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Atlas Shrugged | Context

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Marxism and Socialism

The work of German philosopher, economist, and historian Karl Marx (1818–83), the best known of which are The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, criticized capitalism and offered an alternative economic and political paradigm known as Marxism. Marxism has provided ideological fuel for revolutionary political movements, such as the 1917 Russian Revolution that profoundly affected Rand's own life. Some critics have characterized Rand's philosophy as "inverted Marxism." Rand disagreed with Marx's view of history and advocated laissez-faire capitalism—literally "let alone" capitalism, or the separation of economy and state—as the ideal economic paradigm.

Marx considered history a progression that springs from the human compulsion to fulfill material and immaterial needs. In a capitalist system, workers may experience alienation, or separation, from the products of their labor, which are owned by the capitalists who control the means of production, such as factories and businesses. The capitalist pays a wage to the laborer that is less than the value the laborer creates. This surplus value is profit, and it belongs to the capitalist, not the laborer who created it. This exploitation sets the stage for class struggle, as exploited laborers eventually revolt against their exploiters to transform the system.

During the laborers' revolution, they seize the means of production and government control, replacing capitalism with socialism, a system in which property and resources are owned publicly rather than privately. Under socialism, class distinctions are abolished, and people work together to produce goods. The products of labor are owned by the laborers, not by an exploitative capitalist.

The final stage of society is communism, which Marx considered the most moral form of economic organization. Marx said communism operates on the principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Rand quotes Marx's words in Atlas Shrugged, when the Twentieth Century Motor Company implements a plan to run according to communist principles, driving the novel's hero, John Galt, to resign. Galt organizes a strike of powerful capitalists, causing society to collapse; when the capitalists return to the world, they begin rebuilding society according to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the USSR

In 1905 when Ayn Rand was born, the Russian Empire had been an autocracy for hundreds of years. In February 1917, during World War I, riots over food scarcity forced the Russian tsar to step down. While Russia struggled to establish a provisional government, the Bolsheviks, a faction of the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, gained popular support by promising "peace, land, and bread." In October 1917, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks and their allies seized power. Rand and her family were forced from their home, and her father lost his business. For the next three years Russia was mired in civil war, accompanied by widespread poverty and famine, as Lenin and his party, now calling themselves Communists, tried to hold on to power. In 1922 the USSR, also known as the Soviet Union, was established as a confederation of socialist republics that included territories of the former Russian Empire. The centralized authoritarian government and the economic system it imposed would come to represent everything Rand stood against. Intrigued by American ideas of individuality and self-determination, she moved to the United States a few years later.

Capitalism

To Ayn Rand, man is a rational creature, and capitalism is the natural extension of man's nature. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all capitalists, and the villains advocate socialist or communist principles. In the novel, Rand attempts to prove socialism and communism lead to degradation of the individual and societal collapse.

In medieval times, feudalism was the reigning economic system. Tenant farmers worked land owned by the nobility, and the farmers gave part of their harvest to the landowners in exchange for their protection. Eventually, capitalism replaced feudalism as the dominant economic system in the Western world. Adam Smith, the influential Scottish economist and philosopher, whose beliefs are often likened to those of Ayn Rand, wrote what is widely considered the "bible of capitalism," The Wealth of Nations (1776), which advocated a free market as the key to societal progress.

Laissez-Faire Capitalism

In laissez-faire capitalism the government does not regulate the economy. Private individuals own the means of production, and sell products and services for profit on a free, unregulated market. A free market means that supply and demand, not the government, determines the price of goods and services; prices rise when a good or service is in high demand and fall when it is in less demand. Companies compete with one another to sell their goods to the public. Through competition, capitalism drives innovation in production and product. A business makes a profit by efficiently producing goods that are in high demand. A business that does not make a profit cannot keep operating.

Ayn Rand's heroes in Atlas Shrugged are "traders" who live by the principle of exchanging value for value. They earn their wealth fairly, through their productivity. Rand contrasts these "traders" with the "looters"—the oppressive government that "steals" from the traders and distributes their wealth to needy people who have not earned it. The looters claim that ensuring public welfare is a moral imperative and can be accomplished only by government intervention.

In the novel, society collapses due to this governmental regulation of business and industry. In desperation the government repeatedly asks the capitalists' advice on fixing things. Their response: "Get out of the way." This sentiment is emblematic of laissez-faire capitalism's conviction that social problems are naturally resolved by a free, unregulated market. Rand believed government's sole purpose was to protect individual rights, especially property rights, and as such should be limited to a police force, a military, and a court system.

Rand's Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand regarded Atlas Shrugged as the most complete expression of her philosophy, which she called Objectivism. She believed the goal of life is happiness and one achieves happiness by following a correct moral code—in her mind, the moral code implied by Objectivism. Objectivism addresses the following areas of human existence:

  • metaphysics—the nature of reality
  • epistemology—how knowledge is obtained
  • ethics—the principles that should guide human behavior
  • politics

Rand believed there is one true, objective reality; it exists apart from any subjective perception. Reality cannot be perceived by means of faith, desire, or emotion; it can be perceived only through reason, a mental faculty that evaluates information our senses take in. Rand's ethics are rooted in the concept of rational self-interest; she believed individuals must use their own reason to determine what action will benefit them most, and then take that action. She believed it is immoral for people to act against their own rational self-interest for the sake of another, because this is a denial of both reason and existence. She identified capitalism as the political and economic system that arises out of rational self-interest; thus, it is the only moral system for organizing societies.

The Writing and Reception of Atlas Shrugged

Rand took 12 years to complete Atlas Shrugged. She got support from her group of admirers, called the Collective, who gathered at her house to discuss her philosophy and review drafts of her manuscript in progress.

Critics panned Atlas Shrugged after its release in 1957, calling it hyperbolic, unrealistic, and overly long. A critic for the Saturday Review said Rand "sets up one of the finest assortments of straw men ever demolished in print, and she cannot refrain from making her points over and over." Writer Gore Vidal called the philosophy encapsulated in Atlas Shrugged "nearly perfect in its immorality." Despite the critics, the book sold remarkably well and propelled Rand into the national spotlight during the 1960s.

Many people then and now have embraced Atlas Shrugged for its defense of capitalism and its conviction that self-interest is the path to happiness. It has garnered much love from Americans on the right of the political spectrum, who find many parallels between modern American society and the novel's dystopian vision. Atlas Shrugged has sold millions of copies since its release; today, it continues to sell tens of thousands of copies each year.

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