Book Review of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

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Why shouldn’t I start with a few quotes by Rand; I think it will clarify about all the Whys behind this magnum opus.
Her philosophy-
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason to his only absolute.”
Miss Rand was often asked whether she was primarily a philosopher or a novelist. To this, she responded-
“It seemed to be both, a theoretical philosopher and a fiction writer. But it is the last that interests me most….Philosophical knowledge is necessary in order to define human perfection, but I do not care to stop at the definition. I want to use it, to apply it- in my work (in my personal life too- but the core center and purpose of my life, is my work…in a book of fiction, the purpose is to create, for myself, the kind of world I want and to live in it while I am creating it, then as a secondary consequence, to let others enjoy the world, if, and to the extent that they can.”
Her hope-
“I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”
And yes, events that she faced in Russia in her childhood and teenage certainly had tremendous effect on her thought-process. She disgusted the socialist militarism or ‘red terror’ of the Bolshevik Revolution. When introduced to American History in her teenage, she immediately took America as her model of what a nation of free country could be.
So, this is Ayn Rand. In ninety percent cases, there is hardly a middle approach to get her ideas expressed in Atlas Shrugged, either you abhor her or adore her. This is the first book of Rand that I read and it is also the longest; it took me a considerable time to complete. In the initial phase of reading, I really enjoyed the book, but after when I had had more than the half, I became doubtful whether I would be able to finish it or not, I think it is unnecessarily long because of the repetitive arguments in proving her philosophy right. Well, I finished and felt no regret.
Rand’s character-building is flawlessly committed to prove her points. Her heroic and rational (according to her) capitalistic characters who don’t give a damn to the ‘need of the people’; they work because they love their work and want its full recognition, credit and value to satisfy and motivate their own conscience. They hate ‘the looters’ i.e. the bureaucrats, lobbyists and politicians who justify the regulations, taxations, and confiscations of private property on socialistic ground of ‘public welfare’ and even more so on communist grounds of ‘need’ and/or ‘on the point of a gun.’
Well, ‘need’ has always been prevalent since the beginning of human history, even today it is, but supposing ‘need’ as the main basic factor to equalize the society is like building a fort of sand, I mean snatching from the rich and giving it to the poor isn’t a permanent solution. The permanent solution lies in providing the ‘needy’ masses opportunity to grow, skill to work, enough education to make them able in deciding what’s wrong and what’s right, giving them a sense of self-respect and self-confidence instead of self-pity. And, taxation for such purposes makes a sense, but not for giving jobs and lands as gifts- this is exploitation of merit and virtue while encouragement of parasitism. Then, free-giving is an easy way to appease the vote-bank, so more or less every politician willing to make a long career in politics applies this trick.
I don’t think it’s totally wrong living a life based on rationality, honesty, integrity, justice, independence, productiveness and pride, what’s bad to be a strong person, to stand alone against all the odds, to stick to your goal, to not to waste your time in gossiping nonsensicalities- does this make one inhuman? I don’t know how? I disagree though on pure abolition of altruism and compassion, it is up to you to decide rationally if he/she to whom you are offering your altruism/compassion is worthy of it, and in this way, I am sure it will make happy the giver and the receiver as well.
This novel deals with many themes, among them, some important themes are like Happiness, Love, Sex, Individualism, An Appeal For Freedom, and the most important-Objectivism in Action, and almost all the themes are represented by John Galt in his speech. His speech is the philosophical gist of the novel, and yes, it is boring sometimes, yet I read it.
The repeated lines in the novel about happiness are like no one should live for other people and other people’s happiness; happiness is the ultimate goal and sole responsibility of each individual, but in the common life, sometimes our happiness is because of others and sometimes others become happy because of us, life is not so straight, thus I can’t agree with such philosophy of happiness.
In Galt’s gulch where he unites all his friends and supporters, all kinds of love are united there by the value-system of Objectivism, no break between different kinds of love whether it is romantic love, brotherly love, love of work or love of certain ideals. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, Love is a positive and all-encompassing thing that doesn’t allow things like jealousy to screw it up. On the other side, there are people who speak of ‘brotherly love’, sacrifice, and pity but they end up causing destruction. In this sense, I really favor Rand’s quote, “Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtue of another man’s character…”
The celebration of Sex in Atlas Shrugged is a mean to individual happiness and the unification of mind and body. Sex is not a sin between two persons who love and admire each other. Characters described as ‘looters’ take a negative view of Sex, treats it as tawdry and shameful, while Francisco and Dagny defend sexuality, in one of the speeches made by Francisco, there is the most important thematic statement about Sex, “The man who is proudly certain of his value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires…because only the possession of a heroine will give him a sense of achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut…He doesn’t seek to gain his value, he seeks to express it. There is no conflict between the standard of his mind and the desire of his body.”
Well, I support Individualism at a moderate level, but Atlas Shrugged is an impassioned defense of Individualism, and to understand Rand’s sense of urgency, we need to have a look on the context in which the book was written and the events of her early life which I have described in the beginning of this text.
Twentieth-century era exhibited the most tyrannical dictatorship in the human history. The Fascist in Italy, the National Socialist (Nazis) in Germany, and the Communist- first in Russia and later in China and elsewhere- seriously threatened individual freedom on the earth. Rand had the firsthand experience of this terrifying historical period. When she started writing Atlas Shrugged in 1946, the West had just achieved victory on the Nazis, but at an enormous cost of human life. However, it left the threat of communism unabated.
Even after her escape from the Soviet Union, she kept in touch with her family members, but when the murderous policies of Joseph Stalin swallowed the Soviet Union, she lost the track. She had experienced the brutality of communist tyranny.
Communism had expanded its legs in considerable large portion of the world during the last days of WW2 and in the immediate after years. Soviet armies first rolled through the countries of Eastern Europe (East Germany, Poland, Hungry, Romania and elsewhere) setting up Russian ‘satellite’ nations , then it came to power in China and North Korea and launched an invasion on South Korea. Shortly thereafter, Communism was also dominant in Cuba, at America’s doorstep. It was an expanding military power during 1940s and 1950s, threatening to engulf the free world, and it was also the peak-time of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had ruled its empire in Eastern Europe brutally suppressing an uprising by Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, after developing the atomic bomb, Russians amassed huge armies in Eastern Europe, threatening the free nations of the West.
Foreign military power wasn’t the only way by which communism threatened America’s freedom, but Collectivism also, the political philosophy of national socialists and communists which was embraced by innumerable American intellectuals during 1930s, but when the full horror of Nazism revealed during WW2, support for national socialism diminished gradually, but communism survived in the form of Marxist Political Ideology.
By the time when Rand was writing Atlas shrugged, many American intellectuals believed that government should have the power to coercively redistribute the income and regulate the industry. The belief that an individual has a right to live his own life replaced by the collectivist idea that individuals must work and live in service of others.
So, I conclude from all these that Rand’s extreme eulogy of Individualism was just a revenge for the brutal communism- the juxtaposition.
Experiencing nineteenth century full of inventors and entrepreneurs who created such things which raised man’s standard of living, according to Rand, freedom of American society was responsible for these achievements. Economic freedom led to these inventors and entrepreneurs (Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, John Roebling, Henry Ford, Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockfeller etc) to put new ideas and methods into practice, but what would happen if the economic freedom were lost? To answer this question, Rand projects the culmination of America’s twentieth-century socialist trend- heavy taxation, massive social welfare programs, tight governmental regulation of industry and anti-trust action against successful companies are heightened in the imaginary universe of her novel. So under the increasing yoke of tyranny, the most independent minds, like her heroes (John Galt, Francisco, Ragner Danneskjold, Ellis Wyatt, Hank Reardan etc) choose to defend their liberty in the most effective manner – they strike – withdraw from society. I hope the picture shown by Rand must be a little different from the then real world’s, and then, it’s a fiction representing Utopian and/or Dystopian biases of the author.
Now Objectivism-a philosophy, I think, that is too hard to apply fully in present days’ common life- way too selfish, an uncompromising defense of mind, of individualism and of Capitalism! (I don’t support pure Capitalism, but Mixed Economy). But Rand has dramatized her philosophy with the help of her extraordinary heroes, made it convincing and appealing to the youth in her magnum opus. Well, what’s good for you in this book, it’s up to you to choose wisely.
Atlas Shrugged has been controversial since its publication in 1957, intellectuals and critics denounce it. I am of the view that it is written out of hate and as a revenge for communism, still I liked this book- first of all for, “In The Name of The Best Within Us”, for an interesting story mingled with good romance, suspense for “Who is John Galt”, its inspiration to think more rationally, integrity of character, and for its seductiveness (I never found any novel so compelling). There are many things to dislike as well. Nevertheless, Atlas Shrugged has influenced and made a difference in million people’s life. Its impact on contemporary libertarian thought has been considerable.
~Ravi
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