By Aadya Sinha:
“It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.” – Ayn Rand, We the Living.
I was 15 when my father’s copy of Ayn Rand’s ‘We the Living’ made its bookworm ridden self known to me on a spectacularly innocuous day. Then, I had a faint idea about who Rand was because of my father’s admiration for Hank Rearden, who is one of Rand’s creations in her magnum opus, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. I had just begun venturing into the study of politics and hence was eager to read any book that fell under that genre.
Those were also the days when I was deeply influenced by Marx’s theories of ‘dialectical materialism‘ and ‘surplus labour‘. I was intrigued by his ideas on alienation as well. So, the last thing I expected was to find myself caught up in the pages of a book talking about the horrors of Soviet Russia, or openly and with complete entitlement, defending inequality.
Those familiar with Rand’s work or her persona are aware of the propagandist nature of her text, her iconoclastic ideas, and her blind worship of capitalism. However, ‘We the Living’, despite of showing all of those signs is not defined by any of those features. It is very simply, a story on the theme of ‘Individual vs. State’, or as I saw it, ‘Individual vs. Context’. Perhaps, because, as Rand has pointed out, it is the closest thing to an autobiography that she ever wrote.
It has this stark authenticity, which is replaced by dogmas, such as self righteousness, in her later works.
Rand’s writing, despite of being convoluted, has a passionate tone and you can’t help but feel drawn in. In spite of not having the whole Randian styled shebang, the book is a whole lot more convincing and persuasive than her later works. I am not an objectivist, neither do I consider the philosophy of a book after reading it, but for the entire duration that I was reading ‘We the Living’, I found myself agreeing with everything that Rand had to say.
And, this is what makes this book stand out.
The plot itself is quite basic. Set in the backdrop of the post revolution Russia of the 1920s, the narrative focuses on the love triangle between the protagonist Kira and her two suitors, Andrei and Leo. Kira, is perhaps the strongest female character that Rand’s writing has ever produced, and she is surprisingly the most relatable one too.
Rand, is one of the biggest proponents of an ‘intellectually characterized’ passionate form of love, which is a metaphor for her own devotion to the free market ideology. Her books are, thus, slightly ‘Mills and Boons-esque’ with very obvious erotic elements. Her male characters, who become the personification of her revered ideology, can be perceived as misogynistic. And the heavy influence that they have on the story, gives it sexist undertones. However, it is Rand’s own disregard for conventions and her insistence on questioning all that is considered ‘moral’ that makes you realize this.
The relevance of the book stems neither from its detraction of an ideology, nor from its defence of another ideology – its relevance comes from its narration.
Patricia Collins and her ‘standpoint theory‘ that gave intersectionality in social relations a whole new life, is often used to criticize the ‘entitlement’ a privileged class feels. It argues for the ‘outsider within’, in terms of the domination matrix. Collins, a pioneer in the ‘black feminist’ critique of radical feminism, spoke of how in order for ‘feminism’ to become a truly representational or encompassing movement, the variations in the struggles of each group needed to be acknowledged. Paradoxically, this is the very theory that is so clearly personified through Rand’s characters in ‘We the Living’.
In its own way, by the emphasis it places on the individual, instead of placing it on class or race as a unit, Rand acknowledges intersectionality. While not arguing for universal equality of outcome, Rand argues for social justice. With thinly veiled talk about glass ceilings, belief based bigotry, and the sexist nature of communism, Rand’s perspective and its continued popularity is a clear pointer to the need for understanding every group in its totality and in its context. Her personal experience in communist Russia have shaped her opinions and definitions of the same. In my opinion, this not only constitutes her ‘privilege’, but becomes the very ‘standpoint’ that intersectionality thrives on.
She doesn’t impose her context on the reader. She never forces it on the other characters. All Rand seeks to do is to unite the differences under a common theme – ‘Individual vs. State’.
Your dystopia may have nothing in common with Rand’s or Kira’s, but by highlighting their context, Rand gives one the ability to unite past these differences. Thus, Ms. Rand is an unlikely defender of intersectionality and therefore, she will not be ‘checking her privilege’.