Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand's masterpiece and the culmination of her career as a novelist. With its publication in 1957, the author accomplished everything she wanted to in the realm of fiction; the rest of her career as a writer was devoted to nonfiction. Rand was already a famous, best-selling author by the time she published Atlas Shrugged. With the success of The Fountainhead a decade earlier and its subsequent production as a Hollywood film starring Gary Cooper in 1949, her stature as an author was established. Publishers knew that her fiction would sell, and consequently they bid for the right to publish her next book.
Atlas Shrugged, although enormously controversial, had no difficulty finding a publisher. On the contrary, Rand conducted an intellectual auction among competing publishers, finally deciding on Random House because its editorial staff had the best understanding of the book. Bennett Cerf was a famous editor there. When Rand explained that, at one level, Atlas Shrugged was to provide a moral defense of capitalism, the editorial staff responded, "But that would mean challenging 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition." Their depth of philosophical insight impressed Ayn Rand, and she decided that Random House was the company to publish her book.
Atlas Shrugged furthers the theme of individualism that Ayn Rand developed in The Fountainhead. In The Fountainhead, she shows by means of its hero, the innovative architect Howard Roark, that the independent mind is responsible for all human progress and prosperity. In Atlas Shrugged, she shows that without the independent mind, our society would collapse into primitive savagery. Atlas Shrugged is an impassioned defense of the freedom of man's mind. But to understand the author's sense of urgency, we must have an idea of the context in which the book was written. This includes both the post-World War II Cold War and the broader trends of modern intellectual culture.
The Cold War and Collectivism
Twentieth-century culture spawned the most oppressive dictatorships in human history. The Fascists in Italy, the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany, and the Communists — first in Russia and later in China and elsewhere — seriously threatened individual freedom throughout the world. Ayn Rand lived through the heart of this terrifying historical period. In fact, when she started writing Atlas Shrugged in 1946, the West had just achieved victory over the Nazis. For years, the specter of national socialism had haunted the world, exterminating millions of innocent people, enslaving millions more, and threatening the freedom of the entire globe. The triumph of the free countries of the West over Naziism was achieved at an enormous cost in human life. However, it left the threat of communism unabated.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and witnessed firsthand the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist conquest of Russia, and the political oppression that followed. Even after her escape from the Soviet Union and her safe arrival in the United States, she kept in close touch with family members who remained there. But when the murderous policies of Joseph Stalin swallowed the Soviet Union, she lost track of her family. From her own life experiences, Ayn Rand knew the brutal oppression of Communist tyranny.
During the last days of World War II and in the years immediately following, communism conquered large portions of the world. Soviet armies first rolled through the countries of Eastern Europe, setting up Russian "satellite" nations in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere. Communists then came to power in China and North Korea and launched an invasion of South Korea. Shortly thereafter, communism was also dominant in Cuba, on America's doorstep. In the 1940s and 1950s, communism was an expanding military power, threatening to engulf the free world.
This time period was the height of the Cold War — the ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union ruled its empire in Eastern Europe by means of terror, brutally suppressing an uprising by Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956. The Russians developed the atomic bomb and amassed huge armies in Eastern Europe, threatening the free nations of the West. Speaking at the United Nations, Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev vowed that communism would "bury" the West. Like the Nazis in the 1930s, communists stood for a collectivist political system: one in which an individual is morally obliged to sacrifice himself for the state. Intellectual freedom and individual rights, cherished in the United States and other Western countries, were in grave danger.
Foreign military power was not the only way in which communism threatened U.S. freedom. Collectivism was an increasingly popular political philosophy among American intellectuals and politicians. In the 1930s, both national socialism and communism had supporters among American thinkers, businessmen, politicians, and labor leaders. The full horror of Naziism was revealed during World War II, and support for national socialism dwindled in the United States as a result. But communism, in the form of Marxist political ideology, survived World War II in the United States. Many American professors, writers, journalists, and politicians continued to advocate Marxist principles. When Ayn Rand was writing Atlas Shrugged, many Americans strongly believed that the government should have the power to coercively redistribute income and to regulate private industry. The capitalist system of political and economic freedom was consistently attacked by socialists and welfare statists. The belief that an individual has a right to live his own life was replaced, to a significant extent, by the collectivist idea that individuals must work and live in service to other people. Individual rights and political freedom were threatened in American politics, education, and culture.
An Appeal for Freedom
Rand argues in Atlas Shrugged that the freedom of American society is responsible for its greatest achievements. For example, in the nineteenth century, inventors and entrepreneurs created an outpouring of innovations that raised the standard of living to unprecedented heights and changed forever the way people live. Rand, who thoroughly researched the history of capitalism, was well aware of the progress made during this period of economic freedom. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph — a device later improved by Thomas Edison, who went on to invent the phonograph, the electric light, and the motion picture projector. John Roebling perfected the suspension bridge and, just before his death, designed his masterpiece, the Brooklyn Bridge. Henry Ford revolutionized the transportation industry by mass-producing automobiles, a revolution that the Wright Brothers carried to the next level with their invention of the airplane. Railroad builders like Cornelius Vanderbilt and James J. Hill established inexpensive modes of transportation and opened up the Pacific Northwest to economic development.
Likewise, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone during this era, Cyrus McCormick the reaper, and Elias Howe the sewing machine. Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process that made rubber useful, and George Eastman revolutionized photography with the invention of a new type of camera — the Kodak. George Washington Carver, among myriad agricultural accomplishments, developed peanuts and sweet potatoes into leading crops. Architects like Louis Sullivan and William LeBaron Jenney created the skyscraper, and George Westinghouse, the inventor of train airbrakes, developed a power system able to transmit electricity over great distances. The penniless Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie built a vast company manufacturing steel, and John D. Rockefeller did the same in the oil industry.
These are a few examples from an exhaustive list of advances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ayn Rand argues that economic freedom liberated these great creative thinkers, permitting them to put into practice new ideas and methods. But what would happen if economic freedom were lost?
Atlas Shrugged provides Ayn Rand's answer to this question. In the story, she projects the culmination of America's twentieth-century socialist trend. The U.S. government portrayed in the story has significant control over the domestic economy. The rest of the world has been swallowed up by communist "Peoples' States" and subsists in abject poverty. A limited degree of economic freedom still exists in America, but it is steadily declining, as is American prosperity. The successful are heavily taxed to support the poor, and the American poor are similarly levied to finance the even poorer people in foreign Peoples' States. The government subsidizes inefficient businesses at the expense of the more efficient. With the state controlling large portions of the economy, the result is the rise of corrupt businessmen who seek profit by manipulating crooked politicians rather than by doing productive work. The government forces inventors to give up their patents so that all manufacturers may benefit equally from new products. Similarly, the government breaks up productive companies, compelling them to share the market with weaker (less efficient) competitors. In short, the fictionalized universe of Atlas Shrugged presents a future in which the U.S. trend toward socialism has been accelerated. Twentieth-century realities such as heavy taxation, massive social welfare programs, tight governmental regulation of industry, and antitrust action against successful companies are heightened in the universe of this story. The government annuls the rights of American citizens, and freedom is steadily eroded. The United States of the novel — the last bastion of liberty on earth — rapidly becomes a fascist/communist dictatorship.
The result, in Rand's fictional universe, is a collapse of American prosperity. Great minds are shackled by government policies, and their innovations are either rejected or expropriated by the state. Thinkers lack the freedom necessary to create new products, to start their own companies, to compete openly, and to earn wealth. Under the increasing yoke of tyranny, the most independent minds in American society choose to defend their liberty in the most effective manner possible: They withdraw from society.
The Mind on Strike
Atlas Shrugged is a novel about a strike. Ayn Rand sets out to show the fate that befalls the world when the thinkers and creators go on strike. The author raises an intriguing question: What would happen if the scientists, medical researchers, inventors, industrialists, writers, artists, and so on withheld their minds and their achievements from the world?
In this novel, Rand argues that all human progress and prosperity depend on rational thinking. For example, human beings have cured such diseases as malaria, polio, dysentery, cholera, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. Man has learned to fly, erect cities and skyscrapers, grow an abundant food supply, and create computers. Humans have been to the moon and back and have invented the telephone, radio, television, and a thousand other life-promoting technologies. All of these achievements result from the human application of a rational mind to practical questions of survival. If the intellectuals responsible for such advances abandon the world, regression to the primitive conditions of the Dark Ages would result. But what would motivate intellectuals to such an extreme act as going on strike? We are used to hearing about strikes that protest conditions considered oppressive or intolerable by workers. The thinkers go on strike in Atlas Shrugged to protest the oppression of their intellect and creativity.
The thinkers in Atlas Shrugged strike on behalf of individual rights and political freedom. They strike against an enforced moral code of self-sacrifice — the creed that human life must be devoted to serving the needs of others. Above all, the thinkers strike to prove that reason is the only means by which man can understand reality and make proper decisions; emotions should not guide human behavior. In short, the creative minds are on strike in support of a person's right to think and live independently.
In the novel, the withdrawal of the great thinkers causes the collapse of the American economy and the end of dictatorship. The strike proves the role that the rational mind plays in the attainment of progress and prosperity. The emphasis on reason is the hallmark of Ayn Rand's fiction. All of her novels, in one form or another, glorify the life-giving power of the human mind.
For example, in The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand emphasizes the independent nature of the mind's functioning — that rational individuals neither conform to society nor obey authority, but trust their own judgment. In her early novelette Anthem, Ayn Rand shows that under a collectivist dictatorship, the mind is stifled and society regresses to a condition of primitive ignorance. Anthem focuses on the mind's need for political freedom. The focus of Atlas Shrugged is the role that the human mind plays in human existence. Atlas Shrugged shows that rational thinking is mankind's survival instrument, just as the ability to fly is the survival tool for birds. In all of her major novels, Ayn Rand presents heroes and heroines who are brilliant thinkers opposed to either society's pressure to conform or a dictatorial government's commands to obey. The common denominator in all of her books is the life-and-death importance, for both the individual and society, of remaining true to the mind.
Objectivism in Action
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents, for the first time and in a dramatized form, her original philosophy of Objectivism. She exemplifies this philosophy in the lives of the heroes and in the action of the story. Objectivism holds that reason — not faith or emotionalism — is man's sole means of gaining knowledge. Her theory states that an individual has a right to his or her own life and to the pursuit of his or her own happiness, which is counter to the view that man should sacrifice himself to God or society. Objectivism is individualistic, holding that the purpose of government is to protect the sovereign rights of an individual. This philosophy opposes the collectivist notion that society as a whole is superior to the individual, who must subordinate himself to its requirements. In the political/economic realm, Objectivism upholds full laissez-faire capitalism — a system of free markets that legally prevent the government from restricting man's productive activities — as the only philosophical system that protects the freedom of man's mind, the rights of the individual, and the prosperity of man's life on earth.
Because of Ayn Rand's uncompromising defense of the mind, of the individual, and of capitalism, Atlas Shrugged created great controversy on its publication in 1957. Denounced by critics and intellectuals, the book nevertheless reached a wide audience. The book has sold millions of copies and influenced the lives of countless readers. Since 1957, Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism has gradually taken hold in American society. Today, her books and ideas are becoming widely taught in high schools and universities.