Ayn Rand has a bad reputation among the literati: she’s denounced as being extremist, fascist, backwards, antifeminist, authoritarian—and that’s on a good day. Her hefty tomes, bursting with long-winded monologues exalting the virtues of capitalism, are not necessarily accessible, sympathetic reads. But, on this the anniversary of her birth, I’m here to give you four reasons why there’s a place in the contemporary canon for her, laissez-faire warts and all.
It’s not really about “selfishness”
Rand’s “objectivism” has been largely reduced to the idea that selfishness is a virtue. (Her book by that title didn’t help the reputation.)
But “selfishness” is just buzz word — it’s derogatory, it’s a sin, it’s loaded with meaning and it’s shocking and it’s powerful. Of course this is the label Rand chose; of course it’s the one we remember her by.
But instead of isolation or narcissism or cruelty, I read her books as a showcase of strong female heroines with unrelenting ambition. I found success stories about capable, determined, goal-driven people who dreamt of impossible tasks and worked—worked, WORKED!—to realize them. To me effort and grind and exertion and elbow-grease, not selfishness, is the ethos at the core of Rand’s philosophy. Rand didn’t advocate for the end of morality, only for the end of idleness. You can read her theories as polarizing and radical, or they can stand for something simpler: put your head down and do the work.
Her characters are parables, not people
Admittedly, the characters Rand creates to sell her ideology are rather monomaniacal. In 1957, the National Review critiqued the newly-released Atlas Shrugged saying: “ … the author deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly … Both sides to it are caricatures.” And this is true! Her novels are parables; her characters are so obdurate because they are archetypes.
Rand’s stories are, at their heart, simple ones: fairytales about what happens when the workers, the producers, the brains and the brawn, leave the city to the bureaucrats and the middle-managers and the takers. By definition, these fables do not account for complexities or practicalities or the messy middle stuff of actually implementing a new order. So, they shouldn’t be read through the lens of political perfection. Instead, Rand’s world is a utopia as much as Plato’s Republic, best taken paradigmatically, not literally.
The romances keep it interesting
Rand’s love-affairs can have a fan-fiction-y feel: three raw, perfect men chasing one gorgeous-but-doesn’t-know-it woman. But romance—even when cringe-worthy—doesn’t ruin a book! Is it not a deft move to punctuate your acerbic politics with some steamy page-turning?
Look, I get that there are some serious problems with some of the sex in these books (I’m looking at you, egregious psudeo-rape scene in The Fountainhead.) But the idea of romance, even sloppy, paperback romance, is a boon to an otherwise thick treatise on steel mills and smoke stacks. And though they’re decried by feminists, Rand’s heroines enjoy healthy, guilt-free sexual appetites—a shocking notion in itself in the repressed 1950s.
Rand deserves to be read in context
Millennial readers have a tough time with Rand’s hardened, post-war industrialism; her fearless egotism doesn’t comport with our evolving culture of empathy. But no man exists in a vacuum, and changing social mores can strand writers on archaic pedestals. Don’t we owe Rand the same deference we give to all writers and artists who are a product of a different culture, a different time, a different world view? Rand’s ardent individualism is the product of a childhood under Bolshevik rule, where her starving family’s land was confiscated for the “greater good.” A voracious reader and academic, Rand found no place for her gender or her genius in communism.
So, she imagined a world where industry was king, where tangible work netted tangible things. Against the book-burning pablum of “redistribution,” she rallied the notion of individual merit and success. It’s easy to project contemporary politics on Rand’s more incendiary monologues, but framing Rand’s work in their proper background is an exercise guaranteed to open minds.
Alison Currie is an attorney and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find more of her writing at alisonsboomstick.com.