Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid is the sensory piercing, opening sentence of Ayn Rand’s 1936 novel, We the Living. Set in 1920’s Soviet Russia, the sentence describes Kira Argounova’s first impression upon her return to the city as an 18-year-old. More precisely, 1922 is the year Kira’s family returned to their home city from a four year forced exile in Crimea, and 1926 is the year Ayn Rand left her family there permanently to emigrate to the United States. In the introduction to the 60th anniversary edition of We the Living, philosopher Leonard Peikoff relates,
Her husband Frank O’Connor, and his brother Nick were horrified by her experiences in Russia, and they convinced her that Americans had no idea of the truth. A young Russian had said to her at a party in 1926, just before she left for America: “When you get there, tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying.” We the Living told them.
Of course, this was over 90 years ago, on another continent, and across an ocean. In addition, the circumstances that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution are entirely different than those we face in America today. Russia had been ruled by an authoritarian monarchy, was governed by the remnants of a feudal society, its subjects were clinging to a mystical culture of medieval religion, and its citizens endured relative poverty compared to their European cousins who had also been devastated by World War I.
In contrast, America’s Constitution guarantees a representative republic, equal protection of individual rights, the separation of church and state, two oceans, and a quality of life that was unimaginable in post-World War I terms. Not surprisingly, Ms. Rand understood this argument better than anyone, and explained the root cause of all collectivist (i. e. ‘Democratic Socialism’) theories,
The rapid degeneration of our present age – when men are brought to the level of concrete-bound animals who are incapable of perceiving abstractions, when men are taught they must look at trees, but never at forests – makes it necessary for me to give the following warning: do not be misled by those who tell you that We the Living is no longer relevant.
Today’s rapid degeneration is more evident than ever, and manifests itself first in higher education, then media, and then America’s city streets. As asserted on June 10, 2020 in this blog, “There is no rational justification for these mass demonstrations in a civilized society. That is the last step before armed insurrection against an oppressive dictatorship, yet America is the most free, open, and prosperous society the world has ever known.” Instead, today’s violent Neo-Marxists (aka concrete-bound animals and their cheerleaders) define America in their anti-conceptual (childish memorization and imitation) terms: a. White privilege b. Capitalist greed c. Systemic racism d. Inequality e. Police brutality f. All of the above.
Ms. Rand also understands and explains the difference,
I explain the philosophical, psychological and moral meaning of the men who value their own lives and of the men who don’t. I show the first are prime movers of mankind, and the second are metaphysical killers, working for an opportunity to become physical ones. In We the Living I show they are motivated by a life premise or a death premise.
Kira Argounova is that rare character, real or fictional, alive or dead, male or female, who is truly motivated by a life premise. Yet, what that means is rarely known or understood in postmodern (post-World War I) America. To help remedy this human disaster, Ayn Rand asked, “Do you consider it moral to treat men as sacrificial animals and to rule them by physical force? If, as a citizen of the freest country in the world, you do not know what this would actually mean – We the Living will help you to know.”
To that end, we cordially invite you to consider the We the Living Study Group on Facebook, and join a unique group of active minds in our online forum. The conversations will begin the week of August 2nd which will cover Chapters 1 – 3. The calendar for reading, questions, and commentary is posted in the About section of the group page.
You can obtain your own copy of the novel here and we invite you to comment on it. We’ll monitor the comments sections to keep them respectful and to avoid “spoilers.” It’s our belief that this project is relevant to your life’s experience in 2020 America, and this will be revealed to each participant, on your own terms, as each chapter unfolds. Our online forum has been set up as a Private Group, so it is not searchable, and membership will not show up on your Facebook profile.
Sign up for our discussion group! The online forum is private, and the conversation is meant to be engaging, polite, and productive!
Open signups for the CFI Study Group ended on August 1, 2020.