Atlas Shivered

A recent article by Matthew Moore appeared in The Times titled “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local”. The piece not only suggests that Donald Trump is capable of reading a book, which seems unlikely enough, but that he’s also capable of reading a philosophical book. Quite frankly, that would be stretching credulity a little too far.

The so-called philosopher in question is Ayn Rand, a White Russian émigré to the US who died almost forty years ago. Her two best-known books are “The Fountainhead”, and “Atlas Shrugged”, both novels, rather than philosophical tomes. I read them when Rand was still alive. I’m now ashamed to admit that I thought they were pretty good at the time, but then I was young, and living a privileged five percenter existence at the time in a racist, semi-fascist country, and didn’t know any better. Today the suggestion that Rand’s writing is enjoying growing popularity is truly scary.

Rand’s so-called philosophy is easy to summarise: “selfishness to the point of total exclusion of anyone or anything else is the highest form of morality”. If Donald Trump ever actually read Ayn Rand, rather than have some flunky tell him about her, I can see why he might find her appealing. She does pretty much sum up the principle behind the fabled “American Dream”. There’s nothing commendable about Ayn Rand’s work, and I know from personal experience it can cause seriously conflicted emotions in young people.

In 1980 I worked on a kibbutz in Occupied Palestine for a few weeks. One of the kibbutzniks I remember was a young chap who had grown up on the kibbutz. I’ll call him David. He had recently discovered Rand, and was totally confused by the message in her writing. David liked talking to me because I was one of the few people who had also read her, and could understand the conflictions he was suffering. Here he was, raised from birth in a totally communist environment, where everyone was treated equally, and shared everything, and now he was being taught by Ayn Rand that these values were not only wrong but that they were almost evil. He seemed to me almost at the point of nervous breakdown. I don’t know if I helped him, because my experience was the exact opposite. I had been raised in an environment which was not very far away from Rand’s ideal, and was then living real-life communism. I too was being blown away by new lessons, but in a totally different direction. We were ideological ships crossing in the night.

I could almost have ignored The Times article were it not for one very worrying part of it. Towards the end of the article, we learn that:

Last year Rand was added to the A-level (the UK’s matriculation level examination) politics curriculum after a row about the sidelining of female thinkers.

So the people who get to choose fine role-models of female thinking, upon which today’s generation of young women should presumably mould themselves, can do no better than pick an exponent of fascism. To be fair, the article does not say if the A-level politics curriculum also includes female thinkers who would be outraged by the writing of Ayn Rand, and if that’s the case I suppose there’s a reasonable case for including her; but does it? Are young politics students also being exposed to the writing of Emma Goldman, for example? Or Rosa Luxemburg, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Hunt Jackson or Martha Gellhorn? What about more contemporary female writers, such as Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Nancy MacLean, Ellen Brown or Nomi Prins? If the writing of these female thinkers is being included in the A-level curriculum, all of whom, I suspect, would not be fans of Ayn Rand, then fair enough. But is it?

Rand’s work has long appealed to the far-right extremists who pretty much control the United States — and therefore the rest of the world. It’s somewhat less well-known in Britain. But The Times article tells us that “Ayn Rand discussion groups” are appearing around the country and that one besotted disciple, Razi Ginsberg, “is in the process of setting up the Ayn Rand Centre, the UK’s first organisation devoted to spreading the philosophies of the US novelist”.

Apparently Mr Ginzberg wants “to create an appetite for Rand’s individualist, free-market ideas as an antidote to socialism”.

An “antidote to socialism”? Does Mr Ginzberg think that after forty years of unbroken capitalism socialism actually exists in the UK, and needs an “antidote”? How far to the right, or delusional, or both, must you be to think that Britain is a socialist country?

Mr Moore’s article opens with the words:

If you see a group earnestly debating objectivism and rational self-interest in your local pub, don’t be alarmed. They are probably from an Ayn Rand discussion group.

I have a different opinion. I think that if you see such a group in action you should be very alarmed indeed. You should be about as alarmed as seeing a group discussing the virtues of Adolph Hitler.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non-Fiction books by John are: The People's Constitution (2018 Edition); and The School of Kindness (2018 Edition); and his historical novel The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.