‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 50

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Two important events occurred in October 1957. First, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, named Sputnik, into orbit, causing many to speculate the West was losing to the superior technology and, possibly, inevitable ideology of communism. Second, the novel “Atlas Shrugged” was published. Its author, Ayn Rand, had fled the tyranny of Soviet communism in 1926 for freedom in the West.

Today communism in Russia and its satellite countries is dead. “Atlas” and Miss Rand’s other works continue to sell millions of copies. A 1992 Library of Congress survey found it to be the most influential book in the country after the Bible. It helped launch the modern free market and libertarian movement.

Miss Rand’s ideas, which provided an effective counter to Marxist collectivism, are needed even more today to provide the philosophical basis for a much-needed culture of principled individualism.

Miss Rand’s life was as heroic as her characters. She came to America not speaking English but mastered the language to achieve her goal of becoming a writer. In the following decades she wrote plays, scripts for Hollywood movies and her first two great novels.

In “We the Living,” published in 1936, Miss Rand offered a damning indictment of communism. The book stood in stark contrast to the self-blinded romance that the political left and Tinsel Town had with the 1930s evil-of-the-day: Josef Stalin’s concentration-camp-of-a-country. Nothing much has changed.

In her 1943 best-seller “The Fountainhead,” which was made into a major Hollywood movie, Miss Rand showed the soul of a true individualist, architect Howard Roark, who held to his own ideas and ideals, in stark contrast to those who surrender their dreams simply for the empty approval of others. When one acquaintance asserted it was Miss Rand’s duty to expound upon the ideas in that book, she provocatively asked what would happen if she went on strike, if she refused to serve others. That was the spark that ignited “Atlas Shrugged.”

In “Atlas,” Miss Rand presented her ideas in a story, not in a philosophical treatise. We confront a mystery: Industrial America is collapsing and the most competent and productive individuals who can save the world seem to be disappearing. When Miss Rand was writing — this is still true — it was safe for novelists, media, moviemakers, politicians and preachers to bash businessmen and -women.

But in “Atlas,” the heroes were in business. Miss Rand showed us characters like railroad vice president Dagny Taggart and super-steel producer Hank Rearden who loved their work; who created innovative products and services by exercising their reason, honesty, integrity and independence; who traded their products with voluntary customers; who became rich through their own efforts; and who took pride in their profits and achievements. She contrasted these heroes with pseudo-businessmen, looters who were more interested in appearance than products; who used government to extort wealth from others; and who were guilty and ashamed of their prosperity.

“Atlas” was an exciting story of the consequences of such suicidal ethics and, even more important, an outline of a true ethics of life.

Miss Rand’s revolution in “Atlas” was to define the standard of all value as man’s life; the means of our survival as the exercise of our rational minds, not our adrenal glands; and our proper goal as individuals as our own lives, joy, happiness.

Miss Rand taught that it is because we must be free to think and act in order to survive and flourish that we should deal with one another based on mutual consent and never through the initiation of force — such a social system is called capitalism. And for these reasons governments should be limited to protecting the rights of individuals to life, liberty and property.

Today “postmodernists” claim there are no standards, no right or wrong, and that everything is a matter of opinion and interpretation — except their own bizarre theories and leftist agendas. We see the results of that nonsense around us every day. But the antidote is not a moral code based on religions or traditions that are often arbitrary, contradict one other and set individuals at each others’ throats.

What is needed is an unapologetic defense of the rational, responsible and principled individualism, as is found in “Atlas Shrugged.”

We should each pursue the goals we love, whether nurturing a child to maturity or a business to profitability; whether writing a song, a poem or a business plan; whether laying the bricks to a building, designing the building or arranging its financing. The result would be a society in which we are each enriched, entertained, educated, enlightened and inspired by our fellows. That is the vision Miss Rand offers, the vision of a true Atlas society.

Edward Hudgins is executive director of the Atlas Society (www.atlassociety.org), the center for Objectivism, which celebrates human achievement.

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