Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was born as Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 2, 1905. Very early in her childhood, she determined that she wanted to be a writer, teaching herself to read at age 6 and fostering a love for heroism in fiction. She detested Russian culture, but admired some European thinkers and authors, most notably Victor Hugo at this early age.

Rand was the youngest of three girls, born to Fronz and Anna Rosenbaum. Her father was a pharmacist and owned his own store, which was rare for a Jewish man during this time. Rand loved her father, developing a growing sense of admiration for him as a child. She did not hold the same feeling for her mother, however, whom she thought to be frivolous. Early on she broke with any religious views that her parents held, determining herself to be an atheist. She never denied having a Jewish heritage, but she held none of the traditional beliefs of the culture.

Revolution became a fixture in Rand's early life; she supported the Kerensky Revolution, but the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would prove devastating to her and her family. Her family left for the Crimea to escape the fighting, and Rand finished high school here. The Communist revolutionaries confiscated Fronz's pharmacy and thereafter the family struggled desperately to survive.

After returning from the Crimea, Rand began to study history and philosophy at the University of Petrograd. She somehow managed to survive the purges of bourgeois students long enough to get her degree. Despite Russia's isolationist policy during this time, Rand was still able to view some of what American cinema had to offer. She loved what she saw and eventually entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screen writing. Soon after, cousins of hers offered her the chance to go to the United States to visit. Upon her leaving, she reported her first name to by "Ayn" (which is to be pronounced so it rhymes with "mine") and her surname to be "Rand," which was supposedly the second half of the brand name of her typewriter. She arrived in New York City in February of 1926. She spent six months with relatives in Chicago, got an extension on her visa, and then left for Hollywood, hoping to get a job screenwriting.

She was standing at the gate of Cecil B. DeMille's studio when he happened to drive up to see her there. He offered to bring her to the set of his movie, King of Kings, and gave her positions as first an extra and later a script reader. While working there, she saw bit player Frank O'Connor, a man who fit her vision of the heroic individual perfectly. They married in 1929, and remained together until his death in 1979.

Rand worked at odd jobs for several years until she finally sold the screenplay for Night of January 16th to Universal Studios in 1932. It was produced in Hollywood and on Broadway. The play was relatively successful at the time and the royalties she obtained allowed her to focus on writing.

We the Living appeared in 1936. She had completed it three years earlier but it was rejected until Macmillan in the States and Cassell in England took it up. It was dismissed and disliked by a number of critics for being too anti-Soviet. She was writing against the intellectual mainstream of the Red Decade, making her unpopular. The novel was based on her years living under the Communist takeover, and is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful and striking example of her fiction work.

While starting The Fountainhead, Rand worked on a novella called Anthem about a futuristic world in which people are locked under an enveloping totalitarian regime where the word and the concept "I" has been completely wiped out in favor of the collective "we." Her main characters fight to resist this world and reclaim their sense of self. This is another one of her most powerful works emotionally speaking; the basis of her philosophy is demonstrated with amazing clarity in this short work. At the time of its completion, only a small British publishing company would accept it.

Also at this time, a stage version of We the Living called The Unconquered failed, and Rand found work again in the studios at Paramount reading screenplays. During this time, she found a contact at Bobbs-Merrill who agreed to publish The Fountainhead. In 1949, Rand wrote the screenplay version of the book and the movie starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Clark Gable was reportedly infuriated with his studio people for not securing the rights to the movie themselves; he longed to do it himself. Howard Roark, the main character of the book, proved to be her first concrete exploration of her heroic ideal. He was an architect in the novel who was based on the real architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1957, Random House published Rand's best known work, Atlas Shrugged. In this work, she illustrated her philosophical ideas more thoroughly than ever before, creating a group of heroic characters who, in the book, were being exploited by the uncaring masses in an increasingly socialist America. She tracked their interactions and their eventual strike, which was a withdrawl from the outside world to a secluded place in the Rocky Mountains. It would become a best seller, but it attracted negative attention much like her earlier work. Critics found her premises unlikely. Rand held that contrary to commonly held belief, it is the masses who are the exploiters and not vice versa; this was met with fierce opposition.

Disgusted and dejected by the response of America's intellectual community, Rand withdrew. For twelve years she had poured herself into the work, and she was exhausted from it. It was Nathaniel Branden, a young admirer and student of hers, who helped to restore her confidence by initiating a lecture series under the Nathaniel Branden Institute on her philosophy. Due to this new form of publicity, sales of her works grew, and the phrase "Who is John Galt?" became famous. Rand began to tour college campuses, giving lectures on her philosophy. She and Branden began publishing The Objectivist Newsletter which was later renamed The Objectivist which ran from 1962 until 1976. In it, Rand worked to take on current philosophical and political issues, applying the principles of objectivism to everyday problems.

The cohesion of their intellectual movement broke in 1968 when Branden admitted the nature of his affair with Rand. Accusations flew between the pair, who split the rights to their respective contributions to the objectivist movement and severed contact. Afterwards, Rand's life took more disappointing turns. Her husband began to show signs of dementia in the years before he died. Her attempt to reunite with her older sister Nora in 1973 was disappointing and unfulfilling. She had surgery for lung cancer in 1974 after a lifetime of smoking, and afterwards had no strength to maintain her periodicals. Aside from small speaking engagements and television show appearances, Rand attended only her annual lecture at Boston's Ford Hall Forum. She was partially through a miniseries version of Atlas Shrugged and preparing for her next Ford Hall appearance when she died on March 6, 1982 in her New York City apartment.

The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's philosophy was named objectivism by her according to her notion that the lives of men should be governed by their use of their own rational faculties, and thereby outlining an objective, moral way of life.

Ayn Rand argued that the initiation of force by any party against another is immoral. Some scholars have pointed to various other thinkers as the origin of this aspect of her philosophy, but one person who outlined it well, particularly in the context of her dislike of majority rule, was Lysander Spooner. He wrote:

"When two men meet one upon the highway, or in the wilderness, have they a right to dispose of his life, liberty, or property, at their pleasure simply because they are the more numerous party? Or is he bound to submit to lose his life, liberty, or property, if they demand it, simply because he is the less numerous party? Or, because they are more numerous than he, is he bound to presume that they are governed only by superior wisdom and the principles of justice, and by no selfish passion that can lead them to do him a wrong? Yet this is the principle which it is claimed should govern men in all their civil relations to each other ... as if all a man's natural rights expired or were suspended by the operation of a paramount law the moment he came into the presence of superior numbers."1

Ayn Rand likewise abhorred majority rule as a sole basis for social functioning. She believed that the only manner in which a group of people could live was under a government that had an objectively defined code of laws based upon her standard for morality, namely, reason and rational inquiry. She draws on Enlightenment thought, particularly John Locke by stating that humans indeed are born "tabula rasa" with no innate ideas. Therefore coming up with a philosophical plan for living on earth is all the more vital, and it should be based, according to her, on the objective facts about reality and human mental capacities.

Objections to Rand's philosophy are numerous, and come from many various philosophical positions. Rand hated Immanuel Kant and indeed most of the German Romantic tradition. Many of her critics come from such positions. Some say that Rand's wealthy upbringing early in her life in Czarist Russia rendered her incapable of understanding lower class struggles; when her father's business was taken away, she became hateful towards anyone who stole that which was unearned.2

There are many nodes on Everything relating to Rand; this is by no means an exhaustive list. In order to gain a overview of Rand's philosophy, see: objectivism, Introduction to Objectivism, and Critique of Objectivism. For some different perspectives, try Organized Objectivism and Cheese Triangle Objectivism.

Ayn Rand and "The Collective"

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of her life was her involvement with "The Collective," a group of individuals who shared her philosophical views and became a central driving force in her intellectual movement. The roots of this group were in Ayn Rand's meeting with Nathaniel Branden (born Nathan Blumenthal), now a psychologist. When the two first met in March of 1950, Branden was only 19 years old. He had read The Fountainhead when he was fourteen, and described it as the most emotionally moving reading experience of his life. He was studying psychology at UCLA at the time, and after their initial meeting, they would continue to associate for a further 18 years.

Also interested early on was Barbara Weidman, a Canadian like Branden. She had also read The Fountainhead with enthusiasm many times. The three grew very close, and Rand followed them to New York City where Branden finished his undergraduate degree at New York University while Barbara did graduate work also at NYU. In 1953, the two married, in a union that some claim was forced on them by Rand. After their marriage, they took the names Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, which they retain today. Friends of the couple soon formed the school that would later be famous. NYU art history student Mary Ann Sures admired Rand's philosophy of egoism, and Leonard Peikoff, Barbara's cousin, joined the group after studying philosophy at NYU with Sidney Hook, the known anti-Communist liberal philosopher. Rand's work had also captured young Alan Greenspan, student of economics who was jokingly called "the Undertaker" in their circle, who would later become chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Rand presided over their meetings and eventually let the group read the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged. By 1955, she had begun to polish John Galt's infamous speech at the end of the novel, which remains the best summation of her philosophical views in print. Also at this time, she began her controversial affair with Nathaniel Branden. Other members of The Collective didn't know about it at first, but both of their spouses were told about it and expected to comply; their union was to be seen as rational and undeniable, like the love Rand's heros and heroines shared. Barbara was reluctant, but went along with it. Frank agreed to their arrangement but reportedly started drinking himself into oblivion.3

In 1968, the most devastating blow hit The Collective and its vision. Branden told everyone about the affair between himself and Rand, which caused them to have a personal and professional break which would hold until her death in 1982. Rand responded by publishing an article in her periodical The Objectivist which officially severed all professional and personal ties with both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden.

In it, she accuses Branden of many things, but essentially, she thought that he was growing apathetic in relation to his professional reponsibilities due to his time investment in a new project of his. She also charges that she was financially and personally exploited by Branden. She mentions that in the last years of their relationship, Branden began making excessive demands on her time, supposedly asking for advice on his work and his personal life. Branden denies these charges, citing financial records from NBI's books. Barbara Branden also defends herself, as she was criticized in Rand's article, too.

Rand concludes her essay:

"Consistency is one of the cardinal requirements of Objectivism, both philosophically and psychologically. It is a dangerous philosophy to play with or to accept half-way: it will stifle the mind that attempts to do so. In this respect, Objectivism, like reality, is its own avenger. I regret that the demonstration of this fact had to come in so tragic and ugly a form."

See my sources for more information on this incident.

The Writing of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's work includes both fiction and nonfiction, books and essays in which she provides her views on politics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and other subjects.

In addition, books exist about Rand and her work from many sources, namely, Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley, and Nathaniel Branden.

Perhaps the largest foundation still existing for Rand's work is ARI, the Ayn Rand Institute. Their main purpose is to attempt to bring objectivism into the academic and intellectual mainstream, and they've spend over $5 million in their efforts doing so. This includes about $250,000 in scholarships to high school and college students who enter writing contests on Rand's novels. ARI recognized Objectivist clubs exist on over a hundred university campuses across the world. Support for the philosophy exists in many academic journals and groups, notably the American Philosophical Association. Ayn Rand's legacy strongly continues today.


*Thanks to xerxes02 for alerting me to the fact that I missed this one.

Notes:

1Lysander Spooner. Free Political Institutions. Chapter 1: Legitimate Government and Majority Rule. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bright/Spooner/fpitoc.html
2http://www.spunk.org/library/otherpol/critique/sp000859.txt
3http://www.linguafranca.com/9909/rand.html

Sources:

http://www.aynrand.org/aynrand/biography.shtml
http://www.linguafranca.com/9909/rand.html
http://nathanielbranden.net/
http://www.objectivistcenter.org/
Nathaniel Branden. My Years with Ayn Rand. © 1999
Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. © 1999

The Breakup of Nathaniel Branden & Ayn Rand

  • In October of 1968, Ayn Rand wrote "To Whom it May Concern" in The Objectivist, which outlined the perceived betrayal of Branden. sighmoan was awesome enough to dig up a copy of this issue of The Objectivist, volume 7, no. 5, May 1968.
  • Branden and Barbara's responses to Rand's essay are online here: http://nathanielbranden.net/ayn/ayn05.html
  • http://nathanielbranden.net/ayn/ayn04.html — "Devers Branden and Ayn Rand" — an essay about Rand's interaction with Branden's current wife, shortly before Rand's death. Rand referred to Branden's affair with her in "To Whom it May Concern" in the following manner: "Mr. Branden had been concealing from me certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in his private life, which were grossly contradictory to Objectivist morality ..."

What she has to contribute is writing, some very interesting and well written books without question. Books, which present grand notions and soaring ideals which are impractical and idealistic to the point of being silly. She does seem to have accrued a cult following of sorts, rugged individualists in type, though I believe it has slowly diminished in size over the years. Enjoy her books for what they are, allow them to tell you a good story, let them make you think, remember to separate elegant writing from well grounded reasoning.

Of course, the idea that "One should be entitled to that which one produces" rests upon the assumption that the cost of production is nil. Let's start with an example with which Ayn Rand would have no disagreement: were you to borrow money to build a factory, you are entitled to that which you produced minus what you owe to those who lent you the money.

Now for the great leap forward: the value of the land upon which your factory is built has tangible value in a non-financial sense: if there are any trees there, they produce oxygen, which offsets global warming and lets you breathe. So you owe something to that as well. And if your factory pollutes at all, that's a cost, and you must pay to clean up your own mess. Hence environmental laws.

It seems quite instructive to me that Ayn Rand believed that the world was basically a giant scrapyard from which you could take what you want and dump what you want, without any sort of compensation. Perhaps the fact that this was once more or less true in America, which is why she is taken more seriously there than elsewhere, where this proposition was always visibly false.

Similarly, the plot of Atlas Shrugged depends on the nobility of people whose great claim to fame is unlimited energy: basically, what those people stand for (and what Ayn Rand admires about them) is the repeal of the second law of thermodynamics. Instead of perpetual motion, you could substitute slave labor and have a pretty clear idea of what her philosophy depends upon: getting something for nothing (land, power, resources, loyalty, or whatever), and then exploiting that gift to turn a profit.

Hardly what I'd call noble, but reasonable people differ.


vladkornea says that I say Ayn Rand condones slavery. That's not what I said. She was against slavery, it is true. However, the fact is that her views depend on the moral or technological equivalent of slavery to function. That is, I'm arguing that Ayn Rand's philosophy, as a whole, has some unexamined inconsistencies in it. vladkornea should have realized this in the treatment of property rights quoting Ayn Rand's treatment of the topic. After all, it rests on the premise that the West was wild in the sense of unsettled before European development. This is of course not true, as the Native Americans were present, and had cultivated the land, and should probably have been considered its owners. And, in any case, this returns to the problem of something for nothing.

When Ayn Rand was sixteen years old, a teacher questioned her on why she disagrees with the philosophy of Plato. She answered "My philosophical views are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be."

She was right.


Exquisitor says: "[Selfishness] treats people as a means to an end, not an end in themselves." "Treating people as a means to serve yourself might play out well in her books..."

Working Class Zero says: "when you start looking out for yourself to the extent of taking advantage of others, it stops being a good thing."

Ayn Rand says: "Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest purpose of his life."


jonlasser says: "It seems quite instructive to me that Ayn Rand believed that the world was basically a giant scrapyard from which you could take what you want and dump what you want, without any sort of compensation."

Ayn Rand says: "As far as the issue of actual pollution is concerned, it is primarily a scientific, not a political, problem. In regard to the political principle involved: if a man creates a physical danger or harm to others, which extends beyond the line of his own property, such as unsanitary conditions or even noise, and if this is proved, the law can and does hold him responsible. If the condition is collective, such as in an overcrowded city, appropriate and objective laws can be defined, protecting the rights of all involved--as was done in the case of oil rights, air-space rights, etc. But such laws cannot demand the impossible, must not be aimed at a single scapegoat, i.e., the industrialists, and must take into consideration the whole extent of the problem, i.e., the absolute necessity of the continued existence of industry--if the preservation of human life is the standard."


jonlasser says: "her philosophy depends upon: getting something for nothing (land, power, resources, loyalty, or whatever), and then exploiting that gift to turn a profit."

I interpret your objection thus: While man should own what he produces from his own resources, land isn't man-made, so which man should own it? The answer to this question is relevant to any social system which recognizes man's right to life and hence property rights. Objectivism answers it in the negative: man cannot take land already belonging to another by force. This leaves three acceptable ways of gaining ownership of land:

  1. through trade
  2. as a gift, i.e., inheritance
  3. by claiming unowned land

So the question becomes: given competing claims to the same unowned land, whose claim is valid? Considering Ayn Rand's philosophy as a whole, I suspect her answer would be: the man who first acts to keep it (by inhabiting or developing it).

Update - Ayn Rand writes in The Property Status of Airwaves in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:

"The question of defining the application of property rights has arisen frequently, in the wake of major scientific discoveries or inventions, such as the question of oil rights, vertical space rights, etc.

. . .

"A notable example of the proper method of establishing private ownership from scratch, in a previously ownerless area, is the Homestead Act of 1862, by which the government opened the western frontier for settlement and turned 'public land' over to private owners. The government offered a 160-acre farm to any adult citizen who would settle on it and cultivate it for five years, after which it would become his property. Although that land was originally regarded, in law, as 'public property,' the method of its allocation, in fact, followed the proper principle (in fact but not in explicit ideological intention). The citizens did not have to pay the government as if it were an owner; ownership began with them, and they earned it by the method which is the source and root of the concept 'property': by working on unused material resources, by turning a wilderness into a civilized settlement. Thus, the government, in this case, was acting not as the owner but as the custodian of ownerless resources who defines objectively impartial rules by which potential owners may acquire them.

"This should have been the principle and pattern of the allocation of broacasting frequencies.

"As soon as it became apparent that radio broadcasting had opened a new realm of material resources which, in the absence of legal definitions, would become a wilderness of clashing individual claims, the government should have promulgated the equivalent of a Homestead Act of the airways--an act defining private property rights in the new realm, establishing the rule that the user of a radio frequency would own it after he had operated a radio station for a certain number of years, and allocating all frequencies by the rule of priority, i.e., 'first come, first served.'"


note: jonlasser's writeup misrepresents Ayn Rand's views. The implication that she condoned slavery is particularly disturbing given her adamant (and unambiguous) fight against it.

update: (1) Owning land is not the moral equivalent of slavery. The claim serves no fuction but to mislead those who are merely skimming through this node rather than examining your writings critically. (2) The claim that this is a contradiction in Ayn Rand's philosophy is even more inexcusable since Ayn Rand explicitly states what constitutes the good. Slavery is evil because it is inimical to man's survival as a man; this is not true of owning land. (3) Ayn Rand's purpose in the quoted paragraph is to show the proper method of defining property rights where none exist. That the land in question might have been inhabited by natives (it wasn't) is not relevant to the point she's making. Her position on the violation of individual rights has been made explicit elsewhere.

[CST Approved]

I have a few simple points to make about the works of Ayn Rand. I am not really a student of literature so maybe my viewpoint is very naive but this is what I feel.

1)Lot of writers have come up with work that expounds a particular philosophy- Bernard Shaw for example. However, every one of them used a certain amount of subtlety and humour. Contrast this to Ayn Rand. Humour , of course, is non-existent in her work and as far as subtlety goes her attitude is akin to taking a hammer and smashing your point in. In doing this, one of the main techniques she uses is to build up false caricatures and misrepresent what the other side has to say. If portrayed in a certain fashion, virtually anything can be made to look ridiculous. For example, consider the narrative(Atlas shrugged) in which Hank Rearden's mother is trying to convince him to bother about his brother...
I wonder why using such techniques should not be called dishonesty?

2)Whatever you write about, the end result is that you are writing about people- and so it is essential to build up interesting characters. Where are the characters in her novels? Everyone is either all good or all bad. All the 'all good' people are people who put in a lot of effort into their work and all the 'all bad' people are those who are cunning and lazy. Thats it! There is a huge profusion of these two types in her novels and nothing else!

I havent come across a single genuine scientific argument in her work. Every statement she makes is based on some kind of a ridiculously exaggerated caricature. How can this be accepted as rational logic? Also, there is just one situation she portrays again and again-which is these cunning lazy people obstructing these hard working productive people. Why insult the reader's intelligence so much by repeating the same point hundreds of times?

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