Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. Published in 1957 after thirteen years of sometimes tortured, often amphetamine-fueled effort, the massive thousand-plus-page novel provoked polarized responses that illuminated the conflicts shaping the postwar political world.
Reviled by mainstream critics, adored by a reverential following and an expanding mass-reading public, the book became a touchstone that continues to shape political and popular culture into the present day. But during the years of its creation, Rand herself was an increasingly isolated figure on the fringes of intellectual life in the United States.
In 1930s and ’40s California and New York, Rand fell in with the relatively small minority of right-wing defenders of unregulated capitalism. She actively opposed the New Deal, especially via the Wendell Willkie campaign. She joined in antiunion activity in Hollywood and fanned the anticommunist fervor surrounding her testimony before HUAC. She expounded right-wing attacks on the emerging postwar political consensus in favor of a so-called mixed economy — capitalist enterprises constrained by government regulation, organized labor, and an expanding safety net of public support for the needy.
Ayn Rand’s motley band of “free market” capitalist agitators had some successes. They supported the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that limited the rights of labor unions and eroded protections that organized labor had won under the 1935 Wagner Act. They promoted investigations and blacklists. But proponents of laissez-faire capitalism felt profoundly embattled during the 1950s and ’60s.
Support for government-regulated business, organized labor, and welfare state programs like Social Security was deeply entrenched by the time of the 1952 victory of “moderate” Dwight Eisenhower over right-wing senator Robert Taft (cosponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act) for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet although regulated capitalism was decidedly still capitalism, and the welfare state was not a socialist one, Rand and her zealous colleagues refused to make that distinction.
The “radicals for capitalism” remained a distinct minority during the 1950s, and they were a fractious bunch. Business owners had begun organizing against state regulation and unionization in the 1930s, establishing institutions like Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education and Harold Luhnow’s reorganized Volker Fund in the 1940s. Such institutions provided support and spread the ideas of Austrian School free-market economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
The nascent libertarian movement ultimately claimed these economists as founders, along with three popular novelists who published key nonfiction texts in 1943: Isabel Patterson, God in the Machine; Rose Wilder Lane, The Discovery of Freedom; and Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. But the ranks were replete with evolving political tiffs and personal feuds — between anti-state free marketeers and cold warriors allied with the state, between atheists and religious traditionalists, between advocates of a minimal state and anarchists.
When William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955, he hoped to chart a path to power for his favored respectable religious conservatives, over and against New Dealers and Republican “moderates” like Eisenhower but also versus fellow travelers on the political right — fanatical anticommunists and purist laissez-faire advocates. Looking back in his 2003 partially fact-based “novel” Getting It Right, he painted a smug, triumphalist picture of mainstream conservative victories, including over the right-wing fringe John Birch Society and Rand’s crew of free-market true believers. But this outcome could not have seemed inevitable during the 1950s.
At least as fractious as her fellow procapitalist activists, Ayn Rand progressively withdrew from the fray of intellectual social life among colleagues during the 1950s. As she labored long hours on her novel, she became increasingly dependent on a social, cultural, and intellectual world constructed for her by her primary acolyte, Nathan Blumenthal. A child of Russian Jewish Canadians, Blumenthal was twenty-five years younger than Rand. He began reading and rereading The Fountainhead from the age of fourteen, memorizing whole sections.
After enrolling at UCLA along with his girlfriend Barbara Weidman, he received a response to his fan letters and an invitation to visit Rand at her California manse. They all moved to New York in 1951 — Ayn and Frank, Nathan and Barbara — and co-created the small circle that became the base camp for Rand’s philosophical movement, Objectivism.
The weird little group of Rand followers became known, with deliberate irony, as the Collective, or as the Class of ’43 (publication year of The Fountainhead). Devoted to a philosophy that emphasized atheism and devalued purely biological or “ethnic” ties in favor of more “rational” associations, the Collective was composed almost entirely of the Russian Jewish relatives and childhood friends (and their partners and spouses) of Blumenthal and Weidman.
Like the Hollywood moguls Rand left behind in California, these Rand acolytes were at odds in many ways with their families of origin, but nonetheless shared affinities of background and experience that drew them into a chosen association. Also like the Hollywood gang, their experiences of “foreignness” and exclusion sharpened their idealizations of American history and commerce.
Yet these advocates of fierce individual independence met weekly to read and praise Rand’s novel, chapter by chapter. Their leader, who created heroic figures of masculine achievement and described herself as a “man worshiper,” financially supported a charming, passive, exquisitely dressed husband who rarely spoke at Collective meetings and worked intermittently as a florist and then later as a painter. The ferocious believer in integrity, honesty, and undeniable, objective reality who guided and judged the Collective’s members kept a corrosive secret that ultimately destroyed the group: she began an affair with Nathan Blumenthal, who changed his name to Nathaniel Branden and married Barbara Weidman in 1953.
When Atlas Shrugged made its incendiary appearance in 1957, it cracked open the apparent political consensus in favor of the welfare state to reveal intensely warring camps. The mainstream press, leading academics, and prominent literary figures didn’t just dismiss the tome; they abhorred it.
Rand herself predicted to Nathaniel Branden that her novel was “going to be the most controversial book of this century; I’m going to be hated, vilified, lied about, smeared in every possible way.” Her characteristic grandiosity notwithstanding, she was prescient.
Atlas Shrugged was described as “execrable claptrap,” “grotesque eccentricity,” and a “shrill diatribe” comparable in its godless, heartless overwrought cruelty to Nietzschean-inflected fascism. Ex-Communist but still left-leaning literary critic Granville Hicks opined in the New York Times, “It howls in the reader’s ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention. And then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.”
But the most notoriously devastating review came from William Buckley’s National Review. Echoing the views of many religious conservatives, another kind of ex-Communist slammed Rand for her atheism and lack of charity and compassion. In “Big Sister Is Watching You,” Whittaker Chambers wrote that Atlas Shrugged substitutes “the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross,” presenting the “Randian Man” who, like “Marxian Man,” is at “the center of a godless world.”
Chambers continued: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. . . . From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”
These over-the-top negative reviews combined bitter rejection of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, from the Right as well as the Left, with attacks on the crudeness of the writing style and on the tone or sheer meanness of the novel. They were met with a much smaller number of equally over-the-top positive reviews and private evaluations, deeming Atlas Shrugged “vibrant and powerful” and Rand a writer of “dazzling virtuosity.”
Economist Ruth Alexander, Rand’s friend, predicted that “Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century.” A private note to the author from famed right-wing economist Ludwig von Mises praised the book as a political achievement:
Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. . . . It is also — or may I say: first of all — a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society, a substantiated rejection of the ideology of our self-styled “intellectuals” and a pitiless unmasking of the insincerity of the policies adopted by our governments and political parties. It is a devastating exposure of the “moral cannibals,” the “gigolos of science,” and of the “academic prattle” of the makers of the “anti-industrial revolution.”
Time magazine summarized the overall reception of the novel by asking, “Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare?”
Despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews in the mainstream press, Atlas Shrugged quickly became a word-of-mouth best seller, generating thousands of fan letters from gushing enthusiasts. Though never regarded as serious by cultural gatekeepers, the novel nonetheless became undeniably socially and politically important, sometimes compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, and 1984.
How could a thousand-plus-page novel, featuring cartoonish characters moving through a melodramatic plot peppered with long didactic speeches, attract so many readers and so much attention? Clearly, the fantasies animating the novel struck a deep chord, resonating widely, illuminating and shaping cultural fissures from an emerging right-wing secular capitalist or “libertarian” point of view.
The plot of Atlas Shrugged is basically a moral fable that reverses the moral premises of early twentieth-century socialism and of midcentury welfare state liberalism. The novel represents the “producers” who own and run industrial capitalism as sexy, gorgeous, brilliant, and thoroughly admirable heroes, as contrasted with the flabby, unattractive, incompetent, unproductive moochers and state-backed bureaucratic looters, parasites, and thugs.
Originally titled “The Strike,” the novel outlines the impact on the world when the producers — the creators and innovators of industry, science, and intellectual life — rather than the unionized workers — withdraw their labor. The “engine of the world” progressively collapses, until the lights literally go out in New York City in a scene of desperate chaos. The producers have withdrawn to the hero John Galt’s Gulch, planning to return once the world collapses without them.
This overall framework for the plot is structured in time and space with reference to notions of civilizational progress, American exceptionalism, a nineteenth-century version of idealized industrial capitalism, a hierarchy of ability and capacity, and an account of the destructive, regressive impact of “collectivism,” both social and familial.
The civilizational theme echoes the one that shapes Anthem. The world of the contemporary United States, the setting of Atlas Shrugged, has fallen heavily under the sway of collectivist government regulation. The result is civilizational regression, a slide backward to more “savage,” “tribal,” “primitive,” or “Asiatic” modes of life.
This is especially tragic for the United States, the only country born into true freedom, from the vision of the Founding Fathers to the apotheosis of so-far existing capitalism — the nineteenth-century form of supposedly individualist, entrepreneurial, relatively unregulated dynamic industrial growth. The fall from this period of political and economic grace begins with the first successes of socialism, in the Bolshevik revolution, and generates civilizational stasis and regression via the mixed economy of the welfare state.
The utopia waiting in the wings, Galt’s Gulch, is presented as a strange space-time warp. The life of the Gulch, which is located in Colorado, appears primarily as an idealized version of the American West. The producers make their livings as farmers, bakers, mechanics, and so forth — small business owners with homespun values of honesty and self-sufficiency — with no corporate offices or teams of corporate lawyers in sight. But high-tech inventions operate there as well, as indicators of the creative innovations that the producers contribute.
Meanwhile, there is no sign of an indigenous population. The purity and nobility of the western setting depends on the erasure of histories of the violence of empire, slavery, and settler colonialism that brought these Europeans to this setting. The capitalism practiced in the Gulch is also free of detectable labor exploitation, and nearly free of any trace of reproductive labor or family life. Very few women are present there at all. One nameless baker is described as a mother by choice, and only one woman is named — Kay Ludlow, a glamorous actress.
The characters, starkly divided into good and evil, serve to illustrate various dimensions of stasis and decline, and the possibilities for regeneration ultimately waiting in Galt’s Gulch. Beautiful and brilliant Dagny Taggart, the central heroine of the tale, runs Taggart Transcontinental under the incompetent authority of her brother James, who conspires and colludes with government officials to compensate for his own inadequacies.
The romance plot of Atlas Shrugged is centered around her three affairs with dapper Francisco d’Anconia, a copper magnate; stalwart innovator Henry (Hank) Rearden, a steel manufacturer; and her vision of masculine perfection, John Galt, the mysterious engineer who leads the strike of the original title. The bulk of the plot follows the education of Dagny and Hank as they learn the moral lessons of reason and individualism and the necessity to decisively reject misguided altruism and collectivism.
Following along, the reader becomes witness to large-scale destruction and misery, to train wrecks and explosions and economic and technical failures that pile up as the producers secede from their roles in the world.
The disaster-riven United States resembles Rand’s view of Russia from the Crimea to Petrograd during the 1920s: the Bolsheviks and their collaborators in We the Living and the bureaucrats and sellouts of Atlas Shrugged are close kin. As Dagny and Hank come to learn that they will only be contributing to the evil of collectivism if they do not withdraw to the Gulch, the reader is led to welcome the destruction as deserved.
The producers are created by the author as vehicles for admiration and aspiration, based on an exalted identification with moral, mental, and physical perfection. The moochers and looters are offered as targets for contempt, resentment, and finally indifference to their well-deserved fate.
Rand peppers the novel with long-winded speeches, didactic inductions into her philosophy. The central pedagogical moments include speeches on the meaning of money, the disastrous impact of collectivist economics, the sixty-page script of a radio speech by John Galt outlining his philosophy, and a surprising speech on the morality of sex — all designed to turn common understandings upside down.
Francisco d’Anconia’s money speech reverses the common maxim “Money is the root of all evil” to argue that money is the root of all good. Money, when properly aligned with the gold standard, is the means to store tradeable “value” in a world of free trade and free markets. Without it there is only the barrel of a gun.
Another speech attacks the Marxist maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The narrator, telling the story of the rise and fall of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, describes the perverse incentives that destroy the whole company when it becomes a cooperative enterprise — workers minimize their abilities and maximize their stated needs, everyone becomes a conniving malingerer, and things fall apart:
The shiftless and irresponsible had a field day of it. They bred babies, they got girls into trouble, they dragged in every worthless relative they had from all over the country, every unmarried pregnant sister, for an extra “disability allowance,” they got more sicknesses than any doctor could disapprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes — what the hell, “the family” was paying for it!
The sixty pages that are John Galt’s radio script took Rand nearly two years to write. In a tone of supremely confident authority, and with seemingly endless repetitive detail, it lays out her logical elaborations from her rendering of the philosophy of Aristotle, through the supreme value of reason, to the morality of individualism and the superiority of capitalism.
The lessons for the student/reader are: reason is superior to mysticism/religion, egoism is a truer morality than altruism, and individualism leads upward and forward via capitalism, while collectivism leads down and back to socialist barbarism.
When her editor at Random House, Bennett Cerf, asked her to cut the speech, she notoriously replied, “Would you cut the Bible?”
As reviewers pointed out, Atlas Shrugged is not subtle. It is heavy-handed, hectoring, relentless. But it is also iconoclastic, sometimes surprising, and even occasionally funny.
While most of the political points hammered into readers repeatedly through the novel are variations on familiar themes in twentieth-century right-wing “free market” politics, Rand really veers off the safe path rather dramatically on the issues of God and sex. Her adamant atheism alienated many otherwise enthusiastic conservative fans. Her treatment of sex was surprising and confusing to many readers, though no doubt delightful and encouraging to some others.
Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on the morality of sex, delivered in conversation with Hank Rearden, argues for the positive value of (presumptively hetero) sexual joy. Sexual desire, he insists, reflects the highest human values. D’Anconia enlightens Rearden, who is married to a woman who beats him down with guilt and obligation, by expounding the view that his adulterous desire for Dagny, the “highest” type of woman, reflects the proper rule of reason in matters sexual.
Dagny’s successive affairs with d’Anconia, Rearden, and Galt are presented as high-minded as well as thrilling. And in romance fantasy mode, none of the men are resentful or antagonistic as she moves on from one to the other. The relations among them, producers all, are infused with homoerotic mutual admiration, as they all understand perfectly that the others will of course desire Dagny.
Rand’s fiction is rife with romantic triangles and quadrangles, with adultery and divorce, with homoerotic bonds among a heroine’s multiple lovers (though homoeroticism among women is unimaginable in the Randian fictional universe). There is no birth control or abortion, few children, virtually no housework. The sex scenes feature conquest and eroticized physical struggle as powerful women submit to dominant men.
But they do not then cling, depend, or nag — only the weak and the wives do that. And the romances emphatically do not end in marriage. These are fantasies for the New Woman that cut in multiple directions. Aspirational creative and professional freedom, circumscribed within a context of consensual, ecstatic sexual submission to heroic men, is available to the superior single woman producer. All the other women are either nagging parasites or starving primitives and incompetents.
As The Fountainhead reflects Rand’s view of 1920s and ’30s Hollywood, so Atlas Shrugged constitutes her brief against the New Deal and the emerging welfare state of the ’40s and ’50s. Her satiric skills and flashes of humor appear primarily in her portraits of state bureaucrats with names like Wesley Mouch, who push ridiculous legislation like the Anti–Dog-Eat-Dog Bill, while scheming for power like classic comic villains.
The corporate businessmen who collaborate with the bureaucrats are equally evil — incompetent and resentful of the ability of others. Included among these are the families of heroic Titans like Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart; mothers, siblings, and wives function as burdens and barriers.
Along with academic studies such as David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), and fiction like Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Atlas Shrugged critiqued the “other directed” managers of mid-twentieth-century corporate capitalism and the regulatory welfare state. But rather than a complex depiction and analysis, the novel provides a dramatically moralized landscape valorizing rugged individualism over all cooperative or collaborative values, at work or at home.
This scenario repelled many critics, but by alternating bitter with hilarious depictions it also expressed widely shared frustrations with numbing, constraining bureaucratic corporate culture and parallel familial restraints.
Atlas Shrugged generally rallied the laissez-faire capitalist troops against the socialists, liberals, and religious conservatives. But it also appealed in complicated and contradictory ways across many other battle lines.
As Judith Wilt has noted, the selfless devotion to the needs of others and the binding obligations to family that Rand so strenuously attacks and lampoons were values applied with special force to the lives of women. If most other major themes are bracketed, the novel can be read as a furious attack on normative femininity.
The homoerotic relations of the heroes have generated numerous queer “fan fiction” style appropriations that often ignore or revise the novel’s broader political framework. And as Melissa Jane Hardie argues, the starkly dramatic, highly stylized, melodramatically moralized characterizations offer themselves for camp readings that twist and reverse Rand’s preferred meanings.
After the novel’s 1957 publication, Rand’s sky-high expectations were smashed. For a philosopher who valorized independence from the approval of others, she reacted horribly to the dearth of prominent defenders.
“John Galt wouldn’t feel like this,” she complained to the Brandens as her depression deepened — probably also fueled by withdrawal from amphetamines. For years after, she remained withdrawn and bitter as Nathaniel and Barbara Branden took over the propagation of the faith.
Drawing on Rand’s fan mail for addresses, Nathaniel Branden put together a mailing list to advertise a new series of lectures, “The Basic Principles of Objectivism,” in 1958. This first series was successful enough to be repeated twice a year as new series were added: Barbara Branden on the principles of efficient thinking, economist and Collective member Alan Greenspan on the economics of a free society, Ayn Rand herself on romantic realist fiction writing, and a second series that Nathaniel Branden may soon have come to regret, “The Principles of Romantic Love.”
These lecture series coalesced into the Nathaniel Branden Institute in 1961, a full-fledged educational enterprise that offered tapes of the lectures, with outposts in major cities from Philadelphia to Chicago and Los Angeles. The New York center meanwhile expanded into a variegated social world that offered sports teams, movie and book clubs, and an annual ball.
The Objectivist Newsletter began circulating in 1962, the same year that Nathaniel and Barbara Branden published a small biographical and philosophical volume designed to spread the word, Who Is Ayn Rand? During the years of Rand’s depressed withdrawal, the Brandens turned the by now very famous novelist into the fountainhead of an organized movement that registered 3,500 students in fifty cities at its peak in 1967.
The lecture courses and the Objectivist Newsletter initially boosted Rand’s reputation, but soon rumors began circulating about a rigidly authoritarian personality cult at NBI and the Collective, at the center of organized Objectivism.
In 1961, Newsweek compared Rand to evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in her power to “hypnotize a live audience,” and the Saturday Evening Post published a profile titled “The Curious Cult of Ayn Rand.” These news stories reported that NBI students were required not only to read Atlas Shrugged, but also to affirm their agreement with John Galt’s speech.
Anarchist libertarian Murray Rothbard fell in and out with Rand more than once, later describing “the Ayn Rand cult” in his usual purple prose style as comparable to the cults of Hitler, Mussolini, Trotsky, and Mao. Psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavior therapy, called Objectivism a religion and diagnosed Rand as a manic-depressive narcissist and a “fucking baby.” Rand seemed able to bring out the hothead in these devotees of reason.
Nathaniel Branden later admitted his central role in creating an atmosphere of judgment in which adherence to Rand’s views was enforced with inquisitions and purges. In his 1986 memoir, Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, he listed the premises transmitted to students at NBI during the 1960s:
- Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
- Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
- Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
- Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position that one takes regarding her and her work.
- No one who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemns what Ayn Rand condemns can be a good Objectivist. No one who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue can be a fully consistent individual.
- Because Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her “intellectual heir” and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.
- It is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting, perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one’s beliefs solely by reason.
But as she emerged from the depths of her post-Atlas depression, Rand also began to develop a public role beyond the Collective, NBI, and Objectivist circles. She gave the lecture “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World” at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Brooklyn College during 1960 and began appearing annually at the Ford Hall Forum at Northeastern University in Boston — an April event often called “Objectivist Easter.”
The first of many Ayn Rand campus clubs formed at Brooklyn College as she developed a reputation as a provocative speaker and a right-wing icon in cape and dollar-sign pin with cigarette holder. Her campus lectures were popular and crowded, but she gained her widest audiences via a Mike Wallace interview broadcast in 1959 and three appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1967— before a television audience of fifty million.
Rand’s television appearances were followed by record mail, nearly all positive. This surprised at least one producer on the Mike Wallace show, who noted that other media treated her as a “leper” and “the Antichrist.” The very respectful 1964 interview by Alvin Toffler in Playboy also exposed Rand and her philosophy to a mainstream audience, contributing to her highly polarizing reputation as either a sage or a nut job.
Rand attracted college and television audiences with her pointed attacks on altruism and religion and passionate defenses of unregulated capitalism, both of which cut against the grain of popular opinion during the early 1960s. But she also appealed to many with her opposition to the Vietnam War, the draft, and the legal ban on abortion — positions that often surprised her interlocutors.
She veered substantially from consensus liberalism and emerging New Left politics, but also from mainstream conservatism with the less familiar right-wing libertarian bent of her arguments.
As Ayn Rand moved slowly from the margins toward the center of mainstream visibility, she was carried along with the incoming tide of advocacy for laissez-faire capitalism.
Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president against Lyndon Baines Johnson served as a kind of weathervane. His 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative introduced the thinking of laissez-faire economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to a broader conservative audience, and by 1963 he had attracted the support of a cadre of outsiders to electoral politics — including advisors Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley — who elevated him to the Republican Party nomination.
Ayn Rand, who had excoriated John F. Kennedy as a “high-class beatnik,” was pleased to endorse Goldwater and correspond with him, though she was ultimately disappointed by his inconsistencies, and especially by his embrace of religion. His crushing defeat exposed the limited inroads of the antiunion, anti–welfare state business activists who were his primary supporters. But his campaign laid the basis for decades of more successful inroads to come as militant liberalism’s supporters gained significant ground over the next two decades.
Rand’s contradictory public reputation, based on her image as both a cult leader and a popular public speaker, exploded and crashed in 1968. She never truly recovered, personally or publicly.
The reasons were kept under wraps. Objectivist circles and the wider public knew only that Rand split with the Brandens, NBI dissolved, and Objectivism fractured and declined. In May 1968, Rand published a vague attack on her close associates in the Objectivist Newsletter titled “To Whom It May Concern,” alleging unspecified personal immorality and financial improprieties (wholly invented).
The Brandens seized the mailing list and sent out an equally vague reply in a letter to subscribers, “In Answer to Ayn Rand.” Confusion reigned. One thing seemed clear: emotion had brought down the house of reason.
The details emerged with books by each Branden, one in 1986 — Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (made into a movie in 1999 starring Helen Mirren in the title role) — and the other in 1989 — Nathaniel Branden’s Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. The Brandens provided somewhat different versions of the sordid tale of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel, undertaken with permission of both spouses, and its end with the revelation of Nathaniel’s ongoing four-year secret relationship with a third woman, actress and Objectivist student Patrecia Scott (born Gullison, professional name Wynand).
Although Rand had been celibate during her depression, and Branden had resisted restarting their affair for years after her revival, the revelation of the affair with Scott sent Rand over the edge from scorched-earth rage into personal desolation. In her view, Nathaniel had proved himself a fraud and a failure as an Objectivist, not only because of his lies, but because of his choice of an “inferior value” in his sexual life.
The entire edifice of Ayn Rand’s idealized romantic sexual philosophy came crashing down, as the man she had called a genius and hero, her anointed heir, rejected her and lied to her about his sex life. There was no room for such weakness and failure in her philosophy. She accused Branden of having taken away “this earth.” Barbara Branden simply summarized, “Ayn wants you dead.”
Though devastated and diminished, Ayn Rand did not disappear from public view. During the 1960s she developed four distinct voices that carried her influence forward.
The first was found in her massively popular novels, which circulated cultural fantasies of individualist American Titans who struggle and triumph over the burdens and barriers imposed by the weak and corrupt tribalists and collectivists who want only to confiscate their wealth and sap their strength. This rewriting of the Horatio Alger story of up-by-the-bootstraps achievement was composed through and over the story of European civilizational progress against the savage and primitive tribes of the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
American exceptionalism is overt in Rand’s fictional narratives; civilizational triumph provides a baseline framework. Moral evaluations are embedded in hierarchies of ability, capacity, and beauty. The stark racial hierarchies of these frameworks are obscured by the fact that all the major characters are white.
The fantasy worlds of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged reproduce deep, widely shared cultural narratives. That these narratives reflect the dominant view of relatively privileged Americans of European descent is seen in the fact that the fan base for Ayn Rand’s fiction, though mixed by gender and sexual identity, is predominantly composed of white members of the aspiring professional, managerial, creative, and business classes.
The second public voice of Ayn Rand during the 1960s was represented by her campus lecture and media persona. This Rand was provocative but personable, pedagogical, and sometimes funny. The published lectures address a confused and questioning “you” in clear and teacherly prose.
The Playboy interview and the televised appearances present Rand’s answers to challenging questions in clear, confident, measured, but blunt language.
Mike Wallace: And then if a man is weak, or a woman is weak, then she is beyond, he is beyond love?
Ayn Rand: He certainly does not deserve it, he certainly is beyond. He can always correct it. Man has free will. If a man wants love he should correct his weaknesses, or his flaws, and he may deserve it. But he cannot expect the unearned, neither in love, nor in money, neither in matter, nor spirit.
This provocative but engaging public presence starkly contrasted with Rand’s third voice as an authoritarian cult leader. This voice circulated secondhand, through an accumulating pile of critical and satirical news reports and memoirs, capped by descriptions like Jerome Tuccille’s in his 1971 comic tale of life in Objectivism, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand:
. . . Curiously enough, for a woman who started out as a champion of the independent mind, she began to consider her own ideas as natural corollaries of truth and objectivity.
“Objective reality” was what Rand said it was.
“Morality” was conformity to the ethic of Ayn Rand.
“Rationality” was synonymous with the thinking of Ayn Rand. . . .
. . . Atlas Shrugged . . . quickly became a kind of New Marxism of the Right.
This severe voice was echoed in writing in the Objectivist Newsletter (1962–1965, later the Objectivist magazine, 1966–1971, and then the Ayn Rand Letter, 1971–1976). Selected essays from the newsletter were reproduced in a series of books during the 1960s and early ’70s. The first of these, For the New Intellectual, reprinted excerpts from her novels prefaced by an extended essay of breathtaking scope.
The essay laid out the theory of history and philosophy that underpins her novels: From a promising beginning among the Greeks, represented by Aristotle rather than Plato, man’s potential for reason and achievement took a deep dive during the Dark Ages, when the Witch Doctor (religious mystics) and Attila (strongmen who rule by force) held sway over savage, primitive barbarian hordes whose tribal practices included human sacrifice. The Renaissance brought back Aristotle and the rise of European reason.
In America, rational morality powered the rise of capitalism, which by the nineteenth century reached its purest (but still not really pure) form. In the twentieth century, the rise of socialist collectivism and the influence of Immanuel Kant ruined everything. The intellectuals are primarily to blame for ideas that support the “mixed economy” responsible for the political and economic ills of the twentieth century.
This sounds cartoonish. It is. Its finger-in-your-eye tone and absurdly reductive account of both history and philosophy clashed with Rand’s much more careful and appealing public-speaking persona. As Gore Vidal commented in his 1961 review of For the New Intellectual,
Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all. . . . Ayn Rand’s philosophy is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and systematic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night.
Subsequent volumes, including The Virtue of Selfishness (1961) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), were composed of essays by Rand, Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen primarily devoted to the defense of property rights, the central plank of the political platform of these “radicals for capitalism.” But each also included an essay a bit off that track.
In “Racism,” Rand criticizes racism as the “lowest most crudely primitive form of collectivism” and expresses her support for the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement, to the extent that it opposes government-backed discrimination. She goes on to attack the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the same terms that Barry Goldwater did, as a violation of property rights.
Arguing that “private” discrimination is a moral, not a legal crime, she proceeds to defend “color blind” government policies over any move toward collective rights or “quotas” — which she associates with the anti-Semitic quota ceilings of czarist Russia.
When paired with her opening rant in For the New Intellectual, this exposition of “color blind” racial policies illuminates the ways racial hierarchies persisted even as American apartheid laws were dismantled. For Rand, the erasure of indigenous people, restrictions on immigration from more “primitive” parts of the world, and the persistence of sharp racial inequality in the “private” economic and social spheres were part and parcel of her system of rational morality, even as she opposed state-imposed racial (and sex) discrimination.
In “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” delivered as a lecture in 1967 and added to the revised paperback edition of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967), Rand begins to track the breakdown of the welfare-state consensus of the postwar period. She wonders what alternative might emerge, and points to then–governor of California Ronald Reagan’s famous speech nominating Barry Goldwater in 1964 as a promising new direction for electoral politics — a new direction her own influence helped shape.
The last two volumes of Rand’s writing published during her lifetime were starkly contrasting. The Romantic Manifesto (1971) included her defense of romanticism, her attacks on naturalism and modernism, and her extended definition of the notion of “sense of life.” The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971, later retitled as Return of the Primitive) reads like a series of screeds on contemporary issues scrawled by a cranky recluse whose only sources of information are popular news magazines and television reports.
The essays are unified by her critique of the New Left, as a manifestation of primitive regression. They include complaints about “hippies” and “beatniks,” especially at Woodstock in 1969 — dirty descendants of Dionysius, as compared with the Apollonians (including herself) in attendance at the launch of Apollo 11 that same year.
She takes a swipe at “Women’s Lib” as a bunch of unattractive women (like her character in We the Living, Comrade Sonia) who are demanding “special rights” rather than legitimate “equal rights.” She focuses especially on the movement for ecology, which she describes as at the core of an anti-industrial revolution.
In “The Age of Envy” she summarizes her view of the threats to Western civilization, as represented by the primitive, the disabled, and the stupid:
Why is Western civilization admonished to admire primitive cultures? Because they are not admirable. Why is primitive man exhorted to ignore Western achievements? Because they are. Why is the self-expression of a retarded adolescent to be nurtured and acclaimed? Because he has nothing to express. Why is the self-expression of a genius to be impeded and ignored? Because he has.
Ayn Rand’s fourth public voice was a muted one. Off and on during the 1960s and ’70s she published explications of her philosophy in her most academic prose, including sections of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in the Objectivist Newsletter; the book appeared in 1979.
During the 1970s, as the postwar consensus continued to unravel, the nascent, fractious political right in the United States transformed. Old-school free marketeers, anticommunist activists, and traditional conservatives were joined and ultimately superseded by an emerging conservative youth movement, an expanding libertarian movement, a mobilizing religious right, and a hard-edged form of law-and-order populism reflected by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.
An upsurge in business activism joined with elements of these libertarian and conservative strains to usher in the rise and dominance of neoliberalism by the 1980s election of Ronald Reagan to the US presidency. Ayn Rand’s Mean Girl influence, her promotion of optimistic cruelty, was a vital element of this new hegemony.