Ayn Rand, Socialism and Some Reflections

I started this blog for a multitude of reasons, but mostly as a means to express some of my thoughts and opinions on current affairs. It has been an enjoyable (albeit time-consuming!) process, and sharing opinions in public means that you’re forced to analyse why you believe certain things.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a deeply engaging and thought-provoking book, which is a powerful and openly challenging criticism of socialism. I think that regardless of one’s beliefs about individualism, Atlas Shrugged is a must-read for anyone. As a left-leaning liberal, I profoundly disagree with many aspects of Randian philosophy, but I think it was important in allowing me to analyse why I believe in socialist ideals.

Atlas at the Rockefeller Plaza, New York.

I think that to understand Rand’s views more fully, I need to read some of her non-fiction pieces. Whilst Atlas Shrugged is no doubt powerful, the central problem is that it is fictitious. For example, I felt that none of the so-called “socialist” characters in Rand’s novels truly believed in the ideals of socialism, and so rather than a criticism of the morality of selflessness, Atlas Shrugged is more a criticism of the Machiavellian socialists who exploit liberalism to wield power and manipulate those who do sincerely believe in the socialist ideology.

Additionally, I also felt Rand’s novel to be tediously moralising; it’s one thing to proclaim ambition as virtuous, quite another to claim that working for the good of the people is “evil.” I felt the use of language such as “evil” and “sacrifice” were also highly manipulative. In the introduction, I read that Rand had originally intended to introduce another character, a priest who was sincerely selfless, but he was omitted, since Rand apparently did not believe that such a character was believable. I wonder what her true intention was in omitting that character. Perhaps if she has included that character, Atlas Shrugged would have been a little more balanced.

I think Rand ignores that when one chooses to help others, it’s not sacrifice, because those who do help others truly believe that it’s the “right” thing to do. In that way, it’s benevolence, rather than sacrifice, because for some helping others is pursuing their own self-interest, since that’s what makes them happy and fulfilled in life. Although Rand was an atheist, Atlas Shrugged is not just a criticism of the purpose behind spirituality, but rather of anyone who believes that their purpose is anything but pursuing their own self-interest.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged because it is a deeply engaging piece of literature; the fast-paced mystery story would indeed provide interesting material for a movie, which I’m very much looking forward to. As an aside, though, I really don’t think Angelina Jolie is quite suited to the role of Dagny Taggart, but that’s beside the point. 🙂 And, I truly believe that everyone should read Atlas Shrugged, since it’s a philosophy like no other. It takes a basic human premise that we all take for granted (that helping others is the right thing to do) and completely turns it on its head. In addition, it’s one of those books that receives a lot more attention in the States than in Europe, and so from a European perspective, it’s essential to understanding the capitalist ideal.

For example, living in the UK, with the benefits of the NHS, I’ve always found it hard to understand why anyone would be against universal healthcare and education for all. Despite strongly believing in the welfare state, Ayn Rand provides an alternative view that I found difficult to comprehend previously. However, I have to stipulate, that despite the internal problems with the NHS, I truly believe the system works. Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days” shows what happens when one tries to survive on minimum wage. My question is that without universal healthcare, if you’re ill, you can’t work. Without working, you can’t pay for healthcare and so ensues a vicious circle of poverty.

In addition, living in the UK, I’ve seen that the system works. Taxes pay for healthcare and education, people born into poverty work hard and are able to reap the benefits of their achievements. They then “give back” through taxes allowing the next generation to flourish in a meritocracy. There’s no doubt that there are always disadvantages, as no system is perfect, but in general, the benefits outweigh the costs.

As a final note, Atlas Shrugged contains undeniable truths about human nature, envy and the price of success.

“Do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement.

“Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own – they have no inkling of the loneliness that comes when you reach the top. The loneliness for an equal – for a mind to respect and an achievement to admire. They bare their teeth at you from out of their rat holes, thinking that you take pleasure in letting your brilliance dim them – while you’d give a year of your life to see a flicker of talent anywhere among them.

“They envy achievement, and their dream of greatness is a world where all men have become their acknowledged inferiors. They don’t know that that dream is the infallible proof of mediocrity, because that sort of world is what the man of achievement would not be able to bear. They have no way of knowing what he feels when surrounded by inferiors – hatred? no, not hatred, but boredom – the terrible, hopeless, draining, paralyzing boredom. Of what account are praise and adulation from men you don’t respect?

“Have you ever felt the longing for someone you could admire? For something, not to look down at, but up to?”

— Dr. Robert Stadler, to Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

It’s refreshing to find yourself agreeing with the author in spite of yourself, and despite knowing what the broader underlying implications of her philosophy are. One thing’s for sure though: time waits for no man. Whatever it is you want out of life, just pursue it to your fullest capacity and let nothing hold you back. Because life is too short to let other people tell you that you can’t do something.

Photo credit: Atlas at the rock, jackx on Flickr