In 1932, New York Times journalist Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about life in the Soviet Union. His perceived expertise, flowing from his position as the paper’s Moscow Bureau Chief, ended after 14 years in 1936. To explain Duranty’s dishonesty, colleague John Chamberlain wrote in 1991,
The main count against Duranty is he was Stalin’s man. I heard Duranty, on one of his trips to New York, say three million people died in Ukraine in a man-made famine. This seemed to me tremendous news. Duranty, worried about a return visa, denied he had ever said it.
The fix was in for the American communist propaganda machine. Thankfully, and contemporaneous to Duranty, a young female writer named Alisa Rosenbaum had escaped the Soviet occupation of Russia in 1926. Her pretense for a travel visa was to go to America, promote atheism, and return to Russia to write about the evils of capitalism. Instead, to protect her family, she changed her name to Ayn Rand, and while in her mid and late twenties, wrote her first novel – We the Living.
Beginning in 1933 (Duranty was still the Times Moscow Bureau Chief), the manuscript was rejected more than a dozen times in America, over a three year period, and finally published by Macmillan in 1936. Two years prior, Rand wrote a letter to the renowned American individualist H. L. Mencken, that said in part,
I intend to be the first one in a new battle which the world needs as it has never needed before, the first to answer the many advocates of collectivism, and answer them in a manner which will not be forgotten. I have heard so much from that other side, and so little in defense of man against men.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has not forgotten. The Nobel Prize winning economist wrote an editorial on October 22, 2020 titled How Many Americans Will Ayn Rand Kill? The article then describes the attributes of personal liberty in terms that no American, especially Ayn Rand or any advocate of rational egoism, would recognize.
While Duranty’s Pulitzer was his reward for protecting Soviet-style economic central planning, Krugman’s Nobel was his reward for protecting Keynesian-style economic protectionism for young industries in developing countries. Of course, his New Trade Theory was supported by complex and technical economic modeling that was easily debunked.
So how do we account for the rise of authoritarianism in 2020 America? The totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan were defeated in World War II. By the 1970’s, John Keynes’ watered-down Marxist economics was exposed as an immoral fantasy by Austrian school economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. Their bookends were the radical philosophy of Ayn Rand and the journalistic integrity of Henry Hazlitt in the 1960’s, and the political leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s.
As Richard Salsman, Duke University professor of political economics and philosophy explains, the resurgence of legitimate liberalism described above is despised in today’s university system. But instead of ideological authoritarianism, today’s political gangs are unprincipled and pragmatic. They merely pull Marxism off the shelf because it somehow legitimizes their quest for power over others. Its virulent bigotry is irrelevant.
It was ignorance, incompetence, and pragmatism that ruled Soviet Russia in the 1920’s, and Ayn Rand’s novel, We the Living, dramatized this. Hers is the story of the enslavement of a nation, and more importantly, the spirits crushed by a Marxist criminal gang, except one.
As relevant as ever, philosopher Leonard Peikoff wrote in 2008, “Do we know it yet, even this late? Do we know the nature of a dictatorship as it grows ever more visible in the land of the free? If we do at all, it is thanks in large part to the works of Ayn Rand.”
In 2020 America, we are faced with an important choice. Either the life premise of Ayn Rand and capitalism, or the death premise of the New York Times and socialism. Lives of motion and purpose or lives of stagnation and retribution. As Salsman explains, putting “democratic” in front of it does not make it humane.
To help readers appreciate Ayn Rand’s contribution to the cause of personal liberty, the centerforindividualism.org has launched a project called Reliving We the Living. The characters and circumstances of the novel have been studied and compared to current events, and we hope in a way that gives meaning to Gen Z and Millennial readers who take the time to appreciate this work for themselves.