On October 10, 1957, Ayn Rand’s dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged, appeared in American bookstores. The fourth and final book by Rand, who cited Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky among her influences, explored the possible consequences on the fabric of society of a strike by its most creative and productive minds. Rand called the thousand-page-plus book a mystery novel, “not about the murder of man’s body, but about the murder – and rebirth – of man’s spirit”. Her goal for the book , she said, was “to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them”, while also showing “what happens to a world without them”.
In the world of the novel, whose working title was The Strike, government is taking ever-increasing control over people and industry. Individual creativity and contribution to commerce is discouraged, the country and people are stagnating. Men and women of learning decide to withdraw their inventions, ideas, artistic creations, and abilities as leaders – to go on a “strike of the mind” rather than have their work appropriated and exploited by the government. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is fleshed out in the story of heroine Dagny Taggert and mystery man John Galt. Objectivism advocated for the use of human reason, individualism, and the market economy. It set high value on man’s reason as necessary for survival, and on a code of ethics including rationality in practice, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride. It was entirely opposed to Marxism, the Labor theory of value, fascism, socialism, and communism. Any collectivism, with government control of society, was fatally flawed and would lead to societal melt-down. A society which champions individual achievement and enlightened self-interest will produce the best living conditions – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – for all.
Atlas Shrugged was popular with the reading public. It debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list at #6 and remained on the list for 21 weeks (spending six weeks in slot #4). But reviewers were critical. “An homage to greed”, “shot through with hatred”, and “nearly perfect in its immorality” appeared in print regarding what Rand considered her magnum opus. Other commentators accused the book of being sophomoric and “remarkably silly”, asking “Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman – in the comic strip or the Nietzschean version?” Positive reviews, significantly fewer in number, applauded it as a “profound political parable”, comparing it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in importance.
Controversy over Atlas Shrugged continues to this day. The results of a poll of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century conducted by publishing company Modern Library in 1998 vividly illustrates the disparate view of the novel by the literary world and the general public. While in survey results readers rated Atlas Shrugged #1, the Modern Library list-makers (made up of authors and scholars) refused to include the book at all. Ayn Rand might find in this snub some confirmation of her unique and fervently-expressed views.
Intrigued by Atlas Shrugged, I decided to buy the Kindle version (what would Ayn Rand think of Jeff Bezos?) and take a another look. I made it all the way through the book’s approximately 1170 pages when I was in my twenties. Very little of its content had stayed with me. Hoping that – wondering if – I could get a sense of Rand’s message with abbreviated reading, I created my own 1957 Time Capsule Condensed Version. Atlas Shrugged is divided into three roughly equal-length sections: “Part One – Non-Contradiction;” “Part Two – Either-Or;” and “Part Three – A is A.” I decided to read the first chapters of each section and the novel’s concluding paragraph, four chapters in all. This amounted to 136 pages. It was a slog.
With condensed reading, it’s possible or maybe likely that I missed essential material and nuance. Rand’s style, however, doesn’t seem to involve nuance and she hammers her points home thoroughly and at great length. Her metaphors and symbols are reinforced to within an inch of their literary life. Her main point, in my own words, is that the highest human good is the full individual expression of each unique person’s excellence. A community of strong, committed, passionate, industrious people, each contributing their full share to the whole, would provide the best possible world to live in. Rand is a utopian and social engineer. In her view, the greatest drags on society are the individuals who just want to “get by.” They are happy with average, feel entitled to a share of the community’s goods just by virtue of belonging to the community, and don’t want to take undue risks, stir the waters, etc. Rand sees people like these as parasites and the innovators and achievers as heroes. She stresses that one of the greatest harms one person can do to another is to have pity on them, to indulge in charity, and sacrifice on their behalf. This is enabling behavior and holds the achievers back unfairly, while preventing the underlings from developing to their potential.
Here’s my $64,000 question: What about the people who, for reasons physical or mental or emotional, aren’t able to substantially contribute to the community? What happens to the fragile individuals who are dependent physically, emotionally, or socially on the grace of others? What would happen to a potential child of Rand’s main characters, John Galt and Dagny Taggert, if he or she were born with a disability?
This leads to my key objection to Rand’s philosophy. Each person in the community will have a unique talent and capacity to contribute. Who decides what each person’s talent and capacities are? Who decides whether each person is living up to their potential? Do you see it? We’re heading for tyranny. If each of us were discouraged from deciding for ourselves about charitable giving and supporting someone we feel is in need, then who decides which individuals are in need and gives us the go-ahead to help them? Taken to its logical conclusion, Ayn Rand’s worldview requires a society of perfect people, or a society of humans with a perfect, all-powerful ruler. Not going to happen. Just my opinion.