The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Liberalism, and the lady with the cigarette holder

When I was young, Nehru was my hero. He was an enchanting speaker and a great communicator, and I was quite under his thrall. So I went through school and college without entertaining any doubts about nationalization and commanding heights.

My first brush with socialism came while I was a student abroad. I had come to India for a visit. At that time, exchange control required one to surrender all one’s foreign exchange when one entered India, which I dutifully did. Exchange control allowed one to buy £8 at the airport when one left the country, which I did. I reached London in the morning, and happily spent the day going around the city. In the evening, I went to King’s Cross to take a train to Cambridge, and found that the last train had left. I no longer had enough money for a hotel, so I walked for miles looking for a cheap enough place to spend the night. I finally got a room in the YMCA at Tottenham Court Road. Next morning, I no longer had enough money to take a train to Cambridge. So I got some pennies and started ringing up friends. Finally, I found a friend’s wife; she said she was going to get her weekly wage that afternoon, and would lend me enough if I went to her office at 5 PM. I trudged around the city the whole day. I walked into her office at the appointed time and took the money. I reached Cambridge that evening, famished but no longer destitute.

That experience cured me of my love for socialism. When I returned to India and started doing economics, I found many more instances of the hardships visited upon people by socialism. Analysing them gave me a livelihood.

That is how I began to make a case for liberalism. But I had no ideology; in my own eyes, I was only applying common sense. “Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now, I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it! How grateful am I to you for teaching me that!” said Monsieur Jourdain to his philosophy teacher in Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman. Somewhat in the same way, I have been a liberal most of my life without knowing it. It just happened that I made my living in socialist India, and my economics enabled me to get much entertainment out of the government’s stupidities. If that was being liberal, I did not mind.

Then in his brief liberal phase, Manmohan Singh picked me up to help with decontrol. That brought me a little fame. Liberalism soon went out of fashion in the government, so I left the government. But outside, liberalism grew in popularity, and so did I. That is when I came across other liberals and became aware of liberalism as an ideology.

I had read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and enjoyed its broad canvas and epic quality. But it never struck me that it had an ideological message. I had an impression that she had begun to write in the 1930s, when I was born. That made her ancient; just like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, her fiction appeared vintage to me. It was only when I met other liberals in the 1990s that I realized what an icon she was amongst them.

Ayn Rand had quite an eventful youth. She was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in St Petersberg in 1905, the year in which Japan inflicted a painful defeat on Russia. She lived in Russia through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and graduated in philo- sophy from the University of St Petersburg. In 1926, she escaped to the US. She went to Hollywood and got a job as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. Then she hung around doing backroom jobs in studios. There she met Frank O’Connor — the actor, not the Irish writer — and married him in 1929. In 1934, they moved to New York.

In New York, she started to write seriously. Although she had been in the US for a decade, her early years in Soviet Russia weighed on her. She wrote a novel about life in Russia called We The Living in 1936; next year she wrote a dystopia — a nightmare of a collectivist future — called Anthem. Neither did well in the States. Then in 1943, she wrote The Fountainhead — the story of an architect who defended his integrity against odds and eventually won. That novel finally struck a chord, and presumably brought some prosperity to Ayn Rand, for she and her husband moved to Los Angeles in 1943. It was made into a film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in 1949.

In 1950, she met Nathaniel Blumenthal (who later renamed himself Branden), coming straight out of college, who became her principal acolyte. They soon moved to New York, and he became her lover with the consent of the spouses of both. She set up an office in the Empire State Building and he his Nathaniel Branden Institute in the basement. There he would hold forth on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Leslie Hanscom wrote in Newsweek in 1961, “After three hours of heroically rapt attention to Branden’s droning delivery, the fans were rewarded by the personal apparition of Miss Rand herself — a lady with drilling black eyes and Russian accent who often wears a brooch in the shape of a dollar sign as her private icon...”

It is too late to meet Ayn Rand, for she died in 1982. But she has quite a following; and as her readers will testify, her philosophy has considerable appeal. If you want to learn more about it, Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute has brought out a useful little introduction [Ayn Rand at 100, ed Tibor Machan, Pragun Publishers (D K Publishers Distributors), Rs 175], containing essays by her most prominent followers about her philosophy and influence. It offers a quick way of getting acquainted with her thought.

Email This Page