There is probably nothing new that can be said about “Atlas Shrugged”. Nearly every adjective that could be used to describe it has already been used. Influential, polarizing, epic, boring, exciting, brilliant, stupid, philosophical, pornographic, difficult, challenging, best, worst…you name it, it’s been said. For my part, it is the best refutation of socialism and best defense for capitalism I have ever read.
“Atlas Shrugged” is, ostensibly, a novel, but even the most cursory examination will reveal that the novel exists primarily as a platform for Ayn Rand to disseminate the gospel of Objectivism, her personal philosophy and worldview.
The story is complex, to say the least. The setting is an America in decline. Riding the crest of a popular wave of social justice, an increasingly large number of socialists are coming into power in all areas of society, taxing the successful to subsidize the poor and shackling the strong to make the weak feel better about being weak. As a result, the great lights of America’s society are going out. The statesmen who lead her, the educators who teach her children, the great industrialists who provide material employment to her citizens, all of them are disappearing. As they disappear, America begins to disintegrate. Factories close, unable to bear the heavy weight of increased taxation and regulation. The more factories close, the more rare materials and equipment become, the more the nation’s infrastructure crumbles. Unemployment soars and fear spreads across the landscape. An impotent government imposes more taxes and regulations to try and force companies to stay open and hire people, all the while paying those who do not work to continue not working.
Two of the last great industrialists, Dagny Taggart, head of the nation’s largest railroad, and Hank Reardon, steel magnate and inventor, watch with growing sadness and horror as their colleagues and competitors close up shop and vanish without a trace. They struggle together and as individuals to keep their businesses alive in spite of the senseless policies of bureaucrats who know nothing of business in general, and their businesses in particular. Their struggle to stay in business becomes a battle for the life of the nation, a battle they must wage on two fronts; the first against the government, the second against whatever, or whomever, is behind the mysterious disappearances. They name this second “the Destroyer”, and swear to fight it to the end, even if it costs their lives.
As their struggle for America becomes more and more desperate, they each come face to face with the Destroyer and discover that it is far from anything they imagined. They learn more about themselves and the world, including the nature of the real destroyer, and a truth that both liberates them from the battle and gives them the victory they long for.
So much for the story. Given that “Atlas Shrugged” weighs in at over 1200 pages, it should go without saying that there are numerous other characters and plotlines, a summary of which would require a much more extensive review and give away far too many details. The long and short of it is that Rand is a skilled writer and spins a fascinating yarn. In the context of her worldview, the characters and plotlines develop organically and move the story along at a brisk pace; nothing feels forced or artificial. “Atlas Shrugged” possesses a high degree of internal consistence and coherence. As result, even at 1200+ pages, it was not too long. I was engrossed from the beginning to the end.
But the story takes second place to her philosophy. “Atlas Shrugged” is Rand’s answer to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che, and every other theorist and proponent of Socialism. Through it, she goes on the offensive, exposing the weaknesses of socialism both directly and indirectly through the actions of the characters and the resulting consequences. Rejecting the theory of class warfare, she divides people into producers; those who generate wealth and jobs by leveraging the strengths of the market, and looters/moochers; those who try to take wealth either through force (excessive taxation) or passive-aggressive weakness (the welfare victim). Regardless, the looter/moocher strives to obtain wealth without honestly working for it.
Rand’s critique possesses a credibility that not many can claim for it was born of experience. She grew up in Russia during the Bolshevik revolution and witnessed the accompanying evils. Her father, a successful pharmacist, was driven out of business. Her family lived on the brink of starvation. Rand was forced out of the university during one of the many purges. Unlike many western Marxists who enjoy the comforts of capitalism while decrying its excesses, she understood socialism from within. It should be noted that Rand does not limit her critique of socialism to economics, but demonstrates its weaknesses in the realms of literature and the performing and visual arts. Literature, in particular, is not a tool of the bourgeoisie used to keep the proletariat in bondage. Only the Marxist uses art in that fashion.
To better understand what Rand believed and what she tried to communicate in “Atlas Shrugged”, it may be helpful to read her own summary of her worldview:
“At a sales conference at Random House, preceding the publication of Atlas Shrugged, one of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” or “Wishing won’t make it so.” 2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” 3. “Man is an end in himself.” 4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”If you held these concepts with total consistency, as the base of your convictions, you would have a full philosophical system to guide the course of your life. But to hold them with total consistency—to understand, to define, to prove and to apply them—requires volumes of thought. Which is why philosophy cannot be discussed while standing on one foot—nor while standing on two feet on both sides of every fence. This last is the predominant philosophical position today, particularly in the field of politics.
My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that: 1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears. 2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival. 3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. 4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”
“Atlas Shrugged” is the working out of this philosophy to its ultimate conclusions in a fictional setting. I must admit that Rand is not a great writer. She is competent and tells a good story, but unlike other philosopher-novelists (Camus comes to mind) her style lacks the brilliance that is the mark of a truly great artist. That being said, “Atlas Shrugged” is a great book. The combination of the strength of Rand’s convictions, her experience of socialism, her grasp of philosophy and history…all of these things and more combine to help “Atlas Shrugged” transcend the limitations of Rand’s prose. It deserves the place it has earned for itself in literary history. It is not the last word on socialism vs. capitalism, but is a great place to start.
I have it on good authority that “Atlas Shrugged” is not very popular among tenured university literary circles. Given the heavy influence of Marxism on the campus today, that may be one of the greatest compliments and highest recommendations it could receive.
One final note: Rand’s position on charity is frequently misrepresented. She was not against charity per se. What she opposed were the ideas that charity should be coerced, or that those who receive charity should use their status in a passive aggressive fashion to remain victims and force others to continue to support them. She goes further, arguing that charity is not a moral duty or primary virtue, and I must disagree with her position there.