Friday, May 5, 2017

Ayn Rand's Counter-Revolution

From The New York Times:
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. (Read more.)

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