Ayn Rand’s Counter-Revolution – The New York Times

The crowds jostling below, the soldiers marching down icy boulevards, the roar of a people possessed: All this a young Ayn Randwitnessed from her family’s apartment, perched high above the madness near Nevsky Prospekt, a central thoroughfare of Petrograd, the Russian city formerly known as St. Petersburg.

These February days were the first turn of a revolutionary cycle that would end in November and split world history into before and after, pitting soldier against citizen, republican against Bolshevik, Russian against Russian. But it wasn’t until Rand became a New Yorker, some 17 years later, that she realized the revolution had cleaved not only Russian society, but also intellectual life in her adopted homeland of the United States.

We usually think of the 1950s as the decade of anti-Communism, defined by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Hollywood blacklist and the purging of suspected Communists from unions, schools and universities. The prelude to all of that was the 1930s, when the nation’s intellectuals first grappled with the meaning and significance of Russia’s revolution. And it was in this decade that Ayn Rand came to political consciousness, reworking her opposition to Soviet Communism into a powerful defense of the individual that would inspire generations of American conservatives.

Rand is best known as the author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” but before these came “We the Living,” the novel perhaps closest to her heart. It was certainly the novel closest to her life: The protagonist, a gifted engineering student named Kira Argounova, lived the life that might well have been Rand’s, had she stayed in the U.S.S.R. But whereas Kira died a dramatic death trying to escape over the snowy border into Latvia, Rand succeeded in emigrating in 1926 and soon made it to Hollywood, the “American movie city” she had written about as a Russian film student, which became her first home in the United States.

By the mid-1930s, after setting about a successful writing career and becoming an American citizen, Rand was ready to explain the country she left behind. “We the Living” depicted the quotidian gray of life after the drama of the October Revolution had faded. What was left was the cynical machinations of party insiders and the struggle to maintain a facade of gentility — one hostess served potato-skin cookies to guests, who “kept their arms pressed to their sides to hide the holes in their armpits; elbows motionless on their knees — to hide rubbed patches; feet deep under chairs — to hide worn felt boots.”

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A first edition of “We the Living” published by Macmillan in 1936.

At the novel’s heart was the quiet despair of hopes crushed by new lines of class and caste, as students like Kira, punished for her family’s former prosperity, had their futures stripped away. For Rand, “We the Living” was more than a novel, it was a mission.

“No one has ever come out of Soviet Russia to tell it to the world,” she told her literary agent. “That was my job.”

Only, in 1930s America, few wanted to hear what she had to say. When the novel was published in 1936, capitalism itself was in crisis. The Great Depression had cast its dark shadow over the American dream. Bread lines snaked through the cities; Midwestern farms blew away in clouds of dust. Desperate men drifted across the country and filled up squatters’ camps of the homeless and workless on the outskirts of small towns, terrifying those who still had something to lose.

In this moment, Soviet Russia stood out to the nation’s thinking class as a sign of hope. Communism, it was believed, had helped Russia avoid the worst ravages of the crash. Tides of educated opinion began running strong to the left.

“These were the first quotas of the great drift from Columbia, Harvard and elsewhere,” the American writer — and former Soviet spy — Whittaker Chambers wrote in his 1952 book “Witness.” “A small intellectual army passed over to the Communist Party with scarcely any effort on its part.”

This intellectual army had little interest in a melodramatic novel about the sufferings of the bourgeoisie. Worse, views of the book reflected an ideological divide that Rand had not known existed. Rand had taken for granted there would be “pinks” in America, but she hadn’t known they would matter, certainly not in New York City, one of the literary capitals of the world.

But the champions she found were outsiders of that milieu, like the newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken. Even reviewers who enjoyed her writing, though, generally assumed Rand’s rendition of Soviet Russia in “We the Living” was exaggerated or no longer true, now that Communism had matured.

Rand had thus stumbled, unwittingly, into a drama that would shape American thought and politics for the rest of the century: a bitter love triangle between Communists, ex-Communists and anti-Communists.

First came the Communists, often literary men like Chambers, John Reed (of “Ten Days That Shook the World” fame) or Will Herberg. A handful of the most prominent Bolshevik enthusiasts were women, including the dancer Isadora Duncan and Gerda Lerner, a later pioneer of women’s history.

Still, to be an ex-Communist was not necessarily to be an anti-Communist, at least not immediately. Rand was one of the first, and not because she had lost her faith, but because she was an émigré who had witnessed the Russian Revolution from the inside.

Finally, in the 1950s, anti-Communism became a full-fledged intellectual and political movement. Chambers made the most spectacular move from Communist to ex-Communist, to anti-Communist, revealing his participation in an espionage ring and implicating several high-ranking government employees, including Alger Hiss, the former State Department official who was accused of being a Soviet agent.

Chambers’s revelations helped touch off McCarthy’s crusade against suspected Communists in government. Rand herself got in on the action, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist infiltration of Hollywood.

And here unfolded the last act of the drama: the eventual emergence of anti-anti-Communism. It was one thing to reject a political movement gone horribly wrong. It was something different to turn on one’s former friends and associates, in the process giving “aid and comfort to cold warriors,” as the writer and historian Tony Judt wrote. And so even as Communism fell out of favor, among intellectuals anti-Communism became as unfashionable as it had been in the 1930s.

Once again, Rand was a talismanic presence. By the 1950s, her anti-Communism had evolved into a full-throated celebration of capitalism, buttressed by her original credibility as a survivor of Soviet collectivism. She had traded in the elegiac historical fiction of “We the Living” for another Soviet inheritance: agitprop novels, dedicated to showcasing heroic individualists and entrepreneurs. By 1957, she had fully realized the form in “Atlas Shrugged,” an epic that weighed in at Tolstoyan proportions.

Rand had found her voice — and her audience. “Atlas Shrugged” became a best seller, despite poor reviews — Rand would never get the critical respect she craved. The gap between Rand and her fellow novelists and writers, first evident in the 1930s, would never close.

While originally manifest in the dynamics between Communism, ex-Communism and anti-Communism, this gap touched upon something more fundamental in American life. The Russian Revolution and its aftermath had exposed a “jagged fissure” between “the plain men and women of the nation,” as Chambers put it, “and those who affected to act, think and speak for them.”

One hundred years later, that fissure is with us still.

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