Masterpieces: Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"

by Greg Barnhisel

It's a novel! It's a philosophy! It's the instruction manual for a crazy cult! Atlas Shrugged could be all of those things. Then again, maybe it's just about a little Russian girl who really hated growing up around Bolsheviks.

Ayn Rand was a woman who knew how to sell philosophy. As the founder of Objectivism—a belief in the power of the individual and "the virtue of selfishness"—Rand had something going for her that great thinkers like Aristotle and Kierkegaard didn't: She got her start in Hollywood.

After immigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1926, Rand managed to sign on with famed film producer-director Cecil B. DeMille as an extra in his movie The King of Kings. An aspiring screenwriter, she soon had the connections she needed to begin hawking her wares. By 1932, she'd sold her first screenplay and overseen the production of one of her plays. In other words, Ayn (pronounced "Eye-n," not "Ann") knew how to produce for a general audience—not just the intellectual elite. So when she delved into philosophy and began to formulate the ideas that would eventually become Objectivism, the resulting works (namely The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) read more like blockbuster melodramas than philosophy dissertations.

The Rise of John Galt

Rand's ability to write for a general audience is certainly one of the reasons Atlas Shrugged landed the No. 1 spot on Modern Library's readers' poll of "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century." But just like the crowd-pleasing popcorn flicks that don't have a prayer of winning an Oscar, literary critics often treat Rand's novels like something the cat coughed up. Atlas Shrugged was nowhere to be found in the "official" Modern Library ranking, and in 2000, a columnist for the liberal-minded Salon.com slammed it as "a novelization of Mein Kampf by Barbara Cartland."

Whether you see it as a 1,200-page doorstop or the book that changed your life, Atlas Shrugged is a good introduction to Rand's philosophy. The story takes place in what is essentially the author's vision of the future America. After liberals gain control of the government, federal officials immediately begin imposing regulations on businesses that are intended to help the weaker members of society. As a result, the main character, railroad executive Dagny Taggart, is forced to give up her company's most lucrative route to a smaller operator. Meanwhile, steelmaker Henry Rearden is prevented from selling his latest metal invention because the government believes it might hurt his competitors by giving him an advantage. Laws are passed that require all patents to be signed over to federal officials, and businessmen are no longer allowed to focus their companies on profits. Instead, the government tells them they must work to benefit society, even if that means running their operations at a loss.

Soon, all of the capitalists have their hands tied. The so-called "looters" take charge, causing the natural order of the economy to be subverted, and millions are given jobs because they need the work, not because they can actually perform the labor. With incompetents and slackers staffing important positions, America's infrastructure begins to fall apart. Railroads stop, bridges fall, cities go dark, and a mysterious pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld pillages the few ships that still carry goods to America.

Willing to abandon their assets for the government to squander, America's executives and businessmen begin to disappear altogether. When Dagny finally finds the "striking" industrialists in a secret Colorado valley, she sees they've created their own society based on pure selfishness and greed. The valley has banks, mines, artists, oil producers, engineers—everything that made America great in the first place. Its founder and guiding spirit, John Galt, is also there, serving as a kind of magnetic prophet and the leader of the strike. Later, Galt is arrested and subjected to torture after he takes over the airwaves and speaks out against the government. But the strikers—now joined by Dagny—rescue him and return to the valley. Eventually, the collectivist practices governing the country lead to total collapse. Galt, Dagny, and the rest of the strikers, safe in the valley, prepare their return.

The Author as An Icon

rand.jpgAtlas Shrugged, and the philosophy of Objectivism itself, is an impassioned, individualistic response to what Rand saw as the evil of collectivism—the wastefulness of human beings expending energy to help the weak and the lazy. That might sound harsh, but it's important to understand that Rand came by her hatred of collectivism through painful personal experiences. Born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, a young Ayn Rand (her birth name was Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) grew up in the midst of the Russian Revolution. As part of the government's many efforts to promote the socialist cause, she witnessed the Bolsheviks confiscating her father's pharmacy—thus taking away the fruits of all his labor and using them, at his expense, for the collective good.

Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand came to admire the United States as a truly free land, and she immigrated in 1926. After her screenwriting stint, she started writing novels, beginning with We the Living in 1936. In 1943, she hit bestseller status with The Fountainhead—her first real public foray into putting Objectivist ideas into a fictional plot. Incredibly, the book was rejected by 12 publishers before finally being accepted. But the wild success of The Fountainhead only whet Rand's appetite to delve further into Objectivism, so when she finally finished Atlas Shrugged in 1957, publishers were more than willing to pick it up.

Although a great financial success, Atlas Shrugged was also her last work of fiction. After its publication, Rand devoted herself fully to writing and editing Objectivist works and to running "The Collective," her ironically named circle of close (some say cultish) admirers. And while The Collective broke apart in the late 1960s, when it became a little too "free-love" for some of its members, that hasn't stopped the legions of Rand followers from growing. Today, Ayn Rand fans vastly outnumber the membership of The Collective, and they are a devoted bunch. The Ayn Rand Institute (a.k.a., The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism), founded after Rand's death in 1982, publishes a wide variety of Randian works. And they all continue to inspire passionate devotion in their fans.

Atlas Shrugged continues to inspire new readers, as well. On one hand, it's easy to read the novel as a period piece. After all, when it was published in the 1950s, liberal New Deal programs were growing steadily, and unions were at the height of their power. To readers, it must have seemed like the "looters" were taking over. But the book takes on a very different meaning today. With most politicians in both parties praising the efficiencies created by deregulation and privatization, Rand's nightmare vision might seem increasingly remote. Many, however, see it as a sign that perhaps Ayn Rand's ideas are starting to have the widespread impact she'd hoped for.

We Are Randian, Hear Us Roar

For a philosophy broadly known as Objectivism, there sure are a lot of subjective opinions out there about it. Plenty of people dig it and plenty dog it, but those in the former category definitely seem to have a common thread—they're kind of a big deal. The following are just a few of the A-list Randians out there.

John Stossel, ABC correspondent and co-anchor for 20/20. Speaking to The Daily Princetonian, Stossel credited Rand with helping to lead him to his libertarian beliefs.
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reagan.jpgClarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Thomas has spoken of being raised on an intellectual diet of Horatio Alger, Richard Wright, and Rand, but "I tend to be really partial to Ayn Rand," he told Reason magazine in 1987.
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Ronald Reagan, conservative hero. Reagan was drawn to Rand's ideas early on in his political career, largely for their defense of capitalism and individualism. However, he admitted that he never read Atlas Shrugged. Still, many of Reagan's advisers, both in California politics and in the White House, were also Randians.
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Neil Peart, drummer for the Canadian prog-rock band Rush. An outspoken Randian, Peart acknowledged "the genius of Ayn Rand" in the liner notes to the band's breakthrough 1976 album, 2112.
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Angelina Jolie, movie star and Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency. Jolie has spoken of being "very into Ayn Rand" and is currently shepherding a film version of Atlas Shrugged through development. And, yes, she'll play Dagny Taggart.
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Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a member of Rand's inner circle (The Collective) during the 1950s and 1960s. While he was never an orthodox Objectivist, he did agree with many of Rand's free-market principles.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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December 4, 2008 - 8:45am
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