Ayn Rand, the Movies, and the Idea of America

Laurie Rice

 

Ayn Rand’s monograph “Textbook of Americanism,” newly published on FEE.org, is virtually unknown. Written during a decisive turning point in history, it was delivered by Rand personally to FEE's founder Leonard Read in 1946. The monograph represents Rand’s desire to draw stark lines between an emerging postwar collectivism and the individualism she believed built America. She joined others in pointing out that collectivism had wrought the horrors the world had just endured.

“Textbook of Americanism” also represents her worldview as it came to be shaped by her childhood experiences with communism, her early love of film as a means of artistic expression, and her perceptions about the future of freedom.

As a young student in Russia at the dawn of the Bolshevik takeover, at a small theater for silent films, Rand caught her first glimpse of the New York skyline. The silhouette burned in her mind, a symbol of creative passion and unbounded achievement, outlining the edges of her growing philosophy of individualism.

Beneath the epic geometry of the skyline, communist propagandists prattled on. Rand’s biographer Anne Heller explains:

Soviet government censors always added absurd subtitles to the films … turning an ordinary American family dinner scene into a portrait of greed, for example, by labeling it "A capitalist eating well on profits wrung from his starving workers."

The image of New York fused two of the major themes in Rand’s life: the art of cinema and the concept of America.

Within a few years of her foray into American silent movies, she would enroll at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad in 1924. The school offered free tuition to students sympathetic to Bolshevik ideology, in hopes of grooming future communist propagandists. But Rand wanted to write screenplays attacking communism.

Realizing that such writing would lead to imprisonment or death — in purges like one that had swept her university just a few years before — she decided to emigrate. In 1926, she sailed from the Soviet Union and landed at the foot of her beloved New York skyline, with government permission to visit relatives.

Her excuse was that her cousin owned a theater in Chicago. The conditions of her permission were that she would work at the US theater for six months, then return to Russia to work on communist propaganda films. Within two years after she had left Russia, the opportunity for emigration had closed. She had made it out just in time — and perhaps saved her life.

Once in the United States, she immediately broke the terms of her visa, left Chicago, and traveled to Hollywood. There she worked as a movie extra, a junior screenwriter, and then a wardrobe department manager, while writing plays and notes for novels in her own time. She met her husband on the set of a film called The King of Kings; their marriage gained her US citizenship.

By the time Rand wrote “Textbook of Americanism” in 1946, twenty years after she arrived in New York, the world had entered into a decade of massive tectonic shifts throughout the political landscape. During the New Deal, Congress had passed the Social Security Act and set the first US minimum wage, among many other measures that had regimented economic life.

The wartime economy had inflicted New Deal recovery measures on a country still reeling from the Depression. Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany and created a horrific spectacle of genocide against the Jewish people. Governments had waged a war of massive carnage across Europe. The United States had suffered an attack at Pearl Harbor and then later dropped atomic bombs — weapons of previously unknown destruction — on both Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan.

In response to the chaos of World War II, government leaders had come together to form the United Nations, sparking both hopes of a lasting world peace and fears of an oppressive global government. The stage was set for crises in Berlin, the political upheaval in Greece with a communist victory, and the upcoming Cold War. The lines of nation-states had been crossed, broken, and redrawn all over the world.

It’s best to understand the mindset of Rand, other intellectuals, and much of the world population after World War II as post-traumatic. Of course, people who had experienced combat directly, such as soldiers, suffered the most severe effects. But people everywhere were struggling, sometimes dramatically, to re-establish safety and boundaries, to identify meaning in the chaotic events, and to find a course that would prevent such horrors from ever happening again.

It was during this eerie twilight of war that Rand joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This organization consisted of a number of prominent conservative figures in Hollywood, including Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, and John Wayne.

The alliance’s immediate purpose was to assemble well-known people as witnesses to a congressional investigation of the motion picture industry. The alliance’s longer-term mission was to organize the motion picture industry’s pro-freedom figures to defend their field against the ideas of communism. Movies in Hollywood at the time frequently portrayed Russia and communism sympathetically, or spread implicit communist messages within other stories.

“Textbook of Americanism” was written toward this bigger goal, with Rand calling for the values of individualism and freedom to be portrayed in her beloved movie industry. The essay appeared in a publication for the Motion Picture Alliance called The Vigil.

“Textbook of Americanism” is organized in question-and-answer format, from the most basic issues to the more complex. Rand wrote both, with questions as prompts to explain her own perceptions of what it means to be American. The essay features twelve questions; Rand planned to elaborate further, but the full project was never finished.

True to her philosophical roots, Rand used “Textbook of Americanism” to explain in the simplest terms possible what made America unique and great. She opens with an explanation of two starkly contrasting ideas.

What Is the Basic Issue in the World Today?

The basic issue in the world today is between two principles: Individualism and Collectivism. Individualism holds that man has inalienable rights which cannot be taken away from him by any other man, nor by any number, group or collective of other men. Therefore, each man exists by his own right and for his own sake, not for the sake of the group.

Collectivism holds that man has no rights; that his work, his body and his personality belong to the group; that the group can do with him as it pleases, in any manner it pleases, for the sake of whatever it decides to be its own welfare. Therefore, each man exists only by the permission of the group and for the sake of the group.

These two principles are the roots of two opposite social systems. The basic issue of the world today is between these two systems.

From this foundation, Rand builds her case for limiting the power of the collective, for the difference between arbitrary law and moral law, and for the meaning of rights. She summarizes the proper role of government — the smallest conceivable and essential functions — and the moral imperative not to initiate force. She clarifies that individualism and collectivism are exclusive terms, that any “mix” is a breach against individualism. Finally, she issues a warning: compromising individual rights will lead to society’s destruction.

The tensions surrounding “Textbook of Americanism” are fascinating. It is written about the United States precisely at a time when the idea of the nation-state was crumbling from its own destructive methods, giving way to modern globalization. The essay calls for radical freedom during a dark American paranoia about speech, when communists were put on trial for their beliefs. It is Rand appealing in good faith to the movie industry she loved, at a time when Hollywood was deeply entrenched with the cronyists and communists she hated. It is Rand’s passionate advocacy of ideology while many intellectuals were blaming all systematic ideology for the genocide of the Jewish people. And it enjoins and participates in a propaganda war not long before the dawn of an Internet age that would democratize media and increasingly eliminate the power of propaganda.

But in the midst of the political chaos, upheaval, and conceptual fog of the historical moment, Rand sought to explain the fundamental ideas of individualism and freedom.

Just as she had been inspired by the jagged silhouette of New York City looming in the backdrop of her favorite movies, Rand sought to provide a glimpse of the most essential issue of her time in the clearest possible outline.

[“Textbook of Americanism” is available for reading at FEE.org. The original copy that Rand delivered to Leonard Read is here in PDF.]

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