YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2011

Ayn Rand’s We The Living

movie poster for We The Living

As I write this, liberals (with a few exceptions) are still fretting about “the climate of hate” that produced, they claim, the Tucson massacre of July 8, 2011.  At the same time that the media covered the event around-the-clock, I read Ayn Rand’s semi-historical and semi-autobiographical first novel, We The Living (1936). It was published during the Red Decade, when such a forthright, devastating account of life in the Soviet Union from roughly 1920-25, must have seemed like a reactionary howl from the Far, Far Right. But not only has her veracity about life in the U.S.S. R. been vindicated, but the power of collectivism against which she argued in such painful detail, continues unabated. And the collectivist propaganda machine has once more been wheeled out to link Jared Lee Loughner’s paranoid act with “hate speech” and other incendiary symbols emanating, it is claimed, from the Right, while those anywhere on “the Left” continue to monopolize moderation and solicitude for the health of the body politic.

I have tried valiantly on this website to distinguish between factions of the Left and Right in the interest of historical accuracy and necessary distinctions. But after reading the copious examples of Soviet propaganda and the resultant distorted human relations after the Revolution in Rand’s novel, I have to agree with her (and others: Rohan Butler, George Orwell, et al) that the totalitarian temptation is not only widespread in today’s USA and the West in general, but that reds and deep pinks share a fear of the independent spirit and of the libertarianism of the 18th century that is appalling and even terrifying.

I have seen and heard at close quarters the ongoing influence of Leninism and Stalinism in numerous institutions: Pacifica Radio, NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, academe, and now in the left-wing blogosphere and in the leading newspapers in Blue States especially. There is the same denial that Stalinism was ever influential in the U.S., the same class hatred, the same urge to conformity, the same elevation of “community” and “duty,” the same diagnosis of “narcissism” to anyone who believes in self-determination and self-management. What has changed now is the intensity of leftist a.k.a. “liberal” fear and loathing of “the Right” in the wake of November 2, 2010, and in a growing interest in the supply-side economics espoused by von Mises, Hayek, and the Friedmans. Plus of course the new specter of the internet, talk radio, and Fox News as purveyors of social chaos and further mass death. Some fear that the intensity of the latest “liberal” or “moderate” offensive signals an intent to muzzle dissent, and I can understand that fear.

Something should be noted about Ayn Rand’s novel. I almost called it “Ayn Rand’s Inner Trotskyism,” for with respect to Kira’s two lovers, the author shows more heroism in her depiction of the ex-worker Andrei than for the stunningly handsome but decadent, cynical aristocrat Leo; indeed she is Leo’s sexual slave and may have driven Andrei to suicide.  There are no Jews, though Andrei of the GPU (almost Rand’s mouthpiece in his final self-damning speech to the Party) could conceivably have been drawn as a Jew who thought he could escape Jew-hatred by converting to the “classless” society that would wipe out all divisive particularisms. Alissa Rosenbaum came from a haute bourgeois family not unlike Kira’s, but they were secular Jews. The antisemitism in Russia was fearsome and, in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, Soviet antisemitism was perhaps the worst in Europe. Francine Heller’s recent biography of Rand is particularly strong in her narration of the young Alissa’s travails and the vile appeal to antisemitism that helped the Leninists gain power in the October Revolution (she was leaning on Johnson’s History).  Based upon my own life experience, then, I found nothing excessively anticommunist in Rand’s novel, nor do I find today’s libertarian anxiety about the future of the marketplace of ideas to be an overreaction. If We The Living was a call to rationality and resistance to political tyranny, then that call reverberates today with just as much clamor, just as much pathos, just as much celebration of life. In her next two novels, Ayn Rand’s heroes and heroines defeat their enemies and she celebrates the self-made man, advocating free markets as the best remedy for abolishing poverty. But in a way, “Kira” (trapped in the Oedipal drama, and in the trauma of a drastic fall in social class– matters underemphasized by her biographers and not adequately taken up here), remained in her psyche, not always to her own benefit, I suspect.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Hugo’s last published novel, 93, published in 1874, lays out the moral quandaries of various factions in the French Revolution. It is notable that Ayn Rand admired this novel, and it affected her own We The Living (1937, see my blog http://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/). […]

    Pingback by Victor Hugo’s “93″ and Condorcet | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 13, 2013 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  2. Great essay, Clare.

    I am re-reading Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941). He had many opinions about British left-wing intellectuals that sounds very true of the American left today:
    – Generally negative, lacking any constructive suggestions
    – Irresponsible and emotionally shallow
    – Live in a world of ideas without any contact with physical reality
    – Lovers of French cooking and Russian politics
    – Contemptuous of shows of patriotism
    – Self-loathing and ashamed of being British
    – Intellectually and culturally out-of-date

    Orwel still writes like a socialist true believer, describing Nazism as little more than command capitalism with racist and socialist elements (unlike the inefficient competitive capitalism of the British). His hope was that the common struggle against the Germans would bring the left around to a more popular and patriotic “British” attitude, to effect a peaceful transition to Socialism instead of the chaotic and violent kind that the Fascists or Communists had in mind for England.

    And yet he was critical of the English socialist movement for being unable to come up with a workable and popular program. He criticized the movement for being too timid, too 19th century in their thinking, and antagonizing the bulk of the middle class with their rhetoric and posturing. He called upon the Labour Party to establish Socialism at the earliest opportunity to avoid any “Fifth Column” elements from undermining the war effort and opening the gates to the Germans. He specified a six point program including nationalization of mines, banks, and industries, limitation of incomes, state funded and regulated education, and more independence for the Asian and African colonies. (Interestingly, most of what he sought occurred soon after the war, but they did little to ease either poverty or eliminate the privileged class.)

    In 1979, I agreed with this program. I empathized with Orwell in his defense of patriotism, his contempt for useless elitist intellectuals, and his call for a true socialist revolution (in the midst of German aerial attacks, no less!). I myself once called for capping all incomes at $75,000 per year and distributing all the remainder income among the “poor”. Today, I no longer consider seizing of property or incomes a morally or economically justifiable program, especially under the guise of sharing the wealth. Hayek, von Mises, and Friedman have all shown how tyrannical and economically disastrous a coercive command economy is for the bulk of the people it pretends to serve.

    Orwell was smart enough to know better, even in 1941. The murderous rise of Stalin, the deliberately undermined revolution in Spain, the duplicity of the Russians in siding with the Nazis in 1939, the documented mass starvations and pogroms under the Bolsheviks, and the horror stories coming from the Chinese civil war, should have been evidence enough of the barbarity of applied socialist ideas. Orwell placed far too much faith in the character of the English people to think that English Socialism would be a peaceful and dignified success and not lead to a barbarous totalitarian state.

    Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, while Orwell was fighting Spanish Republicans with his Communist comrades, a fiery little Russian émigré, Alissa Rosenbaum, was writing tales condemning the pillars of socialist thought. How odd that in later works they both had the same abhorrence toward totalitarianism and so accurately described the mechanisms used by statists to oppress and enslave the human body and mind. They were truly great writers.

    Comment by Scott Lloyd — January 14, 2011 @ 5:39 am | Reply


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