The 50th Anniversary of Atlas Shrugged

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged. There’s no doubt that both Rand and her more fanatic followers have many faults, but there is also value to her work which should not be forgotten. As I recently wrote, Rand fled the Soviet Union and her ideas were shaped “when the Bolsheviks broke into her father’s pharmacy and declared his livelihood the property of the state.” During a period when Marxism was often seen as the dominant philosophy reshaping the world, Rand helped provide a much-needed moral argument for capitalism. While the viewpoint can be taken too far, Rand also displays a bold message on the power of the individual and value of excellence.

Among the tributes to Atlas Shrugged being posted on its anniversary, Michelle Malkin points out an article from Robert Trancinski which states:

No one could have conceived of the achievements of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution before they happened–and these new events required a radical re-evaluation of conventional ideas. Yet the intellectuals failed to perform such a re-evaluation.

For example, in 1816, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a group of Britain’s best young literary minds–including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley)–gathered together to explore their new school of literature, which they called “Gothic” because it took its inspiration from the mysticism of the Middle Ages. In that spirit, they challenged each other to write the best ghost story, and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein–a story which portrays the quest for scientific and technological knowledge as a kind of dangerous madness.

Just as capitalism was propelling us forward into a technological future that would, among other advantages, double the average human lifespan, the intellectuals were looking backward to the Middle Ages and predicting that all of this new science and technology would bring disaster. (They’re still doing it, except that now they conjure up the bogeyman of global warming in the place of Frankenstein’s monster.)

A few decades later, a German intellectual named Karl Marx gave one of the most influential accounts of the new capitalist system–and he got everything wrong. An Industrial Revolution driven by scientific and technological advances springing from the minds of a few extraordinary individuals, he would describe as the anonymous, collective product of brute physical labor; an economic system of liberty, he would describe as a system of oppression; a system built on the right to property he would describe as a system based of expropriation–and then he would propose actual oppression and expropriation as the solution.

This has been the pattern of the artists and intellectuals in dealing with the most significant phenomenon of our age. While the world was transformed around them, they refused to grasp the real meaning of these events, choosing to ignore or denigrate the forces that were rapidly improving human life.

In this context, we can see the widest significance of Ayn Rand’s literary and philosophical achievement. She was the first thinker and artist to fully grasp the meaning of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and to give them expression both in literature and in philosophy.

The most radical aspect of Atlas Shrugged is that Ayn Rand found suspense, heroism, and profound philosophical meaning in the achievements of the entrepreneurs and industrialists who were reshaping the world.

Atlas Shrugged was written in an age of creeping global socialism. Extrapolating from the trends of the day, Ayn Rand projected a future in which most of the world’s nations are collapsing into the poverty and oppression of socialist “people’s states,” while America itself is collapsing under the weight of an increasing government takeover of the economy.

She saw the dramatic potential in asking a single question: what would happen if the innovative entrepreneurs and businessmen–after decades of being vilified and regulated–started to disappear? The disappearance of the world’s productive geniuses provides the novel’s central mystery, both factually and intellectually.

The right is often in error when it sees every government action as “creeping global socialism” and argues that action by private business is always superior to that done by government and blindly ignores any evidence to the contrary. Similarly, many on the left are just as much in error when they fail to acknowledge the benefits of the free market or always see businessmen as villains, as David Kelley wrote about in The Wall Street Journal today.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    Rainier says:

    Great book. Makes me want to reread it again. I hear a movie is coming out too.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I’ve heard talk of a movie version for decades but they never manage to do it. I’m not sure that a movie could be done of Atlas Shrugged which would do it justice. The failure of the movie version of The Fountainhead has also haunted any attempts to do Atlas Shrugged.

    Last I heard, the present movie plans were in an early stage and it wasn’t certain if they would complete it.

  3. 3
    JAN says:

    I WOULD LIKE TO FIND THIS IN GERMAN. PLEASE HELP

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