EDITOR’S NOTE: Sales of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged are soaring. Even reliably statist Hollywood wants in on the act: Angelina Jolie plans to bring the novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, to cinematic life in the near future. Is Rand freshly relevant in the Age of Obama? Or was she not worth reading in the first place? Half a century ago, National Review’s Whittaker Chambers delivered a famously searing review. We’ve asked a distinguished group of contributors to discuss Rand’s newfound popularity.
JONATHAN BEAN Big government punishes the productive while “moochers” receive government bailouts — today’s news reads like a chapter out of Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas, the hero, John Galt, leads a movement of entrepreneurs who withdraw from the collectivist world. But the John Galt solution is a false one: The Galts of this world are always moving. Immigrants seek opportunity in free lands, and investors flee from governments that punish success. Ronald Reagan called it “voting with your feet.”
Rand appeals to the Promethean individualism of adolescents. Many read and embrace her philosophy of “objective” egoism. Alas, Rand’s “truth” leaves no room for God — or for disagreement.
Where does this lead? Rand mirrored many of the traits she abhorred in Stalinism: dogmatic, didactic, and extremely intolerant, she constantly purged deviationists. Led by a cell of True Believers, her followers have turned militaristic in the name of her cause.
William F. Buckley Jr. was right: Rand’s movement was stillborn from the beginning. She left no room for compromise. Her crude dismissal of altruism and religion is contradicted by her own philosophy: If we have “selfish genes,” we are also wired for altruism and belief in God. Shouting “God is dead!” is no way to win converts or to fashion a movement with any meaning or influence. Her movement was Dead On Arrival.
– Jonathan Bean is a history professor at Southern Illinois University and research fellow at the Independent Institute.
BRADLEY J. BIRZER NR has offered a proper view of Ayn Rand for more than 50 years: Rand (born Alisa Rosenbaum) was little more than a right-wing ideologue. The “little more,” though, cannot be completely dismissed. Rosenbaum possessed genius in her ability to create plot (Atlas Shrugged), to show the evil of evil (We the Living), and to demonstrate brilliance (The Fountainhead). Overall, though, Rosenbaum produced stiff characters, stiff dialogue, and stiff philosophy. Intentionally dismissing any continuity of the Western tradition, Rosenbaum very selectively borrowed from Aristotle, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Her characters, full of purpose, seek only to denominate those deemed to be beneath them or to submit to their superiors.
The Ragnarok-ish end of Atlas Shrugged reveals much. The world, through mediocrity, has burned itself out. Those who embrace hierarchy and will, the new gods, return after having hidden in a secret redoubt in the Rockies. As they descend from their Valhalla, presumably to conquer, the new chief god blesses the world with the “sign of the dollar.”
Offensive, ignorant, and devoid of faith, hope, and love, Rosenbaum ends her novel. Her philosophy and her reputation should have ended there as well. – Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College.
JOSEPH BOTTUM Ayn Rand? The Cher of the libertarian movement? Sweet Mary and Joseph, it’s hard to believe she’s back in the news. Does nothing ever go away? Are we never rid of the flotsam and jetsam of ages past? Then put your little hand in mine. / There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb — ’cause I got you, babe.
Look, we all read Atlas Shrugged back when we were 14, mostly for that randy little minx, Dagny Taggart. Was there any heroic character in the novel who didn’t, at some point, enfold her in his orgasmic embrace? But let’s not pretend it actually meant anything worth thinking. Fourteen-year-olds don’t like to read serious philosophy; they like to read about Dagny’s sex life and pretend that it’s serious philosophy. They say we’re young and we don’t know. / We won’t find out until we grow.