Couple new biographies of Ayn Rand are out. As a former Objectivist, which for a brief point in my life had me politically and philosophically to the right of Genghis Khan, I can recall sitting up all night arguing over the truth of whether it was wrong to steal a piece of bubble gum in order to save your mother's life. (According to Objectivism, it is wrong. You'd probably do it, but it would be wrong. Been a while since I got into a beer-fueled sophomoric argument this goofy. Ah, the good old days ...)
There are no shades of gray in Objectivism. Which is why Mama Ayn liked Mickey Spillane's books. Good guys, bad guys, this side of the line or that, period.
Who is John Galt? Why, he is the man! (Kind of an intellectual version of Snake Plissken, and just as realistic. I will stop the motor of the world! Galt said. Yeah. And the good guys will all live in the valley and ride the rails of Rearden metal ...)
Objectivists thought that Libertarians were commie pinkos -- and thieves, for having swiped Mama Ayn's ideas without giving her credit, then perverting them.
I had a buddy who was deeper into it than I, and he went off to New York to join the Collective and worship at Rand's feet, back in the sixties. Said she played the role to the hilt, used to wear a cape in public, smoke her cigarettes in a long holder. He sent me a picture of her once, and she looked like an older version of Dagny Taggart, which is not a surprise. She based the character on herself.
Me, I went the other way and became a hippie. Before I did, I read all the books and manifestos, subscribed to the newsletters, and wrote poetry extolling individualism and rational self-interest and making altruists heinous villains ...
The two best known works in the canon were The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and I read and re-read them. Such is the faith of a no-faith-allowed true believer that I was able to do that, since the prose in both books is, at best, turgid, and the characters less realistic than Tinkerbelle ...
Some years back, Rand's -- born Alisa Rosenbaum, by the way -- best known senior students, Nathaniel Branden (Nathaniel Blumenthal) and his ex-wife Barbara Branden (nee Weidman) -- wrote their own autobiographies, and all of the unhappy goings-on behind the scenes revealed a somewhat irrational version of Peyton Place. Who was sleeping with whom, and who was jealous and blew right past reason to bitch-slapping and screams? Very interesting ...
If the creator and two highest-ranked proponents of a philosophy can't make it work on a day-to-day basis, then that's generally a bad sign.
Objectivism is another of those attractions that call to young idealists. And so attractive a notion that the books offering them, bad as they are written, manage to catch a new generation of readers every few year. In Atlas Shrugged, there is a radio speech on economics that runs sixty pages, one of the ultimate examples of telling and not showing. Her lead characters are so heroic you know you'll never measure up; her villains so evil they make Satan look like a choirboy ...
Um. Rand has been gone since 1982, I think, and her legacy, such that it is, still hooks a whole bunch of bright and freshly-scrubbed newbies every year. Most of them don't stay, once they get out of college and into the real world. Like pure Communism, Objectivism is one of those things that sounds fine on paper. But when you try to build a working model, it collapses under it's own weight.
Those you who dabbled in the stuff might find it interesting to read the biographies. I'd start with Nathaniel Brandon's, then Barbara Branden's, to get the flavor from folks who were there. Between his axe and hers, you get a sense of who did what to whom, and why it all fell apart.
Barbara's book became the basis for an HBO movie, The Passion of Ayn Rand, starring Helen Mirren and Eric Stoltz. Won an Emmy™.
The new books, written by folks not part of the movement, might offer a bit more, well, objectivity ...
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I have retained one principle from my study of the material to this day:
Initiation of the use of force without rational justification is the cardinal sin upon which all law should be based.
If I am minding my business and you come over and throw a punch at my nose for no reason other than you feel like it, or you want my wallet, or you are pissed off because you just got fired, that's wrong. That's the primary purpose of law, to protect people from each other, and it starts when somebody points a knife or a gun at somebody without just cause.