Friday, 18 June 2010

The Man VS the State - Rand in the USSR

We the Living by Ayn Rand is not another book about the communist rule in the USSR. It is not another propaganda or criticism. It is merely a novel about the Man against the State, about the continuous human struggle for individual happiness and satisfaction against the artificially installed responsibility towards society, about dictatorship whether it is in Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany.

Ayn Rand (Alisa Rosenbaum) is one of the most influential American writers and philosophers. Born in Soviet Russia, she emigrated in 1925 to the USA. We the Living is published in 1936, followed by The Fountainhead and her masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. Rand is famous for her philosophy objectivism, which encompasses the following postulates: 1) reality exists regardless of consciousness; 2) individuals connect with reality through sense perception; 3) the proper moral purpose of one's life is the achievement of one's happiness or rational self-interest; 4) laissez faire capitalism is the only social system, which values individual rights and is consistent with this philosophy; 5) art is the transformation of one's metaphysical ideas into a physical form, which can be comprehended and responded to.

Rand's philosophy is largely influenced by her background: she spent her first 20 years in the USSR. In We the Living she depicts the Soviet reality after the 1917 Revolution, where human individuality is suppressed in favor of the greater social good. People are supposed to be equal (for those of you having never lived in a communist regime that means equally poor and deprived) yet some are more equal than others (if you know what I mean). Kira Argunova, the protagonist, is born in bourgeois family, which is a subject of constant suppression by the ruling communist regime. She is expelled from university, where she studies engineering, she has to pretend to believe in and love communism in order to receive the food coupons, and she is forced to live in poverty. Kira falls in love with a revolutionist, but she loses the war against society - at the end Leo's mind is corrupted; he becomes a faithless hopeless alcoholic. Andrey, her communist friend, is disillusioned by the discrepancy between communist theory and practice in the USSR. At the end Kira decides to flee her home country only to realize she can never escape the regime.

Rand is the main character, Kira Argunova. However, they do not look alike, they have studied different subjects, and their families are different. In that sense, Kira's story is not Rand's story, but her beliefs, ideas, and values are Rand's. That is why Ayn Rand claims We the Living to be her intellectual autobiography.

I enjoyed reading the novel as I enjoy everything Ayn Rand has ever written. She influentially portrays the horrors, deprivations, and sufferings of the Russians under the communist regime. Her story is a faithful representation of that time period as she was a witness, although a very young one. Having lived in a country once under the communist regime, I enjoyed discussing the situation depicted in the novel with what might have been in Bulgaria before I was born. According to my parents, it wasn't that extreme here, but still it was the same social system, which mistakenly assumes the only purpose in one's life is one's responsibility towards society. As Rand points out, the moral purpose of every individual's life is the achievement of his/her own happiness and well being.

The only thing I regret is the sequence in which I read Rand's novels. I started with The Fountainhead, followed by Atlas Shrugged and finished with her first novel We the Living. One can easily tell this is her first work devoted to the philosophy of objectivism, as Rand only starts focusing on individual happiness as the greatest virtue. However, her idea is better developed in The Fountainhead and reaches its apogee in Atlas Shrugged. Thus, I was still under the latter's amazing influence to be really that astonished by We the Living. I was already acquainted with her philosophy, and seeing it still undeveloped and unpolished in We the Living was not enough.

Still, the novel is very much worth reading. After all, Rand's style is highly intellectual, profound, and influential. If you have never read anything by her, I suggest you start by We the Living and finish with Atlas Shrugged. You won't be disappointed and if you are anything like me, her novels will change your perceptions and values. In contemporary society, people must be familiar with her works because they are as valid today (maybe even more) as they were more than half a century ago.

@ Amazon: We the Living


  1. Hi,
    I was very curious to read about Ayn Rand's first book - We the living. The author lived in the USSR, when she was very young. That is why the book is not found on the personal impressions and experience and I think it isn't completely objective. To understand this time and this regime it would be good to read different books and "to see"h different opinions.

  2. I agree that one cannot judge about communism in Russia by a single book. Indeed, Rand was very young when she flee the country, still she lived there for 20 years and wrote the novel long after that, under the impressions of capitalism in the USA. In that sense she might be deceived, still I find her novel descriptive of the horrors and deprivations of that time. I would like very much to read a book dedicated to the opposite view. What I am afraid though, is that it will be a subject to extreme propaganda, which might diminish its literary virtues.

  3. one of my favorite authors and books

  4. I'm not fan of Rand myself. I wasted a big part of my life reading books on metaphysics, overwhelming myself by questions of meaning and significance of it all and have come to the conclusion that our mere presence is amazing, everything in the universe had to be just a certain way for our whole world to exist with flourishing life( to name all the conditions that need to be met for this to's big and it's highly improbable from a chemistry point of view that it happened in the first place but some how it did). Call it nature, call it god, call it whatever you wish but just know that we have it good and the only thing constant is change. Don't let a closed mind get in the way of the human experience, as certain ways of thinking delude some into believing it's open. Our lives are too short to not take in all life has to offer but has too much to offer to take in. We're stood too close to actually see the big picture. My appologies for sounding so preachy.

  5. You might not be a fan of Rand but your views are actually closer to her philosophy of objectivisim than you realize. Indeed, she also agrees that we must take in all life has to offer by following a set of moral principles. One has the right (and the obligation for that matter) to pursue his/her happiness by following a set of moral principles. I do not mean that if one kills, steals, or rapes in a pursue of some sort of perverted happiness is justified. Quite the opposite, the man (in some ideal world) must be guided by moral principles that do not harm or obstruct the well being of another human being in any way. In that sense, Rand preaches that society has placed a negative connotation on the term egoism simply because people have failed to understand it. Currently, I am reading The Virtue of Selfishness, where Ayn Rand comments on the moral value of selfishness in a perfect capitalist world. I strongly suggest you reading it before making a quick judgement about her works

  6. The perverted happiness you describe sounds a bit like a bunch of Vikings on the pillage or Genghis Khan on a stag-do in Amsterdam lol. But joking aside, I do understand that it is not about being selfish in the context of how most people understand the term selfish. ie being self centred and not giving a shit about anyone else and taking the moral low ground to achieve ones pursuits. But unfortunately society has a concept of what ego and selfish means to them, therefore the book will simply be judge by its cover, and you know how the saying goes. Oh by the way I'm reading, Clonning by Irma Dubble at the moment and just finished, Robots by Anne Droid.

  7. Are they any good? What are the books about? Do you recommend them?

    I agree that unfortunately society will continue understanding egoism as something bad. I still hope that by spreading the view more and more people will realize that taking care of your own good is an admirable thing, and not something to be judged for.

  8. Nah, those books are a joke. Try "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, but I wouldn't bother reading the reviews as most of them give away the twist. It's a very highly rated book and cleverly written story, that's all I will say on it. Those who think laterally will understand what is going on pretty early, but for the more linear thinkers it will seem pretty jumbled right up to near the end of the story.

  9. I would be sure to check it out after I finish Clavell's King Rat, quite a manly book to be honest.

    By the way, next time you post can I ask you to share your name. I feel weird talking to Anonymous.

  10. Look forward to reading your review and take on Life of Pi.

    They have started filming for the movie now. 75 million dollar budget and no Hollywood stars in it to take up all the cash. That's got to have some impressive special effects to tell the story.

  11. I just looked at it on Amazon. I am going to order it today and start it right away when it arrives :)


  12. Hi, just came across your blog- very interesting selection of books.
    I had read "Fountainhead" years ago (I am an architect so it was almost required reading for us!) and found most of her concepts very abstruse.
    "Atlas Shrugged" was a LOT clearer and brought out her philosophy of the heroic individual whose immense talents get drowned by the sea of mediocrity that surrounds them.
    Must read it again!
    BTW, I just commented on your review of "Shogun" as well.
    Rokosh/ India

  13. Hey Rokosh,

    I have also read the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. These books changed my life and my perceptions for real. That is why I am still reluctant to comment about them in my blog. I feel that whatever I say for them, especially for Atlas Shrugged, will not be enough. I also fear that if I attempt to write a review about them, it will take half the blog. I have so much to say and to think about.

    Ayn Rand is my favorite author. I just bought her autobiography. When I read it, be sure to check out my review and decide for yourself whether to read it as well. I am sure it will be very interesting because from what I have read so far, Rand had an amazing life.