The First Installment Of A Colossal E-Discussion On The Work Of Ayn Rand. Former British Ambassador And Contributing Editor To The Commentator, Charles Crawford Takes On Associate Editor Of And Former Senior Banking Professional, Frances Coppola




” Frances Coppola’s piece The Death of John Galt took issue with some of the key moral claims of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and prompted some Twitter exchanges with Charles Crawford. They have agreed to look at these issues in an e-discussion. Here is the first installment.

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CC:            I was a British diplomat for nearly thirty years, mostly in central and eastern Europe as Soviet communism ended and the region moved towards modern pluralism. In 2007 I left the FCO and started a new private career as a communication consultant (specialist negotiation technique and public speaking). I first read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead some ten years ago, and have read them several times.

FC:             I spent seventeen years working for banks at increasingly senior levels, much of it as an independent consultant managing projects and designing IT and business systems. I stepped off the escalator in 2002, opting to concentrate on my first love, music. I’m now a freelance writer and speaker on matters financial and economic in addition to my singing and teaching.

I encountered Ayn Rand’s writing two years ago following a bruising Twitter exchange with some American libertarians. I read The Virtue of Selfishness first, followed by the novels. The character of John Galt particularly fascinates me.


What do you basically like and dislike about Ayn Rand’s novels?


CC:            They tackle big themes unashamedly. It’s hard to think of any great English-language novels that really explore Communism and collectivist thinking; given the malevolent challenge posed by communism for the past century or so, that is a startling omission. I also enjoy their Russian-ness, a factor often overlooked by Ayn Rand’s critics.

  I like what I take to be the core idea of these two books, namely that free exchanges of ideas and effort (in other words honest contracts) are the moral and operational motor of any society worth living in. This compels us to question social arrangements that use force or the threat of force to achieve results.

  It’s no surprise that Rand’s books keep selling: our dispersed IT-driven world needs horizontal networked human cooperation based on intelligent contracting, not hierarchical structures based on threats and force.

  Dislikes? All the usual ones. Characters that represent different intellectual positions rather than ‘real’ people, and therefore are not credible or just weird. Some gruesome heavy passages, where the ponderous intellectualism is too self-conscious or too dotty for its own good.

  There is a nasty tone now and then of contempt for human weakness including physical and mental disability. This is part of the main philosophical problem with Rand’s worldview: her unwavering focus on the moral supremacy of free trade between individuals doesn’t (and can’t) account satisfactorily for relationships where that is impossible, above all family love and children.

  Rand and her husband had no children. Hence debate rumbles on about whether in her world it is ‘selfish’ to have children (or indeed not to have them).

FC:             I read these books because they are important. Their moral and political philosophy is a significant counter to state communism and theocracy. Along with Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”, these books caught the imagination of a whole generation.

  We could regard them as the Bible of the “neoliberal generation” – the people, like me, who lived through the end of communism, the painful breakup of monolithic state and quasi-state institutions and the creation of the modern market state. Because of what they say about the beliefs and values of this generation, these books are fascinating.

  But I find them fascinating in a sort of horrifying way. I struggle to find anything that I “like” about them. Rand’s moral philosophy runs directly counter to my own beliefs, and the characters of whom she most approves are those I like the least.

  John Galt, her “hero”, is one of the most unpleasant characters I have ever encountered in a book. His self-centredness amounts to narcissism.

  Harold Roark in The Fountainhead is perhaps more likeable, but he too has an overdeveloped sense of his own importance. Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” could perhaps be defined as the primacy of self-love. This might make for effective trade, but it doesn’t create nice people.

  Rand was very much a child of her time: her writing is defined to a large extent by the experiences of her early life. She did not succeed in defining a new paradigm. She rejected the old, but simply re-created it in a different form.

  The dictatorship of the men of mind is no better than – indeed no different from – the dictatorship of the proletariat. Orwell understood the self-perpetuating nature of dictatorship far better – and was a better writer. Rand really can’t be described as a good writer. Her books are poorly constructed, badly written and over-long; John Galt’s speech is a sure cure for insomnia.

Rand’s books are interesting for their moral philosophy and their politics, not for their literary merit.”



Part one continues here at The Commentator and part two is here . Enjoy