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Ayn Rand and I

Did Ayn Rand’s libertarian philosophy stem from improperly transferring her experience in revolutionary Russia to the western world?

September 29, 2010

Did Ayn Rand's libertarian philosophy stem from improperly transferring her experience in revolutionary Russia to the western world?

It is not easy to connect a writer's life with her ideology. Most biographers assume that there is an obvious and intimate connection and get on breezily with the job. Too often the connection turns out forced and the reader feels taken for a ride.

Anne Heller's excellent biography of Ayn Rand, "Ayn Rand and the World She Made," is an exception. Her great achievement is to have connected Rand's extraordinary legend and individualistic philosophy of unbridled capitalism to her life as a youngster. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, she was an awkward and willful Russian Jewish prodigy, who had written four novels by the age of 11.

Heller makes you believe that Rand's excessive self-absorption and vehement protest against any form of collectivism are rooted in her family's suffering in early 20th century Russia, where Jews were violently persecuted and personal freedom died when the communists came to power.

"Call it fate or irony, but I was born, of all countries on earth, in the one least suitable for a fanatic of individualism, Russia," wrote Rand. Her father owned a prosperous pharmacy in St. Petersburg, and she and her two sisters grew up in an upper middle class home with a cook, a maid, a nurse and a Belgian governess. Rand made good use of her advantages, but disapproved of her mother's social climbing.

It was always dangerous to be a Jew in Russia, however, and as the economy deteriorated during World War I, the Czar grew more repressive, and the brunt of popular anger fell upon Russia's five million Jews. Anti-Semitic bloodshed rose.

Czarist gangs roamed the countryside, spreading rumors that Jewish profiteering was responsible for war losses and shortages. As the Russian army retreated from the advancing Germans, Russian troops were ordered to round up residents of Jewish villages in the Pale and herd them east to Siberia.

The war created unimagined hardships for all Russians, but especially Russian Jews — and its toll in lives and penury led to the revolution. Rand's family was battered and starving. Lenin's government after the war consciously initiated the Red Terror by encouraging acts of proletarian plunder against the city's bourgeoisie.

Twelve-year-old Ayn Rand was in the family store on the day Bolshevik soldiers arrived, brandishing guns. In an instant, her father was out of business and out of work. The anger and helplessness that Rand remembered seeing on her father's face remained with her all her life.

Rand escaped to the United States at age 21 by lying to the U.S. consular official that she was engaged to marry a Russian man with whom she was in love and to whom she would unfailingly return. The truth was that she never planned to return to Russia.

Ironically, Rand would become famous for celebrating honesty and integrity as indispensable virtues of the capitalist hero. Later she continued to invent, exaggerate and hide things in order to bolster her public image, and this may be due to her experience as a Russian Jew, a background in which small deceptions were a matter of survival.

In America she began life as a middling scriptwriter in Hollywood. There, she encountered the same envy, conformity and mediocrity that she had loathed in Russia. She found the same "collectivist motivation" by which ordinary people sought life's meaning outside themselves and looked to someone to tell them what to do.

It reinforced the grand theme of her life: the exceptional individual against the mob. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead became Ayn Rand's first full-fledged individualist hero: a gifted architect who yearns to create bold new building, but is endlessly undermined by frightened conformists and envious schemers.

With this novel, Rand became a cult hero. Atlas Shrugged followed. Together, the two books have sold more than 13 million copies and continue to sell 300,000 per year after three generations.

A good biography makes us look within, and Ms. Heller's book has made me reflect on why I became a libertarian and a vigorous supporter of free enterprise. This book also served as a mirror, making me conscious of the flaws that I share with Ayn Rand, in particular an excessive and unhappy self-regard, and an insatiable desire to be "somebody" and not "anybody."

Like many, I read Rand's The Fountainhead as a teenager and could not help but be moved by Howard Roark, who is as American as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. He is determined, defies authority, hates mediocrity and does not seek the world's praise.

He is "inner directed" in an "outer-directed" world — a distinction I learned from the Harvard sociologist David Reisman, who had used it to describe the conforming, salaried, American white collar officegoer of the 1950s.

I quickly forgot Ayn Rand when I went to college and read serious philosophy. When her name came up in undergraduate conversations, I dismissed her as a writer of potboilers and propaganda.

Like everyone around me in India in the mid-1960s, I passionately believed in Nehru’s dream of a modern and just India. But as the years went by, I discovered that Nehru’s economic path was taking us to a dead end. Having set out to create socialism, he had created statism. Later, when I was working as a manager in a big multinational corporation, I found myself caught in the thick jungle of Kafkaesque bureaucratic controls, a story that I told in India Unbound.

Thus, I came to admire free enterprise after decades of living under the inefficiency of Nehru's mixed economy, or License Raj, as many call it. Whereas I turned against state control from economic compulsions, Rand came to free enterprise from her collectivist Russian experience.

I rebelled against the inefficiency of socialism, whereas she revolted against its lack of human freedom and individuality. My embrace of markets was a pragmatic decision. She sought a moral foundation in capitalism.

Both of us ended in a suspicion of state power — but our paths were different. For me, political liberty was not an issue because India had uniquely embraced democracy before capitalism. Democracy came to India soon after 1947, but our love affair with capitalism only began seriously after the 1991 Reforms, when we began to dismantle the socialist institutions of the License Raj.

Ayn Rand understood that free markets brought phenomenal productivity and prosperity, but to her it was a side effect. The real deal was that capitalism gave a person's "natural, healthy egoism" the freedom to enrich himself and others.

"Selfishness is a magnificent force," she declared. "I decided to become a writer — not in order to save the world, nor to serve my fellow men — but out of the simple, personal, selfish, egoistical happiness of creating the kind of men and events I could like, respect and admire," she wrote in 1945.

I must confess that I was not able to go as far as Ayn Rand in embracing individualism as a creed — nor did I become a votary of unbridled, laissez faire capitalism. I also think that her use of the word "selfishness" was unfortunate (perhaps because she learned English late in life after coming to America).

She would have been more effective if she had distinguished between "self-interest" and "selfishness." One would not wake up in the morning if one is not self-interested, but selfishness in ordinary English usage suggests the pursuit of one's ambition at the expense of others.

I suspect she meant the former sense of "self-interest," which is a natural, rational instinct and which leads to healthy ambition without trampling on others (as is implied in the more negative word "selfishness").

Unlike Rand, I set great store in enlightened regulation in the free market —regulation that brings transparency in transactions, ensures competition and catches crooks, but does not kill the animal spirits of entrepreneurs (as we did during the License Raj).

Like ancient Greeks, Ayn Rand looked to human reason to distinguish the moral from the immoral to guide and protect human beings in this uncertain world. I look to the ancient Indian idea of dharma. My thinking on capitalism has been tempered by my encounter with the epic, The Mahabharata, which I read between 2004 and 2008.

Capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India, and I believe players in the marketplace have a great responsibility to act with restraint, in contrast to Wall Street bankers in the recent global financial crisis. If human beings act with "balance," there is harmony in society and the cosmos. India is still a half-reformed economy — huge sectors like real estate and infrastructure are still unreformed — and we need to keep reforming it, reducing the discretionary power of officials and politicians.

Successes of capitalism eventually produce enervating influences, particularly when a generation committed to saving is replaced by one devoted to spending. Ferocious competition is a feature of the free market, and it can be corrosive.

But competition is also an economic stimulant that promotes human welfare. The choice is not between the free market and central planning, but in getting the right mix of regulation. No one wants state ownership of production where the absence of competition corrodes the character even more, as Ayn Rand pointed out repeatedly.

The answer is not to seek moral perfection, which inevitably leads to theocracy and dictatorship. Since it is in man's nature to want more, we need to learn to live with human imperfection — and seek regulation that not only tames crooks in the market, but also rewards good behavior.

I was particularly distressed by Ayn Rand's support for Senator McCarthy's witch hunt of American communists in the 1950s. Rand felt alienated in New York, which, in her words, "was such a politically liberal city in the 1950s that Saul Bellow descried it as an intellectual annex of Moscow."

I, too, abhor Communism but I have never felt the need to punish Communists for their convictions. I also feel alienated in a gathering of left-leaning intellectuals in India, much as Rand did in the United States of the New Deal.

I have always believed that Senator McCarthy was a vicious and undemocratic American. He was driven by an intolerance that was deeply un-American in its temper, and he diminished his country in the eyes of the world.

Soon after McCarthy died from alcoholism in the 1950s, Rand innocently asked Joan Kennedy Taylor, "Tell me, what did people have against McCarthy?"

Taylor replied, "Well, Ayn, it's primarily because he wasn't truthful. He said all these things and couldn't back them up." And Rand said, "Oh, I see. The Big Lie."

Rand liked McCarthy and detested Eisenhower, "a conservative who lacked principles and backbone." She was indignant over a 1957 Time Magazine article recounting a 1945 meeting between General Eisenhower and his Russian counterpart, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, in Berlin.

The two had been debating the strengths of their respective forms of government. The article quoted Eisenhower as saying, "I was hard put to it when [Zhukov] insisted that [the Soviet] system appealed to the idealistic and [that ours appealed] completely to the materialistic, and I had a very tough time trying to defend our position because he said:


Without a morality of rational self-interest, capitalism cannot be defended.

Capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India. Players in the marketplace have a great responsibility to act with restraint, in contrast to Wall Street bankers.

I rebelled against the inefficiency of socialism, whereas Rand revolted against its lack of human freedom and individuality.

Unlike Rand, I set great store in enlightened regulation in the free market — regulation that brings transparency in transactions, ensures competition and catches crooks.

The choice is not between the free market and central planning, but in getting the right mix of regulation.