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Historically interesting but philosophically uncompelling introduction to Ayn Rand
on 2 December 2012
"The basic cause of totalitarianism is two ideas: men's rejection of reason in favor of faith, and of self-interest in favor of self-sacrifice."
So says Leonard Peikoff, a philosopher and executor of Ayn Rand's literary estate, in the 2008 introduction to this edition. In We the Living, Ayn Rand's first published novel, she presents this philosophy clearly and entertainingly. In so doing, however, she demonstrates what is, in my view, the weakness of this philosophical approach, and the one that, I suspect, will prevent me from ever identifying myself with the Objectivist movement. Kira, the novel's heroine, is certainly a reserved and critical rationalist in a world gone mad, but she is a lonely and selfish one too. I struggle to think of a single example of her having helped anyone to whom she was not bound by ties of kin or love. While I'm all for rejecting faith in favour of reason, I cannot but believe that great human beings find space in their spirits for a little self-sacrifice in the service of the common good as well as their self-interest.
Rand draws on her experience of Soviet Russia in the years just after the Revolution, but it seems to be a frequent claim for this book - one she made herself - that this background is a mere detail and that its message stands independently to that. That might be the case, but for me the historical elements about life in St Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad was a major element of my enjoyment. Fascinating, for example, to learn of the importance of the primus stove in the daily life of urban Russians in the early twentieth century, as they more or less camped in the luxurious buildings vacated by their bourgeois former owners. I wonder how well the message of the primacy of individual freedom over collectivity would look contrasted with societies that were, while communal in nature, much less authoritarian, and far less murderous, than the Soviet Union. That would include societies like Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, indeed much of western Europe at the time when Ms Rand wrote this book and enjoyed her fame.
Still, it's good to have made a start, and now on to The Fountainhead - which, annoyingly, is not available on Kindle.