We The Living by Ayn Rand

My introduction to Ayn Rand was over 10 years ago when I read Atlas Shrugged. Unlike many libertarians and conservatives, I didn’t walk away impressed. Part of this was the fact that Atlas was not my introduction to free market thought. Part of it was the strong impression that Rand is hostile about defending capitalism as a way to alleviate the poverty created by statist/socialist/progressive economics. More than that, however, is the fact that Atlas is the clunkiest book I’ve ever read. There has to be a better way to condemn statism than with 1,000-plus small-type pages of brow-beating sermons and run-on sentences.

Fast-forward to the present, and I decided to try Rand one more time by reading her first novel, We The Living. This is easily Rand’s most readable novel.

Unlike the characters in Atlas, the characters in WTL are not simple black-and-white cardboard cutouts. Kira, while never losing sight of her dreams, attempts to work within the Soviet system. Leo, Kira’s love interest because of their shared individuality, slowly disintegrates and becomes a cruel alcoholic. Andrei, despite believing (until the end) in the collectivist lie, is portrayed throughout as a man of character. While Ayn Rand’s atheism comes out in statements Kira makes, Kira’s sister Lydia is not condemned for her Christian beliefs. Kira’s family fights and reconciles, like real families do.

Rand’s greatest strength has been her ability to portray the world created by the antagonists who hold power in her novels. WTL paints a picture of existence in the Soviet Union as brutal (particularly the tales of starvation), and brutally mundane (social activities centered around listening to Marxist theory).

Despite this, as mentioned above, one of my biggest problems with her philosophy is her unwillingness to defend the free market as a benefit to all classes. A hint of Rand’s future direction comes through in this passage:

Because men are not equal in ability and one can’t treat them as if they were. And because I loathe most of them.

Because of this, I find the work of other libertarians much more in line with my values, be it Milton Friedman’s contributions or the work of the Cato Institute. Although, in fairness, the “loathing” for the underclass seems much more prevalent in Atlas than it does in WTL, as Kira shows compassion for her family and lover.

Rand deserves a great deal of credit with this book, as it was published at the height of the New Deal, before the modern conservative movement took shape, before Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom was published. WTL spoke of communist totalitarianism before Orwell’s 1984.

If you need to read Ayn Rand, this is the book to pick up. But there are better works on the free market. There are better works on totalitarianism (such as 1984). Mildly recommended, but not essential.

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One Response to “We The Living by Ayn Rand”

  1. Sword of Apollo Says:

    What gave you the idea that Rand loathed the poor? Most of the villains in Atlas are rich industrialists and politicians. Some of the heroes, including John Galt, are not rich. There was even a man in Galt’s Gulch who had been a truck driver.

    ‘“Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.’

    –Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

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