Ayn Rand: Lost in Europe

There is little doubt that Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is one of the most influential intellectuals in the United States in the last century. According to some surveys, Americans rank her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged as the second most life-changing book, right after the Bible. In a reader’s poll by Random House, Rand’s four novels were all ranked among the top ten novels—that is, ever. Many Republican politicians, especially several Tea Party politicians, have traced their ideas back to the famous advocate of the “virtue of selfishness,” radical individualism, free enterprise, and uber rationalism.

However, Rand has almost entirely remained an American phenomenon. In no other part of the world have her ideas picked up steam, being considered mostly as obscure and “American”—or obscurely American—in a deprecating way. It has been considered porn for Republicans, and a German newspaper perhaps put the general sentiment best, writing that Rand, “the guardian saint” of American conservatives, is a “Nietzsche for beginners and Americans.” Especially in the case of Europe, this Randian failure is curious, considering Europe shares much with its friend across the pond. But even in Europe, Rand is hardly known outside the already small libertarian circles. Why is Rand so unpopular outside the United States? And why has her popularity in the U.S. not been followed by similar fame on the Old Continent?

In Out of a Gray Fog: Ayn Rand’s Europe, published in 2021 by Lexington Books, Claudia Franziska Brühwiler tries to answer this question, looking at Rand’s attempts to establish her work across the Atlantic and the reception her work received in Europe. In this, Brühwiler, who teaches at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, also traces Ayn Rand’s life, novels, playwrights, and philosophical works, from pre-revolutionary Russia to America.

Out of a Gray Fog is an informative and interesting read on the life of Ayn Rand. In the first chapters, Brühwiler goes step by step through Rand’s life and her most important works, not to write a biography, but to show what influence Europe had on Rand. This is fascinating for anyone who wants to get a better idea of who Rand was and where she came from. Many new insights arise from Brühwiler’s meticulous study of the correspondence between Rand and her family.

As it turns out, Rand, who was born as Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, had not been the American-at-heart that she portrayed herself as later down the road. Instead, when she still lived in Russia, she dreamed about the West more generally—that is, anything west of Russia, wanting to flee the overwhelming and crushing climate of the ascending communist empire. In 1926, she made her way to the U.S. Yet she had early difficulties getting used to American culture. Contrary to the American-by-choice-from-birth image that she later cultivated, she needed time to get acquainted with her new home, and she established a public persona that was distinctly un-American. Rather, she based her persona on fellow European artists, who became famous precisely as foreigners.

It was at this time that she first found success with both novels and playwrights. Her first two novels, We the Living (1936) and Anthem (1938), largely lacked the claims of selfishness that defined her later work. Rather, she depicted in a dystopian fashion what communism and totalitarianism do to human dignity. While her writing style was already often considered somewhat unsophisticated at this time—a theme that would continue throughout her life, as Brühwiler makes clear—she often successfully fought the socialist, Soviet sympathies of Hollywood. In Anthem, readers can follow the journey of “Equality 7-2521” trying to thrive in a despotic regime that had eliminated the word “I,” thus making it impossible for the individual to define him or herself. When the protagonist accidentally stumbles over electricity, an old innovation eliminated by the regime, he is chastised by his overlords. According to them, these innovations would be too dangerous for the common good. Eventually, the individual and the woman he loves flee to a forest, accidentally finding a house from the old, civilized times, in which they discover ancient Greek mythology. These writings include the word “I” and so, finally, the two characters can express themselves as individual human beings.

Brühwiler points out how the places Rand’s protagonists flee to are not the U.S. Rather, in We the Living, the characters attempt to flee to Europe, which is depicted as a quasi-utopia far abroad. In Anthem, they end up in an undefined place but stumble over ancient Greece in the form of mythology. In these early years of her career, Rand is primarily occupied with pushing against the excitement she experienced among Americans towards communism. While her works perhaps do not reach the quality of Orwell or Huxley, one still wonders what could have been if she had continued solely yet crucially as “an anti-communist crusader,” as Brühwiler calls her.

Instead, she turned towards building her philosophy of objectivism through her most famous novels, The Fountainhead (1947) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), as well as through her philosophical books, thus gaining the almost cultish status that she has among her followers to this day. In a revealing chapter, Brühwiler argues that this establishment of a sort of cult was Rand’s intention. Brühwiler looks at Rand’s interpretation of European philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Auguste Comte, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle. Rand intensely dislikes all of them, except Aristotle, whom she did not seem to understand very well, though. Most observers have argued that Rand consistently misinterpreted all these thinkers. But Brühwiler writes that Rand did not care much about giving an exact representation of these thinkers’ thoughts in the first place. Rather, she used Nietzsche, Comte, Kant, and Aristotle in ways that would enable her to build her own philosophy. The misconstruction that happened along the way blocked her way into academic philosophy but made possible her path toward public intellectualism.

The reason for Rand’s lack of influence seems to be a combination of cultural differences between Europe and the U.S., including fundamentally different political outlooks, Rand’s own despair about Europe, her difficult character which prevented several endeavors, and her misunderstanding of famous philosophers.

Regardless of whether this explanation is fully convincing or not, it shows one of the main problems that may have caused Rand’s success—or lack of it: her own character. Brühwiler regularly mentions instances in which Rand herself stood in the way of potential achievements. However, Brühwiler seems to underestimate the effect this had on Rand’s popularity. Throughout the book, Rand comes across as, at best, a difficult person to work with, and, at worst, a dislikable person. She was uncompromising—compromise and cooperation with others that was not fully on her terms was not only useless but also meant selling out—and the opportunities to cooperate with other classical liberal and conservative thinkers were often rejected. Friedrich Hayek, for instance, was little more than a socialist to her with whom she could not work. Similarly, when it comes to the distribution of her books in Europe, she repeatedly made the life of publishers so difficult that they eventually abandoned working with her. Thus, it seems that her objectivism applied to her own life came to bite her in the worst possible way.

Brühwiler explains in the rest of the book how Rand’s attitude changed towards Europe and what her influence in Europe is today. On the first part, Rand’s opinion on Europe increasingly changed for the worse as she became more embedded in American culture. Her utopia became not an undefined place west which in the past was still identified as Europe. Rather, her place of peace became a revival of the American frontier. Rand’s on-and-off friends and popular libertarians Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane pointed out to her, as the correspondence between them shows, that Rand’s vision of the frontier as a place of amazing selfishness and freedom was inaccurate. Rather, the frontier was very much based on cooperation and community. Rand ignored them, and her utopia in Atlas Shrugged, Galt’s gulch, became a dream world based on a world that had never existed. Europe was at this part in her life little more than “a gray, ominous, evil fog,” a socialist hellhole with a “state-worshipping culture” which would consistently stand in the way of the individual to fulfill his dreams freely and without interference from state, church, community, and tradition.

On the second part, Brühwiler gives a detailed exposition of Ayn Rand’s influence in Europe today. She goes through a thorough analysis of the European media’s view of Rand’s work—they don’t like her but, unsurprisingly, also don’t seem to understand what ideas she tries to convey—which think tanks have been founded in Rand’s remembrance, which politicians, public intellectuals, and academics are pushing Rand’s philosophy, and which artists have brought her work to the theater stage. These chapters will be particularly interesting for Rand enthusiasts. However, a thought that never stops haunting the reader of Brühwiler’s explanations is how small of a role, in fact, Rand plays in Europe. Brühwiler tries her best to mention everything, but in the end, it is more disillusioning for Rand’s project since it indeed feels as though Brühwiler mentions everything there is—and it is not much. Brühwiler could have mentioned the much more outsized influence Rand has in Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries with plenty of objectivist think tanks, activist organizations, and even political figures working towards making Rand more popular. However, for some reason, she only focuses on Western Europe, and the lack of support for Rand’s ideas over many decades must be deeply disturbing for any Randian reading these chapters.

What is perhaps most problematic with Out of a Gray Fog is that the question the author wants to answer is not really answered: Why does Rand have so little influence in Europe? There are many implicit assumptions sprinkled throughout the book, but for the most part, the book stays on an explanatory level which analyzes Rand’s history and the present situation without offering fully clear conclusions. The reason for Rand’s lack of influence seems to be a combination of cultural differences between Europe and the U.S., including fundamentally different political outlooks, Rand’s own despair about Europe, her difficult character which prevented several endeavors, and her misunderstanding of famous philosophers which stood in the way of her being more readily accepted in academia.

Throughout Brühwiler’s book, one also constantly keeps wondering not why Rand has been unsuccessful in Europe, but why Rand has been successful in the U.S. in the first place. An explanation on why American culture is perhaps more conducive to Rand’s ideas, such as its greater emphasis on individualism, may have made clearer why the lack of European enthusiasm is so peculiar and could have helped offer more concrete answers. Considering Brühwiler throughout her account seems to be sympathetic to Rand, this may have been an interesting addition. Without it, non-Randian readers will perhaps find themselves asking why Rand is worthwhile to engage with at all.

This makes Out of a Gray Fog an interesting account of Ayn Rand the person, her works, and her reception among different groups and countries. It is full of fascinating details for anyone interested in Rand and classical liberal philosophy overall. However, readers less enthusiastic about Rand and objectivism may keep wondering: Why did Ayn Rand’s work become famous to begin with? This, maybe, is the much greater curiosity.