She didn’t believe in anything very much.  Communism, fascism, altruism, capitalism, collectivism; they were all the same to her; forms of subjugation and oppression.  No, what Ayn Rand believed in was objectivism, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”   Rand argued for rational egoism (rational self-interest), as the only proper guiding moral principle. The individual “must exist for his own sake,” she wrote in 1962, “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”   

The difficulty is that she used her philosophy and the attention it attracted to justify her excesses of self aggrandisment and selfish behaviour.  Her’s was the philosophy of the narcissist.  Rand opposed every grouping that was not hers.  There had only ever been three great philosophers; the three A’s, Aristotle, Aquinas and Ayn Rand.  Her followers were disciples of a personality cult. 

Ayn was a formidable personality.  The film of the same name focussed on her love affair with the young Nathaniel Brandon, who together with his wife Barbara, had fallen under Ayn’s spell while callow psychology students.  Nathan was in thrall with Ayn and she soon exploited his infatuation to seduce him, but she insisted that they inform their partners and limit their relationship to a year, a strategy Ayn justified philosophically.  Of course,  it went wrong.  Barbara, not long married to Nathan, was deeply unhappy and found somebody else.  Nathan tired of Ayn’s demands and in turn exploited one of his own students.  When Ayn discovered this ‘infidelity’, she was furious.  How dare anybody betray her?   She slapped him across the face and excommunicated him from the Ayn Rand foundation;  assuring him that he could be nothing without her.

Ayn was so fascinating because she was so dangerous and forthright.  She demanded absolute devotion and control.  Hyperbolic and emotional, she possessed the passion of the hysteric.  She held her disciples in a vice-like grip of life and death; such was the unyielding power of her personality.  She could be effusive and kind to those who worshipped her, but woe betide anybody who ignored or betrayed her.   And her disregard for society was ruthless and uncompromising.  “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?”  

 Ayn, was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in St Petersburg  and grew up during the revolution,  escaping to America in 1931.   The alienation of the Russian jew,  the insecurity and danger of the civil war, the mobile allegiances, escape to a foreign culture; all of these had implanted a backbone of steel;  the single-minded self-centered determination of a remarkable survivor.  Her philosophy emanated from a unique and unusual experience.  It is worth studying as an idiosyncratic social commentary, but so dangerous to adopt as a template for western society. 

But I wonder how much influence she has had.  Doesn’t her attitude justify the narcissistic culture and the decline in community and society over the last 50 years.   Hasn’t ‘because you’re worth it’ has become the catch phrase for the material meaninglessness of a generation?

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