Ayn Rand and Political Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

From Slate’s 2009 review of Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right and Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made:

Alisa Rosenbaum (her original name) was born in the icy winter of czarism, not long after the failed 1905 revolution ripped through her home city of St. Petersburg. Her father was a self-made Jewish pharmacist, while her mother was an aristocratic dilettante who loathed her three daughters. She would tell them she never wanted children, and she kept them only out of duty. Alisa became a surly, friendless child. In elementary school, her class was asked to write an essay about why being a child was a joyous thing. She instead wrote “a scathing denunciation of childhood,” headed with a quote from Pascal: “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”

But the Rosenbaums’ domestic tensions were dwarfed by the conflicts raging outside. The worst anti-Jewish violence since the Middle Ages was brewing, and the family was terrified of being killed by the mobs—but it was the Bolsheviks who struck at them first. After the 1917 revolutions, her father’s pharmacy was seized “in the name of the people.” For Alisa, who had grown up surrounded by servants and nannies, the Communists seemed at last to be the face of the masses, a terrifying robbing horde. In a country where 5 million people died of starvation in just two years, the Rosenbaums went hungry. Her father tried to set up another business, but after it too was seized, he declared himself to be “on strike.”

The Rosenbaums knew their angry, outspoken daughter would not survive under the Bolsheviks for long, so they arranged to smuggle her out to their relatives in America. Just before her 21st birthday, she said goodbye to her country and her family for the last time. She was determined to live in the America she had seen in the silent movies—the America of skyscrapers and riches and freedom. She renamed herself Ayn Rand, a name she thought had the hardness and purity of a Hollywood starlet.

She headed for Hollywood, where she set out to write stories that expressed her philosophy—a body of thought she said was the polar opposite of communism. She announced that the world was divided between a small minority of Supermen who are productive and “the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the human Incompetent” who, like the Leninists, try to feed off them. He is “mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned.” It is evil to show kindness to these “lice”: The “only virtue” is “selfishness.”

She meant it. Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She called him “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,” shimmering with “immense, explicit egotism.” Rand had only one regret: “A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough.”

It’s not hard to see this as a kind of political post-traumatic stress disorder. Rand believed the Bolshevik lie that they represented the people, so she wanted to strike back at them—through theft and murder. In a nasty irony, she was copying their tactics. She started to write her first novel, We the Living (1936), and in the early drafts her central character—a crude proxy for Rand herself—says to a Bolshevik: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them.”

Read more here.

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  • Vox Penii

    >”Rand believed the Bolshevik lie that they represented the people…”

    Huh? Wha? Why doesn’t Jennifer Brooks identify a source for this statement? Because, I suspect, she pulled it from a bodily orifice. “Since I came from a country guilty of the worst tyranny on earth, I am particularly able to appreciate the meaning, the greatness and the supreme value of that which you are defending.” Ayn Rand, “Philosophy: Who Needs It” a speech to the 1974 graduating class of at West Point.

    >”Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor.”

    This ignores the fact that — unlike the Bolsheviks — Rand DID NOT seize power by force, DID NOT sign thousands of death warrants (killing, exiling and imprisoning more people in a decade than the Tsars killed, exiled and imprisoned in over a century), DID NOT overrun the democratic will of the people (even when she disagreed) DID NOT attempt to impose an illogical and destructive central planning economic policy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. To say that Rand was Bolshevism’s twin is grotesquely disingenuous.

    Rand is one of the least-understood philosophers (due in part to her using rather ham-fisted fiction to expound her positions), and is regularly denounced by people who, like Jennifer Burns, seem to have, at best, a superficial understanding of Rand’s ideas. Rand’s the only major female philosopher and ought to be championed by “women’s studies” programs for that fact alone. But Rand is ignored by uh gender studies programs because she doesn’t spout the quasi-Marxist, Gramscian men-are-evil women-are-victims polemics that passes for scholarship in that pathetic academic discipline: > http://www.iwf.org/files/d8dcafa439b9c20386c05f94834460ac.pdf <

    For more reliable information on Rand, by someone who's read the primary documents, click this link:

    http://www.stephenhicks.org/2010/08/04/egoism-in-nietzsche-and-rand-now-online/

    • Vox Penii

      also, re: Rand being “broken” by the Bolsheviks.

      This is insulting … Rand wasn’t broken by the Bolsheviks any more than Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Koestler, or innumerable others were “broken” by the Bolsheviks. These, an innumerable others, were brutalized by the Bolsheviks but _refused to break_ and did their best to tell the truth as they saw it about the Bolsheviks.

      • Andrew

        Charles Manson was right about a few things too.

    • Butter Knife

      So she’s different because they succeeded at realizing their vision, and she did not? Marx didn’t succeed either… does that mean he cannot be fairly compared to Lenin as well?

  • Vox Penii

    >”Rand believed the Bolshevik lie that they represented the people…”

    Huh? Wha? Why doesn’t Jennifer Brooks identify a source for this statement? Because, I suspect, she pulled it from a bodily orifice. “Since I came from a country guilty of the worst tyranny on earth, I am particularly able to appreciate the meaning, the greatness and the supreme value of that which you are defending.” Ayn Rand, “Philosophy: Who Needs It” a speech to the 1974 graduating class of at West Point.

    >”Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor.”

    This ignores the fact that — unlike the Bolsheviks — Rand DID NOT seize power by force, DID NOT sign thousands of death warrants (killing, exiling and imprisoning more people in a decade than the Tsars killed, exiled and imprisoned in over a century), DID NOT overrun the democratic will of the people (even when she disagreed) DID NOT attempt to impose an illogical and destructive central planning economic policy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. To say that Rand was Bolshevism’s twin is grotesquely disingenuous.

    Rand is one of the least-understood philosophers (due in part to her using rather ham-fisted fiction to expound her positions), and is regularly denounced by people who, like Jennifer Burns, seem to have, at best, a superficial understanding of Rand’s ideas. Rand’s the only major female philosopher and ought to be championed by “women’s studies” programs for that fact alone. But Rand is ignored by uh gender studies programs because she doesn’t spout the quasi-Marxist, Gramscian men-are-evil women-are-victims polemics that passes for scholarship in that pathetic academic discipline: > http://www.iwf.org/files/d8dcafa439b9c20386c05f94834460ac.pdf <

    For more reliable information on Rand, by someone who's read the primary documents, click this link:

    http://www.stephenhicks.org/2010/08/04/egoism-in-nietzsche-and-rand-now-online/

  • Vox Penii

    also, re: Rand being “broken” by the Bolsheviks.

    This is insulting … Rand wasn’t broken by the Bolsheviks any more than Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Koestler, or innumerable others were “broken” by the Bolsheviks. These, an innumerable others, were brutalized by the Bolsheviks but _refused to break_ and did their best to tell the truth as they saw it about the Bolsheviks.

  • Will

    Vox Penii,
    You are right on target as usual. Anyone with a real knowledge of history would know that rand was a propagandist, and a forerunner and foundation of the chicago school neocons.

    While “Rand DID NOT seize power by force” her philosophy helped perpetuate vast bloodshed in the form of the New American Century and the hell on earth the neocons have perpetuated around the globe, and are in the process of bringing to the “homeland”.

    The bottom line is she was just another mouthpiece for the ongoing class warfare. And class warfare is a generous term because it implies a 2 sided fight, whereas when the elites hammer on the working and middle classes they do it in secret. But if all you have read is the pap that is doled out in school and the establishment press then it is easy to fall for Rands entertaining and compelling lies.

    • Donny

      A profound misunderstanding and assumption of Ayn Rand’s work. It is a misconception based on a misconception, hyper-inflated and wildly exaggerated into a diatribe against “neocons”. Remarkable.

  • Will

    Vox Penii,
    You are right on target as usual. Anyone with a real knowledge of history would know that rand was a propagandist, and a forerunner and foundation of the chicago school neocons.

    While “Rand DID NOT seize power by force” her philosophy helped perpetuate vast bloodshed in the form of the New American Century and the hell on earth the neocons have perpetuated around the globe, and are in the process of bringing to the “homeland”.

    The bottom line is she was just another mouthpiece for the ongoing class warfare. And class warfare is a generous term because it implies a 2 sided fight, whereas when the elites hammer on the working and middle classes they do it in secret. But if all you have read is the pap that is doled out in school and the establishment press then it is easy to fall for Rands entertaining and compelling lies.

  • Butter Knife

    So she’s different because they succeeded at realizing their vision, and she did not? Marx didn’t succeed either… does that mean he cannot be fairly compared to Lenin as well?

  • Andrew

    Charles Manson was right about a few things too.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure Hitler had his tender moments too. That’s not saying much is it?

  • GoodDoktorBad

    I’m sure Hitler had his tender moments too. That’s not saying much is it?

  • lighthouse

    This is the worst article I have ever seen. Everyone should read at least one of her books.
    And judge for themselves. It is that important.
    If the writer had actually read her books, this article might have meaning.

  • lighthouse

    This is the worst article I have ever seen. Everyone should read at least one of her books.
    And judge for themselves. It is that important.
    If the writer had actually read her books, this article might have meaning.

    • Donny

      Or even watch the film version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD as a primer.

  • elliott

    The entire article is lies and misunderstandings. Johann Hari obviously has never read an Ayn Rand book. I’m fuming. What an idiot.

  • elliott

    The entire article is lies and misunderstandings. Johann Hari obviously has never read an Ayn Rand book. I’m fuming. What an idiot.

  • Aren

    Randiantrollery lives

  • Aren

    Randiantrollery lives

  • Payne Ruby

    I’ve said this for years. It’s no surprise that a person who escaped the worst of communism would go on to advocate absolutely unlimited capitalism. This is completely reactionary, possibly pathological. Her philosophy gets a lot of credit for being “rational”; Rand’s reasons may be anything but.

    Ayn Rand had her good points, showing that the average never accept genius, and being absolutely uncompromising in her beliefs. But I’m happy that there are laws that prevent any jackass from building a nuclear reactor in their backyard. Ayn Rand did not advocate selling products that kill people, dumping toxic waste, or any equally honorless endeavor that those who invoke her name would engage in today. Ayn Rand advocated excellence and ability, but unfortunately she doesn’t seem aware of how the rich actually made (make) their money. She may have been complicated and extremely intelligent, but clearly she did not understand that the human limitations she described afflict everyone. No one knows themselves or the consequences of their actions all of the time. There may be the totally weak and useless, but there are no supermen. Rand seemed extremely angry that there are things in the world that were simply out of her control, and the idea of the superman probably helped her deal with that.

    There has to be some balance between private property and preservation of the planet and society, and completely ideological positions don’t create situations that any of us would really want to live in. But we do we do have a “collective” fate; and no living thing is “independent” within our biosphere…

    • Donny

      A good analysis.

  • Payne Ruby

    I’ve said this for years. It’s no surprise that a person who escaped the worst of communism would go on to advocate absolutely unlimited capitalism. This is completely reactionary, possibly pathological. Her philosophy gets a lot of credit for being “rational”; Rand’s reasons may be anything but.

    Ayn Rand had her good points, showing that the average never accept genius, and being absolutely uncompromising in her beliefs. But I’m happy that there are laws that prevent any jackass from building a nuclear reactor in their backyard. Ayn Rand did not advocate selling products that kill people, dumping toxic waste, or any equally honorless endeavor that those who invoke her name would engage in today. Ayn Rand advocated excellence and ability, but unfortunately she doesn’t seem aware of how the rich actually made (make) their money. She may have been complicated and extremely intelligent, but clearly she did not understand that the human limitations she described afflict everyone. No one knows themselves or the consequences of their actions all of the time. There may be the totally weak and useless, but there are no supermen. Rand seemed extremely angry that there are things in the world that were simply out of her control, and the idea of the superman probably helped her deal with that.

    There has to be some balance between private property and preservation of the planet and society, and completely ideological positions don’t create situations that any of us would really want to live in. But we do we do have a “collective” fate; and no living thing is “independent” within our biosphere…

  • Donny

    The problem with Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that it only works for those who are already wealthy and of independent means. I watched the movie version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD not long ago for the first time and realized that much of my life I’ve been living like an Ayn Rand hero and didn’t even know it. Living like an Ayn Rand hero means you’re marginalized and set yourself up for a life of disappointments as you’re going directly against the human nature shared by a vast majority of society and breaking new ground and doing new things. It’s ironic that today’s right wing populist talking heads would recommend her work — what they do is exactly the opposite. But I suppose they have fantasies about themselves that are very different from reality.

  • Donny

    The problem with Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that it only works for those who are already wealthy and of independent means. I watched the movie version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD not long ago for the first time and realized that much of my life I’ve been living like an Ayn Rand hero and didn’t even know it. Living like an Ayn Rand hero means you’re marginalized and set yourself up for a life of disappointments as you’re going directly against the human nature shared by a vast majority of society and breaking new ground and doing new things. It’s ironic that today’s right wing populist talking heads would recommend her work — what they do is exactly the opposite. But I suppose they have fantasies about themselves that are very different from reality.

  • Donny

    A profound misunderstanding and assumption of Ayn Rand’s work. It is a misconception based on a misconception, hyper-inflated and wildly exaggerated into a diatribe against “neocons”. Remarkable.

  • Donny

    A good analysis.

  • Donny

    Or even watch the film version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD as a primer.