver. 

It is instructive to compare Rand’s crudity with the subtlety of, say, Adam Smith. While he famously (and correctly) stated that we do not look to the benevolence of the butcher for our meat, this does not mean that the politeness, pleasantness or even kindness of the butcher is false. I well remember a scene in a fishmonger’s in which an old lady, wanting a piece of fish for her dinner, had not enough money in her purse to pay for it, but with an instinctive delicacy of feeling the fishmonger counted it out falsely and said that it was enough. 

It is surely straining credulity to say that this was a manifestation of disguised self-interest, or anything but an act of genuine kindness and human solidarity, in accordance with what Smith says at the beginning of The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

Though I have spent a fair proportion of my life among worse-than-average people, what Adam Smith says here, his philosophical anthropology so to speak, accords with my experience far more than any denial of the possibility of widespread or genuine altruism, and this passage alone is both more realistic and worth more than all of Rand put together. 

Of course, the articulation of this widespread (if not absolutely universal) sentiment with public policy is difficult and complex, precisely because desiderata are incommensurable and vary even within a single personage, let alone within a whole society. But to exclude considerations of benevolence altogether, to wish for a society directed by people completely devoid of feelings of altruism just because such feelings can be false or an instrument of abuse, is like refusing to prescribe a drug necessary to save life because it can have dangerous side-effects. Rand’s desire for consistency and rationality overwhelmed her common sense and rendered her both shallow and mad.

But how did this madness emerge and where did it come from? 

No doubt a throw of the genetic dice had something to do with it. There is, after all, a quasi-neurological condition in which people fail to develop the capacity to connect socially with other people. As with most genetic  conditions, the degree or severity of its expression probably varies according to environment. Where narcissism is more prevalent, for example, it is likely the expression of this condition will be both more frequent and more severe. But there is more to Rand’s militant and evangelical unfeelingness than this. 

An explanation is offered in Professor Derek Offord’s short book, Ayn Rand and the Russian Intelligentsia. In intellectual style, she was always far more Russian than American. Rand was able to pass for someone very original in America only because of the unfamiliarity of Americans with nineteenth-century Russian thought, to which she was heir and continuator.

Offord, a distinguished historian of Russian intellectual life, makes a strong and to my mind unarguable case that Rand is comprehensible only by taking her Russian background strongly into account. This background went far deeper than mere horror of the Russian Revolution through which she lived in her formative years, and which deprived her of her relatively comfortable and privileged, though always somewhat precarious, situation as a prosperous, Russified Jew. 

As a bookish, socially-isolated adolescent, she was immersed both in the Russian novel of ideas (the principal way Russian thinkers could discuss such ideas), and in the long quasi-philosophical or critical essays that appeared in the so-called thick journals. Thus, for her there was little distinction between philosophy and literature, and her long, not to say interminable, novels were vehicles for conveying her ideas, much as milk floats convey bottles of milk. 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with novels of ideas, but Rand had neither the literary talent nor the subtle understanding of a Turgenev, with the result that her novels are like long political pamphlets in stilted dialogue, dramatised versions of, say, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, complete with odious and always ill-intentioned opponents. 

Rand’s vituperative style is characteristic

Rand’s vituperative style is characteristic of the way in which the Russian intelligentsia discussed political questions. There is her simplistic division of good and bad, with a great void in between. There is the element of messianism, according to which there is a solution to all the problems of human existence. The very questions she was obsessed by were very Russian: for example, the proper place of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The predominant answer was that it should be all; Rand’s answer was that it should be nothing. For most Russian thinkers, the happy medium was nothing more than a morally and intellectually dirty compromise. 

Rand also belonged to a utilitarian school of literary aesthetics that was very Russian. The purpose of literature was to advance a cause, in the way a sermon is supposed to advance virtue. The hero, generally an arrogant creep of the first order, is intended as a template on which people should either model themselves or submit to in recognition of their own inferiority. 

Rand argues that selflessness is the height of immorality. Sometimes her arguments, for a self-proclaimed rationalist, are of a crudity that almost defy belief. In a television interview in 1979, she said before an audience of millions that the Nazis demanded and received self-sacrifice, which just went to show how evil self-sacrifice was. 

The question remains as to why her books have sold so well. Professor Offord rightly says,  “If we look for reasons why Rand’s fiction has had such appeal to readers beyond the literary critical literary world, then it is surely on its didactic, exhortatory and ideological content that we should focus.” While this is undoubtedly true, it is also not very reassuring, given what Rand exhorts us to. 

Rand’s heroic types are swashbuckling self-righteous megalomaniacs who have no scruple in riding roughshod over others in pursuit of their aims, the end supposedly justifying the means and benefitting the rest of ovine humanity. Of course, means sometimes are justified by their ends, but it needs a subtle understanding to know when this is. 

Precisely how we are to identify Rand’s heroic types who are excluded by creativity from the constraints of normal social existence, she does not say. Presumably they identify themselves, which rather obviously opens the doors to abuse, given the number of ruthless psychopaths that  there are. We may summarise Rand’s logic as follows:

Highly creative people are psychopathic

Therefore, psychopathic people are highly creative

This version of the positive hero accords with the romantic idea, not entirely false, of the frontiersman of the American West, who was not only brave and heroic but free from the petty trammels of an increasingly administered and fine-tuned life. The frontier may no longer exist, but there is Wall Street, ever- bigger skyscrapers to be built, ever-larger fortunes to be made, if the hundreds of millions of resentful lesser beings did not prevent it via their corrupt, scheming and envious tribunes! 

There is an element of truth in this, of course. Envy and resentment are present in the human heart and can exert a baleful influence; but so are benevolence and generosity which  exert a beneficial one. One can render benevolence into resentment manqué by intellectual legerdemain, in which case the part becomes the whole and what is asserted becomes true by definition, but this is an empty exercise. It is a refusal to recognise the complexity of the world and of the human heart. 

As Offord shows, Rand was one of the many terrible simplifiers of many in the Russian intellectual tradition who exerted, and exert still, a disastrous influence in their homeland and elsewhere because simplifiers always attract acolytes. The freedom Rand extolled was that of a small race of supermen, deeply unattractive as human beings, at best idiots savants; the kind of people whom only those who would choose a pneumatic drill as a companion would find companionable. 

Rand’s doctrines are, unwittingly, an illustration of Shigalov’s dictum in The Possessed about the slide from perfect freedom into perfect enslavement. If one had to place Rand on a political spectrum, it would not be with the friends of freedom, but with the fascists. 

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